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21.02.09 Karkov (ed.), Slow Scholarship

The Medieval Review

21.02.09 Karkov (ed.), Slow Scholarship


This collection of deeply thought and enjoyable essays is the 2019 volume of Essays and Studies, a book series published annually by the English Association. The title's placement in a series showcasing studies in English literature is intriguing, given that its editor, Catherine Karkov, is an art historian, and the contributors--medievalists all--are a mix of literary scholars, historians, art historians, and a manuscripts curator. The collection does offer a satisfying demonstration of what different disciplines can do in common when not siloed or competing for turf. True to the project's commitment to "slow," what began as a panel on "Slow Scholarship in the Digital Age" was, for this publication, reconceived as a broader exploration of scholarly experience and experiment, and the contributors were obviously given enough time to read the accompanying essays and subsequently rethink their own. The result is a collection that seems both unified in purpose and mindful of the various ways in which "slow scholarship" may be practiced.

Mindful creativity is in fact the guiding principle of this book. The contributors each discuss their work on a medieval artifact, whether that be a building complex, a monument, or a manuscript. And each, informed by a wealth of scholarship, makes arguments about that artifact. But the arguments are less central to the book's purpose than is the scholars' documentation of their experience of being with these medieval materials. What the authors describe so compellingly is the process of coming to know something in an embodied, multi-sensory research practice. In other words, the collection delivers a phenomenology of research. Lest this sound too esoteric, these explorations of scholarly process unfurl in a context with which most modern academics are all too familiar: that of the "neoliberal university," in which research and teaching are structured by corporate management. For the majority of the contributors, the signature manifestation of neoliberal ideology in academe is the British REF system of evaluation, which Karkov notes "keeps us busy producing 'outputs', creating 'impact', bringing in profits in the form of research grants or spin-off companies" (5). But non-British academics will easily note the REF's congruence with other metrics-based practices of counting scholarship in which speed, quantity, and profitability are what is measured. The slow, personal, sometimes repetitive, sometimes "unproductive" paths to knowledge evidenced in Slow Scholarship are offered in the spirit of resisting these corporate structures of accounting and of withstanding the enervating effects such systems have on scholarly communities.

The volume traces the development of some time-consuming, unREFable, but nonetheless deeply fulfilling scholarly projects, and the essays are rich with hard-earned insights about the texts and artworks they discuss. Beyond claiming time for slow study, however, the extent to which the collection challenges neoliberal knowledge-production is open to debate, and it is complicated by the fact that all but one of the contributors is a well-established academic with secure employment, a solid record of publication, and access to considerable resources. While four of the seven are women, none of the contributors identifies as a member of a community with lesser access to educational opportunity, which raises the possibility that the resistance profiled in the collection may be limited to that available to white, middle-class researchers. Still, the essay by Lara Eggleton, the sole representative of the precariat, provides a lens through which we might view the others, as it raises the stakes of alternative forms of scholarship. While her contribution precedes the other essays, which subsequently are organized into three sections (Slow Words, Slow Looking, and Slow Manuscripts), I think it helpful to consider Eggleton's essay after summarizing the others first.

Slow Words: As Karkov writes in her Introduction, the project of Slow Scholarship was partly inspired by the Slow Food movement and its critique of the fast, hyper-industrialized foodways fostered by late capitalist economies. In the first of two essays that discuss work with Old English literary texts, James Paz riffs on the metaphor of slow digestion. "[T]he story of English poetry begins with eating words," he quips, recalling Bede's famous depiction of Caedmon ruminating "like a cow chewing the cud" (32). Paz suggests that the comparison of studying and eating is more than an imaginative analogy: rumination is physical work and a key to understanding scholarship as both embodied and inter-bodied. Appropriately, he describes a routine for translating Old English poetry that is as detailed in its sensory discipline as it is probingly ideational: "say the word leoht and look at the sun; or þeostre and close your eyes"; "sound it out, chew it over, taste each word as it trickles across your tongue" (36, 37). Like the other contributors who work with written texts, Paz practices what he sees as an analogue to "the painstaking handcrafting of medieval manuscripts" (32), which in his case is a particularly deliberative form of slow "re-creation" of the poetic process of the original. The payoff suggested by his essay is discovering the ways the poem rewards time-consuming exercises like memorization, puzzle-solving, and play with ambiguity. Chris Jones similarly demonstrates a kind of readerly co-creation of Old English poetry with his essay on "re-lining" a text known as "The Grave." In his exploration of the work's sonic patterning, Jones turns and re-turns its language into alternative line arrangements; we see him ruminating, "wondering, sometimes without purpose," and even "spacing out" as he shuffles the poem's phrases (62). His labor with "The Grave" includes his remembrance of his own experience of the burial of family members and his desire to do right by family and the unnamed poet. "She was a masterful poet," Jones writes, "and so she hoped we would be masterful readers" (75). The intricate metrical patterning that Jones discerns takes time to reveal itself, unfolding alongside and within personal history.

Slow Looking: Besides the Slow Food movement, recent interest in the pedagogy of "immersive attention" [1] sparks the two essays on slow looking. Both are by art historians and both discuss their authors' visits to early medieval monumental crosses. Heather Pulliam's essay argues for a fully embodied practice of "slow looking," noting that much of the current discourse about immersive attention unwittingly erases the "motion and physicality" (84) that inhere in a viewer's observation of art. Drawing from her experience of the high crosses at Clonmacnoise, Pulliam writes of her kinetic practice of viewing at the site. Movement around the crosses simultaneously obscures and reveals details of their carvings, and her visits in different weathers and at different times of year approximate medieval viewers' repeated encounters with the monuments. Yet Pulliam also argues that facsimiles and reproductions (which can be viewed comfortably and conveniently), enable a different kind of careful looking, and her essay advocates for long-term projects that require "looking not once, but many times in all kinds of ways through a whole range of viewing platforms" (86). Like Pulliam, Catherine Karkov, in her essay on the Ruthwell Cross, describes her years-long "encounter" with a monumental cross and its landscape. While she is careful to note that she cannot recreate medieval experience of the cross per se, she too pursues "an awareness of time and place something like what [medieval viewers] might have known" (102). Like Paz, Karkov shows readers the fruits of organizing scholarly contemplation into a program for reading, though her physical interactions with the cross are made sense of by their arrangement into a hermeneutic based on the classical elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air. The artifice of this arrangement heightens the sense of looking as craft and of interpretation as a kind of re-making of the artifact, sharing something with "the work of the hand and fingers" that Karkov lauds (99). Both Karkov's and Pulliam's essays offer breathtaking readings of small details in the carved decoration of the crosses; like the translation and relineation performed by Paz and Jones, these reflections are carefully pieced together from both repeated experiences and scholarship.

Slow Manuscripts: The last two essays in the collection deal most extensively with the original focus of the project: the digitization of scholarly materials and methods. While the essays value the benefits of digital technologies – benefits such as the greater accessibility of materials, enhanced visual rendering, and broader communication networks – they advocate for bringing slow methods of study to digital archives and initiatives. As in the essays in the preceding sections, the emphasis here is on understanding medieval creations by carefully re-making them, even when using new, "fast" technologies. Karen Louise Jolly deploys the digits of the hand in her paleographic remediation of a manuscript with glosses written by the monk Aldred. Working from scanned facsimiles, she copies the glosses by hand, attempting to imitate Aldred's own script. Her manual imitation allows her to notice Aldred's own self-correction and his unusual word-choice, from which she is able to read the glosses as "more commentary than translation" (135). This kind of re-creation leads Jolly to others: writing a novel imagining the manuscript's original production, practicing medieval scripts with her students, and developing software for transcription. While Jolly describes the slow use of digital facsimiles, Andrew Prescott argues for the slowing down of digitization itself. Prescott sees the digital reproduction of archives as labor that is especially vulnerable to neoliberal demands for rapidity, quantity, and marketability. Such pressures have resulted in voluminous but inferior reproductions online as well as an insidious privatization of access to public resources (when under-funded libraries must outsource digitization to meet demands for speed and mass). His central example of hasty reproduction is the British Library's imaging of the Nowell Codex on its website, which he sees as not only far from the achievements of the earlier Electronic Beowulf [2]but even "less useful for research purposes than the 1963 black-and-white facsimile" (155). While it was expensive and time-consuming to produce, the Electronic Beowulf reproduction reveals "the complexity and difficulty of the manuscript," and digitization projects of its scope "will help generate more profound knowledge" (156).

The question of who is best served by slowly acquired knowledge is an appropriate one for now returning to Lara Eggleton's essay, which is set somewhat apart from the other contributions, directly following Karkov's Introduction and not in a titled section. Eggleton is also the only contributor whose work is not centered on early medieval Britain. In her personal narrative, Eggleton describes how her PhD work on the Alhambra, a multi-faceted architectural site enfolding diverse temporalities, did not easily fit into the niches of research supported at universities, leaving her with "a pluralistic and fragmented research profile" and unlikely prospects for funding or hire. Likening her own scholarship to a "ruin" like the Alhambra, Eggleton notes that the seeming deterioration of a structure gives rise to "new forms and possibilities" (19), and the rest of her essay details her reshaping of her scholarly life to incorporate various kinds of freelance intellectual work. Karkov frames Eggleton's contribution as an essay on a "slow career," but we should remember that academic careers are not fast to begin with. Graduate school is an unusually lengthy period of apprenticeship, one often followed by temporary teaching positions, so it is hardly necessary to promote slow professionalization. And Eggleton does not appear any less "productive" than many full-time university instructors. But her projects and her creativity are untethered to university timetables and accounting, so she can pursue research "as folly" and at her own pace, with less fear of failure or stalling out. Taking full advantage of this freedom, many of her projects feature clever subversions of neoliberal productivity: she is drawn to the pointless, the decorative, and the foolish. The flip side of this freedom, as she admits, is "less pay for work that I enjoy" (20). To my mind, her essay provides the most fodder for thinking about the central wager of Slow Scholarship: that aesthetic practices can change economic ones.

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Notes:

1. Especially that following the publication of Jennifer Roberts' "The Power of Patience: Teaching students the value of deceleration and immersive attention," Harvard Magazine, Nov. 2013.

2. Electronic Beowulf, ed. K. Kiernan and programmed by I. E. Iacob. https://ebeowulf.uky.edu/ebeo4.0/. The resource is now available in its 4th edition (2015).