The International Congress on Medieval Studies — more commonly known by some form of the name of its location in Kalamazoo — is, so far as I can tell, unique among conferences. And like unique foods or persons, it is not to every taste. But I happen to love it.
For those of you who have never been fortunate enough to see us in action, let me give you the rundown: 50 years ago, lore has it, a group of Midwestern medieval studies scholars, frustrated by the exclusivity of the Medieval Academy of America conference (which remains rather difficult to get a spot on), founded their own conference to be held at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, inviting people from all disciplines of medieval studies. That first conference had six panels. Today, it is a three-and-a-half-day conference, with just shy of 600 panels (no, that’s not a typo: six. hundred.) Historians and literature scholars (especially English lit) dominate, but there are art historians, musicologists, panels on pedagogy, meta-panels on the idea of “medieval” in general.
And yes, we go to these panels. Lots of them. But in between, there are lunches, coffees, business meetings, a fantastic book display… and lots of wine hours and publishers’ parties/open bars etc. And a dance Saturday night.
Did I mention that a large proportion of the 2500+ attendees stay in the WMU dorms? With shared bathrooms? Yeah… it’s basically summer camp for medievalists.
Given all this, you can understand why the ‘zoo is a polarizing conference. Some hate it and will never go, because they perceive it as being less serious. Okay, I get that. There’s probably more socializing than sitting in panels. There’s also a lack of exclusivity: grad students are on panels with tenured scholars, and undergraduates have their own panels — several of them. And given the vast amount of free-flowing alcohol, there is a certain letting-your-hair-down that one doesn’t see at other conferences. Layer this on top of the general weirdness that all medievalists bear like a scar or a badge of honor, and it’s an odd, odd conference.
Those of us who love it would have it any other way. This year, in addition to doing a bit of mentoring of grad students & junior faculty, I’ve congratulated a friend on the appearance of her book in proofs on the Penn Press table. I presented a paper that is part of the book and that forced me to Think Big Thoughts. I’ve seen panels on foodways, on famine, on imprisonment, the state of gender research in Medieval Studies, and on the meaning of medieval studies in general. I’ve had several meals and amazing conversations with people I rarely see, and with whom I discuss serious scholarly things, and laugh myself silly, and generally feel like I’ve come home. And yes: tonight I’ll be going to the dance.
Happy 50th Birthday, Kalamazoo. I’m having a blast. And yes: I will be back.
|Possibly the worst-conceived tourism motto I've ever seen.|
But actually true for medievalists.
 Folks sometimes ask me “oh, you mean you do medieval dances?” No. We dance. Like at a middle school dance. With about the same level of social skills. But more alcohol.
 I have heard that there are a number of Kalamazoo hookups. In the dorms, no less. I’ve never experienced such a thing myself, nor to I know anyone who has (or at least who admits to it). But I totally believe it’s true.