Friday, May 18, 2007

A New Stage
(follow-up Kalamazoo)

Tiruncula writes about Kalamazoo feeling different this year and attributes this change not to her new affiliation with a fancy-pants university, but to having several cohorts of grad students at different stages in their careers at the conference. In this post Dr. Virago and her commenters discuss the complexities of the dance, noting that a person's relationship to that event changes with the years as well. Medieval Woman talked about being pretty much filled up with conference by Saturday afternoon and skipping the dance. New Kid on the Hallway discussed how there can be a conference with >600 sessions and yet so few that you are excited to attend.

I recognized a lot in those posts. I've felt exactly the same ways at other times. Kalamazoo, because it is so large, because of the dance, and the dorms, and the continuity year after year, works as some kind of psychic amplifier. There was one year when, after listening to a paper that went on forever speculating about how many lines are missing from the beginning of Judith, I just had to get out of there. Luckily, Jenny Adams, who was sharing a ride with me, had just at that point also gotten fed up, so we drove back to Chicago and then I felt stupid for missing the dance.

Kalamazoo for me is now a lot more pure fun. I enjoy seeing my undergraduates show up as successful grad students, and I like meeting people I've otherwise been introduced to at invited lectures, etc. I have enough friends there that I'm always rushing to see one or the other, and this year a couple of people whose work I really admire were willing to sit down and talk about work (not job possibilities, gossip, job shuffling; just intellectual work--it was great!).

However, this year there was a new feeling, and it was not entirely a pleasant one (though I would have guessed it would be). That feeling, I think, was a kind of fear.

At least three times, people came up to me to talk and said that they were using my work. Two of them were dissertations, and one is a book-turned-into-a-dissertation. This is, of course at one level very gratifying, and my enormous ego enjoyed it a lot. But I walked away from each discussion with my heart pounding and sweat running down the back of my neck, and I didn't figure out why until later. I realized that really until now I had been unconsciously assuming that everything I published, even at the highest levels, was fairly likely to be wrong but that this was ok, because at some point a senior person would come along and say "no, not exactly," and fix it. Yes, even for work that's gone through double outside anonymous review, or appeared in JEGP or Studies in Philology or Neophilologus or Anglo-Saxon England, I've been unconsciously assuming that the grown-ups will eventually come along and straighten everything out.

Now I realize, in a way I hadn't before, that at least one or two (possibly exactly three) people have read my work working under the assumption that it's right and that they can build from it. I had no idea how profoundly scary that would be, but it certainly gives me a nice adrenaline shock when I think of it, even right now.

Hanging on the wall in my office is a quote from Max Planck: "new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it." I have always found this line encouraging when struggling to get people to engage with my ideas.

But it's scary as well. Because if it starts to happen, all of a sudden you have a responsibility to be right, not just to the best of your ability, but to be right enough that you don't lead astray some poor, overworked, underpaid graduate student (like you yourself were not that long ago) with any bits of sloppy thinking or unclear expression. Thinking about this in more detail makes your blood run cold: what if one of your discursive footnotes ends up not proving what you think it proves, but the student runs with it, and then he or she ends up suffering for your mistake...

All of a sudden you want the grown-ups back. And thinking of yourself as one of them is not a very comforting thought.

I think this was all brought home even more by the memorial session for Nick Howe (I have my own two "this is how unbelievably generous Nick Howe was..." stories, but I'll put those in another post), the fact that Nick Doane is retiring from Wisconsin, and Steve Glosecki's untimely death. These people, and Patrick Wormald and Phil Pulsiano in previous years, weren't tottering ancient scholars. They were the very active heart of the field. And I know that I, and my colleagues of the same age and experience, will just never be capable of taking their places. And yet, due to the structure of academia, in some weird way new generations of scholars, who don't know any better, will assume that we have.

I'm sure this is all related to my own anxieties about becoming Department Chair, and others' experiences are likely to be very different, but for me, right now, getting the things I have always wanted--real engagement with my ideas for what they are, not where they come from--is turning out to be one of the most intellectually frightening (and with that, exhilarating) times of my life thus far.

But I close by saying that I will not grow up and will continue to stay in the dorms. Do you realize that, if you've been to more than ten Kalamazoos, that you've spent at least a month of your life in those dorms? The day I give up and move to a hotel with a real bed, an unshared bathroom, and no rooster outside my window is the day I am officially old.


Conrad Slater said...

The frightening thing is I'm sure the same could be applied to the medical world. But I wouldn't worry about being wrong now and then - the ego needs it if nothing else.

Dr. Virago said...

So, in short, Tiruncula's post says, "Yay! I'm a grown-up!" and yours says, "Eek! I'm a grown-up!" Hmm, wonder how I'll feel when I get there (though, despite my dance anxieties, it started for me this year).

And apparently I'm old, because I stayed in a hotel. To be fair, my roommate was/is hugely pregnant and she really needed the creature comforts. Maybe I'll come back to the dorms next year, because all that driving around was kind of a drag.

Another Damned Medievalist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Another Damned Medievalist said...

Ok ... you have me a little scared, too. Except that the cool thing about scholarship is that it's a conversation, right? So even if some poor grad student runs with something you said, she's only entering the conversation -- she still has to explain why she follows Drout on X, and she might even change her mind at some point. It's just that now you're in a position where your part in the conversation is out of your hands. That is kind of scary. But ultimately ... how totally cool is that??

By the way, also scary? Having the grown-ups ask you to look over and/or edit their stuff -- and realizing that they need editing, too!

Apparently, I'm old, too -- Last year was my first year, and the hotel was a no-brainer, since I had the kind of roommate situation that demanded both comfort and privacy. This year, I would probably have been fine in the dorms, because I slept badly anyway, and almost all my friends were there. Live and learn, I suppose!

Tiruncula said...

I find it hugely reassuring to discover that the scholars I admire most also need editing. Working as copyeditor for a scholarly journal in grad school should have made that clear to me, but somehow I wasn't prepared to assimilate the information. Now that I've edited an essay collection and serve on a journal board, I feel much better about showing my work to others in an imperfect state. It's still hard for me to do, though.

Ben said...

The world will be a little darker without Dr. Glosekci around!

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