Thursday, May 19, 2011

Kzoo lessons

by J J Cohen

Larry Swain at the Ruminate posted some post-Kzoo advice to graduate students and (to a lesser degree) to professors that has me thinking. His intentions seem good. He gives advice on how to be professional at a major conference in the field. But reading through the post in its entirety, I can't help thinking that its long list of caveats must be terrifying to its intended audience. Implicit within the lessons is that as a graduate student you are under constant surveillance while attending the event: you will be judged, your future is at stake. Wear a tight dress to the dance and you will never get a job. Many of the lessons are similarly focused on sexuality, and I'll admit on this topic that I am profoundly indifferent to whatever acts nondeceiving consenting adults choose.

I put a great deal of energy into good relations with those who are the future of the humanities. You know from reading this blog that the infantilization of graduate students presses my buttons. Our profession is difficult and uncertain enough without treating those whom we train as anything less than adults and colleagues. That is why Slap a Medievalist made no concessions to academic hierarchy.

Am I taking these lessons the wrong way? Should graduate students worry more than I am inclined to tell them to about judgments while they dance, flirt, speak of their work, and otherwise do the conference?


Karl Steel said...

My take on Kzoo, and the dance in particular, is very, very different from Swain's. Like Jeffrey, I don't give a hoot what consenting adults do. I don't care to pry into the various complicated arrangements of people's sex lives, conjugal, polyamorous, or otherwise. There's necessarily going to be debauchery and silliness at the dance, and I'd recommend that those who are concerned to maintain gravitas not attend the dance.

Grad students are by and large people in their 20s and early 30s. They're going to have fun. I say let them. I had that kind of fun in my 20s (boo hoo!) and my 30s (not SO long ago) and I doubt it hurt my career. In my eyes, it won't hurt their future career. I don't judge people on their silliness at the Kzoo dance any more than I judge them by their (in)ability to dance. Sheesh.

In re: older professors younger people. Well, obviously, creeps should stop being creeps. If we tenured or TT proffies have ANY responsibility when it comes to policing scholars' debauchery, it should be directed not at the grad students but AT OUR COLLEAGUES. There are creeps and sexual harassers in our profession, as in any other, and they should be shunned or at least made to feel ridiculous. They should be compelled to read this post and absorb its lessons.

As for MA students dressed in whatever newfangledness going on about their research to (presumably) bored senior scholars: whatevs. Scholars of whatever age include many people who don't know how to listen. And scholars of whatever age include people who are good at getting even the chattiest of people to include others in their thoughts.

Rob Barrett said...

In my experience, the majority of Larry's caveats deserve to be aimed at faculty and not graduate students--the sexually-tinged points especially. In the years since my daughter was born (years in which I acquired all of my current female dissertation advisees), I've become much more aware of the sexual harassment that goes on at Kalamazoo, most of it committed by senior male faculty. I've even seen it directed at female faculty colleagues. Overall, I think the conference is a safe, welcoming space, but then again I'm a large, bearded white male. It bothers me that young women may feel differently. (And BTW it's not the graduate student's job to watch what she wears--it's the faculty member's job not to lech and leer at the outfit and its wearer.)

D Hadbawnik said...

god, i hope not. one of the reasons i've been attracted to medieval studies (and the BABEL group and kzoo in particular) is that it's not so uptight in that way.

especially if you are getting slapped. and it's leaving a mark.

i mean there is an element of wanting to do well and get noticed and make connections. but i really object to that corporate, desperate, sink-or-swim vision of conferences. and besides, i like wearing tight dresses.

Myra Seaman said...

I was pretty uncomfortable with this series of claims, particularly with their ongoing focus on sexual concerns. Speaking as a woman who was at one point a grad student, Kalamazoo has never made me feel patronized or, frankly, objectified the way this representation of Kalamazoo did. I'm not only indifferent to others' sex lives, but I really resist the implication in this advice that this is an appropriate way for our colleagues to be making hiring decisions.

While I appreciate the intentions, as you noted, Jeffrey, there was very little (nothing?) to encourage one how to succeed at Kalamazoo, but only how to attempt to avoid disaster--with the implication being (as others have noted here) that the disaster is pretty much inevitable unless you work carefully to avoid it, and if you don't, you're partly responsible.

I would actively discourage my students from reading this, as it paints a Kalamazoo I very happily don't recognize. I especially worry about the way it strongly discourages interactions among grad students and professors--the former because they're apparently simply not that interesting, the latter because impropriety is apparently unavoidable otherwise, both of which are thoroughly false--when I find those interactions, particularly grad students from one program interacting with professors from others, to be so incredibly productive.

Melissa said...

I was going to leave a comment, but then I thought it might be construed as reverse-harassing professors and then I'd never get a job when I grow up. Of course, that I was bestowed with the nickname "the barefooted medievalist" this past weekend at the congress might be a greater black mark against me so far ass future employment goes. Then again, I figure I have as yet-unknown allies among those of my older colleagues who favor the viewing of shapely women's ankles in medieval or Early Modern literature and anywhere else they can see them, so I should be fine. OK, so what I REALLY wanted to write was, I'm truly sorry I missed Slapapalooza. I feel as though my 'Zoo experience has been deeply minimalized by that missed opportunity.

Got Medieval said...

I just assumed Swain's piece was an elaborate Lonely Island ref.

Anonymous said...

I'm a tenured professor, and I don't spend my time at conferences condemning the grad students or keeping tabs on their behavior.

Last year, I attended a major conference where I heard a grad student deliver the best paper I heard all day. Will I remember her name? Yes. Do I remember the names of any of the assorted grad students who might have engaged in a silly conversation or worn a tight dress or gone drinking? No, not one.

The whole structure of grad school encourages enough paranoia as it is. For any grad students who read this -- I don't care if at a conference you wore tight clothes, overestimated the importance of your MA thesis, or got drunk and threw up on my shoes. I probably won't remember your name three years from now, and even if I do, I won't hold it against you in the event that your CV ever crosses my desk.

Eileen Joy said...

I find it deeply weird, and "I don't know what!", that as Jeffrey was writing this post I, sitting in a lounge in a Sheraton at the Toronto airport was all of a sudden feeling deeply moved to write about the important contributions grad. students have made to BABEL projects. What a strange, yet highly apropos raising of flags on two passing ships!

First, let me say this: I have known Larry Swain for a long while now and have always been an "accomplice" with him, too, while he was a PhD student and he was also, without an institutional remuneration or ballyhoo, editing "The Heroic Age." Indeed, he is one of the names I should have listed in my post as students who have contributed greatly to the furtherance of BABEL's mission, with, for instance, agreeing to create a regular "babelisms" column in "Heroic Age" and also co-editing with me a shared cluster between postmedieval and "Heroic Age" on the state(s) of early English studies.

Larry is a good person, and very smart, and if you are reading this, Larry, forgive me when I say that I agree with Jeffrey here and found your advice post, even more so, really, really awful. The thing is: I know you meant well, but it just seemed condescending and also sexist [and I know you're not sexist, believe me, but it comes off that way for sure]. Although the "advice" is meant to help students [and why the repeated designation M.A., as if M.A. students in particular should "watch out"?], it actually singles them out in a kind of search-light way that is designed [if even unconsciously] to make them feel uncomfortable even before they say a peep.

Most important for me were the continual reminders NOT to bore "professors" with one's M.A. thesis. I disagree 100%. Sure, we've all probably been trapped somewhere at least once with someone who wanted to tell us about their research project that we weren't too interested in, but that's happened to me with professors, too! That's just a taste issue, NOT a rank issue. The real importance of conferences like Kalamazoo ought to be to create a playing field where everyone feels they are equal to everyone else as regards an *avowed* interest in the Middle Ages. Other than that: what else matters?

prehensel said...

As a graduate student and the source for numerous stupid actions and faux pas, I found much of what was written in the post common sense. It would have been quicker and just as meaningful to write: "Have some respect--both for those who are wiser than you and for yourself."

Putting a finer point on it than that gets into the be-sure-to-wear-your-black-business-suit-to-the-MLA-interview sort of advice that essentializes people and careers.

In Swain's defense, however, I might also add that his post is a different approach to what I've seen BABEL do. Whereas he gives a set of rules, BABELers teach by doing. I can't imagine Eileen, Jeffrey, Karl, Anna, Myra, etc. coming up with a list like that, but most of the core ideas in those rules can be absorbed just by watching them interact with each other and every graduate student Eileen listed in her post.

To my mind, the performative trumps the prescriptive any day of the week, but they both have the same goal in mind. And that's something.

D Hadbawnik said...

one more thing; in praise of UNDERGRADS at kzoo. i met some amazing ones this year at the SLU open bar and wound up hanging out with them at the dance (no, i didn't card them to make sure they weren't under-aged). one of them was doing some cool statistical analysis on beowulf (a comp sci guy, not a medievalist) and the other was looking to go into medieval history of science. fun, fresh, and smart people. major kudos in my book for any undergrads with the wherewithal to attend a conference like kzoo and contribute in that way.

Holly Crocker said...

I want to second what prehensel said, and to voice a tiny word of caution about what's going on here right now: if, as Eileen notes, Larry is a young prof, perhaps his cautionary words are directed to grad students more than faculty members (his anxiety alarms may go off more w/ grad students because he's more recently been a grad student). Also, since BABEL and ITM are communities that resist the disciplining function of prescriptive norms, it seems a tad untoward to stack up a series of complaints over here without addressing Larry in his own space. Go argue with him if you disagree with his observations or advice. Collective chastisement in this venue does far more to undermine this group's avowed (and usually performed) affirmations of young scholars. In fact, it performs the very disciplining function you are claiming to object to in Larry's post.

Without BABEL, to focus on prehensel's excellent observations, I think the environment Larry describes would be much more pervasive. It was certainly in evidence when I was a grad student (my supervisor did not attend Kzoo, so I was completely by myself at first). Luckily, Kzoo has always been a big conference with lots of fun people milling about. You guys have helped people find each other (for me, way back when, it was SMFS, and Anne Clark Bartlett in particular, that allowed me to feel at home). Some folks are still searching; hopefully next year they'll make the BABEL scene.

Myra Seaman said...

It seemed to me, Holly, that what was going on here was a conversation among colleagues--including professors and grad students at various stages in their careers--in response to a particular description of our field and ourselves. The original post was directed specifically at grad students, and more specifically at MA students, which explains why the discussion has largely been oriented that way.

Further, I don't see that offering an alternative description here is equivalent to chastisement. I also don't think supporting grad students and young scholars requires us to be uncritical, or that criticism can't be done in an affirmative way. I take your point that those of us, like me, who were strongly affected by the seeming implications of Larry's advice, ought to voice those concerns over there. That wasn't my first inclination simply given that I've been part of the community here but not there and I dislike the idea of having my first appearance there be a contentious one. But particularly as I see there's been very little discussion there since I responded over here, I will.

I really appreciate your reference to the very supportive space created by SMFS and Anne Clark Bartlett, especially, when you and I were both first making our way in the profession. Like you, I ventured out into Kalamazoo on my own and can't imagine I would've been able to keep returning without that. I never witnessed the kind of environment Larry described, in all honestly, even before finding SMFS, but I certainly didn't feel at home until then.

Holly Crocker said...

Hi, Myra (and probably others)--

I disagree. When you say "I think so-and-so is a good person, normally someone of sound judgment, who obviously means well, BUT..." you are not simply disagreeing with the evidence presented. Larry's post was condemned for its tone (the ability to terrify), and its attitude (Eileen called it awful) as much as content (you said you'd actively discourage grad students from reading it). I read all these comments at once, and the cumulative effect is a collective consensus that this kind of advice is *not the way we treat grad students* in our contemporary professional moment. There's some godafwfully benevolent "tsk, tsk" in there. And the irony is this: I actually agree with you all. But now I'm going to take up Larry's invitation to add to the list of advice one *might* give to grad students attending a major conference (over on his blog). cheers, h

Karl Steel said...

Let me try to move the conversation in another direction.

Perhaps we should ask: given that we're aiming to form affiliations regardless of professional status, in what ways should we acknowledge the *material* differences between tenured and TT proffies and grad students?

(forgive me for sounding like a doctrinaire Marxist here. I don't think material conditions in an economic sense are the real of any community; but they're a component nonetheless)

Basically, regardless of Eileen's laudable (and accurate) description of the affiliations she has formed with students, we who have 'real' jobs have a financial and professional power that we should not forget. Indeed it's silly for me to write 'real' rather than real, sans quotes.

Given honoraria, hiring committees, access to publishers and big names in the field, skill in the techniques of writing grants, etc., etc., there is a relationship and a difference between proffies and students. Given this difference, we proffies do have a job for our community but perhaps particularly for graduate students. What is it?

Shortly, we need to make a better space, in here and the now, and for the future. This is what Eileen's beautiful post is about.

With Eileen, I believe that we, the proffies, can't make this place without you, the grad students. I'll add that we need you although perhaps not as much, or in all the same ways, as you need us.

What does these needs look like, in the aggregate (which is Eileen's post's concern), and with a regard to material differences (which is the concern of Larry's post, if I read it generously)?

Given that any community worth the name is a site not only of cooperation but also of difference, disagreement, contestation, and CARE, what are our responsibilities to each other? To revive a question Holly asked a while back, how do we continue to make room for bad feelings and bad behavior? For different degrees of social power? In addition to everything else, without letting the proffies entirely lose sight of their own position.

Eileen Joy said...

Holly: I can see now that I could have changed my wording and approach a bit here, while still saying, "um, Larry, I wish that *together* we could give up on this sort of hierarchizing."

But as to *where* we post our thoughts, it has always been in the nature of the blogosphere--here and elsewhere--to link to and excerpt other weblog posts and to comment on them on your own weblog, and many a dialogue/debate gets going this way. Lots of blog posts every day begin by citing someone else's posts and then agreeing and/or disagreeing with it.

Larry and I go WAY WAY back, and have had each other's backs on more than one occasion. Larry is also no spring chicken--he and I had very similar career trajectories, in that we did a lot of other things professionally before starting grad. school later than most people, worked very hard to finish our dissertations without support and while adjuncting at multiple institutions, and did not get our first TT jobs until we were just at and over 40. This is just my way of saying, "sorry, Larry, I did not mean to be offensive, you know how much I respect and care for you," and to Holly: Larry has been my peer for a long while now, and even when Larry was still finishing his PhD diss., he had actually been working and publishing in Old English studies long before me--he helped ME out, by publishing one of my first essays in "Heroic Age" [when I was in mt first year at SIUE] and then he published another essay of mine a few years later that was really polemical and that actually helped me establish BABEL, not to mention he also helped BABEL with co-sponsored KZoo sessions and other things. I just want to make clear that there is no unequal power dynamic between Larry and me, because I met him as editor of "Heroic Age," not as a student, and we are roughly the same age [if any of that makes sense].

And if Larry wants to chime in at some point and say, "oh go to hell, Eileen," I can take it. But he doesn't need anyone's assistance. But I still think you're right, Holly, that my tone was ALL WRONG.

Eileen Joy said...

Karl, to everything you say here: AGREED.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Eileen, and thanks Karl. I don't want to distract further from all the awesome things you say in your longer post about grad student contributions. And I also want to underscore my enthusiasm for everything Karl draws attention to in his last comment. Those connections, and those questions, are the important stuff. cheers, h

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Yes. And no. I agree with most of what y'all have said. But much of what Larry said resonated with me, too. I object to many of the behaviors he mentioned, but I think for different reasons. Most of them boil down to, "please behave like professionals, dammit!" Granted, there is a lot more leeway at the dance, but when all is said and done, it's still a sort of business occasion.

I am one of those people who honestly don't care what happens between grown-ups, as long as it's consensual, honest, and ethical. I also don't care what happens at conferences, but prefer that it happens mostly behind closed doors if it involves people's sex lives. I do worry a little about consent at conferences, because I am not sure that people are as aware of the possible power dynamics outside their individual departments. I do think it's just good sense for grad students and senior faculty to consider each other off limits unless there is some serious OMG I could spend the rest of my life with this person connection. And I think that junior women need to be more careful about all of these things. It's not fair, but it's very real that women are judged by different standards; dress and appearances in general -- and the stereotypes that come with them -- can affect a woman's ability to get a job.

Regarding the other behavioral issues... I used to learn at an Aiki dojo where there was no system of colored belts, other than white and black. It was the dojo philosophy that students should pay attention and be cognizant of rank, which was based not only on what one had earned, but on how experienced the un-ranked students were. There is a good chance that the senior scholar will know more than the MA student. There's a better chance that other people will want to talk to the senior scholar, too. So probably it's not bad advice for all of us to get a feel for the surroundings before opening our mouths -- and to remember that a multi-talented Guggenheim and double ACLS winner is more likely to get away with being a tool than ADM -- or ADM's student! Not that such a Guggenheim/ACLS student would ever behave like a tool... :-)

I dunno -- maybe it's because I live in fear of making the wrong move and saying the wrong thing that Larry's advice stuck a chord with me. But there are many of us at all ranks who still have some issues with knowing how to behave, whether it's skeevy predation, mentioning one's own work on the speaker's subject before correcting her, drinking till all semblance of control is gone, asking deliberately mean questions, obvious tag-watching, running over the time limit ...

So where is the line between infantalizing and mentoring :-)

Matthew Gabriele said...

Building off of ADM's comments, doesn't it just come down to better self-policing - making it clear that behavior that harasses, as well as arrogance and condescension aren't acceptable? I mean, if someone's being a jerk to someone else, shouldn't you say something about it?

James Mitchell said...

Due to my participation in the "Over 60" graduate program at the San Francisco State University History Department, I am absolved from Jonesing for a job at Kzoo. Consequently I volunteer to wear a tight dress at next year's dance, if I can figure out how to get into one. I also assert herewith that my Master's thesis is of paradigm-shattering significance, and that I am prepared to meet in combat any highly-trained professional attending who thinks otherwise.

Anonymous said...

I'm late to this party but two things have been said in comments that I wanted to remark on (I answered Larry's post at his place):

Melissa: Of course, that I was bestowed with the nickname "the barefooted medievalist" this past weekend at the congress might be a greater black mark against me so far as future employment goes.

For what it's worth, one of the most interesting and lively scholars I know, Alaric Hall, always presents barefoot, and usually in cut-off combats and a strange t-shirt too. It hasn't seemed to hold him back. You may have to be quite brilliant though.

And Eileen: But as to *where* we post our thoughts, it has always been in the nature of the blogosphere--here and elsewhere--to link to and excerpt other weblog posts and to comment on them on your own weblog, and many a dialogue/debate gets going this way.

Well, there is an assumption here, voiced in the way you addressed Larry directly in your comment, that he is or was reading. Of course, I don't know if Blogger does ping-backs or logs incoming links so maybe he was alerted. But one of our best arguments ("Just the Facts") started because Jeffrey had done exactly this, written at ITM about something I'd written at Cliopatria, and if he had not also linked to A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe and Wordpress picked up his link, I might never have known, because I wasn't then reading ITM and Cliopatria doesn't give its contributors access to that kind of information. So maybe a comment at The Ruminate saying, "Larry, you should know I've just posted a comment about this advice of yours" once this was up might have given Larry a chance to defend himself?