Some Thoughts on #s406 at #IMC2015 - Medievalists, Public Engagement & Budgy Smugglers

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

I didn't really need a warm welcome: they had me at "free coffee"

Last week, I was at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds. It’s one of the foremost conferences on all things medieval, with thousands of scholars in attendance. One of the best things about such big area-specific shindigs is the variety of panels on offer: not just research-focussed stuff, but also organised discussions about the business of academia, how to be a medievalist going forward. On the first day of the conference , I went to a round table (session #406) on the role of public engagement – or “public intellectualism” – for medievalists. It’s a topic I’m obviously interested in – after all, you’re reading this on my medieval-monikered blog, and I tweet fairly regularly these days. The panel gave me a lot of food for thought, and I’ve been pecking out some thoughts over the past few days.

            Firstly, let me say that the speakers - Matthew Gabriele, Andrew James Johnston, and Erik Kwakkel – had a lot of useful, practical counsel to offer. I live-tweeted what I consider to be their key soundbites, so check out my feed from if you’re interested in my perspective, or check out the Storify of tweets about the panel curated by Peter Konieczny, editor of All three speakers are “public intellectuals” in various ways (and in different geographical contexts), and outlined their own approaches to entering into dialogue with non-specialist audiences, whether in print, online, or radio. What I want to blog about today is a brief run-down of the speakers’ insights, alongside some fairly problematic issues brought to light in our discussions about the troublesome us/them nature of public engagement, and by the make-up of the panel itself (three well-established white male academics).

            Gabriele urged us to consider the existing publics that we all have, including colleagues and readers of articles. All research, when published, is “public” – thus we are all, already, “public intellectuals”. Instead of trying to link contemporary news to anything and everything medieval, Gabriele advocated that we stick to talking about what we are really passionate about in the medieval universe, and then connect that to relevant modern events. His research centres on unpacking the relationship between religion and violence in the Middle Ages, and the cultural role of nostalgia and memory – themes clearly resonant with recent debates in the US about the deeply problematic Confederate flag. I also appreciated his explanation of his rationale to become more public-focussed. Gabriele is based at Virginia Tech, and after the heinous massacre there in 2007, he felt compelled to step up and refute any claims of “medieval” culture supporting contemporary violent, racist ideologies. As experts in our field, we have an ethical responsibility to push back against those trying to manipulate a spurious fantasy of the “Middle Ages” to bolster their own destructive urges. Indeed, Dorothy Kim raised this point well in the Q&A session after the talks proper. 

         If memory serves correctly, Kim was responding to some enervating – but ultimately useful, I concede – remarks from Johnston. Johnston raised my hackles a bit when he prodded the audience to question if medievalists really have anything to offer to contemporary public discourse anyhow. For him, the question is not how to become a (better) public medievalist, but whether to be one in the first place. My internal response: “YES OF COURSE WE SODDING WELL SHOULD!” Nevertheless, the hackle-raising was – and is – productive. This is a question of massive significance, and a means to situate oneself personally within the discipline. I became irritated because I so stridently believe that we have a duty to share research with our varied and dynamic publics and to learn from them as much as we purport to relay gems of medieval relevance. And the vehemence of my internal shouty voice needs to be matched by a willingness to do the damn work of engaging cogently, efficiently and non-patronisingly with those outside of our lovely academic echo chambers. There’s certainly more work needed on this, not least from myself. I’m inspired by vocal members of the audience who pointed out the need for academics to engage with audiences not normally tapped by intellectuals as potential readership. The ensuing debate amongst attendees highlighted class issues to do with the ways in which “public academics” define their target audience(s), who we deem “worthy” of “our” knowledge, and the entrenched power dynamics at play. See, for example, the following tweets:


            Kwakkel had a slick series of slides, which showed off his digital chops very well, including lots of hard data about his impact in the wider world – follower numbers, clicks, page impression and the like. Indeed, Kwakkel has over thirteen thousand Twitter followers, and a well-respected popular blog about medieval books. He underscored the need to be strategic about engagement online. Figure out your curated persona – who you want to be in the digital world, what you want to comment on, and to whom you want to speak. Give it time, up to a year of blogging and/or tweeting, and then reassess how your energies are paying off (or not), to evolve your plan of digital attack. Think clearly about making your stuff accessible and enticing: that means flashy pictures, a “sexy” hook, and no-faff explanations of key jargon. Entering into conversations with non-experts does not mean you need to dilute your intellectual content, but present it in more transparent and welcoming terms. In response to attendees’ questioning the ways in which a “public medievalist” might talk to audience(s) not traditionally accessed by, say, an academic-ish blog on medieval stuff, Kwakkel noted that there is a “trickle down” effect, i.e. journal content (hardcore intellectual work) migrates downwards, via blogs, vlogs, radio, and the like, to tabloid fare (the fluffiest version of research findings). I think this top/down hierarchy - stated by Kwakkel as an objective, monolithic system, is actually pretty harmful and utterly subjective to boot:


Helen Young also pointed out, quite rightly, that this model is out-dated:


            Johnston professed a dislike, or at the very least unease, with the term “public intellectual” himself. (And he maintains he will never have a Twitter account, hence lack of a hyperlink for his name.) He writes fairly regularly for a liberal left-wing newspaper in Germany, and features on radio programmes about almost all things British. He “smuggle[s] the medieval” in to a wide swathe of topics that he is asked to comment upon, thereby flagging the period to the public whenever possible. For example, the recent christening of Princess Charlotte can be parlayed into a conversation about medieval dynastic politics, inheritance, kingship and so forth. The word “smuggle” set off all manner of odd lightning bolts of association for me:

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via Flickr.

Brian Yap - Le Tour de Disneyland. Via Flickr.

  1. Enid Blyton-esque tales of bearded smugglers lugging booty in from every Cornish cove.
  2. Muggles, the non-magickals of the Harry Potter universe.
  3. Budgy smugglers, Australian slang for ultra-tight men’s swimming briefs, suggesting that the wearer has some form of small bird shoved down the crotch – for some examples (sans hunky wearer), see here.

Somehow, I think all three of these admittedly random associative pings flesh out my thoughts on the panel more generally. Bear with me.

  1. I have extraordinarily limited knowledge of the historical and contextual facts of Cornish smuggling enterprises. Literally all I know is taken from Enid Blyton or dodgy Sunday afternoon black and white films. However, what occurs to me in these kinds of narratives is that the smugglers’ contraband tends to contribute fairly significantly to the local community. For example, smugglers might bring in goods for the black market, or simply introduce more money into circulation so the small local economy keeps going. That is to say that the medieval booty we, as “public intellectuals”, "smuggle" actually has real consequences for our localities, and has valuable impact.
  2. Muggles are the “not-haves” and the “them” to the all-powerful magic “us” of Hogwarts alums. The vibrant and dynamic world of magic has to be hidden from the Muggles at all costs – otherwise, they’d ruin it, destroy it, or just completely freak out. Much of the discourse about “public intellectuals” posits a similar dynamic between “us” medievalist know-it-alls and “them”, the befuddled ignorant masses. We can’t really show them what we do, because they just won’t get it – or they’ll somehow break it.
  3. As an item of apparel, budgy smugglers are technically donned to cover up the genitals. But, of course, a swatch of tight tight Lycra does little to shield our eyes – and sensibilities – from the “horror” of the male anatomy. Instead, it draws our attention to it, like a giant neon sign saying “ahoy matey, here’s a penis!” The round table, for me, basically smuggled the budgy of gendered and racial privilege when operating in public spaces as a professional academic. Basically, the manner in which the panel did not meaningfully – if at all – address the significant and specific challenges to public engagement faced by those not represented on the panel, i.e. non-male non-white individuals, the more glaringly obvious the problem of representation and the effect of various kinds of privilege became.
You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

You know it's a big conference when there's conference merch available...

            For most of #s406, I couldn’t help metaphorically staring at the deeply gendered budgy before me, being uncomfortably covered up by calls for “making your research accessible” and “just getting out there”.  “Getting out there” professionally online and in public spaces is demonstrably harder for women and people of colour. I am acutely conscious as I write this that I operate in the world as a white cisgender heterosexual subject, with all the privileges this position entails. I cannot speak for the experiences of those without my intersecting privileges; I can listen attentively, educate myself, and act as a strident ally. What I can speak to is inhabiting a female body, and the evidence of misogyny as standard in the patriarchal framework. For example, witness the harassment female Guardian writers recount in this video:

Or what about Gamergate - the rampant misogynist attacks on game developers Zoe Quinn and Brianna Wu, and feminist video-game scholar Anita Sarkeesian? I do not want to be doxxed, stalked, threatened with rape or murder, or subject to torrents of abuse simply for doing my professional business of medievalism online. How do we address that as academics? As people? How do we protect ourselves? But also push back against such vileness too? These topics were apparently pretty much taboo in #s406.

            One of the principal aims of the session, presumably, was to encourage academics to foray outside of traditional institutional spaces, i.e. for members of the audience to be inspired to identify in some way with the speakers and move to emulate their public engagement. Yet, #s406 was a #manel – and an all-white #manel, at that. The vast majority of the audience were not represented by those at the speakers’ table and could not smuggle any budgies, i.e. were non-white and/or non-male. Granted, there was a female moderator, Sanne Frequin, and a female academic, Alice Johnston, had been slated to speak, but had to withdraw at the last minute. So it was not designed to be an all-white-male affair, but voila, that’s what we got. Speaking first, Gabriele started the shebang off well, noting his experiences online/in public were inevitably shaped by his intersecting privileges as a Caucasian cisgender heterosexual man. I was impressed, anticipating more dissection of practical approaches to challenges faced by academics of different identities, perhaps in the Q&A. Alas, this was not to be the case.

            An audience member, Rachel Moss, asked the million dollar question. To paraphrase: how do we do “public medievalism” successfully – and safely – if we don’t look like the speakers? Ross was seemingly ignored; the question went unanswered. A short while later, the question was asked again by Courtney Barajas:

The moderator, Frequin, shut the question down, commenting that the purpose of the session was not to “harass” the presenters. This was unfortunate and deeply frustrating. I don’t think the questions posed were harassing or argumentative at all, though the issue is difficult certainly. I can’t definitively speak for the audience as a whole, but for what it’s worth, I do not believe that we expected any “perfect” answers, nor any kind of apology by the presenters themselves for the iniquities of privilege, representation and public response. I think, mainly, we wanted an acknowledgement of this patently obvious issue, and some discussion as to what to do about it. I certainly did. Some of us expressed our frustration on Twitter:

            Audience members, myself included, had been live-tweeting the session, and our tweeting ramped up in response to the session’s swerve around the representation question. From shortly after 7 pm, #s406 was the number one trending hashtag on Twitter in the UK:

This surge in hashtag usage represents one of the wins of the session overall for me: passionate and informed analysis of the very real challenges of public engagement for some; the sharing of perspectives and personal responses; the coalescing of a supportive community. Through interaction with #medievaltwitter online – both those in the room with me, and those geographically dislocated – I felt seen and heard. In response to a lack of models with which I could identify and the panel’s frustrating silence, I found a whole host of online companions who just, well, got it – and get it on an ongoing basis. To loop back to the session’s topic: it is because of a set of active “public medievalists” that I feel more represented in the academy, that I feel seen, heard and felt as a female academic. This is invaluable work.

Bonus: to sign a pledge promising to actively avoid participating in #manels, click here. My thanks to Dorothy Kim, who tweeted about the pledge.

[Edited on 15/07/15 to fix some typos and nonsensical overuse of "problematic" in one sentence.]