Notes from “Common Environments: Public-Facing Research and Premodern Cultures”

Sharon O’Dair, University of Alabama

On April 9, 2021, the Oecologies Research Cluster hosted a Zoom webinar on the topic of Common Environments:  Public-Facing Research and Premodern Cultures.  Moderating the event was Courtney Barajas (Whitworth) and presenters were Brenna Duperron (Dalhousie), Ruben Espinosa (Texas, El Paso), Sarah-Nelle Jackson (UBC), and Jeffrey Wilson (Harvard).  Approximately twenty-five colleagues from around the country joined the discussion.  

In a time of ecological, institutional, and professional precarities, the webinar asked how public scholarship—in theory and praxis—fits into these contexts. Panelists discussed their own public-facing research and theorized what such research is, and what it might be. Recognizing that public scholarship especially affects graduate students and early-career PhDs, the organizers solicited panelists at these stages of their careers.  Three of the four panelists are not on a tenure ladder.

Brenna Duperron proposed to counter the imperialist and colonialist leanings of medieval studies by reshaping methodology, how scholars learn to know and how they teach. In “Unsettling Classrooms: Shifting the Landscape of Analysis,” she asks us to slow down and to learn from the Mi’kmaq theory of etuaptmumk or Two-Eyed Seeing. Coined by Mi’kmaw Elder Dr. Albert Marshall, etuaptmumk integrates Western academic norms with Indigenous ways of knowing. Two-Eyed Seeing is about life: what you do, what responsibilities you have to live on Earth. It allows practitioners to look for another perspective, different perspectives, and better ways of doing. Duperron offers a reading of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that invokes not just a tale of an “Indigenous” Green Knight fighting an “English” Sir Gawain but a proto-colonialist fantasy of a “supremacist” civilizations right to conquer. Her method highlights, too, the potential for the Green Knight to reverse the colonization onto Camelot.

Ruben Espinosa shifted the discussion from literary works to the profession itself, the common environment we all share. In “Race, Racism, and our Common Environments,” Espinosa complained about the ways white Shakespeareans continue to dismiss the work of Shakespeareans engaging in critical race theory.  These white Shakespeareans suggest that such work is faddish, undisciplined.  Even, perhaps, uneducated. It is not real research, say these racist white gatekeepers in Shakespeare Studies; it’s politics and activism, aimed not just at the profession but the larger society as well.  The implication is that diversity and serious intellectual work are not compatible.  Such a judgment, always implicit, never spoken to the faces of scholars of color, constitutes a visceral attack, leading these scholars, usually young, and often part of the academic precariat, to wonder whether the academy really is a common environment, one in which they are welcome. Espinosa concluded by reminding his white colleagues that “inaction is complicity,” that each time they address a Shakespeare play, they must think about racism, about the ways the play does or has supported white supremacy. 

Sarah-Nelle Jackson represents the young, precarious would-be academic whose scholarship threatens to undermine her field’s norms, or her job prospects in academia. Jackson’s research goes beyond literary texts to explore video games as a medium for defamiliarizing the Western-colonial relationship to landscape and environment. Her talk, “Accidents of Accuracy: Neomedieval (O)ecologies of and against Empire,” analyses the medievalism in game design, arguing that “to play in neomedievalism is to engage in inaccuracies.”  Such popular neomedievalisms constitute a cultural stronghold, supported by capitalism and reinforcing a logic of colonialism, a logic of linear progress.  Jackson imagines video games—and a dissertation that will include one—that subvert neocolonial, conquest-as-progress narrative design by foregrounding environmental accuracy in games’ medievalisms, such as devastating earthquakes, crop failures, or disease.  In short, failure, not success: imperial failure, colonial failure, ecological failure. Jackson imagines games that embrace and refashion medieval Romances, such as Morte d’Arthur, with an aim to undermine the juggernaut of conquest. Such revisioning will, she thinks, make the games more interesting and just as challenging. More broadly, Jackson asks us to think about the ways interactive media can provoke disorienting, challenging, and entertaining environmental encounters.

In “Toward a Center for Public Shakespeare,” Jeffrey Wilson goes beyond Espinosa’s plea for a more open and welcoming profession of Shakespeareans to advocate for a Public Shakespeare that is “of, by, and for all people.  Its program is radically inclusive and fundamentally democratic early-modern scholarship engaged with the most important ideas and social issues of our time.” Wilson’s efforts to achieve this program range from a first-year course at Harvard University—Why Shakespeare?—to an oral history of Shakespeareans engaged in various forms of Public Shakespeare to an argument for Shakespeareans to learn about public engagement from theater professionals.  But his principal aim is the “emergence of a Public Shakespeare Network, a decentralized, grassroots movement supporting communities and scholars looking to think about, with, through, and against Shakespeare and other early-modern literature beyond the confines of academia.”  This is the goal, and the exigencies of the pandemic year have made clear that a required turn to all-digital production and exchange in academia heralds a new turn for such a network, even perhaps, the establishment of a digital Center for Public Shakespeare, one with “no budget, no by-laws, no board of directors”—only a vision and a passion for a Shakespeare that belongs to all. 

After Wilson’s jaunty talk, moderator Barajas opened the floor to the audience, who, like this writer, were energized by the proposals just delivered to enlarge scholars’ presence in the real and virtual worlds but also skeptical of its realization.  One questioner addressed Jackson to ask what it would take for her to realize the dissertation she had just proposed.  Her answer: “to change the meaning of the dissertation.”  Another questioner asked the panelists if their proposals would fundamentally alter or dismantle the status hierarchy of institutions in premodern studies.  As Jackson said of her dissertation, “I’ll report back when I finish.”  So must we all.

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