Thursday, June 20, 2013

Conferences and the Medievalist Community

One of the new things we've been trying on this blog is Facebook integration (shorter: we have a Facebook page), following the lead of places like In the Middle. Anyway, I posted something on my personal Facebook page on Sunday 6/16, referring to a number of complaints I saw about entitlement and the process of selecting sessions at Kalamazoo. We can talk about that if people like but, to my mind, the conversation got really interesting.  Essentially, one person suggested that the new Medieval Studies conference at SLU would pick up disgruntled attendees of Kalamazoo. That prompted my response below.

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.
So what to do? Can one of these serve? Should one of these serve?

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.
  1. Let me observe that there's only 1 "big" European medieval conference, whereas there's 2/3 in the US. 
  2. 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...
  3. 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?


Steve Muhlberger said...

From my point of view, Kalamazoo is that conference. It has worked very well for me over my whole career. That doesn't mean we need to get rid of the other conferences.

Re: Leeds/Kalamazoo. You yourself bring up the issue of cost for younger and less established scholars. Given the high cost of air travel it seems to me that there is a need for major conferences on both sides of the Atlantic

David Perry said...

I have highly mixed feelings about Kalamazoo, not because of entitlement issues, but because of its vast, unwieldy, and often very un-academic nature. It's become MedievalCON, rather than an academic conference. And I go every year, I have fun, I shop, I eat well, I stay up late playing guitar with BABEL, but it's gotten to the point where it's morphed into its own unique amalgamation of a popular culture event (like ComicCon in essence, if not in scale) and an academic conference.

I know more and more people who just don't want to go, but who I think might find an interdisciplinary, pre-modern, sizable conference at a place like SLU appealing. I'll probably still keep going to Kzoo most years, but I can see why SLU has an opportunity to build something useful to the field.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Steve, true about needing 1 on either side of the Atlantic, but do we need 2/3 here in the US?

David, I'm curious as to why you think Kazoo's turned into MedievalCON. If anything, I think the content's gotten stronger in the past few years -- fewer reenactors, fewer Tolkien-only sessions, etc. That said, I'd guess that our respective impressions have more to do with the sessions we've been attending than some overall arc to the conference.

I don't have anything against SLU having a conference. I have a problem, however, with the reasoning some are giving for preferencing that over Kazoo -- the flight of the historians, if you will. (And the opposite seems to be happening at Leeds and, particularly, the MAA.) Now is a time in which we need to be going to MORE interdisciplinary work, attending MORE sessions outside our comfort zone. That can happen at big conferences -- one of the reasons I've liked going to the AHA recently is that I can go to Civil War sessions, and and modern American sessions, along with medieval ones.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Matt, I think that if people stage conferences and if others show up, there is a need for those conferences.

I think the reenactment element at Kalamazoo is increasingly of high quality, and a plus for the conference. The reenactment of the trial by combat and the Viking era smelting, both done by non-academics, were first rate and the kind of thing that the premiere medieval studies conference should have.

Rebecca Shores said...

Of the large conferences, I've only been to MAA, and I enjoyed it. But I've found the intimacy of smaller conferences much more helpful for making connections and collaborating. My worry about the idea of the "one conference" is that, of course, not everyone can do or see everything, and for that reason, I'm thankful that we have so many choices.

Blog Editor, The Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages said...

I can't afford to travel to Kalamazoo anymore and have instead focused on conferences along the East coast. If you're interested, the Medieval and Renaissance Forum ( held annually at Plymouth State University (Plymouth, NH) each April is a good (but much smaller) alternative. Graduate students might also find some value in the meetings of the New England Medieval Studies Consortium ( organized each year by the Medieval Studies programs of Brown University, Yale University, and the University of Connecticut.

Other conferences of interest include the annual meetings of the Popular Culture Association ( and its regional affiliates; national PCA always has a great line-up of medieval and/or Arthurian sessions, and most of the regional branches have a medieval-themed area.

Michael A. Torregrossa
Co-Founder, The Virtual Society for the Study of Popular Culture and the Middle Ages

David Perry said...

I fully agree that my perception of Kzoo is just that, a single-strange perception of a massive and largely delightful event. Again, I've never had anything turned down by Kzoo and have always returned from it energized about my work and the field. There did seem to be a lot about Game of Thrones this time around, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just not my thing.

The Plymouth conference, as well as the New College conference, are perhaps good models for SLU.

As for interdisciplinary - my panel featured myself and two art historians, and I went to literature, art history, and history sessions. It didn't feel like a discipline-specific conference.

anotherdamnedmedievalist said...

I go to the Zoo to hear a broader range of papers, in part because there never seem to be enough early ones that interest me that aren't across from each other, but also because the Zoo is where I see friends and colleagues from all stages of my career (and from the areas I've worked on!). I go to Leeds because it's hard and scary and there are so many more early medieval history papers, a good many of which are about Franks. They are complementary, and honestly, I don't know which I would attend if I were funding both out of my pocket. I would like to go to SEMA more, and would go to MAA if it were nearby, although I don't like that it seems to be a tag-watcher's sort of conference.

Brandon W. Hawk said...

Thanks for getting this discussion started, Matt. I'm coming into it a bit late, and I think it's a good one so far.

My experience has been, for several years, to go to and view Kalamazoo as the medievalist conference. I've been attending since my second year of grad work and see it as the conference high point of the year. The things I love about Kalamazoo are the diversity, the interdisciplinarity, and the ability to (expect to) see so many friends, meet new ones, etc. I can move in several circles appropriate for my different interests. To me, it is the big conference.

Unfortunately, because of money, I've never made it to Leeds. This year, I did attend and presented at the MAA, and found it to be very different: to me, it was a small conference (in comparison to Kalamazoo), and I was able to participate in just a few good circles of people with similar interests. It also struck me that much of the focus was on history--which isn't a bad thing, since I feel comfortable with history/historians, despite my main training with literature.

I have also attended some other large conferences, such as NeMLa (in the 3 past years), and that seems very large and disparate in subjects--perhaps too much so for someone who does not work on modern topics.

On the other hand, I am very much in favor of smaller, regional conferences: I've participated in and even once co-organized the New England Medieval Studies Consortium Graduate Student Conference; I've attended the Plymouth State University Medieval and Renaissance Forum, as well as the New England Medieval Consortium. I also helped to organize an Anglo-Saxon Studies Colloquium graduate conference several years ago. All of these were great for a small community, to meet new people, especially those who are close and work in the same subjects. I think they foster good regional connections and possibilities.

But do we need another "Medieval Conference" (big M, big C), meant to be giant in scope? I doubt it. And I have a hard time believing that any conference will really shift focus away from Kalamazoo, Leeds, and MAA.

Eileen Joy said...

There is also, don't forget, the biennial meeting of the New Chaucer Society, which, although it might seem like a narrowly-defined conference [Chaucer], in recent years, it has really become more of a big-tent medieval studies conference [focusing on the time period, yes, of Chaucer, and England, yes, but really about so much more]. I've gone twice [and I'm not a Chaucer nor Middle English scholar], and have been struck by how capacious it is. It also seems to attract many, many people across a wide stretch of fields within medieval studies. But it is also often in remote places most people cannot afford to get to [Siena, Rekjavik, etc.]: it has a certain tinge of "elite" and exclusive, although it is very accepting of graduate students and insists all panels feature grad. student work, so that's impressive [more than the MAA can claim]. Nevertheless, honestly, it's also a bit elitist.

Also [ahem, shameless plug], BABEL's biennial conference is attempting to be a big-tent conference driven by medieval studies, but since it wants to bring in lots of other fields and disciplines, it can't honestly be called a "medieval" conference. There is a need, I think, to have what might be called "massive" medieval conferences [a la Kalamazoo and Leeds], and I don't see the need to limit how many there are: Saint Louis is well situated, geographically, to draw in a lot of people, and it is a CHEAP [and lovely] place to visit [I used to live there]. Actual attendance, over time, will determine whether or not such a regularly-occurring event would succeed at SLU, but if Ruth Evans has anything to do with it, I would have high hopes. There is quite a bit of medievalist firepower, in general, in Saint Louis and nearby, covering multiple institutions. That bodes well.

On the anger that surfaced recently on FB and elsewhere regarding what has happened with sessions at Kalamazoo, I'm not quite sure I fully understand that. I've had sessions turned down every year and also sessions accepted every year [I don't take it personally, and it's never a good thing to look at what has been accepted and say, "my session was better than that"]. As a conference organizer, I can tell you the selection process is painful. Once upon a time, at the Kalamazoo Congress, some sponsoring organizations got 5-7 approved sessions, and that has seemed grandfathered in, with newer sponsoring organizations [like BABEL, and postmedieval, for example] only ever being granted 2, or more recently, 1. Now, this year, and last, it also appears that the Congress committee is starting to chip away a little bit at groups that have historically *always* had a disproportionately higher # of sessions. That's a good thing, but they could go further. Grant every sponsoring org. 2 sessions, and no more [and some will still only want one]. If they did that all at once [as much as it might hurt], more people, and organizations, would be better served.

Big conferences, and smaller [more regional, or more narrow-themed] ones, all serve different purposes. You can never have too much of anything --- our field, in general, suffers from access problems [whether to money, certain sites of research, to certain influential persons, groups, to certain jobs, etc.], so I think a proliferation of conferences, in whatever manner, will only help the field. If they can be sustained [financially and otherwise] by certain institutions, groups, etc. -- more power to them.