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Dear Berks Organizers

10 June, 2011

For next time, could you please try to get more pre-modern — and especially pre-16th C — papers? The program is really embarrassingly imbalanced towards the modern and the American. I like the conference, and it’s pretty awesome. But honestly? All you have to do is read Judith Bennett’s History Matters to get an idea of the contributions of medievalists to women’s history. We’ve been doing it a long time.

This is something that seriously pisses me off, because it shouldn’t happen. Medievalists were doing postmodernist work before modernists got the clue and gave what we’d been doing a cool name. Medievalists and Classicists have been doing interdisciplinary work since long before it became cool and necessary. Um, duh. Medievalists have been looking at women for kind of a long time, and there is an awful lot of good work on women in the MA that might even — dare I say it? inform some of what our modernist colleagues are only just discovering.

And yet, a conference that grew from the marginalization of women historians and women’s history makes me feel very marginalized in the very same way I feel in my department and on my campus. It’s a good reminder that privilege comes in many forms.

I can go to pretty much any panel here and feel comfortable with the topic and be able to ask questions. I teach World Civ. I am a woman of a certain age and a feminist. I have a good grip on modern stuff because I live in the modern era. These things are part of my everyday life. They are also, to some extent, current events to me, and almost political science rather than history. If it happened after I started school, I have a hard time seeing it as “history.”

But here, as in my department, on my campus, and at AHA, I feel like I have to apologize because what I do is not necessarily as accessible. I feel like I have to apologize for reading and using Latin and German (and no, I’m not doing handouts of the texts as I would at a medieval conference; I’m just doing quick translations in the text). I feel like I have to convince my colleagues here — if they even ask — that working on kinship and family and remarriage in the MA is relevant.

The last Berks wasn’t so much like that, I think in part because one of the organizers was the amazing Ruth Mazo Karras. There were enough pre-modern, and even medievalist, papers that I had to make choices. This year? not so much. It’s more about digging to find something that I can use in teaching. The best panel is a roundtable on Sunday — and I will have to miss part of it because the conference is in BFE in terms of transport. I really hope that the organizers think about these things a bit more next time. /grumpy rant.

19 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 June, 2011 3:37 pm

    /comfortIt too often seems the case that women's stuff starts in the 19th century as far as most folks are concerned.

  2. 10 June, 2011 4:05 pm

    I'm not a medievalist, but I love the time period. Now that you mention it, it IS disappointing to see such a lack. I would LOVE to go to medievalist era panels.

  3. 10 June, 2011 4:50 pm

    Sing it, sister.

  4. 10 June, 2011 4:58 pm

    What do you mean by postmodernist?

  5. 10 June, 2011 5:52 pm

    Argh — HE, I should have known you would ask that! The short version is one I've taken from Tosh's explanation of postmodernist approaches in The Pursuit of History and sort of what's in the chart here. what I'm trying to say is that medieval historians were asking these sorts of questions and pursuing these sorts of topics (challenging master narratives, doing micro-histories, and coming up with approaches to history, especially social and cultural history) before those approaches were labeled "post-modern" and caught on with many of our modernist and especially Americanist colleagues. I think when you look at those things in the context of medieval historiography, it's much more of an organic thing, and at least initially happened absent the consciousness or desire of it being the imposition of a particular theoretical framework.

  6. 10 June, 2011 6:53 pm

    You're spot-on with respect to interdisciplinary work. That said, I don't think that what modernists etc who call their approaches postmodern are doing is quite the same as what you're describing. In other words, I think postmodernism is actually something different and not a label attached to something medievalists were already doing. That's just my two cents. but I absolutely agree that with respect to women, medieval historians have and have long had much to contribute. It's a shame the conference skews later.

  7. 10 June, 2011 7:26 pm

    hey now, I love the medieval as much as the next girl, but why take a swipe at the 20th century "These things are part of my everyday life. They are also, to some extent, current events to me, and almost political science rather than history. If it happened after I started school, I have a hard time seeing it as "history." I've spent a goodly chunk of my life explaining why in fact what I write about is NOT political science OR current events. It is "history" precisely because of the sort of questions I ask.

  8. 10 June, 2011 7:44 pm

    FeMOMhist — I don't really have a problem with it — just really grumpy about the fact that there is so much of the super-modern in comparison. Point taken about the importance of the sorts of questions, and that they are what make the difference. Having said that, I do think that the last 30 years make history very difficult in the sense that we aren't really removed enough to study them *as* history, even with the right questions. It's not really possible to separate oneself in the way that someone dealing with a more distant past does. My objection here, though, is that that contemporary history is being privileged — I think unintentionally — in a way that feels very much like it feels when one of my students says she isn't a feminist, because feminism is so anti-male, but she unconsciously takes advantage of all of the changes that her admittedly feminist forbears have fought for.

  9. 10 June, 2011 8:51 pm

    The organizers prioritized transnational work, which really worked against the chronological specificity. Sigh. It's why (I assume) the panel I was on wasn't accepted.And the reason the last Berks was good was not only Ruth, who was president of the Berks, but Historiann and Susan Amussen as program chairs, both of whom work before the modern period!

  10. 10 June, 2011 10:09 pm

    Yes, this is absolutely true, and I did not mean to diss those two very important people (and very important friends!)

  11. 11 June, 2011 3:26 am

    Yeah, I have to agree. Medieval is very thin on the ground, and there seems to be a LOT of very contemporary panels. I also wish they hadn't scheduled all the workshops at the same time (Sunday am), as it would be nice to be able to go to more than one.

  12. 12 June, 2011 4:07 am

    Yep — I'm moving between the two!

  13. 12 June, 2011 3:11 pm

    Or not — trying to figure that one out…

  14. 12 June, 2011 8:15 pm

    This post is precisely the reason I've never attended. I just didn't see enough that spoke to me to make the time, effort, and money worth it. And I hear you on constant explanations of your topic. I always feel apologetic when I explain what I work on and I hate that. It's why I need medieval conferences, so someone will say, "Cool, tell me about it!" as opposed to looking quickly past me to see if someone more understandable has walked in.

  15. 13 June, 2011 1:44 pm

    ADM–Thanks for this post, and for your follow-up comments in your latest post on the Berks. I'm glad to see you urge others to get involved, because it's only by getting involved that we can pull the conference in new (or older?) directions.I think modern history appeals to feminsits for the same reason that the majority of African American historians are drawn not just to post-slavery but post-Civil Rights history these days: there are concrete, positive results to feminist/anti-racist activism in the past 50-60 years, and historians still prioritize change over time rather than continuity. (Susan's point above about the theme of the 2011 Berks versus the 2008 theme of "continuity and change" may help explain why you felt that '08 was a tiny bit more diverse chronologically.)But the fact remains that most historians want to tell happy stories, and historians who are affiliated with political liberationist movements especially so, I think.

  16. 13 June, 2011 7:13 pm

    Really, Historiann? I never really thought of it as telling happy stories. Or even of telling stories, really. But then I'm not so good at the narrative part. I'm a big, "here's a puzzle: let's see if we can solve it!" person. Not that the two are distinct, but I definitely lean towards the latter.

  17. 14 June, 2011 12:30 am

    Those of us who do African history also felt that the Berks was weak on our topic. Even the program committee was worried enough that they put together the plenary on Where is Africa in Gender Studies – the plenary was good, but did not really make up for Africa's absence otherwise (there was exactly ONE paper on an African topic out of all of the Sunday morning seminars). Clearly the personnel on the program committee make a difference, as the last Berks committee included at least three Africanists who did a lot of work to recruit African papers and panels.

  18. 14 June, 2011 1:55 am

    The modern focus was, indeed, very contemporary, as you note–it felt like even for the modern period the papers were all on the pretty recent past, but that also characterized much of the work my colleagues were undertaking in graduate school–might this be the move the discipline is making? I was asked by our core director, as the school's current Mistress Medieval, to come up with an argument about why the Middle Ages should be included in our core program. The fact that such an argument is even necessary I find troubling.You mentioned _History Matters_ in one of your posts–how do we get our colleagues to read this important discussion and rethink the moves that the Berks, the AHA, our journals, and our programs seem to be making?And, of course, changing the program does require us to send in proposals, something I find challenging for the Berks because of the long lead time. If the conference met more often, might the program become more inclusive?

  19. 15 June, 2011 3:36 am

    Meluseena, that's definitely one of the challenges. I'm kinda screwed this year because of Berks. The lead time is such that I *had* to put in for Leeds, because I didn't know when Leeds was due whether I'd be presenting at Berks. So now I'm doing two papers and stressing, on top of the roundtable and organizing at Kalamazoo. I get that Berks is organized a lot differently than many other conferences, and there is a lot of work involved in reading abstracts that I'm not sure is *as* true for Leeds or the Zoo. But I also had to dither over a different work commitment, and could very well have lost out on a couple of thousand dollars, because even with the lead time, it takes five months from when we got our acceptance to get the online version of the program. That's almost a year from when proposals are due. I don't know what they can do about it, because my feeling is that the committee does most of the scheduling, and they are volunteers. But the lead time makes it really hard to budget for, and if you're at a small school and there's little travel money, I can see how you could easily end up having to pull out of a conference because, well, the Zoo and Leeds proposals are due later and you know much earlier.

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