Tuesday, May 12, 2009

K'zoo Thoughts

Twice in recent years I've been forced to sprint through the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, including this year. If my schedule allows, I'm making a concerted effort next year to spend three days there.

For the non-academics out there, the Congress is the Big Show for medieval studies on this side of the Atlantic, and I would argue is still dominant over the other Big Show (called the International Medieval Congress) in Leeds, England. Because the two names are so annoyingly similar, for short-hand they are usually called "Kalamazoo" (or "K'zoo") and "Leeds."

Since my sojourn there was so brief, I expected to have little to say about K'zoo this year. As always, I went to various sessions, with papers ranging from the boring-but-important, to the interesting-but-unimportant, as well as the elusive fascinating-and-important, and the dreaded boring-and-stupid. Bilbo's pizzaria might have moved, but it remains the favored watering hole. As usual, I saw grad students make their first forays into the field, I saw seasoned academics cultivating their protoges, and I saw the solid old scholars of the legendary past greeting their old friends as if they were all still in graduate school. If you could see K'zoo from on high, you could trace out the typical career path of a medieval scholar from generation to generation.

Some things, though, are clearly changing. For example, the K'zoo Congress had much more in the way of "poster sessions" (though that's a misnomer from the pre-PowerPoint past, since nearly everything was on a screen) than we've seen in the past, including a lot of work that is difficult to present in the 20-minute lecture style of the humanities. For example, Michael Drout showed his lexomics project at one of the poster sessions, and I confess I had previously misunderstood it; the demonstration at the poster session was a much more effective means of showing off his work.

The poster sessions were also part of a greater tolerance for the study of history through re-creation. I had a discussion with an SCAer about how the SCA had been booted from the Congress years ago, but now was finding its way back in -- largely because both the SCA and the Congress have grown to have their own identities. Even ten years ago scholars involved in the SCA or similar medieval recreation groups tended to keep their associations low-key; today we see that nexus point between the scholarly and the popular celebrated.

Blogging, too, has changed, as JJ Cohen discusses over at In the Middle. This year marked the end of the "Weblogs and the Academy" sessions, in the end killed by the academic respectability of it all. I had a too-short discussion about this with Another Damned Medievalist, who was at the annual blogger get-together. She reminded me about the very first get-together, and how it was fraught with anxiety over pseudonymous bloggers. Some people were afraid to come and be outed, and we went with the early-morning meeting primarily because no one else would be crazy enough to be awake at that time. In those days, except for Drout and me, very few medievalists were blogging in their own names.

The days of Ivan Tribble, when it looked like blogging could be a career-killer, seem like ancient history. I used to run through my blogroll every morning in about 20 minutes -- now, I have to do the Morning Medieval Miscellany as a service to the field. As one person confided to me, "When you didn't have a computer and couldn't do the Miscellanies, my traffic got so low I quit blogging for a while." Today, who could consider himself a legitimate scholar if not at least aware of what's happening on the various listservs, blogs, and static websites?

Naturally, the field is always slowly shifting around; for example, one old lion of the field told me that when he was in graduate school, he was considered a radical for writing a dissertation on prose rather than poetry. What is different today is that the media of legitimate scholarship is changing. Once upon a time, places like the Wordhoard were considered at most a salon, but today they seem to be approaching a new form of legitimate publication.

These changes are both terrifying and exhilarating. On the one hand, I wouldn't want some smart-aleck comment I've made about a high school video version of Beowulf being considered a publication on par with my manuscript research, or my work on popular reception of the medieval. On the other hand, the quickening pace of the field is invigorating, when in some cases you get articles published in months rather than years, and feedback is almost immediate.

If you've never been, join us at Kalamazoo next year, where, God willing, I'll still be enjoying the ride.


  1. Thanks for this. Interesting to see the field changing.

  2. It was great to meet you! I'll definitely be going back to Kzoo, I had a blast.

  3. thanks for your summary, richard; as a computer scientist (who works with mDrout), this was my first congress ... but upon leaving i wished i had scheduled more time; i was impressed with the degree of exchange even in paper sessions ... and yes, here's my nod for even more poster sessions

  4. I know who the old lion is! I know who the old lion is! And yes, the field changes, however slowly. Now if only we could parlay that into more administrative interest in supporting medievalist jobs in the academy since the rest of society seems quite interested.....but another post for another day....

    I'm sorry I didn't get to come and see you this year, Scott, however brief you're stay was.

  5. Swain,

    I'm betting your guess as to the identity of the lion is right!