Kalamazoo, the gargantuan medievalist conference at Western Michigan University, is fast approaching. I think I'm in denial about how quickly, because the conference is at the beginning of May, and I'm used to that being at the end of my semester. This term, however, I teach through to June, and I have to keep reminding myself that although the end of the term is still far off, this year that DOESN'T mean that Kalamazoo is.
Attending this year is going to be fun (I will get to see lots of wonderful people I usually only visit via my computer screen!*), but also sort of sad, because going to Kalamazoo is one of the most fun parts of being a medievalist, and something I will miss quite a lot in my future career (and I should say that I mean the conference rather than the town itself, as Kalamazoo, MI is perhaps not the world's most exciting location, though it's definitely been on an upswing since I started attending). I hear a lot of academics say that they hate conferences, and I'll be the first to admit that I suck at the schmoozing and networking that one is supposed to do at such events. But I never quite understand why people really HATE conferences, and that's probably because my idea of conferences is shaped irrevocably by Kalamazoo, and Kalamazoo is really an entity unto itself (and can I add that by this point in the post I have no idea how to spell Kalamazoo anymore, as it looks really funny no matter how I spell it?).
Kalamazoo is huge, it has an infamous dance (which I don't even usually attend, so it's not like that's what draws me to it), it has the occasional crazy SCA contingent, it's got some truly horrible presentation rooms, and its dorms are ugly and uncomfortable. But it's also a place where you can play name-the-order looking at the different-colored habits of the monks and nuns roaming the sessions, it's got a book exhibit to end all book exhibits (including a great booth with amber jewelry), there are no nasty interviews to depress the atmosphere, and for most people it's right near the end of the semester, so while they may be stressed to the max with finals to grade, the end is in sight, the spring flowers are blooming, and summer is coming. There's a pond inhabited by swans and frightening numbers of carp. The world's most preeminent scholar of Old Norse runes rubs shoulders with the second-year grad student Chaucerian. Some incredible scholars give terrible papers, some unknown scholars give amazing ones, and vice versa. There are a gazillion grad students presenting, and while I've seen one person get shirty with a perhaps-less-than-impressive student paper, it's only been one - otherwise, eminent scholars have been universally kind and helpful to the newbies, and the not-so-newbies.
No conference is perfect. I've been in some excruciatingly boring sessions (who hasn't?), I've witnessed someone present their paper as a dramatic monologue, and I've heard some surreal comments in Q & A (example: an associate professor in a literature department asking, "Who is this Judith Butler person?"; I mean, I won't claim I've read any Butler, but I'm a historian, and even I know who she is!). But I continually find that the conversations at Kalamazoo are amazingly supportive, interesting, and free of the most egregious status-snobbery that I see at other gatherings (cough*MAA*cough). I'm sure Kalamazoo has seen its share of pissing contests - it seems inevitable, doesn't it? - but I've been lucky enough to avoid them. It's such a huge conference that regardless of how narrow your interest, you'll find an audience of people interested and informed enough to give you valuable feedback. Okay, maybe not every time. But you have a pretty good chance.
The first time I went to Kalamazoo, I drove with friends from grad school. It was about a 10-hour drive, so I'm sure I was a little punchy by the time we got there, but I remember driving up to the registration building and seeing what felt like all two thousand or so medievalists who attend at once. Seeing that many medievalists in one place for the first time is a little bit scary. But it's also its own brand of awesome, and each year I've enjoyed it more. I will miss it.
*and if I've left anyone out, it's not personal - it's simply because I couldn't remember if you were attending this year; if you are, and you want to hang out, let me know!