Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kalamazoo 2006

At this year's International Medieval Congress I gathered further evidence that I am a true malcontent. And not because I had a bad time. On the contrary: it was one of my very best Kalamazoos yet, and I have been at the Congress twelve of the last thirteen.

But I had a good time because immediately upon arrival at the airport I met a good friend, Prof. Christina Heckman of Augusta State Univ. in Georgia. I used to be Christina's boss at the Writing Center at Loyola, and we've been friends for a decade. So the whole way from the airport we chatted. Then, in preparing to go out to get something to eat, I ran into one of my former students who is now ABD at UConn. A bunch of UConn graduate students plus Christina and I went out, ate, drank, and talked into the wee hours. It was great.

And it also prevented any vestigal schmoozing instinct I still might have had from ever kicking in. This turned out to be great. Because this Kalamazoo, I don't think I spoke to a single person I didn't like. Important people walked by and I ignored them--and it wasn't even an effort. I noticed, say, people from the past whom I didn't like then and don't like now, and I just kept walking. Therefore every conversation I had was enjoyable. No one bothers to schmooze me (because, really, what could I do for anyone -- although I did get a job here at Wheaton for one of the graduate students I met), so I assumed all interactions were genuine.

I therefore went only to papers in which I had a genuine interest. No "important" papers. And you know what? I enjoyed them all. Tom Shippey's was, of course, the best (I listened to it with my ear pressed against the door, because I had come to the session too late. People kept walking by me in the hall, staring. But I heard the whole paper). But besides Shippey, the graduate-student papers were by far the most interesting. "Behold a Pale Horse" showed why she won her graduate paper award [n.b.: the whole anonymity discussion has now made me leery of linking to someone without authorization] with a first-rate paper on the Wife of Bath's use of authorities and its links to medieval marriage law -- my original Chaucer professor, the brilliant Peggy Knapp of Carnegie Mellon, would have loved that paper. In the same session Merrall Llewelyn Price convinced me that the Prioress' Tale is obsessed with excrement (and setting aside the Freud, she mostly convinced me why as well). A group of papers by Loyola Chicago graduate students showed that the program there is once again very strong. And some interesting papers on Anglo-Saxon law and penitentials reminded me why I spent so much time with that stuff.

In general, graduate-student papers are better at Kalamazoo than papers by more advanced scholars. I'm sorry to say, but some of the advanced scholars are just mailing things in, while graduate students are doing their best work. But if I could convince my graduate student readers of just one thing, it is this: Stop wasting your time quoting people. Look, for the purpose of a seminar paper, it is very important to show that you've got all your theoretical and critical ducks in a row. But for a twenty-minute paper, your audience (except for your director in the audience) does not really care. It's fine to point out that you are integrated into the critical dialogue. But really, the likelihood of your quoting anything of particular interest to the audience from a secondary source asymptotically approaches zero very quickly. What we want is more you. And if you can squeeze the paper to eighteen minutes by deleting every Judith Butler, Elaine Scary and Homi Bhaba quote, all the better. As one of my teachers once said, 'there's a spare beauty to the very short paraphrase of the ungainly quote.'

On internal, personnel grounds (i.e., who is coming through the system) the future of medieval studies is in good shape. The problems will come not from the new people who, in particular in the case of the Torontoids, seem to be exquisitely trained, but from the profession's failure to engage with the wider culture (and I don't mean the 'wider culture' of 'maybe if we kiss their butts enough, Critical Inquiry will let some medievalists publish or PMLA will once again grudgingly publish a piece on Old English).

This brings me to one of the subjects of the Blogger's Roundtable. It certainly felt weird to be up there, knowing that in the audience were people like Ancrene Wiseass, Another Damned Medievalist, Heo Cwæth, New Kid on the Hallway, Tiruncula and other people whom a.) I read; b.) are better bloggers than I am; c.) have some pretty strong opinions about matters in which I might not entirely agree with them.

Well, it turned into a pretty interesting discussion, moderated wonderfully by Shana Worthen who advanced the agenda but let the panel do most of the talking.

I am right now falling asleep and losing focus [uncorrected typos had proliferated so that I went back and edited this morning], so I won't try to summarize the whole panel, but the big things I drew out of it were:

a. nobody recognizes the allusion in my blog title.
b. although we're all nervous about creepy internet obsessives, none of us has yet had a significant blog-based or blog-caused problem.
c. the greatest personal value of the blogs is that they create communities (and ones that are harder to hijack than usenet was), and that the insights and techniques developed in these communities (while rewarding in and of themselves) might be harnessed for the improvement of our lot and status: just the reduction of isolation and fragmentation could lead to improved conditions brought about by political change.
d. the greatest professional value for the blogs is that they promulgate your work to a wider audience. You never know who may be interested. It's actually part of that "long tail" phenomenon much discussed in management fads. A blog reaches out into that long tail and is read by an unusual group of individuals. Your name and ideas will be distributed among those (very smart) people. The results should very much be good.

After the panel came a really lovely dinner at the fancy-schmantzy restaurant at the Radisson (delicious food, and an unbelievably strong straight-up manhattan that introduced quite a few moments of Korsakov's syndrome for the next hour or so).

Then, the Dance. A few years ago I was one of the BOMPs (Boring Old Married People) who sat around the tables and made little mental blackmail notes. This time I eschewed the easy pleaure of mocking one's older, coordination-challenged colleagues (as I am likely to become one all too soon). Mostly because I very rapidly was dragged into dancing.

I didn't wound anyone as far as I know.

[this in response to discussion of lechery at the Dance and elsewhere]: I am, of course, by acclamation, the most clueless man on the face of the earth, so I might have missed something, but I did not see any attempted pick-ups at the Dance, and not a single person hit on me. They never do. So I didn't observe the general air of lecherousness that others describe. I do wonder, though, why anyone would want to potentially damage his own marriage or reputation at a conference, and, honestly, anyone who can't do better than "Do you know, What Happens at Kalamzoo, Stays at Kalamazoo" really shouldn't trying to be picking people up in the first place.

But the dance was a lot of fun this year. Not too hot, not too cold, and no one vomited near my shoes, so it's all good.

So, my strategies for a successful conference:

Don't bother with anyone you don't like.
More papers, less schmoozing.
Aim for graduate-student or new assistant-professor papers
Go to the dance and dance with your friends, then attempt to dragoon in other people who might like to dance.

See all you next year.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Quoting Michael Drout:

"a. nobody recognizes the allusion in my blog title."

I had assumed that it was an allusion to Grima Wormtongue in the Lord of the Rings.

Was I close?

Jeffery Hodges

* * *

Ecce Equus Pallidus said...

Link away!
I doubt most people are willing to do the research and figure out who I am, and even if they are, I'm not too caught up in being anonymous to be bothered by it.

And thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the paper. I'm already trying to decide what to submit for next year.

Tiruncula said...

Random bullets of response:

Excellent advice both on enjoying the Zoo and on not quoting.

Can you tell us more about Tom Shippey's paper?

Glad the Loyola crew are distinguishing themselves. I hear good reports from that sector, too.

Walter Goffart insists (claiming authority from Gilson) that the correct term is "Torontovingians".

I never realized an added benefit of anonymity was being assumed to be present where I was not! I'm going to have to work on how to milk that...

(I am sorry to have missed the panel, and happy to be reading various reflections thereon.)

Lisa Spangenberg said...

It was wonderful meeting you, even if I couldn't remember the name of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. And next year, I'll have two books for you to sign.

Dr. Virago said...

I'm glad you have confirmed my editorial instincts. I was helping someone edit a seminar paper into a presentation at K'zoo (yes, editing *at* the conference) and most of what I cut were other people's words. So I second your advice to the grad students out there -- more you, less them!

We missed you at the blogger meet-up, by the way!

Oscar + Tashi said...

Paul Acker has beaten the odds and will get the first essay on an Old English topic into PMLA since Michael Near wrote an extremely demanding essay on Beowulf way back when.

Moreover, Paul's paper is entirely readable which is all the more impressive, given PMLA's penchant for the impenetrable ('Kissing the Pardoner' anyone?).

Anonymous Person whom Mike Spoke to at Kalamazoo (and therefore must be a likeable soul)

ps. Chaucer hath a Blog is the funniest ever

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Well, those of us at the panel now know the allusion. I definitely had a nice time, and may even drag my butt to the dance next time -- if I remember dancing shoes!

I'd definitely second the quotes advice. I do have to say that, with one exception, all of the papers by senior people that I heard in the History/Archaeology sessions given by senior types were absolutely not phoned in.

One thing I'd like to see less of in our papers, though, is background filler. If anybody in the room is unaware that Charlemagne was crowned Emperor in 800 and ruled over a kingdom that stretched from the Pyrenees to Saxony; from Brittany to what is now Bosnia (or somewhere in the ehemalige Jugoslawien); they probably shouldn't be there. I've heard those questions on Jeopardy, for goodness' sake!

History Geek said...

A figured it was a Tolkien ref, I just couldn't place it.

And on the risk of 'outing' myself:

I enjoyed talking to you at the airport, and thanks again for that name you gave me.

Steve Muhlberger said...

There are different audiences at Kzoo. For many of us, the younger scholars have the greatest potential because we *have no idea* what they may say. And sometimes it's really good.

But surely there must be audience members who don't know why the older scholars are famous, and get some idea from a paper that seems to the more experienced to be "mailed in."

Then sometimes the older scholars hit the ball out of the park. Peter Brown spoke at a Kzoo plenary session about the time he wrote Body and Society and I went though I was convinced that he had no surprises for me -- I'd attended his Saints seminar in Toronto some years earlier. But I had the usual Peter Brown experience. By the end of his talk the ideas were so exciting that my heart was beating faster.

He did that to me every time in the seminar, too.