The International Congress on Medieval Studies takes place next week, at its usual site, Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. It’s one of the two big conferences in my field, and the only one in this hemisphere. I won’t be there this year — I’ve had other things going on in my life and haven’t really had the focus for research — but it’s one of my favorite things about doing what I do.
It’s not because of the parties — although they do tend to be very nice, even legendary — and it isn’t the film festival either, although you haven’t really seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail until you’ve seen it with a few hundred other medievalists. It certainly isn’t the accommodations — like most attendees, I stay in a dorm room and eat in a campus dining hall. It’s not even entirely the scholarship; there’s fascinating stuff there, but there’s so much of it that I never get to hear all of it that I want, and I always go home marveling about what I don’t know, even in my specialty.
So why do I keep wanting to go back and present, and why do I feel a certain weltschmerz when I can’t make it? I think it’s the sense of community, and a kind of affirmation of what I do.
My department is a good place to be, and I’ve been blessed with good colleagues, but I’m the only medievalist here. That’s typical at a small college, and even in some bigger departments. Furthermore, in my seven years here, I’ve heard the college’s president (the same one I quoted yesterday) use medieval literature as his example of stuff no one cares about (as opposed to, say, business or Phys Ed.) on two different occasions in front of the entire faculty.
But at Kalamazoo, it’s different. There are a few thousand of us there. We came to the field for different reasons (I discussed some of mine here), but we all cared about this stuff enough to devote years of our lives to learning about it, and to devote careers to passing on what we’ve learned. We know it matters, and at Kazoo, we know the people around us know that as well.
That shared passion means a lot — unlike other conferences in my larger discipline, there’s almost no scholarly snobbery. Ivy profs, grad students, and people like me who are somewhere in the middle — we all meet around tables in that dining hall, and we talk about the stuff we love.
In that respect, I guess it’s kind of like another sort of activity I’ve visited — a science-fiction/comic book convention. That is to say, it’s a place where like-minded folks can talk and learn about the stuff they’re passionate about. A gathering of the Geek Tribe.
But as I tell my students, a professor is simply a geek who gave up his or her amateur status. And I look forward to the chance — maybe next year — to see and hear my brothers and sisters (even, maybe especially, those I haven’t met before) in geekdom.
Maybe I’ll see you there before long.