Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Conference Report: 2nd Int'l Crusades Symposium (St. Louis University)

I had the privilege recently of attending (and presenting at) the 2nd Int'l Crusades Symposium at St. Louis University.  A good time was had by all. 

The conference actually was 2 conferences stuck together.  The 1st part was a series of evening plenary lectures, free and open to the public -- indeed, all the talks were exceptionally well-attended.  Here, established scholars spoke on all matters related to Crusade Studies.  Marina Rustow (late of Emory, soon of JHU) and Jonathan Phillips (Royal Holloway, Univ. of London) spoke the 1st night on the early stuff, the preconditions of the Mediterranean world during the late 11th century and the Genoese response to the 1st Crusade.  Next, Ronnie Ellenblum (Hebrew Univ., Jerusalem) and Ahmet Karamustafa (Washington Univ., St. Louis) spoke on life in the East.  Finally, John Pryor (Univ. of Sydney) and Michael Angold (Univ. of Edinburgh) spoke on military history and, specifically, the experience of sieges in the East.  Generally, all of these presentations were quite good -- a public lecture is a difficult animal to tame, of course, and mixing in an audience partly-composed of specialists doesn't help.  Some of the talks walked that tight-rope exceptionally well but others tended, to my taste, too much towards the specific.  But I should be so lucky to be a plenary speaker at some point and have such problems...

The 2nd part of the conference was a series of concurrent sessions with papers given by all levels of scholars, from graduate students to the "silverbacks" of the field.  Like a typical academic conference -- and, if you've never been to one, this may or may not come as a surprise -- there were some very god papers and some very bad ones.  I'll leave it to others to decide where mine falls in that spectrum but I talked about how the ideas of Carolingian exegesis may have shaped Pope Urban II and thereby influenced his call to crusade in 1095.  9th-century ideas of "renovation" and "reform", and the role that ecclesiastics played in guiding (and guarding) the Franks moved forward into the 11th century, adopted by monastic reformers and transferred, eventually, to the papacy.  When Urban spoke of these things in the context of the First Crusade, he was using a particular language that the aristocracy would've understood -- and known how to properly respond to. 

Other papers of note that I heard:  Natasha Hodgson (Nottingham Trent Univ.) gave a deep, rich paper on the prosopography of the marriage relations between Franks and Cilician Armenians.  James Naus (St. Louis Univ.) contextualized Suger's Life of Louis the Fat near the response to the First Crusade.  Suleiman Mourad (Smith College) talked about the "mainstreaming" of jihad in Sunni Islam during the 12th century.  Buy his new book when it comes out.  Seriously.  Christopher Macevitt (Dartmouth College) pushed the battle between the spiritual and conventual Franciscans to the East and looked at how their martyrdom narratives reflected the struggle back home.  Alan Murray (Univ. of Leeds) reminded us of 1 of the difficulties the crusaders must have faced -- they spoke different languages.  Councils must have been a freakin' mess...  Paul Crawford (California Univ. of Pennsylvania) moved his extensive work on the military religious orders backwards in time, towards Pope Gregory VII, in order to think about the development of holy war.  What did he (or others) mean by milites Christi and/ or milites s. PetriCecilia Gaposchkin (Dartmouth College) gave a great paper on crusading and liturgy, reminding me (at least) that we don't pay enough attention to those types of sources generally. 

Finally, let me say something about the "bad" papers.  But first let me say that there's a difference between "bad" and "wrong."  "Wrong" papers, to my mind, are simply about points of disagreement -- you and I looking at a different piece of evidence and disagreeing about what it means, or how we should use it.  We argue about it during questions, chat over coffee, then go have a beer together at the end of the day.  These aren't the papers I'm talking about.  A "bad" paper, to my mind, does a disservice to the field.  It could contain ad hominem attacks or simply be pseudo-scholarship -- characterized, for example, by a naive or partisan reading of the evidence to advance a particular point.  There were, unfortunately, a couple of "bad" papers at this conference. 

I bring this up because me and a group of colleagues/ friends were talking about this problem. What do you do about these "bad" papers?  Is it worth your time and effort to try to challenge this person or should you just let it go -- giving it the icy silence of "no questions" at the end of a session (quite painful)?  Most of us were saying that it's just not worth the time to deal with these people and to just let them stew but 1 person was arguing the opposite -- that the person needs to be challenged. Another person there, a medical doctor, then chimed in to agree.  In that person's profession, you don't just let someone spew nonsense (and we all, I think, are glad that medical doctors feel this way).  That's really stuck with me.  Again, not speaking of "wrong" papers, but "bad" ones -- but we do need to self-police, to challenge, even as exhausting/ infuriating as that may be.  You may never change that presenter's mind but the audience, who may not be specialists, at the very least, needs to know the problems with what they've just heard.

So, I ask all you out there: what are your thoughts?  Have you had similar experiences?  What did you do (please just don't name names)? 

9 comments:

fluidimaginings said...

I'd say that I agree with both possible reactions to a 'bad' piece of scholarship. Whereas it is important to challenge flawed idea, and silence can be mistaken for approval, I love the collaborative and positive environment of conferences and wouldn't want to see it spoiled by a scrap over ideas. There is constructive criticism, and there is just criticism.
The worst presentations i've ever seen were created as a result of someone starting with an 'ism' (Postmodernism, i'm looking at you!) and then doing research, rather than doing research, and then considering what 'isms' might augment one's argument.

Steve Muhlberger said...

@fluidimaginings: what do you mean by "a scrap over ideas" and why is it bad? I got from the post that "bad" papers lack ideas, and that is what needs to be challenged.

Matthew Gabriele said...

@fluidimaginings so, what if the paper is devoid of ideas, or (as I said) is not intellectually honest with them?

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I think papers that could leave someone in the audience with the idea that what was said was OK, when it wasn't, do need to be called out. I meet this particularly where numbers, statistics or dating from coins comes up, and you can easily find examples in the blog I guess. One doesn't have to mount a full-scale assault, just ask a leading question to sow doubt in the audience's mind, and then if they're concerned they'll ask you about it. That's how I approach it anyway.

fluidimaginings said...

@Steve + Matthew
That is a fair point, and I would never claim that intellectual dishonesty or bad ideas ought not to be challenged. However, my point (which may have been unclear) is that 'constructive criticism' becomes just 'criticism' very fast. I have seen talks dressed down pretty sternly by the audience before without malice, and I approve of this. However, I have also seen a well meaning critique become unpleasant quite fast. Perhaps this means that it is more the failure to handle the criticism correctly that is 'bad', rather than the act of criticism itself.

theswain said...

I rarely get questions about my papers. Even my dissertation defense was pretty easy going. I guess based on this discussion, that tells me a lot about my work.

Matt, I'm interested in your paper; so if you're willing to share, please do. If not, let us know where and when you publish!

I don't think that a conference is the place to call out bad papers: there's the human equation to consider. Address a bad paper by taking the author for a drink, or after the talk suggest they look at X, Y, or perhaps A1 or whatever, or discuss it over email. But I think calling the author out at a conference session is dangerous in part because it can affect two careers in ways that go far beyond the paper in question.

That doesn't mean that good, probing questions can't be asked, or that information can't be shared in the Q&A at a bad paper, but this should be done with caution and care because it isn't just about the paper, but about the person, the people with that person, the people with you, etc.....

Matthew Gabriele said...

Larry, I think we might actually agree. By "calling out," I certainly didn't mean that I should stand up and start screaming but at the same time, stuff that can't pass muster should be exposed as such, right?

And why do we have to protect "bad" scholars (again, not "wrong", but "bad")? We should, to a degree, self-police, no?

Manan Ahmed said...

As someone who has been challenged pretty rigorously at conference papers, I wholeheartedly endorse the idea that "bad" papers should be critically engaged with. It is something quite normal, and routine, at the "smaller" conferences I attend, and quite unheard of at the "mass-market" ones. I rather avoid AHA, AAS, Madison etc. (as a presenter) for exactly that reason. I want to be challenged, and to be taught. Silence gets me nothing.

secblog said...

Please why the Shepherds Crusade frequently ignored, I read about it in Shepherds Crusade 1251