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4 April, 2004

Medieval Academy: days 2 and 3 or, I am a scholar, too

Or am I? Am I a scholar if I think like one, talk like one, but don’t produce like one? It’s a good question, I think. Medieval Academy answered it for me. A funny thing about contingent work is that it makes it very easy to marginalize oneself. By this I mean specifically that, not having a “real job”, one begins to believe oneself to be less deserving, less capable, less than those colleagues who have made it. It is the most insidious part of contingent work, I think. In my case, I hold on to the knowledge that I am a really good teacher and a good colleague. I have external validation for this, which helps, and it’s been good in that I know I want a job where teaching is the primary focus. It even allows me the luxury of knowing I’d be perfectly happy at a community college, because I truly believe in their mission and find the relationships at that level really rewarding. When I look around at other contingent faculty (in person and in the blogosphere), however, I realize that we are all quite capable of taking the long-term negative point of view, the one that somehow makes teaching the All. Taken a step further, contingent faculty can easily find themselves in a downward spiral of resentment that only worsens when teaching experience doesn’t quite make up for not having kept up with the field, and the all-too-rare new line is filled by someone who hasn’t been teaching as long, but has delivered papers, etc.

What has this to do with Medieval Academy? Well, first, I got to say thank you to Constance Bouchard. This is an amazing woman. One of the things the American Historical Association has been addressing more and more lately is the problem of contingent faculty. Professor Bouchard recently wrote addressing the problem from a pretty unique perspective — she adjuncted for fourteen years before getting a tenure-track job. During that time, she produced some very well-respected work. I didn’t get a chance to ask if she had a supportive spouse or independent wealth, which can and often do play a role in adjunct productivity, but in many ways, it didn’t matter. Right in front of me was an example of a woman who hadn’t given up.

Also, I ran into people I’d met at other conferences. These people acted as if I were one of them, as did most of the people I met, despite my “local community college” title on my badge. I asked questions, some not as coherently formulated as I would have liked, and they were addressed — in fact, sometimes people came up afterwards and told me the questions were good. One nice grad student actually hunted me down a day after I asked him a couple of questions and said that they had helped him to clarify part of what he was working on. Finally, I had a very nice conversation with a reasonably well-known personage who spoke to me as a colleague and to some extent as a mentor (pretty damned cool on 36 hours’ acquaintance) on teaching approaches, materials, and why the hell wasn’t I putting some of my ideas on paper. All I can say is that the conference was like having someone take a shovel to my thick head. I really do love the scholarship. and any exile I feel is self-imposed. So I’m going back to basics. Even if I haven’t got the time to read more that 20 pages a day, or write more than a couple of paragraphs here or there, they add up. No more, “I can’t have it both ways.” I can. I am too a scholar — if somewhat snail-like in pace.

As far as the conference itself went, I thought the teaching Medieval Islam panel disappointing. Only one of the panelists took a practical approach. The others were all crusades people, and gave very interesting points of view, but took up a good bit of time with them, so that the actual discussion was limited to a few questions. The lack of time really meant that there was almost no sharing of pedagogical approaches, useful sources, etc. I think, though, that it did lead to some interesting and useful private conversations over the course of the weekend.

The panel on feuds was really good — really brought some good questions to mind on the nature of feud and how closely it is tied to kin-groups: can there be feuds within kin-groups? what is the line between war and feud? What is the line between civil war, war, and feud? I also enjoyed the Carolingian panel — the only one. The 8th and 9th centuries get short shrift these days, as what used to be the Early Middle Ages becomes more and more subsumed into the more-recently-defined Late Antique. Now it seems that the Merovingianists are Late Antique, but the Middle Ages seem to start in a lot of people’s minds with the 10th c. At any rate, it was an interesting panel, although really more on texts and scholarship than I normally like. Still, it also gave me some good ideas. There were a couple of other panels I went to that were good, but frankly, I was pretty sleepy. I’m sure many readers know how it is — meal, sit in stuffy room, often darkened; break with coffee in small cups, sit in stuffy room; meal, not enough time to get fresh air, sit in stuffy room; coffee, sit in stuffy room; alcohol, sit up talking too late; early meal, sit in stuffy room …for three days.

Still, it was a good conference, as far as I can tell. On the down side, no one has cleaned my house in days, and only I can prep this week’s classes, so I’m off.

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