The 2018 New Chaucer Society Congress: Day 2

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Reception at Art Gallery of Ontario; co-sponsored by Medievalists of Color.

I began the second day of the Congress by joining a group of Global Chaucerians for breakfast at a nearby coffee shop.  Jonathan and I have found informal gatherings like this are helpful for colleagues attending the NCS Congress for the first time.

For Session 3, I attended my first lightening panel: “Chaucer and Transgender Studies” moderated by Ruth Evans.  The six short papers were fascinating and provocative.

  • Leanne MacDonald (University of Notre Dame) “Challenging Normative Notions of Transidentity in Medieval Studies”
  • Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington & Lee University) “Trans*domesticity”
  • Michelle Sauer (University of North Dakota) “Reading the ‘Glitch’: Trans-, Technology, and Gender in Medieval Texts”
  • M. W. Bychowski (Case Western Reserve University) “Transgender Ethics: The Wife of Bath’s Trans Feminism”
  • Miranda Hajduk (Seton Hall University) “’My Sturdy Hardynesse’: The Wife of Bath’s Antifeminist Satire as Trans Narrative”
  • Cai Henderson (Centre for Medieval Studies, University of Toronto) “Christine de Pizan’s ‘droite condicion’: Authorial Construction and Resonant Reading in Transgender Text”

Because the presenters were limited to 5-7 minutes, the heart of the panel was the ensuing conversations among themselves and with the audience, as we explored transgender topics, including the ways Chaucer’s characters inhabited multiple, simultaneous identities; the transphobic elements of The Miller’s Tale; transmission glitches revealing resistance to hegemonic norms; and the nature of transgender ethics. The lightening format, a new format for NCS, proved an excellent structure for presenting ideas and generating conversation.

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Plenary Roundtable: Race and Inclusion: Facing Chaucer Studies, Past and Future Evans, Barrington, Bale, Kao, Dinshaw, & Sévère

Next up, the program featured a plenary panel on Race and Inclusion: Facing Chaucer Studies, Past and Future.  The five speakers were Anthony Bale (Birkbeck, University of London), Candace Barrington (Central Connecticut State University), Carolyn Dinshaw (New York University), Wan-Chuan Kao (Washington and Lee University), and Richard Sévère (Valparaiso University). The invitations to participate on the panel were issued nearly year ago, and the subsequent months proved the program committee’s wisdom in forming the plenary round-table addressing questions of race, whiteness, and inclusion in the field of Chaucer studies.

The program committee requested that our short presentations consider “more broadly the historical past of our field as well as our ethics of engagement in the present, and to look forward to what needs to happen next.”  We were also asked to consider the international dimension of our society and “to offer a past-future presentation on whatever facet of Chaucer” we would like to address.

  • Anthony Bale “Whose Prioress?”
  • Candace Barrington “The Feral in Chaucer Studies
  • Carolyn Dinshaw “Facing Incarceration”
  • Wan-Chuan Kao “White Attunement”
  • Richard Sévère “Teaching Chaucer While Black: Strategies for Pedagogically Inclusive Classrooms and Curricula”

As Ruth Evans mentioned in her opening remarks, the session title alludes to the title of Carolyn Dinshaw’s 2000 NCS Biennial Lecture in London, “Pale Faces: Race, Religion and Affect in Chaucer’s Texts and Their Readers.” Another major point of reference was Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press 2018).  Accordingly, speakers were asked to touch on one or more these topics:

  1. Scholarship in the field of race and Chaucer specifically, which can include Orientalism and antisemitism, etc.
  2. Scholarship about Chaucer and medievalism as it relates to race
  3. Strategies for pedagogy when it comes to racially inclusive classrooms, etc.
  4. Race and mentorship in Chaucer studies
  5. The role of NCS as public face for Chaucer studies in these contexts
  6. Methods for decolonizing Chaucer Studies

While the five of us each approached the task differently, we all ended by focusing on our individual and institutional responsibilities to ensure that, despite our mistakes as scholars and teachers, we make the study of the literary past open to everyone. The panel generated useful conversations that should extend well beyond the limits of the Congress.

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OACCT Contributor Picnic.

At lunchtime, many contributors to the Open Access Companion to the Canterbury Tales gathered for a picnic lunch on the lawn outside Victoria College. For the first time since Brantley Bryant broached the idea to a group of scholars in 2015, the large group assembled, with some of us meeting each other for the first time.

Because I am very interested in the sorts of texts we provide students and scholars throughout the world, I attended the two afternoon sessions organized by Elizabeth Scala: Is There a Text for This Class? Editing Chaucer Now I & II.  There are many proposed solutions to our current predicament, and I’m eager to see if any address the needs of undergraduate students (like mine) who are eager to engage with early literatures but have no plans for graduate study.

After those two sessions, I met Ruen-Chuan Ma, an early-career medievalist at Utah Valley University. We were introduced through the NCS mentorship program organized by Tom Hahn (Rochester University), Shazia Jagot (University of Surrey), and Sierra Lomuto (Macalester College).  As we talked, we walked leisurely to the Art Gallery of Ontario for a reception co-hosted by Medievalist of Color and featuring a display of art objects—Ethiopian religious paintings and European boxwood beads—accompanied by a beautiful, contextualizing pamphlet (written by Meseret Oldjira [Princeton University] and Seeta Chaganti [University of California, Davis]).  Attendees were provided “thought questions,” and I’m going to close Day 2’s posting with them.

  1. If you are a senior scholar, what can you do to help grad students and less-established scholars of color feel welcome in a field that has historically alienated people of color? (Note that NCS has a wonderful mentorship program that will serve this end really well.)
  2. If you are a journal or book editor, what do you think about the diversity of the authors your publication or list represents? What can you do to improve that diversity?
  3. For everyone: how can we create networks together that will be truly inclusive?
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Reception at Art Gallery of Ontario.
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The 2018 New Chaucer Society Congress: Day 1

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Clamorous and happy break between sessions. Victoria College. Photo by Chris Jones.

To say the past two years have been tough for medievalists and medieval studies is to risk unsympathetic oversimplification.  Within the home turf of our colleges and universities, we have found our courses more and more marginalized.  Beyond the walls of higher education, we have seen our field and our texts misappropriated in horrifying ways. The siege from both sides has been exhausting.

The New Chaucer Society’s 2018 Congress provided a much-needed antidote to past injustices and an invigorating inoculation against forthcoming wrongs.  By embodying the Society’s principles on public discourse and civility, the congress organizers and participants created a restorative and regenerative space that allowed everyone to be seen and valued.

The more inclusive, more global turn in Chaucer Studies was evident from the moment  Toronto was announced as the New Chaucer Society’s 2018 Congress venue. The program committee (co-chairs Bobby Meyer-Lee and Claire Waters, plus Louise D’Arcens, Jonathan Hsy, Elliot Kendall, and Sebastian Sobecki) worked to develop innovative formats, design innovative sessions, and incorporate perspectives from scholars both new and established. At the same time, congress organizer, Alex Gillespie of the University of Toronto, and congress host, Will Robins of Victoria University, sought ways to bring Toronto’s legendary medieval resources and burgeoning global community together for new purposes.

The Congress’s first morning set the tone by beginning with a traditional smudging ceremony conducted by Elders Grafton Antone and Eilene Antone (both from the Oneida of the Thames First Nation and on the University of Toronto faculty). Conducted in the indigenous language, the ceremony cleansed the gathering of the difficulties encountered getting to the congress and prepared everyone to have a good mind. The ceremony was followed by Carter Revard (a Native American and Chaucer scholar) reading his own poetry, which incorporates aspects of indigenous, modern American, and Middle English culture and languages. Ardis Butterfield’s Presidential Address, “The Dream of Language,” asked her audience to consider the continuum of linguistic registers that color our understanding of how Latin and medieval vernaculars co-existed and changed. Once we recognize the inadequacy of identifying any semantic or syntactic unit as belonging to one language or the other, we see utterances as ‘translingual.’ Bringing words and formations across languages becomes so natural that it occurs without any awareness the change has happened.

When the first sessions started that afternoon, they included six topic threads: Chaucer Abroad, Forming Knowledge, History Now, Language Contacts, Making the Text, and Middle English Literature at Scale. Designated by the program committee, the threads highlighted the more inclusive, global nature of medieval studies.  Because I primarily followed the Chaucer Abroad thread, I encountered several Global Chaucers, new and old, highlighted below.

  • The first session, Who Owns Chaucer Now? (organized by Jonathan Hsy and Louise D’Arcens, and moderated by Louise), featured two fascinating papers.
    • Elizabeth Watkins (Loyola Univeresity, New Orleans) introduced us to a forthcoming translation in Bikol, a language with 4 million speakers in the central Philippines. Part of Ateneo da Naga University’s ongoing process to demonstrate Bikol’s legitimacy as a literary language, the verse translation illustrates the continuity of religious culture that is more apparent in the Philippines than in Europe.
    • Ufuoma Overo-Tarimo (University of Iceland) previewed the forthcoming productions of her Nigerian Pidgin play The Miller’s Tale: Wahala Dey O! In addition to describing the parallels between the cultures of late-medieval England and contemporary Nigeria, her talk included a short, excerpted performance that illustrated how she was able to focus on the human factor and to show how human behavior doesn’t change across time or space.
  • In the second session, I joined Ingrid Nelson and Shazia Jagot on the Chaucer “And”: Methods of Interdisciplinarity panel organized by Michelle Karnes and moderated by Julie Orlemanski, a part of the Forming Knowledge thread.
    • Ingrid Nelson (Amherst College) used her paper “Thinking (with) Media” to place pressure on the presentist tendencies of media studies, which mistakenly equates media with a limited number of technologies.
    • Shazia Jagot (University of Surrey) persuasively argued in her paper, “Chaucer and Arabic,” that we can move beyond the usual source studies to discover Arabic as a deeply embedded cultural force in Chaucer’s work.
    • My paper, “To Interdisciplinarity and Beyond,” considers what Global Chaucers can tell us about the limits of critique; it can be found here.

The first day ended with three special events, each affirming NCS’s commitment to being an open and inclusive scholarly organization.

  • Members Parliament. In addition to learning that the Society’s financial and membership numbers remain strong, we heard from in-coming executive director, Tom Goodman (University of Miami).
  • Research Expo. The 2014 Congress’s experimental poster session has now become a very successful aspect of the congress. During the initial viewing at the Hart House Great Hall reception, the presenters were available to discuss their work and answer questions.  After the reception, the exhibit moved to the main gathering area in Victoria College.
  • LGBTQIA+ Get Together. This informal gathering at the Glad Day Bookshop, the oldest North American bookstore specializing in queer literature, provided an opportunity for all LGBTQIA+ and allies to mingle and relax.

By the end of the first day, the Smudging Ceremony seems to have achieved its goal.