Becoming the Representation

By: Valerie Piro

Valerie in the library

“You can’t be what you can’t see” has become a call for representation and diversity.  Essentially, the way to increase diversity in any given field is to recruit or promote the work of those from underrepresented backgrounds. Once others from such backgrounds see that it is possible to be in a field because they see someone like them, more from that background will enter that field. But what happens when you are in a profession where you feel at home, but no one looks like you in that profession?

I am a medieval-historian-in-training. I have been since the first day of my freshman year of college, when I wheeled into a lecture hall for the course “Medieval Europe” and fell head over heels for writings on old parchment, in dead languages.

Admittedly, it is a little odd that I would want to study medieval history. For starters, the region I study, Europe, is notorious for old and inaccessible architecture. Indeed, there are some libraries in England I cannot enter.

On top of that, no other medieval historian looks like me. I have met a couple of brilliant wheelchair users in academia (one of whom is a medievalist), but they’re both men, Christopher Baswell and Michael Stein come to mind. There are vast differences between how academia is experienced based on gender alone. Could you imagine how disability factors into things?

As an undergraduate, and more frequently now as a PhD candidate, I attend as many medieval history events on and off campus as I can. I’m eager to learn, but I also hope to find another woman who looks like me, who could provide guidance or at least let me know that a tenure-track job is attainable, but such a meeting has yet to occur.

The mentors I had in college were brilliant, but they couldn’t tell me whether my wheelchair might count against me in a job interview. Anyone involved in a hiring committee should base their decisions on the strength of the applicant (e.g. number of papers published, teaching experience). But my inability to find wheelchair-using female professors suggests that either no women who used wheelchairs saw medieval history as a career path, or, worse, that those who sought that path were told they did not belong.

Valerie on campus

Thankfully, no professor I’ve worked with has yet to dissuade me from seeking an academic career. It means there is some belief that I could be a scholar. I’ve come up, however, against campuses on steep hills, buildings without accessible bathrooms or elevators, tricky cobblestones and sidewalks that have resulted in more than one fall, and student housing with elevators that seemed to break down at the least opportune moments, e.g. the morning of my first final exam freshman year. Structurally speaking, academia might not be ready for me.

But as long as the medieval community judges me on my potential and my scholarship, I am hopeful that I will not need to meet a female wheelchair user with a tenured position to alleviate my fears. Perhaps, instead, I could see what my advisors see and become her.

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