Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Hanging out at Kalamazoo

It has taken me about a week, but I am nearly recovered from a whirlwind tour through St. Louis, then Kalamazoo, and then some marathon grading. At least, I am recovered enough to gather some brief reflections on the most recent Medieval Congress. This was only my third Kalamazoo, yet in some ways it feels like I've been going forever, and in others, it all still seems vexingly new and overwhelming. After going to the New Chaucer Society in Portland, I was most struck by the various threads the conference organizers had created, giving a sense of several continuing conversations and mini-conferences. At Kalamazoo, however, any sense of unity must be user-generated. There are, to be sure, clusters of related panels, but because there are so many medievalists coming from so many disciplinary backgrounds, it can be difficult to find any sense of cohesion over several caffeine-fueled days. I do not offer this comparative observation as a criticism. Rather, it can be exhilarating to feel so lost sometimes.

So, how exactly did I choose what panels to go to? Usually, I find myself going to the panels most closely related to the work that I'm doing at the moment, but this time around I found myself exploring new areas, returning to old critical haunts, and attending sessions that were self reflective about the field and our position in it.

As luck would have it, I managed to attend several marvelous panels, including an excellent session on the "Versions of Piers Plowman" with Lawrence Warner, Stephen Shepherd, and Kathryn Kerby-Fulton. These papers revisited questions concerning manuscript illuminations, the binary or tension between scribe and author, and the role of early editors in determining what we now see as the different versions of the text. I cannot possibly do justice to the very specific positions and claims each speaker gave during their talk, but it was one of the more stimulating sessions I attended during the whole weekend. It also reminded me that I need to return to Langland. St. Erkenwald remains the text I am most fascinated by, but no other text challenges me as Piers Plowman does.

I also attended a panel called "The Prosthetic Impulse in the Middle Ages: Metaphor, Materiality, and the Promise of the (Post)human." This was one of those panels where I truly wished that all the papers were circulated ahead of time, not because the speakers were in any way lacking (in fact, they all gave quite engaging talks), but because there's so much to think about that I felt somewhat overwhelmed. Also, this was one of the first panels I attended that engaged with Disability Studies, and it was an intriguing introduction, especially for the ways that the panelists and the respondent considered the intersections with DS and the posthuman. Agatha Hansen's paper addressed a literal prosthetic hand in the Life of Saint Melor, while M. W. Bychowski and Craig Dionne considered the viability of the prosthetic as metaphor, especially in terms of narrative.

I was part of a Roundtable on the subject of "Productive Anachronism? The Promise and Peril of Historical Analogy in the Study of Medieval Culture," organized by Jonathan Newman and Anna Wilson. Although our session was at slotted for 7:30 PM, we had a surprisingly good turnout and a great discussion during the Q&A. I was also particularly pleased with how wide-ranging our papers and our discussion ended up being – Alex Mueller, Roland Betancourt, and Anna Wilson considered the role of anachronism in both our scholarship and in the subjects that we study, while I, Robin Wharton, and Alison Valk tackled the question of anachronism from a pedagogical angle. Despite the fact that there was a seeming split in our panel between pedagogy and scholarship, it was also clear that we were dealing with the same questions: How do we make sense of the past and present together? What can be gained by being more upfront about the ways in which we read the past through the present and vice versa?

The two Babel panels that I attended, one called "Thriving" and one called "Blunder," also featured a similar split, but this time it was between offering theoretical and contemplative readings of medieval texts versus discussions of the field in terms of professional life. For example, the "Blunder" session included an excellent paper by Mary Kate Hurley on "Blundering at the End in Beowulf" while Nancy M. Thompson and Maggie Williams spliced together lines from publishing rejection letters in a presentation called "Speculations." The highlight, though, was Asa Mittman and Shyama Rajendran presenting on the website "Fumblr," especially Asa's booming voice as he delightedly, and somewhat perversely, read out some of the submitted fumbles and failures. Everyone should check out the Fumblr website, and you should submit something. We all have something we could submit. Right? It's not just me?

The Congress has been over for about a week and a half now, but what still really sticks with me is the paper given by Patricia Ingham for the "Thriving" roundtable. Her paper, titled "Living and Thriving," is a discussion about finding her own place in Medieval Studies. I was moved by the paper, but I was really captivated by how it was delivered – she was not able to make it to Kalamazoo so the organizers arranged to have her teleconference in through a Google hangout. The video feed did sputter in places, and the whole panel ended up getting book ended by her paper since she had to finish up her final paragraph at the very end after some technical difficulties were smoothed out, but overall it was a fascinating experiment. And, I would say that using Google hangout was more or less a success here. Because conference travel can be so difficult for me (flying in a power wheelchair is frankly a major pain in the ass), I have thought at times about asking whether I could arrange something like what Patricia Ingham did. NCS Iceland comes to mind. And while I'm not too concerned (yet) about some dark future where conferences cease to exist and we all give our papers through video conferencing, there is something definitely lost through this use of technology. We all got to enjoy and be stimulated by her paper, but with the exception of her being "present" for the panel, she missed out on what makes these events so worthwhile: seeing everyone. We travel from distant places not so much to hear papers that we can easily read in the privacy of our own homes or offices, but we do all decide to come together precisely to be together, to engage in conversations, to ask questions, and to congregate at Bell's for some delicious beer.

I left Kalamazoo with some new thoughts about the intersections between our professional lives and our personal lives, between our scholarship and our teaching, and I continue to be captivated by the new ways we keep finding to engage with one another.

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