by Richard Godden
[This post is one of a pair of conference reflections. Also see “On Affiliation and Fragility: SAA 2014” by Elise Lonich Ryan.]
The 49th International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo has now been over for a few weeks, but I still very much feel myself caught up in its wake. It was an exhausting and exhilarating few days, but that could be said for any given Kalamazoo. This one, however, seemed very different to me. For one, I was more involved than I’ve ever been. I gave a roundtable and a paper presentation, and I organized a panel. I also attended two excellent sessions put together by MEARCSTAPA and also a session on the convergence of Postcolonial and Disability Studies. Aside from my own hyper-involvement, there was a distinct feeling of newness right from the start.
I arrived Wednesday evening after a two-day drive from New Orleans. Like all good medievalists, I went straight to Bell’s Brewery before even going to my hotel. But, I didn’t go (just) for the excellent beer; rather, I went to attend the first Rogue Session, called “Impossible Words,” put on by GW MEMSI. Out of all of the three-minute presentations I saw, Jeffrey Cohen’s impossible word, STILL, stayed with me the most. He asked us to think about stillness while being in a place that distills alcohol. Distillation purifies and transforms and coalesces.. In the hours before the parade of endless papers and networking and non-sleeping, he reminded us to, when we could, be still with each other.
Despite my lack of stillness over the next several days, this impossible word seemed like a good prologue to a Kalamazoo in which medievalists came together in new, stimulating and productive ways. Significantly, this is the first Congress to officially embrace and promote a twitter hashtag: #Kzoo2014. (See especially Jonathan Hsy’s In The Middle post on #medievaltwitter and his storify of tweets about what hashtag to use.) Kristen Mapes crunched the data, and there were a total of 6374 tweets using the hashtag, with about 1000 total users. I do not have the data at the moment, but I strongly suspect that this Congress had much greater traffic on twitter than previous ones. Officially embracing a hashtag surely increased activity, but I also think that we are reaching a moment in Medieval Studies where the use of twitter is becoming increasingly integrated into scholarly and professional life. Taking a cursory look through the Congress Schedule, I counted a total of eighteen sessions dedicated to or touching on various aspects of Digital Humanities or other Digital Media and tools. I was unable to attend “Medievalists and the Social Media Pilgrimage: The Digital Life of Twenty-First-Century Medieval Studies (A Roundtable),” but thankfully Kisha Tracy storified it here. Even more delightfully, Anna Smol has been collecting Kalamazoo write-ups and other postings.
Unsurprisingly, the use of twitter was a major point of discussion (and contention) during the “Digital Humanities and Disability Studies” roundtable I participated in. Jonathan Hsy advocated for increased twitter use: specifically that Twitter can be a site for coming together as well as for activism. (His ITM post expands on the essential points that he made.) There certainly was a degree of utopianism throughout, which I share in. John Sexton reminded us that this sort of engagement nevertheless takes time. It can also create a sense of a more urgent “now.” Things happen quickly online, and if you are not there in the moment, then it could pass you by. I’m writing this several weeks removed from Kalamazoo, and already there are so many other posts saying the things I might have liked to say. There are so many tweets I would like to respond to, and so many blogs I want to read. Right now, it can all seem wearying and exhausting, especially for those who have not yet engaged in the medieval twitterverse. And yet, my Kalamazoo experience was enriched through social media engagement, and I am mindful that I won’t be able to attend the New Chaucer Society meeting in Iceland this year. Twitter and blog write-ups are going to allow me to be involved when I otherwise would not be.
Tools like twitter and blogging can help us stay connected and stay abreast of what is going on the field. This Kalamazoo also showed that such digital tools can facilitate broader engagements with the public. Dorothy Kim and the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship organized a Medieval Feminist Wikipedia Write-In.In her call for participants, Kim writes: “Just as with print encyclopedias, women scholars do not write and edit enough articles on this digital medium. SMFS is sponsoring a Wikipedia-Write-In in Fetzer 1060 that will be open during conference hours every day (see below). We will run short tutorials every hour. Dorothy Kim and Mary Suydam are spearheading this effort.” This call acknowledges both that the times are, in fact, changing – Wikipedia used to be a forbidden word but now it is often integrated into teaching and scholarship — and that there is still more work that needs to be done.
The highlight of Kalamazoo, for me, was the BABEL roundtable that I organized called “#;()@?”:—*!” This session offered seven engaging, provocative, and playful presentations on punctuation marks, both the ones we know like the comma and the apostrophe, but also the interrobang and even the not-easily glimpsed space. A recurring theme among the panelists was how punctuation can be a site of contested control (editors over texts, professors over students) and an invitation for readers and students to engage in more dynamic ways. Joshua Eyler’s presentation — “, (A Breath)” – opposes the comma, a breath or pause, to the act of closing off signaled by the period. Eyler contends: “despite what Stephen Greenblatt and other Burckhardtians would have us believe, history is not made up of full-stop ‘periods,’ all separate from each other, but of commas, one inextricably linked to the next as parts of the same structure.” Eyler invites us to think about “the pregnant pause of possibility,” the new ways of occupying the same moment together, that reconfigure old hierarchies of professor/student, past/present.
Despite being about seemingly old-fashioned subjects such as grammar and punctuation, all the panelists suggested new ways to bring together tradition and innovation. Corey Sparks’s “‽: Interrobanging Chaucer” was streamed as a video. Robert Rouse considered how the “*” as it is used in electronic databases such as the Middle English Dictionary can be a mark for “productive uncertainty” because it “represents the interstices of knowledge, the gaps that we seek to fill.” He asked us to consider the “Mediev*” and the productive uncertainties it engenders: “the asterisk is what we seek, but it is also a metonym for ourselves and what we do – the critical intervention, the creative anachronism, the scholarly reading.”
To close this reflection on the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, I’d like to paraphrase a question posed during the energetic “#;()@?”:—*!” session Q&A: “Just a few years ago, a discussion of medieval punctuation would have been concerned with finding the real. How did we get to a place where we can discuss this with such playfulness?” Rather than assert a Burckhardtian full-stop, I would say we are witnessing a new series of clauses being linked to the larger structure of the study of the Middle Ages. The addition of Twitter and blogging and streaming video and other tools of Digital Humanities not only augment and supplement how we communicate with each other before, during, and after Kalamazoo, but as Rouse argues, the way we use digital tools also has a profound impact on how we approach the Middle Ages.