It is humbling for me to look over the list of previous executive directors of the New Chaucer Society, and to join in the same work. I hope to sustain and to develop our organization with all of you, with the President, and with the Trustees, enjoying the intimidating good fortune to follow Ruth Evans, who has given NCS six years of her remarkable gifts of guidance for, and gracious representation of the Society. I am very glad (and relieved) that she will take up the position of President for the coming two years, and I want to thank Ardis Butterfield for her engaged leadership of the Society, and for her generous advice to me in approaching this transition.
As you will know from Ruth’s remarks, NCS is a very healthy organization in intellectual and financial terms. Our Biennial Congress continues to be a rich experience—with special thanks this year to Professor Alex Gillespie, Victoria University President Will Robins, to the other members of local organizing committee, and to Claire Waters and Bobby Meyer-Lee, co-chairs of the Program Committee, along with the other members. The Congress includes the Graduate Student Workshop; the return of the Mentorship Program; and the Preconference Teachers’ Workshop—a leading initiative in now widely energized efforts to engage with K12 teachers. Studies in the Age of Chaucer is an annual journal of the first order, publishing scholarship at a very selective rate of acceptance under the editorship of Sarah Salih, along with Book Reviews editor Shayne Legassie. The editorship, as you know, will pass to the capable hands of Jennifer Jahner, Michelle Karnes, and Sebastian Sobecki, while Stephanie Amsel continues to maintain the Chaucer Bibliography along with the help of several of our colleagues. In the years ahead, I will miss the conciliar voices of outgoing trustees Candace Barrington, Alexandra Gillespie, and David Matthews, while anticipating the opportunity to work with newly elected trustees Seeta Chaganti, David Raybin, and Marion Turner, along with continuing trustees Anthony Bale, Simon Horobin, Patricia Ingham, and Emily Steiner.
Looking back, prompted by Ruth’s sharing of the Society’s documents, and by recent queries from Wan-Chuan Kao about the Society’s formative years, I note that the history of NCS, incorporated in 1977, coincides closely with the broad decline, including some intermittent upticks, in tenure-earning positions for humanities PhDs. Looking forward, I wonder what we might do further to support those who are navigating circumstances of precarity, and to ensure ongoing inclusion of, and engagement with colleagues who do not hold tenure-earning faculty appointments at colleges and universities, as well as developing membership among middle and secondary school professionals, and among colleagues around the world. How might we do so?
As well, we might consider how to create conversations with non-academics who may not know of many changes in higher education and in the humanities, of the work we do as teachers, researchers, writers, and in many forms of service. (Toward this idea of extended public outreach, I remember Robert Bast, the founding director of the MARCO Institute at Tennessee, laughing to recall how many church groups with whom he was obliged to speak about The Da Vinci Code, then newly published, honoring the terms of outreach for a 2.2 million dollar NEH grant to found the Institute). We know that many people are interested in some idea of the Middle Ages—if only via Game of Thrones, and if often for complicated and sometimes deeply troubling reasons. We can do still more good work to engage the public—serving a moveable feast, perhaps, of lectures—and to encourage broad support for study of the Middle Ages, of the Age of Chaucer, extending the research, pedagogies, presentations and workshops of the Global Middle Ages, Global Chaucers, and Medievalists of Color.
While we consider how to continue making the Congress inclusive, some members have raised questions about the size of the meeting, and the fact that running eight to eleven concurrent sessions means, of course, that engaging in one, we miss the others. Other members have expressed concerns about the costs of travel and accommodation. While academic calendars suggest just this time frame for the Congress, organizing an international meeting at the peak of travel season in the northern hemisphere has such cost implications. We must clarify practical matters of choice in scheduling, number of participants, and matters of cost, while valuing inclusiveness and community. Every choice we make has consequences that change with time and place. We need to discuss them as a community, understanding that no outcome will be ideal for all. For example, I think it a good idea to consider meeting the Congress outside North America and Western Europe—perhaps in Australia or New Zealand, or in one of several places in southeast Asia or Asia—out of respect to colleagues who travel very long distances, and in service to the complex project of a global Middle Ages. And yet the costs of travel for many members to such a location likely would prove prohibitive; this is one among many questions of inclusivity, both practical and ethical. I encourage all of you to consider these questions, and to think of ways to work with colleagues in your area—and perhaps across geographical divides—to propose collaborative hosting for the Congress in future.
Looking further toward the future, I note that the articles of incorporation charter NCS for fifty years, and expire on 6 June 2027. What is the New Chaucer Society we want and need now and in the next nine years—and the one we might imagine for the next ninety? Does our Society still need the word “new” in its name? Will it remain in the interests and capacities of all of us working mainly in late medieval England—to say nothing of medieval studies of all disciplines—to subscribe to a number of societies that are single author or text-centered: Chaucer, Gower, Hoccleve, Pearl-poet, Piers Plowman, Lollard, Margery Kempe—just to name those immediate proximate to NCS? Can we imagine new and mutually beneficial affiliations? There is, at least, potential for growth internally, beyond the nearly seven hundred current members of NCS: in what ways and toward what ends might we grow both in our numbers, but also in our thinking, first, by re-engaging with those Chaucerians whose memberships have lapsed?
It is both a vibrant and urgent time in Chaucer studies—literally a changing world of medieval studies—as the work many of you are doing deepens and broadens our understanding of the past resonant in temporal, geographical, and cultural terms, meanwhile contesting distorted appropriations of “nation” and ethnic identities in service of dangerous agendas. I hope that all of us know that all of us are needed to engage, educate, refute, and promote, and sometimes to do such work among ourselves. We do a lot of things well, and we can always do better.
Again, I feel very fortunate for all of us and for myself to have Ruth Evans as President over the next two years. Please forgive some inevitable bobbles as I learn the ways and means of NCS, and in 2020 too, when Jessica Rezunyk will step down having served NCS so very admirably for a decade. Our yet-to-be-named program assistant in Miami will have much to learn, as do I, most of all. Thank you in advance for your patience; I will always welcome your ideas, your questions, your concerns, and your advice.