Kalamazoo 2015

Last month I attended one of the big medieval studies conferences. This is the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University, colloquially named by the community that welcomes us, Kalamazoo (or #kzoo2015 on Twitter).

I wonder sometimes what my family members and friends imagine when I say I’m going to a medieval conference. Do they imagine me in Ren Faire garb speaking in Middle English? That is inaccurate. Others in academia guess far closer to the truth – they know we give papers and presentations, that we network and socialize. However, even conferences have flavors – how welcoming are they to outsiders? How cooperative or hostile are question and answer sessions? Are the customs more academic-professional or business-professional? And what tends to collect in an accretion disk around the conference, both marginal and indicative of its heart?

Black hole accretion disc
Artist’s impression of accretion disc around a black hole. Thankfully the centers of my profession are not nearly so all-consuming! From NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Flickr.

I’ll explore in a few parts.

1. Profession and network

We academics give papers, and medieval papers are no exception. This is a performative genre where the performance is sometimes acknowledged and sometimes disavowed. Some people read papers for 20 minutes. Others give a more extemporaneous presentation accompanied by images and text. Some are vocal and animated. Others lend primarily their voice and body language, eyes moving to and from the audience in individual cadence. I like both, but certainly they require a form of attention acquired with familiarity.

The discussions are much more accessible. At this conference, I’ve found the questioners tend to be much more appreciative of the work at hand, and try to build on and add to what people are doing. Rarely have I seen someone try to tear down someone else’s work here.

At the Q&A for my own paper on medieval game strategies as they play out in an episode of Le Morte Darthur, the questions moved from the panelists’ own work to thinking through the nascent field of medieval game studies as a whole. One recurring question at this panel, at postmedieval’s Quantum Medievalisms panel, at Richard Utz‘s excellent plenary talk on the future of medieval study, and on the following panel presentation on the next generation of medieval studies: how are the terms shifting to think through both traditional medieval studies – understanding the medieval as the medieval – and medievalism – understanding the appeal of the medieval even now? How do we form our studies going forward? Kalamazoo works as a space to build these answers together, hopefully without subsuming the multiple ideas currently at display. It’s harder to subsume people’s ideas when they’re in the same room as you.*

Hence networking. The groups I’ve met – the International Arthurian Society, the people in Spenser at Kalamazoo, Distaff, BABEL, Medieval Game Cultures – without an exception they are open to meeting with new people. Getting an invitation to a meal is a matter of asking, and their receptions are welcoming.

At any rate, the negatives listed in the recent Conference Manifesto that appeared in the New York Times only sometimes pertain. Both presenters and questioners do pretty well.

2. People and enthusiasm

First, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who choose to attend the conference exclusively because they like the subject. I met someone who was retired from pre-K education who loves learning about Anglo-Saxon England. A couple I had lunch with last year traveled to every one to hear about textiles, medieval history – everything they can hear!

Bayeux Tapestry - center and margins
Guy of Ponthieu meets with his captive Harold; from the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidered work where the margins are as interesting as the central images. Picture from Dennis Jarvis, Flickr.

We also tap into our inner enthusiast. I filled my schedule with two performances. One, Malory Aloud!, is a yearly staged reading of the Arthurian work by Sir Thomas Malory. It was started by the medieval scholar D. Thomas Hanks, and this year was organized by Leila K. Norako and Kristi Castleberry. The pronunciation is faithful-ish (we sometimes slip a couple of centuries back or forward), the acting hammed up, the audience full of glee. This year we staged the war between King Arthur and the Emperor Lucius. There were giants, battle, oaths sworn, and very naughty references.

The other was a play by Daisy Black written around the Bayeux Tapestry, an embroidery with a long history of survival.  A scholar in medieval drama by day, Daisy puts together a variety of performances for churches and schools. This was an early version of a play and workshop she wants to put on for schools in the UK. Our cast were all experts or enthusiasts, and the core five were talented historical fiction author Patricia Bracewell (William of Normandy), the Anglo-Saxon scholar and consultant Christopher Monk (King Edward, Guy of Ponthieu, and several others), eminent Anglo-Saxonist and textiles expert Gale Owen-Crocker (Embroiderer 1), the aforementioned Daisy Black (Embroiderer 2), and myself (King Harold).

Better reviews have been written than I will attempt. I’ll add just a few details. Reading and practicing the script were an exercise in close reading the images and material of the embroidery. The writing found many details in the margins that might be lost on a first viewing, and through quick story skits brought them into relation with the central story – Harold can be read as a fox, a wolf, a lion, or something else. An unambiguous usurper he is not. Even the effort of replicating a few of the poses, like the one above with Guy grasping a sword by mid-hilt, sparked discussions of how ridiculous or ordinary such a gesture might be. Is the mid-hilt blunt enough to hold in that way, or does Guy just not know how to hold a sword?

The broader point: people are very welcoming in these creative endeavors. At both, the people involved welcomed any and all to dinner afterward.  At both I interesting people, like the scholar who is finding through her PhD work that she really wants to go to seminary and become a minister, the retired manager of a lab for studying young children who comes to these conferences to learn more about a medieval culture she loves, and the graduate student who really loves medieval table-top RPGs.

3. Mingling

So the professionalization is both quantifiable and edifying – good for the CV and for our work. The performances are harder to quantify in traditional academic work, but their benefits are still both professional and personal – building friendships and new understandings of material that traditional readings might not easily access.

I think conferences need space for both. I’ve been to otherwise good conferences where it is difficult to meet new people, as the professional organizations and panel structure made it difficult to meet people I didn’t already know. Those organizations provide legitimacy for people within them, but make it hard for someone on the outside to find the door. On the other hand, I appreciate some structure that makes sure that some good work is going on amid the fun and socializing. Like a good game-master or task-master, scheduled events keep me focused on key ideas, insights, and questions. The ability to talk in-depth about expert topics is as important as the freedom to sometimes talk about our other lives with experts.

That’s the art of mingling, and Kalamazoo offers a good mix of both.

* This is a problem with the academic conference as a whole. The travel costs leave many potential attendees on the outside, either because they cannot afford to attend or because family obligations prevent them from doing so. Kalamazoo has a few scholarships that help, and their stable location makes travel more feasible than destination conferences whose exotic locales are part of the allure, but in this respect it fits the conventional exclusive mold of conferencing.

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