Report from the Zoo, part 1
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.