Saturday, May 16, 2015

Report from the 50th Year of Medieval Camp


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.[1]

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.[2] 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.



[1] 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.

[2] 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.

9 comments:

jo(e) said...

I'm from another field, and I have to admit being envious about an annual conference that's held in the same place every year. Even though I like the excitement of exploring new cities, I feel like so much conference time is wasted figuring out where to go, which place to meet at, etc. Going to the same place every year would be so much more efficient.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

My husband was going to WMU when we met, so I am very fond of K-zoo for sentimental reasons. We fell in love there.

I've never been to the conference, but I hear there are a few early modern panels. I should go some time. I love medieval lit too.

sophylou said...

An art-historian friend of mine is there. I hope she dances, too.

Weirdly menacing tourism slogan. I lived in Fargo for a year and theirs was, pathetically, "More than you expect." (But at least it didn't feature a woodchipper...)

Fretful Porpentine said...

Fie (speaking ex cathedra as part of the board of Shakespeare at Kzoo), you should absolutely go! We've got plans for an Othello panel next year, hopefully also a pedagogy one that should be good for folks at small colleges, assuming we get everything we ask for!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

Oh, it's true.

Susan said...

DEH - all I can say is I'm impressed. I doubt the beds are any more comfortable than when I was in college....

Curt Emanuel said...

This is a great post - I'll add it to the one where I describe the dorm housing as "camping with walls." It lacks only one item - the geese.

Sapience said...

I was part of the early modern contingent this year--the mini conference (one day each on Shakespeare, Spenser, and Sidney, plus a few relevant other panels) is perhaps the best conference I've been to outside of SAA. And instead of or in addition to the dance, we have the Porlock Society.

And Curt: but you only have to walk to the pond for the geese!

Earnest English said...

I'm in another field of English and totally totally jealous. Y'all have way too much fun -- and there's no corresponding camp for us more boring types.