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Borders without boundaries: a weekend with the Canadian Society of Medievalists

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Last month I attended the annual meeting of the Canadian Society of Medievalists, held this year at Brock University in St Catherines, Ontario.

I’ve been to the International Medieval Congress in Leeds a number of years now, and I’ve followed the proceedings of the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo on Twitter.  Each of these conferences consists of over 500 sessions on medieval topics over a period of three to four days.  Leeds has an attendance of over 1,800, Kalamazoo of more than 3,000, and all the conference attendees are there for papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops and performances related to medieval studies.  (When I tell non-medievalists about this, they are shocked that there are that many of us and that such an event could exist!)  The experience is thrilling and inspiring for someone who repeatedly gets the response ‘What is that?’ —or worse, ‘Why?’— when revealing my field of study.

When I sent in my paper proposal for the Canadian Society of Medievalists (CSM) annual meeting back in January, I assumed that their conference would be in the familiar format: formidable army of medievalists, to whom the specialisation of Anglo-Saxon is far too broad, descending upon a university campus for a few days, holding twenty or so different sessions simultaneously in any given 90-minute time slot.  (It is a testament to the strength of the ‘academic bubble’ that this yearly occurrence seems perfectly normal to me now.)  However, this assumption was short-lived.  My first clue that I had the wrong idea was when I started getting emails from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.  Humanities and Social Sciences?  What had I to do with them?  Wasn’t this a medieval conference?

Upon visiting the Congress website (somewhat belatedly, already having had my proposal accepted by the CSM and my flight to Canada booked), I realised that the conference for which I was registered was a completely different kettle of poutine.  The CSM meeting was part of the Canadian Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, a week-long event that includes over 70 scholarly associations, ‘each holding their annual conference under one umbrella’.  Unlike academic conferences I had attended in the past, this Congress had scholars from diverse disciplines meeting on the same campus throughout the week, societies for medievalists, practical ethics, game studies, food studies, geographers, etc.  As the Congress website explains, programmes and events are open to academic and non-academic audiences: ‘From theatre research, literature studies and history to education, sociology and communications, Congress represents a unique showcase of scholarly excellence, creativity, and leadership.’

Congress 2014 Expo, i.e. books on EVERYTHING

Congress 2014 Expo, i.e. books on EVERYTHING

What this all meant was that the first attendee to whom I spoke on the bus to Brock University was someone in peace research.  When I told her I was on my way to a meeting of medievalists, her response was a puzzled yet optimistic, ‘Oh!  That’s so… esoteric!’

It also meant that while the Congress had around 8,000 attendees over the course of the week, the conference I attended was actually quite small.  There were only two sessions occurring concurrently at any given time, sometimes only one plenary session, and over the two and a half days I was there, I had the opportunity to hear the work of and/or speak to the majority of the attendees, quite different from my experiences at Leeds.

At Leeds I’m used to having to make choices.  Upon receiving the programme in the spring, I peruse its 300+ pages with dilemmas such as ‘Do I go to this panel on Anglo-Saxon hagiography or this one on Old English riddles?’ or ‘Why does my panel have to overlap with another panel on Old English literature?’  I did not face such problems at CSM.  There was one —ONE!— other paper during the entire conference that related to Old English literature (really to Anglo-Saxons at all) and that was the other speaker on my panel.  The President of CSM was chairing this panel, and he mentioned that it was quite nice being able to have a panel devoted to a single text, in this case Beowulf.  I’m used to seeing at least one panel devoted to Beowulf at Leeds, and at least two panels per time slot over the course of four days devoted to Anglo-Saxon history and/or literature.

Brock University

Brock University, site of Congress 2014. Congress is at a different university campus every year.  Next year is Ottawa.

I want to stress here that I am not making a judgment on the format of either of these two conferences.  I love Leeds with its insane number of medievalists, with its concurrent sessions on Old English poetry, and at first I was rather disappointed that there wouldn’t be more Anglo-Saxonists to talk to at CSM.  However, my attitude changed, particularly after arriving at the conference and starting to attend panels on topics in which I would have had little interest if there had been a coinciding session on Old English poetry.  I heard a fascinating lecture on the Romanesque fabric of Durham Cathedral and learned about the proto-flying buttress, a flying buttress ‘not quite out of the nest’ (Malcolm Thurlby).  I heard papers like ‘Chaucer and film culture in pre-WWII America’ (Lynn Arner), ‘The use of gems in the spells of the Picatrix’ (David Porreca) and ‘Permeable boundaries between Christian and pagan enemies in the Baltic crusades’ (Rasa Mazeika).  I even attended sessions with papers in French (I don’t speak a word of French) and did my best to follow the powerpoint slides of new tech in digital medieval studies.  (Note to self: learn French.)  I’m not saying that I would prefer a smaller conference with fewer panels related to my field of study; however, going to the CSM conference was a reminder that non-Anglo-Saxon stuff can be really interesting too, and maybe I should try to get out of my comfort zone a bit more when attending conferences.

I wish I had realised in advance that the Congress takes the format it does, and it’s my own fault for not having done the research, but if I had known before booking my flights, maybe I would have stayed to see what those folks in the Society for Digital Humanities were up to.  Maybe I’d pick up some useful information from the Society for the Study of Higher Education.  This is true interdisciplinarity, that buzzword academics love to throw around these days.

Let’s learn about stories of the supernatural among Canada’s Great War soldiers, internet journalism and blood as ‘stuff of life’ all at one conference because we can!  As a teacher of medieval literature, I know I’m not alone in wishing my first-year undergraduates were just a little more open-minded towards the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, but how can I expect that open-mindedness from my students if I’m not open-minded towards unfamiliar subjects and fields of knowledge myself?

The theme for Congress 2014, ‘Borders without Boundaries’, ended up being particularly relevant to me, and a good reminder while writing up my very specialised research on what will seem to most an ‘esoteric’ topic, that there are, in fact, many borders still to be crossed within the vast scope of humanities research.

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2 comments on “Borders without boundaries: a weekend with the Canadian Society of Medievalists

  1. Anna Smol
    June 6, 2014

    Reblogged this on Anna Smol and commented:
    I’m reblogging Hana Videen’s impressions of the unique experience that is the Canadian Society of Medievalists’ meeting, part of the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences in Canada. Hana also live-tweeted many of the sessions at the conference under her twitter handle, @beoshewulf. Thanks to Hana for her reporting!

    • beoshewulf
      June 7, 2014

      Thanks, Anna, I’m glad the post and tweets were useful!

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