Do you know the way to Kalamazoo?
Yes, most cliched title ever for a medievalist's blog post. But on Thursday I'm off to Kalamazoo, Michigan for the 40th Annunal International Medieval Congress. Last year was the first time in a decade that I'd missed 'zoo (here's why), but I'm heading back this year to give the paper with the all-time worst title in the history of Kalamazoo: "Repetition, Pattern Recogntion and the Evolution of Traditions: Some Old English Examples." That, my friends, is what happens when you agree to submit an abstract to a session but are still too early in your research to have a catchy--or even mildly interesting--title. I'm sure my fellow medievalists will be beating down the doors to come to this paper.
Kalamazoo is a bizarre and amazing combination of huge academic conference (stand in the lobby of the conference long enough and you will meet nearly every medievalist in the western world -- "long enough" might be a couple of years, but you get the idea), graduate school reunion, and wild party. There's a midnight dance on Saturday night that really should be painted by Bosch. There are great papers, mediocre papers, dazzlingly disastrous papers. There's an enormous book area, medieval films, plays and concerts...
But mostly it is for the socializing. Yes, there's networking and schmoozing, etc., but because of the diffusion of hiring power at most institutions (often there will be no medievalist on a hiring committee to hire a medievalist), there's a lot less overt and disgusting sucking up than there is at MLA. Medievalists also tend to be nicer human beings for some reason (author excluded, of course, but the kindness of medievalists is well known), and the conference is so big that it's very easy to fall in with a group of friends and just have a good time catching up.
Western Michigan University itself is beautiful in the spring (though the weather is totally unpredictable: I've been there for snow, and I've been there for temperatures in the 90's). Medievalists with money stay in the nice hotels off campus, but I tough it out and stay in the dorms -- huge, cinderblock constructions from the 1960's. When I brought two students to Kalamazoo a few years ago, they described the dorms as "the most ghetto dorms I've ever seen." But one of those students is coming back for a third time this year, and the other emailed to say she wished she was going.
in the dorms, one shares a connecting bathroom with a stranger, which leads to sometimes strange moments. As do wide-spread drunkenness, room parties and people carrying on affairs in public (or very noisily behind closed doors. One year two friends of mine, who were just starting their relationship at the time, bought an air mattress and brought it back to the dorms. I am not making this up. It's all interesting.
I'm the lone medieval literature scholar at Wheaton, so Kalamazoo gives me a chance to catch up on what is current in medieval studies outside of my immediate subfield. The ISAS conference (which meets every two years; it's in Munich this year and unfortunately I can't go, as I'm not inflicting my one-year-old son upon trans-Atlantic passengers) is better in that the papers are all directly relevant to my work and of a superbly high quality, but Kalamazoo gives you the opportunity for fortuitous learning, for stumbling into a session and discovering a new idea or a new scholar who inspires you. That's what I'm really looking forward to.
(Ok, not quite as much as the social aspects).