I’m writing this on the train back from York after a week of what I’ve been calling (rather awkwardly) ‘medieval fun-times’. It’s been a very busy few days for many people in the world of medieval studies: the early summer period, after undergraduates have gone home, is peak conference season, and this year was no exception. In fact, French medievalists got something of a rough deal this year, as the International Medieval Congress overlapped significantly with the Society for French Studies’ annual conference. I can only imagine that quite a few French medievalists were on the early train from Durham to Leeds on at least one occasion during the week.
For my part, my involvement this year was solely with the IMC, having responded to the late call for papers and sneaked myself into Session 1541, ‘Science at Court: Poesis‘. Unfortunately, the actual audience for my paper turned out to be fairly small: we’d been given the infamous ‘graveyard shift’ of 9am on Thursday morning, which sounds like a pleasant slot until you realise that the IMC disco had taken place the night before. I do feel for the organiser of the panel, the wonderful Tekla Bude: panellists and moderators outnumbered audience members, even accounting for the fact that one panellist simply didn’t show up. In any case, though, I hope that my presentation was of use to the panel; as ever, producing a conference presentation to an interested, but potentially non-specialist audience was a wonderful way of ensuring that I myself was confident in my conclusions and capable of communicating them concisely. I was speaking about a single work, namely the Kalender, a short treatise on calendar and the computus produced in 1256 by one Rauf de Lenham. If you’re interested, I actually recorded my presentation, so please do feel free to take a look at the video below. (The handout that I reference on several occasions is available here.)
All in all, I feel as if the presentation went well; the discussion afterwards (not included in the video, I’m afraid) was particularly productive. It’s worth underlining, though, that the IMC itself was very much a learning experience for me: as the IMC was my first ‘non-PG’ conference, it was very strange to find myself presenting alongside established academics as well as fellow postgrads. The IMC is a very different beast to anything I’d experienced before, not least because of its sheer scale: with over 2,000 delegates, it’s far larger than, say, the Oxford Medieval Graduate Conference or Approaching the Medieval. This of course translates into an immense variety of sessions, and therefore difficult decisions had to be made about which sessions to attend and which (regrettably) to sacrifice. There was always a choice to be made; at no point could I confidently say that session no. x was the only session that would be relevant to my research interests. I like to think, of course, that this is the reason why my talk was comparatively poorly-attended, and that the audience size of three was nothing at all to do with the fact that I was talking about the form and function of thirteenth-century Anglo-Norman calendrical treatises.
The scale of the conference did also pose some additional problems for me: as a self-confessed introvert and ‘Aspie‘, I felt somewhat overwhelmed at first, and frequently had to make time for myself, a decision that led to me missing a couple of very promising-sounding evening panels. The disco was an immediate no-no, although I will admit that I would have liked to have had the opportunity to ‘watch your bibliography boogie’. In writing this, I’m reminded of my good friend Debbie White’s wonderful blog post on surviving academic conferences as an introvert; I’d certainly echo her advice, as well as adding that free access to the University Library (thanks, IMC!) can be exceptionally helpful in having somewhere quiet to go when you need it.
This isn’t another ‘Asperger’s blog post’, though, and at its heart a conference is defined not by the libraries it’s near, but by the panels that you attend. The approximate format of most panels at the IMC will be familiar to many of us who work in the humanities: 90-minute panels, with each speaker given 20 minutes and a 30-minute Q&A slot afterwards. I was lucky enough to attend some exceptional papers during my time at the IMC, many of which were given by fellow postgrads whose enthusiasm shone through. If you’d like to have a peek, I was busily (semi-)live-tweeting most of the panels I sat in on (more on that in a couple of weeks!); I’d particularly recommend The IMC did also, though, look beyond the traditional three-paper-panel setup, and embraced a broader range of formats, particularly during the evening sessions. Two roundtable discussions stood out for me: the first was on the topic of ‘chronology, temporality and otherness’ and proved to be an excellent way to bring together specialists in a whole range of different disciplines within ‘medieval studies’. It was very refreshing, as a ‘literature person’ who works in a Medieval Studies cluster largely dominated by historians, to be reminded of how we can talk to each other in a productive and mutually enriching way.
The second roundtable discussion, held on the Wednesday night, was organised by the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship on the topic of gender and harassment in the academy. It perhaps goes without saying that my attendance at the roundtable was as an ally, rather than as a victim: women in universities, as the discussion made abundantly clear, are subject to an enormous range of aggressions and challenges that stem in no small part from the very structure of academia itself. (For instance, there’s been a great deal of discussion recently on the topic of ’emotional labour’, the burden of which disproportionately falls on women.) The participants at the roundtable were forthright and open in their discussion of some issues which I, as a middle-class, male participant, had never even crossed my mind: doesn’t having a ‘harassment policy’ imply a normalisation, even an acceptance, of harassment? Why is childcare so under-discussed at academic conferences? What about breastfeeding mothers? How should trigger-warnings, the subject of so much derision by people who (like me) have never really been ‘triggered’, be used?
Leaving Leeds on Thursday night, then, I certainly felt as if I had developed as a medievalist, both in terms of what I know and how I’ve come to know it. My conference experience was very positive indeed – after all, I did literally ‘buy the T-shirt’ – and it was enriched still further by the spirited discussion on the nature of the conference itself, encouraged so ably by the IMC committee. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for the kind of methodological contributions championed by the SMFS and by the informal #disIMC meet up; after all, it’s important to think not not just about the conclusions we reach in medieval studies, but also the methods we employ in order to reach them.
Next week, I’ll be talking about an altogether different conference experience – a one-day, and much smaller, symposium held on Friday 7th July in York. Stay tuned!