Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Nerdtalk and Geekspeak: My Life Among the Fans

First of, apologies to Drout for spoofing his blog title. OK, now for the round-up of my expedition into the Midwest to talk about medievalist stuff for popular audiences.

My university certainly got their money's worth out of the trip. They gave me a handful of free t-shirts and folders to give away, and I rationed them out so that I'd have a bit to give at each session I did. At every session, at least one person (usually more) asked, "Where's Troy University?", allowing me to give my Troy-rah-rah speech several times. So, from the perspective of raising Troy University's profile, a success.

The talk at the Henry F. Schricker Public Library was a limited success. There were only about two dozen in attendance at the most, but they seemed very engaged. Perhaps most interesting were two little boys who had detailed knowledge of The Lord of the Rings and asked the kind of questions that are a little naive for adults, but are charming when they come from children (e.g., "How could Shelob stab Frodo if he was wearing his mithril coat?") Anyway, it was nice to meet children so literate that they would drag their father out on 4th of July weekend to hear some guy talk about books.

The talks at InConJunction went quite well, I thought. The first talk started with only five people in the room, and I feared that it was going to be a looooooong weekend. By the end of the session, though, we had about 25 people in the room. The questions were good and interesting, too. At the end of the session, we had about a half dozen people gathered at the front of the room for more, but I had to cut that short for the opening ceremonies.

The second talk didn't go as well. Only about a half dozen people came, and they didn't ask much. Many of the questions were reprisals of issues from the first session. After I left the session, I probably had a dozen people come running up to me to say that they hadn't made the session because the charity auction ran long. In other words, a scheduling conflict meant that high interest didn't result in high turnout.

The third talk, though, on medieval magic and medicine, was a roaring success. The room was packed, the questions were good, and people hung around for about 45 minutes later to discuss the issues. In fact, the after-session probably would have run longer than the actual session itself, but I had to make an appointment on the south side of Indianapolis.

Perhaps more importantly, I found that my experiment in speaking at a science fiction/fantasy convention was a success. I was afraid that all my nerdtalk and geekspeak would be lost in the wilds of fandom, either avoided by people afraid of the difficulty, or embattled by people unclear on the difference between fiction and reality. I needed not worry about the former, though. People didn't approach the subjects as trained medievalists; they approached them from their own positions -- as physicists, midwives, high school teachers, etc. Their questions often led us in directions I didn't expect. I would say that I probably over-prepared for the sessions, because there is no way to know who will come to your session, and what their interest will be.

While I didn't face the problem of people not distinguishing between fiction and reality and InConJunction, it was a real potential difficulty. I went to a Harry Potter session in which it was in full force. Many of my prejudices regarding Harry Potter were confirmed; people who had obviously spent much of the last nine years thinking about the series had still never developed even the most rudimentary critical apparatus. The children at the library were thinking about literature in a more sophisticated way. Nevertheless, I spotted some of the same people at other sessions, where they exhibited normal intellect. What is it, I wonder, about Harry Potter that makes otherwise intelligent people incapable of thinking beyond an elementary school level?

Regardless of the Harry Potter silliness, InConJunction had a lot of interesting things. I was surprised by the high quality of fan films. The "Weird World of Science" section was absolutely packed. Even the Filking Guest of Honor was good -- and I hate filking. By the time the convention was over, I had been asked to submit programming to three other conventions. Given the right circumstances (availability time and money, mostly), I'd strongly consider it.


  1. Keep up the good work. We need more people who have the patience required to present accurate information to the general public.

  2. Anonymous10:22 AM

    What? You had free Troy t-shirts and never offered us one?! We are now officially offended.

  3. In regards to the discussion of Medieval Magic and Medicine, do you have speech notes you are willing to share? Maybe a bibliography?

  4. Christian,

    I'm not sure I have much of use ... it was basically me walking people through translations of the metrical charms found in Dobbie's sixth volume of the Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records.

    For the non-Old English reader, Stephen Pollington's *Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing* will probably get you closest to what I was doing. In terms of theoretical approach, you might try Karen Jolly's *Popular Religion in Late Saxon England*, though I don't think that has a lot of examples in it (the fun stuff).

    My own published work on the subject assumes that the reader is a specialist and can read Old English, so it would probably be useless to you.

  5. You are really making me wish I had taken the Beowulf course with Professor Cronin. He required students to take an Old English course with him before-hand.

    Thus I opted to take Chaucer with Professor Boardman instead.

    I would really like to supplement my Galen so that I can build a coherent magic system for my fantasy world. I have the politics and narrative outlined, but I want my magic system to be solid so that any readers I may ever have can find the system plausible.

    While suspension of disbelief is a necessity in fantasy, I want what I write to have enough consistency and plausibility to assist the reader. Oh, and I wanted it rooted in actual beliefs as much as possible.

    Both of your suggestions are good though and I will look into them.

  6. Best. Post. Title. EVER!