Strange Zoo this year. As usual, I was overjoyed to see old friends and make new acquaintances who might become friends. My panel went well, I think, which is always gratifying. Mostly, that was down to having clever people who listened to each other and helped to ensure smooth transitions from one topic to the next. I’m very lucky to have had such talent agree to participate.
I’m still transcribing notes from the papers I heard, but in the meantime, I thought I’d mention a couple of real low points, both incidents of poor behaviour by colleagues. The first I witnessed myself, the second something I partially missed, having left a panel early. I’m trying to confirm some details about that one, but did see enough to bring it into this discussion. The point here is not to shame anyone, but rather to offer a couple of reminders to people at different stages in their careers about checking their privilege and their responsibilities.
Most of the regular readers of this blog (if there are such people) know I have Opinions on keeping to time when delivering a paper. It probably won’t surprise anyone that my reaction was less than favourable when a scholar senior enough to have earned the rank of full professor began hir presentation with the words, “I realised yesterday that my paper was too long; I will have to cut a bit as I go.” I do empathise with people who need to make last-minute changes: after all, it only takes a couple of things to throw paper preparation off schedule. My last paper for Leeds was finished at about 0200 for a 0900 panel, and wasn’t nearly as polished as I would have liked. It happens. But here’s the thing — the presenter still has an obligation to hir fellow presenters, the moderator, and the audience to keep within time. It’s a thing I like to call “acting as professionally as possible.” That announcement of unforeseen cutting should only be offered as an apologetic warning that the presentation might be a little rough. In other words, it’s an appeal to one’s colleagues’ generosity; it’s begging for their indulgence and trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. What it should not be is an anticipatory excuse or explanation for then running into someone else’s time or putting the moderator in a position of having to cut a presenter off. That’s what I call ‘unforgivably rude.’ When it comes down to it, though, it’s one or the other.
A full professor, more than anyone, should know how to time a presentation. If it’s a twenty-minute presentation, it’s about 2600-2900 words for most people — less if there are slides. If a person is used to using images, then zie should have an idea of how many words there are to a picture. A person who shows up with a paper that is at least 4000 words, accompanied by at least 20 slides, intending to get through all of it in 20 minutes is at best a fool. At worst, zie has made a conscious decision to behave unprofessionally.
Not only is that decision unprofessional, but it is rude and inconsiderate. It’s a decision that indicates that the presenter’s value system relegates everyone else in the room to “less important than I am.” It’s just a big “fuck you” wrapped up in insincere packaging.
So… just don’t do that, if you want your colleagues to think well of you.
The other incident is a bit murkier. One of the two papers (of three) in a session closely connected to my own interests was simply poor. I was not impressed by the paper. It was fine for an undergrad, and even for a first-year MA student, it might have been fine within the department. I thought it clearly argued; despite some weaknesses in contextualizing the sources, it was also not a bad argument. The topic, however, was unsophisticated and not at all new. It also seemed fairly obvious that the presenter hadn’t read, or had disregarded, at least one important book on his sources. To me, it was a disappointing use of my time — I’d rather have gone to a different session, frankly — and it convinced me there was no point to staying for the last paper in the session, by another grad student at the same institution, because the title just didn’t seem to suggest anything better than one of the papers I needed to get marked. When I run into situations like these, I figure there are two possible explanations: either the student ignored hir advisor’s advice and went ahead and presented a paper that should never have seen the light of the IMC, or the advisor had not mentored the student very well.
I’m guessing, since the students seemed to have a faculty person with them, that the papers had been approved. I honestly don’t know why. Pulling a paper is embarrassing, but not nearly as embarrassing as dealing with being thrown to the wolves.
Sadly, I hear that’s exactly what happened. I left the session after the second paper, which was given by a friend, because I’d realized that I had to get something in to my dean within the hour. At the wine hour, I ran into someone who had stayed for the whole panel, and heard that a senior medievalist, who had written one of the significant books in question, ripped the paper to shreds, and did it without differentiating between the paper and its author. According to my colleague, a second senior medievalist, who was also there, either intervened or pulled his colleague aside after and spoke to him. There’s a lot to unpack here, not least because I wasn’t there, so am trying not to spread false impressions. I’ve interacted with the first senior medievalist, and he’s always been pleasant, but he’s definitely acerbic at best when he’s offering a critique. He’s also the author of what is still one of the most mean-spirited reviews I’ve ever read. But that was written of a peer when they were both young and building their reputations. Almost forty years on, I wonder if perhaps he just didn’t realize that the presenter was an MA student. In any case, this reminds me of something a dear friend of mine, an Anglo-Normanist of the same generation as these Late Antique lions, told me: be kind, and if you must engage in public critique, make sure you you err on the side of punching above your weight. Given that my friend is known for his ability to demolish a paper with a couple of well-placed questions, I might take this with a grain of salt; however, I have never, ever, seen him publicly humiliate a student or junior scholar. He takes them aside, often offering a coffee, and walks them through what they missed. I know which model I prefer.
I love going to conferences, even though it usually takes me a couple of weeks to wind down and process all the interactions. I think those of us whose academic lives are divided between teaching selves and research selves really need those interactions. In any case, having the opportunity to hang out with people I like and respect and who keep me on my toes is one of the best things I can think of. If not for conferences, I would probably not know HotEdge, or Magistra, or Susan, or LDW, or any number of people who have become friends without aid of the internets. Conferences have made a huge difference to my career, and to how I see myself as a scholar. I mean that not only in the obvious sense of whether or not I am good enough, but also in the sense of where I am in a more objective sense. My normal sense of academic self is that I’m nobody anyone should know. I don’t produce as much as I’d like, and I never feel as on top of my field as I think I should be — or that my colleagues who have the luxury of only working on the MA are. At SLAC, my departmental colleagues manage to dismiss what I do (i.e., anything with the MA) as esoteric, and somehow manage to turn the fact that competency competency in just one of my fields requires knowing over a thousand years of stuff in several different cultures, while competency in their fields includes about 200 years in one place, into a sort of insult. Going to conferences helps me to see myself in relation to other medievalists at different stages in their careers. I am always cognizant of the help and mentoring my colleagues give me, and I try hard to make sure that I am doing everything I can to repay the kindnesses I’ve received by passing them on to others. I think there are many of us who feel the same way — conferences are our community in action on a different scale.
Now obviously, there’s a lot of diversity in our community in terms of age, interests, political ideologies, etc. (although HELLO??? medievalist conferences are still overwhelmingly attended by people of pallor). But for communities to work, there need to be some common understandings of acceptable behavior. In both cases I mention, and in most I can recall, the people behaving unprofessionally and inconsiderately are senior scholars. They are almost always male (but not always — I was once at a conference where a female scholar’s paper went over so long that we made time the next morning for her fellow panelists to answer questions). Academia is currently in a parlous state in many ways; medievalists often have to defend their relevance even more than most people in the humanities. I’m all for defending high standards as part of our response to people who want to cut our jobs, reduce our pay, etc. But I’m pretty sure that we can do that without eating our young. So next time you go to a conference, don’t forget to check your privilege and be kind and respectful to your colleagues in sessions (and whenever it’s possible, bearing in mind that no one has an obligation to be respectful to people who behave like total dicks). And ask yourself what kind of points you want to score.
Thursday night, from 7:30 on, at the same place as last year, i.e., a room in the Valley of Registration.
If you are new to the party, email me, and I’ll tell you how to get there.
Contributions of beverages and snacks, or offers of cash to chip in on the healthy amount I plan to bring, gladly accepted. I’m driving in, so it’s not as much of a hassle as it is for people without cars.
Hope to see many of you bloggy-types there!
Hi all — I aten’t dead yet.
Lots of things to write about, but I am so deeply buried in grading and rehearsal for a concert that I’m just posting some notes and reminders…
- First off, if you are a member of the Medieval Academy of America, or an ex-member, you probably received a very terse letter the other day from the current President, Richard Unger, regarding the resignations of the Executive Director(s). I’ve left rather extensive comments at Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s excellent post at In the Middle, so will just direct you there.
- Kalamazoo blogger meetup still Thursday night, time still TBA, but I would say after 7:00. Same place as last year, one of the dorm suites.
- Speaking of Kalamazoo, I owe Geoff Koziol a post…
- Recently went to an awesome undergrad conference, about which I will write later
- Still have things to say about Leeds last year
- Still have things to say about Mrs Thatcher’s death and funeral
- Probably have things to say about recent interpretations of Miranda and its application. I am not thrilled
- I will not be posting on guns or gun regulation, because I am too angry and disgusted
- I will be going on sabbatical next spring, and sadly did not get the Dream Fellowship. More on that later, but for now, a bleg: if you know of any UK situations for (un)funded visiting Carolingianists that I might apply for, or if you are in a position to host me, please let me know. Also, I’ll be blegging for leads on accommodation, probably a sublet or room. Backup plan is London, working in BL/IHR, which is not a bad option at all. Just pricey.
- I have a LOT to write about teaching
and now, back to marking.
ETA: I really don’t like wordpress’s new interface. Also, my twitter client is acting up, so if you have an alternative to YoruFukouru, please recommend it!
Thursday Evening. Dunno what time yet, but in whichever Valley is the registration valley.
Before I forget…
Who is going to the Zoo and wants to meet up Wednesday night, Thursday night, or Friday morning? I will be leaving late Friday afternoon, after my panel (which is on Thursday or Friday…) and the Director’s (not the Zoo Director — it’s a pseudonym for my colleague and roommate) meeting are over. Because we have to be back the next day for graduation. Why yes, we will be driving most of the night.
Anyway, my preference is Thursday evening. Feel free to suggest a place. If anyone has access to a projector, or access to a TV with a computer cable, that would also be marvy. Why? because I a very special presentation* to share with my friends. It comes with its own really, really special background story of expert mansplaining.
*in the “holy Shit! is that for reals?” sense.
And almost back to blogging. I also owe several of my readers emails — got them, but pushed them behind The Review That Would Not Be Written. That’s in, except for a style review, but am now writing syllabuses. Of course.
Otherwise, all is much the same. The only odd little thing I’ve run into lately is realizing that several of the people I’d normally go to for recommendations are staff at the place where I am trying to get a sabbatical fellowship. D’oh.
Also, I need to think about how to really hash out a project. I have two in mind, and really need to come up with something that can be done and done well, given the ridiculously infrequent research leave available at SLAC. So some of you may well be hearing from me soon
And now, I’m back to reading for the most specific medieval course I have ever taught — and one on my own supposed area of expertise!
It’s the last day of 2012. 2012 has not been the best year of my life. I was about to say I’d been treading water, just barely, but that’s not the right metaphor. It’s been more like watching my life go by, and not being able to really grasp it for more than a few moments here and there. It was not the watching of real observation, but of catching glimpses of reality here and there. Even when I felt I was connected to the rest of the world, or to myself, I felt out of sync. In many ways, it was like that feeling people often get when they’ve had just a bit too much to drink at a conference or party, and are struggling very hard to keep up with the conversation and not behave as if they are drunk. There are many reasons for this, most of which were connected to dealing with a Thing at work that should have been resolved within weeks, but instead has dragged on for over three years, and which pushed me into therapy. The problem with therapy, I’ve discovered, is that in dealing with current garbage, you often find that the garbage is linked to things that were locked away, occasionally reaching a hand out through the bars of their cells, but generally segregated from daily life. Much of 2012 was spent opening the cell doors for very short times, and looking at the creatures within. I think the feeling of disconnection may be directly related to keeping the creatures at bay while I examined them; in fact, that keeping them at bay may explain why my therapist has teared up more than I have. But defense mechanisms can be exhausting. Mine seem to be the sort that simply urge me into auto-pilot — I’m just lucky that I’m able to do a fair job on some things, like teaching, on auto-pilot. Other things, I’ve not been able to keep up with: friends (I think I managed to have people over to my house once or twice all year, where normally I have people over for at least dinner or drinks a couple times a month); family; reading; exercise; paperwork (I have just realized I never filed my state tax forms last year — fortunately, the state owes me a refund, so I think there will be no penalty); work I owe to professional organizations and colleagues… And then, there were various health problems. And what seems also to have been mid-life crisis. Finally, my year has ended with one of those things that has just made me say, “Fuck this. I am scared to death, but I’m not willing to have another year like this if I can help it.” Cancer will do that.
Yep. That’s been (as those of you who know me IRL know) the last three weeks of my life. Cancer diagnosis (malignant melanoma), guidelines indicated checking for spread to the lymph system, surgery, biopsies…
No sign of spread. Surgical scars now healing well. So I’m fine! Except that I’m not, because there’s always a watching and waiting period, about five years, to make sure it doesn’t come back, and that it doesn’t start up in another place.
So now I’m definitely at an age where I most probably past the halfway point of my allotted years. And, at least at the present moment, I am not willing to go through another year like this. I tend to think on an academic calendar, so New Year’s resolutions always seem odd to me; besides, I don’t like resolutions, because I feel guilty when I don’t accomplish them. So I have only one overarching goal for 2013: to reach the end of the year having felt that I’ve achieved more control over my own life, and to enjoy more the good things I’ve added in the past year, but haven’t really been able to build on.
There were, as it happens, good things.
I acquired a canine companion. She is a foster, but having to get up and take her out first thing and last thing, and times in between, is beginning to help with structure that I desperately needed.
I listened to my voice teacher and auditioned for a choral group. They took me. We performed some very hard Baroque music this year, and I managed to do fairly well at singing the most difficult part. But I was not ever as practiced or good as I wanted to be, nor as good as I could have been. I really like the people in the chorale, and want to have their respect and in some cases, their friendship.
I taught a couple of new courses that have the potential to be much better courses. Despite the fact that I was shite in many ways, the final work and the evaluations indicated that, despite my weaknesses (slow feedback, lack of organization), the students felt challenged and enjoyed the classes.
I finished an essay which is due to come out in an edited volume any day now. I have ideas for others.
I think I became closer friends with some of my readers and colleagues. I can honestly say that my friendships with some of you all, and a couple of colleagues at SLAC, have made such a huge difference in my life, and have done so much to counteract the drain on my self-confidence mentioned above.
I was awarded a sabbatical for part of the upcoming academic year (sadly after the deadline for many fellowships…)
So, for 2013, I want to feel more like a participant, and less like an observer. I don’t know how that will happen, but I suspect it might involve exchanging the feeling that I must always be doing things for a more deliberate slowing down and focus on doing this thing, now, and then moving to the next. We’ll see. Any suggestions are of course welcome.
In the meantime, I wish you all a very happy and healthy new year.