Reflections on the State of Medieval Studies: An Interview with Dr. Jane Chance

As a medievalist, I have long been familiar with the excellent reputation of the eminent scholar Jane Chance, the Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor Emerita in English at Rice University and a recipient of an honorary doctorate of letters from Purdue University in 2013. Although I am a historian and her work is in the discipline of medieval literature, we medievalists are often (although not always) aware of the work of scholars in other disciplines. Yet Jane, in particular, is a powerhouse in the field, having authored twenty-three books and over one hundred articles and reviews on Old and Middle English literature, medieval women and gender, and medievalism. She has also received Guggenheim and NEH Fellowships, membership at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio residency, and many book and article prizes for her various works.

In 2011 she began her well-earned retirement thirty-eight years after teaching her first English course at Rice University in 1973. Yet like many senior scholars, Jane saw her “retirement” as simply giving her more time to pursue her scholarship. Indeed, since her retirement she has produced four more books and served as a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston. Very few scholars, even among the elite, could boast of such a successful career and speak with greater authority on the state of medieval studies.


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Above Images: Women Medievalists and the Academy (2005); The Literary Subversions of Medieval Women (2007); Tolkien the Medievalist (2008).

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Although Jane is retired, she is active on social media with a following of around 1300 people, most of them in some way connected to the field of medieval studies (professors, graduate students, fans, etc…). Indeed, it was through social media that I recently began to dialogue with Jane, and I have been impressed by how approachable she has been in dialoguing with junior scholars (like myself).

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Above Image: Jane at Purdue University in West Lafayette,  with President Mitch McDaniels for the Honorary Doctorate Ceremony, May 2013 (the Sunday after Kalamazoo).

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Jane has been vocal in a recent controversy in our field, having spoken up on social media up in a dispute between two more junior scholars, Dr. Rachel Fulton Brown, an Associate Professor in history at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Dorothy Kim, Assistant Professor of English at Vassar College. If one is not aware of this controversy they can read articles from Inside Higher Ed (click here) and the Chronicle of Higher Education (click here) that provide overviews. I will not get into the details of the controversy here, other than to say it was a particularly nasty one, resulting in charges of racism, Antisemitism, incitement to rape, threats of violence, letter writing campaigns, and a host of other accusations made in various places on social media that were directed at Professor Fulton Brown. Most of this was in response to her blog post commenting on an earlier blog post published by Professor Kim, which Fulton Brown’s critics saw as inappropriate. Yet I should note that these two scholars had a history of conflict on social media well before these recent blog posts, much of it connected to Kim’s dislike [expressed on Facebook] of the ways in which Brown had written so favorably of western civilization and her affiliation with Milo Yiannopoulos.

Clearly distraught by what she was witnessing, Jane, who knew both Brown and Kim, posted a series of comments on Facebook in which she called for calm, insisted she stood with “both Dorothy and Rachel,” denounced the name calling, defended Fulton Brown from charges of racism, said there was “fault on both sides,” and called for each side to work toward some form of reconciliation.

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I was very impressed to see someone of Jane’s stature weighing in on the matter as she did, which took courage. For her efforts, Jane received backlash on her threads from mostly junior scholars that were far more militant in their opinions, expressing their disagreement and/or disappointment, or in some cases “unfriending her,” as was the case with Dorothy Kim and some others.

Yet Jane, a rugged Texan of many years, stood her ground.

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Above Images: (L) Jane on a Bugaboos Mountains Heli/hiking/cycling trip in Canada in July, 2007; (R) Scuba-diving at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, January 2015.

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Of course, for most people on the outside of medieval studies this all seemed like a tempest in a medieval teapot. They did not understand the heated responses and some medievalists as well expressed confusion or surprise about it all, particularly among historians more so than scholars of literature (or so it seemed). Yet what was among the most striking elements of this controversy for me was Jane’s involvement. She seemed a voice of reason at a time when things were devolving into the absurd (death threats and other threats of violence, charges of incitement to rape, etc…). She not only demonstrated the kind of leadership our field needs at a time of this sort of crisis, but maintained her position with good cheer and openness to all sides. Moreover, as a leading academic voice for women’s rights over the last several decades, Jane could speak with real authority on some of the issues involved in this dispute.

Concerning her work on the promotion of women in the academy, her biography at the Rice University Center for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality notes:

“In addition to teaching the first English course at Rice on modern women writers, in 1974, she has also published The Literary Subversions of Medieval Women (2007), for which she won her second SCMLA Best Book Award; her edited collection, Women Medievalists and the Academy (2005), which contains 72 intellectual biographies of women who pioneered and distinguished themselves in medieval studies, beginning in the late eighteenth century, despite many cultural and professional obstacles; an edited collection on Gender and Text in the Middle Ages (1996), which grew out of a conference she organized at Rice through the Medieval Studies Program (which she also created and directed), and Woman as Hero in Old English Literature (1986). She also founded the book series Library of Medieval Women, which offers 24 titles—texts by and about women throughout medieval Europe, along with interpretive essays–through Boydell and Brewer.

At Rice she helped to catalyze the creation of, lead, and serve on the Rice Commission on Women in 1987-88; she received an IMPACT Award for Outstanding Rice Faculty Woman for the Empowerment of Women from the Rice University Women’s Resource Center in 1998.”

I asked Jane if she might be willing to do an interview with me on her career and the current state of medieval studies, as well as the recent controversy. She kindly agreed.

Question 1: Why and how did you originally become a scholar of medieval literature? Why did you, as an undergraduate, decide to study this topic? What inspired you? If you had not gone into medieval literature and had such a wonderful career, what else might you have done?

I never took a medieval course as an undergrad because I was afraid of Middle English, like many of our current students. In graduate school at University of Illinois, I had intended to go into Renaissance Studies, but I was required to take at least one medieval English course. I signed up for Chaucer with Robert Van Kluyve, editor of Thomas of Walsingham’s  Arcana deorum, and wrote an A+ paper on The Wife of Bath, which led him to introduce me to Richard H. Green, director of Grad Studies, translator of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, author of “Classical Fable and English Poetry in the Fourteenth Century,” and my eventual dissertation director.

What inspired me was in fact those very languages and the relationship between cultural tradition and the medieval author. I had bought a used copy of Curtius’s European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages my senior year and fell in love with it and with the Middle Ages. My revised dissertation became my first book, The Genius Figure in Antiquity and the Middle Ages (1975). Utterly fascinating in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis, in which the allegorical Genius figure appears as priest of Venus to shrive the lover, Amans, and in mythography in general—which I have spent forty years researching, having just published the third of three volumes on it in 2015—was the convergence of classical myth and medieval Christianity. The two might be adapted, allegorized, merged, or conflated, but coexisting.

I also took three courses in Anglo-Saxon (part of the obligatory philology minor we all had to take), from Joe Trahern and Jack Campbell, the latter for whom I wrote a seminar paper on “The Problem of Grendel’s Mother: The Structural Unity of Beowulf.” My Beowulf seminar paper was eventually published and reprinted six or seven times and led to my book, Woman as Hero in Old English Literature  (1986). I have often told my grad students the papers you write in graduate school are your dowry.

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Above Image: Jane notes: “Yes, love this one. In spring/early summer of 1979 on the steps of the old Chem Lec building, which was just above Valhalla, the graduate student bar, at Rice U. My friend was a grad student graduating in econ, heading for a job in NY with the Fed Reserve Bank. It was the seventies!” I would only add that Jane has elsewhere noted she was listening to the Rolling Stones and Led Zep at the time.

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Question 2: How has the field of medieval literature changed since you first began your career at Rice over forty years ago? What was the focus of scholars in your discipline at the time you began your career and in what ways has that focused changed over the course of your career?

I studied with one woman professor in the broad field of literature—Margaret Church—my entire eight years in college and grad school. I was the first woman tenure-track professor in English at Rice in 1973, when I think the total women tenure-track faculty numbered nineteen, but men totaled 270. I felt invisible much of the time; most students thought I was the secretary. When my chair asked me to teach an undergraduate course on women, in 1975, I created one centering on modern women’s literature, which was mentioned in both Time and Newsweek because I ended the course with Erica Jong’s bestseller, Fear of Flying, notable for its fantasy of the “zipless fuck.” I later wrote an article about it and eventually met her. This was my entrée into feminist studies, the realization there were few translations or editions of works by medieval women, and the creation of the Library of Medieval Women, now with, I believe, twenty-five titles. I recall a professor in grad school saying there were only two women writers in the Middle Ages, Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich.

Feminist studies was dangerous because it led me into the awareness of how much a patriarchy the university was and still is, deriving as it does from its medieval institutions of monastery and university. That is, you start noticing how different your treatment and that of other women in your institution is from that of your male colleagues. I was promoted to associate professor four years after I arrived, not only because I had taught for two years at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, but because I had been hired with a book contract from Columbia UP to revise my dissertation and then received an NEH Fellowship in 1977 to begin research as an Honorary Research Fellow at University College-London on what became, eventually, the first volume of Medieval Mythography. And then after more books I was promoted to full professor three years later, when I was awarded a Guggenheim in 1980. After I was safely promoted to full professor, I published an article in Change Magazine on how to save your own career as a junior professor that was recently still being used in development seminars.

But however easy this may look, it wasn’t. I was also the only medievalist in my department, replacing both the Anglo-Saxonist and the Middle English specialist, neither of whom survived tenure review. Clearly, the lesson was to publish, publish, publish. Till the last year, another medievalist was never hired, no matter how much I begged—so I kept adding new courses to attract new students on Dante, Mythologies, Tolkien, Arthurian Literature, Medieval Cultures, Medieval Women, the Medieval Dream Vision. I think my syllabuses are still posted at Rice. But no matter how successful you become or how many awards you win or books you publish, gender problems seem to continue.

Question 3: Could you offer your thoughts on issues of race and gender in the discipline of medieval literature, or even medieval studies more broadly? To what degree has the field become more inclusive over the course of your career? What improvements need to be made and what are some concrete proposals you can offer that would help in this regard? Do you see, for example, any obvious barriers to the participation of women or minorities in our field that can be removed?

The study of women, gender, and sexualities is currently widespread—I am awaiting reactions from Tolkienists to my current book, Tolkien, Self and Other: “This Queer Creature” (2016), likely to be more positive from theorists than from the hardcore fans, but we’ll see (I have already had one really great review from Kristine Larson, who is both). Delighted to say that Chris Vaccaro and Yvette Kisor have coedited a volume in my honor on Tolkien and Alterity, to be released in the New Middle Ages Series at Palgrave-Springer in November.

I am sure race and disability studies will follow this same happy trajectory as long as medievalists continue their research. Women’s Studies only burgeoned as a study after the Civil Rights protests of the sixties and seventies, and from feminism came postmodern contemporary theory of all stripes, post-colonialism, queer theory, and so forth.  The more courses we teach, the more books and articles we write, the more public dissemination in conferences and sessions, the more comfortable we will all be with being who we are and teaching our increasingly diverse students. Medieval Studies, however, seems destined to always follow behind the lead of the MLA and the modern period in this respect.

Question 4: Why did you feel compelled to speak up as you did in the recent controversy involving Professors Kim and Fulton Brown? What was the message you were trying to communicate and how well do you think it was received? Although Professor Kim and others “unfriended” you over it, do you leave the door open to renew those friendships at some point in the future?

I couldn’t believe it was Rachel Fulton Brown who was being accused in the media, of all things, of racism and white supremacy. I had known her as a serious student at Rice long ago and was delighted she had found a position at University of Chicago and then had won a Medieval Academy prize for her book on the Virgin Mary in 2006. The more I kept reading about the accusations against her, the more troubled I became, and finally I emailed her one Saturday night, thinking something terrible must have happened to her. We emailed back and forth for four hours, but the more she explained, the more upset I became about the calumny against her. Of course, Professor Fulton Brown had taken snapshots of her own and Kim’s blog posts  [Editor’s note: I think Jane means snapshots of “Facebook” posts rather than blog posts here] and made them available to me.  I knew Dorothy Kim as a friend only from her Facebook posts and her appearances at Kalamazoo, plus we shared an interest in, of all things, “Project Runway,” and Babel/postmedieval, the latter on which I have been listed on the editorial board from its advent, coediting an issue on Cognitive Alterities/Neuromedievalism in 2011. As a feminist and theorist, I share her interests.

Apparently, the conflict between the two started early in 2016 and has continued on, unbeknownst to many of us, because of blog posts by both parties. Professor Kim’s accusations against Professor Fulton Brown seemed unfounded, although I can well understand how keenly we all feel our passions, when it comes to religion, race, sexuality, and so forth. And I could imagine how a senior professor (and highly regarded fencer) might find racial accusations both personally and professionally so hurtful and damaging she would attack back, especially from a younger person without respect for her standing in medieval studies. I felt there had to be some way of convincing them both to apologize for any hurt and shake hands, at least virtually.

Returning to Facebook, where the debate had become more heated, I truthfully said, “I stand for both Rachel Fulton Brown and Dorothy Kim.” Although this got the attention of the FB posters, it immersed me even more deeply in chastisement. Some of my medievalist Facebook friends and others who don’t know me very well personally were aghast that I could support Professor Fulton Brown, period. The more I insisted both had said uncivil things to the other, the worse it became. The supporters of Kim refused to believe anything I said about Fulton, largely because of defamatory comments about Fulton Brown’s friend, Milo Yiannopoulos, whom she had come to know initially as a Catholic writer. Having herself recently converted to Catholicism, she began to follow Milo’s other posts and writings, often published in Breitbart.  He has been accused of white supremacy, pedophilia, rape threats, and any number of things, which he has countered with lawsuits that he has won.  However, Kim followers and other Fulton Brown critics falsely accuse Milo’s supporters of  reacting violently at public meetings, for which she is blamed for associating with him.

Nevertheless, even so, how logical is it to argue that being a friend of Milo meant Dr. Fulton Brown supported him and all his followers in whatever they did?  I began not to believe anything Facebook posters accused him of. I also started reading his book, Dangerous, which seemed in many instances perfectly reasonable, however controversial his public performances may be (I have never seen them).

I would caution that because a medievalist chooses to write a book about medieval Christianity and happens to be white doesn’t mean she opposes race studies or believes in white supremacy. We are free to choose our various persuasions, in the United States. I believe in peace and community. I think we can debate any issue rationally and without vituperation, although this year, given the fallout from the federal election–given protests that have resulted in violence–have severely tested that option. I did ask both Rachel Fulton Brown and Dorothy Kim if they would allow mediators such as myself and Jeff Cohen and Richard Utz to try to resolve this conflict. In response Rachel Brown said yes and Jeff Cohen and Dorothy Kim unfriended me, along with others such as Eileen Joy and Natalie Grinnell and Diane Watt. I did not unfriend anyone, but I did suggest to some longtime Facebook friends who openly questioned aloud whether they should continue to be my friend, that it was fine with me if they felt like moving along.

This seems very much like a family squabble, when an issue arises and everyone says things they shouldn’t. I have always liked to think being part of a community of medievalists is a haven because we are often so misunderstood both by other academics and non-academics. Kalamazoo has served as a retreat from university politics. I now deeply regret having already reserved a flight to Kalamazoo for 2018—I am afraid to go. Some of these friends have said things that are hard to forget. However, one advantage of growing older is your memory is worse. So, by May I likely will not remember any of this debacle.

Question 5: At one point during the controversy, you mentioned that some junior scholars or graduate students were afraid to speak up during the controversy as a result of the potential backlash and damage to their budding careers. What advice would you give to a graduate student, for example, in the disciplines of either medieval literature or history, who has witnessed the recent controversy and now may have concerns about their place in the field of medieval studies?

One likes to believe that we all work at enlightened institutions where reason also generally prevails—but of course that is not true for all kinds of reasons. My reason is not your reason, my predilections are not yours. Until any grad student gets a job or a junior professor is awarded tenure, it is too dangerous, in my opinion, to go against the grain or to issue a really controversial opinion. Converse with your friends and family about what you choose. And what you believe, pour into your research and publication. I did and it preserved my sanity. Women Medievalists and the Academy, a collection by seventy-two authors, is about pioneering greats in Medieval Studies who advanced their research despite opposition from a generally patriarchal academy, one in existence well into the twentieth-century.

On the other hand, I have always spoken up throughout my career. I incurred the wrath of others and got through that safely. It also helps having a family of your own (I’ve had two husbands, three children, now all married, and five grandchildren). Your students are also your family. Many of mine, now grown and well into their lives and careers, are among my Facebook friends.

Just please proceed at your own caution.

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