Monday, September 06, 2010


So the beginning of the school year's craziness is settling down slowly but surely as the receptions, meetings, student concerns and all those initial matters that eat up so much time finally dissipate, and we get down to the nitty gritty of what we do: teach, research, write, and have regular meetings with stuff to do. I've already been placed on a departmental committee though we have yet to meet, and I'm "embroiled" in a "fight" to put a graduate level Anglo-Saxon lit course on the docket for next semester. Fight is too strong a word; but our current head is an Americanist and the previous incarnations of this spot (used to be 3 people, and now there's me) were heavy on the Shakespeare and late medieval stuff....but there seems to be some interest, curiosity mostly since most of them have never really encountered Old English, Latin, or Anglo-Saxon literature. So hopefully it will pass the request phase and be on the schedule for Spring, and then one hopes that a sufficient number of grad students sign up to make it a go. As part of my evangelism for the course, I've volunteered to give a lecture for the Honors program (the whole university and town are the target audience) on an Anglo-Saxon topic involving the Vikings, always a hot topic. It will occur during the registration period for next semester. More on the topic and the paper anon.

But this post is really about something else. Way back when last fall, Eve Salisbury asked some questions regarding the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo based in part on a letter the current director had received. There was conversation on Facebook where the original post occurred, and I blogged about it here, with comments that followed. I am not certain that the actual questions that Dr. Salisbury actually asked were ever answered. I thought perhaps as we move into another Congress season of preparing for the event, it might be a good time to address those queries.

The first question was "What are the concerns out there?" The chiefest concern I think is really nothing that the organizers of Kalamazoo can do anything about. This came up in the discussions on Facebook and comments on my blog post. That is, that there is an attitude out there that "it's just Kalamazoo." Of course, this can be said for just about any conference. I once had a colleague who felt that way about just everything he did: conference paper, publication, whatever. To him, quality didn't matter. If it got accepted, it was a line on the CV that made him look good: anyone looking at the CV wouldn't know whether it was a good paper or not.

That attitude is pervasive; it is made all the more so because of the pressures that young scholars face in the market place to a significant degree and older scholars feel in terms of seeking tenure should they be lucky enough to have a TT slot. Adjuncts dream of feeling these pressures but generally are too busy making ends meet by teaching at multiple institutions to do so in an effective way. Or at least that was my experience. The point is that the CV building is more important than the production of quality work. It is my belief, however, that sooner or later, such an attitude catches up with you. Sooner or later, shoddy work for the CV line will be noticed. What's more, such dead weight, kills the field. One hopes that those who think they can get by with shoddy papers at conferences will realize their own contribution to the death of an otherwise vibrant field of study.

How can we change the response? That I don't know. I am open to suggestions of how to convince the people who say "It's just Kalamazoo" to "It's Kalamazoo." I'll share a story again that I've shared before. I encountered a fascinating text that so far as I could discover there had only been a not well done dissertation on the text from the early 20th century. SO I began translating it and researching and proposed a paper. Sadly for me, the rest of the school year was overwhelming and I didn't get back to the project and had a very shoddy paper to show for it. My attitude has never been "it's just Kalamazoo", so I was already very ashamed and embarrassed at this turn of events. I hoped that since it was in a session with a wide range of papers, occurring right after lunch, and more or less out of the way, that I might get away with a small audience. But alas, no. A large audience was in attendance, among them the five biggest names in the field related to my paper. I embarrassed myself. Those big names wrote me off that day, and some of them I am still trying to show that I have something to say in the matter how good my papers are, they remember that first encounter. The lesson: it can never be "just Kalamazoo". One never ever knows who will show up at a session; shoddy work can get noticed and can have a career effect. Don't deliberately do bad work and say "its just Kalamazoo" because sooner or later, it'll be found out that you do bad work.

How would I like to see the Congress in the future?

Well, that's a good question. I actually have no problems with the Congress. The structure is good and allows time for networking and other types of meetings to occur. My biggest problems have less to do with the actual event and more to do with the planning.

1) I have submitted sessions that have been refused for no good reason I can see. Going through the CFP and the program later, I have found *NO* sessions related to what I proposed, or at most one. I do keep track of such things.

2) I have also noticed a tendency to group topic sessions: so that in one session block there will be 5 Anglo-Saxon sessions and then the next two session blocks none at all. That's just bad planning and having worked on the other side of the table, I know the tools that we left behind designed to prevent such nonsense actually work!

Certainly, field session overlap cannot be avoided entirely. But it certainly can be better. And yes, I am more than well aware of the restrictive resource allocation that the MI experiences. But there is really one person who puts it together, always has been, and it isn't the invaluable, fantastic Coordinator whom I love and adore. Unless things have changed since I've been there.

So I'd like to see more even handed, consistent treatment of session offerings and session organization.

Is the ZOO still worth visiting?

Without question. Not only do I often (not always admittedly) hear good papers, but projects I'm involved in get carried a step further, I meet new people every year, I hear papers outside my area, I make new connections the enrich my own scholarship and teaching. There is no question that the Congress at Kalamazoo is worth visiting, and that in fact it is a given that I will try to make it each year as 1 of my 2 or 3 conferences a year.


Steve Muhlberger said...

Agreed whole-heartedly.


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