I know I’ve said it before, but I’ve really come to see my (usually) annual journey The International Congress on Medieval Studies as a kind of pilgrimage, and this particular journey to K’zoo was no exception. Traveling here had its salient differences though. I left my baby (called Pixie here and elsewhere online as a form of protection and, well, because she looks like a little woodland sprite!) at home for the first time since she was born, and I also departed while in the midst of a teaching quarter (as opposed to being at the end of a semester). Both were deeply disconcerting, to say the least!
The leaving part was hard, harder than I’d anticipated (though, I’ll admit, watching Interstellar on the flight to Detroit was an apt exercise in perspective), and there were moments on the trip that were even harder. To that end, here is a hard-won tip for fellow new(ish) parents: if you have to travel away from your little, and he/she is under 13 months, approach Skype/FaceTime with deep wells of caution. My husband set up his phone so she and I could see each other that first night, and as soon as she heard my voice she looked around at the front door expecting me to be there (cue the shattering heart). She then turned her head around, saw mom in the tiny box, stuck out a trembling lower lip, and started to wail. Fortunately, I happened to be at Bells with dear friends and a beer flight waiting for me back at the table. Robbie, sweet spouse that he is, also sent me a video of a smiling and giggling Pixie (taken moments after we signed off and she calmed down), that helped me even more. He sent me pictures just about every day along with updates, and – truth be told – I found myself so happily surrounded by friends and colleagues, and so busy and energized by all the things I needed and wanted to do, that my time away was easier to manage than I had thought it would be. Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t thank the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, the Medieval Institute, and the conference organizers for how skillfully they set up and advertised the nursing/lactation rooms. As a nursing mother traveling without my babe, these were crucial to my being able to participate in the conference as fully as possible (without them I would have had to head back to the hotel several times and miss out on much of the conference in the process). I found myself very comforted by their presence and by how easy they were to access throughout the day.
I attended a number of truly innervating sessions, but there were a few that especially stuck with me. The first was the panel honoring the twenty-fifth anniversary of Carolyn Dinshaw’s Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. Having come up in Academia long after the book’s publication, I was grateful for the reminders of the book’s seminal importance and how much of a productive disruptor it was when it first came out. Steve Kruger reminded us of how the book “challenged dominate masculinist readings” and how it challenged us “to ask different questions about medieval and modern reading practices.” Emma Solberg echoed this sentiment as well by pointing out that the book proffers “liberating, energizing, and empowering readings” that weren’t considered possible/feasible/acceptable at the time, and how Dinshaw, in the book, “seized permission and authority” to do so. To her (and I agree with her wholly), the book acts like a kind of Griselda in the ways it exposes patriarchal chauvinism. Lynn Shutters, in turn, talked both about the book’s importance and Dinshaw’s ability to find the utility in “necessary discomfort” and “a lack of resolution.” By way of example, she explained how the final chapter of Dinshaw's dissertation, which she wasn’t entirely satisfied with at the time, contained the raw material that would later become Chaucer’s Sexual Poetics. In turn, the ideas in the final chapter of that very book — “Eunuch Hermenutics” — would be explored and teased out even further in Getting Medieval. On hearing Shutters talk about the evolution of Dinshaw's work, I took solace in the reminder that discomfort with your work can, if you let it, be a productive and motivating force. It’s a reminder I very much needed since I've found myself more than a bit overwhelmed of late with my own book project.
These responses to Dinshaw’s work were truly compelling, and I found myself equally compelled by her response, where she revealed that – while this book did eventually get her tenure -- she was initially turned down for tenure (a decision that was ultimately overturned by the deans) because of the book and the way in which it threatened the endemic chauvinism of the academy. I’ve always admired her work for its boldness and its ingenuity, and I was reminded – especially as she told her story -- of how indebted I am to her and to others like her for creating room for younger scholars like me to breathe and thrive. It is no exaggeration to say that I would not be able to do the kind of work that I do had it not been for her willingness –- and the willingness of others –- to publish bold and brave works that argued passionately (either implicitly and explicitly) for the power and importance of reflexive analysis. I came away from the session very grateful for her work and for the reminders of its importance provided by each of the speakers.
And I left another session, on being a Public Medievalist, equally innervated. Having been invited to write a brief write-up on my experience as a type of public medievalist (soon to appear on postmedieval’s Forum), I attended the session quite eagerly, and I found myself particularly compelled by the conversations and ideas that emerged throughout the talks and Q&A, especially those surrounding the talk that David Perry gave. He offered insights into the complications of being both a journalist/public writer and an academic, especially when one’s worlds converge (i.e. when, as a crusade’s scholar, you write an 800 word op-ed on a crusades-related topic to a popular audience, knowing you’ll provoke the ire of both scholars and non-specialists). He also spoke compellingly about the risks and perils of going public, and now we – as a community – need to be more humane, more aware of the potential effects our written words can have on social media. He reminded us that a single tweet about a young scholar’s “boring” presentation can and, in this day and age, likely will have an negative impact on his/her career, and he ended his talk with the following recommendation: “If you can’t tweet something nice, don’t tweet it at all.”
I really appreciated his talk, since it helped me to tease out some of the issues and frustrations I’ve had with how I’ve been approaching my own blogging. I know for a fact that I spend more time than I should on each blog post I submit here at In Romaunce. I want to write more frequently and to be bolder, but I also feel immense pressure to watch what I say out here in the blogosphere and in social media. I feel palpably in these spaces how very precarious I am at this point in my career, and this results in my feeling more than a little hesitant about what I say and how I say it. This is why, for instance, it took me well over a week to muster up the courage to post my thoughts on Obama’s prayer breakfast. I’m ultimately glad I wrote what I did, but I’ve wished for sometime now that I could find a way to be braver more frequently (and more swiftly). Attending the session and chatting with him and fellow attendees afterwards, however, reminded me that my cautiousness might not be a bad thing at all. I might not produce as much as I’d like, but at this point in my career, a little extra caution probably can’t hurt.
This year's K'zoo also marked the last time I served as the organizer and presider over Malory Aloud/Performing Malory. I inherited these roles somewhat by accident, but I couldn't be more grateful for having had the opportunity to lead this group for the past eight years. In addition to each performance session being a rollicking good time, the process of rereading significant portions of Malory's Morte each year has been deeply enriching, especially when I needed to track certain themes or characters. Last year, for instance, we hosted a performance entitled "Malory Interruptus: Sex and Love in the Morte." In addition to (re)discovering that Perceval nearly boinks Satan while on the Grail Quest (!!!!!!!!), I noticed how consistently fraught sexual encounters are in the Morte, and how the problematics of sex are often tangled up with the non-procreative nature of these same encounters. I wouldn't have arrived at that idea, or others, were it not for my work on these sessions, and I remain truly grateful for having been able to take the helm for so long as a result. Also, and just as importantly, I had the privilege to get to know an array of truly lovely and inspirational scholars along the way, and I remain so excited to see what the merry troupe will continue to do in the years to come!
I’ll save my own session for a separate post, but for now, I want to end with a few parting thoughts on conviviality, community, and affect. Though I was (sadly) unable to attend Richard Utz’s plenary, I heard much about it from friends who did, and I was deeply appreciative not only of his discussion of affect (and how we need to dismantle notions that work and pleasure need necessarily be mutually exclusive). I was also glad that BABEL was acknowledged, because I’ve grown very deeply fond of the organization since graduating from Rochester. I am currently very fortunate in my postdoctoral position, but the job search last year showed me how difficult and uncertain my road ahead will be. I know that I might not have a professional future in academia once all is said and done. But I do know that I will always be a medievalist one way or another. I know this because I love the material deeply. But I also know this because of BABEL’s willingness – even insistence – on including non-traditional scholars in its mix. Knowing that I will always genuinely be welcome at their gatherings, that I won’t be looked at askance, is truly comforting to me. It gives me courage, especially as I steel myself for the upcoming job search this Fall.
In the end, I left this conference with a full head and heart. I wished I’d had more time to connect with even more people than I did, but was so grateful for the deep and fruitful conversations I was fortunate enough to have with so many of you. As many have said on social media already (and as, for example, Elaine Treharne’s recent #GenderImbalance tweets reveal) we have quite a ways to go in how we treat one another, but I was encouraged all the same to see so many of us working towards positive changes at this gathering. Onwards!