SCGMA: the Istanbul/Constantinople project kicks off!

SCGMA: the Istanbul/Constantinople project kicks off!

This week I am honored to be part of a meeting taking place at the Universiy of Minnesota. A small group of scholars is discussing the Istanbul/Constantinople project, part of a larger group and community: SCGMA.

Brandon Schapekahm and Susan Noakes

SCGMA stands for the Scholarly Community for the Globalization of the Middle Ages, a multi-campus, international group of scholars from various disciplines including Anthropology, Archeology, History and Information Library Science and dedicated to the study of the Middle Ages.

The meeting is taking place at the University of Minnesota from May 19 thru the 23rd, and is the initial planning workshop for the SCGMA members working in the Istanbul/Constantinople project.

Susan Noakes is hosting this workshop. Unfortunately, Geraldine Heng cannot be present due to family reasons.

From Noakes’ introductory comments for the seminar, which I try to document next, I will stress two for those who cannot read this whole posting:

- The importance of friendship in academic collaboration and in the very genesis of a research project;
- SCGMA is a project with a 20 year timeline.

The genesis of a project

On Wednesday and kicking-off the workshop, Dr. Noakes made what Dr. William Phillips called the most detailed account of SCGMA genesis he had heard so far. It was also a very auto-biographic account of how Noakes met Geraldine Heng after reading her2004 article entitled “Global Interconnections: Imagining the World, 500–1500″, reporting the experience of designing and teaching a course in global middle ages at the University of Texas in Austin.

A friendship developed between the two, as well as a wish to repeat that, which today would be called a very expensive curriculum! In fact, in spite of its size UT Austin did not have 6 scholars ready to teach this course. So, three scholars traveled from other parts of the country to teach their sections of the course. Given the cost of the curriculum, the College has not been able to afford to repeat this experience, which several students have referred to as a ‘life-changing experience’.

As Noakes stressed, the idea of studying the middle ages globally rather than European really started when Heng stated her course at the University of Texas at Austin. Heng wanted to begin pushing the borders of medieval studies and re-contextualize them.

Around the time that Heng conducted the course, Noakes became director of the Center for Medieval Studies at UMN. She invited Heng to UMN and both met with James Parente, Dean of Col. Of Liberal Arts. Lee Gayle DUbro, who headed the Graduate school UMN was able to fund a seminar that Heng conducted.

A 20 year timeline

During their meeting at UMN, Heng and Noakes thought that it would be good to have an initial focus on travel, trade, city planning; also the history of science as practiced outside the western as well as within the western world.

After the UMN seminar, both Heng and Noakes identified who was interested and who would have enough a commitment to this large project. This project will involve the massive digitalization of collections using methods that are not always recognized in this field’s scholarship. Only a focus on research could draw the commitment to the project by young faculty and doctoral students.

As Noakes noted though, archeologists, anthropologists of acoustics… are not used to working together. So these groups need to develop modes of collaboration and etiquette by developing ways of sharing, attribution, etc… in sum by investing in a commitment to work through and around those issues!

For all these reasons, this will be a project that will need to count on the continued commitment from a body of scholars, probably traversing several generations.

I will stop here - Susan Noakes offered a truly insightful recount of how SCGMA came to be. There could be so much more to say.

For this week, the short term goal for this SCGMA planning workshop is to get the Istambul/Constantinople project off the ground. One of the reasons to start with this are is that not many medievalists are up-to-date in the Byzantium.

One point I would like to leave my reader with is that both Noakes and Heng are adamant about ensuring the full participation from scholars originating from the areas being studied. As a rule of thumb, the decision was made right from the start that at least one third of participants should be from the part of the world being studied.

By Ana Boa-Ventura