Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Kalamazoo 2009

by J J Cohen

Fiat Lux
Yesterday I offered some thoughts about the darker side of the discipline: abuse of anonymity, senior scholars comporting badly. Both these issues have their most direct impact on those who are young in the field, and for that reason trouble me deeply when they occur. I don't want to imply, however, that medieval studies is inherently dark. Just the opposite is true, in my experience. Most of the medievalists I know -- most of the academics I know -- are humane and admirable people who treat others with the dignity they are due. For every sad story I could tell about cutting remarks and poison letters, a hundred more positive narratives offer themselves.

Kalamazoo 2009 displayed ample evidence. I need speak only two words to emphasize that goodness and light, and they designate the fairy godmother of medieval studies: Bonnie Wheeler.

Three Fests
A Friday evening party in honor of Bonnie was a highlight of the conference. The champagne flutes were bottomless, the desserts endless (though somehow a major category violation occurred here: along with the various chocolate and fruit sweets was carrot cake. Doesn't everyone know how wrong it is to bake vegetables into meal-ending sweets?). A long series of toasts attested to the profound impact Bonnie has had on the field -- an impact discernible not only in her scholarship and scholarly projects (the journal Arthuriana, the New Middle Ages series at Palgrave), but also in her cultivation of and care for those whose work might otherwise have been neglected. I count myself among that group, because from the moment I met her Bonnie has taken an interest in my endeavors. Without her there would be no Becoming Male in the Middle Ages, no Postcolonial Middle Ages, no Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity, and no Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages. She wrote for my tenure, she wrote for my ACLS fellowship, she has supported me in every way possible. She makes medieval studies a field I love. To do so, perhaps, you have to be a bit larger than life -- and that is Bonnie. She gave a forceful presentation at the GW MEMSI panel that made that presence clear. A BABEL session happened to be in the same space immediately afterwards ... and as those presentations were in progress, Bonnie tip-toed into the room to retrieve the pocketbook she had left behind. Dressed in her vibrant orange ensemble complete with matching dramatic scarf, there was no way for her to impersonate an inconspicuous academic. Nonetheless she attempted to render herself invisible and to pass behind the speakers to grab the bag. The scene will be emblazoned on my mind forever.

That same evening Stephanie Trigg and Beth Robertson held a soiree at the Kalamazoo B&B. The party was crowded and spirited (<-- pun). My favorite part, though, was siting on the grand front porch alone for a few moments, enjoying a glass of wine and the warm stillness of the evening. Also, I accidentally tricked some graduate students into coming to the party after I had returned to the BonnieFest. They were mocked by a senior medievalist as they arrived at the empty space. They do not seem willing to forgive me.

Lastly, there was the BABEL party. To sum that one up: best ever.

The Monster Stands at the Gates of Discomfort
I was the moderator at the GW MEMSI panel on "How to Get the Medieval Studies You Want: Institutional Perspectives." The presenters were so good and the audience so lively that the job was easy. It struck me that the panel is the kind of thing that a restless mid career person does: you've reaped the rewards of the system, but aren't necessarily satisfied with its current structure. Given the financial, administrative, and social structures within which we must work, how do we bring about the innovations we want? How do we enable desired futures to flourish? The conversation ranged over grantsmanship and making oneself relevant to funding bodies; proposing and leading new, interdisciplinary programs; new book series; and nonhierarchical belonging mechanisms.

I was also the respondent at a MEARCSTAPA panel on "Monster Culture: Seven Theses." The presentations were insightful and presented with good cheer. The conversation that followed was lively and expansive. The energy and the enthusiasm in the crowded session were inspiring. Yet I spent most of the time shifting uncomfortably in my seat. Sitting in the same row at the front of a room as someone who is talking about "Jeffrey Cohen's work" and "Cohenic theory" was, well, strange. In my response I spoke about how pleased I have been over the years that the "Seven Theses" have been useful for work that has startled me in its sheer range: my primary scholarly identity is medievalist, so how great is it that an undergraduate working on bacteria would drop me a line to tell me what she has done? I pointed out a few of the unexpected places to which the work had brought me. I read from one of Lytton Smith's poems and offered that this transformation he had wrought was the best gift I'd ever been given. During the Q&A, I confided that rereading the "Seven Theses" so many years after composing the essay reminded me of the loneliness that animated the project: I had just finished graduate school, was in a nontenure track job, was wondering if medieval studies was really the discipline I could spend my life within ... and I was writing to a community that I could not yet discern, but one I deeply wanted to arrive. If there is a sadness palpable in the theses, and if there is a hope for a thing that did not yet exist, the sadness and the hope come from their moment of writing as much as from the monsters with whom they hold fellowship.

The Breaking of the Fellowship
This year the ITM bloggers undertook no daytrip to Celery World. We did not, as we have done previously, spend time together dedicated to brainstorming the possible futures of this blog. We never even raised such a conversation as a possibility.

I wondered if that didn't mean something. Blogs have limited lifespans. Technologies flourish and then subside. Facebook is the new Blogger, and maybe Twitter is the new Facebook. With 1,182 posts since 2007, we've had a good run at ITM. Maybe everyone has simply moved on to their next projects, or at least to projects that must take precedence over a blog: a new journal, a new institute, a new book, a dissertation -- to name only a few of the things that preoccupy us. We've been together long enough for some fractures to be evident, for the changes time brings to move us into spheres that are not as concentric as they might once have been.

Then again, we did spend a great deal of time together at Kalamazoo: never just the four of us, but always enjoying each other's company within a larger group. Maybe we did not set apart time to talk about ITM because we have grown so comfortable with each other that we do not need to worry about the future, about the what next. Perhaps we have the confidence to know that future is already secure.

Perhaps we have everything we need in this moment now.

7 comments:

Karl Steel said...

we've had a good run at ITMWait, what?
We're still running.
I have plenty of posts left in me, as soon as I get over this semester.
Sheesh.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

I wasn't implying that! I was observing that even if we did end the blog today, no one could argue that we haven't had a good, long run. But a better run is to continue for at least 1,182 more posts.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I was observing that even if we did end the blog today, no one could argue that we haven't had a good, long run. But a better run is to continue for at least 1,182 more posts. I was planning on keeping writing for at least that long, though apparently I'll have the occasional four-month interruption in my blogging due to "major learning" in terms of projects and teaching.

But to pick up on a thread you raise here, Jeffrey, what I think is most interesting is that this has been a very "together" kind of a year for the four of us. We were all in the same place a number of times -- SEMA, the ASSC lecture, Kzoo -- and three of the four gathered more than once. I think part of writing on a blog is allowing it, to modify an Aelfrician phrase, to be that which it is.

"beo thaet thaet thu eart". Be that which you are. So many blogs tend to do that endless navel gazing of "mission" or "purpose." Sometimes that seems quite analogous to graduate school, or a writing course -- what are we here for? I think what I've realized -- and perhaps what you're pointing to in your last paragraph, Jeffrey -- is that this question isn't always as productive as it could be. It tends to emphasize things that aren't actually weaknesses but strengths, but it does so in a way that affirms a model of scholarship I think I ultimately disagree with -- the idea that thought should always be complete when shared. It may well be true we've got differences. We've been together long enough for some fractures to be evident, for the changes time brings to move us into spheres that are not as concentric as they might once have been. But I think as you identify in the last bit of your post -- that's precisely what makes us such good academic colleagues and ultimately such good friends. Part of what I have learned from being on ITM is that it models a sort of outward expansion of friendship and scholarly comraderie. I go forth to ISAS this summer, Eileen to her duties with postmedieval, you to continued work on MEMSI and Karl to his first book (among many other things for each of us) -- and as we do so, we take the very best of what has been produced on ITM in terms of community (and I do mean that to include every single person who comments or reads the blog, too) to a wider world, a bigger scholarly community. And then, hopefully, we also bring parts of those experiences and thoughts back here, making it richer specifically because of those experiences and (sometimes) difficulties and over-busy-ness.

Then again, we did spend a great deal of time together at Kalamazoo: never just the four of us, but always enjoying each other's company within a larger group. Maybe we did not set apart time to talk about ITM because we have grown so comfortable with each other that we do not need to worry about the future, about the what next. Perhaps we have the confidence to know that future is already secure.

Perhaps we have everything we need in this moment now.
I think you've already expressed -- better than I'll ever manage -- precisely what I'm attempting to articulate. Because every future is a becoming, we don't need a staticity, or even agreement. What we do have, what I value so deeply, is our ability to speak and think across those lines and fractures -- and to bring others in. The blog will never be finished -- and that's precisely the point. Even a blog post is unfinished -- you've modeled here the kind of processual thinking that I value so highly, the ability to be transparent about the PROCESS of thinking rather than the relic status of "having had thought".

Thinking with each and every one of you -- the ITM community -- makes me a better scholar. And I'm grateful, endlessly, for the becoming we do together.

Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

That was a beautiful, beautiful comment Mary Kate. Thank you.

Eileen Joy said...

I would just die if this blog came to an end; it is one of my spiritual outposts. As well as a family. Enough said.

And to everything Mary Kate said: word.

gabriel gryffyn said...

During the Q&A, I confided that rereading the "Seven Theses" so many years after composing the essay reminded me of the loneliness that animated the project: I had just finished graduate school, was in a nontenure track job, was wondering if medieval studies was really the discipline I could spend my life within ... and I was writing to a community that I could not yet discern, but one I deeply wanted to arrive. If there is a sadness palpable in the theses, and if there is a hope for a thing that did not yet exist, the sadness and the hope come from their moment of writing as much as from the monsters with whom they hold fellowship.I was just telling one of my grad student colleagues today that I hoped no one around noticed that I teared up a bit when you said this.

I hope ITM does go for another 1,182 more posts. I've only just found it, after all!

Karma said...

I loved what you said on the panel about the place you wrote Seven Theses from. I've been having a few conversations with a few different people lately about how receptive (or not) the field of Anglo Saxon studies is to various threads and theories and tangents and focuses (I'm trying not to be too specific here), and while I haven't run screaming yet, I have certainly encountered that "outside" feeling, and it hasn't always been passive and accidental and simply a function of my not knowing very much just yet. Gatekeeping and resistance happen. Ugh, I think I'm stepping in it here, but my point is, I guess, just that I'm glad you shared that, and it really spoke to me in my own life and work right now, and that's all I'll say on the matter.

Sorry if we made you uncomfortable - I guess it's one thing to compose notes for a talk thinking of the seated attendees out there, and another to realize, when it's time to speak from the notes, that you've managed to forget that you've done a good bit of 3rd person writing in ref to somebody who is now sitting *right next to you.* In any case, it was a very real pleasure to be on that panel, and I was very pleased with how the roundtable went - it went much better than I'd dared hope.

Finally, I'll join the chorus on the future of ITM - no way! I don't know what I'd do without this blog!