As I mentioned in my most recent post, the start of July was something of a blur for me, as I spent much of my time in conference mode. (In case you’re wondering, by the way, being in ‘conference mode’ tends to involve me bobbing up and down in my seat, enraptured by my fellow medievalists’ wonderful presentations and panels.) Last week’s post saw me sharing some particularly juicy pickings from the enormous International Medieval Congress in Leeds, a four-day smorgasbord of panels, networking and roundtables. This week, though, we’re dialling back on the intensity somewhat, and looking at a conference I attended in York the following day; a conference that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike Leeds.
Okay, so that last sentence was just an excuse to get a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy reference in there. There’s a nugget of truth hidden within the painfully-obvious reference, though: while both Leeds and York would be described as ‘medieval conferences’, the two events did feel very different to one another, and each demonstrated in its own way how conferences really are shaped by the people who organise them. This was particularly on show in the York conference, ‘Researching and Publishing the Medieval Now’, as it, unlike Leeds, was organised around the work of one individual. #MedievalNow, as I took to calling it on Twitter, was a one-day event that served as a collective ‘thank-you’ from medievalists up and down the country to Caroline Palmer. Caroline has worked for 25 years at my favourite medievalist publishing house, Boydell & Brewer, as a commissioning editor and editorial director, and as such, she holds a special place in many medievalists’ hearts as the first port of call for book proposals, proofreaders, and a great deal more besides. I myself only met Caroline recently, when she was on the panel for a bursary competition; while my application was ultimately unsuccessful, I was struck by her generosity in seeking me out afterwards and encouraging me to reapply in future years. She is, though, a real luminary in the medieval studies scene, so with that in mind, and given the stellar programme, it really was a no-brainer for me to hop on the train from Leeds to York and extend my summer conference trip by a further day.
In many ways, #MedievalNow reminded me strongly of the postgraduate conferences on which I’d cut my medievalist teeth. The one-day nature of the event, coupled with the genuinely ‘collegiate’ and slightly festive mood amongst the attendees, left the presentations feeling both accessible and incisive. The attendance list read like a ‘who’s-who’ of medievalists: I was particularly excited to meet Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, whose Festschrift I was able to snap up at a massive discount. Jocelyn is a Big Deal™ in Anglo-Norman studies, and in recent years has played a central role in the renewal of scholarship surrounding the precise nature of what she terms ‘the French of England’. I also had the opportunity to meet Elizabeth Tyler, a York early-medievalist who’s been doing some wonderful work exploding the myth that English ‘died’ after 1066 and arguing instead that language contact, rather than conflict, was the key influence on post-Conquest speech and writing. As far as I’m aware, I didn’t embarrass myself in front of either of those luminaries in my field, although knowing my luck one of them will probably comment on this post telling me that I left my phone behind or something.
The bread and butter of any conference, of course, is the papers themselves, and York certainly didn’t disappoint. The day was split into three sessions: “literatures and histories”, whose contributions were loosely based around the relationship between publishing and scholarship; “material cultures”, which offered a series of more “hands-on” case studies in how to interpret medieval texts and manuscripts; and a plenary discussion informed by Caroline Palmer’s own work in publishing. Of particular interest to me was Jane Taylor‘s presentation, as Jane is my ‘grand-supervisor’ by virtue of having had one of my current supervisors as a PhD student! Jane’s presentation was a masterclass in both how to present and what to present: building her talk around a single sixteenth-century publisher, she took what might appear to be a dry subject (his indexing practices) and used it to draw out a range of fascinating conclusions and further questions. Over the course of the day, I posted a series of ‘catch-up Tweets’ based on my own notes under the hashtag #MedievalNow; if you’re curious, I’d encourage you to peruse the hashtag and enjoy the warm, fuzzy feeling that only 140-character summaries of medieval conferences can provide.
Jane certainly wasn’t the only presenter ‘on form’, though – the day was characterised by presenters of all disciplines and interests reaching out across traditional subject boundaries and offering insights as to how we might work in a genuinely interdisciplinary way. Appropriately enough, Sarah Kay began the day with a plea for us all to come together under the banner of ‘medieval studies’, rather than hiding away in our individual departments of French, English, or History; she certainly struck a chord, as interdisciplinarity was on show across all the panels. If #MedievalNow’s presentations were anything to go by, ‘medieval studies’ as an idea certainly isn’t going anywhere any time soon – which, of course, makes it a very, very exciting time indeed to be a postgraduate student.
Well, that was unexpected. I published my last blog post right before leaving for a rowing training camp, and had somewhat-intermittent internet access for the following 24 hours; in light of this, my latest check of the blog stats gave me a bit of a shock.
All I can really say is thank you — no, thank you mille fois — to everyone who read the post, engaged with it, and (in many cases) left some lovely responses, both public and private. I really appreciate you all taking the time to read this one dude’s little post.
Quite a few people shared it on Twitter, from good friends of mine to — in one particularly salient reminder of how fortunate I am here at Exeter — my own supervisor.
I was even contacted by one of the University of Cambridge’s disability mentors, asking whether he could share it with his own mentees.
One of the most pleasant messages I received, though, was from @Girl_by_the_Aga, a.k.a. Laura James. Laura is the author of Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World, which was published earlier this year by Bluebird, a new imprint from Pan Macmillan specialising in ‘books for life’.
Short as it may be, Laura’s message meant an awful lot, particularly since her book has been instrumental in encouraging me to think more about Asperger’s and ideas of ‘neurodiversity’: without her writing, I doubt that I would have published that last post, hastily-written as it was. As I was writing, I had recently finished Odd Girl Out, which had proved to be a fairly quick read, yet no less powerful for all its brevity. The fundamental ‘arc’ behind Odd Girl Out is autobiographical, charting how Laura comes to terms with a very late diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome, but at several points she also presents snapshots of the mind of herself as a younger woman. Set against the reflective, considered narration offered by a woman in her forties, these vignettes stand out through their much more direct tone. It was often in these moments where I identified most strongly with Laura, as a younger version of herself recounted her problems at school with both charming naïvety and a frankness that was, at times, somewhat disarming.
When I am on my own with grown-ups I am called a chatterbox, but when I am at school I am called quiet. I am a quiet chatterbox. Sometimes I say this in my head. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. I like that there are lots of T sounds and if you say the words really quickly in your head they sound like a train and sometimes in my head I add choo choo at the end. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Quiet chatterbox. Choo choo. (p. 46)
After school I go home with Alison and that is OK. I like Alison’s house and I especially like her bedroom because it is always very tidy without her even trying. I get muddled in my bedroom, so it is always messy and this makes me feel confused about where things are. I like things to be lined up neatly. All my toys are in a line in my room, but sometimes I am not very good at putting my clothes away, so they are on the floor and I get into trouble for this. (pp. 49-50)
As someone whose room plays host to an intriguing combination of perfectly-organised books and clothes are scattered everywhere as if a bomb had just hit them, I can certainly relate to child Laura. These moments of intense empathy were not uniquely the preserve of Laura’s younger self, though: the lucidity with which ‘grown-up’ Laura would later analyse her younger self’s thought patterns and actions frequently left me identifying very strongly with this other late-diagnosed ‘Aspie’.
I wanted so much to be part of that and, although I did sometimes get invited along, I was never quite in the middle of a group. I was always on the edge, always getting it slightly wrong, never quite feeling part of things. I drifted in and out. (p. 59)
These clear-sighted examinations of how high-functioning autism affects people of all ages are frequently accompanied by soundbites from authorities on the subject, as Laura shows her research ‘iceberg’ by drawing on interviews with figures such as Tony Atwood and Sarah Wild. Her comments on two areas that autistic people often find difficult, empathy and energy, were particularly insightful:
There’s much talk about autism and empathy. One school of thought is that autistic people do not feel it. I am easily confused by abstract concepts such as empathy. I cannot put myself in someone else’s shoes, but II am probably one of the most compassionate people you are likely to meet. My compassion, though, comes in the form of practical support. (pp. 98-9)
Tony Atwood summed it up well for me: ‘People with Asperger’s or autism spend a huge amount of mental energy each day coping with socialising, anxiety, change, sensory sensitivity, daily living skills and so on. So they’re actually expending more mental energy. Think of it as an energy bank account. (pp. 188-89)
The main narrative itself spans just over a year of Laura’s life, taking us from her diagnosis in August 2015 to her reflections on Christmas Eve the following year. In that time, she takes us through a series of momentous geopolitical shifts that we are still coming to terms with – Brexit, the election of Trump – but alongside all this, we are never quite allowed to forget that this is Laura’s world, and Laura’s story. After sharing early experiences with therapy and the publication of a newspaper interview on her Asperger’s, the final four months of Laura’s book are dominated by family matters, as her children prepare to leave for university. The finality of this departure, coupled several months later with the shock of having them home for Christmas, leads her to reflect on how she has changed as a person in the year since her diagnosis. Her initial aims for therapy after she received her diagnosis – ‘I want to stop being so confused by the world […] I want it all to be easier’ (p. 55) – fall away, as she realises that being diagnosed with Asperger’s was never going to be a silver bullet. Instead, she comes to see knowledge of her condition as a skill in itself, and as something that she can draw on:
‘Do you feel more real now?’, Tim says.
In many ways I do. It’s as if I have come full circle. Initially, I thought my diagnosis was the end of the story, that once I was given that knowledge it would be my happy-ever-after moment. I would know myself and my problems would magically disappear.
What came after was almost the opposite.
‘I think I do,’ I say, yawning and rubbing my eyes. ‘I’ve sort of learned to know myself.’ (p. 226)
Laura expertly puts into words a facet of Asperger’s that can be difficult to explain: namely, that it does not function as a sort of ‘Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free’ card. Instead, it’s an explanation: Asperger’s gives me a way of understanding why it is that I have to process logically things that seem to come naturally to others, and how it can be possible for me to have an immaculate book collection whilst simultaneously keeping my clothes in a heap on the floor. Working in broad-brush strokes such as these as well as in fine detail, Laura’s book offers both a powerful insight into the mind of an ‘Aspie’. For those of us with first-hand experience of autism, it also, perhaps ironically, provides plenty of moments for empathy; in this respect, Odd Girl Out emphatically proves its own point.
There are, of course, many other facets to Laura’s book. Of particular note here is Laura’s marrying of two under-represented perspectives within the autism community: neither late-diagnosed individuals nor women fit the typical ‘model’ of autism that is exists in the popular imagination: ‘Rain Main, The Curious Incident, The Rosie Project.’ (p. 10) Her comments on women and girls with autism, and on the difficulties faced by many female ‘Aspies’ in dealing with the ‘higher expectation of social engagement and empathy’ (p. 33), are some of the most arresting and insightful details in the whole book, alongside her suggestion later in the work that a common solution is to ‘copy their neurotypical peers’ (p. 155). They have certainly left me keen to explore further the experience of women and autism, especially in light of the polemic surrounding the ‘extreme male brain’ theory. I must confess to relative ignorance on this matter, but hopefully my own research in this area will clarify this question for me.
Perhaps the single standout point from Odd Girl Out, however, is one that is inherently intersectional in nature. Laura is an unflinching advocate of ‘neurodiversity’, having come to the realisation that her brain is simply ‘differently wired’ (p. 8) and that, crucially, this is something to be celebrated. Chapter 10 of her book contains a wonderfully-written excursus on the root causes of autism and the true nature of what is known as the ‘autism spectrum’. The whole piece deserves to be read in full, but one phrase in particular stood out for its relentless optimism and (to be honest) sheer quotability:
Autistic people bring so much to the world. We are scientists and artists, writers and doctors. We are gardeners and primary school teachers. Council workers and cleaners. But more than this, we are human with the same hopes and fears and dreams and desires as everyone else. (p. 145)
In a way, this quote seems like the single best way to end this blog post, which, at just over 1600 words, is already rather longer than usual. I certainly don’t intend for Anglo-Normantics to become a blog about Asperger’s, but in the wake of the inspiration that Laura’s book offers, let’s just say it’s highly likely that I will return to the topic of Asperger’s at some point, particularly in the context of PhD study. In any context, though, I would thoroughly recommend Odd Girl Out to all those looking to deepen their understanding of an often-misunderstood condition: it is a beautifully-written work that attests both to the bravery of its author and to the value of contributions such as hers to society at large.
Oh, and it also contains the phrase ‘intellectual orgasm’. You’ll have to read the book to find out where, though.
Laura James, Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World is published by Bluebird Books. £16.99.
‘Second-term syndrome’ has been something of a hot topic in the PGR office of late. Several of us first-year students have found that after the active and productive first term in research, the long months after January have hit us with something of a sucker punch. Even as the key research questions surrounding your project start to crystallise, new kinds of task rear their heads. For one fellow PGR student, the challenge has been starting her ‘proper’ research after a term spent writing a literature review; for me, whose ‘literature review’ is baked into the thesis itself rather than existing as a standalone chapter, the difficulty has been buried in the methodological mayhem of investigating ‘historical background’ after years spent honing my skills in literature research.
The ‘context chapter’ is, though, a topic for another blog post. Instead, I’d like to return to my proverbial roots with this slightly shorter piece, which will be based around an altogether different challenge that the second term has held in store for me. While I’ve been in Exeter since September, it wasn’t until January this year that I started to make full use of the University’s resources to help with … well, something that I’ve never actually blogged about before.
I have Asperger’s. Unlike most people aware that they have the condition, the majority of whom are diagnosed before they reach their teens, I discovered this very late: aged 22, to be precise. A medical professionial suggested that I get myself ‘checked out’ after identifying certain traits in me — social impairments, sensory sensitivites, and so on — but it was still something of a shock to discover, after navigating through school, university and living abroad, that another ‘label’ had been waiting around the corner. The irony in all this is that the label in question, Asperger’s Syndrome (also called Asperger Syndrome, or just Asperger’s), technically doesn’t exist any more: in the fifth and latest volume of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders, the core manual for mental health professionals worldwide, the term was subsumed into the broader category of ‘Autism spectrum disorders’. Asperger’s as a term still has some social currency, thanks in no small part to (somewhat problematic) news reports about Vladimir Putin’s alleged experience with the condition and articles analysing people as diverse as Immanuel Kant and Luna Lovegood. One of the main reasons that I use ‘Asperger’s’, though, is that it has a rather more specific meaning than its more catch-all alternative, one which broadly correlates with what has been described as ‘high-functioning autism’. The DSM-IV, which still made use of ‘Asperger’s’ as a defining term and using which which I was diagnosed, used to offer three diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s: ‘qualitative impairments in social interaction’; ‘restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour or interests’; and ‘qualitative impairment in verbal and non-verbal communications.’ In practice, this means that while I can comfortably carry out day-to-day activities and make a good show of ‘integrating’ with others, I often have to process mentally what seems to come intuitively to others. As a consequence, I’m not immune to the occasional faux pas in social situations, and my rather intense and all-consuming interests in certain things and repetitive behaviour patterns can lead to me coming across as more than a little ‘different’ after a while. Quite apart from the obviously deleterious social effects that can ensue from being perceived as ‘weird’, people with Asperger’s will often analyse previous conversations, sometimes to a remarkable degree, in the hope of discovering some kind of pattern that seems to come so naturally to everyone else.
I started looking for support through the University after needing to move home rather suddenly and unexpectedly, a situation that was motivated in part by some side-effects of Asperger’s. Aware that the University offered specialist mentoring in this area, I made the necessary appointments, and am really happy to be able to say that I’m glad I did. To cut a long story short, the mentoring has been brilliant in helping me with some of the more practical, day-to-day aspects of university life, which often get ‘lost’ in the all-consuming rush from one task to the next that my Asperger’s seems to leave me doing. Alongside this, I’ve started being a little more open about Asperger’s, in the hope that it will help the people that I see regularly to understand precisely why I might not ‘get’ certain jokes or react in a certain way. I certainly don’t want to use Asperger’s as an excuse, but rather as an explanation: I’m not defined by Asperger’s, and am not in any way a ‘failure’ in terms of social interaction, but I am, in some way, ‘wired differently’, and as a consequence won’t get everything right all of the time.
In this respect, I’m very lucky to have two wonderful supervisors, both of whom are aware of my Asperger’s as well as understanding some of the advantages that it can bring to PhD-level study. In the wake of a tricky period for PhD applications last year, one very good friend of mine wrote me a lovely and supportive email in which, despite being unaware of the fact that I had Asperger’s, she identified several common traits in autistic individuals that can prove very useful in postgraduate study. She was, of course, right: an eye for detail, skills in data organisation, and stamina for work have all been invaluable since I started here at Exeter. Outside work, though, I remained nervous about talking to my friends about it, scared of alienating them. That started to change when, having been asked to run a quiz during a coach journey in a ‘University Challenge’ style, I decided to test the waters somewhat by preparing an exploratory question.
First identified by the Austrian psychologist of the same name in 1944, which form of high-functioning autism is typically defined by patients displaying impairments in social function and repetitive patterns of behaviour? In popular culture, it has also come to be associated with characters such as Sheldon Cooper and Christopher Boone, protagonist of the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Unfortunately, no-one got the question right first time. They did, however, ask for the answer, and it was their reaction that helped me to decide to be a little bit more open. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect: something about maths, maybe? Big Bang Theory jokes? To my surprise, I got neither. Instead, a friend replied, entirely unprompted: ‘Oh, yeah – I had a friend with that. He got 100% in his English A-Level.’ This kind of ‘special interest’ is indeed a common characteristic in people with Asperger’s, with one recent memoir on the subject describing it, somewhat counter-intuitively’ as a ‘refresher’ that ‘gives a sense of emotional enjoyment’. That memoir, if you can indulge me for another week on this topic, will be the subject of my next post, as I offer some distinctly half-baked thoughts on Laura James’ recently-published Odd Girl Out: An Autistic Woman in a Neurotypical World. For now, though, I’m still thinking back to that coach journey, as I get ready about to start another one to a rowing training camp. I do need to thank the person who offered that response; I’m still not sure if she realises how lovely that was to hear.
Cover image: a tiny (7cm) German-to-Serbo-Croat dictionary, found in the Oxford branch of Oxfam bookshop. I’m not saying that my interest in books and specifically referencing is indicative of Asperger’s; I’m just heavily implying it.
One of the stereotypical things that ‘PhD students do’, according to a recent study, is to talk about things that interest them with other people who share that interest. What better way to start this chronicle of my PhD experience, then, than with a report from a conference?
As might be expected given its age, Cambridge is home to a great many talented medievalists: in medieval French studies (my area of interest) alone, I’ve had the privilege of being taught by Miranda Griffin, Bill Burgwinkle and Sylvia Huot during my years as an undergraduate. ‘In between’ the undergraduates and the staff, though, it also has a very strong postgraduate community, which in 2014 founded its own reading group, Approaching the Medieval. This year, they organised their first conference, based around the theme of LIMITS. Since I’m very interested in the methodological questions invited by this topic – where does ‘medieval studies’ begin and end, after all? – I decided to take the plunge and submit a proposal; in non-jargon, a short piece addressing what my paper would seek to do do. If you’re interested, you can read it here.
Writing an proposal is something of a unique challenge, and to be honest, it still isn’t a process that I’m completely comfortable with. I recently had a very illuminating conversation with a colleague in France, during which she informed me that the Anglo-Saxon model of submitting a 250-word ‘proof of concept’ was far less common on the Continent; instead, it was (and is) far more usual to send in much longer pieces. Why, then, is condensing your paper down to such an extent fast becoming the norm for UK conferences? The answer to this question, I think, lies somewhere between practicality and process. Obviously, for conference organisers, reading and selecting from thirty submissions is much easier if each submission fits on one side of A4, but there’s also a genuine benefit for the person writing the paper. Even if the paper itself isn’t finished (or even, in some cases, developed at all beyond some half-formed ideas in your head), crystallising your main idea(s) into a short-form piece is an excellent way to guide your future writing process, and to give the conference organisers a clear sense of where you will be going.
There is, of course, some room for flexibility in proposals: no-one’s going to sue you under the Trades Descriptions Act for changing your subject slightly. Thankfully for me, though, it appeared that my proposal served me well — sufficiently specific to give me concrete ideas for analysis and with enough wriggle-room to explore new directions — and before I knew it I was heading back from Lyon, making last-minute adjustments to my presentation and trying not to miss my connection at Lille Europe. Two more train journeys later, and I was in Cambridge, and spent the evening before the conference catching up with a Glasgow PhD student, Debbie White; we’d only ever ‘met’ on Twitter before, and I can confirm that she is just as cool in real life as she is online. It was a similar pleasure to meet Tim Wingard the following morning at the conference, whose own blogging (on medieval bestiaries) is far better-informed than these attempts on my part.
For a full rundown of the conference itself, I’d recommend that you have a read of the Storify, compiled from Tweets by myself and other colleagues. Broadly, though, it’s fair to say that the theme that the organisers had chosen — ‘limits’ — served the conference very well indeed. We were treated to a wide variety of papers from across the disciplines of medieval studies, including literary studies, history, theology, and art history. One particular highlight was Robert Mills’ keynote, intriguingly entitled ‘How to do things with fur’: Mills (no relation) used fur and animal skin more generally to broaden our understandings of what it meant to be ‘human’ in the European Middle Ages, and left us all with a great deal to think about in terms of how to ‘read’ these objects. My own panel was perhaps the most interdisciplinary of the lot: based around the idea of medievalism and modernity in dialogue, the three of us who were presenting took the opportunity to stretch the boundaries of medieval studies and to ask questions of how we both use and see this problematic period.
My presentation was based around one particular way of ‘using’ the Middle Ages: as a teaching tool. Throughout the past year, I’ve been using medieval English, and the theme of medievalism more broadly, as part of my advanced-level course in modern English expression for non-native speakers, an apparent contradiction that my paper tried to explain. Why does medieval studies, seemingly so far away from the concerns of today’s EFL students, function so well as the foundational element for a language course? If you’d like to see one possible answer to this question, I warmly invite you to watch my presentation, which you can do here. I’m also planning on writing a little more about it in the near future, developing on certain examples that I raised as part of the piece.
Conferences are funny things: as an outsider looking in, it can often seem as if they’re somewhat heavy on navel-gazing and light on ideas. As I’ve started going to more and more conferences, though, I’ve begun to develop my own way of thinking about them. For me, the best conference presentations are themselves works in progress: the value of a conference paper is not in showing everyone how clever you think you are, but rather in getting feedback on your ideas from experts and interested parties which you can yourself take on board later. This was why I found the question-and-answer session with my fellow panellists so valuable, as we were asked probing (but genuinely useful) questions about our methodologies, our aims, and the possible restrictions of our individual approaches. Conferences let you make connections: connections between your own disparate ideas, connections with other avenues of research, and connections with other people who share your interests. If this particular conference is anything to go by, I’m already looking forward to the next one.
1 Edward Mills, ‘Things PhD students do: a recent study’, Explorations in Invented Statistics, 42 (2016), 123-45. Sample size (N) = 1.[↵]