About that “Dark Age for Medievalists” thing . . .

Charlotte Allen has written an exceedingly silly article about this year’s Kalamazoo International Conference. Scott Nokes has a list of the various responses here. I want to draw attention to some aspects of the article that I think haven’t really received as much attention at they ought.

Allen asserts that “One session was entirely devoted to medieval blogs, including a paper comparing the works of Geoffrey Chaucer to the blog “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog.”

This is interesting since not only was I there, but I liveblogged it.

I know for a fact Ms. Allen wasn’t there, and didn’t even do a cursory Google check, because the paper about “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blog” wasn’t even presented.

Just after the blogging panel reference, Allen refers to session 116 “Neomedievalism I: Alternative Realities.” She specifically refers to one paper from that session:

In one of those papers, delivered with much help from PowerPoint and titled “Knights, Dykes, Damsels and Fags: Gender Roles and Normative Pressures in Neomedieval Films,” Wayne Elliott , a graduate student at Kent State University, argued that the film A Knight’s Tale had a homoerotic subtext because it starred Heath Ledger. Poor Ledger. He made the double career mistake of (a) playing a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and (b) dying before he had a chance to live it down.

Let’s look at this really closely, shall we? First of all, I was at the panel, and, being a geek and a medievalist, I took notes. Let’s look first at her comment on Elliot’s paper—which was in fact arguing that there was a definite “male gaze” phenomena in the film A Knight’s Tale.” He demonstrated this by referring to other gazes in the film, and by using screen caps. True, he didn’t adequately define his terms, but he definitely has something to work with in terms of what happens in the film. Secondly, he did something else that was kind of cool—he looked at the role of a fairly minor supporting female character in the film, Kate the Farris (farrier). He looked at her social roles, and her interactions with other characters, and he described her as a dyke, attempting to specify exactly what he meant by the term, and why it applied to Kate—and specifically distinguishing dyke from lesbian in terms of use and meaning. That was interesting, and worth noticing.

But look at what Allen does with Elliot’s paper— she reduces it to an assertion that Eliot argued that “Knight’s Tale had a homoerotic subtext because it starred Heath Ledger.” He did nothing of the kind. That’s just a pot shot, and a mean-spirited one that’s manifestly inaccurate. Now look at Allen’s next statement, with respect to Heath Ledger, who plays the protagonist in Knight’s Tale.

Poor Ledger. He made the double career mistake of (a) playing a gay cowboy in Brokeback Mountain and (b) dying before he had a chance to live it down.

Now isn’t that delightful? She refers to Ledger’s death— a death by overdose— and turns it into an anti-queer slam—notice the “double career mistake” reference, and the assertion that Ledger died “before he had a chance to live it down.”

Why yes, this is the same person who wrote this lovely misogynistic screed. And yes, she’s brimful of unjustified malice towards her peers.

You’ll note that Allen complains somewhat bitterly about critical theory, particularly what she, less than accurately, terms “pomo.” For instance:

Not that the postmodernist modus operandi was likely to be any different elsewhere. Down the hall from waste studies that morning was Session 5: “(Ab)normal Societies: Disability as a Socio-cultural Concept in Medieval Society.” The parentheses bracketing the “Ab” are examples of a favorite postmodernist punctuation strategy, signaling to readers in the know that putatively neutral words such as “abnormal” actually convey oppressive, often sexist, hidden agendas.

Anyone who thinks “abnormal” is “putatively neutral” needs a basic etymology class; it can’t possibly be “neutral.” That’s sort of its purpose–to point at the thing that is not “neutral,” safe, expected, or comfortable to confront, usually, to make such things (and people) easy to avoid.

Behind (I fear to use “subtext here”) all the back-of-the-bus little boy poo-poo jokes, Allen is clearly uncomfortable in particular with the juxtaposition of the “pomo” and the medieval. Ms. Allen ought to know that the middle ages are very much inherently “pomo” in the ways primary texts and their creators are constantly self-referential, and deliberately cross back and forth between propre person, character, and narrator.

That’s not all she’s uncomfortable with either:

There were numerous other papers with either “normative” (“heteronormativity” is bad because it implies that heterosexuals are more normal than homosexuals) or “masculinity” (like femininity, a social construct, not an inherent characteristic) in their titles,

Heteronormativity is not “bad,” but it is a set of assumptions that needs to be checked. If we read with heteronormative assumptions, we may not be really reading medieval texts either authentically or critically accurately— and that’s bad. It means we’re applying 21st century assumptions to early centuries, which, while often interesting and provocative, isn’t the only or even the best way to read an early text.

She also objects to Tolkien and Harry Potter at Kalamazoo, opining that

The total number of medievalists probably exceeds the total number of college undergraduates these days who have the slightest interest in learning the smallest thing about the Middle Ages. That dismal fact lies at the core of all other observations to be made about the congress.

This particular statement reflects poorly on Allen’s research skills.

There are more undergrads interested in things medieval now, than in the last twenty years–in part because of the strong presence of medieval cultures and references in contemporary pop culture like Lord of the Rings, A Knight’s Tale, and Harry Potter (has Allen forgotten that Tolkien was an important medieval scholar as well as philologist?).

Then there’s this bit:

Thus the overwhelming majority of the sessions nowadays are in the field of literature, especially English literature, which is notorious for its vulnerability to theoretical hoo-hah and for the large numbers of bottom-feeding assistant professors and at-sea graduate students needed to staff the required freshman composition classes that are run out of many universities’ English departments.

Err, well, no, early English literature really isn’t “notorious” for “its vulnerability to theoretical hoo-hah”— speaking as one who fled to the bastion of philology after a bit too much Derrida—for the simple reason that the mind set that allows one to become comfortable reading, often in mss., Old and Middle English, never mind Medieval Latin, or Old Norse, or Old Irish, isn’t one to lend itself to “hoo-hah” of any stripe.

But her closer is . .. well, it’s pretty much “And they dress funny, too!”

I don’t mind Ms. Allen judging the conference by whatever standard she sees suitable. I’d just much rather that she judged it for what it is–one of the largest gatherings of medievalists in the world, one where historians rub shoulders with philologists, and grad students with Really Big Name Scholars (yes Charlotte, they were there too—and quite a few of the future Really Big Name Scholars)–instead describing a conference that bears so little relationship to the one I attended, that I honestly initially thought her article was inept parody.

Kalamazoo 2007 Schedule

I’m off. I’ll present my paper “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight: Tolkien’s “game with rules” on Thursday morning, in the very first session. I’ll put the handout and my transcript up here after the fact. I’ll be at the medievalist Blogger breakfast on Friday, and participating in the Saturday 3:30 Weblogs and the Academy roundtable, in Sangren 2210. I’m hoping folks might be interested in adjourning to the Radisson bar post panel.

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Kalamazoo 2007

The 2007 International Congress on Medieval Studies takes place May 10–13, 2007 in Kalamzoo. And I’m going. I’m presenting a paper and participating in a panel discussion on blogging and pedagogy. You can still register, and the schedule of sessions with paper topics has been posted by the fabulous Elizabeth Carnell.

This conference is both genuinely helpful in terms of scholarly information and network, and just plain fun; people are just plain nice at Kalamazoo, for the most part, and it’s a lovely campus and a well-run conference.

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CFP K’zoo 2007: Society for Hiberno-Latin Studies

The Society’s session at the 2007 42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan (May 10–13, 2007, “will include papers on all aspects of the Latin literature of medieval Ireland, its monolingual and bilingual texts and manuscripts,as well as one paper on an interdisciplinary topic.” Queries and abstracts by Sept. 15, 2006 should be addressed to Jean Rittmueller jeanritt at bellsouth. net.

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Weblog Roundtable at Kalamazoo 2006

Shana Worthen did an excellent job of moderating the roundtable discussion, with fellow bloggers Elisabeth Carnell, Michael Drout, Richard Nokes, Michael Tinkler, Alison Tara Walker, (the moderator of the Medieval Studies Community), and me, as participants in a discussion that ranged over why we started blogging, why we blog now, what blogging offers that other forms of online interaction don’t, why we think blogging is important to medievalists, the value of anonymous blogging, and the uses of blogging in terms of scholarship and pedagogy.

The observations made included the following, in no particular order, and without attribution:

  • We all appear to find value in the existence of, and contributions, of, anonymous bloggers.
  • Several panelists suggested that often the anonymous bloggers were able to say things that they would say if they felt they could, but that for professional or personal reasons they could not.
  • All of the panelists spoke about the community aspects of blogging. The Medieval Studies Community is a conscious effort to create a community of medievalists to share information, ranging from calls for papers, to questions from students contemplating a medieval studies program or graduate school, to requests for resource suggestions or research help.
  • Several panelists mentioned advantages of a Web log over other digital forms of communication, like email, listserves or static Web pages.
    • Entries are published and archived and may be read when the user finds it convenient.
    • The use of categories or tags to describe individual posts in the archives makes it easy to search for a particular post, or all posts on a specific topic.
    • At least one panelist mentioned using a Web log as a way to store and annotate links, making it easy to share them and use them from any computer.
  • Several participants spoke about using Web logs as teaching tools.
    • The use of Comments on Posts/Entries allows students to communicate with each other, as well as with the instructor (the resulting conversation is often easier to follow than it would be on a discussion board, says this poster).
    • When it’s possible to make the Web log (or Wiki) public, students become engaged with their writing and take it more seriously than they might if it were merely written to satisfy a requirement.
    • Several people spoke about the value of Web logs in making scholarly contacts, sometimes leading to collaboration or, quite frequently, resource sharing.
    • The use of blogging systems (Blogger, MovableType, TypePad, Live Journal or any number of others) makes it easy to mix text and images on a page, an excellent way to teach art history or other image-reach subjects.

One of the things I found most interesting about the roundtable was that, although I had linked to, and read, and sometimes even commented on, the blogs of all the participants, I’d never actually met most of them before Kalamazoo. Meeting people I read with my coffee every day was one of the highlights of the conference, even though I missed Really Good Coffee.

I’m still very very tired, so I’m hoping that others will comment to fill in the enormous gaps I’ve left in my much truncated summary. And I’ll likely be adding links later.

Update:You can read Michael Drout on the roundtable here. Shana Worthen posted here, Cranky Professor here, and Richard Nokes of Unlocked Wordhoard here. Another Damned Medievalist also comments on the panel.

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The First Annual Kalamazoo Bloggers’ Guild Meeting: What Say Ye?

Dr. V and Ancrene Wiseass are beginning to plan the First Annual Kalamazoo Bloggers’ Guild Meeting, but they’re running into some logistic difficulties and would like your input on several matters. To wit:

  1. If you’re thinking of coming, please let them know in the comments thread here. If you’re thinking of bringing a friend, colleague, significant other, familiar, or minion, please let them know that as well. We’d like to get a sense of how large the gathering will be.
  2. We’ve been told that it would be best to meet early in the conference so’s we can keep meeting and greeting over the weekend. This means we should probably aim to converge on either Thursday or Friday evening. Which night would you prefer, and what time frame would be best?
  3. The location of our guild-hall has yet to be determined, and we’d very much appreciate your suggestions. The shelter in the park near the pond is one possibility, but we’d have to cross our fingers and hope for good weather. Any other nominations?

N.B. I’m planning to be there. I know Ancrene Wiseass and Dr. V. are sensitive to issues of anonymity, so do feel free to let them know, even privately, if you can attend. As for me, I’m blind as a bat, and currently semi-deaf, and can’t remember faces, but please do introduce yourself. I’d love to meet you.

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Digital Humanities Summer Institute June 19 to 23, 2006

For the fifth summer, the University of Victoria is hosting a Summer Institute for Digital Humanities. A week long resideency program, the institute offers an opportunity to “discuss, to learn about, and to advance skills in new computing technologies influencing the work of those in the Arts, Humanities and Library communities.” A combination of seminars, lectures, and workshops, the Institute “brings together faculty, staff, and graduate student theorists, experimentalists, technologists, and administrators from different areas of the Arts, Humanities, Library and Archives communities and beyond to share ideas and methods, and to develop expertise in applying advanced technologies to activities that impact teaching, research, dissemination and preservation.”

The curriculum has three levels, from beginning (an introduction to encoding digital texts using TEI guidelines and XML based DTDs) to an Advanced level, that emphasizes large project management. You can even apply for a scholarship.

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Medievalist Bloggers at Kalamazoo

Elizabeth Carnel (AKA Lisa), one of the prime movers behind the 41st International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, and Dr. Shana Worthen, also known as Owlfish (and keeper of the Medievalist Weblogs List), organized a panel on medievalist bloggers at this year’s Congress. Thanks to Elizabeth’s kind efforts, I was able to file the paperwork last summer, and I’ll be joining medievalist bloggers Elizabeth Carnell, Michael Drout, H. D. Miller, Richard Scott Nokes, Michael Tinkler, and Alison Walker to talk about medievalist blogging.

The Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo is the only large academic conference I have ever heard people speak of positively; you don’t go to Kalamzoo to get a job, or earn tenure points; you go because it’s interesting, educational, and because of the community of scholars. It’s my first time, so I’m looking forward to it—especially because I’m hoping to meet some of the people responsible for the many medieval Web logs I regularly read.