A war on multiple fronts.

It has been some time since I updated this blog – the busy schedule of Oxford Admissions and then the Christmas holidays have kept me pretty occupied! However, last week I attended the Gender and Medieval Studies annual conference, this year held at Winchester, and this seemed like a good way of breaking the ice that had frosted over my blog and dipping back into these social media waters again.

I anticipate I’ll write a more general conference round up after this, but I’ll start with the end of the conference, or at least the part I attended (other commitments meant I had to miss the final day): the pedagogy roundtable. I was very pleased to be invited to contribute to this, as it was a thought-provoking hour and a half. The theme of the roundtable table was a loose one – teaching medieval gender – but a discussion soon emerged that raised how many different kinds of challenges we face, on multiple fronts. Rather than recapping the whole discussion, which in any case I might not do very well as I was too busy listening and talking to take notes, I’ll instead point to this photo I snapped in the supermarket on Sunday. Look magazine invites its (generally female) readers to Discover your happy weight by thinking like a man. Implicit in this headline:

  • Women need to find a ‘happy weight’: their current weight is unlikely to be an unhappy one
  • Men do not have problems with their body images –
  • or perhaps if women perceive their bodies as men see them, they will appreciate their bodies: a happy weight is that seen through the male gaze.

What on earth does this have to do with teaching medieval gender? Well, in addition to discussing the practical difficulties of finding space in packed syllabi, we also talked about the disinterest or active hostility of undergraduates to working on gender themes. This broadened into a discussion of how much teaching on gender is about uneducating students – often how we have to work out how to help them unpack and discard a lifetime’s worth of social indoctrination about not only gender roles and experiences in the past, but also the gendered experiences of their own lives. Every magazine rack they pass is filled with gendered tropes and expectations. Some students are able to parse these. Many aren’t – not through lack of intelligence, but lack of tools. They have not been educated to deconstruct the ways in which they are socialised to believe gender myths, and indeed they are often actively educated to believe in a very narrow view of gender across time (Hannah Priest, who tutors school children, raised some alarming points about the teaching of the middle ages and about gender in the past in our National Curriculum).

This can be reinforced, I noted in discussion, by other colleagues in our own disciplines who reinforce to students that studying gender and sexualities are niche-interest topics, worth looking at for a week or so to win “political correctness” points, but that they aren’t the real stuff of history (or literature, or archaeology, etc). Young/female/queer educators are often assumed to want to teach on these themes because they “relate” to them, in some kind of trendy way, while their older, wiser, often straight-white-male colleagues can get on with the serious business of teaching Literature or History unencumbered by a political agenda or personal grievances. I think our response to such insinuations (often made obliquely, though I’ve heard them put directly too) is to try to depersonalise our responses to the research we do. But as Kate Weikert pointed out in discussion, why not politicise our responses? When women make up under 35% of all history faculty in the USA, when only one in five full professors in the UK are female, I think it’s legitimate to tell our students that we need to study gender not just because gendered experience mattered in the past, but because it matters now, in the classrooms in which they are learning.

Coming back to the Look magazine cover, I wanted to think again about the point that kept coming up in discussion about how gender is still often treated as a “niche” theme in medieval studies. One of the major problems with women’s magazines is that while they ostensibly respond to women’s needs and wants, they in fact filter all those through the male gaze. What will he want: in bed, in a girlfriend, in your body? A problem many of us face when working within medieval fields (rather than in a Gender Studies department, for instance) is that we often have our agenda set by other, more dominant perspectives, too. We have been “allowed” to have our one lecture in a larger overview series, or we are “allowed” to teach a specialist course which is selected by a small proportion of the undergraduate body. And yet all of us would argue that thinking about gender, sexualities, patriarchy should be foundational in teaching the middle ages. There is an unfortunate disjunction here. Ninety minutes was far too short a time to come to any overall conclusions, let alone any solutions, but I’m glad that we had the discussion, and I hope that we will keep having this conversation going forwards. In the past few decades, academics have worked incredibly hard to carve out a place for discussing gender within the medieval canon. And now we need to work hard to move from having a niche to being threaded through the fabric of what it means to study the Middle Ages.