A Response to Richard Utz: On Inclusivity in Medieval Studies and the International Congress on Medieval Studies

[Note: This post appeared as a Twitter thread and as a comment on insidehighered.com earlier today.]

I have a lot of respect for Richard Utz, and the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University has meant a lot to me personally and professionally for the last 18 years, but I think the article in today’s Inside Higher Ed misses the point about inclusivity at the conference and in the field more generally.

First, it positions the debate as the BABEL Group versus the world, and this is simply untrue. Yes, it was the BABEL steering committee that authored the letter, but the hundreds of additional signatures indicate that the concerns raised in the letter are shared by many. Second, the article suggests that the issue of inclusivity is limited to an inclusion of areas of study and/or viewpoints on the field. This is certainly one dynamic, and I want to address it before moving on.

To demonstrate that the ICMS really is inclusive of different fields, Utz first cites the many (and diverse) types of traditional sessions that the ICMS has offered in the past, which have been sponsored by groups like the Pearl Poet Society and Cistercian Studies. He then suggests that the ICMS has embraced more recent areas of study by saying, “The 2018 program, for example, features the term ‘race’ nine times, ‘disability’ nine times and ‘gender’ and ‘feminism’ 48 times.”

Here’s the problem I see with this logic: I took his cue and counted the terms myself. I actually counted 12 instances of the term “disability,” but most of these occur in ONLY 2 SESSIONS both sponsored by the Society for the Study of Disability in the Middle Ages. There are 2 other papers beyond these sessions that mention the term “disability,” and then the rest of the occurrences appear whenever the SSDMA is mentioned. That’s 4 out of 600 sessions that touch on disability in any way. As someone who has worked in the area of Medieval Disability Studies for over a decade, I am grateful for the support of the ICMS over the years, but I would hardly count the number of appearances of the term as evidence that the area has been broadly included. The same is true for other terms cited in the article. The mere appearance of the terms is not indication that these fields are “included” in a truly meaningful way. Ask me how many times I presented on a disability-related panel with 10 or fewer in the audience.

Honestly, though, the bigger issue with respect to inclusion is one that the article barely even addresses, which is the degree to which scholars from traditionally underrepresented groups have felt included in both the ICMS and Medieval Studies. The call for ICMS to include more sessions about the state of the field is directly related to this larger point about inclusivity. It isn’t just a push for “progressivism” for its own sake but is a response to structures that have pushed people to the margins.

If you want evidence of that, you need only read this powerful blog post by @Nahir_Otano: http://medievalistsofcolor.com/uncategorized/lost-in-our-field-racism-and-the-international-congress-on-medieval-studies/ …

Or listen to the loud calls coming from many angles by medievalists of color, LGBT scholars, early career scholars, and more. Or listen to the whisper networks that have always existed. But we must listen. The project of inclusivity in Medieval Studies is a big one, and it will take a collective effort of all of us to make it possible. We cannot reduce the efforts to pat solutions like counting sessions, because the issues are structural and will take a lot of work. The work is essential, though, and we must attend to it carefully.