Did you know that a feud over white supremacy has been going on for three years in the field of medieval studies? And that this feud has caused academics to hurl insults at each other on #medievaltwitter? If medieval scholars participating in internet wars sounds strange to you, we would agree. But it’s also something you should pay attention to. Why? Because if we can look past the feud, we’ll find an important underlying message about the importance of intersectionality in academia today.
The uproar in medievalist academia related to the alt-right movement, white supremacy and online harassment involves Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Brandeis. Fellow medievalist Rachel Fulton Brown, associate professor at the University of Chicago, attracted Kim’s criticism from her blog, including such articles as “Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men,” published in 2015. Over the past three years, a debate has erupted in the medieval studies field between myriad reputable academics and professors, with insults and harassment hurled on both sides and an ever-growing debate about how a narrative of white supremacy intersects with medieval academia.
It’s no secret that medieval studies has a large focus on Western philosophy and Christianity, and has a Eurocentric viewpoint. But the recent debate arose in large part due to alt-right protests using medieval iconography, and scholars debating white supremacy in medievalist work. This is the argument put forth by Kim—specifically in regard to Brown, the articles Brown wrote for her personal blog and for Breitbart, the far-right news site, and her friendship and strong support of outspoken, conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos.
The volume of three years of blogs, Facebook posts and other online comments is too high to count and document here. This is an ongoing debate that neither side is willing to compromise on, and the academic trajectories of Kim and Brown are unclear.
Both Kim and Brown have been subject to online harassment and threats. Kim felt that her professional and personal lives were so in danger that she took down the project on medieval languages for the National Endowment for Humanities that she’d been working on for four years. Brown was publicly called a fascist by Kim at a conference.
When professors resort to tactics like these, it is hard to take their work seriously and respect them as professionals in their field. They should absolutely discuss the issues that matter to them, and be outspoken about their perspectives, but online harassment takes it too far. Furthermore, the actual issues—concerns about white supremacy and the lack of intersectionality in medieval studies—become obscured by Twitter arguments.
This may seem like an issue on the periphery of your academic career; Brandeis does not even have a medieval studies department. However, this debate is indicative of more widespread problems in academia that can relate to fields in the humanities and the sciences alike. Whitewashing is a problem from English classes to biology labs, whether in subject matter or teaching staff. While Yiannopoulos claims that “Academia in general is a rich and warmly inviting environment for women and minorities,” many undergraduate women and minorities would disagree with this, whether due to Western canonical subject matters or the white male professors at the front of the classroom.
And although Brandeis does not have a medieval studies department, we do have a classics department, which is historically adjacent to medieval studies, and therefore is also struggling with the same questions of race and gatekeeping in the field.
Moving forward, we must learn from these academic internet wars, which is to say, move past them and focus on the real issues. Have meaningful conversation about how to diversify and bring intersectionality into typically whitewashed departments, instead of flinging insults.