“New Rules” as we consider the futures of Early Modern CLCS

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    Leah Wood Middlebrook

    At the most recent MLA Convention in 2023, the CLCS Renaissance and Early Modern Forum gathered a roundtable of scholars to discuss what “new rules”might help us think about how we do scholarship, teaching, and service in the field today. With the aim of inspiring the larger community to contemplate how we might reshape our thinking as we grow and change, below we capture concisely each of the “rules” —the guidelines, thinking points, and suggested practices—our participants proposed. The rules are presented in order of delivery by roundtable participants. The Executive Committee offers a final rule as we reflect on how assessing practices in the field requires openness to a range of ideas and perspectives.

    • Rule. Acknowledge the “unsatisfactorily tolerable” working conditions of the profession and work relentlessly to make them better. Consider the situatedness of academic working conditions. In particular, make whiteness visible by attending to the fact that interlocking systems of oppression actually enable certain members of the profession, especially white people, to work the conditions of the profession for their benefit while racially marginalized members simply try to work in and under the profession’s inequitable conditions. As Claudia Rankine and The Racial Imaginary Institute have observed, the “we” is fragile but contains great possibility. When white supremacy and the centering of whiteness enable the profession’s conditions to work against people—for instance, a Black, queer woman from a working-class background—then “we” have a problem. Or maybe “we” have several problems in the form of: racism, sexism, homophobia and classism.
    • Rule. Address the appropriation of pre- and early modern studies, our curricula, canons, and scholarship by far right extremists, by engaging —by researching, by educating ourselves, by teaching, writing, and speaking about— the extent to which systems of colonialism, imperialism, chattel slavery, forced migration, racialization, gender binaries and gender hierarchies, social class, problems that persist in the twenty-first century, were incubated in pre- and early modern Europe and its world. New rule: draw on open access materials for those who want to introduce pre- and early modern critical race studies into their teaching and research, but perhaps feel ill-equipped to do so. One source of such material is the RaceB4Race initiative at the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, whose programming fosters cross-institutional professional training on critical race, ethnic, and indigenous studies and demonstrates what is possible when commitment to equitable, diverse, and just futures informs the way we envision our field moving forward—a commitment that the MLA should feel compelled to act upon.
    • Rule. Time matters and time doesn’t matter. We need to embrace the freedom to work in and through and across diverse temporalities, and we need to build professional and disciplinary structures that are supportive of such essential work. Traditionalists in the fields of pre- and early modern studies need to acknowledge the significance of our fields of study to today. As our past-facing disciplines continue to grapple with the ethics of critical work itself—of how to place our scholarly labor in the service of the present moment that we inhabit—scholars and teachers in our fields must engage much more deliberately and thoughtfully in the business of thinking about what time itself means for our disciplines. How do we understand our positionality as practitioners living in the world now, working on ‘old things’? We must be engaged in more robust theorizations of this problem. In this sense, Time Matters. However, our systems and processes for professional evaluation—from peer review for journal articles and monographs to external assessments for promotion and tenure—remain anchored to traditional categories of periodization that discourage work across the temporal boundaries on which we rely.
    • Rule. It is time to challenge the old regime of academia with a participatory, democratic, free process of knowledge assembly.  The French eighteenth-century philosophe Denis Diderot, founder of the Encyclopédie, would have rejoiced at the creation and curation of Wikipedia, this modern iteration of his life-long aspiration to build an accessible, collaborative, hyperlinked compilation of knowledge. Working conditions in the humanities have everything to gain and nothing to lose in valorizing collaborative publications such as multi-authored works, and edited volumes, and, indeed, Wikipedia. A new standard inclusive of the collective would make our community of faculty and students thrive. In order to support early modern studies and to redress inequities in whom and what gets represented in Wikipedia, we institute a week of public service whereby the university scholarly community of faculty and students work together in teams to create, to revise, and to translate Wikipedia entries. One week, once a year, integrated into every syllabus of every class to work collaboratively on a selection of encyclopedic entries.
    • Rule. We seldom think how much of modernity—our freedoms—depend on fossil fuels, including travel, cosmopolitanism, the material infrastructure of intellectual life. Climate changes everything and we need new rules. New rule: one international trip every two years. New rule: one national trip involving air travel every year. New rule: slow down and grow smaller. Reduce the size and scope of our departments, focus on educating today’s students in ways that support sustainable intellectual life.

    In the interest of supporting continuing  forthright, productive discussion of the need for change, the Executive Committee proposes the following:

    • Rule. Receive and reflect. Respect, both for the importance of holding these conversations and for the urgency of the issues they bring to light, is key if we are to transform our field such that it facilitates ever richer, more nuanced, and more productive discussions of the early modern. As a means of putting this respect into practice, attentive listening —which we define as a discipline of noting not only what is being said in a conversation, but also what reactions a given contribution might stir in us; further, of discerning what we can learn about ourselves and our positionality as we sit with those reactions— is fundamental. We recommend that a clear commitment to attentive, reflective listening be adopted as a new rule as we look forward to continued collaboration on the work of rethinking how our profession is structured and what our practices, aspirations, and guidelines should be.
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