Medieval-Studies Group Divided Over Whether to Hold Meeting in Arizona

August 20, 2010

A national organization devoted to medieval studies is facing a backlash from some of its members over its decision to go ahead with a conference next April in Arizona, where a controversial immigration law enacted this year has drawn sharp criticism from many academics.

Some members of the Medieval Academy of America wrote an open letter this month to the organization assailing its decision to keep the conference in Tempe, Ariz., despite previous complaints in May. The group that wrote the latest letter includes leaders of a scholarly organization called "Monsters" for short, for people who conduct research on examples of monstrosity in past and present societies.

The academy "had an opportunity to send a message to students interested in the field that the medievalist community is inclusive and welcoming," executive members of Monsters wrote in the letter. "Instead, it has sent the opposite message."

Before announcing its decision to proceed with the Tempe meeting, the academy polled its membership about the conference, and about a quarter of members responded. Of those respondents, 46.5 percent wanted to hold the conference in Tempe as planned, but 42 percent wanted to hold it somewhere else. Members of the academy's executive committee said they considered precedents such a decision would create, efforts that had already gone toward planning the conference, and logistical and financial concerns with changing plans.

The members who wrote the latest letter said they would boycott the conference and withdraw from the academy. They said they were concerned that the potential impact of the Arizona law—which expands the state's role in cracking down on illegal immigrants—aligns closely with the construction of "otherness" that they study.

"Once a group of people has been repeatedly depicted as not quite human, their mistreatment is to be expected," the members wrote in the letter. "We cannot stand silently while these acts occur, as to do so would be, through our silence, to voice our implicit consent."

Other higher-education groups have boycotted or avoided meetings in Arizona since the passage of the immigration law, SB 1070. The American Educational Research Association, for instance, voted in May to stop holding meetings in Arizona because of the immigration law, and a major student-affairs association relocated a meeting that was scheduled for Tucson, Ariz.