Monday, May 24, 2010

Controversy over medieval conference location

The site of next year's annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America is in doubt after scholars raised objections that it is being held in Arizona, the US state which recently passed controversial legislation against illegal immigration. As several scholars have made calls for the conference to be boycotted, officials with the academy have confirmed that they are examining several options, including moving the meeting out-of-state.

Medieval blogs such as In the Middle have raised the issue in the last few days, and have drawn extensive discussion and interest. One of the In the Middle's editors, Jeffrey J. Cohen, has published an open letter to the Medieval Academy of America (MAA) calling on them to "seriously consider not holding its planned annual meeting" in Tempe, Arizona. Over seventy other scholars have also signed the letter.

Their main objection is the immigration law passed in Arizona last month which makes it a crime to be in the United States illegally. The law also requires legal immigrants to carry their registration documents at all times and allows police officers to ask people about their immigration status if they have reasonable grounds for suspicion. Critics of the law have called it racist and unconstitutional, and that is aimed against the large Hispanic community in Arizona.

The law, considered to be the toughest in the United States, has generated a great deal of debate across the country. Cohen, a professor of English and Director of the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute at George Washington University, wrote that the the law is "almost carte blanche for police intimidation and harassment is, to my mind, racist and just wrong."

Dozens of other medieval scholars and bloggers added their views about the law. In an interview with, Cohen said, "I've been a bit surprised at -- and heartened by -- the passion medievalists have brought to the discussion. Despite the fact that most of us study a time period a millennium away, we obviously care deeply about contemporary social justice. Some of the comments made in support of not holding the annual meeting were personal, and affecting: one from someone who'd grown up in apartheid South Africa and seen how a boycott could work; another from someone who'd suffered from being labeled an alien herself.

"But I also liked that despite the way this Arizona law makes many of us feel, the discussion has been cautious and mainly level-headed. People have emphasized the complexity of the situation, and most trust that the MAA will make the right choice here. So it's good to see the confidence in the integrity of our professional organization and its elected leaders."

Officials with the Medieval Academy of America have already made responses to the situation. MAA President Elizabeth A.R. Brown wrote to Professor Cohen and remarked that "We have been concerned about this problem from the moment the governor of Arizona signed the bill concerning immigrants. We are all following developments closely and are keenly aware of the importance of the issues that are at stake."

MAA Executive Director Paul E. Szarmach told that the controversy over the Arizona location has only emerged in the few last weeks, and that they are currently gathering views and suggestions on which course of action to take. He has confirmed that they are examining the option of moving the conference outside of Arizona, but that they would have to pay a cancellation fee of $30 000 to the Chaparral Suites Hotel. He notes that their are "strong feelings, strong ideas" about the issue, and that "people want to do the right thing." Szarmach expects a decision to be made within the next few weeks.

The annual meeting of the Medieval Academy of America is one of the largest medieval studies conferences in North America - the 2010 meeting was held at Yale University and drew over 150 speakers to give papers and participate in round table discussions. The location of the annual meeting changes every year, and it was last held in Tempe in 2001 - it is hosted by the Arizona State University, which is home to the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. The decision to have the 2011 annual meeting be held in Arizona was made over two years ago, long before the anti-immigration legislation was even proposed.

Medievalists are not the only people thinking of boycotting the state - since the immigration law was passed at least 19 conferences have been cancelled in Arizona, and there have been calls for Major League Baseball to move its 2011 All Star Game from Pheonix unless the law is repealed.

Here are some background videos about the Immigration Law in Arizona:

Sources: In the Middle, Medieval Academy of America