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Pillaging Public Perceptions: Finding Your Career as a Medievalist

My name is Dayanna Knight and I am an independent scholar, early career researcher and medieval archaeologist based in California. You may have already heard of some of my work if you are a long time reader of Medievalists.net as they’ve been kind enough to share when I have news. Generally it’s about my books. My first, Viking Nations, was based on my doctoral research into medieval identity development in the North Atlantic archipelagos. Its illustration heavy and attempts to bring the disparate threads of study into the early medieval world of Viking culture back into a more cohesive context. Pen and Sword Books did a beautiful job producing it. You can find it on Amazon here. My second, The Viking Coloring Book soon available from the Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, is what has occupied my desk and pen since early 2016. The story of how I made the jump from trained academic to designing coloring books is one I have only recently begun discussing publicly.

“Why did you choose to do this?”

As a researcher ultimately curiosity. My home area libraries as a kid allowed me to explore rows of books on classical Greece, the Roman Empire and the art of both ancient China and Egypt. The Viking selection was less than one shelf but included Graham-Campbell’s The Vikings: The British Museum, London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. At the time, I could not understand why the stories I’d heard about Vikings were so violent yet the art in that collection was so beautiful. As I grew older I knew I wanted to help forward cultural studies. I attended my local community college to save money. I was a peer tutor for most of that time. I’ve been told in the past that this is no longer necessary to mention – I’ve received my doctorate and the door is shut on that part of life. No. Some of you might be trying to decide if you can make that education climb yourself. I’m here. I made it and I’ve not starved to death yet. You will to.

Anyways, back to the story. I ended up transferring to UC Berkeley as a junior in the anthropology department and dove into proper cultural research. Still intent on studying Vikings I took classes in the Scandinavian Department, including the graduate level courses in Old Norse. I looked abroad for graduate school programs, hoping to be closer to the sites I had been reading about for years. My graduate school experience was not normal. I’ve written about that previously here. The best points are that I got to study Vikings with the researchers at the University of Nottingham. Even as a community college alumna my work was still good enough to take me from the Central Valley of California to England where I got to meet those writing the books I’d been reading for years.

After graduate school I came back to California and started the rounds of applications for academic posts. I was contracted to produce my first book, but aside from that I was not able to afford medieval research. Even now library access is a serious issue for me. That physically hurt after all I’d gone through during my doctoral course. In the meantime, I began substitute teaching. After I was unable to find a coloring book I liked I began to draw pictures of the islands and artifacts I missed studying. I ran copies of these off for my classes when they were good and began to listen to what the kids asked and talked about while coloring their scenes. At this point I decided maybe I could do this on a larger scale. I needed help to start, from more than the kids. Maybe if I did it well enough my research access needs would be resolved. Maybe, just maybe, if I pitched it right I’d be able to still break stereotypes somehow. I ran the idea for a Viking themed coloring book past friends locally and abroad, showed them samples. I needed both equipment and time. I decided if I couldn’t get a university to look at my applications and resolve the issue maybe if enough of the public contributed just a little bit I could still move forward.

The Viking Coloring Book Project has emerged from economic necessity. In order to achieve my goals properly I needed money for equipment, research and to take time away from on-call substitute teaching primary and secondary school. I decided to try my luck with the idea on the crowd funding website Kickstarter.com. I went with Kickstarter as they are quite open about their practices but also so backers would not be charged if the project did not reach its target goal. I wear all hats for the project currently so marketing was limited to social media and online outreach while the campaign was live. The topic of Vikings, in general, is growing in popularity. There are several reasons for this, the History Channel television show being included amongst them. The early medieval world of the Viking Age beckons from modern historical fiction from authors such as Victoria Whitworth and Justin Hill. It filters through medieval fantasy such as Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings and Martin’s Game of Thrones, speaking of times long ago. Politically – it is hard to overlook the roles the concept of “Viking” has been linked to during the 20th and 21st century. The stereotypes provide a skewed world view, one that is distinctly male and expressing nineteenth ideals regarding skin color and social worth. I have written elsewhere about the impact this has had on modern considerations of early medieval Scandinavian and North Atlantic identities.

In order to have a campaign go live on Kickstarter you have to show a reasonable goal, one which reflects a proper budget. In many ways it is similar to academic grant writing. The portion of this I spent the most time on was designing backer rewards I would still be able to produce even if I was unable to find the VCB a publisher. With all of this set and 2016 newly begin I hit the button to turn the campaign on for its 30 days. By the end of my first day I was over $500. The next morning I woke up to my rapidly growing community of backers having raised more than $1,000. I emailed my local TV news program, CBS affiliate Good Day Sacramento, to inquire if they were interested in my talking about the VCB on air. They were very supportive and made certain I went on when they would be broadcast across the widest area- not only the Central Valley region of California but also the San Francisco Bay Area as well. This is a relationship I’ve managed to maintain so now whenever I have a local medieval themed event or book signing for my first book, I’m able to get a short on-air plug.

By the end of the month the much wider impact than I had initially believed possible resulted in the goal being more than doubled. It is hard to express how fantastic that felt. I mean, that is a result you might expect from a research group or a university grant proposal, not from an early career medieval archaeologist moonlighting as a substitute teacher. I went in to the 30 days knowing I wanted to try my idea and went out of it knowing that other people in the world wanted to help make it happen. During the process a community connected by a mutual interest in the medieval northern past became better connected because of the Viking Coloring Book’s basic social media strategy. Classes of students followed along and even now continue to demand to know what it is like to be an archaeologist, a medieval anthropologist, an illustrator. Many have individuals who are creating heritage based games and scene ideas themselves. These shyly get shown from a battered notebook at some point during their day with me, so, as they always very seriously explain, “You will always be able to make us more coloring books about Vikings, Dr D. See what I’ve done to help!”

The VCB Project went into motif creation phase once the campaign hit the initial goal online to add samples to the campaign portfolio. I used Instagram to begin to provide progress shots of the motif creation. in the meantime, I prepared for conference season and began the process of looking for an academic publisher willing to take on the VCB. I brought the current portfolio with me to the 22nd annual ACMRS conference, intent on getting more feedback from some of my friends and colleagues in attendance. I am very glad I did that as ultimately ACMRS agreed to take on the VCB as part of their Occasional Paper Series.

The VCB motif creation truly began in earnest once Kickstarter deposited my campaign funds a few weeks later. I got the much needed equipment and computer programs I needed to create scenes quickly. Most importantly I paid some subscriptions to be able to access current journals again. I won’t lie- I cried at that. If you’ve never been a community college student or a substitute teacher with a doctorate it might not affect you so. But the fact that in this day and age, when archaeology is being removed from A levels in the UK and departments are being streamlined down to more popular locations a group of strangers are willing to fund a project such as the Viking Coloring Book is pretty amazing. I maintain contact with the growing VCB network via update posts and production photographs.

Making a Living as an Author Illustrator

I’ll stress this here- I have a day job. Substitute teaching for my district is on summer hiatus currently but most of the year I work regular elementary hours. I must admit I am powerful attached to eating. Until I can reliably pay all my bills, rent and need for food the day job is a vital necessity. Writing books, on the other hand, is rather like planting money trees. Early on there is little fruit but later on that grows. With Kickstarter I was able to plant a second tree. They’re young trees yet.

There are some side aspects to the Viking Coloring Book Project. I’ve now got a growing body of watercolor paintings linked to the VCB motifs. At the time of writing this there are approximately 60 of them. I sell originals and prints of these at conferences and on Etsy. I scan some onto my Redbubble account for print on demand. I take commissions for archaeological illustrations such as included in Carolyne Larrington’s recent book, but also for pets and landscapes. Now that the first of the Viking Coloring Book volumes is nearing full release I am booking Viking themed events. Sometimes these are a traditional lecture, sometimes it’s to design a medieval gaming tournament. Every little bit helps to make certain I get to keep conducting my research into medieval identity.

Thoughts

If you had asked me when I left graduate school if I could picture myself creating coloring books I probably would have laughed. I’d been trained for a proper academic role – and I, like many, could see little other way to continue my research into medieval identity aside from a university post. Jumping into the world of crowd funding showed me there might be other alternatives. Don’t get me wrong I would love an academic post. I enjoy teaching my own content. I’m qualified to do so. For now that is not happening though. I simply don’t have the necessary network now that I am back in California. As a medievalist, I basically have created my own job. I like it – being able to claim making coloring books as your job when you are not subbing is pretty fun. I’m set to influence the generations that will provide future medievalists. My research needs are started to be sorted. I have concepts ready for more VCB volumes – more thematic is what I have planned at the moment.

The Viking Coloring Book Project was created to provide a historically-themed coloring book to the public that focuses beyond martial cultural stereotyping. By providing a Viking-themed coloring book it is hoped a new generation of students will be enchanted by the early medieval world and its achievements. I achieved my objective to have my work accepted by an academic publishing group as I wanted to maintain academic rigor personally on the project. My archaeological goals for this project are to utilize archaeological illustration methodology to combat stereotypes associated with the Viking Age. I have included sites, animal and plant species as well as reconstructed scenes. I hope to increase public interest in the medieval world that is expressed in the archaeological record. By undertaking such a project I’ve been able to stay active with medieval archaeological research in spite of being an independent scholar.

If you’d like to follow the progress of the Viking Coloring Book the Kickstarter site for the campaign is located here.

I also discuss progress and life on my blog, Viking Specialist at Large.

I’m on Twitter at @DayannaKnight

On Facebook at Dr Dayanna Knight

If you have questions, would like to discuss a Viking Coloring Book event, or Viking themed short course I can be messaged directly on the above accounts.

If you’d like to see my watercolor work my Etsy store is available here.

My Redbubble portfolio is available here.

I add new works periodically – probably more now that it is summer and I am on hiatus from substitute teaching. Please feel free to check it out – every little bit helps!

Viking Nations can be found here.

Information on the release of The Viking Coloring Book can be found here.

 

 

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