Two specters are haunting the study of the literature, culture, and history of the pre- and early modern periods. First, a catastrophic decline in the number of majors across the humanities. Second, the assertion that studying medieval and early modern periods sheds light on the foundational texts of a so-called Western civilization has made the fields attractive to far-right extremists. The two issues are not as distinct as they might at first appear, and the imperative to address them is both practical and ethical. Some scholars of these early periods choose to ignore how the occlusion of race as an object of study in our research and in our classrooms aids white nationalist narratives. To address both issues, scholars of early literatures must ask how the cultural histories conveyed in our fields assist far-right fictions and how universities more generally embolden white nationalists (Chatelain).
The population that we serve as educators is becoming more and more diverse.1 Future students, the pool from which we must recruit our majors, look less and less like the cohort of previous generations for whom our current degrees were constructed. There is a practical value in speaking to these students about the texts and histories that form their civilization. But there is also an ethical imperative to equip our students to understand and engage critically with the world as it is, not as it was imagined by the University of Chicago’s Great Books Program of the 1940s.
With immense pain, scholars of medieval and early modern literature, history, and culture have had to acknowledge that our fields of study are not politically neutral. The colonial project is stitched in and through the language and literatures of the pre- and early modern periods; the politics and economics that ultimately produced settler colonialism, chattel slavery, the forced migration of peoples, and the development of the British empire animate these early English texts. If more faculty members do not confront this history, we may actually be aiding those whose political, cultural, and social beliefs many of us find personally abhorrent and intellectually bankrupt. Those of us teaching and doing research in pre- and early modern studies must deconstruct our self-proclaimed neutrality. We have to self-consciously, deliberately, and carefully unravel how these texts do their work and how we do the work of their transmission. This will reinvigorate our fields intellectually at the same time that it will make them more attractive to the changing student body that we teach.
White teachers teach the works of pre- and early modern periods.
White scholars cite each other’s work.
White directors direct the works.
White producers produce the works.
White narratives are reproduced in and through the works.
White reporters and pundits define the state of the fields.
So the question must be the following: How can we irrevocably alter the current lack of diversity in our fields? A large body of research demonstrates the positive effects that faculty members of color have on the educational receptiveness, knowledge acquisition, and learning outcomes and successes of students from underrepresented groups. But while increasing the number of scholars of color in the instruction of premodern and early modern literature should be the commitment of every English department, there are simply not enough scholars of color in the pipeline. These same departments are not producing many scholars of color in their PhD programs, after all. Thus, there is a chicken-and-egg problem:
There are very few dissertation directors, committee members, and mentors of color in medieval and early modern studies, so
graduate students of color opt to do research in later periods where they see more representation among the faculty and their peers, and
these graduate students of color receive greater opportunities for mentorship and collaboration in these later fields, therefore
pre- and early modern studies continue to remain oh so white.
We cannot yield up medieval and early modern studies as fields for white students only. As the general population in the United States continues to diversify, surely our fields’ recalcitrant homogeneity will result in the death, or at the very least the atrophy, of the fields themselves. If we wish to nurture faculty members of color in earlier periods of literary scholarship, then we need a concerted strategic plan.
The work of attracting diverse students who are interested in pre- and early modern fields has to start early; college, in fact, is too late. We should engage with education programs that train literature, history, and social studies teachers who work in secondary schools. We need to codevelop curricula with education specialists to teach premodern literatures, histories, and cultures in a more inclusive fashion. The message needs to be this: if you are interested in understanding systems of power and epistemologies of race, indigeneity, gender, and sexuality, then pre- and early modern fields are the perfect areas for your study.
Indeed, many teachers are already hungry for this kind of professional development. This type of labor—collaborating with education schools and secondary teachers—should be counted as significant service in tenure-granting institutions. Senior scholars in medieval or early modern studies should work to educate their departments and institutions so that this labor is rendered not only visible but also valuable and compensable.
It is essential for us to mentor students of color across fields so that they are able to perceive themselves within a discipline even if they do not see examples of themselves in universities who are engaged in the discipline’s production. At the same time, white scholars in medieval and early modern studies need to become antiracist mentors. It is not enough to simply not be racist personally or professionally.2 Antiracist mentors intentionally work to diversify the field by learning from the intellectual histories of fields that center on race, ethnicity, and indigieneity; by understanding the systemic and institutional challenges that students of color face; and by challenging white privilege in scholarship, institutions, and interpersonal interactions. We cannot fall back on the lack of diversity in these areas of study in graduate programs as an excuse for why these fields are not more diverse in our departments. Most of the scholars of color currently in the field were mentored by people who were willing to learn critical race studies (and about institutional racism) at the same time that they mentored students into scholarly protocols. We must all train ourselves in antiracist mentoring. Our large professional organizations need to provide resources—workshops, training modules, and readings—for scholars who wish to become antiracist mentors. Like any other scholarly tool that we have had to learn along the way (think, for example, of digital humanities training), scholars should be encouraged to pursue—as well as enabled by and rewarded for seeking—this new professional development.
Create Inclusive Events
Our medieval and early modern professional organizations should consider three approaches: consistently hosting panels, seminars, or workshops on race; hosting workshops on teaching premodern literature, history, and culture inclusively; and sponsoring events for teachers in underserved communities on new trends in medieval and early modern studies. If you are a member of a professional organization’s executive committee, make sure that pipeline issues are an action item on every agenda during your tenure with the organization. The question should be this: What is our organization doing concretely this year to diversify the pipeline?
Support Professional Training across Institutions
Interinstitutional professional training in critical race, ethnic, and indigenous studies for medievalists and early modernists at institutions where this expertise is not deep could provide an immense benefit. The twentieth-century model of hoarding expertise at an elite institution or two will not suffice in the twenty-first century when our fields are under attack and vulnerable to collapse.
Blogs such as inthemedievalmiddle.com and e-mail distribution lists and Twitter groups such as #MedievalTwitter, #ShakeRace, and #RaceB4Race, where scholars in early English literatures have begun the field-changing work of mentorship and professional debate, have been sites of transformation in their respective fields. While these groups cannot substitute for the depth of in-person dialogue, such mechanisms can be used for professional training until we have more on-site faculty supervision of this work.
We can expand the use of social media tools for training across institutions. Faculty members with expertise could elect to be participants and could select different levels of commitment at different stages in their own professional lives. Our professional organizations and conferences should expand the work done by these groups, providing in-person venues to further this mentoring and training. So too, graduate faculty members need to be more flexible in collaborating on exams and dissertations with colleagues in critical race and critical ethnic studies.
Cite Scholars of Color
Recognition matters. In both our classrooms and in our research, it is important to remember John Guillory’s maxim—the syllabus is the canon. We need to cite and teach the robust body of work by medievalists and early modernists of color so that students and scholars alike are informed of the growing intellectual and racial diversity of our fields. If we neglect or occlude this work, or if we only point students to work perceived as politically neutral, we are part of the problem. We need a greater representation of this work within an expanded list of top-tier, peer-reviewed journals that publish criticism in medieval and early modern race studies.
We offer one final note of caution: we cannot rely on the handful of senior medieval and early modernists of color to initiate conversations about professional and institutional transformation or to organize and perform all this labor. They are not solely affected by the lack of diversity in the pipeline, and this is not a black and brown problem to solve. This is our problem—all of us. The future of our fields depends on diversifying them, and we must all step up to initiate, organize, and revolutionize pre- and early modern studies so that our disciplines can continue to flourish, prosper, and succeed in the twenty-first century.
1. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that the K–12 population will be composed of predominantly minority students by 2023 (“Enrollment”). The Chronicle of Higher Education has also reported on the changing demographics in colleges and universities (Hoover).
2. DiAngelo speaks effectively on what it means to be antiracist. On mentoring and people of color, see Harrison.
Chatelain, Marcia. “How Universities Embolden White Nationalists.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 17 Aug. 2017, www.chronicle.com/article/How-Universities-Embolden/240956?cid=wcontentgrid_hp_2.
DiAngelo, Robin. “Being Nice Is Not Going to End Racism.” YouTube, uploaded by Big Think, 24 Oct. 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Jin7ISV85s.
“Enrollment and Percentage Distribution of Enrollment in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, by Race/Ethnicity and Region: Selected Years, Fall 1995 through Fall 2023.” Digest of Education Statistics, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017, nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_203.50.asp.
Guillory, John. “Cannon, Syllabus, List: A Note on the Pedagogic Imaginary.” Transition, no. 52, 1991, pp. 36–54.
Harrison, Rashida L. “Building a Canon, Creating Dialogue: An Interview with Cheryl A. Wall.” Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, U of North Carolina P, 2016, pp. 46–62.
Hoover, Eric. “Minority Applicants to Colleges Will Rise Significantly by 2020.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, 10 Jan. 2013, www.chronicle.com/article/Wave-of-Diverse-College/136603?cid=rclink.
Kimberly Anne Coles is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Religion, Reform, and Women’s Writing in Early Modern England (2008) and has coedited several collections on the topics of race and gender: The Cultural Politics of Blood, 1500–1900 (2015); The Routledge Companion to Women, Sex, and Gender in the Early British Colonial World (2018); and The Cultural History of Race in the Renaissance and Early Modern Age (1350–1550) (forthcoming). Her current book project, “Bad Humour: Race and Religious Essentialism in Early Modern England,” deals with the medical and philosophical context that makes religious affiliation a physiological, heritable feature of the blood.
Kim F. Hall is the Lucyle Hook Professor of English and a professor of Africana studies at Barnard College, where she teaches courses in early modern and Renaissance literature, black feminist studies, critical race theory, and food studies. She is the author of Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England, Othello: Texts and Contexts, and The Sweet Taste of Empire: Sugar, Gender and Material Culture in Seventeenth Century England (under contract with U of Pennsylvania P). In 2016, Diverse Issues in Higher Education named her one of “25 Women Making a Difference in Higher Education and Beyond.”
Ayanna Thompson is director of the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Arizona State University. She is the author of Shakespeare in the Theatre: Peter Sellars (2018); Teaching Shakespeare with Purpose: A Student-Centred Approach (2016); Passing Strange: Shakespeare; Race, and Contemporary America (2011); and Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage (2008). She was the 2018–19 president of the Shakespeare Association of America and served as a member of the board of directors for the Association of Marshall Scholars.