Omphaloskepsis: Scaling Ivory Towers – SCA and Academia

The Society for Creative Anachronism has its share of people doing some landmark research within experimental archaeology. Yet, within academic circles, many SCAdians are told to de-emphasize their involvement. This article will go into why SCAdians have such a polarizing view within academia, and will also discuss ways to give a better impression of the organization going forward.

The Bad News

SCAdians, we’ve got a bad reputation in a lot (not all, of course) of purely academic circles, and unfortunately, the reputation is well-earned. From telling curators that they don’t know how to do their jobs to interrupting presenters or directly taking research that is not meant to be public at conferences like the International Congress on Medieval Studies, we have earned a poor reputation. Simply put, as much as we value information and learning within our society, we don’t actually respect the work of people whose livelihood depends on their own research. We’re pretty selfish about it.

A pretty egregious example happened to a friend of mine who worked at a museum and does do some pretty big work within the SCA. My friend’s work information was stalked by someone in the SCA, who emailed a demand through the general curatorial email for their workplace for access for a piece at another museum; a museum that my friend had no contacts at.

It’s a bad look.

It’s a bad look because the person who sent the email inferred that because my friend worked at a museum, they would have access to all museums and their curatorial teams because they were also a museum professional. It’s a bad look because not many museums are keen on individuals getting called on the curatorial email to do something that wasn’t work that the particular individual museum institution had connections to.

It is the equivalent of someone outside of the company one works asking for a special favour to reach out to another related company because it’s related and to have it be done during work hours because they’re a part of the same social club. Sounds ridiculous, right? No one would actually do this. And yet, it’s cases like these that show that we really don’t respect the work of people who do this as their job.

It shows a lack of respect for the job that people are doing – their livelihoods are literally impacted by this. Thankfully, in the case of my friend, their curatorial team laughed it off, but in the days of budget crunches and cuts, many museum staff simply cannot afford to answer questions for other institutions.

Another bad look is telling curators and researchers that what they know is wrong. I’ve been prone to do this. We all know of debunked research (my favourite is that of the Norse clothing saying Allah), but there’s a way to discuss it that doesn’t denigrate the research that someone has done. Researchers disagree with one another a lot, but instead of sniping each other, they write papers explaining how the research could be interpreted another way.

So, how do we fix this?

There’s a lot of damage that we’ve done, and this will take several years of work for us to counteract this damage. By no means is this list exhaustive, but what we can do here is start to make those repairs. Fundamentally, arts and sciences in the Society is an academic pursuit – we happen to be having fun with it, but it’s still an academic pursuit. The least we can do is hold ourselves to some form of standard of behaviour.

1) Don’t be a jerk.
This is probably the easiest to start with. Value the time of the people of the institutions that you are asking questions. To quote Silverwing’s First Law: “There is only one rule in the SCA: ‘Thou shalt not be tacky’. All the rest is commentary.” Thank people for their time – let them know that you appreciate talking with them. All of the geeking and the rest – it’ll happen. It’s worth it. Just don’t be a jerk.

2) Cite your sources.
You aren’t out in the field or in a museum doing the research yourself (unless you are, in which case, please skip this). If you spoke to a researcher yourself, then mention that in your documentation. Mention where your research came from. While we’re on the subject of sources, let’s also remember what source types are – if we’re going to talk like the people we want to be like, we need to use terms the way they use them.

Primary Sources are immediate, first-hand accounts or objects from people who had a direct connection with it. Examples include eyewitness accounts, speeches, diaries, letters, or items like photographs.

Secondary Sources are one step removed from primary sources, though they often quote or otherwise use primary sources. They can cover the same topic, but can add a layer of interpretation and analysis.

Tertiary Sources are two or more steps removed from primary sources, and frequently consolidate information from both primary and secondary sources.

When speaking to researchers, you’re interacting with a valuable Secondary Source – someone who can contextualize the information in a way that SCAdians looking at a single art source can’t. (And believe me, this contextualized information is so incredibly valuable to understanding our medieval forebears.)

3) Don’t criticize the professionals for their choices in recreations.
Y’all. We’re doing the same thing with a lot of the same limits. We can’t all afford $100 silks. Some come closer than others, but in the experimental archaeology realm, we’re all in the same boat. Raw materials are expensive, and building the skills to work with them takes time and energy.

4) Build off of existing research.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. As much as I kvetch about the Victorians, they did do some good work in being curious. We learned from them to . . . well, not do what they did out in the field or in their recreations. That said, we can look at the research of others, take a small portion of that research to build off of, and expand what we know just a bit further. Instead of sniping, write a paper. Do the research. Learn to write a rebuttal. Think of the goal as expanding human knowledge – not just your own. After all, seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake is a virtue. Seeking knowledge through dubious methods to get ahead of others is a dick move. Don’t be a dick.

Lastly, I do want to say that we are human. We screw up a lot. I screw up a lot, and I’ve done this to professionals, for which I am working towards fixing. By being collaborative with our research, by seeking knowledge and working with others, we can really learn to scale the ivory towers and work alongside those who have made this their life’s work.

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