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15 May, 2011

Ten Reasons Why Medievalists Should Make Good Administrators

It could simply be another example of my progressive professional deformation, but these days I notice medievalists in full- and part-time administrative positions everywhere. They are graduate directors, department chairs, deans, and provosts, and everything in between, and knowing what I know about medieval scholars and their education and academic practices, I am not surprised.

1) Medievalists, because they are trained to collaborate with a wide array of disciplines and auxiliary disciplines (archaeology, diplomatics, numismatics, paleography, prosopography, etc.), know well how to be interdisciplinary and inclusive. Most administrative positions demand that colleagues abandon their identity as a linguist, historian, or cultural critic, to name but a few, and instead become generalists who do their best to appreciate and support all subject areas equally.

2) Medievalists command authority because their scholarly expertise is based on the knowledge of historical languages (e.g., Latin, Old and Middle English, Old French, Middle and Old High German) few others can read and understand. This unique knowledge, which takes years of dedicated study, often affords them the (albeit mostly silent) admiration and appreciation of their colleagues in postmedieval concentrations. The auctoritas delegated from such rare expertise comes in handy even during negotiations about the most tangentially related issues such as enrollment management and scheduling.

3) Medievalists tend not to participate in the more caustic culture wars between theorists and practitioners, Marxists and New Critics, Old historicists and psychoanalytic critics. Their philological background often renders them neutral observers of and collegial mediators between more polarized positions, an excellent preparation for conflict management situations.

4) Since all medievalists are aware of Ernst Kantorowicz’s classic The King’s Two Bodies (1957), which explains how medieval monarchs were simultaneously a person and the embodiment of the community of the realm, they realize that what they say as representatives of their department or college will have repercussions on their entire unit. This tends to make for thoughtful and responsible public communication.

5) To medievalists, patience is more than a theoretical notion, as one of the seven virtues from the Book of Proverbs, 25:14-16 (“through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone”). Their work as textual scholars and editors has provided them with the famous Sitzfleisch, probably best translated as the “thick skin” developed on one’s derrière during hours of meticulous (sitting) attention to small and smallest details on a manuscript page. Thus, medievalists can sit out almost anyone, except perhaps Classical philologists.

6) Medievalists know how obsessively (and hopelessly) medieval rulers yearned for the allegedly limitless and absolute power of their imperial Roman predecessors. Therefore, medievalists who study medieval rulers’ trials and tribulations with the complex structures of their comitatus and legal limitations to sustaining the family dynasty, are well prepared for an academic world which necessitates coalition building and collaborative governance. Unlike other scholars, medievalists will recognize that yearning for the comparatively absolute power of a non-academic CEO (our contemporary Roman emperor) does not help when negotiating with faculty unions. Moreover, from the various storylines about King Arthur medievalists also know how important it is to act as primus inter pares and not a dictator.

7) Medievalists have a deep understanding of monastic life and will, therefore, not easily succumb to depression when confronted with spending long hours in the monkish seclusion of a chair’s or dean’s cubicle or cella. They know how to get up early, work long hours without sumptuous sustenance, and follow the rules of their school. They also know how to sit still and listen to readings on the Holy Scriptures according to Assessment, Productivity, and Retention at academic forums, retreats, and councils.

8) To medievalists cultural and linguistic translation is second nature, and so they are well trained to translate and parse the various decisions and (un)funded mandates traveling back and forth between boards and upper administrators on the one hand and faculty and students on the other. And if the kind of code switching necessary for serving as an effective communicative conduit gets to them, they can remind themselves of medieval morality plays, in which protagonists encounter personifications of all various kinds of behavior and learn how to deal effectively with these situations without falling prey to multiple personality disorder.

9) Morality plays help medievalist administrators even more when preparing for the worst: Consider, as a case study, the fifteenth-century Castle of Perseverance, which could be seen as tracing the life of its hero, let’s call him Homo Academicus, as he battles a motley array of evil forces. As the play commences, our hero ignores the counsel of his Good Faculty Angel and allows his Bad Provostial Angel to guide him toward the dark side of Worldly Administrivia. Worldly Administrivia’s servants (Streamlining, Spreadsheet, and Dashboard) dress the hero in a suit and tie and lead him to the scaffold of Covetousness, where Homo Academicus accepts the Seven Academic Sins (Arrogance, Bullying, Complacency, Lust, Narcissism, Procrastination, and Pedantry), leaves the bargaining unit to become a department chair, and accepts his new name, Homo Administrans. All is not lost, however, for Shrift (a Nestor from among former chairs) and Penance (a soft-spoken Union representative) convince our hero to repent and to move to the Castle of Perseverance where he will be protected from sin by the vigilant Seven Academic Virtues (Competence, Freedom, Independence, Inquiry, Originality, Responsibility, and Two-Day Work Week). Our hero’s enemies (Worldly Administrivia, Streamlining, Spreadsheet, and Dashboard) attack the castle but are fended off by the Virtues who wield clickers (emblems of innovative teaching). Next, Covetousness appeals to our hero with an administrative salary increase and sabbatical. Just when Homo Administrans is tempted to accept this offer, he becomes the target of an unexpected grievance procedure, illustrating the unpredictable powers of fate. During a sleepless night, Homo Administrans prays that his personnel record might not be defiled by a Letter of Discipline. At this point, the four daughters of the University President (all Associate and Assistant Vice Provosts) get ready to condemn him but, in a sudden reversal of his fate, the President decides to pardon our hero and changes his administrative appointment back to a faculty appointment. (And no, all you literalists, this section is not autobiographical!)

10) If such a presidential ex machina intervention were to fail, medievalist administrators have one final recourse for assistance rarely available to their postmedieval colleagues: They know all about which saint to call on to intercede on their behalf in truly dire situations: St. Khosrowidukht to heal deranged supervisors, St. Hilda of Whitby for successfully running nefarious contract negotiations and meetings, St. Adeloga for increasing charitable giving to one’s unit, and St. Harold III “Bluetooth,” King of Denmark, for holding the red hot iron of workload increase over your colleagues’ heads without getting singed. (See Alan J. Koman, A Who’s Who of Your Ancestral Saints, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 2010, for information on these saints.)

So next time you encounter your medievalist colleague in the department, bring up the open administrative position in your unit and plant the seed for another winning medievalist appointment. And if the appointment came true, please let me know, since I need additional confirmation that there are more and more medievalists in full- and part-time administrative positions everywhere these days. Knowing what I know about medieval scholars and their education and academic practices, I promise I will not be surprised.