This year’s International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University (a.k.a. “the Kalamazoo conference,” or just “Kalamazoo”) is underway, and as usual the array of panels, conversations, and reunions is dazzling. Wednesday night in particular is given over to friendships (particularly Kisha’s and my grad school cohort) and to an informal UConn gathering in a local bar. This is also my annual opportunity to take the pulse of my alma mater, and this year I reflected on how strong the current crop of grad students seems to be–although it wouldn’t kill them to respect the old grey hairs of their elders and maybe let said elder win a game of pool once in a while…
My tradition is to wait until I’m actually in transit to the conference to begin leafing through the schedule of sessions, a pattern developed back when I made the annual trip from Connecticut to Michigan in a van full of UConn grad students and professors and needed something to fill the hours on the road. These days, it’s a combination of things that keeps me from getting to the schedule in advance (grading, teaching, writing, children, etc.), but I don’t know that I’d change my pattern even if I had the chance. Once I’ve looked through the schedule, I’m in Kalamazoo mode, and it’d be a pain to have to put that on ice for a few weeks.
This year, I also knew that my first panel was already selected for me, since the New England Saga Society panel for which I was scheduled to be moderator was set for 10AM Thursday. The session, which was on the Anglo-Scandinavian World, was organized as a leap of faith–we chose three papers that all seemed engaged with the topic, but we weren’t sure how well they’d speak to one another. We needn’t have worried–Alison Isberg’s paper on the evidence in Yorkshire sculpture (and possibly in Egils saga) for a distinctively Anglo-Scandinavian assertion of elite culture and Matthew Bardowell’s discussion of Egil Skallagrimsson’s emotional performances of grief through his poetry both spoke to the distinctive arts of time and place, while Maria Volkonskaya’s consideration of the Old Norse First Grammatical Treatise alongside the Ormulum placed the panel in a context of, as she put it, “right life.”
I generally try to make it to a few panels that relate to my teaching, and so after lunch I attended a panel on the difficult subject of rape in high and late medieval literature. The papers were sensitively argued and focused on the problem of how students can and should struggle with the “double vision” necessary to understand Lanval, the Roman de Silence, or The Wife of Bath’s Tale in its context, but also in their own: do we need to teach, as Alison Gulley put it, “willing suspension of disapproval” in order to reach these texts meaningfully, or, in this instance, as Natalie Grinnell suggested, do we need to acknowledge that “thinking medieval” is, in this case, wrong?
Plenty to think about, but the packed room and high 80s temperature meant that I was worn out, and so (in order to take a shower and a few minutes’ lie-down) I missed what turned out to be (not unexpectedly) a brilliant paper by Kisha on the historical foundations of modern “teaching and learning” initiatives. Fortunately, I know the speaker, and was able to get her to recap the argument over dinner…
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