Double-date Conference

A few weeks ago I attended a conference that marked a couple of firsts for me. It was the first combined conference I’d been to (that is 2 different groups co-hosting) and the first time I’d been to either association’s get-together. I came away thinking that this sort of thing really needs to happen more often. Both the John Gower and Early Books Societies are smaller organizations, which makes sense given the specificity in focus of their interests. It also makes sense for two smaller organizations to combine resources. What made the conference a really good experience was 2 related factors: first, its size, and second, the collegiality.

There was one question that was almost sure to come up when first meeting someone: are you a Gower person or an early books person? Frequently the answer was something like “I’m really more of X, but I’m presenting here on Y.” People would often open their talk with some kind of apology for not being as expert in their topic as the audience, but the great thing here is that people were trying new things, not just sticking to the areas they were comfortable in. It also meant that the audience was already primed to get into discussion during and after the sessions. Most academic conferences are parodied for containing “questions” like “You make an interesting point about X. I work in Y (and spend a lot of time detailing my own work here). Have you considered that?” There were noticeably fewer speeches framed as questions here, and more actual discussion both with panelists and among the audience members.

The size was another great benefit. Because this was a smaller conference, there weren’t 20 potential sessions to choose from at any given time; at most, you had 3 choices. This means that every session had a fair number of audience members. For the record, I define ‘decent audience’ as more people in the audience than the panel. A smaller conference also means you have a better chance of meeting and getting to know people you didn’t before you arrived. During the remarks at the opening reception, one of the conference planners mentioned that a lot of the student helpers (all 5 or so of them) were excited about meeting their footnotes, and could everyone please be nice about it if approached for that reason. The thing is that it wasn’t just the undergrad helpers who were meeting their footnotes; it was some of the graduate student and junior professors (attendees) who got to do that too. There’s also finding out that you and your former professor now know some of the same people independently. It feels a little like growing up again.

The professional networking possibilities at a smaller conference are actually really good, something that surprised me a little bit. There’s also just the random ending up together at a table moments, such as when I ended up having lunch with a post-doctoral fellow from Oxford, and a late career graduate students from the University of Victoria. When you have an American, a Brit, and a Canadian together, the conversation gets pretty interesting when the subject turns to institutional structures. The university systems in the 3 represented countries are really different, which I hadn’t realized before. I’ve done some reading on British universities, but I hadn’t realized the Canadian systems was as different from either the UK or US as it is.

One of the nice things about a lot of academic conferences that I’ve been to that are non-generalist is that they include time for exploring the area and sightseeing. In this case that meant tours of Durham Castle and Cathedral (both of which have medieval components) and the associated libraries. It was during these tours that I found out that some iconic bits in the early Harry Potter movies were filmed in these locations. There’s a hallway in the cathedral cloisters that was used as a part of Hogwarts, and in the Cathedral library nearby, they had Professor McGonagall’s inkwell. Apparently a producer noticed it, and asked if they could borrow it. Supposedly it’s clearly visible in the first movie when Harry and friends are in her office about to be scolded for hijinks. I may need to re-watch those movies to look for this stuff. We (meaning myself and a few fellow conference-goers) also considered the possibility that the Great Hall in the Castle might also have been used as the Great Hall of Hogwarts. We never could decide for sure, and none of us felt like trying to look it up (I did that later when I got home, and it’s just the similarity between medieval great halls; Hogwarts was modeled more directly on Christ Church college at Oxford, which makes sense because part of the Bodleian (Oxford’s library) was the used for the Hogwarts library). The second option for exploration was a bus trip to Alnwick Castle, also used in Harry Potter filming, most notably the flying lessons and Quidditch playfield. The outside of the castle and the gardens were more interesting to me than the interior which didn’t have a lot of medievalness to it. There was also a large used bookstore nearby, although I didn’t find anything I needed to have.

The tours weren’t all just fun though; the Palace Green library had some unexpectedly cool stuff to show the tour group, including a holograph of Thomas Hoccleve’s Complaint and Dialogue with a Friend. It was a pretty basic looking codex, but it had some pretty gold initials, and it was actually, physically written by a fairly well-known medieval literary figure. It was also pretty cool to get to visit not only St Cuthbert who I knew had a connection to the area (his tomb is in the Cathedral), but also Bede. I hadn’t realized his tomb was in the Durham Cathedral, or rather in a side chapel.

This trip turned into something of a Harry Potter pilgrimage without my actually intending it to. I flew into Edinburgh, Scotland and did do some of the requisite Harry Potter visits, including the Elephant House café (where interestingly, the most visibly Harry Potter connection is in the ladies restroom), and the graveyard at Greyfriars Kirk (where you can count on at least one or two groups trying to find the relevant headstones). I just hadn’t realized the Harry Potter connections to Durham. I was a big fan of the books, although I only got into them right as the third novel came out, so the trip wasn’t all work and no play.

I heard on NPR a while back a discussion of Jane Austen’s opening line to Pride and Prejudice, and how it’s often repurposed without retaining the original snark and social commentary; there’s something to that. It’s like the difference between “It is a truth universally acknowledged that the conference book seller room will tempting” and “It is a truth universally acknowledged that professors don’t go on vacation; they go to conferences”. The first statement is true and probably mean sincerely without irony. The second statement is also true, but could be interpreted in a lot of different ways, including the point that a conference may be travel to somewhere interesting, but it’s also work. And then there’s the expectation of doing research (ie- work) at the relevant historical sites and libraries that might happen to be in the general area. I bring this up because this particular conference did indeed mean some expected research in either the Edinburgh or London libraries (the 2 nearest international airports to Durham), and nearly everyone I met was indeed planning on researching after the conference was done. I myself had some research to do at the University of Edinburgh library, and I discovered some interesting potential resources at the conference. As it happens, the Durham Palace Green library is in the process of digitizing its manuscript collection which may prove useful in the future for research or classroom applications, or both. I do find it a little funny that in both libraries we were warned not to touch anything, even though the group of us were professionals trained to do just that.

Coming back to a project for purposes of repurposing a little

I am coming back to a project I’d started over a year ago to adapt it into a conference paper, namely John Gower’s possible use of disputation in the Confessio Amantis.  One of the first things I had to do was re-read what I had. My first reactions were not what I expected. First reaction- wow, there’s a lot of footnotes/scholarship. Second- this is actually pretty good (for the re-purpose). Normally when I go back to something, my ideas have either changed or I just plain don’t like/agree with what I said or how I said it.

Shocker number two was that in the process of refocusing what will hopefully eventually become a book chapter into a conference paper, I now have a much clearer idea of a thesis for the chapter.

Original: The fourth rhetorical model, the debate, has gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship of Gower’s poem.  References to and instances of debate or disputation are scattered throughout the poem, but the instances in which Genius and Amans are involved are indicative of the importance of debate and disputation as influences on the poem. By tracing references to and moments of debate between Amans and Genius in the Confessio, debate-disputation becomes a new way to trace Amans’ journey of transformation from troubled lover to accepting soul at peace with himself.

Current: In spite of theses similarities, the fourth rhetorical, the debate, has gone largely unnoticed in the scholarship of Gower’s poem.  The first three rhetorical models model {after sermons, love complaint, and confession} share one major obstacle that disputation avoids: they do not allow for free interaction between the two speakers. By tracing the exchanges of disputative language and reasoning between Amans and Genius, disputation become a way to trace Genius’ influence and Amans’ evolving perspective as the result of active participation on both sides of the discussion.

This really should not surprise me though; when I was preparing a paper for a different conference this past fall, a proposal and paper I wrote only to fill in a panel I was presiding over, I ended up with an idea that I hope eventually will make a good article. We’ll have to wait and see. I do wonder though if this is a normal pattern. I don’t mind it, but we’ll have to see if it continues.

In the process of getting reacquainted with the previous work I’d done, I was reminded of why ILL is such a wonderful service to have and why librarians are fabulous people. In order to review the scholarship and citations that I hadn’t looked at in a while, I had to order nearly all of the books this way.  Since I ordered all at the same time and they came from mostly the same partner library, they all showed up at the same time. I was expecting that they would appear about the same time, but when I went to pick up what I thought was one book, I got the whole stack. The librarian checking me out wondered what was going on with the load of books he had to retrieve from the ILL shelf and process (it was at the end of the semester after all), then saw the faculty id and figured out “Conference paper?”  I saw the same librarian in the wellness center nearly a month later and he remembered me (or the stack of books he had to retrieve).

On a related note, a new twist for me is that I also have to remember when each book is due back because my school library does not do that. I almost got in trouble once, but thanks to that scare I have developed a strategy revolving around colored Post-Its, which are wonderful things. I probably could program my phone or an online calendar to send me reminders, but this way is faster. Another reminder that organization is important, not just with research information and ideas.

All together, this is a pretty good position to be in at the beginning of the summer (when most college teachers do a lot of research and lesson planning). I have 2 conferences to finish papers for, both of which have promise for publication. I am also facing teaching my first upper level English class this summer (exciting but a little scary), so I’m going to need to be really careful about balancing teaching and scholarship. To be continued…..