Thursday, May 19, 2011

Making Ourselves Available to Each Other: Kalamazoo and Beyond

Figure 1. gathering at Bell's Brewery in Kalamazoo to celebrate the launch of punctum books [photo by Jonathan Hsy]


Yesterday, Jeffrey wrote a post, "In praise of new friendships," in which he wrote of how deeply gratifying it is how the Kalamazoo Congress always serves as a site through which new, lasting friendships are produced. I want to echo that sentiment [indeed, it was my first, non-virtual encounter with Jeffrey, Karl, and Mary Kate at a Kalamazoo Congress lo these many years ago, that cemented and extended a friendship--both professional and personal--that I am not sure I could conceptualize my working life without], and I could provide so many names, but what I really want to talk about in this post is how much it has meant to me over the years [and I know, too, to Myra Seaman, my intimate collaborator on all things BABEL and postmedieval, who you can assume is agreeing with everything I write here] to encounter graduate students at Kalamazoo through whom my own thought and writing has been enriched in so many immeasurable ways [for example, Nic D'Alessio told me to read Claude Romano, which blew my mind; Dan Remien urged me to look at poetics more closely, both medieval and contemporary, and also turned me on to John Caputo as well as the language poets--somewhat more painfully, he made me read Heidegger, too--and also published one of my prose poems in his poetry/theory zine Whiskey & Fox, not to mention he wrote an essay for Glossator, "A Prosimetrum for New Work," that I think pushes the envelope for what is possible in the field of Old English poetics merged with contemporary avant-garde poetics; note, also, that Ryan Dobran, one of the co-editors of Glossator, along with Nicola Masciandaro and Karl, is a graduate student; Mary Kate connected E.M. Forster to the Old English "Wanderer" for me; Mo Pareles got me thinking about "archive" in relation to Aelfric and Freud; Dana Oswald, now a professor, energized my thinking on the Old English "Wonders of the East" in relation to sexuality and gender; Liza Blake turned my attention to early modern physics in relation to embodiment and object-oriented philosophy; Julie Orlemanski, starting as a professor at Boston College in the fall, has challenged my thinking on faces and faciality, especially in relation to Levinas's ethical philosophy, and she has also directed my attention to the rich intersections between disease, physiology, and hermeneutics in the Middle Ages; Irina Dumitrescu, now a professor at Southern Methodist, actually made me read the Old English Colloquies with an eye toward their "grammars" of pain and punishment; Lowell Duckert, whose thoughtful presentation "The Ice Age is Never Over" at this year's Kalamazoo session on "Objects, Networks, and Materiality", sponsored by GW-MEMSI, got me thinking, in ways I never had before, about "slow," enworlded composition; Rick Godden directed me to Nicholas Abraham and Maria Torok's The Shell and the Kernel, which I had not read before, and which was enormously useful to my own work on trauma and memory; Travis Neel has helped me refine my thinking on the politics of friendship by way of Aelred of Rievaulx; let us recall here, too, that when Karl first joined In The Middle he was still finishing up his dissertation, which is now forthcoming from Ohio State University Press as How To Make a Human: Animals and Violence in the Middle Ages, and which promises to be one of the most important books in critical animal studies writ large, not just within medieval studies, and I do not say this out of friendship hyperbole]. I would not even know where to begin enumerating my debts to these students, and I am sure I am leaving some out in my account here, but forgive me, as I am ensconced in the lounge at the Sheraton Gateway Hotel at the Toronto International Airport and am seriously sleep-deprived. What's new?

At this year's Kalamazoo Congress, there were still more encounters with brilliant graduate students from whom I expect to see much [both personally and professionally]: David Hadbawnik and Sean Reynolds, both from Univ. at Buffalo-SUNY, who led a session on "Queering the Muse: Medieval Poetry and Contemporary Poetics" for BABEL and who are also co-editors of an edition of excerpts of Jack Spicer's translation of Beowulf, just published by CUNY's Lost & Found Poetic Documents Initiative; Chris Piuma, from Toronto, who gave a stunningly beautiful presentation on the "ex post facto garde" at the "Queering the Muse" session, which has been snatched up by Anna Klosowska and Nicola Masciandaro for their special issue of postmedieval on "FAULT"; Kristin Noone, from UC-Riverside, who at BABEL's Friday business meeting suggested "Cleavage" as a session theme for a future Congress, inspired by China Mieville's novel The City and the City, about a murder in two cities that take up the same geographical space; Benjamin Saltzman, from UC-Berkeley, who I only met briefly at the Saturday dance, but who Mo Pareles assures me is one of the coolest students in Old English studies ever and I hope I'll see him more soon; and finally, Erik Wade, who recently finished an M.A. in English at Oregon and will be starting the PhD program in medieval studies at Rutgers in the fall, and who is hoping to be able to do Old English literary studies and "deep" theoretical readings [uh ... YES! Erik Wade, meet Dan Remein and Mo Pareles; Dan Remien and Mo Pareles, meet Erik Wade]. I might add here, too, that both of BABEL's sessions at this year's Congress were organized by graduate students ["Queering the Muse" by David Hadbawnik and "Madness, Methodology, Medievalisms" by Mo Pareles].

Alongside all of that [and there's a lot there!], these students have made rich and significant contributions to the projects and collective aims of BABEL, and to postmedieval, and to BABEL's new, biennial conference. They are co-partners in all of our endeavors and not apprentices or "junior" members of our collective. This brings me to my larger point here: I hate the term "graduate student," as well as "junior," "apprentice," "mentee," and so on. First, please don't barrage me with all of the ways in which students really do have a lot to learn and we [whoever "we" are] have a lot to teach them, you have to learn to walk before you can fly, you must learn close reading before theory, "experience" matters, and so on and so forth. I'm not saying that these aphorisms aren't true some of the time, but grant me this: I don't see graduate students as students; I see them as peer-learners, and in some cases, as my mentors, but more importantly: as my co-conspirators. Anyone can be a mentor to anyone else at any time: it has nothing to do with age or experience or numbers of degrees earned or whatever. We're all stupid or wise on any given day [sometimes both simultaneously], and you never know where you're going to find wisdom sometimes.

As regards the discipline of medieval studies, I want a level playing field, one in which we don't make presuppositions ahead of time as regards where the next, best idea might be coming from [or whose "current" or "established" best idea we should all be chasing after], and frankly, I'm just not that interested in what some people refer to as intellectual property or even intellectual capital. I just want new ideas, new intellectual provocations, new strategies for thinking in new cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary, cross-temporal, etc. modes and I don't care where they come from. Indeed, the more they might be disapproved of, the more interesting I find them. I don't want to spend too much time being anxious about whose ideas belong to whom, so much as I just want to push the field [the humanities, more broadly] forward, and by any means necessary. As I think is fairly well-established regarding my philosophy by now, I think that has to be done collectively [if even dissensually, without necessarily any common "end" goals], and with as many shipmates as possible, and I don't care where anyone comes from [rank-wise, institution-wise, stage of degree-wise, or whatever-wise], so long as we all agree that a plurality of approaches to our subject matter will likely benefit us more than a winnowing of such approaches. More ideas, not less. More affective propulsions toward and for each other's work, rather than less, even when we disagree. More support for each other's work, for enlarging the possible spaces within which more of us might have a viable place to do the work that is meaningful to us, even if that is just one of us. Not asking ourselves any more, in our encounters at conferences, "are you a student? where do you work? who did you study with? " etc. Just asking: what are you thinking right now? What's moving you right now? What do you care about, and why? How can I help? In short: committing ourselves to doing the [frankly, easy] work of enlivening, through amorous interest, the often cold and forbidding institutional spaces within which we all work. Making ourselves available to each other as interested parties. Again, we don't all have to agree--we just have to actually be interested, and hopefully, interesting.

So, you put a bunch of medievalists into one space together [and maybe some of them aren't really 100% "medievalists," whatever that might mean], like at the gathering to celebrate the launch of punctum books at Bell's Brewery this past Friday evening in Kalamazoo [and here a "shout out" to another student, Erica Carson, who essentially organized this entire event on BABEL's behalf], and you just . . . relax, be convivial, start talking, and stop worrying about who anyone is, who is a "student," who is a "professor," who is worthy of your attention and who isn't. Although, in point of fact, given the title of my post here, what I am also saying is: seek out the students [while also trying not to think of them as "the students"]! The last time I checked, they had all the ideas, the energy, and the affection for joining a field that, just maybe, doesn't even have a future. But if it has any kind of future at all, it's really in their hands, and as for me, I don't know where I, or BABEL, would be without them.


Jeffrey J. Cohen said...

Odd? Ironic? Convergent? that you and I were working on a post on similarly themed post at the same time, Eileen.

Myra Seaman said...

Oh, Eileen, *this* is what I meant to say in my concluding comment on Jeffrey's post right above this one. Thanks so much for saying it, and for knowing even before I could articulate it that this is exactly what I thought.

Melissa said...

I nominate Eileen Joy for the post of Supreme Dominatrix of the American Association of Universities, for an unlimited term of office, effective ASAP. But seriously...thanks for a lovely post, reminding us all that we are all of us teachers and students both, in one way or another, until we leave the profession or die. For my part, although not yet a professor, I have been a teacher for over a decade, and some of my best and richest thinking and writing has stemmed from the collective work being done in my classes; I feel that my work is the better for my students' questions, complaints, comments, and suggestions. If it were not for an interdisciplinary, communal approach to scholarship, we would all exist in vacuums and never really benefit fully from anything we do. What's the point in research if you never disseminate it and never attempt to bring it into the greater conversation? That's the best thing about conferences - sharing what you are doing, seeing what everyone else is doing, finding some folks whose doings mesh well with your doing, and launching a journal or collection of essays to get others on board with it!

Eileen Joy said...

Yes, Jeffrey, really really ODD! The universe is so cool and mysterious, you never know what she's doing!

Myra and Melissa: thanks for the positive words here.

Anonymous said...

e.j. I welcome your rhizomatic vision of academic endeavors but wonder how it works in relation to the preexisting institutionalized politics at hand?

Eileen Joy said...

dmf: as regards pre-existing institutionalized politics at hand, we just ignore them. Seriously. In all seriousness, BABEL has worked hard to create certain professionalized zones [such as our journal "postmedieval" and organized sessions at conference, etc.] within which we have a certain "legitimation," but in all honesty, we have mainly *built* these zones in order to create spaces where *anything* is possible, thought-wise and otherwise, and also in terms of relationships between professors and professors, between students and students, between professors and students, between academic and non-academics, etc. More succinctly, regarding pre-existing institutionalized politics at hand:

fuck 'em


i ain't worried

Seriously. Someone's got to undertake this labor of not worrying, and I'm happy *not* to do it. And on whoever's behalf.

Anonymous said...

as always i appreciate your spirit of fearless speech but do wonder if grad students are as free to be you and me, i guess as long as the contrast (between y'all and the Man not between students and others) is made clear, kept in mind...

Karl Steel said...

I hear you, anon., on the contrast between us and THE MAN. It's not all hunky dory out there.

But I'd like to think that I'm part of a group that's modeling good behavior.

Basically, Eileen: hell yes. I'm going to have this post firmly in mind when it comes time to (co)write my piece on blogging for Literature Compass, whose working title is "There is No Such Thing as a Single-Author Monograph: On the Blogswarm." Alternate title, "The Monograph needs a Polygraph." On perhaps "On Medieval Polygraphy." You get the point: I basically wrote my dissertation here. Or I had my dissertation written here.

Hegel notoriously said "Schelling completed his philosophical education in public." He might have said the same thing of me. He--and his epigones (we know who)--would say the same thing now. To which I say: yes, thank goodness.

irina said...

Eileen, a few disconnected thoughts (it's 2 a.m. where I am, and I'm not yet in the right time zone for anywhere):

1. Count me flattered and humbled.

2. Your post -- and Kalamazoo itself -- made me realise how aside from one moment of scholarly meanness, I've been the recipient of so much generosity, as an undergraduate, as a grad student, as a junior faculty member. I experienced the dance last Saturday in a completely different way than Larry apparently did. I danced with the wonderful people who do medieval rhetoric, with older, established, even quite old-school Anglo-Saxonists, with Babel folks, with younger Anglo-Saxonists I've come through with, and with a smattering of historians, medieval Spanish folks, etc. To me, the fact that all of these different groups can occupy not only the space of the conference, but also the joyful comedic celebration at the end, that we can all groove to the same beat, literally, is a beautiful thing. I also saw it as a representation in space of the wonderfully rhizomatic way my own thinking and research have been able to unfold in this broad and vague "field." In short, it made me very happy, and happier still to recognize that there are genuinely kind, supportive, generous scholars of every methodology.

3. Eileen, your advice is good, but it seems to be given in the context of the power relationship between faculty and students. I'd like to stretch it a bit further and add that grad students themselves need to heed your advice. I'm pretty close to the state of being a grad student -- not only was I one recently but many friends and my husband still are -- so I hope I can be forgiven for saying this from what may seem to be a professorial perch. But the fact is that grad students are *not* always as supportive of each other as they should be, and that kind of intellectual community is at least as important as the one offered by the faculty in a department. Too often, the working group that is supposed to be a good source of feedback and motivation turns into merciless tearing apart of a paper. (The opposite approach of uncritical acceptance and cheerleading is only slightly more helpful, maybe.) Giving good support and feedback is a skill both emotional and intellectual, and we have to start working on it as students. A few of my colleagues in grad school started a working group that managed to hit the right balance between useful critique and warmfuzzy pats on the back, and it made the latter half of graduate school much, much better than it might have been. Part of what I think Babel models is not just that the powerful should be generous to the comparatively powerless, but that scholars in positions of less power need to create the intellectual communities they want to inhabit.

Myra Seaman said...

If those are your disconnected thoughts, Irina, I'm kind of afraid to see you in the right time zone. Thanks especially for turning our attention to the productive community grad students might--and in many but unfortunately not all cases do--forge among themselves, as well. I don't think I would've recognized the opportunity there to develop skills in providing support and feedback that are so vital to what we do, without this. Thanks for reminding us that we *all* need to be thinking about the kinds of communities we wish to inhabit, and to work actively to generate them with others.

irina said...

That's very kind, Myra... believe me, last night at 3 or 4 a.m. I was a mix of exhausted and hyper...

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I've been thinking back and forth on this since last night, when I posted at Jeffrey's coincidental post. I agree with much of what you say, but I also think that it's not one or the other. All of our relationships happen on many different levels. There are different power relationships at play all the time, and the part of me that is drawn to understanding such things wants us to be aware of them, even when we reject some of them as bullshit.

Some of them simply cannot go away, even when we want them to: grad students may be valuable colleagues and co-conspirators, but if they are our grad students, we make decisions about their work and their lives (in terms of funding, etc.) that make the relationship unequal at the root; department chairs and deans are colleagues and friends, but they also have duties that may require them to set those friendships aside; some people have voices and opinions that carry more weight than others -- sometimes for no discernable reason. Even amongst ourselves, we are not entirely egalitarian, or even as egalitarian as we might want to see ourselves. We do pick and choose, but we base our choices of conference-born friends and colleagues based on intellect and affinity. For every person who becomes someone we want to hang out with, for every person who so generously contributes to our own growth, there are probably several more who don't -- or who do, but who remain friendly colleagues, but not close ones. Perhaps they don't get the same spark from us that we do from them :-)

I will say that medievalists in general are the most generous scholars I have ever met. Classicists can be, too (although most of the ones I know are Late Antiquity people, so I could be wrong). I can't agree more with ost of what you say about being available to each other, and am constantly amazed by the generosity I have seen, and been the recipient of. If modeling that is something that can help break down many of the hierarchical barriers and nonsense that can be so damaging in this profession, then I'm all for it. But I'm not sure that there isn't also some value in recognizing that some people do have more power and privilege than others, and if you are one of those people, also modeling "using one's power for good."

heh -- my word is 'flisted'