Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Kalamazoo Lessons

So. I'm returned from the great busyness attending the last moments of the academic year, moving apartments, preparing to spend the summer in another city with my wife, and of course attendance at the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI. Before reporting on the events I experienced there, I thought it might be useful to some to give some important Kalamazoo lessons to various potential readers. Some I observed this past Congress, others I've experienced on previous occasions. So without further ado, here goes:

Dear Graduate Students:

1. Dear Masters Student: You are a Masters Student. Do not go out of your way to offend tenured professors in your field if you have expectations of a future. Your thesis topic is obvious and will not be so grand as to set the field on its head.

2. Dear Masters Student: Act professionally. It's good to go and talk to people, don't expect said people to fawn all over you. Act professionally and you will be treated professionally most of the time.

3. The K'zoo dance is grand and can be a lot of fun. It is not a club. Do not dress as if it were a club or you were going clubbing. No matter what happens at the dance, your professional colleagues are present and they remember the teeny dress more than they will your first couple papers. Teeny dresses do not get one jobs.

4. Along the same lines, Congress is an opportunity for graduate students to professionalize and rub shoulders with the top folk in the fields as if equals. Act accordingly. The collegiality of the Congress is a rare thing; lack of professional behavior, egregious violations of professional behavior usually result in a loss of that rare collegiality. And yes, we do notice and we do remember. There are many young, beautiful faces that I've seen at Congress once or twice and never see again thereafter because they didn't get anywhere.

5. Don't assume that every other graduate student has come there to hook up. Wherever human beings gather, people hook up. The purpose of the conference is not to hook up though that may happen. So please stop using every reception to troll the crowd, show off your dancing skills, impress us with the banality of your research; this isn't a bar on a Friday night. It's a gathering of professionals.

6. Speaking of your research, tell me about if I ask, and I probably will ask. Don't thrust your research on me as if it is the most fascinating thing I've encountered and that I need to know about it; the situation is likely the other way round. I'm always glad to help; I am reluctant to aid morons.

7. Dear Graduate Student (esp. Masters students): Congratulations, you got into grad school, maybe even a good one. That means you're smart and gifted. But so is everyone else around you at Congress. It is the great leveler.

8. If you happen to be a grad student in a completely unrelated field to anything Medieval and decide to come to the medieval Congress, your behavior at said Congress counts just as much (and maybe more) than everyone else. We medievalists are more likely to be on the hiring committees in your field than for fellow medievalists. So going ballistic on the ex you followed to the conference, or surprising a significant other and accusing him or her of cheating because they were chatting and maybe even (*gasp*) flirting with someone will undoubtedly be noticed.

9. Don't be creepy.

10. Don't overdrink. This isn't a frat party. It's a fun gathering of professionals who may be able to impact your career.

In short, have fun. Have boat loads of fun. Don't become the stuff of legend, the kind of legend that gets repeated to great guffaws in years to come.

Now a briefer word to professors:

1) It is still sexual harassment if you say something unwelcome, untoward, and uninvited at a conference, such as a male professor saying to a female grad student as she exited a car "Now I can get a proper look at you." The horror on her face told the story well.

2) Congress is not your personal trolling ground either....see comments above about clubbing. Touching the students is not cricket, rubbing yourself on the young women when not dancing and at receptions when they don't know you is not cricket; inviting yourself along with a group of grad students who are not yours, don't go to your school, and didn't invite you is not cricket.

3) Don't change your name to that of a character in a medieval work.

4) Do not wear chain mail. You don't look good in it.

5) Don't be creepy.

Again, have fun. Have boatloads of fun. Try not to become the stuff of legend in a bad way.

Feel free to add your own, I'll edit them in.


Ken said...

I think these conferences should be viewed in the same vein as a "company party". Good advise indeed.
Now, if I may ask for some friendly advice. I am not in the "field" as you say. My only knowledge of medieval history comes from the books and articles you fine folks publish. I enjoy very much going to this congress. My question. There is a couple of areas of study that I am interested in. How does one approach a professional in the field on any further reading, research and the like that they could recommend?
I'm not going to give them my opinions on anything I've read, because I know you folks are not interested in that. And that's ok with me. But it would be wonderful if I could approach a professor and ask them for any advise they could provide for my "private"studying.
Please advise me on this.

heptarchyherald said...

Dr. Swain, that was very intense, indeed, and right on the money! Ken, just be polite, make sure they are not otherwise busy, and ask. Did I mention to be polite?

Myra Seaman said...

Thanks for sharing your observations with those in the early stages of becoming members of our community, Larry. I appreciate your wish to help them avoid possible gaffes and mistakes that you sense might harm their careers later on. I worry, though, that the effect of a litany of prohibitions will be to give an extremely negative impression of our field and discourage grad students and young scholars from imagining a home for themselves here.

In fact, I'd much prefer grad students understand themselves to be contributing members of our community *now*, rather than seeing themselves as on trial or on probation awaiting our decision to accept or reject them. If they take themselves and their work seriously, and treat their colleagues and their colleagues' work the same way, then while there may be an established scholar here or there who will simply dismiss them without pause because of their current position as grad students, they will find themselves taken seriously. Part of that depends upon their feeling like members of the community, rather than like children. If we treat grad students like children and insist that they behave deferentially to those of us who are former grad students, then we shouldn't be surprised when some of them seem to behave oddly.

Indeed, I have a hard time telling who is a grad student, who a young professor, and so on when I'm at Kalamazoo. And I love that.

In response to item 3, I must insist that wearing a teeny dress to a dance, even a dance of one's professional colleagues, has nothing at all to do with one's suitability to an academic position. The problem isn't that someone might be young and attractive but that someone else might hold that against them in a hiring situation. This is certainly unsupportable.

As a young professor myself I was given the advice by a friend 10 years ahead of me in the profession that I should treat every moment at Kalamazoo and elsewhere as an interview. Were I to have taken that to heart and spent the past 15+ years interacting with all of my colleagues as if they were potential hiring committee members, I would never have made some of the most important friendships of my life. I would never have felt at home in my own professional community. I would never have been sufficiently comfortable to experiment, to approach those with seniority or who are more prominent than I in the profession. And that would have been a serious loss.

Eileen's recent post at In the Middle about the significant contributions of grad students over the years to her own development as a scholar and to the development of medieval studies more broadly puts much of this more powerfully than I can here.

Holly Crocker said...

Hi, Larry--

I'd like to endorse all of Myra's excellent comments. Although I had some scary early moments at Kalamazoo, those were alleviated by junior and senior scholars who weren't so concerned about differences in rank (or who was or was not a grad student). I'm sure I embarrassed myself, but people ignored my tediousness, or my nervousness. They knew I didn't know how to present myself *as a professional,* whatever that means. It is not just that they were kind, or that they were abiding all my dreadfully awkward choices. They just didn't care about all that stuff. They weren't groundskeepers, carefully patrolling the ambit of a small intellectual jurisdiction. They wanted to know new people in the field, and I was thrilled to discover that I counted as that even when I was a grad student!

When I went to my first SMFS (Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship) dinner, we talked about the papers we'd heard, the research we were respectively doing, and the other scholars who might have connections to one idea or another circulating around the table. Anne Clark Bartlett was especially enthusiastic about introducing me to different scholars, and since that time, some of my most meaningful friendships have emerged from those first few dinners. So it is important to make scholarly connections, but Kalamazoo is not such a punitive environment in my experience.

This is especially true since some of my most important intellectual friendships have also emerged from felicitous accidents and moments of personal silliness. I met Tison Pugh sitting on a plane to Kalamazoo. We quickly struck up an enduring friendship because of our mutual love of camp (the prompt there being my very fancy waterman Hello Kitty pen). I met Marty Shichtman and Laurie Finke at a wine hour, and I went to one of their terrific collaborative papers the following day because they seemed interesting.

One of my first encounters with Eileen Joy, I have to say (and I'm really sorry, Eileen for airing this here--please take it as a signal of the honest respect I hold for you now), was off-putting for the opposite reason: she came up to me at a wine hour, listed about seven other scholars we mutually knew, and then pitched a new scholarly movement she was launching called BABEL. I wanted to flee; it just seemed citational and presumptuous to me. Now, of course, that was me also being a jackass, not heeding the invitation to shared community she was issuing. This seems hilarious now, but at the time I was skeptical of her efforts because it seemed to vested in the "who do you know" networking of the profession, and not at all as cool and word-of-mouth as she was claiming. So she proved me wrong, I'm pretty happy to say.

I recount these different kinds of experience to emphasize one point: all this is about being-with, which I'd describe as a substantive form of mutual contact that is sincere and is meant to last (so not completely Heideggerian). All scholars--grad students or faculty members--should tell others about their work because they mean for others to share in that work in embodied terms that will last over time. This means opening one's work to others in ways that others can then influence, reshape, or extend. It is connection in the thickest sense, but it can happen in serious, silly, or misrecognized moments. Share your work with others, but realize that the sharing becomes an experience of deep and enduring mutuality. Other folks will share things with you about your work, often making you see it in new ways. They will also share things with you about their own work, and that *should be* an invitation for you to share insights with them that they've not quite grasped. If you are a grad student, then, share in ways you'll want to sustain and nourish through future meetings (even if it is just a mutual love of Hello Kitty). You've just gotten the chance to start making some really wonderful, deeply lasting friendships!!

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I hope there is a generational thing going on here, and I know there is a gender one. I spoke to several people--no, I spoke to several women--who were afraid of seeming loud and vulgar. I don't see this with the men, though there are certainly men who should worry about it present (I would add to your list of don'ts, while removing much of it, "don't tell people you've only just met what fraternity you're in at your college"). My big hope is that the people who make these women (and some men, surely) afraid to express themselves are on their way out and that we will develop a medieval studies cohort that is more fun, more relaxed and not so damn up itself about `presenting professionally', which as far as I can see means, "like a banker on a golfing holiday".

But then I speak as one who was flirting left right and centre and head-banged on the dance floor, and all I can say to that is, well, I have a job so it can't be prohibitive to do these things.

theswain said...

Hi Ken,
I'm delighted and glad you come to Congress and take part!

As for your question, Heptarchy has it right. Approach anyone with politeness, introduce yourself, and ask. The vast majority are more than happy to share.

There are better ways, in my view anyway, to get bibliography. A personal email introducing yourself, or joining email lists in the subject and asking, following blogs....or you can do all of the above.

Also, a number of us maintain bibliographies for classes and place things online.

But a simple "hello, my name is and I'm interested in XYZ and was wondering if you would be so kind as to point me to some good literature on the subject" works the vast majority of the time.

I'll have to answer the other comments later.

Eileen Joy said...

Holly: your commentary here about our first meeting made me laugh out loud, *precisely* because it reminds me of how crazy-strong I can come on at time, partly because I am so vested in the BABEL project that I don't always know how to TONE IT DOWN. It's like I'm trying to sell a koolaid acid trip or something.

Great comments here, everyone.

Francesca said...

I would like to briefly comment on the posts that Myra and Holly left. Whereas I most definitely agree with you both about the importance of the 'Zoo as a place to pleasantly and engagingly confront other scholars, regardless to how far they're in their academic career, I also must say a word to "defend" Larry.
I have come across some younger students who were blatantly arrogant towards me and others: they appeared to be at the Congress not to exchange views with "kindred spirits", but to quite recklessly push their work down other people's throat.
There was no opportunity of dialogue, exchange or constructive criticism. Mind, I am not saying that everybody was like this, but that THERE WERE some MA students who may have benefited more from the whole experience by being less pompous and better mannered. These, I believe, are the people Larry refers to in his blog.
Also, I find that the whole humor of Larry's words has gone lost in your comments...Don't get me wrong, the subjects you have discussed were all rightly analyzed but, really, it seems pretty obvious to me that the post is very much a humorous look at this year's K'zoo and wasn't, in any way, intended to be judgmental, patronizing or sexist.
And about the accused comment on the teeny dress: you are right, the way we look or dress should never be a discriminating factor. I love tattoos; I have many large, visible ones and I certainly hope that it won't create issues in my future academic career. But some of the girls at the dance last saturday really went a bit "too far", but not on the ground of them being medievalists and having to dress appropriately to get a job. I myself love my pinup dresses and low-cut tops and I wear them at conferences, at work and wherever else I like; some just went too far on a mere "being comfortable and decent looking" ground. To make it clearer: when you are a EE cup, you shouldn't wear a strapless, low cut dress without a bra, it's just uncomfortable, tasteless and, let's face it, it'd force you to spend the entire evening making sure that not too much of you is on show.
So, I think that the point that Larry was making is mostly about being a bit more tasteful than that. A woman can be (and has the right to) be sensual and intelligent–and to show it, always- and taste is always a good place to start with.
I hope you don't get these reply personally, I just wanted to make my point.
All the best to all of you and... hope to see you both at the 'Zoo next year! :-)

Matthew Gabriele said...

I think, as @Francesca was pointing out, there's a happy medium here. Part of the fun of Kalamazoo to me is it's a) so democratic in that just about anyone can talk to anyone else, and b) that people act like people (especially at the dance and at wine hours). They don't have to act like it's an interview or is the Medieval Academy (no offense, but that's stuffy).

That said, I think certain attendees (sometimes grad students but sometimes professors as well) compensate for their own insecurities by acting arrogantly and condescending to their conversation partner(s). That just needs to stop.

And yes, I use too many parenthesees... :-)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I have a feeling we all saw the same dress...

As I said over at ITMM, a lot of this resonates with me, but I think that the good advice is buried in our rections to the specific groups at which it is aimed.

The best advice is surely, "don't be a dick." Or, be polite, treat others as you'd like to be treated, and try to behave like the professional you are/want to be.

A friend last year wore an amazing corset -- over a blouse, because she didn't think the amount of cleavage involved would be appropriate for what is still a business occasion. She still looked stunning, and I saw lots of jaws dropping. It was a fashion triumph, I think. But this brings me to Jonathan's point -- there are different rules for men and women, and even though it sucks, somebody needs to let people in on them (whether to tell inexperienced women scholars that some people *will* judge, or to tell experiences scholars not to judge -- or leer).

Still, it's mostly about good manners, isn't it?

I don't want to act like every interaction is an interview, but I do think it's important to remember that the zoo is also not *just* a party with your friends. I mean, it is, but it's a party with your friends and some people you don't know well enough to give you a break if you behave badly.

Of course, this is coming from someone who asks questions that are sometimes awkward, and who will argue on the internet where people can google her and find out that she called someone a sexist tool.

So, it's not just about being polite, it's like having an internet presence. If you have one, people know stuff about you. Your arguments are not private. You have to be aware of the impression you create, and be willing to live with that or change it. Conferences, and conference social occasions, are a lot like that -- we are with friends, so it feels private, but really, it's public. Some people may not have ever given that any thought, so it's not bad to let them know :-)

Holly Crocker said...

Hi, everyone--

These responses are great; thanks everyone for a terrific discussion. Let me emphasize: I don't doubt Larry's report of certain experiences. Because Kzoo is such a big conference, in fact, I'm sure there are instances of irritation, happiness, connection, and mistake at every conference. I also welcome his invitation to add to the catalogue of experience/advice. My experience, and therefore my advice, is different than what others report. That variety of experience, I would say, is what is most valuable about the sum of these accounts: somewhere between all these posts people (not just students) can get a sense of protocol and community at kzoo. As I would characterize it, there are moments of breakdown in what is normally a permissive, congenial bunch of like-minded academics.

And I'll admit that I'm usually less won over by catalogues of (dis)approved behaviors, no matter if they are offered in a spirt of good humor. This is perhaps because I work on conduct literature (and so does Myra, though I won't ascribe my attitude to her). Anyway, I often end up thinking that the authors of such treatises are overweening ninnies (even if I recognize that Erasmus is hilarious *and* brilliant in other modes). But that may be because I spend too much time with this type of literature. So my bad on not getting the humor on offer.

I do see the generosity, however, and I'd like to honor that by contributing to it in my own way. Even if my experience of kzoo is different (I've never encountered the pushy MA student), I think the more views students can see, the more perspective they can gain on the varied experience that is the zoo.

cheers, h

Myra Seaman said...

Thanks, Holly, for noting the way our work with conduct texts informs our reading of prescriptions; I certainly share your views on that.

More specifically, I am, on the whole, resistant to seeing my role as a mentor as equivalent to alerting others to the worst of our colleagues and our profession and preparing them to be judged. Perhaps this comes in part from my own experiences as a quiet student-wallflower, but I think it's far worse for someone new to our world to feel they don't deserve a place, than that they investigate by getting directly involved, and make some unavoidable errors along the way.

And I must say on a personal-political note, I am regularly told by my daughter, a high school sophomore, that young women with ample breasts are "informed" daily how they ought to dress so as to cause others no discomfort. Her (avowedly feminist) friends think they are doing her a favor telling her that her shirt is "pretty tight" and noting the possible implications. Making her feel self-conscious and, worse yet, hypersexualized, simply because she doesn't wear a B-cup is no way to show her friendship. Instead, making others consider the implications of what they're saying is the way to express their concern. I'm quite certain that woman at the dance (is this whole line of the discussion spurred by only one dress?) was well aware of what others might think and has had years of deciding how she prefers to respond to that.

Myra Seaman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Myra Seaman said...

[Sorry folks--my iPad wanted to submit that last post twice.]

anonymous grad student said...

I have to say that it feels really wrong to me how much this discussion focuses on the dress, body, and "EE" breasts of a specific, identifiable person in our community. This counts as harassment.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Anonymous grad student -- I think it doesn't qualify as harassment at all -- there were 3000 people at the conference, and several people at the dance wearing similarly revealing clothing. What it is is, for good or ill, proof that such things are noticed. That they are is indeed disturbing, but I think it's also pretty clear that some of the criticism is not about whether certain people with certain body types should wear certain things, but whether anybody should wear them in a professional context.

I think Myra makes a really good point about this, and would like to take it a bit further. Academia is a weird place. Academics like to think (and say) that we are egalitarian, but we aren't. At best, we are egalitarian about the things that shouldn't count, but still, we are sort of a meritocracy with different definitions of merit at play at any given time. And for those of us of a certain age, academia is still a place where there are a lot of sexist rules at play.

I think some of us are in that place where we have been teaching for long enough that we hear our students talk about feminism as if it's a bad thing, all while they unconsciously enjoy the privileges that many feminists fought for before they were born. And things are better than they used to be -- there don't seem to be as many senior male faculty who behave in a predatory manner (at least not openly); women do seem to be treated more equally, but many of us still fight very gendered battles every day. I can't speak for anyone else, but having spent a lot of time (and with some colleagues, it's an everyday thing) trying to be seen for my brain and talent rather than as a vagina with boobs, I *am* very uncomfortable with women, and especially women who haven't established themselves yet, wearing clothing that accentuates the body parts rather than the person. The ways that plays out aren't history to me -- they are part of a fight that we are still (clearly) dealing with.

Clothing can signal a lot of things. Behavior does, too. If the comments were made about women (or men) who were simply out on the dance floor having fun, I doubt they would have been singled out. The reason I noticed these young women was because they also were rushing through the room giggling and holding up their dresses. You can get away with one or the other, but it's hard to pull off both unless you are one of those people who are either notorious or famous.

Obviously, none of this matters at all if a person doesn't care so much about being taken seriously. But presumably if one is willing to make the sacrifices it takes to get through a graduate program, one does. And we do live in a society where in some ways women can get short-term good results by accentuating their youth, their bodies, their non-threatening girlishness, in ways that are so ingrained that most people don't even think about what is going on. And yes, this might be some sort of confrontation of patriarchy, but I doubt it.

Finally, let me just say that, even though this particular comment focuses on women, it's only because those are the comments I'm responding to.

Francesca said...

Myra: I understand your daughter's point, I agree that women are, indeed, oversexualized if they have larger breasts, and my point isn't to say that we (I am, alas, one of them) cover ourselves up to avoid that. My point is that there is a place and a time for everything, and I don't think that a braless dress that shows one nipples is a good choice. Ever. I say this as a woman with big front carriage!! On what you mention about the way your daughter is said to wear certain things instead of others, I couldn't agree more with your thoughts.