Monday, May 23, 2016

3,000 Kalamazoos: Play, Change, Community



My annual swag summary of Kalamazoo (click image to embiggen). [May 18, 2016]

It has been just about a week since the 2016 International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI (aka #Kzoo2016). About three thousand attendees made the journey to Kalamazoo this year (note also this great writeup before the conference), and there are thousands of stories can be told about the experience as a result.

The medievalist blogosphere has been active this week, and I'll let these varied accounts speak for themselves:

  • Karra Shimabukuro, "#Kzoo2016 Reflections" (May 14 post at Folklore <--> Milton <--> Popular Culture)
  • Kathleen E. Kennedy, "The Future of Medieval Conferences" (May 15 tumblr post)
  • Maggie Williams, recap of Material Collective activities (May 16 blog post, with links to livetweets from the relevant sessions)
  • Travis Neel, general reflections (May 17, public Facebook note)
  • Shamma Boyarin, reflections on inclusion and disability approaches (May 16 and May 22)
  • Josh Eyler's blog is hosting guest postings from the "Teaching the Humanities in the Current Climate of Higher Education" roundtable at Kzoo: Cameron Hunt McNabb: "Teaching to the Choir" (May 17); Leigh Ann Craig: "So Are You Going to Open A History Store?" (May 19); Kisha Tracy: "A Plea for Research, Part 1" (May 23)
  • MW Bychowski, "Genres of Embodiment: A Theory of Medieval Transgender Literature" (May 17 blog post at Transliterature: Things Transform)
  • Shyama Rajendran, "Kalamazoo 2016 and The Work We Still Have To Do" (May 18 blog post)
  • David Hadbawnik, "Kalamazoo 2016 Redux" (May 21 blog post)
  • Danielle Trynoski, "Digital Humanities at K'zoo: A Recap" (May 22 for
  • Susan Signe Morrison, "Female Fun at Kalamazoo: All the Single (and Married) Ladies at the 51st International Congress on Medieval Studies" (May 23 blog post)

I'm still processing my own intellectual and affective responses to Kalamazoo 2016. Many of my perceptions are shaped by my own idiosyncratic social circles but do I have a general sense that this Kzoo felt … different, in ways I can’t quite express. Perhaps due to #femfog and the whole Frantzen affair earlier this year, Kzoo felt more overtly affirming and welcoming than previous years (more mentorship networks, sessions and panels foregrounding new voices, a range of inclusive gatherings and initiatives) and it also felt profoundly serious about considering the state of the field and how it can improve in structural ways (such as the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship roundtable on harassment in the academy, online conversations about conference sociality and accessibility, frank discussions about social media use in medievalist circles). 

What sticks with me the most vividly from my own experience of Kzoo this year is a sense that new structures are being built and we don’t yet know what shape they will take. I feel like medievalists are collectively inhabiting an intriguing zone of potential and possibility.

My blog reflections are clustered by three key words: PLAY, CHANGE, and COMMUNITY.


BANANA CAR spotting in downtown Kalamazoo! [May 13, 2016]

One reason I enjoy heading out to Kzoo each year is experiencing its sense of play. As always, Kzoo reminded me of the love that medievalists have for what we do (be it teaching, research, publishing, artistic production) and both the sessions and the social events can generate a shared sense of purpose and belonging.

  • Medieval Donut 2.0. This donut-centered informal social gathering, graciously hosted by Jeffrey Cohen on Wednesday night, marked the second year of what is now becoming a Kzoo tradition. Although I missed the event (sniffle!), it clearly provided a low-key way to socialize and meet new people. For tweets and photos from this event and related festivities throughout the conference, see this curated 2016 #medievaldonut archive.
  • PLAY roundtable. GW MEMSI (Medieval and Early Modern Studies Institute) hosted a ludic roundtable/playground that featured (among other things) balloons, a bouncing beach ball, toys on each seat, and some pretty awesome interactive game-presentations; for photos and tweets that nicely capture the spirit and the intellectual content of the event see here.
  • Fandom and role play. I participated in a session (organized by Anna Wilson) on fandom in medieval studies; this conversation touched on topics as wide-ranging as Mandeville marginalia, genderswapping and queer subjectivities in interactive novel roleplaying games, and the contemporary appropriation of medieval storytelling traditions beyond Europe.


Embrace the #femfog! SMFS swag. [May 15, 2016]

Much of this playfulness and spirit of experimentation (with new ideas and new social formations) extended into the conference sessions themselves. Some sessions not only asked how we can push the boundaries of our respective academic domains/disciplines but also explored how we can collectively transform the underlying social dynamics of the field.

  • BABEL roundtables. The BABEL Working Group hosted two roundtables: "Where Else?" and "Far Out!" (see this archive of tweets from these sessions). I've been involved with BABEL for a few years now, and what I find so compelling about this community is its capacity to bring together (seemingly) unlikely people and things. In this spirit, the "Where Else?" roundtable incorporated varied disciplines and methods (art history, literature and ecotheory, Judaic studies and world literature, medical humanities and plague epidemiology) and disparate spaces (Cuba, medieval Britain, West Africa, the Bahamas, the Underworld). All of the presentations got me thinking specifically about how medievalists who for a variety of reasons occupy the "margins" of (a habitually Western/Eurocentric) medieval studies can find "homes" within their respective disciplines or institutions while also thriving as deliberate exiles/outsiders to such structures.
  • SMFS roundtable on harassment. This session was originally planned around the anonymous online survey on harassment in the academy conducted by SFMS in 2015, and the conversation (as one might expect) addressed not only the climate of medieval studies in the wake of #femfog but also become an opportunity to brainstorm ways to make the profession more supportive for everyone (students and faculty). What was clear to me from this conversation (from survey data, speaker presentations, and some personal stories that emerged in the discussion) was that harassment can affect anyone regardless of gender, status, or sexuality. Harassment is about power, and anyone can be a potential victim or abuser. Consulting my handwritten notes during the session, I notice that just about 70% of survey respondents said they had experienced some form of harassment but around 70% never reported it. What I hope the SMFS survey and conversations can encourage is the creation of clear, accessible resources for those among us who have experienced harassment or seek to help others. For what it's worth, I'll just say that the Shakespeare Association of America has crafted an excellent sexual harassment policy (see page 9 in the January 2016 SAA Bulletin) and other professional societies could think carefully about building and sustaining similar structures. [Side note: SAA deserves kudos for its policies (including sexual harassment and social media usage) for three reasons: the guidelines are clear, the organizational structures are transparent (i.e., each was crafted by an ad hoc committee of scholars of varied stages/backgrounds), and the labor is acknowledged (SAA Bulletin, January 2016, pages 9-10).]
  • Twitter roundtable and social media ethics. I took part in a roundtable (organized by Ben Ambler) on the ethics of live-tweeting academic conferences, and it morphed into a broader conversation about the ethics of social media use in academia more broadly. (You can consult this twitter archive for a fuller sense of the whole session and related conversations). The session addressed positive aspects of live-tweeting (such as timely access for people who can't attend, playful banter and community, signal boosting and disseminating work) as well as its negative aspects (graduate students and vulnerable scholars being "scooped," unease about the ethics of twitter as a corporation, potential for users to experience online abuse). Eileen Joy stressed the transformative capacity of social media (it can instigate tough conversations that wouldn't take place otherwise), but Angie Bennett pointed to some of its limits (not everyone has access to technology/mobile devices and conversations can unwittingly exclude as well). I've enthusiastically supported conference live-tweeting in the past, but I've since become ambivalently optimistic (or optimistically ambivalent) about it all. I'd say my "take home" message was that we as a medievalist community need to be better about establishing shared expectations and "best practices" for live-tweeting and clear guidelines would help; see some of the excellent examples and points by various folks near the end of this #Kzoo2016 twitter archive.


Donut diversity (photo: Cameron Hunt McNabb). [May 11, 2016]

It's probably no surprise that I'm ending this blog post with a section about community. I felt that community building was one of my personal priorities this year, and I'm so encouraged by the ways medievalists are coming together during and since Kzoo to creating a better field (and world).
  • Inclusivity was a major theme in my experience of Kzoo. I was proud to see people wearing T-shirts with affirmative, inclusive sentiments (the proceeds of BABEL's #inclusivity fundraiser campaign go to SMFS) or displaying other signs of support for SMFS and a more capacious medieval studies. I'm also energized by ongoing efforts at Kzoo such as the annual Anglo-Saxonist "New Voices" sessions; mentoring initiatives; various informal gatherings attentive to LGBTQ communities and scholars of color; a BABEL gathering at Bell's Brewery open to anyone; and medievalists asking important questions about uneven access and exclusion in our field (along the lines of class, financial conditions, disability, age).
  • Rethinking access. I've been following with great interest some emergent conversations about accessibility at medieval conferences. Jeffrey's pre-Kzoo 2016 posting gives us much to think about in terms of social venues and practices, and Karra Shimabukuro has shared some good suggestions that she included in her responses to the annual Kzoo survey (here and here). (These links are not specifically Kzoo-related, but check out recent reflections by Rachel Moss on attending academic events as a new parent, and consult the Modern Language Association of America's helpful access guidelines before you prepare for your next conference.)
  • Swangate. Last week, a story went viral about medievalist (known only as @chevalier_cygne) who brilliantly responded to a UKIP politician's racism and xenophobia (he had objected to a nonwhite actress portraying [Shakespeare's] medieval queen Margaret of Anjou). The story has since been picked up by the Independent and the Toast (with ancillary "cygnal boost" by Jeffrey and yours truly). If you're on twitter, you can follow the #swangate and #swantruther hashtags for more.
  • Medievalist tattoos. Picking up on a recent conversation on social media about medievalists with tattoos, @izzybeth (on twitter) has created a tumblr blog called Badass Tattoos on Medievalists. If you're a medievalist who has a story to share about your tattoo (or otherwise have something relevant to contribute), feel free to check out the site!
This blog post ended up being much longer than I had intended, but I've tried my best to convey my sense of this year's vibe and ethos. I hope that some of the productive energy of Kzoo 2016 will continue to spark new thinking about our understanding of the Middle Ages and the future we'd like to see in our present-day communities.

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