Sunday, October 04, 2009

Looney Kalamazoo Part the First

Over on the Facebook group wall for International Congress on Medieval Studies, Eve Salisbury wrote and queried:
Yesterday at a meeting of MI faculty, the director told us that some people out there think the Congress has deteriorated in quality; some even call it (according to the report) "looney." Of course, I think that's a characterization worth developing, but I'm wondering what the members of this blog think. What are the concerns out there? How would you like to see the Congress in the future? What would you change? not change? Is the ZOO still worth visiting?

Several people, including myself have weighed in and given some perspective, but while there is some frustration with some things, overall folks are positive. Kalamazoo the Conference has been as instrumental on my own development as a scholar as any of the programs I studied at, so I thought I would say some things here and tag some others in the blogosphere for their input as well.

To a degree, I think this is somewhat related to things expressed last summer over the Allen Furor. Both in Allen's article as well as in fora such as Mediev-L, a largely historical list, some frustration was expressed by historians, economic historians, and others in related fields about Kalamazoo. Not surprisingly, the comments of the current director of the Medieval Institute, an economic historian, mirror those comments from a year and more ago. I believe, however, that it is a very distorted view of what happens at Kalamazoo.

Perhaps the most bandied about issue was the anti-theory feeling among those outside literary studies. Over the last 15 years that I've been watching or been a part of the Congress, there has certainly been an increase in theory oriented sessions. For those outside the field of literary studies, such sessions and the tools the participant use and the questions they ask are as if we're inviting the Galgameks from the next galaxy over to participate in sessions on the European Middle Ages. I too was once of that opinion: when I started my own studies, utilizing the historical-critical and philological models of Biblical studies and Classics I had been taught as an undergrad, a session on feces in literature or comparing Beowulf to Superman was a strange and useless beast indeed. What did Derrida, Lacan, etc really have to do with studies of the ancient or medieval world? Half the time, when those authors talked about those periods at all, they got the basic facts wrong!

All that to say that I know where these critics of Kalamazoo sessions are coming from: I was one, I voiced some of those same concerns and for many of the same reasons. I know better now. And yes, it is a different way of looking at things, and a different set of questions, and like many literary studies, isn't grounded in "hard" evidence of material goods. And it is that strangeness I think that gives pause. To illustrate, from the Allen Furor, the difference in approach between a reader who is discussing social value of shit and shit workers as contextualized in a particular literary work in contrast to the economic historian who is noting and saying the former is wrong or at least hasn't thought about the economic value of poop by the same people. The economic historian isn't interested in fecal humor, or in feelings, thoughts, or revulsion in a story. Rather, the economic historian is interested in the economic value of the commodity and can point to indicators that help establish that value. The former can only point to a story, and use tools to tease the social attitudes out of the story, attitudes that may in fact be at odds with the findings of the economic historian.

Now I know this is an oversimplification of the camps....but the essence I think is there: on the one hand we have the scholar who uses "hard" evidence: artifacts, manuscripts, manuscript contents and texts and on the other we have the scholar who applies modern perspectives to medieval texts or deals in more nebulous ideas not always having a grounding in real life. And not understanding each other and the different approaches tends to divide, separate and make us into "us vs. them" camps. So I think that a lot of the commentary behind the director's "report" rests with some being frustrated by the growth in theory oriented literary studies...and part of why I think that is that when we went through the Allen furor, there were those who expressed exactly that sentiment about K'zoo in those anti-theory terms.

As always, Jeffrey Cohen had a very good insight that he posted on the Facebook group wall: we always look for and like the "ubi sunt": where now the great papers of yesteryear? the great conference of times past? where now the great scholars who read those papers and made the conference so great? We now are not as they were....well, you can fill in the rest.

But you see, for those who feel that way, and those that have expressed such feelings are now fairly established in their fields, they have failed to realize an essential fact. The giants of yesteryear have either left us and we stand on their shoulders, or have since become colleagues and collaborators because we've caught up with them: we are now the giants that younger scholars and students look up to. Ok, maybe not me, but many of those who take the "long view" and express the ubi sunt opinion of Congress now fit this bill. One doesn't learn as much at Congress because one has mastered one's field; one doesn't hear much newly broken ground because one is already intimate with the field and if not borken the ground has been over the surface and considered looking there. The ubi sunt often goes with familiarity of the present breeding contempt for the present. I really think that on the part of some, that this is exactly what has happened.

Others have expressed some frustration over undergrad papers, that can't be at all good for the quality of the conference can it? No, as a general rule an undergrad paper isn't going to be in the same ball park as a grad paper or a senior scholar's paper or a true giant's paper....and no one would claim otherwise. But let's face some facts: the number of undergrads participating as paper readers is VERY LOW. I don't have stats, but of the 650 sessions, there are usually just 2 or 3 sessions designated for undergrads, and depending on the session, there are probably less than 20 undergrad papers in the entire Congress at the most. So of the 2000 or so papers read every year, we're talking .01% of the total by undergrads. Really? People are seriously going to say that the quality of the largest medieval studies conference in the world has declined because of .01% of the 2000 papers read every year? Seriously? Seems to me that to have any real impact on the quality of the conference those papers would have to be attended and have an influence. But other than the organizer, presider, and participants and their advisers and a couple friends, those sessions aren't attended, and have no impact beyond the immediate room.

But why have undergrads in the conference at all? One reason: outreach. I've preached this before here, but unless we as medievalists are willing to do some outreach to other areas in teh academy and to cultivate even undergrads and make inroads into pop culture, we will certainly die. Cultivating interest among a few undergrads is a sure way to ensure survival. So yes, I'm all for a few undergrad sessions, it can only help out the field in the long run by cultivating the giants of tomorrow.

Well, we can set aside the presence of a few undergrads as a concern. But what about all those dashedly modern sessions: Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton....etc. Surely these affect the quality of a "medieval" conference. But no...these have actually been around since the beginning of the Congress. Otto Grundler, who started the thing, called friends and colleagues in other fields in the early days, before it was an annual conference, to make the thing actually go with decent numbers to justify the thing. It is in fact to these long time friends of the Congress that such a conference exists for us to attend year by year and complain about the wine, food, paper quality etc....And while there are sometimes more sessions devoted to these subjects than to undergrad papers, nonetheless there are great papers here and again the numbers are so small that one can not point here to any perceived decline in quality, utility, or magnificence of the Kalamazoo Conference. Further, anyone who has taught so-called "early modern" history, language, or literature knows that the line between Shakespeare etc and a 15th century writer is negligible and arbitrary.

So what next? Well we could look at the popular culture sessions. There are without a doubt more of those now than there were even ten years ago, much less twenty years ago. And let's face it, pop culture studies isn't as rigorous as traditional medieval studies, right? Well, not so much....but let's look at this another way for a moment. There's a delightful little conference and journal, Studies in Medievalism, that includes among those who belong, who read, who publish the top names in the fields that make up Medieval Studies: Tom Shippey, M. J. Toswell, Jan Ziolkowski, and I might mention that the current head of the Medieval Academy has spoken as keynote speaker at the conference. So doing "medievalism"...the study of the medieval in pop culture...can't be all bad....and let's not overlook the Popular Culture conference that has a medieval component. There's a lot of good scholars, top names, who participate.

Is there any justification at all, other than "that's not what I do or am interested in" not to have many medievalism/pop culture sessions at Kalamazoo? Not a single one I can think of. You see, as far as I'm concerned not only is medievalism a fascinating study in itself whether we're talking Matthew Parker or Shakespeare or T. S. Eliot or Tolkien or Harry Potter or Zemekis, but a necessary one. If we do not include the present in our studies in the past, we will become irrelevant and lose our place in the academy...a process already underway in some quarters. Only by showing the folk with the purse strings that we're important enough to keep around will we be kept around, and since we can't bring in that many grants etc, being relevant to our students, the larger culture, and our local academic communities is our only option: and reading papers at popular culture sessions is one way to do that. So, there's both quality and necessity in such sessions.

One final point on this issue: if people, medievalists, were not interested in popular culture as whole and medievalisms these sessions wouldn't be proposed, wouldn't have readers, and wouldn't be attended. But all three are happening and happening in greater numbers at Kalamazoo with each passing year bearing very loud testimony that many a medievalist is interested! Not all are, and that's fine, but let's not devolve to calling it less scholarly, less worthy, of less quality simply because the topic is not of interest.

There is one real problem with Kalamazoo: the attitude that "its just Kalamazoo" and so therefore one needn't have a done paper or a good paper....but that attitude doesn't last. You see, anyone who is a graduate student with this attitude will quickly learn within a year or two that it does matter: one develops a reputation rather quickly and it doesn't take too many bombs before your first impression is made on your older colleagues and you will fight like the dickens to change that. Oh, a student with this persistent attitude may keep it through grad school and may land a TT job and even earn tenure reading bad papers at some medieval conference. But make no mistake: I've known several who seem oblivious to the fact that they've earned a reputation for shoddiness. I don't do all this work so I can have such a reputation. I doubt most others do either...always exceptions of course. Point is, that yes, more graduate students participate now than in the 70s, 80s, etc. and some of these grads and young scholars have an attitude that their session is unlikely to be attended, so what does it matter if they are still writing on the train/plane or even while at the conference? What does it matter if its not a good paper? Its a line on the CV, that's good, and no one will care. Well, word does get around, and it does matter.....let me tell you all a story in the best medieval homiletic tradition.

I've never had the attitude that it doesn't matter. But I have been guilty of reading a bad paper at K'zoo. At the time I proposed the paper, I had already read the obscure text I was working on, and knew where I was going. But in the intervening months I just had no time to work on it...after all there was always time until Kalamazoo, right? Until of course the beginning of May came and I hadn't written much. "But I should be alright" I reasoned. After all, my session won't be of interest to many, its after lunch and people will be late, and I'm the first paper. So I relaxed: even though my paper was incomplete and not very good, I should get through without much embarrassment. To my horror and surprise four of the biggest names working in the field to which my obscure text was related. They sat in the front row. They watched me crash and burn. And crash and burn I did. The lesson: NEVER EVER take for granted that no one will take in your bad work at a conference and that word doesn't get around. I've had to work triply hard to get those four scholars to even look at anything else I've done because of that, which makes doing work in that obscure, subfield extremely difficult. It matters. Bad papers at Kalamazoo can and do affect your future reputation. So let that be a lesson to you.

Back to the question: do these grad students affect the overall quality of Kalamazoo? No. Again the numbers of grad students with that attitude pales in comparison to the number of scholars and grad students without it who read solid papers, even good and great papers, at the conference. Besides, the Kalamazoo conference is a great place for professionalizing these graduate short the future of the profession rests on conferences like this rather than on grad student conferences like Vagantes (sorry, I just don't think specifically grad student conferences are helpful in the long run; perhaps in the short run, but I've a longer view perhaps being ancient and all).

Well, that's probably enough to answer the majority of objections. Eve did ask some specific questions and in Part the Second I'll address my take on those questions.


E Carnell said...

The grad students I've known who've expressed the 'it's just Kalamazoo' attitude (or worse, 'don't bother with Kalamazoo') were directing quoting their advising faculty.

The problem isn't an unprepared grad student or two: the vast majority of thrown-together papers I've heard--including one that was little more than rambling from cues he'd scribbled on notecards!--were given neither by students nor the early-minted.

Jackie said...

When I pointed out in the Facebook discussion the "It's just Kalamazoo" problem, I should have specified that it's been *colleagues,* not students, who have been the worst culprits. Students pick up that attitude from their advisors, who either tell them not to bother with the conference or who think it's fine for them to present some half-baked seminar paper just to "get the experience."

Likewise, I've consistently found grad student papers to be stronger than those of even established faculty; the "quality" problem, if there is one, should not be placed on the shoulders of students at all. I'm astonished at the number of respected scholars I've seen (including some in sessions I've organized) standing up with a few pages of rehashed, disorganized junk they threw together in the plane, figuring they can get away with it because they're already so experienced in the field. It's the mid-career scholars, in my view, who need to get jostled out of their complaceny, and either take their role in the conference seriously or cede the floor to people who will actually put some effort into it.

Stephen C. Carlson said...

I've never been to Kalamazoo, but I go to SBL (the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature). It sounds like the same or at least very similar complaints and kudos can be about the two. Sure, there's plenty of theory for those who do theory, but there's also plenty of nuts-and-bolts scholarship too. Of course, after attending a while and having gotten to meet many of one's colleagues, it becomes more about the people than the papers.

Carin said...

For me, the culture shock some disciplines experience at the methods and preoccupations of others is a by-product of one of the very best things about Kalamazoo: that it's a place where people who spend their academic years locked in traditional departments and their Christmas vacations attending disciplinary conferences can, come spring, burst out into a space where medievalists can be their true interdisciplinary selves. For me, that means not so much that any one medievalist must work in more than one field, but that any good medievalist knows what other medievalist to call when they need an historian or an archaeologist or a glossologist or a theorist or a random Cistercian :-) And where do you meet the people you'll be able to call on later? Kalamazoo!

On post-medieval topics at the Zoo, I'd far rather see an inclusive medieval studies than one that obsessively polices its boundaries. Think about what would happen on the other end if medievalists refused to play nicely at conferences with, say, anyone who worked on stuff before 476. Better we should embrace Spenser and Spenserians and Milton and Miltonists as our own, and lay claim to the continuities.

Steve Muhlberger said...

Hear, hear, Jackie.

If one goes to Kzoo for the content, spending your time listening to young scholars with apparently off-the-wall topics is going to be a good use of your session time.

I once saw an established scholar at the Medieval Academy stand up and start reading from what looked like his book ms. And he never finished, he had to be stopped.

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