Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Something tells me it's all happening at the 'Zoo.

There are all sorts of funny things about the world’s biggest conference of medievalists. First of all, the fact that there IS a big conference of medievalists sounds, to anybody who’s not a medievalist, like something of a joke. But, indeed, there are enough of us out there to generate a conference program so big it requires professional binding.

Then there’s the fact that it’s in Kalamazoo. That’s just a funny name, made funnier by people’s habit of calling the conference that takes place there “K’zoo” (pronounced like the musical instrument) or even just “The ‘Zoo.” Hence the tribute to Simon and Garfunkel in my title. And, at its height, with dozens of papers being read at simultaneous panels and thousands of academics blundering around the campus looking for food or just looking lost, it can, certainly, feel a bit like a zoo. There are even geese, ducks, goslings, and nesting swans to make us feel right at home in the menagerie!

Oh, and did I mention that there are mead tastings, broad-sword demonstrations, and a dance at which (I am told) people occasionally dress in costume? I don’t really know what kind of costume this means: the only pictures I’ve seen are of people in eighties-style dance gear, complete with the teased hair. But then, perhaps the picture was taken in the eighties.

One of my fellow medievalists had a student ask him, when he announced he was going to this conference, if he was going to dress up. Took awhile to realize the student didn’t mean a jacket and tie, he was envisioning chainmail and tunics. It is NOT that kind of conference…with the possible but unconfirmed exception of the dance. But given that everything from the Modern Language Association meetings to Comicon are lumped under the heading of “conference,” can an outsider be blamed for making assumptions when he hears that thousands of medievalists are all converging on a small town in Michigan right at the end of the school year?

I gave a paper at the conference this year, a great honor and a great deal of fun, but what was much more noteworthy to my mind (I keep forgetting to tell people how my paper went when they ask me how the conference was) is the sheer Who’s-Who sense you get reading the program. Many of the great names in medievalism make their appearance in Kalamazoo every year, and a grad student can easily get a bit star-struck when she realizes she’s standing in line at the cafeteria with the person who redefined Chaucer studies, or that her paper presentation was attended by a leading voice in Piers Plowman criticism. Small beer to someone not in the field, I suppose, but we all have our celebrity heroes.

By the way, I went to the mead and ale tasting. Mead would be pretty good if it didn’t have all that alcohol in it! (This message brought to you by your friendly neighborhood teetotaler.)

More importantly, I had a chance at this conference to spend time with several fellow medievalists from my own department (a 12-hour drive each way counts, in my book, as social time!), to reconnect with a dear friend from my program in Iceland, and even to run unexpectedly into several of my professors from undergrad! I was stunned that they remembered me. But then, it probably says less about me personally than it does about the oddity of my career choice. How many students does a professor have in one career who go on to become medievalists themselves? I should hope I’d remember my budding medievalists, if I’m ever fortunate enough to be in a position to teach any.

Kalamazoo marked the end of the hectic spring semester. Now it’s on to the summer agenda, which is sadly lacking in beach trips and afternoons spent reading on the Lawn, but which should keep me busy and out of trouble. Next time I have an adventure, I’ll post something, but given that my vision of the next few months looks suspiciously like a library carrel, I can’t guarantee anything of interest until I hit of month of travel in August!