Thursday, June 6, 2013

Kalamazoo 2013: A Pilgrimage

I wrote most of this from about 36,000 feet above Newfoundland – a fitting starting point, I think, since I was returning to the U.S. from Norway by way of Iceland (after attending a conference on medieval Scandinavian literature, no less).

I had a long a fruitful journey during the month of May, and I’ll try to do some of it justice over the course of a few posts. These posts are a bit delayed because I came back from Norway with a fever and raging laryngitis and have spent the better part of the past week recouping! I’m doing much better now though, and will be loading several posts throughout the next week or so now that I'm capable of lucid thought. This first one will focus on Kalamazoo, which was certainly the busiest Congress I’ve ever attended. I presided twice, organized and participated in a performance session, and presented a paper on Pearl. There were lunches, dinners, and outings aplenty, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I’d been feeling severely run down prior to the trip. The lack of full-time work has been stressful, especially since my husband’s start-up had to let him go earlier this year, and there were a series of personal tragedies right around that time that made life painfully confusing and heart-breaking. Whenever tragedy has truck in the past, I’ve looked to my work to feel some sense of purpose or control, but the screeds against graduate school, the humanities, etc., the rise of MOOCS and for-profit institutions (and attitudes), and the at times oppressive amount of uncertainty surrounding my own future really dampened my ability to feel and hold onto a sense of purposefulness. As a result, I came to Kalamazoo feeling more than a little beaten down and adrift. More and more though, I’ve come to see the journey to Congress, and the experience of it, as a sort of pilgrimage. One that comes just at the right time — just as I’m starting to lose my sense of why I do what I do. I am so profoundly glad that I made the journey this time, because it renewed more of my enthusiasm and my sense of purpose than I’d ever hoped to win back in such a short span of time.

For starters, this was a ‘zoo of serendipitous encounters. I’d been so busy (between the end of the semester hustle, visiting family, and prepping for two conferences) that I’d only made contact with just a few of the people I’d hoped to see at this conference. Somehow though, I happened to be at the right places at the right times, because I managed to bump into just about everyone! The conversations may have only lasted a couple of minutes in some cases, but it meant the world to see familiar faces from grad school and past conferences and at least get a brief moment to reconnect.

The serendipity also extended into new meetings as well. Thanks to a chance encounter at one of many dinners out, I received sage advice about approaching publishers about my book project. Inspired, I spent time Saturday and Sunday chatting with publishers and had several encouraging conversations along the way. While there aren’t any guarantees, I’ve got a clear sense now of who to send materials to once I’ve got them completed, and that’s a great place to be (especially after having felt so stagnant for the past couple of months). I also had an absolutely marvelous time at the BABEL meet-up at Bell’s Brewery. I joined the working group in the Fall of last year because I’ve enjoyed following the playful, experimental, but always meaningful work that BABLErs produce. I also joined because I’d been feeling adrift since moving away from my tightknit community at Rochester last year, and joining an energetic cohort like this one seemed like a wise move as I transition into this new and liminal stage of academic life.  My schedule at the Congress had kept me away from the meeting and the sponsored sessions thus far (alas!), and so I felt all the more drawn to the gathering in spite of the late hour (I think I got there around 11:30pm after having gone over my paper which I was presenting the following morning). An array of wonderful exchanges ensued, and a nascent project even emerged by way of a conversation about bears, idiot tourists, and lava. I’ll keep things cryptic for now, but I’ll hopefully be able to post more about said project in the near future. In the meantime, I’m struck with a profound sense of gratitude for all of the people I met and reconnected with at this conference. Their generosity — in their advice, their sharing of ideas, their collaborative spirit — overwhelmed me in the best sense of the word, and I’m deeply grateful for the renewed energy and enthusiasm they helped instill in me in such a short span of time.

The sessions I attended also went a long way towards renewing my enthusiasm. It’s always a delight to be surrounded by people as vibrantly excited as you are about a particular topic, and that enthusiasm really shone in the sessions I was able to attend and in which I had the pleasure of participating. The first one I attended was “Romancing Islam,” and I was deeply impressed with Bonnie Erwin’s masterful connection between the mechanics of othering in Ferumbras and in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing: a connection that hinges on the desire for the familiar Other (in both cases, a Muslim Other by way of convenient branding). I was also very glad to see an Early Modernist on the panel. Dennis Britton spoke on the allegorizing of Islam in the Faerie Queene, and made a compelling case for the influence of contemporary proto-ethnograpic writings on Spenser’s portrayal of the (Islamicized) figures Wrath and Lust. He also convincingly argued that moments of conversion in Book II (where these figures regularly appear) are not only absent but “actively denied.” In this formulation, the Saracens are made to be incompatible in ways strikingly convergent with those seen in medieval romance. His presence on the panel and the inclusion of Spenser alongside medieval texts invited both the speakers and the audience in the Q&A session to get out from under the pressures of periodization and to talk across the (often fictionalized) divide between the Medieval and Early Modern periods. I joked on Twitter earlier in the year about creating an anti-Greenblatt panel for K’zoo called “Interswervist Aesthetics,” but it was lovely to see much of what The Swerve seems to advocate effortlessly elided in the conversations that came out of this session.

The same kind of connectivity seen in this session extended into the one over which I was delighted to preside. The papers knitted together incredibly well, and I was thrilled by how — despite the focus on a the editing of a single manuscript — each paper had something unique to offer to the conversation. Joyce Coleman focused on the images in the manuscript, specifically those attached to Pearl, and persuasively argued that the illustrator sought to draw parallels between the dreamer/narrator of the poem and Narcissus as he appears in illustrations of Roman de la Rose. Kelsey Moskal asked that we try to find a way to avoid “sterilizing the manuscript reading process” by finding ways to acknowledge the subtle but significant markers, details, and ordination found in the manuscript itself as we produce critical editions. Elias Fahssi stressed the power of exploratory reading, and how faithful reproductions of the text assist in that process. Finally Arthur Bahr challenged our uses of punctuation when it comes to a poem like “Patience,” observing that the quatrain marks in the manuscript are important specifically because they are so difficult to interrogate. He argued that the marks, while not being puncti, suggest a certain kind of pause, which seems especially apt in this poem given its stress on the length of time it “takes humans to perform God’s will.” The inclusion of these marks, then, link readers to Jonah, reminding us that “we are bound in time, differing from Jonah only in degree, not in time.” In the end, Bahr offered up the possibility that we needn’t punctuate definitively, especially when it comes to a poem like “Patience” that seems to be playing with the kinds of pauses produced by such marks.

The conversation that sprang from these four papers was wonderfully lively, and we discussed, among other things, the ways in which we might reconcile all of these various needs and emphases when trying to produce accessible critical editions.  More than anything, I think the session really drove home the sacrifices that inevitably get made when trying to prepare these texts for modern readership, and it was gratifying to see so many people engaged in a discussion of how we can serve both the reader and the original text. To that end, I was very happy to hear later on at the conference that Kelsey and Elias will be taking on more active and official roles in the Pearl Poet Society — as contributors to the fantastic Cotton Nero A.x. Project, and in light of their illuminating papers, I can hardly imagine a better team!

I’ll save a discussion of the session in which I presented — “New Perspectives on Pearl” — for my next post (one that will include the actual talk), but all I’ll say for now is that I was tremendously grateful for the experience and for the feedback received both prior to and during the session itself.  I’m starting to experiment with ideas for a later project (once I get this first book off and away. . . god, if it were only so easy!), and I was so glad, as a result, to have this opportunity to present my nascent ideas for that potential work. More on that later though!

The last session I attended was BABEL’S Blunder panel, and what a delight it was! In some respects, the papers couldn’t have been further apart — with topics ranging from blunder in Beowulf, to the cruelty/inanity of blind peer-review evaluations, to the poetics of scribal blunders, to the poetics of our own conference papers/sessions, to the inception of Fumblr — hands down one of the most humanizing academic blogs I’ve yet encountered. I was struck by the beautiful discursiveness of these presentations, by their verve and energy, by their braveness. Those qualities extended into the lively conversation/debate that followed, one that focused for a time on the perils of blind peer-review. Eileen Joy made a particularly innervating statement about the problems with the current review system, problems that were made painfully clear in Maggie Williams and Nancy Thompson's presentation: that reviewers forget all too often that they’re dealing with human beings who have struggled hard to produce the work that they’re tasked with reviewing. If we are in the business of the humanities, she argued, then we need to start treating each other more humanely. This does not, as one person in the crowd worried, mean that we have to pull our punches when we review, or that we – as receivers of criticism – shouldn’t have a thick skin. Rather, as I offered in tandem with others, we owe it to ourselves (if we are really going to pride ourselves in our mastery of language) and to those whose work we review to write both effectively and humanely. Ultimately, I think that double-blind peer review can be essential to fair treatment in the realm of publishing (people are, for instance, presumably less likely to be discriminated against for a variety of unfair reasons), but as so many of the audience members and presenters stressed, it’s often rather easy to tell who is reviewing your work or who authored the piece you are reviewing. As such, the question remains as to how helpful this set-up actually is, especially when it seems to give so many people license to behave rather unhelpfully (not to mention rather poorly) because they can hide behind the mask of anonymity.

No Congress would be complete without a fair share of levity, and so it was all too fitting that I capped everything off by attending the Pseudo-Society with a merry band of friends. The papers were hilarious, and I especially loved the fact that they so freely poked fun at the conventions of the academic conference. It’s always good to be reminded not to take yourself or what you do too seriously, and the pseudo-society’s “talks” did a more than decent job of reminding us of that!

All in all, this was certainly one of the most fruitful and fulfilling conferences I’ve ever had the pleasure to attend, and I’m already looking forward to next year. As I’ve said throughout this post, attending the conference did a tremendous amount to boost my spirits and enthusiasm for what I do. It helped to remind me, in a series of truly profound ways, that I have made good decisions about my career (no matter what the screeds might say), and that while my life might be precarious and under a variety of intense pressures, it’s also full of electric opportunity. And so, in closing, I’d like to say thank you — a thousand times over — to all of the wonderful people at this conference who helped remind me of that.


  1. Hello! I just stumbled across your blog and have been enjoying reading it (especially the post about book proposals, which is what led me here. I wanted to comment on this post (despite the lateness) because I was one of the organizers for the Romancing Islam panel. I was bowled over by the speakers, and it's so nice to read that you enjoyed it too. Thank you for coming!

    1. Hello! So sorry to be nearly a year late in responding to this comment -- not sure how it managed to slip through the cracks. I was so glad to have been able to attend that session -- thank you so much for organizing it. Given our shared interests, I hope our paths will cross some time in the future!


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