Thursday, August 11, 2016

On This Day: Five Years of Blogging

I quite like Facebook's 'On This Day' feature. On the one hand, it's a daily reminder of exactly how much data Facebook has about my life. But on the other, it's a souvenir of friendships, trips, and events I've often forgotten about. It often makes me reflect on how far I've come in the past decade - from an English Literature undergraduate student, to a stressed-out Masters student learning about gender and feminism in new ways, to an even more stressed-out PhD candidate pulling together medieval literature and modern romance, all the way to the post-doc I am now, multi-tasking a host of professional and personal skills and practices.

Today, Facebook showed me a ten-year old message from a good friend, photographs from a wedding I attended last summer, and it also informed me that on this day five years ago, I published my first post on this blog.

'On This Day' (Amy Burge via Facebook)
The post, entitled simply 'Bevis in London' is about a Middle English romance called Bevis of Hampton (c.1330). It's the story of an exiled English knight raised by Saracens, and the adventures he and his friends encounter as he tries to regain his English heritage. It's long (over 4500 lines), has complex overlapping plots, and features giants, magic, battles, love and betrayal. It's one of my favourite Middle English romances, and it features prominently in what is now my monograph.

The post is about a very small part of Bevis of Hampton. Late in the romance, Bevis returns to England and specifically to London, where he becomes embroiled in fighting in the narrow streets of  the City. Now, many have assumed that Middle English romance is simply a fantasy genre, much like today's romance novels - set in fictional locations, with little regard for reality. However, Bevis of Hampton describes its geography, particularly this London scene, in such detail, that I don't think we can dismiss it as merely fantasy (others have made similar arguments that Middle English romance is more realistic than we think).

In fact, the London locations of Bevis of Hampton are so detailed that it is actually possible to map them onto London streets. Which, with the help of a now-rather outdated version of Google Maps, is exactly what I did. Voila, your very own 'Bevis in London' walking route:

Follow Bevis' medieval footsteps in modern London (created in 2011 by Amy Burge)
 I had a lot of fun making this map and researching this part of medieval London. The map didn't make it into my thesis, but a lot of the analysis behind it did (and this analysis is now in my book). I've always meant to actually walk this route - particularly to see the London Stone which I've always thought was a tremendously underrated London landmark - but in the intervening five years, I've not managed to do so. A friend, teaching medieval romance in London, thought it would make a terrific walking tour for her class - were I to ever teach medieval literature in London I'd definitely make use of this.

Since I published this post, there have been significant advances in the digital humanities, including in GIS and mapping. I remember, when I posted this, having all kinds of ideas for interactive, multimedia applications for this map; perhaps a podcast that tells the story of Bevis as one follows the route, or a website offering Bevis-related content when you click on map locations. At the time, this didn't seem like something there would be much interest in, but five years later, I can see a definite audience for this kind of thing, and a lot more in the way of support and resources for someone like me to actually create it.

Reflecting on this post also made me think about how much has changed for me in the past five years. Five years ago, on 11 August 2011, I was still a PhD candidate at the University of York, with roughly a year to go on my thesis on Orientalism and religion in Middle English romance and modern popular romance novels. Now, that thesis is a book, and I'm firmly embedded in the postdoctoral world of job applications, temporary contracts, writing and publishing. My ideas have developed, my writing is better (although this is certainly an ongoing process), and I'm so much more confident in my research and scholarship.

I look back at that first post with a mixture of embarrassment, pride, and nostalgia. If I could, I'd tell the 2011 version of myself to enjoy that last year of doctoral research, as it would be the last time for a long time (possibly forever) where I could focus in such depth on one specific project. I'd tell myself to worry less about what I didn't know and have more confidence in what I do - that there would be plenty of time to learn what I needed to know in the years to come (and boy, have I learnt a lot in these past five years).

If someone had told me, five years ago, that I'd still be blogging about medieval romance, I'm not sure how I would have felt. Blogging was quite new to me then, and I'm not really sure I knew what I was trying to achieve (a colleague has recently written a brilliant piece on her reasons for blogging which I think, in hindsight, are a lot like why I took up blogging in the first place). But I know now, that if someone asked if I still want to be blogging five years into the future, the answer would definitely be yes.

I'm not going to go into detail about all the ways blogging has helped my research and my career, but I'd like to end this post with a thought, prompted by Bevis of Hampton. I've always been fascinated by how the medieval is used, understood, and played with in the contemporary world. Sometimes this is obvious - the medieval-ist world of Game of Thrones, for instance, or the way political rhetoric something refers to the contemporary Middle East as 'medieval' (something else I talk about in my book).

The fact that I can map Bevis' 700-year-old circuitous route through London using modern digital tools reminds me of those medieval echoes. It's one of those moments when our medieval past suddenly re-surfaces and becomes anachronistically visible. It's both exciting and troubling - such a visceral awareness of history can prompt interest and engagement with the past, but it can also make our modernity, so often defined by its distance from non-modernity, seem less secure and more anxious.

The five years in which I've been writing on this blog are not comparable to the 700-year history of the Middle English Bevis of Hampton. However, stretching the analogy of engaging with history as exciting or troubling, I'm happy to say that I'm much more excited than anxious about my particular, personal research history. So perhaps it's time to finally take that pilgrimage to Bevis' London - you're most welcome to join me.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Taking myself seriously: A defence of romance

There’s been some discussion recently about what makes a #seriousacademic. That discussion, sparked by this Guardian article, centred on academic and public engagement, particularly on the use of social media tools to talk about research. That discussion has prompted some of my own musings about seriousness and academic research – in particular, why it sometimes feels like my research field isn't taken so seriously.
Next week, I’m doing an Edinburgh Festival Fringe show about my research. It’s called ‘Can Anyone Write a Romance Novel?’ and it’s part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, where academics are invited to discuss ‘dangerous’ ideas from their research. There are some pretty controversial topics in there. For example, Should we let extremist speak? Are children an environmental threat? Should we still have zoos

And then there’s my dangerous idea: Should we take romance novels seriously

Initially, I thought that my dangerous idea was pretty benign, certainly when compared with some of the other topics on offer. But the longer I work in higher education and the longer I read, write, and publish on romance, the more I’ve realised that the idea of taking romance seriously, particularly in higher education, is anything but benign. 

The problem is that being someone who researches romance sometimes isn’t really seen as serious at all. I’m a #seriousacademic (who also happens to blog from time to time but that’s another issue). I’m a medievalist. I’m trained in gender studies, in literary studies, and in cultural studies. I’ve published my research, including a book on medieval literature, gender, and race. But – and this is the part that people can get stuck on – I also research popular romance. 

I've been asked in a job interview by the head of an English department how I can conduct legitimate academic research on romance novels that are clearly (in his opinion) terribly written. Only after I patiently and carefully explained that the romance genre is diverse and creative and worthy of study did he reply: “I should probably read one”. Casting shade on an entire literary genre without ever having engaged with it is something that happens curiously often with romance. 

On another occasion, when discussing teaching romance to English students with a senior colleague, I was challenged on wanting to include such texts on the curriculum. I suggested that the popularity and diversity of romance, in addition to their ability to inspire discussion about what ‘good’ literature is, should be justification enough. Yet this colleague could not get past the idea that ‘they’re just not good enough to be canonical’ and therefore not worthy of sharing with undergraduates. 

To be fair, it’s not just modern popular romance. Medieval romance has been at the sharp end of criticism from literary critics for hundreds of years, not least from the ‘father of English poetry’ Chaucer himself, who (in the voice of the host of the Canterbury Tales, Harry Bailey) declared romance “nat worth a toord [turd]”. In fact, it’s only recently that medievalists have recognised that medieval romance is a great way to find out more about the medieval imagination (plus there are some amazing plots). 

I’m not blaming my colleagues for their particular views on what constitutes good literature. There’s clearly a wider discourse at work that isn’t just (or even mainly) about romance scholars. Romance readers have, for decades, been teased, ridiculed, and even abused for their reading choices. In fact, it’s gotten so bad, that many romance readers have moved to reading romance electronically using ereaders like Kindles (on a Kindle, no one can see you’re reading a romance novel). So, you might ask, why should I expect to be taken seriously when I research something that isn’t taken seriously by anyone?

Leaving aside the arguments for why wider society doesn’t take romance and its readers seriously (spoiler: it’s because it’s written and read by women - Laurie Kahn’s recent film Love Between the Covers does an excellent job of setting this out), I want to focus on a different point – why we should take the academic study of romance seriously. 

Academia is supposed to be a place where we analyse and expose the kinds of discourses that surround romance novels, not where we, either subconsciously or knowingly, replicate them. When any discussion around romance is shut down – when we don’t teach undergraduate students about literature and value and choice – we are sustaining that narrow-minded attitude that doesn’t take romance seriously. 

We study other popular literary genres all the time; I have seen modules, journals, and funded research projects devoted to thrillers, crime fiction, detective fiction, and adventure novels. What’s ironic is that we study and research popular romance all the time, we just don’t call it that (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice, Pamela, 50 Shades of Grey). 

So, as I plan to set out in my show next week, I think it’s time that we start taking romance seriously. It’s time that we recognise (and value) its position as the most popular form of genre fiction in the world. It’s time that we showcase the rich, evolving history of romance that stretches from ancient literature to the most contemporary publications. It’s time that we stop blindly criticising something we haven’t read, and instead invest our energy into finding out what makes this fascinating, diverse and, yes, popular genre tick. In short, when it comes to romance, it’s time we start acting like academics.