Ascension From Hell
Leaving the confines of academic walls is an act of resistance
“Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven” Satan declared. And so the fiend left and took 1/3ʳᵈ of heaven’s army with him. Or so goes the tale of Satan’s origin story in one of the most popular retellings of Lucifer’s fall in the 17ᵗʰ-century poet John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. Not many people know that there is also an Old English version of this story nestled in the 10ᵗʰ-century early English Junius Manuscript. Further still, not many people know that the man who the manuscript was named after, Francis Junius, was a friend of John Milton’s. There is evidence that Milton knew of this little Old English poem, as discussed here, but it’s anyone’s guess as to what sort of influence it had on the poet’s epic. The similarities are striking though, as both Milton’s and the Old English Satan character are relatable and appealing. These characters are not just rebelling out of spite but are revolting against tyranny and seeking liberation. It’s difficult to resist empathizing with the fallen archangel who, in both texts, has been wronged by a seemingly tyrannical master.
I’ve often thought about those specific poems describing Satan’s expulsion when I reflect on academic hell. More broadly, it’s a running joke to refer to the ongoing problems of academic underfunding, bureaucracy, respectability politics, abuse, racism, bigotry, misogyny, and other corruptions as creating a ‘hellish landscape’ in academia. Academic survival often depends on our willingness to try and shut out the noise and focus on whatever goodness keeps us within the institution. The emotional toll still infiltrates our bodies and minds. Our coping mechanisms (or lack thereof) affect our bodies in ways we would often never imagine.
My original s̶i̶n̶ PhD topic proposed to examine Satan’s otherness in terms of liberation in Old English literature. His depiction as an “other” and the words describing him and other demons spoke to me as an untapped area of discussion in terms of how the early English viewed “others.” Let’s just say “for reasons” this type of analysis wasn’t suitable in a field that only recently had a public and global meltdown over the racist associations with the term “Anglo-Saxon.” This field of early English studies has traditionally been very white and conservative. Not to distract from the core of this piece, but it’s important to note that gatekeepers can stop potential grad students (particularly those of color) from (re-)examining ideas that don’t center white patriarchal hegemony. I’m not the first to be dissuaded from a potential topic in medieval studies and won’t be the last.
When I decided to pursue a career in academia, I had no knowledge of what to expect nor any connections to discuss graduate work, affordability, deadlines, or the application process. One thing that motivated me was the thought of inspiring students. I wanted to be that person at the front of the class that students would see and say “yes, if this curious looking medium brown-skinned person can do this, so can I.” To me representation mattered. It still does, probably more so in real life than with Hobbits, elves, and mermaids.
Many of us come to academia with the desire to inspire. What drives us is the potential impact we envision we will have touching lives, sharing truths, and opening eyes to new and exciting ideas. Reality often sets in for those without [skin] privilege very quickly. My background is working class. I had student loans. I was the first person in my family to graduate from high school, let alone college, and to many people’s surprise I made it into university and grad school. My high school was one of two schools in a city of one million people that did not have a “university day.” As students we were ushered to the city’s trade school for a day rather than the main university or one of the college campuses. There is no shame in trade schools — this is about choice. I learned from a young age that our politicians and policy makers often give up on some of us before we’ve begun to walk. We are never given the chance to run. We are never meant to.
I’m a first generation North American with most of my roots in South America. My family heritage is a proud mix from the Caribbean — we hail from the African and Asian diaspora. I came into higher education with no mentors or guidance, and like many 1ˢᵗ-generation folks just fumbled my way through many things as simple as registration, deadlines, proposals, and even choosing classes. The only thing I knew for sure is I didn’t want 8am classes. Nothing has changed on that front.
No matter the background, those pursuing academic careers soon learn along the way that the “Ivory Tower” only exists for a chosen few, that publish and perish is closer to the truth than publish or perish, and that academia is no different than other industries in the sense that having connections often makes getting on the ladder easier, if not quicker. One’s proximity to whiteness will get someone places, and white women are now replacing the traditional gatekeeping ‘old guard.’ Our gatekeepers are the liberal girl bosses; and our docile colonized brethren and sisters do a fabulous job of upholding white supremacy.
Still, in the back (or forefront) of most of our minds is wanting to share knowledge. Where some of us disagree in knowledge sharing is with regards to who we want to share this knowledge with. For some scholars there is an esoteric desire to keep ‘knowledge’ and information within a tight circle to remain separate and ideally ‘better than’ those ‘outside.’ For scholars like me, knowledge is for sharing and giving — a communal act where you see yourself as having something to offer and in return you exchange knowledge and see people grow.
For me, the privilege I have had in having access to higher education makes me reflect on my roots and the oral tradition. My ancestors — both enslaved and indentured workers — had oral traditions that they brought with them across the Atlantic Ocean. My calling involves making them proud and not hoarding what I know or have learned. Teaching for me is rooted in giving. Access to education and learning ideally creates a more equitable society, whereas many in academia use the institution to maintain elitism and keep existing power structures in place.
Academia makes us competitors. It makes us enemies with those who we might otherwise support. It makes us narcissists and corrupts us. What sights we gain in our areas of expertise, we lose in seeing each other’s humanity. I have sometimes been competitive and combative. I convinced myself that this poor kid from a “rough area” who wasn’t white, who was a female in a predominantly white, male-dominated field needed to do extra. I was extra! I published in my first year of grad school. Before that, I had built a website from scratch that contained a digital edition of an Old English poem. I did this before I had graduated with my first degree. Total nerd behavior.
That website became a staple for universities around the globe and scholars were so impressed they would use it without citing me. Even as an undergrad I realized I was good enough to do the work but not good enough to be acknowledged as a person. The politics of not being cited as scholars of color has been examined in detail by feminist theorist and scholar Dr. Sara Ahmed who offers guidance and warns against reproducing academic inequalities. See here, here, and here.
My first few years out of grad school were not unlike many other early career scholars — full of anxiety and pressure to land a job. I didn’t get a job or postdoc right away, but was fortunate enough to work on a digital project outside my field. While on the market, I published my first book and applied to every position in every country that offered jobs in my field. I wasn’t picky. I convinced myself I could move to and live in places that given 20/20 hindsight would have been awful and violent for a scholar of color, especially a mixed-race woman.
After a couple of years on the job market, I started to question my own abilities. My supervisor wondered out loud why I wasn’t landing a job. My mentor’s concern did the opposite of providing comfort; instead it reinforced my own anxiety. My CV was competitive and senior scholars kept reassuring me that it would speak for itself.
It didn’t. My body did.
Comments like “you don’t need help Mary, that’s why I’m putting my energy into helping this other graduate student” were difficult to square with others like “you don’t look like an ‘Anglo-Saxonist.’” Off the record comments by committee members that showed concern over whether students would see me as a medievalist began to sink in. Still, I kept applying. I was on every listserv, website, and org for fear I would miss an advertisement for that job that had my name on it.
Life almost never pans out as planned. As academics we are conditioned to be “tough” or “toughen up.” We are trained to take and handle criticism even if that criticism becomes personal and vindictive. We bury our feelings and emotions in work. We busy ourselves with the next publication, talk, or lecture. The question of “What next?” consumes us more than asking our own selves how we are doing. We constantly convince ourselves to work and work harder. We hardly give ourselves a chance to breathe.
Some who climb to the top end up as shells of what they started out as or could have become. If “arriving” or “making it” in academia means forgetting part of our humanity, cutting people down, backstabbing, fighting to be “first” with ideas, living with paranoia, imposter syndrome, or even narcissism, then who are we? No matter if one is in STEM, the Social Sciences or Humanities, where and when do we leave compassion, empathy, and our humanity behind on our academic journeys? People are busy doing ‘mesearch,’ not ‘research,’ not for knowledge-is-power sake but to gain access to power and maintain the status quo.¹
After several years on the job market, I started thinking of plan B. If there is advice I can offer potential grad students or current ones it is this: have a Plan B and C before you graduate. You may have all the right ideas and CV lines, and you may even land a dream job, but academic life is grueling, particularly for people of color and especially for Black women. You may want to pivot out for any reason, and that’s okay.
I stopped applying for academic jobs after a few years on the job market, but I stayed connected to my field. This is something academics don’t discuss enough. Being an independent scholar should not mean being cut off from one’s field, but this requires some generosity on the part of affiliated scholars. For me, I kept publishing, presented at conferences (by applying for grants or presenting remotely), stayed connected in orgs, did public outreach and writings, and served on committees without pay. Yes, that part. There is usually no financial gain to this.
Accessibility to libraries and resources is often one of the main hinderances to independent scholarship. Journals and publishing are extortionate but there are ways to find access and there are people willing to share resources. Share your resources. I once served on an ad hoc committee to represent independent scholars in a large org. I suggested the org provide an affiliation so that independent scholars would have at least some access to resources. It was immediately jettisoned because inclusivity is just an illusion in academia. It will come as no surprise that I had no patience for that org and served no real purpose there, so I quietly left (yes, I do things quietly too). Inclusivity means including precarious scholars. Remember that a lot of the most vulnerable and marginalized are the ones pushed out of their fields. Keeping them in the loop is solidarity and often antiracist/ally praxis.
Eventually jobs started coming to me. Being head-hunted brought a wave of emotions and self doubt as to what I had to offer. Critics often write these offers off as me being loud and sometimes obnoxious but the truth is my CV had always spoken for itself, comparatively speaking, for an early career scholar. Critics will scour the CV (or books) of a Black, Indigenous or other woman of color with a fine-tooth comb but will put any old filler in theirs to highlight their own mediocrity. It was years of gaslighting, sidelining, and misogynoir that had left me wondering if I was good enough; but the truth is, if you are like me, we are good enough. I was, but the system is always rigged to favor whiteness and those who will uphold it. Academia wants pets not threats.
One position I was offered I considered most carefully. I thought after the 2020 uprisings for racial justice that there was an opportunity to work within an institution and help facilitate change. I won’t lie, capitalism forces us to make choices based on our financial situations too. Still, it was under a false belief that change was more possible from within, and that having a supportive university was conceivable that I convinced myself that an affiliation was necessary. Tempted by the luxury and privilege of more access to resources, and having a “title” that people could not deny would finally give me legitimacy. So many people had refused to see me as their equal, let alone a scholar, that I thought this position was necessary.
Institutional promises of diversifying, fostering growth, and inspiring a new generation has fallen flat since 2020. The idea that being at a prestigious institution validates you as a scholar when you are a scholar of color, and a woman at that, is as much a myth as Ariel being white (Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘Little Mermaid’ was closer to green in case you were wondering). Not only are people still unwilling to see some of us as scholars with credentials who earned our titles, critics work even harder out of jealousy and malevolence to silence and destroy us. Make no mistake, this harm is not inflicted by the general public. The most vicious critics you will find will be scholars who have nothing but malicious intent, particularly against those who speak out about white supremacy and patriarchal heteronormativity.
The white, neoliberal capitalist lie is that you need to wait until you get to the top to change “the system,” but much of that sort of change is often symbolic, superficial, and performative. Using “burn it down” as a motto has been sullied and disconnected from being a meaningful call of action. For people who want liberation, for those in racial and social justice movements, to those fighting settler colonialism in the Americas, Australia, Palestine & beyond, to burn things down is to tear down structures of inequality and to work on restorative (in some cases land back) justice. To build anew. To ‘burn it down’ is to be part of a revolution. It is to revolt and say enough is enough. But it is not enough to just say the words. These calls to arms require actions and often this means saying no or no more. It means being ethical and prioritizing equity over ego.
The field of Old English Studies has been a trashfire for several years (but less publicly it has been a trashfire for decades). We’ve had wave after wave of controversy and with that has come moments of change and transition. I realized during 2019 after I stepped down as a token/2ⁿᵈ Vice President of one of the field’s most prestigious orgs that I didn’t need to be in academia to make change. This is a key point I hope many grad students, early career, and other precarious scholars will take away from this piece.
I can’t promise that backlash won’t come. It does when you are fighting those in power but change is possible from the ground up. Critically, your voice is more persuasive than some of your more established white peers and they know it. They have been silent and it scares them that there are people less privileged than them who are brave enough to speak up. Your ‘burn it down’ is not lip service that merely maintains the status quo. Their shame is what motivates them to silence you and they know you speak truth to power and are equally qualified for their jobs. Solidarity for them has its limits and you should know your place.
This past September was the third anniversary of my exodus from ISXX (formerly the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists) and having had many conversations on podcasts, given lectures, written in public and traditional academic publications, it is fitting that the biggest presses for literary anthologies in the Anglo-American world, Norton Anthology and Broadview Press Anthologies have both put out statements that they will no longer use the term “Anglo-Saxon” in lieu of a more accurate and ethical alternative. University departments and courses across the world have chosen to update their terminology, as have authors, students, and the general public. I still get the odd email or Twitter comment from strangers who are grateful for helping them along on their own learning journeys. Change continues to be a team effort. I did not make a difference on my own but I accept that my name became attached to both an antiquated term and a particular movement for change.
I would be lying to say that this type of activism hasn’t taken its toll. I’m tired. Still, racial and social justice is worth its fight. It’s useful to point out that negativity and resistance comes from a segment of society that not only fears change but pretends they don’t fear us. Black feminist author bell hooks described this best when she said that “sometimes people try to destroy you precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.”
In Dr. Elan Pavlinich’s article “Revolting Sites,” he summarizes the events surrounding ISXX’s name-change and the initial exodus of scholars from the org after my departure. Pavlinich referred to me and a colleague, Dr. Adam Miyashiro, as those escaping bondage described in the Old English narrative of Lucifer’s fall. Pavlinch writes:
“just as Satan dramatizes the bondage he experiences in Hell, Miyashiro and Rambaran-Olm document the apparatuses of oppression that continue to objectify, ostracize, and undo scholars of color. They render their restrictions sites of revolt.” (422)
Some of us want to be free. Echoing the words of political scientist Dr. Emmanuel Hansen who built on the work of psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon: “The disease is alienation. The cause is colonization. The cure is revolution. The destiny is freedom.”
None of the actions of more radical medievalists of color and accomplices were motivated by sheer destruction without wanting to build something better. But the field of medieval studies as a whole was not ready. I still don’t think it is. In the past three years the org formerly known as ISXX has never reached out, which impresses on some of those most marginalized that racial and restorative justice remains a lesser or non-existent priority. Order has been restored in h̶e̶a̶v̶e̶n̶ their org.
I’ve seen people say things like “you deserve to be in academia” or “it’s criminal that you aren’t in academia” and while I appreciate the sentiment, I believe we often convince ourselves that academia deserves us. Academia doesn’t deserve me. It probably doesn’t deserve you either, particularly if you are one of those voices fighting the system, trying to be ethical in your scholarship and praxis, and working not just towards “diversity” but in divesting from white supremacy and heteronormative patriarchy.
I get it if you have to stay. There are many reasons why people remain in academia — from needing stability in an unstable world to research possibilities or the love of the classroom/research. Sometimes staying in is out of one’s control, and there is [usually] no shame in that. Still, never convince yourself that you are worth the abuse, the unpaid hours, the hostility, the erasure, the backstabbing, and microaggressions/blatant racism especially if you are a BIPOC or intersecting marginalized scholar. No one can take your achievements and qualifications away. You earned your title but you didn’t give over the right to be treated without dignity and respect.
I’m leaving the traditional walls of academia because it doesn’t align with my vision of what education, sharing knowledge, exchanging ideas, and treating people with decency and respect looks like. Privileged people play respectability politics when it suits them and shirk when those of us who are constantly disrespected fight back. We are ‘uncivil,’ ‘disruptive,’ and ‘unprofessional.’ Academia continues to create the same hierarchies in how it runs, who makes it, what color matters (yes colorism and racial hierarchies exist in the academy) and in (re)enforcing elitism. We can’t be less disruptive until we² feel safe in the academy. Many of us are not safe.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know and how you play that game. I’ve lost a handful of friendships with people who I respected and admired because we let academic politics come between us over liberation and racial/social justice. Time will tell if some of us ever salvage relationships. For me, I want to be liberated and liberate. I also want to share what I have and know. I want to break down systems of elitism by teaching those who don’t have access to information and resources. I can’t be true to myself and do all that in academia.
I want education to be accessible. Through public scholarship and activism, I’ve taught and reached more individuals than I ever would have dreamed of. That is a threat to elitists. There are people who do not have the financial means to pay for university. Do they deserve to be left out? There are people who just have little time or learn differently than the structured and sometimes rigid university system enforces. Do they not deserve access to higher education and knowledge?
Academia is fighting to exist right now. The challenges facing higher education are varied, from lack of funding, to targeting Humanities, to politicians making terms, courses and phrases “boogeymen”. Who is served if we continue to shut out the general public, the dilettante, the “everyman” who can and should fight with us. Crucially, why do we not see those on the outside as our equals?
Black femme radical and author, Audre Lorde remains one of the most misused and misquoted Black women by white liberals. Let me illustrate how we might interpret some of her words more sincerely. When she writes in “Masters Tools”: “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” she is referring to working within “the system” or the institutions that keep us docile. She goes on to say that “they may allow us [oppressed] temporarily to beat him [the oppressor] at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” Essentially, genuine change can’t happen from within. The institution is the ‘master’s house.’ We all know that but try and convince ourselves otherwise. Black feminist work could be used as a means of liberation even within academia but instead many twist words like those of Lorde to protect their [mostly white] selves from actually doing “the work.”
I firmly believe that if we are going to shift power to the people we need to be on the same page. In order to do that we need to share our resources, our knowledge, and information. A team effort means there will be those who remain on the “inside” but there needs to be a concerted effort to build solidarity on the “outside.”
I realized I didn’t need to play that game when most of the changes I’ve helped facilitate (interrogating language and terms, disrupting orgs and institutions, having anthologies change inaccurate and outdated terminology, helping create policies on racism, discrimination, and sexual harassment) came without an affiliation, as an “outsider.”
For now, I’m going to be giving university-style lectures with resources and more on Patreon for a small amount one might spend on coffee (or maybe less depending on your caffeine habit). No need to spend thousands of dollars but I can use the tools I was given to share with you and you can either learn along with me, use these materials in your classroom or if you want, partner with me and let’s grow together.
Like Lucifer (or Satan, if you prefer) I’m not willing to work as a passive scholar, submissive and obedient and palatable to neoliberal or conservative tastes. My main reason for not accepting any more academic positions is because I can no longer be complicit in this system. I have already taken some angels turned demons with me when I left an org years ago, but there is still room for more from all corners of academia. And when you are ready to leave, there will be a seat for you too. Let’s raise hell together.
Better to reign in Hell than serve in academic “heaven.”
- Mesearch for me is an almost total absence of care about a ‘hot’ topic (like race, queer, or gender studies) that will look good on one’s CV.
2. “we” here is Black and Indigenous women, those who are half-Black and other women of color who cannot pass as white and don’t have skin privilege.
*Special thanks to Aditya Iyer for helpful feedback on an earlier draft. All errors are my own.