Continuing Blog Post Series: Medievalists Beyond the Tenure Track

How many ways are there to be a medievalist? How do medievalists choose different career paths? Have changes in graduate programs and graduate advising expanded PhD students’ choices and created an awareness of professional opportunities beyond the tenure track? Following the suggestions of the Ad Hoc Committee on Professional Diversity convened last year (2019-2020), the Medieval Academy has launched a multi-pronged initiative to showcase medievalists with a large variety of careers to inspire those seeking different paths and to give concrete strategic advice. Previous contributions to this discussion are available on the MAA website: the CARA Roundtable “Expanding the MedievALL Conversation” (Annual Meeting, 3/29/2020) and “In and Beyond the Digital” with Dr. Hannah Albert-Abrams from the NEH (May 13, 2020). The two forthcoming Freelancing webinars are now open for registration. The blog series we reinstate here features candid personal accounts by scholars who have generously agreed to share their stories: the twists and turns, the possible pitfalls, failures and successes of life beyond the tenure track. The Medieval Academy thanks the members of the Ad Hoc Committee (Raymond Clemens, Sarah Davis-Secord, Lisa Fagin Davis, Danielle Griego, Adam Kosto, and Laura Morreale), and all those who are working to make the Medieval Academy a community of ALL medievalists.

-Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, President

Emma Bérat, A Diverse Approach
Emma Bérat is an Independent Scholar and freelance academic editor. She received her PhD in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in 2016, and has since made her own fascinating way as a medievalist. To learn more about the editorial work of Dr. Bérat and others like her, register here for the upcoming MAA webinar on para-academic professions.

My co-editor recently remarked that half the contributors to an academic essay collection we are compiling are currently “independent” scholars. Among them are medieval researchers who have retired from professorial posts, are currently seeking university employment, or chose to leave the academic profession and now work in other domains. As editors, we hadn’t sought out these scholars (though that’s a good practice!). It’s simply a reality that a large proportion of medieval scholarship is now carried out by scholars who work outside of paid research positions.

I am also on that list of independent contributors. When finishing my PhD at Columbia University in 2016, with a dissertation on women’s genealogies in medieval literature in England, I was already considering alternative career paths and lifestyles to academic employment. My research and writing remained, and remain, a deep interest. But after six years of doctoral studies, two babies, and a third on the way, I also felt very tired and ready for a lifestyle change. As I am originally from New Zealand and my spouse is French Japanese, we also weren’t sure where we wanted to live.

An excellent post-doc opportunity at the University of Bonn, Germany arose, so I decided to apply and was excited to be accepted for the position. Negotiating another new country and its paperwork, I gave birth again and threw myself into working on my monograph and engaging in the field of medieval studies in Europe. Much good came from the position. But with three children under five at home in an unfamiliar country, a healthy work-life balance remained a struggle.

I decided to leave my post-doc after two years with a little under two years remaining on my contract. A harsh job market may have forced me out of academic employment later anyway, but at the time, leaving was a choice. We now live in a 7.5-meter rolling home, a camper-van, full-time with our three boys, Labrador, and cat. As I write, we are parked in a forest in Sweden. This winter, we’ll be slowly exploring Morocco and hopefully learning Arabic. Quarters are tight (but so was our NYC apartment), and there’s still never enough time to write. But otherwise most of the time, it’s great.

To fund this (low-cost) lifestyle, I work about twenty hours a week as a freelance editor, contracted with several online academic editing companies. Typically, the work involves proofreading and offering advice on writing clarity and structure on research headed for publication. This flexibility allows me to fit paid work around our travels, the children’s education, and my own scholarship. It also allows me to take more work when I have time and less when I have other projects.

Because we choose to live simply and have no house expenses, the hours I put into editing are not much more than I used to put into teaching, administrative, or related tasks not directly related to research at university. Of course, such activities can contribute to one’s scholarship in important ways. But so can editing. While I tend to avoid editing in literature and history to maintain distance with my own scholarship, I regularly work in fields as diverse as anthropology, law, climate sciences, and education, often on topics involving gender, language, and international movement. To some extent, this type of editing offers the broad interdisciplinary contact that I had always hoped, but sometimes struggled, to find at university.

I still call myself an academic writer, as well as a freelance editor. My monograph-in-progress and other medieval projects remain the center of my intellectual life even if they don’t fund our day-to-day living. On average, ten hours or so a week are given to medieval scholarship, which now takes the place of a (slightly maniac) hobby. A colleague, uncertain of my decision to leave my post-doc, once commented that my proposed “hobby” seemed dismissive of the work done in the field, particularly by those employed full-time. I disagree. To me, engaging in medieval studies without pay or career pressures evinces its importance and appeal.

And for a hobby, medieval scholarship is hard work! Finding resources on the road and without a university affiliation is rarely straightforward. My noise-cancelling headphones do little to block the din of the children. I approach my research with the same rigor as when I was in university employment.

The Medieval Academy of America has been drawing attention to the challenges that independent scholars face in contributing to medieval studies, including access to primary and secondary resources. Since leaving the opulent research libraries of my graduate school institutions, I’ve realized that this access issue is hardly limited to independent scholars. Fortunately, the digital world—Google books, academia.edu, various databases, digitized manuscript collections, and websites of suspect legality—is increasingly making remote research possible, coupled with the occasional adventure to an actual research library. I am also indebted to trusting, affiliated friends who give me access to online library collections; without them, access to recent secondary resources would be a real struggle.

A second challenge has been staying engaged in the medievalist community. It is no exaggeration to say that I’ve continued in my scholarship largely thanks to several key mentors who remain enthusiastic about and engaged in my work and other medievalists who have generously collaborated, shared work, and offered feedback. I have also found email lists like those of the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship (SMFS) and Medieval Review helpful in keeping up with new discussions and directions in research and feeling like part of a community. I am also looking forward to attending Leeds International Medieval Congress next year, thanks to a MAA travel grant.

In addition to the challenges, it seems equally important to consider what independent scholars contribute to the field of medieval studies. How do they—we—improve the research and outreach of medieval studies as a whole? I fell in love with medieval literature for its multilingualism, experimentation, and other evidence of movement and cross-cultural interaction, as well as women’s particular influence on those features. Our past two years of travel have given me fresh energy for such themes, which I’ve taken up in essays coming out in Viator and Studies in the Age of Chaucer. Chance meetings on our travels often lead to discussions on medieval topics in unlikely places, from Isabelle de Clare and the modern erasures of medieval women’s genealogies on a beach in Andalucía to the fallacies of French white supremacists’ medieval narratives in a river in Ardèche. Like many “independent scholars,” my paid work and lifestyle aren’t discontinuous with my scholarship, but they do work in tandem in different ways from most dedicated research or even teaching positions.

It’s well known that women, racial and sexual minorities, and disabled people often struggle to find employment and be promoted in research positions. Academia can also be particularly tough on mothers, especially of multiple children. It’s crucial to improve conditions within universities to retain these scholars. But medieval studies can also reap the benefits of their expertise, diverse approaches to medieval sources, and means for sharing them by opening itself to, learning from, and supporting independent scholars.

At the same time, I would love to see independent medievalists draw together as well—to collaborate, share experiences, and support each other’s scholarship. A website dedicated to independent medievalists, where we could maintain public profiles and share resources, would be a useful step toward this goal.

Dr. Bérat adds: “I’m not on social media, but if you would like to discuss anything here further, please get in contact! My academia.edu page has ways to find me.”

Alison Walker, Connecting Books with Readers
Alison Walker completed her Ph.D. in English at UCLA in 2011, with specializations in Medieval Literature and Digital Humanities. Her current position at Amazon combines her love of books and book history and her facility with modern technology. For more on Dr. Walker’s career, see her presentation recorded at the 2020 CARA annual meeting (as second presenter).

My favorite moment as a book historian was taking a deep breath, opening up a medieval manuscript, and turning to the endpapers to find a warren of owners’ inscriptions, library stamps, and a few wormholes.  Connecting with a manuscript’s line of makers and owners was where I found my most passionate connection with the medieval period.  As a scholar of manuscripts, I always had a direct line of contact with the physical object that I studied, and it is that connection with the production and reception of books that has allowed me to transition to a career that I never would have imagined for myself when I started graduate school.  My particular trajectory, from book historian and digital humanist to category manager at Amazon Books has allowed me to think about my disciplines in the broadest sense possible and has given me the tools to make a new home in the tech and publishing world.

From Paleography and manuscripts…
For me, it all started with a series of vernacular and Latin paleography seminars taught by Chris Baswell, Richard Rouse, and Mary Rouse.  I found that I had a knack for catching the intricacies of a script while at the same time synthesizing the other details housed in a medieval manuscript.  Connecting the physical object with cultural history opened an entire way of looking at the medieval world and changed my trajectory as a graduate student.  Paleography taught me to pay attention to the smallest details of a book but, at the same time, never to separate those cultural clues from the historical center of the artifact.  With the tools in my paleography classes, I was not only able to trace handwriting through history, but also to connect a script and scribe to later owners on forward to the contemporary moment.

…to digital humanities…
Soon, I was cataloguing medieval manuscripts for UCLA’s Young Research Library as well as earning two internships at British Library to catalogue the Harley collection for their online catalogue of medieval manuscripts.  At the same time, I worked on digital projects at UCLA’s campus with the California Digital Library and took classes on electronic literature–my research interests quickly merging with the rapidly forming discipline of digital humanities.  These digital projects allowed me to understand the book as a future-facing object and also to research how the physical book and the handwriting therein could be understood adequately in a digital realm.

…and user-centered design…
By the time I finished graduate school, my research centered on book history, design theory, and digital humanities.  As a postdoctoral scholar at Saint Louis University’s Center for Digital Humanities, I helped to develop T-PEN, a web-based tool that allowed users to transcribe handwritten documents.  This was a first for me as a researcher–to create something for an audience to use, and it was this connection with users that allowed me to begin a new career in the tech world.  As we built T-PEN, I tested the platform and helped to make the interface friendly to our audience of scholars and librarians.  Soon, I was reading up on user experience research, realizing that as a paleographer and book historian, I had always been attentive to design theory and user-centered design.

…and now to the tech world
Currently, I’m a category manager for Amazon Books, Amazon.com’s network of brick-and-mortar bookstores.  My job is to anticipate the books that my customers want to read next.  It’s a fast-paced and fun job that allows me to work closely with publishers and customers, as I use a variety of data sources and gut instinct to find the best books.  At first glance, my new career in the publishing and tech sector has little to do with my life as a professor and book historian, but my training as a medievalist, cataloguer, and professor was formative to how I think about books and I view my work now as engaging with the future of the book, just not in the way I anticipated.

I have always conceived of my scholarly work broadly and balked at the need to over-specialize in a sub-sub-field in order to be successful.  That’s one of the reasons why I found a happy home cataloguing manuscripts.  Cataloguing wasn’t narrow–it insisted on a knowledge of art history, history, theology, literature, on book bindings and letterforms across centuries.  Books will always be my cornerstone.  Whether it’s making data-driven decisions on which books to carry in the Science Fiction category at Amazon Books or questioning why a scribe wrote the letter s in 4 different ways, I love to connect books and their creators to readers, no matter the century.

Emily Runde, Navigating a Career in Manuscript Work
Emily Runde received her PhD in English Literature from UCLA in 2014, and is now the Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Collections at the Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library. She openly credits both luck and her willingness to depart from traditional wisdom on academic career paths in helping her secure the job she holds today.

When I decided to go to graduate school to pursue a PhD in medieval English literature, I was very definitely imagining myself becoming a professor on the other end. That’s not to say I wasn’t open to other potential careers, but, perhaps taking my cue from my friends bound for law and medical schools, I saw the next step in my education as entrée to a challenging, but straight and well-maintained path. Over a decade later, I am not at all surprised that that was the metaphor I had seized upon for my studies as a medievalist—but I cringe at its implicit moral imperative and at the limitations, so obvious in hindsight, that I was imposing on myself.

Today, I am not a professor—nor have I ever been one—but I do not mourn this fact. I have been very fortunate to navigate a course that has enabled me to continue the research and teaching I love outside of a formal university teaching position. While there have been times in my working life when I felt less like a scholar and a medievalist, lacking the external validations of an institutional identity, I do enjoy that buttressing in my current role as Curator of Medieval and Renaissance Collections in Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. And I’ll be honest: I feel survivor’s guilt even setting these words down in writing.

What got me here was a dogged pursuit of my interests—at times to the detriment of swift progress towards my degree—some leaps of faith, and quite a lot of luck. Going into graduate school, I may have imagined I was going to be a professor, but what I knew was that I wanted to work with medieval manuscripts. As an undergraduate, I had visited the Beinecke Library, set eyes on an early manuscript, and felt a breathless gut punch of a calling. A seminar with Jessica Brantley provided dizzying access to the Beinecke’s riches and a foundation in what it meant to work hands-on with manuscripts. And it gave me the confidence to pursue that work, to see it as something I could claim by virtue of training and ability.

To the extent that I was able to determine my own career trajectory, it was through holding manuscript work as my lodestar. In graduate school, I sought out professors like Chris Baswell who did that work and took whatever courses they were offering. And more than that, I asked for opportunities to do the work. When it seemed that I had arrived too late at UCLA to study paleography, codicology, and medieval book culture with Richard Rouse, I reached out to Richard to see if I might pursue an independent study with him. He and Mary Rouse responded very generously by offering seminars throughout the rest of my time in the program, most of which I took or audited. This in turn opened the door to an internship through UCLA Special Collections’ Center for Primary Research and Training in which I catalogued UCLA’s medieval and Renaissance manuscripts under the exacting oversight of Richard and Mary, presented manuscripts to colleagues and donors, and curated a case in an exhibition. The cataloguing and curatorial experiences I picked up in this internship were likely instrumental in landing a subsequent six-month curatorial internship at the British Library centered on preparing the 2011-2012 Royal manuscripts exhibition.

In these positions I flourished as a scholar and a writer and an educator—but these were decidedly not periods in which I made great headway in my own dissertation research and writing. Looking back, though, I think it was vital to my own development that I enjoyed these periods of shifted focus, from the lancing trajectory of the dissertation to a less directed exploration of other possibilities. Speaking to donors and reporters about manuscripts and writing exhibition labels and related blog posts all drew on my prior pedagogical training while also pushing me to become a more versatile communicator on a subject around which I was accustomed to assuming shared context and expertise. And thinking about how to bring old objects’ stories to life for people who did not necessarily share my immediate sense of awe and curiosity—and unearthing these stories in manuscripts quite far afield in their content and production from anything I had studied in my own research—broadened my sense of what I might do as a scholar and an educator and changed my ideas of who might understand or care about what I did.

Even so, these internships and my more general interest in library-oriented work felt like a risk and a distraction from what I was supposed to be doing. I told myself perhaps my curatorial work would be helpful to me on the job market for tenure-track teaching positions (and, for what it is worth, I believe it was). Midway through my PhD program I considered pursuing a concurrent MLIS, but ultimately decided against it because I worried my progress was already too slow and because positions for manuscript curators were so rare and, I feared, out of my reach, degree or no degree. (With the benefit of hindsight, by the way, I would absolutely devote the additional time and labor to earn that MLIS.) As I was nearing completion of my dissertation and venturing onto the job market, I did apply for library positions as well—but my experience was discouraging. I wasn’t receiving responses, much less opportunities to provide more materials or to interview.

Then, while in the final stages of dissertating, longing for the chance to research and work hands-on with manuscripts outside of my specialization, I applied to catalogue manuscripts part-time for Sandra Hindman at Les Enluminures (pursuing a listing posted by the MAA!), and she offered me a full-time Manuscript Specialist position. At the time, trusted professors celebrated the remarkable opportunity I would have to learn from Sandra and from the manuscripts themselves—but they warned me that I had at most three years in that world before my eligibility for tenure-track teaching jobs would effectively expire. Still, this was the work I wanted to be doing at that moment, even if I had no clear sense of where it might lead me, and I leapt at the chance to pursue it. In the short term, it led to splendid opportunities to handle and describe a staggering number of manuscripts, as well as to get better acquainted with the manuscript market and institutions’ collections and collecting strategies. But without a college or university affiliation, I had difficulty obtaining access to the research materials I needed for my day-to-day work, much less my own research, and I wrestled with insidious feelings of marginalization and alienation at conferences and talks. Having strayed from the straight path on which I had embarked long ago, I did not seem to be fully visible—or useful—to those still on it, and, having traveled across the country, I struggled to find a new working community, colleagues with whom to share research and motivation.

Now as a library curator I have left some of these challenges behind. Like my colleagues among the faculty, I teach, attend conferences, prepare my own research for publication, and maintain a privileged access to the resources, collegiality, and validation my institution affords me. Do I sometimes feel less than fully visible even now? Yes, unfortunately. But my work makes up for it. My day-to-day life is spread out across a much wider breadth of tasks and scholarly pursuits, with expanding and expansive access to manuscripts at the heart of my mission as a librarian, a scholar, and a medievalist.

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