Thursday, May 22, 2008

One Last Kalamazoo Post for this Year

Ok, its obvious. The name of this blog is "Modern Medieval". It defines itself as: "...intermittently-updated blog about both a) the continuing relevance of the Middle Ages to the modern world and b) modernity's continuing fascination with the "medieval."

But can there be anything in our world as medievalists, medieval enthusiasts, students and purveyors of medievalism(s) that fits this definition any better than the International Congress on Medieval Studies that happens most every year at Kalamazoo? Ok, so the Congress isn't a blog, but it is in part a collection of papers (on average 1600-1800 papers, not including roundtables and the like are delivered from Thursday morning to Sunday morning each Congress), or if you will, a collection of oral posts. But that's not quite the aspect I wanted to focus on.

Ok, let's dispense with a few other things first. Many of us go to the Congress and perform our posts for a number of reasons: CV building, to share new research and see how it is received, to take ideas we've been thinking about and try and communicate them to an audience not made up of one's significant other.....and other reasons. All well and good. But, collectively there is nothing that I can think of that expresses so well and so prominently and so loudly the continuing relevance of the Middle Ages to our own nor the inverse, the continuing fascination and interest in the Middle Ages by us moderns (whether academic, or gamers, or Renaissance fare enthusiasts [nothing like going to the faire and getting myself a nice, big turkey drumstick covered in bbq sauce----neither of which were part of the medieval or Renaissance diet!] What we do there at Kalamazoo-from the most serious sessions to the Pseudo-Society to imbibing (imbibtion?) copious amounts of liquid at night along with other non-medieval fare all the while discussing the Beowulf movie, or Old English prognostics, or a digital project I want to take on in the next five years or......something else medievally-is the very definition of what Modern Medieval is all about.

Go us!!!

I once heard one of the big names in my field give a paper and make a very interesting case: towards the end of it he asked himself, and us, "So, what?" And that's a good thing to ask. SO its obvious that the International Congress and Modern Medieval really are about the same sorts of things, some of you may have thought of it, some maybe not, but hey, it is kind of obvious once you do think about what it is we do. But so what?

Well, there are several so whats. First, and foremost to my mind, is the fact that NO ONE IN ACADEMIA has as much fun doing what they do as we do. I've been to conferences in other fields, some bigger than ours (SBL/AAR, MLA), and some smaller. I've talked to other academics and grad students, and hands down we do more hard work and have more hard play than anyone else. Congress is fun! Congress is medieval in spirit! Preparing and Recovering from Congress is hard work! I mean, 1800 papers! Granted not all of them are good (I've even been guilty of reading a horrendous one or two, I'm sorry to say----and I'll never forget the year I was approached by another speaker in the session 2 minutes before show time and informed that he'd JUST had a paper accepted for publication on the topic I was reading on and wondered how my conclusions differed from his (in the end, they didn't much regrettably)....needless to say, my performance was negatively impacted.), but many of them are, some absolutely outstanding. Anyway, we work hard, we play hard, we network harder.

A second "so what" though is that I've been attending the Congress for 10 years now. Ok, not that long....but, in that time I've seen the Congress grow, rather a lot. The evening sessions on Thursday are new since then, the number of sessions in the daily slots has increased somewhat...there are other signs of growth. It speaks of a healthy and burgeoning field of study. Or rather, speaks of fields of study. And while the world seems to know about us (since I've been attending Congress there's been an NPR report on it, NYT, Wall Street Journal, and Chronicle of Higher Ed), but few in academia have heard more than just whispers and rumors about shenanigans, always the salacious is of much more interest than the 1800 papers on every medieval topic imaginable! But while I recognize on the one hand that that is human nature, it is also a situation I deplore. Why? Because most of us are working in academia and want to continue to work in academia. Yet, I know that in academia as a whole, our field is shrinking. My own department replaced a medievalist line with a Chinese literature person and last I was told, when the second medievalist retires, there is no plan to replace that line with another medievalist. The message: graduate fast! And my school isn't alone....there's an unfortunate perception that no one is interested in the medieval, whether literature, language, or history. I know of one scholar at a smallish institution whose dean keeps trying to cut Old English because no one is interested, in spite of an enrolled class of over 30 and another 30 on the waiting list! But it is the perception that counts.....the perception of those with the purse strings in academic institutions. And it is they whom we must show that there is interest in studying the medieval and in studying and participating in our modern fascination with the medieval. And that's a HUGE so what.....the gap between the fact that we have the best conference in academia that illustrates how healthy of a field, how many great minds working on various aspects of the field we have, and the perception that really no one is interested and it doesn't really count, so academia reduces the number of medievalists on staff.....

But how to do to shorten that gap, or eradicate it altogether. Ah, there's the trick, folks, there's the trick. Some I know have answered that by becoming administrators themselves. Others by pointing to their full classes. Others try for NEH grants or take on projects that promise to cut new ground. But are enough of us doing "missionary" work, I wonder? Blogging is one sort of mission....I bow to Scott Nokes here who does a great deal of outreach....but there must be other ways to get the word out.

And it is important, not just from the practical standpoint of those of us up and comers who want positions. Its about education: one school I applied for a job at had a science web page in geology that BEGAN by saying that the medievals believed in a flat earth and they'd go sailing off the edge!!! And this school not only had medievalists on staff, but a medieval studies program!!!!! And yet, their scientists purveyed myths about the medieval period that are easily debunked and easily checked even on Wikipedia. Another example from another forum online recently wherein a very educated chap interested in things classical claimed with all candor that from the end of the fourth century to Aquinas there was no "keen interest" in the classical period, no philosophy outside of a few minor theological questions, and that the name "dark age" fit the period even after Aquinas quite well! That's more than simply prejudice about the medieval, that is downright ignorance of the period. And its up to us Modern Medieval sort of folk to get the word out there.

Ok, enough preaching....sorry. Those who know me know that I'm getting up there now, much as I hate to admit it. No, not old, but certainly comfortably middle aged. I left a fairly lucrative career to become a professional medievalist out of love for the period and the literature and the language and the history. Possibly the worst kind of academic to run into....but that passion I suppose is still there lo this decade later, and it saddens me to see our field, on the one hand so healthy and so vibrant as exemplified earlier this month, marginalized on every hand, knowing that there are things we can do about that state of affairs.

So, I guess my message is: good for us! Now, go, make disciples....or play some Medieval Total War in a very public place, or read Beowulf on the bus and make sure that the book title is proudly displayed....or something. End of sermon, thanks for reading, and see you about the blogosphere.

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