Monday, May 11, 2009

what I did at medievalist camp

Back from my first-ever Kalamazoo. First off, it was lovely getting to meet so many bloggers face to face, and I'm sorry I missed the blogging panel (my own talk was at the same time). Actually, I missed a fair number of panels that I would have liked to hear; there was just so much going on at the same time, including a fair assorted performances and other fun stuff. (Call me unscholarly if you will, but given a choice between attending an academic talk and watching a performance of The Tournament of Tottenham which consisted of a bunch of grad students hitting each other with Styrofoam flails and falling about the room histrionically ... bring on the flails. Every time.) So anyway, apologies for not making it to most of y'all's talks.

So. I totally get the Kalamazoo thing, now. I started grad school as a medievalist but realized I was a mismatch for the field long before I became confident enough in my own abilities to respond to calls for papers, so I'd been hearing about this legendary conference for ages, but had never actually experienced it before. And it really is as much fun as people say it is. I mean, flails and mead. And books! All of these books that I wish I had read before attempting my first upper-level medieval lit course! It is, alas, too late now; but I do have a shiny new recording of The Second Shepherds' Play on CD, which is making me excited about the prospect of teaching it again. (I had almost decided to drop the mystery plays from my syllabus for next semester, as gen ed students really seem to struggle with them, but I think I'll give them one more shot.)

One of the panels I did attend was a roundtable on teaching medieval studies at minority-serving institutions, although unfortunately, I didn't find it as useful as I'd hoped. A couple of the papers were interesting but not particularly applicable to my own institutional context; some of the others were just weird; nobody seemed to be talking about the question that really interested me, to wit: why the English major, and early English lit in particular, so often seems to be an exclusive club for white upper-middle-class students, and what if anything we can do to change that. So that was a little disappointing.

I went out for dinner on Saturday with a bunch of other University of Basketball alumni; apparently they have a sort of reunion at Kalamazoo every year. As it happened, several of them were people I had met for the first time as a prospective, Lo These Many Years Ago, and hence the people who had attracted me to my graduate program in the first place. (Being twenty-one, I didn't know to ask any questions about graduate programs that were more penetrating than "Will they give me money?" and "Do I like going out drinking with these people?"; and since two programs had offered me fellowship packages, it really came down to the second question. In hindsight, I think this was actually not a bad way to make a decision. One of the real strengths of my graduate program -- we talked a lot about this at dinner -- is the fact that most of the students genuinely liked and wanted to cooperate with each other; and perhaps my wide-eyed twenty-one-year-old self saw the importance of this when an academically savvier student would have stumbled.)

On another reminiscent note, I am continually amazed at how many of my undergraduate professors still recognize me when they see me at conferences.

I think that is about all. It was a hell of an intense weekend, and I didn't get a chance to talk to half the people or go to half the panels that I wanted to, but I'm hoping I'll be back.


Dame Eleanor Hull said...

It was good to see you there, & I hope you'll be back. It is such a blast. On teaching minority students, my suggestion is Chaucer's MOLT (this summer I have to do an R&R about teaching it, for SMART).

Anonymous said...

I'm a multiracial, middleclass student who loves early english lit, but I can think of some possible reasons-
1. boring/badly taught high school english classes making people not sign up for any in college if they can avoid it
2. earlier stuff is all out of europe, since after all the language started there, and while that isn't a negative for me, maybe some who do go into english might focus more on the later stuff, where you've got people from lots of different continents and races writing in english? haven't got any statistics on this, though
and 3. perception that you'll never make any money with an english degree might discourage some students who aren't upper or middle class
I have no idea whether any of these are the case, they're just some random ideas,#2 especially, but it's an interesting question.

Fretful Porpentine said...

Dame Eleanor -- Thanks for the suggestion! I think my real question, though, isn't so much "what texts to teach?" but rather "how do we get a more diverse bunch of students into our classrooms in the first place?"

mc -- Yeah, I think it's a complicated issue with more than one root cause; your point #3 seems particularly on target. (Somebody did bring this up during the q&a session, to be fair, but I would have loved to hear more about it in the papers themselves.)

Dr. Virago said...

Oh no, don't take the drama out of your surveys!! If you want help, ask me -- I'm happy to provide it. (Early drama is my thing, you know.)

Unknown said...

why the English major, and early English lit in particular, so often seems to be an exclusive club for white upper-middle-class studentsI wonder about this too, having never been any of the above save "student." In addition to the points raised, some of it might be cultural/ institutional: "Shakespeare" (in my case) is this incredibly daunting construct for most of my family, including my mother (even though I drag her to watch Shakespeare whenever I can, and she seems to enjoy it). And I might not have had the confidence to take a Shakespeare class in college if I hadn't gone to a high school that had us read and write on several Shakespeare plays first. (One of my cousins didn't read a single Shakespeare play in high school.)

Fretful Porpentine said...

R -- Yeah, I think Shakespeare Intimidation is a big factor (and Archaic English Intimidation in general), especially for students who haven't had a chance to get comfortable with the language in high school.

Dr. V. -- I'm wavering, but leaning toward keeping at least one mystery play; now, the problem is that I have to figure out what else to cut. Damn. If only there were another couple of weeks in the semester.