I then asked (after some more discussion) if I could bring that discussion public and the feedback was positive, so here it is. I don't want to use other peoples words without permission, so I'll try to summarize and then offer some thoughts.
One person keyed on my use of "need" and rightly questioned by what standard we'd judge that. Others chimed in to say that we do indeed need multiple conferences because of the disciplinary and temporal diversity in our field, but perhaps as supplementary to existing conferences. This could be modeled on the MLA, which has 1 main conference but then respected regional conferences as well (and I know the American Academy of Religion and American Sociological Association also operate on this model). Further complicating this, however, it was pointed out that even with this larger/ smaller conference structure around 1 organization, there are numerous other groups that host conferences that might be of interest -- the AHA, MESA, the 3/4 (not sure SLU is among the big 3 yet, even if it might be someday) medieval conferences, above, not to mention any independent conferences that might appear in any given year.
And that's kind of my point. As medievalists, we don't have "our" conference. And why can't we? What we have now is this:
- Medieval Academy -- used to be old, stodgy, and patriarchal, though that's better -- but not fixed -- now (or maybe I'm just older). Now not trusted because of the stuff with the former Executive Directors, though I think both sides overplayed their hands and didn't come off looking all that well.
- Kalamazoo -- big conference, established. Democratic in culture in that rank/ prestige seem to matter much less here than anywhere else. Can be overwhelming to newbies sometimes. Has gained a reputation for a distinct "literary" bent to its program. This year, some have complained about the selection of panels and how they didn't get what they "deserve." The location is difficult to get to and it occurs at a difficult time for a lot of academics who aren't quite done with their semesters.
- Leeds -- big conference, established. Has gained a reputation for a distinct "historical" bent to its program. Expensive. New venue in the city center could be good or bad. Relatively democratic in culture. A bit insular, in that this seems to be "the" medieval conference that UK academics attend every year. This can be good or bad -- good if you know people, alienating if you don't.
- SLU -- new (this is its 1st year). Remains to be seen what it is and what'll become of it.
I don't have a good answer to this but I want to see what more people have to say about it. Let me, however, close with a few observations.
- Let me observe that there's only 1 "big" European medieval conference, whereas there's 2/3 in the US.
- Let me observe too that many of the complaints/ issues about specific conferences have a disciplinary tinge to them -- they don't like this or that because of what's there, which isn't the "right kind" of medieval stuff they're interested in. Too literary or too historical...
- Finally, let me observe that this is a particular issue to me as we observe travel budgets becoming increasingly meager. I've always been willing to dip into my own personal income to go to conferences and have been fortunate enough to be able to do so, but I know that that's not a common thing. Grad students, assistant professors, adjuncts, etc. don't have that luxury. Wouldn't it be nice to have 1 large conference somewhere that everyone, across discipline and specialization, could meet to collaborate? Is that a pipe dream?