Is the Field of Medieval Studies Adequately Diverse?

There has been a raft of articles and petitions on the topic recently.

What I don't find in any of them are statistics to back up the assertion. That's odd: there's a similar debate in philosophy, and I know that the numbers there are roughly 70/30 male/female. "Medieval Studies" as such doesn't exist in a lot of places; it's often a subset of the language studies (e.g., readings of Middle English are done in the English department; the languages of Oc and Oui in the French department, etc). Language studies are dominated by women, and have been for decades. (Link is to the graph for English studies, but the trend holds in general for language departments.) It could be that women are more inclined to study contemporary literature instead of dead versions of the language, of course; I don't have statistics on that, but it's a possibility.

Alternatively, it can be done in the History department, where women are rapidly approaching the majority but are still not quite there. Nevertheless, women don't have to be in an absolute majority for the field to be adequately diverse: if women earned 45% of doctorates in the field rather than 51%, that would simply counterbalance the language fields where women earn north of 60% of doctroates.

So I'd be a little surprised to learn that there is a significant lack of diversity on the male/female axis. What about ethnicity?

Again, philosophy is said to have a diversity problem because under 25% of degrees are earned by ethnic or racial minorities of any kind. It's about the same for English literature degrees. You might think that people are most likely to study their own language's literature than to learn a foreign language well enough to appreciate its literature in the original. But actually whites are more likely to pursue a degree in other languages, too. Partly this may be because language degrees are chiefly valuable economically to translators, so that if you want to be a translator and you aren't bilingual, you'd be the sort to seek a degree; someone who already speaks a foreign language plus English would be more likely to pursue an actual degree in some other field. Those aren't the people we're interested in, though; we want to know who studies the medieval version of the language, not the contemporary one.

History degrees are even lower: only 18% of such degrees are awarded to minorities of any kind that is measured. Of course, again, we don't have figures on medieval history particularly.

If there is a disparity, what would likely explain it? The articles suggest it is a kind of prejudice for a world that is more Christian and whiter. But there are other factors that could be at play:

1) A Medieval Studies degree is a luxury good, and a medieval language degree even moreso. Unlike philosophy degrees, the training for which has very wide application in terms of problem solving, a degree in Middle English trains you to teach Chaucer and Malory, and a few other less-well-known figures. Electing to invest in such a rarefied education may not seem like a good option to a larger percentage of people from ethnic minority groups, who may be more likely to be struggling to find a place for themselves and their families than secure enough to chase after that one job in a million teaching Chaucer.

2) People tend to be interested in history insofar as they feel connected to it. If you are of Scottish extraction, you may be more interested in Scottish history than someone who is Chinese. Medieval history is chiefly European, and thus it wouldn't be too surprising if people of European extraction were the ones most often drawn to it. But that only means "white people" in the American sense; in Europe, where I would expect Medieval History and Language to be much larger fields given the direct access to the primary sources, there would be plenty of diversity in the sense of "white people" breaking down into Germans, French, Spaniards, etc.

3) A lot of the love of the medieval period comes from literature: Tolkien, the stories of King Arthur and his noble knights, Ivanhoe. Who reads this stuff? Maybe that's a clue to who develops a love for the field. These things have been taken off the curricula of high schools, just because the literature field is seeking diversity in what they expose kids to. That means that people have to seek these things out on their own, and who does that? As above, "people tend to be interested... insofar as they feel connected to it."

My guess is that there might well be a lack of ethnic diversity in the various American fields that get roped together as Medieval Studies; there probably is perfectly adequate sexual diversity, and in Europe diversity is what I would expect to be the case unless we insist on reading all the Germans and French and so forth as simply "white." If it's a problem, I doubt it can be solved by conferences, however. You're going to have to change the economic incentives, plus get more people to read the literature that causes you to love the period. That means altering high school curricula again. Are people seeking greater diversity likely to want to make that trade? It would mean exposing a very large number of Americans to less diverse readings in high school, in the hope of attaining a larger still-very-small number of American Ph.D.s in Medieval History from non-white backgrounds. If diversity is the goal, I'm not at all sure that's a good trade.


David Foster said...

John Adams:

"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

One would expect kids from not-so-well-off backgrounds to mostly study things with direct economic benefit..." naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture"...rather than those which may have high intellectual value but less economic payoff.

Also: today we have a lot of people who *do* come from well-off backgrounds and who do choose to study "painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain"....but have no real talent for these things and who develop a deep-seated anger at 'society' for failing to properly recognize their work.

douglas said...

Okay, I'll be honest and admit that I'm not going to read the linked articles. I'm still willing to bet that none of them explain why diversity would be inherently of value in the study of the medieval period. They seem to always take that as a given, and give it no thought whatever. That, to me, is telling.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The stereotype is that only Germans and Englishmen were interested in other people, and thus created anthropology. Something similar may be in play here. There are some advantages to learning English/British/NorthAmerican culture, language, and history, so a bit of that happens. But the cultures that do that don't seem to have much curiosity about Brazilians or Russians, or Pakistani culture. The tribes that are curious about other tribes is small.

Grim said...

I don't know if diversity adds, as advertised, perspective. It might add dispassionate detachment in this case. Maybe.

But until you start making people study what you want them to and not what they want to do, I suspect this field will remain much as it is.

Eric Blair said...

Go do a google image search "European people history".

Grim said...

Huh. I guess Google has instructed its algorithm not to recognize the phrase "European people." That's interesting.

Anonymous said...

Just off the top of my head, I'd wonder how many people consider medieval history and look at 1) the limited number of jobs, 2) the amount of hard work required (must learn at least two languages, plus non-history techniques to keep up with archaeology and GIS use and other things) and, 3) the cost of research and decide to go into another field.

There are an amazing number of medieval archival materials now available in electronic format, but still, if you are going to do, say medieval military history, you're still probably going to have to do archive and field work outside the US.


Grim said...

It's what I intended to do before 9/11; I had planned to pursue a D.Phil at the University of York's Centre for Medieval Studies. But the war changed the arc of my life, to include future studies. Nevertheless, I have to say that I found the idea of 'field work outside the US' was one of the major attractions: it would have been a pleasant life, I suppose, traveling to all the interesting sites in Scotland, Norway, Denmark, Ireland...

raven said...

somewhere,recently, I read that Sweden is destroying iron artifacts rather than go to the trouble to conserve them.