Most of the time, debates between medievalists model an orderly and careful conversation. But a war of words erupted between medieval historian Rachel Brown of the University of Chicago and literary medievalist Dorothy Kim of Vassar College when Brown published polemics on Sept. 14 and 17 that took issue with Kim’s outspoken position on inclusiveness in medieval studies. In her articles, Brown resorted to ad hominem attacks bolstered on Facebook by alternative right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos and his community of 2.3 million followers.
After the attacks on Kim by Brown in her Sept. 17 polemic, President of the College Elizabeth Bradley declared in a community message, “At times, faculty and students are maligned because of views they have expressed on social media and in other communications channels […] In my role as President, I condemn any expressions that incite violence or lawlessness, and stand behind the right of all members of the community to speak out on issues of importance to them.” A subsequent report in the Huffington Post by Professor of Philosophy Bryan Van Norden agreed that harassment and exclusion are ongoing concerns in many academic circles beyond medieval studies and criticized Brown’s unscholarly response to the debate. A petition presented by the international community of academics and another by the English Majors Committee at Vassar are currently circulating among students in support of Kim.
The diatribes represented the flash point of several months of tension between groups of various ideological persuasions in medieval studies. As Kim explained, “After the U.S. election, a group of medievalists of color began to organize in order to try to address some of this in our field.” Beginning in May, these scholars brought concerns over inclusiveness in medieval studies to the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo, the Leeds International
Medieval Congress and the International Society for Anglo-Saxon Studies Conference. The debate coincided with the Charlottesville riots. Kim noted, “The summer has been called by many in medieval studies ‘the dumpster fire summer of racism.’ We are having our ‘medievalfail’ moment. And Charlottesville—the images, rhetoric, cosplay that happened there on a college campus—was a major part of this ‘medievalfail’ moment.”
Conservative news outlets ranging from professional publications American Spectator and The Commentary to student publications College Fix and Campus Reform vigorously objected to Kim’s articles on keeping accountability of harassment at conferences and on respecting scholars of diversity. The viewpoints in these articles often hold that Kim’s concerns are not justified by the actual state of medieval studies or are motivated by political concerns that are not based on scholarship. In addition to hostile rhetoric from the Gamergate movement and unmoderated communities on the dark web, the polemics by Brown concentrated criticism from multiple angles on concerns raised by medievalists of color. Kim reflected, “I think it’s clear there is an investment in imagining the Middle Ages as a pure white medieval past and ‘heritage.’ Any discussion that debunks these ideas, especially coming from a woman of color who is a medieval literature professor, is going to cause issues.”
Behind her public statements on inclusiveness in medieval studies, Kim has produced several academic works that examine contemporary medievalism from the perspective of critical theory. Forthcoming in the Arc Humanities Press, her book “Digital Whiteness and Medieval Studies” proposes to examine how the development of whiteness as a historical and theoretical concept in medieval studies renews white supremacist movements in contemporary society. Kim has also published feminist criticism related to the issue of harassment in a series of papers in Public Philosophy Journal and Model View Culture.
Kim summarized her responsibility as an academic, saying, “I think the elections in the U.K. and U.S. have really pushed me and others to begin organizing because the ‘alt-right’ onslaught and targeting of spaces and bodies who are fighting for inclusiveness has increased.” As a recent example of the contemporary relevance of medieval studies to the U.S. political context, Kim suggested, “The ‘alt-right’ love the Middle Ages. These include Trump voters who have used crusader material in their memes and discussions during and after both the U.S. elections and Brexit in the U.K.”
Kim’s research interests complement her teaching. As English Majors Committee President Rachel Ludwig ’18 described, “As a professor, Dorothy Kim brings infectious levels of enthusiasm and energy to the classroom. The way she approaches Medieval Literature is singular, and she is very invested in the Digital Humanities. What this means is that she engages her students across multimedia platforms in teaching medieval studies, bridging the gap between centuries-old material and modern-day technology.”
Kim structures the curricula of her classes and seminars so that students learn to communicate through many media, including standard text summaries and critical papers, creative novels, live performance, web archive projects, academic blogs and documentary video. Ludwig considered the multidimensionality of Kim’s work and elaborated, “For instance, our seminar took a field trip to an actual tannery and learned how to make vellum. We worked with hides and stretching tools and went through the entire historical process.”
Brown’s ad hominem attacks and release of personal information to Milo Yiannopoulous’ community have presented security issues for Vassar faculty and students. Kim recalled, “I have had a meeting with the president and several college administrators and they have worked to get logistical support so that certain issues are addressed quickly in relation to my safety.”
From a student perspective, Ludwig indicated, “I think Professor Kim is very transparent concerning all that is happening to her right now. Her students are aware of the issue and I think Professor Kim is making the best of a difficult situation; for instance, she is teaching her first-year students about cybersecurity, in light of recent hacking attempts on her web-based content. Overall, I think students would be more likely to want to work with a professor who publicly stands against hate and white supremacy in her field.”
Kim remains worried about repeated attacks and encourages members of the Vassar community to stay informed. Based on historical patterns of alt-right activity, Kim advised, “I do not know if there is such a thing as a resolution in the sense that potential doxxing and threats, once these groups have you in their sight line, are going to be iterative and ongoing […] I think future faculty, students, staff people will be attacked by the ‘alt-right’ and their media engines. It’s happening right now to other faculty across the country even at liberal arts colleges such as Linfield College in Oregon and Richard Stockton College in New Jersey.”
Kim recommends resources such as the Center for Solutions for Online Violence, Data and Society, and Crash Override to individuals who are subjected to a doxxing attack. In the ongoing debate, Kim said, “I would say that people should talk about these issues: How does white supremacy work and how does it surface in our educational institutions? I think they should resist and fight back against white supremacy and the ‘alt-right’ in any and every way they can.”
Ludwig concluded, “I think it’s important that students are aware that this is happening to a Vassar professor, one of our own. Professor Kim embodies what all Vassar students should strive to be: Someone who refuses to remain silent and takes a vocal stance against injustices that they see in their community.”