Stopping the Clock(s): Precarious Times in the Academy

I don’t remember what time it was when I got the news. It was a bad time, though, I remember that sure enough. I was elbow-deep in writing a chapter for an edited collection (Spencer-Hall, forthcoming), steeling myself for one final push to bring my scholarly baby into the world. The deadline was tight – it’s always tight – but I could make it, if I could just keep going. I was tired and I hurt, I had logged long hours this past week or so of writing. I had shifted time usually reserved for self-care – for having breaks, eating lunch, taking exercise – into the work column of my schedule. The irony of the situation was not lost on me. I was writing a chapter on chronic pain and illness in the Middle Ages, underscoring the political urgency of recognizing ourselves, as members of the crip community, in historical sources.[1] In that other chapter, I theorised a trans-temporal crip-chronic community, subjects out of time that met in the blurred temporalities of crip time: an affirmative crip-chronic communion. And yet, the act of getting this material out of my brain and into the world, of pushing hard to meet the deadline – I felt, more than ever, the weight of my chronic illness. Here I was sketching glorious disability futures – and pasts – and in the present, the now in which I found myself, I felt more actively disabled than ever. This was only temporary, I promised myself. One final push in the dying minutes of the game, I thought, to deliver a chapter to my editors and to deliver myself to my bed, for hours if not days. And then the call came. The dying minutes were no longer a metaphor, the spectre of time running out shunted safely to the realm of sports and winners and losers and clear results of a game well played. He had died, and time itself seemed to fracture. The clocks, all of them, stopped.

I use the adjective ‘crip’, here and throughout this essay, in the context of ‘crip theory’, a radically inclusive, globalized and intersectional disability politics. [2] Usage of the term ‘crip’ is a conscious reclamation of the slur ‘cripple’, grounded in a rejection of the ‘compulsory able-bodiedness’ that structures our culture.[3] It operates for many, though not all, in the contemporary disability community as ‘a marker of in-your-face, or out-and-proud cultural model of disability’.[4] Most importantly for the purposes of the present essay, crip ‘has the capacity to encompass forms of embodiment or states of mind that are arguably in excess of the able-minded or able-bodied/disabled binary’.[5] In its adjectival form – as in ‘crip time’ – ‘crip’ is not simply ‘additive’ or descriptive, but instead ‘generative’.[6] It ‘remakes’ the noun it modifies, challenging linguistic and significative stability by insisting on difference, different ways of doing, being, and thinking. Crip time, then, is the time of disability, but also the times – plural – made possible by disability, the times in excess of the normate.

That call punctured my compressed timeline, bringing a halt to finishing off the book chapter. I wouldn’t make that deadline after all. Everything seemed to pause, balanced on the temporal fulcrum of that moment. And in that moment of stasis, the clocks stopped and time itself seemed to intensify, to thicken. The clocks were plural, in the sense of a collective of timepieces all stopping at the same moment to mark a death, the experience of time I shared with all others who had received the news. More significantly, for this essay at least, is that the clocks were plural in the sense of multiple timepieces showing different times, ticking – or jumping, or stuttering, or oozing – by according to the logic of various temporal modes, overlaying one another in haphazard layers. I perceived, more clearly than ever before, my embodied experience of different kinds of time. Academic time: days lost in the library, late nights of writing, strictly scheduled teaching hours, office hours, semester and term. Institutional time: promotion cycles, funding cycles, complaint procedures, access requests. Bodily time: menstrual cycles, pregnancy, sleep cycles, exhaustion, hunger, mortality itself. Crip time: the time(s) of disability, a kind of bodily time which structures, and is structured by, the lived experience of disability, and the time-scapes to which disability gives access. [7] Chronic time: a specific inflexion of crip time, the predictably unpredictable temporal landscape of living with chronic illnesses. I discerned, finally, how these times and their uneasy intersections radically structure my own life (work and otherwise).

This was a moment of radical ‘asynchrony’, a state of temporal confusion – or perhaps profusion – as theorised by Carolyn Dinshaw. Asynchrony, according to Dinshaw, is the instant in which ‘different time frames or temporal systems collid[e] in a single moment of now’.[8] This stands in stark opposition to the teleology which structures Higher Education in a neoliberal context, including both student learning and scholarly career progression. Students are urged to renounce, or simply ignore, their present desires and embodied experiences in favour of working towards an idealized future. [9] No matter if they love literature and value the arts, students’ future employability demands STEM subjects, or so the neoliberal rhetoric goes. Teachers must craft their lessons according to the rigid terms of learning outcomes, regardless of the needs and responses of their students in that specific classroom, at that specific time.[10] And scholars, especially those in early-career, are told to sacrifice their present – no time for a life, a family, and certainly no time for a malfunctioning body – in the hopes of that tantalizing prize, ever disappearing from view: job security, with genuine work-life balance. This enacts, as Catherine Herring and Paul Standish assert, ‘an expulsion of being-in-the-living present’, replicating ‘a view of time that is linear and hierarchical’.[11] By contrast, asynchronous experiences reveal that ‘the present moment is multiple’.[12] They force us to confront the fallacy of any flattened, singular notion of time, reinstating ‘the fact of temporal heterogeneity’. Above all, asynchrony ‘demonstrates the constant presence of other kinds of time in the now’.[13] In this way, recognizing, and embracing, asynchrony becomes an act of resistance to the ‘overwhelmingly mechanistic, self-limiting and […] corrosive’ chronotope of the neoliberal university.[14] Simultaneously, this enthusiastic recognition catalyses, somewhat ironically, progression in historiography, a means to move beyond reductive and marginalizing modes of studying history predicated on the notion of progress from imperfect past(s) to utopian futures.

Asynchronous experiences, for some, are precisely that: experiences, lived episodes with a beginning, middle, and end – no matter how many temporal modes are present in the ever-enfolding middle. Some of us do not just have an experience or two of asynchrony, but instead live with ‘the condition of being asynchronous’ as a mode of being in the world.[15] That is, our lives are ‘lived in other kinds of time’, ‘outside a normative or dominant time-scheme’.[16] This is crip time, to be sure. But it is also, for some, a certain kind of research time – or rather, our use of critical methodologies which foreground ‘the consideration of diverse temporal regimes operating here and now’.[17] Such asynchrony is integral to my working praxes as a medievalist, concerned with dismantling rigid temporal demarcations which cleave the past from our present. My first book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, for instance ‘reveals the interconnection of decidedly “old” media - medieval textualities - and artefacts of our “new media” ecology’, a ‘spectrum of visual experience’ linking medieval mysticism to contemporary iterations of multi-media content.[18] As a scholar, then, I have already always been enmeshed in crip temporalities, if only I had the vocabulary to articulate it. Crip time becomes a location in which, finally, my body finds itself on the same time-zone as my brain, as my work. Asynchrony as an embodied methodology permits us to crip history, and indeed ourselves.

Lives in which asynchrony is the norm are, according to Dinshaw, filled with ‘forms of desirous, embodied being that are out of sync with the ordinarily linear measurements of everyday life, that engage heterogenous temporalities or that precipitate out of time altogether’.[19] For this reason, Dinshaw argues that asynchrony is the lived experience of queer time.[20] Dinshaw makes no reference to crip time, even though, as Alison Kafer asserts, ‘queer time is crip time, and […] it has been all along’ (emphasis in original).[21] Asynchrony crips those in its grasp; crip time is fundamentally asynchronous.

That phone call, then, the one that precipitated this essay, had not fractured time after all, destroying something resolutely whole and coherent. That flattened, normative time was already a fallacy, a façade, debunked by the existential force of that call. It brought into clearer focus the truth of it: my life in crip time. As Richard Godden and Jonathan Hsy explain, crip time is ‘significantly dependent upon the pressures that embodied difference would generate for a person with a disability’.[22] For this reason, crip time is routinely experienced in and as delay. Life simply takes more time when lived with disability.[23] Bodily demands cannot be rushed or postponed; rushing to catch up or keep up with the non-disabled is often impossible. Such keen attendance to the body in the present-day is, paradoxically, accompanied by an insistent focus on the future self, for our needs cannot be met spontaneously in those future moments. Detailed strategizing is a mainstay of disabled experience. Accessible transit, for instance, must be booked in advance, with users forced to adapt to the (often arbitrary) schedule, and deal with service disruptions and delays. Care support must similarly be scheduled in advance, with clients negotiating (if possible) with support workers’ diaries in order to receive necessary support at convenient (or convenient enough) times. At the same time, crip time encompasses – for some – medicalized temporalities. This includes, for instance, the time of the doctor’s waiting room, the rigid schedule for taking medications, the time taken to receive a prognosis, the assumed time it should take for a body to recover.

Dinshaw underscores the ambiguous character of asynchronous experiences: they are ‘always wondrous and sometimes scary, prompting a temporal vertigo that can permanently disrupt one’s sense of self, society, indeed ordinary expectations of reality itself’.[24] This was true of my own experience. Once I perceived – lived, felt – the inter-dependent, blurry timelines that orient my life with such clarity, it was knowledge I could not forget. This essay is a direct product of that not forgetting, of allowing myself to perceive with fully open eyes the temporal structures that have always already given shape to my life, a life of an academic and of a disabled woman.

A moment of disclosure: I write as a (currently) middle-class, cis-het white woman living with a chronic incurable illness (fibromyalgia), a syndrome which comprises many symptoms, chief amongst them chronic pain and fatigue. My circumstances are not unique, but nor are they entirely generalizable. For one, fibromyalgia is itself vastly variable across different bodies, not to mention the fact that all chronic conditions, as illnesses, are experienced differently by those living with their effects according to their bodies and socio-cultural circumstances. Moreover, my experience of disability is decisively shaped by the fact that I have an invisible disability, with attendant privilege of being able to ‘pass’ as able-bodied.[25] I do not have to disclose my condition if I do not wish to. The ability to make this choice, or not, is especially ‘valuable’ in the early-career academic job market, as I discuss below. The integral temporal instability of my disability also orients my analyses. For with a chronic condition such as mine, my able-bodied-ness, superficially at least, fluctuates according to my body’s unfathomable whims. There are good days, and then there are bad days – days which depend for their very meaning on their specific temporal anchoring.

The ‘good’: less pain than before, certainly, but also a gateway to an imagined after. A future in which there are no more good days, no more bad days: just days. The ‘bad’: less functionality, harder to remember my place in the world beyond the limits of my body, harder – more painful – to remember the past before this moment, let alone to imagine a worthwhile future constituted by this never ceasing present. But no matter what it seems, all my days belong to an after, the bodymind I gained after being diagnosed, a place that offers me much comfort and satisfaction alongside its fair share of bodily dis-ease.[26] And that embodied knowledge structures my time, even on ‘good days’ – I pace myself, I hydrate, I exercise – not necessarily because I need, or want to, now, but because future me needs me to. As I pushed to finish the chapter to deadline, I abandoned – consciously – future me. I didn’t have the energy to do all the work to support her and do everything I needed to do in the now at the same time. My present-tense thickened, like honey put in the freezer. Minutes felt longer, breaks became fewer, pain and fatigue grew incrementally more emphatic. I felt like I hadn’t had a day off in forever, but, looking back, I don’t know if that is accurate. I simply can’t remember. The grinding march to finish the chapter swallowed me whole. I knew that, when it was done – would it ever be done? – I would pay the price, with some particularly grim days ahead, no productivity possible. But for the time being, it was what it was: I had get in sync with academic time, deadline time if only for a little while longer. Future me be damned. All of this to say, the only kind of crip time I know with any intimacy is, in fact, a chronic-crip time.

Chronic time is the timescape(s) of incurable persistent but non-terminal conditions, of the ever-enfolding present of being ‘sick’. The conventional teleology of illness comprises an identifiable onset, a ‘beginning’, followed by a symptomatic middle of an estimable duration, and, ultimately, definite point of recovery. Chronic conditions do not follow this model. Those of us with chronic conditions will never be normatively ‘healthy’ again, barring substantive medical advancements or spontaneous remissions. Bodily spontaneity is a hallmark of many, though not all, chronic illnesses. By this, I mean the fact that our bodies seem to act according to their own, fuzzy logic. Input does not equal output. We can do everything ‘right’ to manage our symptoms, and yet they will still flare, seemingly out of nowhere. This injects a chaotic pulse into life, according to which our best laid plans must try to account for the unknown and unknowable, building in margins of preparation time, potential sick time, recovery time. Nevertheless, chronic schedules, are integrally flexible, whether we like it or not: as often happens, our bodies throw a wrench in the works and we must reschedule or cancel at short notice. For some, the potential of an idealized future, a return to ‘normal’ health – realized through cure or remission –infiltrates the present moment, with the business of life itself ever deferred until we reach recovery. For others, past/present/future collapse and collide, as familiar symptoms return episodically, seemingly returning from the past to haunt our present moments, deflating our imagined futures.

For Dinshaw, asynchrony is, on the one hand, an integrally queer experience, and on the other, a queering experience, a means of enfolding individuals, however briefly, into the queer community.[27] Asynchrony is presented as a double-edged sword: illustrative of a precarious non-dominant subject position and the means by which the experiences of that subject are witnessed, understood, embraced by dominant subjects. Temporal alienation, reflecting systemic socio-cultural marginalization, ‘can prevent desired projects from ever coming to fruition; it can threaten to destroy sexual or social reproduction; among places of people, among races, among nations, it can be deployed as a rational for political subjugation’.[28] However, asynchrony can also be politically powerful: ‘the means of calling for justice for past exclusions and injustice’, allowing for a ‘more just’, ‘full and various’ present moment. This essay similarly hinges on the ambiguous duality of asynchrony: an integrally crip experience, and an experience that crips, one that facilitates ‘an orientation toward the world that asserts the potential for radical transformation of so-called normative social scripts, desires, and ways of life’.[29]

Speaking from the vantage point of the asynchronous moment with which I began this essay, and to which I will return episodically, I argue that ableism in the academy has a specifically temporal dimension. The culture of overwork – or ‘hyperwork’, as I call it below – essentialises productivity, endless and endlessly visible work, as the primary metric for employability, not to mention personal worth, in the academy. Such emphasis on productivity disadvantages disabled workers, no less in the academy than is elsewhere widely acknowledged. Robin Zheng is absolutely right: ‘precarity is a feminist issue’, and one which can only be reckoned with if we recognise that the ‘myth of work as its own reward’ and the ‘myth of meritocracy’ are just that, myths – fables we tell ourselves to make sense of the world which may have little relation to our everyday realities.[30] More than that, though, precarity is an emphatically intersectional feminist issue – one which affects disabled scholars to a greater degree than non-disabled scholars, and multiplies the effects of inhabiting other structural nodes of identity.[31] Feminist critique of precarity has, so far at least, also failed to account for a considerable overlap between one source of systemic discrimination of women scholars and disabled scholars: persistent dislocation from the academy’s temporal regimes, issuing from inescapable bodily demands.

Women’s bodily time: years of fertility, menstrual cycles, gestation periods. ‘Feminised’ time(s): time spent on activities that are socio-culturally deemed ‘women’s work’, including housework, child care, maintaining social networks. These all necessitate taking ‘time out’ of the academy, whether on formal leave or in routinely working to hours that permit a life outside the Ivory Tower.[32] ‘Time out’, or ‘time off’, is coded as irreparably lost time, professionally speaking. In the USA, the ‘tenure clock’ is a commonplace of academic institutions, i.e. a set period of time in which tenure-track scholars must demonstrate their suitability for the privilege of tenure. Since the 1970s, it has become standard to allow for ‘stopping the tenure clock’ (STC), specifically as a means to combat the loss of time entailed in pregnancy and raising a young family. STC usually equates to getting a one-year pause of the clock count-down, an intervention offered initially only to women but that now is typically gender-neutral, for all parental care-givers of young children. In theory, this is a welcome measure to combat temporally-issuing disadvantages. However, many women remain afraid of the internal fall-out from STC, including a reputation of lower productivity.[33] Studies show that men who STC, due to parental responsibilities, may actually benefit more from the pause than women, as they use the ‘time off’ to be strategically productive.[34] Men have the time, typically, because they have fewer care responsibilities, even during the STC pause. In other words, stopping the institutional clock does not remedy the structural inequality in gendered access to time more generally. It is for this reason that women are disadvantaged in terms of the UK’s most important institutional cycle, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the process used to determine funding levels across Higher Education last undertaken in 2014 and on the horizon for 2020/2021.

Recent research demonstrates that the inflexibility of the REF’s schedule ‘exacerbates existing inequalities caused by maternity leave and caring responsibilities, which ultimately amount to time taken out of a REF cycle’.[35] This is not just an issue of gender: anyone with a ‘messy’ body and/or care responsibilities, whether for themselves or for others, will be similarly impacted by being ‘out of sync’ with the REF cycle. This is vividly illustrated by the testimony of an anonymous male academic with care duties for his dying mother. Despite his emotionally distressing and physically exhausting circumstances, he was told point-blank to work longer hours and with higher productivity to fulfil the needs of his university’s REF submission.[36] He lost irreplaceable time to be with his mother: ‘I ended up next to my mum’s deathbed proofing a monograph. The last conversation I had with her was about work and why I was doing so much’.[37]

Disabled scholars, living in asynchronous crip time whether we like it or not, must reckon with the dominant temporal regimes which orient our profession – academic time, institutional time, eternally productive time.[38] At best, we negotiate workable compromises, stealing time(s) here and there. We might need ‘extra time’ but we cannot ‘make time’, our need for endless temporal flexibilities is, in fact, inflexible. And so we are systemically excluded from academic culture(s), promotion rounds, funding opportunities. Disabled scholars navigate the academy in a chronic state of asynchrony. Simultaneously, the ever more widespread experience of asynchrony – embedded in the working practices of ECRs, increasingly becoming the norm for established academics – functionally disables those that were previously identified, or identified themselves, as normatively able-bodied. Even as those that the academy disables in this way are (typically only) temporarily disabled, these transitory moments of communion offer a potential catalyst for the creation of a more inclusive, more diverse academy. Here, I draw upon – and hope to develop – the work of Richard H. Godden, a disabled medievalist who laid the foundation for the present study in a 2011 article on the ways in which his disability, experienced most emphatically as a ‘temporal problem’, intersects with his professional life, dominated by academic time. [39] Godden asked, as I do once more: ‘How can a consideration of a disabled temporality be an enabling lens for examining Academic Time?’.

Notably, Godden seized upon the potential of social media to create more accessible forms of academic community, ones not limited to sharing the same physical location or temporal orientation. This is made possible by the fundamental ‘asynchronicity’ of social media, which offers a ‘positive sense of the untimely’, an affirmative experience of the dynamics of crip time accessible to all users.[40] Such asynchronous experiences, for Godden – and, indeed for myself – are hopeful, allowing for the ‘a recognition that we do inhabit different timelines, but that we can also come together’. This affirmative spirit motivates the present essay, even if the asynchronous experiences upon which I focus are, in their lived experience, both disabling and disenfranchising. But in order to move forward, to find these uplifting positives – new modes of being in the world, academic and otherwise – I must first go back, back to the time of that phone call, when death itself seemed to intrude in my life.

 

Death and (Academic) Re-Birth

He was old – over a 100-years old – and he said clearly and firmly that he wanted to die. For him, at last the time had come, the time of ending. But for the rest of us, his varied assortment of family spanning three generations, it was too soon. It was an ‘end of an era’, we said to each other in phone calls and emails and WhatsApp messages. He died and none of us were so young any more, even as we felt our distance from his advanced age, a temporal gulf between us, opening up ever further. He died, and he started drifting away from us, out of time, belonging to the ‘before’. The sense of this temporal hinge, the imposition of a before and after on the messy chaos of life, hit me hard. I was racing to meet a deadline, something I’d been working on for months at a time. But I was also in the final moments of a longer trajectory. I was so very close to achieving a long-held personal and professional dream. Tomorrow, the day after, my first book would come out. That is how I remember when I got the call: 30th November 2017. It was the day before, before I would be transformed – in my imagination at least – into this different category of person, a scholar with a book out. He would have been proud of me, with my book. He was proud of me, anticipating the book’s publication. And yet, he never met me in the ‘after’, in my new incarnation: a ‘real’ scholar once and for all, definitively and reassuringly post-doc.

I had heard what most every ECR does, getting a monograph out is make-or-break for one’s career. It is the benchmark by which CVs are sifted, determining which scholars make the cut – of the first cut at least – and make it to a shortlist, and onwards to the biggest prize of all: a permanent job. Such wisdom retains an aura of truth, at least to those of us who still believe that academia is a meritocracy.[41] It makes logical sense, after all. But upon closer inspection, the logic is faulty and the truth is revealed: things have changed, and a book is no longer enough, it seems that nothing is ever enough. Time itself has distended for those of us at the start of our academic career. I say ‘start’, though that’s not necessarily accurate: many of us have been working in academia for a long time now, moving in staccato from PhD to post-doc, to another post-doc, to short-term contract, to never-ending short-term contracts.[42] The category of ‘junior’ or ‘early-career’ researchers has swollen to include many of us that are not young, not any more. We live in stasis, crystallised in an ever-expanding present that almost swallows us whole. Our families grow, our bodies age, our output grows exponentially, and yet nothing really ever seems to change. This is how one part-time lecturer puts it: ‘Three years of temporary contracts have meant that my life has been on hold. My friends outside academia are settling down, buying houses and getting married. Meanwhile, I have a PhD, a book that’s too expensive for anyone other than a university library to buy and face constant uncertainty’.[43] This is the reality of ECR life for many, if not most, scholars.

 

Precarious Times

We live in precarious times, professionally speaking. Permanent jobs are ever more difficult to find, with casualised teaching fellowships and serial post-docs the new norm in ECR life, in the UK and elsewhere.[44] According to data collected by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), over half (53%) of academics working in UK HE institutions were employed on insecure contracts in 2014/2015.[45] Insecure contracts come in a range of forms, including: ‘fixed-term employment contracts; zero-hours employment contracts; variable hours hourly-paid contracts; hourly-paid contracts with set hours and so on’.[46] All such arrangements, whatever their specific iterations, share the same temporal dynamic: persistent instability, be that of hours, of months, of years.

One Further Education lecturer reflects upon their experiences of precarity:  

The main issue is that flexibility only goes one way. With those contracts you end up working long hours for a couple of months, then nothing and then back to crazy hours. If you get sick or need days off, you’re really stuck. Ultimately, even if you earn enough, you cannot really plan anything for the future as you mainly think about securing your next job.[47]

 ‘Long hours’, ‘a couple of months’, ‘crazy hours’, ‘days off’, ‘the future’, the ‘next job’: precarity is all about time. Or rather, about times, plural. An imagined future, always deferred: the next job, the next gig. The thickened present of days, weeks, months – even years – of agonizing waiting to be notified about whether you will be (re)hired, whether your past performance was good enough, whether you will be able to pay your bills. The institutional clock takes its sweet time, seemingly unaware of the other, viscerally banal time-lines in which scholars must live, and for which everyone must pay. Monthly payments for accommodation; three square meals a day; irregular socializing, the cost of having friends and family, holidays and birthdays and minor celebrations.

Who belongs to the (academic) precariat? Junior scholars, defined primarily as individuals in early to mid-career, alongside working post-graduate students. These scholars – this author included – are far more likely to be employed on short-term fixed contracts, with permanent posts becoming the norm only at the level of senior lecturer and senior research fellow.[48] In 2015, University College Union conducted a survey of casual staff in post-secondary educational institutions (i.e. HE and Further Education [FE]) in the UK. One in ten academics (11%; 10.4% in HE and 9% in FE) simply could not give an accurate estimation of the hours they typically worked in a week, because their hours were so irregular.[49] Just under half (47%) of staff noted that they worked less than 30 hours a week, though staff in FE are significantly more likely by work under this threshold than colleagues in HE (63.5% vs. 40.8% respectively).

If in a teaching post, precarious staff are often employed to cover less ‘desirable’ modules, such as full-cohort undergraduate survey courses, compulsory modules, or skills-based offerings. Teaching to one’s scholarly specialty is not necessarily an option, though when the opportunity for such research-driven teaching does arise, it often comes with very few salaried hours attached. Precarity is endless flexibility, but made to the model of the market – or marketised institution. There is little loyalty, a neo-liberal fantasy of individualism reigns supreme. In the precariat, we are all independent contractors. Casualised staff are expected to respond rapidly, not to mention gratefully, to ‘opportunities’ with which institutions gift them, including ones which are either unpaid or dramatically underpaid.[50] This includes, for instance, receiving notice of allocated teaching hours. ‘I do not find out until a week before the semester starts as to whether I have managed to get a class or not’, shares one FE lecturer.[51]

Whilst casualised staff may be ‘employed’ by an institution on paper, their lived experience is one of underemployment. Individuals are underemployed, as Douglas C. Maynard and Daniel C. Feldman note, ‘because they cannot work as many hours as they desire, because they can only obtain temporary jobs when they desire permanent employment, or because they cannot get jobs which are commensurate with their education, skill levels, and experience.’[52] It is for this reason that ‘underemployment’ may best be defined as ‘disguised unemployment’ or ‘inadequate employment’.[53] Underemployment is a typical characteristic of the working life of disabled people.[54] Disabled workers’ skills are often underutilised in their jobs, and the disabled community has significant levels of unemployment.[55] In other words, the discriminatory disadvantages of disability are being normalised more generally, as more and more people experience the effects of underemployment. This suggests the possibility for an empathetic coming together of able-bodied and disabled workers, finding common ground in our underemployment. Nevertheless, disabled workers are marginalised to a greater degree than non-disabled employees by the insidious spread of such casualised working practices, given the difficulties in finding appropriate employment and lower levels of financial security routinely faced by people living with disabilities.[56] This means that disabled ECRs may find more fellowship than ever before with able-bodied peers, but we are still more likely to be disadvantaged in real terms, both professional and economic.

 

Time is Money

According to a study by the University College Union, staff on insecure contracts routinely struggle to pay their household bills (42%).[57] More than one in three (35%) are insecurely housed, reporting difficulty in making mortgage and rent payments. Beyond housing insecurity, one in five casualised academics (21%) face difficulty in putting food on the table. For many, poverty is a seemingly unavoidable consequence of choosing an academic career. This financial outlook is bleak for all involved. However, disabled ECRs are doubly marginalised on this front, given the fact that poverty is a distressingly routine component of living with a disability.[58]

Bluntly put, disability is expensive.[59] A recent report, using data from 2015/2016, calculates that disabled people in the UK face, on average, additional disability-related costs of £570 a month, not defrayed by welfare benefits.[60] For one in five disabled people, the costs rise to in excess of £1,000 per month. Disability alters the relative value of one’s earnings – in other words ‘disabled people’s money doesn’t go as far’, with £100 wages of an able-bodied worker equating to £67 for their disabled colleague. This does not factor in another persistent financial hardship faced by disabled workers: the disability pay gap.[61] Disabled employees across the board tend to earn less than their able-bodied counterparts. In a study of median hourly earnings from 2015-2016, for example, disabled people earned £9.85 per hour, compared to an hourly wage of £11.41 for able-bodied workers.[62] The disability pay gap compounds the financial marginalization(s) levied alongside the intersectional axes of identity, such as gender and race pay gaps. A disabled woman makes (even) less than a disabled man; a disabled woman of colour makes (even) less than a disabled white woman. Of particular relevance to disabled academics is the fact that the pay disadvantage persists ‘at every level of qualification’: ‘a disabled person with a degree is more likely to be low paid than a non-disabled person with a degree’.[63] In essence, then, the PhD of a disabled scholar has less earning power than the same qualification held by an able-bodied peer, irrespective of the content or quality of the comparable degrees themselves.

 

Speeding Up

The economic hardships associated with disability function to make disabled ECRs less resilient, financially speaking, to subsist in the early career marketplace. We need more money than able-bodied peers simply to scrape by, yet we have less earning power due to systemic ableism. Critically, disability-related expenditure is non-discretionary, i.e. it is not a luxury that one can ‘cut back on’ to save cash. Moreover, the survival mechanism adopted by many, if not most, struggling ECRs are not necessarily accessible to us: the ‘side hustle’, i.e. taking on additional (usually low-paying) jobs to generate more income. ‘Hustling’ equates to increasing one’s earning potential by increasing one’s pace: working more hours, at more jobs. Pace here equates to productivity. Workers must be ever more productive to keep up with the racing treadmill upon which they’re running, a seemingly ceaseless marathon to the finish line of a permanent academic job. And productivity as a metric of employability – and, by consequence, an individual’s integral worth – is exceptionally problematic for disabled people, as a driver of systemic institutional discrimination.[64]

In the rhetoric of valorised productivity, disabled employees, as Eline Jammaers et al note, ‘are discursively constructed as less capable, willing and productive workers and thus as less valuable for and/or employable by organizations.’[65] This ableist paradigm is especially prevalent – and pernicious – in the academy, in which the culture of overwork has long been a peculiarly prized practice.[66] Writing in February 2018, Yale professor Nicholas A. Christakis offered a one-Tweet precis of the institutional stance which remains predominant throughout academia: ‘I tell my graduate students and post-docs that if they’re working 60 hours per week, they’re working less than the full professors, and less than their peers.’[67] It is telling that Christakis’s remarks emphasise the importance of comparison between scholars, with the quantifiable common denominator of working hours, not counting finite outputs or their quality. Overwork is integrally performative in nature: whoever looks busy must be busy, and thus be an ambitious, dedicated scholar. Such an attitude disregards the findings of numerous studies which demonstrate that working longer hours usually has a negative impact on worker productivity.[68] Also overlooked are the experiences of generations of disabled employees which demonstrate that longer hours on the job does not equate to better job performance.

Notable push-back to academic overwork is found in the ‘slow scholarship’ movement, advocating for less frenzied speeds of academic work and pedagogy.[69] All such frameworks, however, are grounded in the optional uptake of this ‘slower’ working modality. ECRs do not usually have the luxury to make such a decision, as doing so would jeopardise our very survival. The issue for disabled scholars is, of course, that our scholarship, even if produced at similarly slow speeds to those of avowed ‘slow scholars’, is, in fact, just our ‘normally paced’ scholarship. We do not have the option to ‘speed up’ if and when it would be advantageous to do so. Embedded in the ‘slow scholarship’ ethos, then, remains the kernel of ableist thinking on productivity, at least in its use of language.

No matter how long a scholar works – even pulling 12-hour days, Monday to Sunday – they are never productive enough. Being normal or average, working 30 or 40 hours a week say, is no longer enough.[70] And it certainly is not enough for those of us without permanent positions, with all the instability and financial hardship that entails, who must work harder than anyone to ‘prove’ themselves worthy of a ‘real’ job, alongside working all hours simply to earn enough to survive. This means the reality, or so it seems – and feels – to many of us is, in the words of one casualised lecturer sharing his fears, that ‘“the only ones who get permanent academic jobs are those able to tough out several years of fraught, unstable work”’.[71] Not everyone can ‘tough it out’ for long, if at all. The people who are able to are those ‘“with considerable financial privileges, without caring responsibilities, without financial dependents and those mentally resilient enough to cope”’. With such integral politics of exclusion, the praxes of precarity are not just ableist but also discriminatory along intersectional lines.[72] They are a catalyst for the wholesale loss of ‘non-normative’ scholars – read: not cisgender single middle- or upper-class able-bodied white men – from the academy.

The term ‘overwork’ still captures the sense of work that overspills its nominal channel, work undertaken outside of one’s set hours and beyond the terms of one’s contract. This is an apt descriptor of the situation of many casualised ECRs, dealing with the constraints of highly limited paid hours allocated for core pedagogical tasks. As one casualised academic remarked to the local branch of their University and College Union: ‘“Either you stick to the hours you are contracted to work and provide substandard teaching for your students, or you put in extra hours, effectively reduce your hourly rate of pay, and try to be good at your job”’.[73] Putting in extra hours in this context has an ethical dimension: if you’re committed to your profession, to competent pedagogy and to your students, then you keep working for as long as it takes.[74] Support your students by working for free or pay yourself by pursuing a wage elsewhere: this is posed as a moral dilemma.[75] Those who cannot, for whatever reason, make the sacrifice are cast as selfish, venal, and lacking necessary commitment to their career and their profession. In this context, disability becomes a metonym for moral degradation.

Advice commonly given to ECRs, including this author: transfer to a full-time job in academic administration and continue to do research ‘on the side’, submitting applications for research jobs in one’s ‘spare time’. The neoliberal academy demands control over all of a researcher’s time, irrelevant of contractual terms. Academic time(s) take priority over personal times (personal lives), as highlighted by one casualised HE lecturer: ‘My employers expect me to conduct my research in my own time, but they then benefit from it in the REF’.[76] This lecturer is likely exempt from the REF, if their contract is for teaching alone. Nevertheless, for this individual to remain competitive on the job market – including for casualised teaching-only positions – they must demonstrate their research expertise, and publish as much as possible. In this way, research is shunted into one’s ‘own time’, despite its central role in professional trajectories, alongside in institutional funding in terms of REF outcomes. If this lecturer does manage to publish in their ‘spare’ time and is then employed on a contract under which they are subject to the REF, then their home institution essentially monetizes their free research labour.

Lisl Walsh succinctly cuts to the ableist heart of it: ‘academia conflates capacity with quality’.[77] Permanent jobs and professional honours are based on ‘what the dedication [of an able body] can achieve’ (parentheses in original) – productivity at all costs, at all times, thanks to a body that can withstand a battering, at least for now. This is not just a culture of ‘overwork’ but, more emphatically, hyperwork – unceasing, high-energy, frenetic – as scholars must do more things in less time, all the time. Pressure to adopt such working practices is intensified by the systemic financing issues plaguing HE institutes across the UK. Ever higher student enrolment targets are coupled not with attendant staff increases, but instead under-recruitment, outright hiring freezes, and even widespread lay-offs.[78] Since December 2018, redundancies have been announced across the sector, including at Bangor University, Cardiff University, Queen Margaret University, the University of Gloucestershire, the University of Kent, and the University of Reading.[79]

For those ‘lucky enough’ to retain their jobs, covering the additional workload takes a toll. ‘There aren’t enough staff to do the fundamental work of a university’, testifies an anonymous member of Sheffield UCU employed on a research-teaching contract.[80] Their contract should nominally comprise 40% research (12.6 hours), 40% teaching (12.6 hours) and 20% administration (6.3 hours), based on a 35-hour work week with 0.1 FTE buyout. This tally, however, radically underestimates the amount of time taken by teaching and administration, whilst ignoring altogether obligatory service work, including mainstays such as peer reviewing, grant writing, and REF preparation. According to the Sheffield academic’s calculations, they are left with ‘negative 2 hours per week to conduct [their] world leading, 4* research during the teaching term’ (ibid.). Undertaking this research is critical to academic career development, even to remaining employed. Under-performing researchers are subject to a variety of penalties, ranging from probationary periods and performance improvement plans to redundancy. The impact of REF 2020/2021 is already being felt in these terms. Universities are ‘shedding academics’ who they deem to be ‘underperforming’ and who would negatively skew REF scores, using early-retirement and severance schemes, ahead of the exercise.[81] REF expectations can be particularly onerous for early-career staff, who are often tasked with teaching high-volume survey modules necessitating a significant amount of administration, alongside navigating the demands of their relatively new roles. UCU reports, for example, that the University of Liverpool has warned ‘several junior academics’ that they must publish a paper every 18 months, with a 3* REF score which defines ‘internationally excellent’ scholarship in order to pass probation in the run-up to the next REF.[82]

Academics simply must find time to research. Our survival depends on it. But time is not a resource to which everyone has equal access, nor is energy. Everything takes more time – and correspondingly more energy – when you are disabled, and fatigue is an exceptionally common component of chronic illness. Being in pain all the time is exhausting. Living with disability is a second-shift from which disabled scholars cannot ever clock off. We don’t necessarily have enough time, or energy, to attend to our ‘scheduled’ work hours, let alone put in any more hours at a moment’s notice. As Susan Wendell points out, making increases in pace obligatory for workers actively disables ever more of the affected workforce: ‘[if] … the pace of life increases without changes in other factors, more people become disabled simply because fewer people can keep up with the “normal” pace.’[83] Scores of testimonies about the increasing ill health – mental and physical – of notionally able-bodied scholars due to the ever-increasing demands of their jobs bear witness to this phenomenon affecting today’s academic workforce.[84] Early-career scholars are hit particularly hard, given the integral instability of their (under)employment.[85] In 2016, Greg, a casualised ECR at the University of Nottingham, shared his employment history with an interviewer from The Guardian, recounting a narrative as appalling as it is emblematic of the ‘new normal’ in ECR working practices.[86]

It wasn’t so bad in the beginning. Greg started out, like so many of us do, as ‘a promising young academic’ with a fixed-term contract.[87] He wasn’t well-off, but he had enough, just about, for household expenses and paying the mortgage. After his contract, he was depending on getting a research grant. It fell through and Greg’s life began to crumble. At one point, he was ‘pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week’, earning somewhere between £22,000 and £23,000 before tax. This is significantly less than the national median annual income earned by those in full-time employment: £29,668 gross.[88] Greg cobbled together various jobs in order to survive: short-term hourly-paid teaching at Nottingham; more of the same at a different university; gardening; writing for a local paper; picking litter. Starting his working day picking litter at 3.30am, he had enough time for a quick nap and change of clothes before heading to his lecturing gig at Nottingham, surviving on a catnap of 20 minutes or so before he began teaching. ‘“Permanent exhaustion”’ became the norm, a fog in which he operated across his various shifts, accompanied by insidious stress, worry, and fear about his predicament. Under such intense mental and physical strain, he, unsurprisingly, fell ‘seriously ill’. The incremental disabling to which Greg was subject was, in fact, hastened by the presence of pre-existing disability in his family: his wife was ‘too ill to earn much’, which meant he used up his meagre savings fast as he did not have access to much-needed extra funds from his spouse’s earnings.

 

Taking Time to Disclose

In today’s job market, casualised academics living with invisible disabilities who can ‘pass’, more or less, as able-bodied have a strong incentive to not disclose their situation and their need for accommodations.[89] Disclosing chronic illness, for instance, risks bringing a scholar’s productivity into question, not to mention encountering stigma from co-workers and prejudicial judgments from institutional powers. Given the precarious circumstances of the vast majority of ECRs, the risks of disclosure are simply too high for many: we cannot afford to lose the job, we are only scraping by. Even the ‘best-case’ disclosure scenario – requested accommodations are approved and put in place – is fraught with potential professional danger. Putting accommodations in place is often a needlessly lengthy and complex procedure, requiring a significant amount of a scholar’s time, a department’s administrative time and institutional funding. This has been my own experience of disclosing disability as an ECR.

At ‘Research University’, I was employed on a one-year, non-renewable contract. I had disclosed my disability prior to the start of my contract. My needs are pretty basic, overall: things like an ergonomic chair and keyboard, a lighter-weight laptop, voice-to-text software. Yet my ‘special case’ was apparently complicated, and too costly to boot. The finance department queried in particular the ergonomic chair – did I really need a chair after all, didn’t I know that it was expensive? I pressed the issue, supported by the fact that a specialist assessor had recommended the chair in the first place. From start to finish, it took three months to acquire all the necessary equipment. The process rolled on in institutional time: glacial, bureaucratic, reliably delayed. Doing the calculations, my loss of productive time was stark: for the first quarter of my contract, I was limited in my working capacity by the lack of accommodations. With some irony, I lost even more time during that period due to dealing with the process of trying to get accommodations, of trying to speed up the plodding mechanism of institutional decision-making. Short-term contracts oblige staff to apply for their next post almost as soon as they take up the role. This is the well-known ‘second shift’ of ECR life, seemingly ceaseless rounds of applications in order to secure the next gig, and/or a side hustle to supplement the scant remuneration of your present post. Trying to project oneself in to the future, on the basis of past performance, whilst barely having the time to attend to pressing – present – matters. Thus, the time I lost waiting for accommodations to be implemented was also time subtracted from my future, or potential futures. Disclosing my disability, ironically, actively decreased my productivity.

Time itself can be weaponised in the academy. Sara Ahmed, for instance, dissects the ways in which universities use institutional time ‘as a tool’ to marginalise individuals reporting harassment and suppress reports of misconduct.[90] Making a complaint of harassment is itself ‘time-consuming, life-consuming’. Getting the complaint through internal processes is an equally lengthy process. Institutions can disregard a complaint if it is made ‘too long’ after the reported incident. ‘Too long’ for the institution, but not for the individual involved. Harassment is insidiously traumatic, not just in the moment but in the aftermath. Individuals may not be able to speak about the situation immediately to anyone, let alone their employer. This need for (temporal) space, a well-known effect of trauma, is recast by the institution as tardiness: transposed onto the institutional timeline, the complainant’s embodied temporal dynamics are grossly misrepresented. Institutional misconduct is now transformed into individual temporal mismanagement. Above all, the complainant must obey the institutional clock, whether it is fast or slow. And it can be fast, painfully so, when mandating deadlines by which individuals must respond in order for their case to be heard. Ahmed relates the illustrative case of two students who reported sexual harassment: ‘They talked of how slow the organisation was to respond to their communication at every step of the process but how they themselves were still expected to be quick: “they gave us a tiny time-scale” and “short-deadlines”’.

Requesting accommodations and reporting harassment coincide as experiences in which institutional time wielded by university powers – slow, juddering, regimented – is directly at odds with the chronotope(s) of the individual making the request or report, and which, for disabled scholars at least, govern the very need to make a request in the first place. Exhaustion can be ‘a management technique’ in the academy, as Sara Ahmed notes: ‘you tire people out so they are too tired to address what makes them too tired.’[91] In this way, draining an individual’s energy becomes ‘not just the effect but the point of a complaint process’. This is the implicit temporal logic of precarity, and of systemic ableism in the academy.

 

Conclusion: Curing and Cripping

Asynchrony is central to the experience of chronic life, and of disability more generally. Our non-normate bodies demand different kinds of time, time(s) which do not, cannot, correspond to the linear, regimented, orderly time of the dominant capitalist culture. The temporal paradigm of the academy, of what I call ‘hyperwork’, is a particularly intense iteration of the latter chronotope. The undergirding demand of our profession, indeed of eligibility of membership of our profession, has become ‘high productivity in compressed time’.[92] Ever increasing demands of productivity and of temporal flexibility – made to the mould of the academy’s needs, of course – systematically marginalize and ultimately exclude disabled scholars from the profession. This systemic exclusion is especially prevalent – lived, felt, visible – in the early-career marketplace. ECR life pushes scholars – our bodies, our minds, our whole lives – to their limits and beyond, increasing marginalisation of disabled scholars, whilst simultaneously disabling previously non-disabled colleagues. The latter have the privilege of ‘cure’: exiting the academic industry returns them to health, and, in theory at least, securing a permanent job will cure most ills. Even in permanent employment, however, disabled scholars must live with their embodied asynchrony, and deal with the systemic ableism of the academy.

ECRs in the contemporary academy are situated as chronically academic: subjects who are offered episodic, disorienting, unsatisfyingly partial contact with the academy. In this, the idealised academy stands in for the frustratingly temporary and only notionally ‘able’ body which those of us with chronic conditions (re)experience on the best of our ‘good’ days. For permanent employment is not a cure-all, no matter how much we desire it to be. Understood as a socio-political corpus, the academy is wrought with systemic dysfunction: the bodily dis-ease of neo-liberalisation which affects every cell in its body, including those in permanent posts. ECRs, ‘disabled’ by the academic system, thus become ‘a threatening presence’ for those in positions which are only superficially secure, workers who – right now at least – can keep up with the punishing pace.[93] Neutralise the threat – remove the source of malfunction by employing only those with superhuman stores of energy and drive – and the academic body appears to regain homeostasis, all things working in an orderly balanced fashion.

In this way, ECRs are isolated – practically and figuratively – from the community whose support we need the most, and those that have considerably more political power (not to mention financial reserves) to fight for an amelioration of our working conditions. What better name, then, for a network of academic staff with disabilities and chronic conditions than ‘Chronically Academic’.[94] The network connects disabled scholars, offering support in navigating the structurally ableist academy, whilst agitating for the deconstruction of such embedded marginalising structures. ‘Most of us are early career researchers’, the network’s homepage notes, ‘however, we look forward to and encourage supporting and mentoring more advanced academics.’[95]

Remove the so-called ‘under-performing’, and the academy is ‘cured’; ‘normality’ re-instated. This is the rationale of the medical model of disability, which pathologizes disability as individualized sickness, the ‘factually corporeal’ expression of deviance. For this reason, ‘cure’, as Alison Kafer articulates, has long been ‘the future no self-respecting disability activist or scholar wants’.[96] Instead, the social model of disability affirms the dignity of the non-normative body, a body marked by impairments – the need to balance pedagogy, administration and research, say; or the structured schedule which can seem bizarre to non-academics – but disabled only by society. Neoliberalism, austerity, systemic intersectional marginalization: these are the mechanisms by which the academic body is disabled. And yet, if we take the academy as a body – as our collective body, then this paradigm falls short too. For, as in chronic illnesses, the non-normative body itself is also the site of aversive and disabling experience(s) for ever more scholars.[97] ‘Cure’ – reduced workloads, shared responsibilities, more kindness – would be welcome. But how do we ‘cure’ the Academy, without annihilating difference within our community, without pathologizing disability itself?

There are no easy answers. But I would like, as I come to the end of my analyses, for now at least, to suggest pathways forward, by following an asynchronous thread, by looking backwards: to that other chapter that I was writing when I received the phone-call with which I began this piece, and to its medieval work. The other chapter was – is? – a survey of chronic pain and illness in the Middle Ages, included in a collection exploring the cultural history of disability. The purpose of my analyses was to progress both historical work in the field and contemporary disability theories, by creating an inter-temporal and radically reciprocal dialogue. By and large, in-depth study of chronic illness is absent in the field of medieval disability studies. This holds true for medieval studies more generally, bar the notable study of big-hitter diseases such as leprosy. In this way, the historical record – as contemporary medievalists report it, at least – has little to say on the topic of the experience(s) of medieval individuals living with chronic illness and pain. However, this elides the reality of the situation, as presented to us in medieval sources.

Representations of chronic illness do exist, most frequently in so-called miracle tales. These narratives are composed to offer proof of a given saint or holy person’s religiosity, demonstrated by their capacity to effect healing in others’ bodies, and often their own too. The disabled body is useful as a plot point, evoked as a corporeal ‘problem’ to be solved, and thereby to be annihilated.[98] This mirrors the discriminatory medical model of disability, in which the non-normate body must be ‘fixed’ at all costs and in which cure – the erasure of disability and disabled lives – is the ultimate goal. I repeat once more the questions which orient(ed) that chapter: How do we deal with medieval sources which seemingly perpetuate the discriminatory medical model of disability? How do we use these sources – so intent on highlighting cure as a possible and much desired outcome for desperate subjects living with marginalized bodies – to challenge our own limited contemporary frameworks? Recapitulated in the context of the present essay: How do we contend with wanting, needing a cure – for the Academy, for our own bodies – without pathologizing difference itself?

Such questions presuppose cure as a teleological, finite process of beginning, middle, and end. The illness is cured, never to return; the text falls silent. And yet not all cures, nor all bodies, function according to such rigid schemas of normalizing ‘progression’. This becomes clear if we resist the rhetoric of developmental periodization, if we recognize the lived experience of our historical predecessors as valuable, as worthwhile of study. For if a text does fall silent in the aftermath of the cure, the ‘cured’ body may begin to speak. This is what we learn if we pay attention to the story of Pellegrin, a young disabled boy we encounter in the thirteenth-century Occitan hagiography of Douceline of Digne (ca. 1215-1274) as I did in that earlier chapter, and to which I return again now.[99]

As convention demands, Pellegrin is presented as a three-year-old child desperately in need of miraculous healing at Douceline’s religiously amplified touch. His is a disabled body first and foremost, with the text cataloguing the multiple axes of impairment with which he lives. He is deaf and mute, hunched over and unable to walk, and lives with a grotesque systemic infection which cause deep sores across his skull.[100] The lesions are so deep that one of his ears is just barely attached. Douceline cures Pellegrin, of course. He can now walk, hear and speak. His body is whole. The miracle does not ‘resolve’ the plot, however. Rather it instantiates a crisis: his mother cannot recognize the child as her own son, even – especially – as he now speaks his own name.[101] After a bout of transitory madness, she finally finds proof of his identity. A line of ‘reddish’ stitches affix his formerly detached ear to his skull, never fading in colour nor seeming to heal. The sutures signify temporal distortion as Pellegrin’s body exists in an expansive present of ongoing healing, and thus of ongoing disability. Similarly, his notionally ‘cured’ illnesses reoccur in adulthood.

As vocational payment for her healing, Douceline required Pellegrin’s eventual entrance into the Franciscan Order, a move in opposition to his brother’s wish that he become a monk at the monastery of St Victor. Pellegrin is terrified of his sibling, who forces him to adhere to his wishes and thus disobey Douceline’s ordinance. In response, his body mounts a rebellion. Approaching the monastery, Pellegrin feels ‘terrible pain’ in his sutured ear that intensifies the closer he nears. Once inside, he experiences an anaphylactic-type reaction as the monks attempt to robe him, with his ears, throat and neck becoming so swollen he becomes functionally mute once more. Later, away from the monastery Pellegrin is cured once more, on the basis of his rededication to Douceline’s plan for his life.[102] This vignette is repeated in full: proximity to the monastery renders Pellegrin’s disabilities to become visible once more, until he begs Douceline for a cure once more. In total, Pellegrin is cured three times, demonstrating the inherent instability of cure itself, as repetition marks the impossibility of definitive ‘closure’, of wholly annihilating the non-normate.

Pellegrin’s disability is embedded within the fibre of his being, a core plank in his identity even if it is not always visible. Indeed, disability becomes the means by which he exerts his agency in the world: his body speaks by resisting able-bodied normativity, thereby resisting the brother’s demands when Pellegrin cannot. It is only by accepting the reality of his body, thereby affirming its dignity and his own subjective agency, that Pellegrin moves beyond the medicalized cycle of illness and cure, not to a place without cure but instead to a life in which cure is only part of the story.

The conventional medical cure is singular, detached, finite. This is the cure that annihilates, that suppresses difference by purging the faulty matter within. By contrast, affirmative curing, for Pellegrin – and for the Academic body – is grounded in the ongoing, engaged actions of politicized subject(s). The efficacy of these subjects’ – of our – work of collective healing rests upon our capacity not just to acknowledge difference and same-ness intellectually, abstractly, performatively. Instead we must actively work to de-center the normate in our thinking, in our scholarship, even in our understanding of our selves. Simultaneously, we must solicit the non-normative, the weird and different and difficult and faulty, not in a marginalizing effort to encounter some exoticism but instead to meet ourselves where we are, over there, left of centre, sometimes even in other bodies and in other times. For Pellegrin would not be with you – and us – in the ongoing cross-temporal conversation instantiated by the act of reading itself, if I had not recognized in him something familiar, something worthwhile; if I had not chosen to run my hands along the stitches in his body along with his mother. In this instant of politicized, willful recognition, a trans-historical community coheres, constituted by the act of ‘claiming’ Pellegrin as ‘crip’.[103] Pellegrin offers a model – a body double – for the ways in which we can build a community resistant to the Academy’s ills, a chronic-crip community of our peers, our sources, and our authentic selves. For claiming Pellegrin as crip makes possible – thinkable, coherently legible – the possibility of claiming ourselves as crip too. The closer I looked at Pellegrin’s life when writing the other chapter, the more clearly I discern – then, and now again even more sharply – the stark contours that shape my own life, the proud flesh binding Pellegrin and I and countless others together.

‘Claiming crip’, as theorized by Alison Kafer, is a radical model of community building, in which the notionally non-disabled are consciously included in the crip community, whether a given individual would identify as such or not.[104] As a practice of politicized empathy, the logic of ‘claiming crip’ rejects marginalizing binaries which split off the disabled from the non-disabled, the sick from the healthy. The point is not to flatten or outright elide difference. Rather, the practice of ‘claiming crip’ is rooted in the recognition of the ‘ethical, epistemic, and political responsibilities behind such claims’.[105] Claiming historical subjects like Pellegrin as crip is a methodology which mobilizes the temporal disjunctions and disorientations fundamental to crip time, thereby staging a ‘cross-temporal conversation’, a ‘provisional zone of contact’ which catalyzes ‘an intersubjective encounter’.[106] At the same time, an intra-temporal conversation begins, voices of modern scholars – disabled and non-disabled, ceaselessly different and unfailingly familiar – finding each other in moments of willful exposure to the fuzzy expanse of crip time, to allowing ourselves to recognize others and be recognized in turn.

Bodily dis-ease – as with Pellegrin’s allergies to the Victorine institution – can be understood as somatized rebellion, the body which no longer does what it is supposed to, and the body which refuses to obey the rules imposed upon it by structures that seek to oppress. The former is the Academic body, chronically dysfunctional and disabling. The latter, perhaps, is the Academy as pluralized corpus, of all our scholarly bodies, all our bodies of scholarship: a crip body, a body I claim as crip with my politics as much as with my own crip presence within its form. As an identity, ‘crip’ has the ‘potential to be simultaneously flamboyantly identitarian (as in, we are crip and you will acknowledge that!) and flamboyantly anti-identitarian (as in we reject your categories or the capacity of languages saturated in ableism to describe us!)’.[107] This is the stuff of which genuine, effective resistance is made. If the academy disables us, then let us claim it as crip, so doing let us claim each other as crip, embracing one another as and in a fierce crip collective, in and out of time, remaking the Academy anew in our ever-unfurling present.

 

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Notes

[1] Spencer-Hall, forthcoming.

[2] Robert McRuer’s (2006) seminal monograph Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability represents the first detailed articulation of this politics in scholarship, drawing together and developing existing work by academics and activists. For detailed discussion of the meaning of ‘crip’ and the ethos of ‘crip theory’, see: McRuer, 2006, pp. 33-76; McRuer, 2018, pp. 18-24.

[3] McRuer, 2006, p. 35.

[4] McRuer, 2018, p. 19.

[5] Ibid., p. 20.

[6] Ibid., p. 21.

[7] On crip time, see in particular: Godden, 2011; Kafer, 2013, pp. 25-46; Sheppard, 2017.

[8] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 5; emphasis in original.

[9] Herring and Standish, 2018, pp. 70-72.

[10] Ibid., p. 70.

[11] Ibid, p. 70 and p. 72, respectively.

[12] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 42.

[13] Ibid., p. 43; emphasis in original.

[14] Herring and Standish, 2018, p. 72.

[15] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 34.

[16] Ibid., p. 4 and p. 34, respectively.

[17] Dinshaw, p. 19.

[18] Spencer-Hall, 2018, back cover.

[19] 2012, p. 4.

[20] Ibid., pp. 4-5, 33-24.

[21] Kafer, 2013, p. 34. Kafer explores this link in detail, and offers a valuable precis of crip time in: ibid., pp. 34-46. On this, see also: Godden, 2011, p. 268.

[22] 2013, p. 330.

[23] Godden, 2011, p. 270.

[24] 2012, p. 42.

[25] On chronic illness as disability, see in particular: Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 986; Hale, 2018; Wendell, 2001.

[26] On bodymind(s), see: Price, 2015.

[27] 2012, p. 4. On queer time, see in particular: Halberstam, 2005; McCallum and Tuhkanen, 2011.

[28] Dinshaw, 2012, p. 34.

[29] Godden and Hsy, 2013, p. 318.

[30] Zheng, 2018, passim.

[31] Adjunct, 2008; Perry, 2019; Zheng, 2018, pp. 245-46.

[32] On this, see in particular: Acker and Armenti, 2008; Herget, 2015; Mason, 2013; Mason, Wolfinger and Goulden, 2013; Oakley, 2018; Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2004

[33] Ward and Wolf-Wendel, 2004.

[34] Antecol, Bedard and Stearns, 2016; Jaschik, 2016; Williams and Lee, 2016.

[35] Yarrow and Davies, 2018, n.p.

[36] Fazackerly, 2018.

[37] Ibid., n.p.

[38] On this, see: Godden, 2011, especially pp. 272-74; Godden, 2015, pp. 74-75.

[39] Godden, 2011, p. 269.

[40] Ibid., p. 276.

[41] For critique of the notion of academia as a meritocracy, see in particular: Walsh, 2017; Zheng, 2018.

[42] Jones and Oakley, 2018, p. 4, p. 8.

[43] Weale, 2016, n.p.

[44] For an illuminating study of the realities of precarious post-doc life in the UK, see: Jones and Oakley, 2018. On the casualization (or ‘adjunctification’) of academic employees in the USA, see in particular: American Association of University Professors, n.d. a, n.d. b; Angulo, 2018; Bousquet, 2008; Hurlburt and McGarrah, 2016; Kezar and Maxey, 2013, 2016; O’Hara, 2015; United States Government Accountability Office, 2017; Zheng, 2018. On the situation in Canada, see: Acker and Haque, 2017. For an international perspective, see in particular: Gupta et al, 2016.

[45] University College Union, 2016b, p. 4.

[46] Ibid., p. 2.

[47] University College Union, 2015, p. 10.

[48] University College Union, 2016a, pp. 5-8; using HESA data for 2013/2014.

[49] University College Union, 2015, pp. 9-10.

[50] Jones and Oakley, 2018, p. 8.

[51] University College Union, 2015, p. 10.

[52] 2011, p. 1.

[53] Dooley and Prause, 2004, passim, especially pp. 1-16.

[54] Lee, 2013; Maynard and Feldman, 2011, p. 2; Tinson et al, 2016.

[55] Barnartt, 2006, p. 590; Jones and Sloane, 2010; Meager and Higgins, 2011, p. 12.

[56] Zheng, 2018, p. 245.

[57] University College Union, 2015, p. 13.

[58] Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2017, pp. 63-69; Tinson et al, 2016.

[59] Mitra et al, 2017; Scope, 2018.

[60] Scope, 2018, p. 5.

[61] Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2017; Tinson et al., 2016, p. 5; Longhi, 2017.

[62] Equality and Human Rights Commission, 2017, p. 51.

[63] Tinson et al, 2016, p. 5; see also pp. 31-32.

[64] Wendell, 1989, pp. 113-14; 1996, 36-42.

[65] 2016, p. 1367.

[66] Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 986; Mountz et al 2015. For critical discussion of overwork in the academy, see in particular: Acker and Armenti, 2008; Acker and Webber, 2014; Bell, Rajendran and Theiler, 2012; Connelly and Ghodsee, 2011; Ecklund and Lincoln, 2016; Kinman and Jones, 2008; Krause, 2018.

[67] The tweet went viral amongst the academic community on Twitter. On this response, see: Foulkes, 2018; McKenna, 2018.

[68] See e.g. Carmichael, 2015; Kodz et al, 2003, pp. 147-90.

[69] Berg and Seeber, 2016; Mountz et al, 2015.

[70] Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 986; Member of Sheffield UCU, 2019.

[71] Weale, 2016, n.p.

[72] Jones and Oakley, 2018, pp. 6-7; Zheng, 2018, pp. 245-46.

[73] Chakrabortty 2015, n.p.

[74] Member of Sheffield UCU, 2019, n.p.

[75] Ibid.; Weale, 2016, n.p.

[76] University College Union, 2015, p. 12.

[77] 2017, n.p.

[78] My thanks to Jennifer Leigh for raising this point as integral to the discussion here.

[79] Adams, 2018; Jones, 2019; Vaughan 2019.

[80] Member of Sheffield UCU, 2019, n.p; see also Jones, 2019.

[81] Grove, 2018b, n.p.

[82] Grove, 2018a, n.p.

[83] 1989, p. 109.

[84] See e.g. Acker and Armenti, 2004, pp.13-16; Fazackerley, 2018; Jones, 2019; Jones and Oakley, 2018, p. 7; Kinman and Jones, 2008; Krause, 2018; Walsh, 2017.

[85] See, e.g. Acker and Armenti, 2004, pp. 12-13; Chakrabortty, 2016; Chakrabortty and Weale, 2016; O’Hara, 2015; Weale, 2016.

[86] Chakrabortty, 2016; see also similar stories in University College Union, 2015.

[87] Chakrabortty, 2016, n.p.

[88] Office for National Statistics, 2018, n.p. Full-time employment is defined as working 30 or more hours per week, or 25 hours or more for teaching positions. Annual income calculated from figure of £569 supplied by the Office for National Statistics for national median weekly wages (gross). Data sourced from the 2018 Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings.

[89] Adjunct, 2008, n.p.; Brown and Leigh, 2018, p. 987; Perry, 2019, n.p. On the politics of disclosure as a disabled academic, see also: Kerschbaum, 2004.

[90] 2018, n.p.

[91] Ibid.

[92] Mountz et al, 2015, p. 1216.

[93] Garland Thomson, 1997, p. 41.

[94] Full disclosure: I am a member of the network, and have corresponded with founding members, chiefly in terms of the ‘Medievalists with Disabilities’ network, a disciplinary-specific sister organisation which I co-founded with Dr. Alex Lee.

[95] Chronically Academic, n.p. See also the public statement by Medievalists of Color (n.d.) which highlights the fact that ECRs are on the front-line of the fight to remake the academy, despite the risks they face. Established scholars are called to acknowledge this, and take action to support both this important work and ECRs.

[96] 2013, p. 7.

[97] On the ideology of cure and health in terms of disability, see: Clare, 2017, esp. pp, 5-17; Garland-Thomson, 2002, pp. 13-17; Wendell, 2001; Shakespeare, 2018, pp. 19-21, 91-93; Wendell, 1996, pp.19-22.

[98] In this way, they conform, at least superficially, to Mitchell and Snyder’s (2000) model of ‘narrative prosthesis’ (passim; pp. 56-57).

[99] Phillipine of Porcellet, 2001, pp. 84-87, 109-10.

[100] Ibid., p. 84.

[101] Ibid., p. 85.

[102] Ibid., p. 110.

[103] Kafer, 2013, pp. 13-14.

[104] Kafer, 2013, pp. 11-14.

[105] Kafer, 2013, p. 13.

[106] Godden and Hsy, 2013, p. 334.

[107] McRuer, 2018, p. 20.

Hitting a (Twitter) Nerve

Last week, I seemed to hit a nerve on Twitter. I had recently read, with despair, some stuff on Academic Twitter (TM) that propagandized some of the most problematic ideologies circulating today about academic work, secure employment and boot-strapping productivity. Namely, that if we work hard enough, long enough, we will triumph against precarity and enter the land of milk and honey that is permanent academic employment. That it is a choice, to sink or to swim, to fail like so many stones dropping to the bottom of muddy ponds or to win, to skate along the water’s surface with nary a care in the world. Or so the latter seems. But, to quote the poet Stevie Smith, ultimately the skaters - and their winningly winning forebears and colleagues - are “not waving” the onlookers on. Instead, they are, inevitably, “drowning” in a culture of overwork, underpay and exponentially increasing metrics of productivity levied against all staff, even permanent staff, in the neoliberal Academy.

It’s a loaded term, “propagandized”, and one I use to underscore that this shit is political. Yes, even in a casual-ish venue like Twitter. Yes, even when we are sharing bits and pieces from our own lives. The myth of meritocracy, supported by the rhetoric of hyper-productivity, does real-world damage to all scholars, and especially to those of us marginalized along intersectional axes. The Twitter thread which hit such a nerve, embedded below, has my thoughts on the matter in detail.

When writing the tweets, I knew I was laying out some Real Talk, speaking the truth that orients the lives of so many of us, and yet which seems - at times, mostly - unspeakable in the Academy, or perhaps unintelligible to the institutional Powers That Be. I was not prepared by the response to my tweets, though. In the blunt metrics of RTs and likes, and citations of the thread, and in the way people reached out to me personally. The nerve I hit, it runs through the collective body that is the Academy, composed of the bundle of fibers - of individual bodies - of the Academy’s subjects, of scholars with bodies and lives that so often stray outside of the lines of what is deemed a coherent academic blueprint. The nerve lies in my body, your body, the diverse body of our communities. That my tweets caused our nerve(s) to fire so sharply is a sign of our body(ies) reacting to stimulus, of our body(ies) communicating.

Pain can be protective: nerves fire in response to a damaging stimulus, warning us of its destructive nature. The hand arcs away from the hot plate, pre-reflexively, as soon as the brain registers the blistering heat, before our reasoning kicks in. This is “good” pain, acute pain. But there’s also the “bad” kind of pain, the chronic pain that just is, the sensory misfiring which becomes the incurable status quo. The response to my tweets, then, I hope it is the “good” kind of pain. One which, when voiced, demonstrates how widespread the systemic dysfunction of the Academy is, how emphatically that dysfunction harms scholars. A pain which we can alleviate, together, by acknowledging and then removing the damaging stimuli, thereby remaking the Academy anew.

BBC Arts and Ideas Podcast: "A Feminist Take on Medieval History"

Podcasts are my jam. I listen to about 15 to 20 podcast shows regularly, and then dip in and out of countless more. A quick check of my aged Classic iPod - you’ll take it out of my cold, dead hands - tells me that I have, at present, 1726 podcast episodes loaded up. And yes, getting down to that paltry figure entails an ongoing, agonizing sifting process. So you can imagine my immense delight when a podcast producer for BBC Radio 3, Luke Mulhall, got in touch with me last month to see if I might like to go on the air.

The BBC, the British national broadcaster, has a partnership with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) in order to disseminate high-quality, cutting-edge research to the public at large. One of the means of getting the news out is the BBC Radio 3 podcast, Arts and Ideas. Luke was putting together a show on feminism in medieval studies, a chance to discuss all things, well, feminist and medievalist with general public listening in. Of course, I “nonchalantly” (read: not at all nonchalantly, not in any way nonchalantly) j̶u̶m̶p̶e̶d̶ ̶a̶t̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶c̶h̶a̶n̶c̶e̶ accepted the kind invitation, and that was that. (Behind the scenes trivia: we recorded in the Women’s Hour studio. This did not help with my nonchalance, not a bit.)

I spent a deeply enjoyable hour or so animatedly talking medieval feminism with show host Dr Shahidha Bari, guest host (and tip-top medievalist) Dr Hetta Howes, and the co-founder of the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS), Prof Elizabeth Robertson. Our conversation ranged over a lot of ground. Off the top of my head: rape and consent in the Middle Ages, and in Chaucer in particular; the foundation of the SMFS; the importance of Margery Kempe for feminist scholars; the danger of being an (academic) feminist, online and offline; women’s visibility and the “problem” of women taking up space; Margery Kempe and/as Kim Kardashian West, and vice versa; precarity in the academy; our excited hopes for the future of medieval feminist work. Below, I’ve embedded the episode so you can listen from this page, appended the episode’s vital statistics and provided a list of links to things I bring up on the show. Finally, I’ve worked up a transcript for the whole episode, for people whose preference or need is to read the show. I hope you enjoy listening to it as much as I enjoyed recording it, and look forward to many, many more feminist medievalist conversations in future. Big thanks to Luke, Shahidha, Hetta, and Beth for making this happen, and being such gracious, engaged interlocutors.

To listen to the episode, click on the play button in the embedded Stitcher app above.

Podcast title: Arts and Ideas

Producers: Luke Mulhall for BBC Radio 3, the Arts and Humanities Research Council

Episode title: “A Feminist Take on Medieval History”

Listen online: https://www.bbc.co.uk/radio/play/p06n28wv

Download the episode: Search for “Arts and Ideas” and the episode title on iTunes, and all similar podcast services

Episode blurb: “How does Chaucer write about rape and consent? What links Kim Kardashian West & Margery Kempe - an English Christian mystic and mother of 14 children who wrote about her religious visions in the 1420s in what has been called the first autobiography in English. Alicia Spencer-Hall, Elizabeth Robertson and New Generation Thinker Hetta Howes join Shahidha Bari for a conversation about new research and what a feminist take brings to our understanding of the medieval period. Made with the assistance of the AHRC - the Arts and Humanities Research Council which funds research into the humanities and works with BBC Radio 3 on the New Generation Thinkers scheme to make academic research available to a wider audience.”

Hosts: Shahidha Bari (SB), Hetta Howes (HH)

Guests: Elizabeth Robertson (ER), Alicia Spencer-Hall (ASH)

Things I mention on the podcast

 Episode transcript

NB. Our conversations on the podcast were informal and fluent: we spoke without scripts or prepared material, and engaged in a fair amount of convivial interrupting of one another. I’ve attempted to capture this tone of the episode in the transcript below. However, for readability, I’ve at times elided typical features of fluent speech, e.g. repetitions of the same word as one follows a train of thought, short “ums” and “ahs”, etc. I am by no means an expert transcriber, so if you spot any transcription errors, please do contact me so I can correct them!

Announcer: This is the BBC.

Shahida Bari (SB): Hello I’m Shahida Bari and this is the BBC Arts and Ideas podcast. In this episode, we’re focusing on new academic research and the producer today told me that we were looking at medieval studies for this programme, and I have to admit that my heart… slightly sunk [Speaker(s) laugh] because I vividly remember slogging through the Riverside Chaucer when I was an undergraduate and I did English. But – I – then he said that we’re doing feminist approaches to medieval studies, and I really remember that the bright spots for me were Margery Kempe wailing [ASH: Yes!] [Speaker(s) laugh] and … the dignified Julian of Norwich, and … [ER: Oh yes] so I am actually really looking forward to this. And helping me with the discussion is Hetta Howes. Hetta, hi.

Hetta Howes (HH): Hi!

SB: Hi! You’re from City University, you’re a medieval scholar, and you’re going to be the Doctor’s, Doctor Who’s assistant to my Doctor Who. [Speaker(s) laugh] What’s the medieval equivalent of that?

HH: Perhaps the Friar Tuck to your Robin Hood, I don’t know… [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: And the rest of the Doctor Who team or the…Robin Hood’s Merry Women…

Alicia Spencer-Hall (ASH): Posse!

HH: Merry Women!

ASH: Poss-ay!

SB: Are Elizabeth Robertson, Beth, you’re down the line from Glasgow, and you’re a Professor of Medieval Studies, is that right?

Elizabeth Robertson (ER): Yes

SB: And in the studio, Alicia Spencer-Hall from Queen Mary University of London

ASH: Hello!

SB: Hello! … Do you all know each other already?

Speakers together: Yes! [Speaker(s) laugh]

HH: Yes, I think medieval feminist studies is a small and brilliant world –

ASH: It’s a tight-knit, yeah –

HH: And we actually were all on a roundtable recently together for medieval feminist studies

ASH: We were, it was awesome!

SB: Well it sounds it! [Speaker(s) laugh] Hang on, a roundtable of medieval feminist women, did you all dress up? Were you all in wimples and habits? [Speaker(s) laugh] Is that what you’re supposed to do?

ASH: No, but I did have a necklace that said “Feminist” that was, like, as big as my chest. [Speaker(s) laugh] So I felt like, you know, represent!

SB: Yeah! And Hetta, you know Beth’s work quite well

HH: I do, so when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge doing English Literature, I was not hugely enamoured by the medieval course at the time… And then, I happened to come across Beth’s book in the corner of Newnham library, which was my college –

SB: At Cambridge?

HH: At Cambridge, and I picked it up, and it was about…sort of, female audiences of English devotional writing, so religious writing for women and I just thought it was wonderful, and I was like, OK, this is what I want to do. [SB: Awww] So it’s quite special for me to be on this show with Beth today

SB: Oh, wow

ER: That was such a happy coincidence [HH: Oh yes] because I gave that book to the library [guests exclaim in happy surprise] because [SB: Oh wow!] I wrote my book in that library, and I was grateful to it, and then it was just so wonderful that someone years later would pick it up and find it, [Speaker(s) exclaim, wow] and that it would help them in some way

SB: The hairs on the back of my arms are prickling up slightly, how lovely. And Newnham of course is a women’s only college, [HH: Yes] [ER: Yes] one of the last remaining one’s at Cambridge. … So we all know each other, we all love each other [Speaker(s) laugh] [unintelligible]. Beth, I want to start with you because I want to find out about your research and what I am understanding is that you work on ideas of consent in, and consensual relations in, the medieval period. So tell me about that, tell me what you do.

ER: Well, that’s right. I’m finishing a book right now called Chaucerian Consent: Women, Religion and Subjection in Late Medieval England. And the book looks at the role of consent in both marriage and rape law and the ways in which that that role affects Chaucer’s writing in particular. … I can tell you more… [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: Yeah, do! Is “consent” a term in the medieval period? What are the terms –

ER: Oh yes, it most certainly is and consent as a legal concept develops in the Middle Ages through the doctrine of consent to marriage, which was articulated in theology and formulated in ecclesiastical law in the 12th century. And it’s a very important doctrine, especially for the development of women’s rights as Mary Wollstonecraft recognised, because underlying the doctrine of consent to marriage is an idea that … both men and women have autonomous and legitimate souls, and therefore the right to choose their own marriage partner.

SB: Is it a radical idea, that… [ER: It is a radical idea] … that women have – I mean, I think it must be. I think what’s so strange hearing you, a medieval scholar, talking about consent is that consent in our modern context is such a powerful word, but the idea that consent is invented, it sounds like, it comes about through a set of legal and clerical decisions.

ER: Well, really it comes about through a sort of…I’m not sure that they intended to give women quite so much power, but [Speaker(s) laugh] it came about because –

Speakers: Yeah…

SB: That’s always the way, isn’t it – by accident we get the right to vote! Go on, Beth, you were saying

ER: It came about because of theological considerations [05:00] of the marriage of Mary and Joseph. [Speaker(s) intake breath sharply, wow] Up until the point of the formulation of the doctrine of consent, marriages were made by an agreement to marry, followed by sexual intercourse. But when they came across the marriage of Mary and Joseph, they had to make that marriage legitimate, even though there was no sexual intercourse.

SB: Because of the Immaculate Conception?

Speaker(s): Um-hmm

ER: Yes, so after debating it back and forth, they agreed that the marriage could be made by words of consent alone.

SB: Gosh!

ER: And –

SB: That’s amazing, isn’t it? That the clerics or … the ecclesiastical community – I’m assuming of men – are mulling over how to legitimize the marriage of Mary and Joseph

Speaker(s): Yeah

ER: Yes, and this leads to this tremendous affirmation of women’s rights. Now, I have to say that consent was discussed earlier by Augustine, in a very very important study of the rape of Lucrece. I don’t know how much you know about the rape of Lucrece –

SB: A little bit – I know the Shakespearean version of course, but it’s an old story, right?

ER: Yes it’s a Classical story, and … Augustine … considers the, the events in which Lucrece is raped and then decides that she has to commit suicide and her dead body is used as motivation for the overthrow of the barbarian Tarquins. And … as Stephanie Jed has talked about, this is ultimately a motivation for imperialist humanism.

SB: Wow

ER: But what Augustine gives us, in his analysis is first of all an argument that women should not commit suicide. And the fact that women today still think that they need to commit suicide after rape, or as we saw in Bosnia, women were isolated from the community and full of self-hatred because they had been raped shows that this attitude that women are somehow polluted by an act of rape still persists. But Augustine responded to this by saying that women have precious souls, and they need to protect them.

SB: I can’t believe that we end up having that conversation, that question is one that’s posed – do women have souls? Because that feels like a kind of abstract, philosophical one but here it’s functioning in order to legitimize a woman, to give her … the capability, if you have a soul, you’re capable of consenting or not consenting to it?

ER: Yes, yes, yes.

SB: Is that right?

ER: Yes, and maybe I could just say a few things about why consent is such a problematic term. I think Germaine Greer called it an “insoluble conundrum”, and I think she’s getting at some aspects of consent that are…that shape the way that it appears in the law today. Because on the one hand, consent is dual in nature: it’s both a social act involving a person, you know a person making an agreement either with one other person or even with a lot of persons. So consent is really important in marriage but it’s also very important in rape, or it’s very important in government as well, but … so it’s a social act. On the other hand, it’s an inner disposition. It’s private, indiscernible, and so it has this double-ness. You can’t know where it came from, [SB: Mmmm] but it emerges in the public sphere, and that makes it very very difficult to adjudicate what in fact has happened. Difficult, if not impossible.

SB: Plus ça change, I guess. But that sounds very familiar to me, that for a woman, consent is an internal decision-making process. That in order for it to be meaningful, it has to be in the world, it has to be uttered or at least recognised in some way.

HH: And I think it -

ER: Yes, and then , in –

HH: Yes, and I think the fact that [SB: Hetta] we’re still talking about it today, you know, that – as you mentioned Beth, Germaine Greer kind of has been in the news so much recently on this debate that we’re still, now, trying to figure out what the word “consent” means, and how you can measure it, and where it comes into play, and I think there’s this sense always that the medieval world was so strange and different and far away, and how on earth can we think about it in present day. And actually, you know, the kind of debates that they’re having – in different terms – are reflected in sort of current news stories of today.

ASH: Absolutely, and I mean that’s a massive thing in my research, is looking at patterns of feminist or proto-feminist being in the Middle Ages, and talking about how it relates to now. So, the thing I was thinking of with consent is really relevant to me because [10:00] it’s also, it’s not just about sex. It’s also about being in the world, and being, say, robbed, are you, you know, are you going to be criminalized as a woman for showing yourself in public?

SB: Well can I ask about that, because rape – I’m an 18th-centurist, so I don’t think of the rape of Lucrece but I think of Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’, and rape can mean different things in your period, [ER: Yes indeed] in the medieval period. Doesn’t – Do I understand that right?

ER: Yes, that was…there was another double-ness about consent that I wanted to say first [SB: Sure] Which is that, … buried in the word itself is both an active and a passive meaning. Cause on the one hand, it means to actively agree – or actively to agree, not to split an infinitive [Speaker(s) chuckle] [ER laughs] – or to comply passively. So you have an active sense and a passive sense, and I think that really problematizes consent. [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] But historically, and this is a bit tricky to explain, but in rape law, consent figures in rape law in the Middle Ages but rather differently than we might expect [SB: How, how?] because consent might be the very act that would determine your being charged with rape: i.e. a couple who agree to run away with one another, consent to run away with one another, then get charged with rape for having violated the wishes of their parents or their lord or the king.

SB: Oh wow, so if you are capable of consenting … to sexual relations, you’re also capable of exercising will in other ways [ER: Exactly] that might be contrary to… [ER: Exactly] Gosh, that’s such a bind, isn’t it? [Speaker(s) laugh] To have the capacity to consent… Can I push you a bit more on rape, the idea of rape. [ER: Oh yes] Well, partly because – medieval news flash here –

[Speaker(s) laugh] Chaucer, who we haven’t yet mentioned but we should do, Chaucer was accused of rape too. I vaguely remember that it was sort of like a footnote that, “ha ha, the Wife of Bath” and doesn’t he love women, and women have sexuality, but there’s a footnote to Chaucer’s life, that he was accused of rape.

ER: Oh yes, there’s quite a bit to say about that. [Speaker(s) laugh] I’m actually about to give a big talk on that soon, because I’ve been working through a lot of the documents associated with the case. I think, and there’s been a lot of online traffic about it as well, with people saying, “Well we know Chaucer was a rapist”, and we certainly do not know that Chaucer was a rapist and it’s very very important that we be clear about what we do know. What we know is that Chaucer was released from a charge of raptus. [SB: What’s “raptus”?] That is the document. Well, let me just re-state that, because I want to get into this, the fact that it is Cecily Champagne who releases him from a charge of raptus, and it’s very important that her important that her name is there and that she be remembered as part of this event. I think Germaine Greer said that women want to own their narratives about rape, and I think we have in this historical document an actual name and a record of someone who brought a case forward against Chaucer.

SB: What was her name?

ER: Cecily Champagne. Cecily Champagne. Now, the charge itself is ambiguous, because we don’t really know what – you asked, what does the term “raptus” [mean], well “raptus” might mean, just in its base meaning, it means “seizure”. But it might mean “sexual assault” or it could mean simply “abduction”, abduction with the consent of the woman involved as I said before. But if you look carefully at these documents, and the way they’re … the form they take, you will find that this particular release tells us that the original charge clearly was a charge of sexual assault. Because that was the only occasion when, well there are two occasions on which a woman could bring an appeal forward in the Middle Ages. One was at the death of her husband, and the second one is if she were raped. So the fact that it is in Cecily Champagne’s name tells us that this originally was a charge of sexual assault. However, does that mean Chaucer was a rapist? No. [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] All we know is [that] he was released from the charge. [SB: Gosh] So something, something happened and, you know, generations of critics have tried to brush this event under the rug. I mean, some call it a “strange escapade” [Speaker(s) laugh] or they…

SB: Well, that – that in itself sounds very familiar [15:00] [ASH: Yes], that someone, a man might somehow escape the scrutiny, might get away with –

ASH: But also [ER: Yes] that his genius forgives any of these kind of, you know, “youthful indiscretions”, euphemizing things. [SB: Yeah] [ER: Yes] And silencing women from the record, which is why, Beth, I love the fact that you’re so insistent that we should name this woman, and that that in itself is a part of feminist praxis, is to name these women who never really get much purchase in history, right?

HH: And to talk about the fact that however, however much we might not know the exact terms –

and I think it’s so important to make that distinction – we, we you know – as you say Beth, critics have debated [it], and all we know is that he was released from rape, but that should still come up in discussions. You know, so many people have read Chaucer at school, at university, know of him, you know, programmes about him. And quite rarely does this charge come up, because it’s an uncomfortable one, isn’t it? The father of English literature, it doesn’t sit well with our idea of that.

SB: And with all the usual caveats, that we don’t know what happened, and that we’re sort of piecing together a story retrospectively. But, why is it that that part of Chaucer’s life is such a footnote to his work? Why is it that, I, Cecily Champagne is … she’s marginalized in history. Why don’t we know about this [ER: Well], more than we should?

ER: Well, I think we do now know about it. I think it was Hetta saying that it’s very difficult for people to think about a canonical author as somehow rather suspect in that way. But I wanted to say something about the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and Chaucer’s writing, because once you start thinking about rape in Chaucer, you will find that it’s there everywhere in his writing. And he has, perhaps because of his own experience, but also there are other experiences that could well have shaped his understanding of rape. For instance, his father was raped, i.e. abducted as a child, he himself was involved in another abduction case, and in the court of Richard II, there were many high-profile cases of raptus that he would have known, such as the rape of Joan of Kent and also of Agnes [L…?] and these were much talked about, and also Chaucer was present in parliament when some of the documents concerning these cases were formed. But to go back to his writing, I think it’s important, people tend to remember – and I think it came up – that the Wife of Bath’s prologue, this lively lusty woman [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] who talks about her many marriages and very few people actually look at the tale. And Chaucer’s tale about rape is a very important – I think it speaks directly to the kinds of issues that are coming up today around consent, because there are two aspects to it. One, raised I think by Germaine Greer, is that question of the punishment of the rapist, and in Chaucer’s vision, the rapist is not punished or rather, he’s given the opportunity to save his own life by finding out what it is that women want, and this requires him spending an entire year travelling around asking women what they want. [SB: Right] Which of course goes directly against the very act he performed, when he raped a woman without asking her what she wanted.

SB: I think that’s how I was taught Chaucer, that he’s sort of fond of women, that he’s…interested in all of life, and that…that the most interesting thing about the Wife of Bath – apart from the gap between her teeth – is that she has a free sexual appetite, that’s what I was taught, so…

ER: Well, that’s … [SB laughs] I’m not sure about that, because there’s controversy in the prologue about the degree, about her real interest. You may remember that she says in “bacon” [i.e. older men, lacking in sexual virility] she has no delight, [SB: Riiiight] but … I wanted to say something else about why I think Chaucer is interested in this. Gavin… Chaucer’s interest in women has been observed for centuries, Gavin Douglas called Chaucer “woman’s friend”. From my perspective, I think what Chaucer is interested in is not the condition of women particularly, although his own experiences with rape may have made him aware of these conundrums around rape. But I think he’s interested in the nature of free will. [SB: Right] And the condition of women who are clearly under constraint gives him an opportunity to consider the potential for free will.

SB: Do you think he’s more interested in women precisely because free will is a question for them, much more perhaps than the – [20:00]

ER: Yes, yeah yeah, I would think that, yeah

SB: Yes, that’s really interesting

HH: I wanted to say something about that actually, more generally because, I mean, this is a programme about sort of new approaches in research and I think as feminist scholars reading medieval literature – and Beth, you’ve written about this yourself – there’s a lot of challenges that we face, and one of them is that a lot of the writers, a lot of the edited writers are male, and there’s lots of great work being done to make more editions, make women’s writing more available, but traditionally [ASH: Absolutely] it’s been largely men. And second of all, and so you’ve got two directions as a feminist scholar – either you can… try and do some editions, bring sort of unknown women writers to light. Or you can try and do some new feminist readings of canonical texts and I think one of the amazing things about your work Beth, that you’ve been doing – I got a sneak peek at your book [Speaker(s) laugh] – is that you’ve drawn attention to something that scholars have missed, which is that actually so much of his writing is about consent and rape, which is something that hasn’t been, you know, you’re shedding light on the writing in that way which is a way that we can kind of say, OK Chaucer is a really important writer, we need to think about him, but in this new way.

ASH: But I think that what’s interesting, in my work, when I kind of bring out the feminism in texts I work with, is that there’s often a backlash to do with [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] – “But you can’t do that to Chaucer! You can’t prove he raped anyone. Oh no!” [Speaker(s) soft laughter, affirmative murmurs] Centuries, literally centuries – like Beth said – of work on Chaucer is basically, I mean [he was] presented to me as an undergrad, as sort of your warmly paternalistic uncle.

ER: Stephanie Trigg has done [ASH: Ah yes, yep, yeah] a wonderful book called Congenial Souls, which explains some of the reasons why generations… There are two things that I think have happened in criticism, one is to make Chaucer “one of us”, [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] i.e. with men in a men’s club –

ASH: That really rings a bell, because a lot of my research quite recently is to do with talking about fandom. And I really like the opening of the show [with the reference to] Doctor Who, so it’s like who is a fan of Doctor Who –

SB: Well let’s talk about your work because we mentioned your new book, Beth, but Hetta said to me earlier [HH laughs] Alicia that your new book might be called Medieval Twitter? [ASH: That’s my second book actually!] [Speaker(s) laugh] which blew my mind, so tell us about your work

ASH: My first book is Medieval Saints and Modern Screens: Divine Visions as Cinematic Experience and it just came out last December, with Amsterdam University Press.[1] And in that basically, I’m trying to blow up some pre-existing ideas about, on the one hand, holy women from the medieval time who basically, you know they see God a lot and it’s really intense, and sometimes they have sex with God [Speaker(s) laugh] and it’s kind of awesome –

SB: [Laughing] You say that so casually!

ASH: To me because, to me in my work, it’s like, “Well a bit banal, isn’t it, you know. Whatever.” [SB: Yeah] And then on the other hand, my point is to try and draw attention in the academy generally to pop culture [SB: OK] and so I’m very much moving against intellectual gate-keeping. My point is: we make better scholars, both like whatever stripe, medieval modern or in between, if we take, kind of, our personal life seriously. [Speaker: Yeah] So many people have come up to me after I’ve given a talk, you know I talk about Margery Kempe as Kim Kardashian West in my book –

SB: Well the producer said to me I didn’t need my Riverside Chaucer, but I needed this, to have this [latest] edition [ASH: Absolutely] of Closer magazine [ASH: You really do]. What’s Kim got to do with Margery Kempe? [ASH: Aaaaah] Sell this to me!

ASH: Come into my parlour –

SB: I mean, she – Margery Kempe has a “K” name… [ASH: True, so it’s you know] So she can almost –

ASH: So it’s a nice, smooth title for a conference paper, but mainly it’s the idea that I like the internet a lot, I like gifs a lot. There’s this famous gifset called “ugly crying”, of Kim Kardashian West just crying, in, apparently, in an ugly way

SB: Because she does it a lot on [ASH: She does] Keeping Up With The Kardashians, which is the reality show –

ASH: Yeah, and there’s, in one episode, one of her sisters says, “Oh I can’t help it when Kim cries, she’s just got this ugly face and it’s funny”. [Speaker(s) laugh] And that launches this meme that is much shared, you know, at least on my WhatsApp list. And then when you approach Margery Kempe, the one thing people know about her is that she cries [SB: She wails, yeah!] and it’s annoying and she cries some more [Speaker(s) laugh]

HH: I really love in your book that you suggest a show, “Keeping Up With Kempe” [ASH: Yes, exactly] [Speaker(s) laugh] rather than Keeping Up With The Kardashians, that –

ASH: And my point really is to say that, well look at these women [Margery and Kim] who actually are bound by such a very, you know, a throwaway thread, “oh, ugly crying” – but you look at the way that… people, not even critics, react to Kim Kardashian West taking up public space. She’s supposed to be “talentless”, … you know, she’s not a “real” star –

HH: Yes, you talk about, kind of celebrity-making, don’t you [ASH: Yeah] in your book, quite a lot. And I love that phrase, and I have to say similarly, you know, when I, so I read, so I first came across your work when I was reading your keynote for the Gender and Medieval Studies conference, which is a very important conference for any feminist scholar [working] in the medieval period. But I was thinking, “Really?? Kim Kardashian and Margery Kempe??” And yet, then I read your work, and it’s so convincing [ASH: Thank you] that actually these are two women who are self-making [ASH: Absolutely] themselves, and, you know, your take on Margery as a sort of a “try hard”, you know she’s trying so hard [ASH: Yeah] to fit herself in the ranks of these other celebs

SB: She’s like a reality TV wannabe, I guess

ASH: Absolutely, and that’s my point. But why do people react to that?

ER: Could I, could I just say something about crying? [ASH: Oooh, yes Beth! Bring it on] [ER laughs] I love the idea of [25:00] all these pilgrims travelling with Margery Kempe, and sitting down for a nice dinner at the end of a long day of walking and suddenly having Margery Kempe burst out into tears, and lament Christ’s suffering [ASH: She’d be so irritating!] Yes! [Speaker(s) laugh] And I do think that’s the point, is that – and to me, I always read that in terms of Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman in terms of mimicry –

SB: Luce Irigaray, the French philosopher we should say – although, so the Belgian French philosopher

ER: In her view, mimicry means taking on attitudes towards women, and I think this applies to the Kim Kardashian example, that women are expected to behave in a certain way, but when they do so excessively, all the assumptions about who women are get destabilized.

ASH: Absolutely. [SB: Yeah] I mean, in my book I talk about the genius of Kim, in that she manufactures herself. My point being is that if you actually look at these media texts or people with a rigorous scholarly eye, a whole vista unfolds of how knowing this is, how talented she is. She packages herself, and in a way I think, whether or not Kim Kardashian claims herself as a feminist, she is showing how, kind of, the woman system is made. You know, her life, as the kind of media icon – always with her smartphone – isn’t that what all of us are subject to? Either penalized for doing, or, you know, empowered for doing?

HH: Yeah, I just kind of wanted to ask you about that, because one of the things you talk about in your research is how scholars have found Margery Kempe quite relatable [ASH: Absolutely, yeah] and that, you know, the medieval world isn’t the same as the modern world, but we can see a lot of revealing parallels, and in the same way we were talking about consent, what does it do for our current conversations to think about the medieval context? What – why do you think Margery Kempe is so relatable? And why do you think it’s useful to read her through someone like Kim Kardashian?

ASH: I think that’s a really big question that because so many academics have such personal relationships to Margery, I think, kind of, every answer would be slightly different. [HH: Yeah] But for me, I’m basing it on an amazing blog post by a feminist, Clarissa W. Atkinson [HH: Ah, yeah] who talks about discovering Margery, and so you know – in the 80s, it’s sort of hard to imagine now, but in the 80s there weren’t really any women in the canon of medieval studies, and you had, you know, the first really important feminist scholars coming through, saying “What? Hello! We…” It might just be Chaucer [on reading lists, on the canon], [SB: “We’re here!”] so “where are our people?” So then you see Margery Kempe who was not legitimate yet in the academy. Also, Margery Kempe’s text is fairly new, you know, it was discovered in the 1930s, so it’s not what –

HH: And people were disappointed by the discovery, weren’t they, because [ASH: Yes!] [Speakers’ voices overlap; unintelligible remarks]

SB: What? Why were they disappointed?

HH: Because all they had before was a very abbreviated version, [ASH: Yeah] it was quite sanitized … The short version of the text [ASH: Fairly bland] was quite acceptable, quite bland and then all of a sudden, they discover this manuscript [ASH: Yeah] which tells it –

ASH: With this woman just being all like, “Hello God, it’s me Margery!” [Speaker(s) laugh] And she was recognizable, she’s messy, she’s weird, she’s not great with people, but sometimes she’s amazing. She’s a quote unquote “real woman”, at a time when I think a lot of feminist academics really needed that validation in their own work.

ER: I think you’re absolutely right, I mean what makes Margery Kempe different from so many others, other women writers we know of during the period, throughout the Continent, is that she was, as someone said [to her, as reported in the Book of Margery Kempe], “You ought to be in an anchorhold, in a house of stone!” [ASH: Yep] She was out in the public sphere, and she also had had – is it 14 children? [Speaker: Yeah] [ASH: I believe so] And [SB: Wow] [ASH: Yeah, exactly] you know, you can see why she might have been a bit tired of sex [Speaker(s) laugh] at that point in her life

SB: Yeah, and crying quite a bit too, the hormones! [Speaker: Yeah, they’d be raging!] [ASH: Exactly]

ER: I think it’s really important the publication of the discovery was an important part of the beginning of World War II, because her manuscript was advertised in The Times as the first woman’s autobiography, at a time when the government was trying to get women to work for the war effort. [Speaker(s) murmur at learning new information] [Speaker 1: I didn’t know that.] [Speaker 2: I didn’t either] So I don’t know if we would have noticed her if it hadn’t been for this, this governmental effort.

SB: “Noticing” sounds like the big question – how, when do you, why haven’t we noticed this part of Chaucer’s history, why haven’t we noticed these women before? And these are women who are making, both Margery Kempe [ASH: Yep] – “Kargery Kempe” – [Speaker(s) laugh] and Kim Kardashian are women who are making themselves noticed, and I wonder if there’s a parallel between that, that platform of the hagiography, the story of the saint, and the blog post and the Twitter posts, that you –

ASH: Absolutely, I mean, from my point of view, we all – anybody who uses social media is engaging in this kind of personal saint-making, and you know it might not be saintly, you might be down the pub with friends or you know out on the lash with friends, but it’s still, it’s a persona. And particularly women in the public eye often face a massive backlash for just taking up space. If you go to basically any YouTube video featuring [30:00] Kim Kardashian, there will be haters, and I mean, you know, incredibly virulent hate speech.

SB: Well, can I ask you about your own experience, as women scholars in medieval studies? Have you felt as though you were noticed, unnoticed? What’s been – has there been hate, about this, your sensibilities in this world?

ER: That’s so hard to answer that, and I just want to say, I was thinking on the way over here because Hetta had said that you wanted to know about medieval feminism in general [SB: Yeah] and … as you may or may not know, I co-founded a Society [the Society of Medieval Feminist Scholarship] in 1986 for the study of women in the Middle Ages, and it was directly in response to the fact that I had went to this meeting, this famous meeting, the Medieval Institute meetings at Kalamazoo –

HH: Famous, amongst medievalists, not so amongst other people! [Speaker(s) laugh]

ASH: We put Kalamazoo on the map!

ER: The Kalamazoo meeting brings about 3,000 medievalists every year to this small university, and I was there year after year, and then I met some friends in the airport and they said, “How do you like this conference?” And I said, “Well, I’ve spent three days here and I didn’t hear a woman mentioned…” And so, we decided that we would start a Society, and it was extremely exciting at that time because I think one of the things about medieval feminism is that it has a dual purpose: it’s concerned with the recovery of women in the past, but also with activism in the present. [Speakers: Yeah]

HH: Yeah, I think one thing that’s really striking about your anecdote there Beth is, it’s this idea of you and your friends talking, and I think communities amongst, sort of, feminist scholars both medieval and –

ASH: I’m nodding so hard right now

Speaker: That’s some great nodding [Speakers laugh]

HH: Because, I mean, you know, so Alicia you’re someone who uses Twitter and blogs, and … anyone should actually go to Alicia Spencer-Hall’s Twitter feed [Speakers laugh] and you’ll see that her pinned tweet is a wonderful gif … [Speakers laugh] which is of … on one screen is sort of the Virgin Mary eating a TV dinner watching TV [Speakers laugh] and then it flips to a scene of the Passion and “To be continued”, [ASH: Yep] and you use that, don’t you in your work, theoretically? [ASH: Yes] But how much have you found that being a part of Twitter and blogging has helped you as a feminist scholar, and helped you theorize your work?

ASH: I would say, Twitter for me in particular has been incredibly positive, about, in part, just letting myself find a voice, because it’s so – you suddenly think, “Do I have anything interesting to say? Do people care [about] my feminist musings on this cereal box?” And also, I think, as medievalists we can be very isolated. It’s a common problem, there’s not a lot of medievalist departments, and so actually being on Twitter and talking with other medievalists has definitely helped me. However, it’s taken me literally years to figure out my boundaries for Twitter, because, you know, I do not want to be doxxed or SWAT-ed, or face harassment, and I’m very lucky – and I think that’s at least in part because I’m white – that I’ve not been harassed in that way. But there is, I mean, a recent edition of Medieval Feminist Forum journal [53, no. 1; 2017], which is the journal of the Society Beth founded, is on microaggressions and harassment, online and offline. And it is incredibly important in this day and age, if we think about recent difficulties faced by particularly women of colour, Dorothy Kim,[2] you know, [HH: Yeah, of course] this is still – it is still “difficult” quote unquote, to put it mildly, being a woman on the internet, particularly one just literally saying the truth from the sources. I mean, nobody’s going “Well actually, there weren’t any men”, you know, just putting yourself out there to reinstate, with urgency, women in history is actually quite dangerous for some.

HH: Yeah, the good thing about social media, I guess, for us, is getting the word out [ASH: Absolutely] You know, before social media, it would be more what Beth’s describing, kind of friends getting together [ASH: Yes] and making it happen. You know, you’ve got a bigger platform with something like Twitter, but you’re also setting yourself up. There are still lots of people that – I think, things have certainly progressed [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] since what Beth was describing at Kalamazoo, but there’s still lots of resistance to … feminist scholarship [ASH: Absolutely] in general. Particularly [ER: Absolutely] in the medieval period, so –

ASH: And I think we need to talk about precarity there. By that I mean, the kind of neo-liberal academy and the way in which there used to be kind of a pipeline: you do a PhD and you get a [permanent / tenure-track / stable] job. And you might do one post-doc for a few years, but then there is a job, whereas basically – apart from Hetta, I think – nobody I know, sort of, of our peers has a [permanent / tenure-track / stable] job. [ASH: exasperated laughter]

HH: And it was just very, very right place, right time luck

ASH: And yet a lot of us are doing this kind of feminist work because it’s so important, and in a way I think, the conversations I have with people about this is that, well we have nothing left to lose. And we must change the academy to allow people to speak from where they are, be that in terms of colour, in terms of religion, in terms of ableism [i.e. against normativity of able-bodied default, remedying erasure of disability and disabled scholars from the academy generally], and I really, if there’s one thing you read after listening to this, go to the Medievalists of Color website [35:00] and read their statements, both on racism in the academy and on, kind of, youth of [the study of] the Middle Ages, because they point out that actually a lot of the most important work is returning to this kind of feminist theory, but also is done by, really, people in very precarious positions, and often the most marginalized. [SB: Yes] And we need to integrate that, we need senior scholars, we need to make that more “normal”, for want of a better word –

HH: And to not be afraid to bring the personal into our work, right? [ASH: Yeah] You know, I think there’s this history that academia should be very objective [ASH: Yeah], and we should all be taking a step back and … sort of not showing any sort of sympathy or bias or anything in our work, which, as you [Alicia] rightly point out in a blog post is a fallacy. [ASH: Completely!] You cannot be objective as a researcher, and you kind of hinted at this earlier in this conversation [ASH laughs], but you have this great term in your book, “aca-fan” [ASH: Yes – which, no…] which is an “academic fan”. [ASH: Yes] I wondered if you might want to say a little bit about that, because I think it’s more self-conscious now, and perhaps more feminist?

ASH: Yes, so I would agree, I mean I didn’t coin “aca-fan” – I believe it was probably [HH: OK] Henry Jenkins, who is the father of fan studies. [HH: Right] But my point is that, again, this is a fantasy, and often it’s a fantasy of objectivity that has been white, it’s been male, it’s been older, it’s been conservative, with both a little and a large “C”. And actually, the only way to, kind of, bring activism and feminism into the academy is to speak from where we are and who we are, and sort of stake our claim. Now what’s really interesting is, I think to me, it’s a fairly, kind of, banal idea that as scholars we obsess about things. You know, you spend hours on a text, you grow to love them, you grow to hate them and yet you love them. So we’re –

HH: Constantly re-reading…

ASH: Exactly, so we’re fans, and if you look at, kind of, fan forums and so on, the level of critique there is amazing, the people who – to go back to Doctor Who – [Speaker: They’re experts] will deconstruct, will suggest different things. But my one thing that I think is really interesting is that I’ve got a lot of push-back from certain scholars about my use of terms like “train wreck” or “whine-athon” for Margery, and the use of “fans” to talk about scholars.[3] [Speaker: Yeah] Now, for me, I was talking about this with a friend over email, is I think it’s about, kind of, a form of cultural consumption that’s actually quite different. So when I call Margery a “train wreck”, I love her [HH: Yeah] to me, she’s kitsch, you know, I want her on Ru Paul’s Drag Race, she’s a woman I would never want to actually like have to live with, but I totally want to go for drinks with. So I think that’s an example of the way in which kind of modern media and our personal lives [Speaker: Yeah] really help us understand the texts that we look at.

SB: I want to ask about how optimistic you are about the research that’s being done. What’s exciting you about medieval studies right now?

ASH: Intersectionality. There is no feminism without intersectionality, to my mind. And that is a hard line in the sand I’m willing to draw. [Speaker(s) laugh]

SB: And what about you, Beth?

ER: Well, I have to say I’m very excited by … I think that the issue that is fascinating me at the moment is immigration, and looking back at early medieval literature in terms of migration, the movement of populations and in a period when nations were not formed, and how, and the kind of interactions between people that are created there. So, we medievalists have a lot to say about what’s happening now, and there’s a pet field that I’m very interested in, which is a spin-off from history of emotions. I do think the history of emotions has been [a] very very important direction in medieval studies –

HH: That was going to be my answer as well, Beth [Speaker(s) laugh] – you’re on my wave length! Absolutely, yeah…agreed

ER: But I also think that the history of the senses is very important, and for me, my particular interest at the moment is how … human beings encounter one another through the senses, what are the processes involved both at a physiological level and at a more philosophical level? What is the relationship between the mind and the body? And, you know, what happens when we encounter difference? [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] And if we can come to a greater appreciation of that interaction, I think [ASH: I mean, I…] there would be less fear –

ASH: I mean, I think that’s where medieval disability studies, which is really on the ascendency is going, and is really revealing some kind of ableist embedded notions that we come to, even if you’re kind of a disability activist, that you come to these [medieval] texts with, and that encountering difference in the past is so important.

HH: Yeah, I think so history of emotions is one I was going to pick up on as well, and I think because emotion is something that has been sometimes negatively associated with the feminine, and I think some of the most exciting work is sort of reclaiming things like that. And is saying, “Yes”, you know, “Margery Kempe did cry a lot [Speaker(s) murmur affirmatively] as a devotional practice, and that’s really interesting and potentially subversive and strategic, and how can we explore that?”

SB: I feel quite exhausted listening to all that, [Speaker(s) laugh] I might weep, from just how excited I am to read all of this stuff. I’m definitely [40:00] going to go back to my Margery Kempe, but I feel like there’s so much more to … to not just to learn about our own condition from the medieval period, but to understand these medieval writers better actually, more fully. … I’m going to be gathering together another band of academics to explore fear, spookiness and what’s going on with the Gothic next in our podcast series, so if you don’t want to miss that, do sign up for the Arts and Podcast wherever you get your podcast. In the meantime, I’m going to thank Alicia Spencer-Hall, Elizabeth Robertson and Hetta Howes. Thanks very much. [ER: Thank you] [Speaker 1: Thanks!] [Speaker 2: Thanks!] You can find links and more information if you look up either bbc.co.uk/freethinking or if you go to the website for the Arts and Humanities Research Council. They’re the helpful people who fund research into, yes, you’ve guessed it, arts and humanities [Speaker(s) laugh] subjects at universities around the UK, and they’ve helped us put this conversation together too.


Notes

[1] Order the book here: http://bit.ly/MSMS-AUP. Download the Introduction and Table of Contents for free here: http://bit.ly/MSMS-intro.

[2] On the harassment of academic feminists online, and on the harassment of Dorothy Kim in particular, see: Edwards, Jennifer C. “#Femfog and Fencing: The Risks for Academic Feminism in Public and Online.” Medieval Feminist Forum: A Journal of Gender and Sexuality 53, no. 1 (2017): 45-72. https://doi.org/10.17077/1536-8742.2087. Accessed 23 August 2018.

[3] I was thinking of conversations with scholars after conference papers and the like, and more recently remarks in a review of my book, Medieval Saints and Modern Screens, by Jessica Barr for The Medieval Review. I am profoundly grateful for Barr’s close, thoughtful attention to my book, and appreciate the rigour of her review very much. My reference to the review here does not in any way constitute me throwing shade the reviewer’s way. Barr’s main point of contention with my analyses was my characterization of Margery Kempe: “I do take issue with a rhetorical move that is made in this chapter, however, and that is the derisive language used to characterize Kempe. The comparison between Kardashian West and Kempe is reasonable--even illuminating--and certainly quite funny, but Spencer-Hall’s folksy language here has the effect of seeming to disparage her. For example, Kempe is “a fame-hungry fan, a wannabe” (175), “the Ur-example of ‘ugly crying’ whose “whine-athons” make her Book” the fifteenth-century equivalent of must-see car-crash reality TV” (174). As entertaining as these lines are (and Spencer-Hall is a fine writer), they are needlessly dismissive and perhaps symptomatic of working too hard to connect the medieval text and modern pop culture. (And it should be noted that, in my very defensiveness about Kempe, I reveal myself to be an acafan of the mystic--an academic fan--which is precisely the identity that Spencer-Hall encourages us to claim in the latter part of this chapter.)”