Conferencing in the Third Year of the Age of COVID, Or Reflections on the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America 2022

Ceiling decorations in Gökhem parish church, Västergötland, Sweden. The decorations are fromthe 15th century, and are probably the work of Master Amund. Photo: Erika Harlitz-Kern

I have always enjoyed going to conferences. Even though I am an introvert and not particularly good at networking, I go to conferences anyway. I do it to meet new people, put a face to a name I already know, and to get an idea of the newest and latest research.

When I was a doctoral student, I went to conferences all the time. At that stage of your scholarly career in Sweden, it is comparatively easy to get funding for attending conferences, and with Europe literally on your doorstep, there are plenty of gatherings to choose from.

After I moved to the United States, I stopped going. There were several reasons for this. First, I dedicated my first few years to getting a Green Card and finding a job.

Second, for a medievalist there aren’t that many conferences to choose from. There is the International Congress on Medieval Studies in Kalamazoo, MI, the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association, which changes location, and the Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, which is also ambulatory. There are of course workshops at universities here and there, but they usually cater to small, specialized groups.

Third, money. Traveling to any conference costs money and as contingent faculty, there is little to no funding to apply for. As for time, the conferences tend to be during the semester, which means that while the conference is happening, I am busy teaching. Or, as in the case of the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Society, the conference takes place in the first week of January, usually a day or two after the New Year, when travel tends to be more expensive because people are traveling after the holidays.

Also, the hotel deals on offer for conference participants (again, I am looking at you AHA) are still very expensive. Add to that the fee to attend the conference, which can be pretty hefty. Most conferences do offer tiered conference fees where the fee is reduced for students and contingent faculty, but not all do. And then there is the International Medieval Congress in Leeds, UK, which offers a discounted rate but only for a limited number of attendees who first need to submit paper work of proof of income to demonstrate that they are of the deserving. (They do know that the Victorian and Edwardian eras are over, right?)

Then, COVID happened. Everything shut down and there was total confusion everywhere. Organizers of academic conferences scrambled to find a solution. Some canceled out right. Others went ahead as planned. Others hooked themselves up to various online conference platforms with varying success rates.

By 2021, things had settled. The pandemic was still raging, but vaccines were rolling out, and we had all become Zoom aficionados. As for conferences, they all went virtual. And for the first time in many years, I could start attending them again. So, I signed up for the Medieval Academy of America, the ICMS in Kalamazoo, and the IMC in Leeds (where I paid the full fee because the IMC discount requirements are undignified).

Now, in 2022, the pandemic is still going on, some of us are vaccinated, and we are slowly learning to live with COVID-19 as an unwanted, intrusive presence in our lives. As for conferences, they are either virtual or hybrid, that is to say, they are in person and virtual at the same time. Which means that I can attend conferences this year as well.

Last weekend I attended the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America, a hybrid conference that took place at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and on the Whova virtual conference platform. What follows are my thoughts and experiences of this and other MAA meetings that I have attended.

Over the years, I have had an on-off relationship with the MAA. I first joined out of curiosity as a doctoral student and even attended the annual meeting when it was held at Yale University in New Haven, CT, in 2010. I felt then that the MAA as an organization was outdated, and eventually, I let my membership lapse. Recently, though, the MAA has developed into one of the more interesting academic organizations, and to support the work they are doing to make the field of medieval studies more inclusive towards contingent faculty and scholars of color, I am a member once again.

The MAA’s work towards inclusivity is visible in the program of the 97th annual meeting, at least when it comes to topics. Medieval studies is a notoriously white-dominated field, which has not changed much despite the MAA’s new direction. This is a systemic problem in medieval studies as a whole, and to address this issue, we all need to work towards a solution, not just the MAA. However, the annual meeting does show in distilled form how homogeneous the field currently is, and, judging by the doctoral students and early career scholars who participated, will continue to be for quite some time.

As for the sessions I attended, I chose which to attend based on the teaching and research that I am currently doing. I ended up attending four sessions out of 65, not counting breakfasts, social gatherings, and committee meetings of which I attended none. (What am I going to do, watch people while they eat?)

The sessions I attended were session 19. Technologies of High Medieval Science, which I selected based on my research into the Codex Gigas; session 21: Northern Seas and Liminalities, which I selected based on my expertise in the Scandinavian Middle Ages; 47. Teaching (and Learning) the Global Middle Ages; and finally, 57. New Religious Histories. I had also wanted to attend session 20. Finding Meaning in Global Medievalism, but since it was scheduled at the same time as session 21, I had to make a choice.

As for what I got out of these sessions, the results were mixed. A recurring issue with the sessions at the MAA is that the session titles promise a wider scope than the individual presentations ultimately deliver. A case in point is session 19 of this year’s program where the title was the far-reaching “Technologies in High Medieval Science,” which ended up consisting of three papers that focused on specific aspects of specific primary sources.

Session 21 was very interesting, mostly because all three presentations, and the discussion that followed, succeeded in balancing the narrow with the broad. For example, Jonas Wellendorf’s presentation about the mythical island of Hvítamannaland, imagined to be located off the Atlantic coast of Ireland, taught me something new about the medieval Icelandic worldview, while Krystin Christy’s presentation on slavery among badgers and beavers in the writings of Gerald of Wales provided me with a deeper understanding of bestiaries and animals as medieval allegories. Session 47, meanwhile, made me want to write an op-ed on how the Global Middle Ages so easily become Western Imperialism by another name, even when the scholars involved consider themselves proponents of post-colonial scholarship. Session 57 was interesting, mainly because an argument was made in favor of taking seriously how people of the Middle Ages related to the supernatural; we need to take it seriously, because they took it seriously.

As for the hybrid format, I support the continuation of a virtual component because it enables so many more people to attend conferences. Starting last year, conferences like the annual meeting of the MAA have extended their reach with scholars and attendees connecting from all parts of the world, which is great.

However, when comparing the hybrid format to a complete virtual format or a conference that is entirely in-person, the hybrid format is the least productive when it comes to scholarly interaction.

In session 47, all speakers were virtual, as were the attendees, which resulted in a group of people speaking on a screen in front of an empty classroom. When I logged out of that session after it had run almost 10 minutes over time and showed no signs of stopping, it had become a fully-virtual conversation between the speakers, who also had written a book together.

In session 57, the speakers were both virtual and in-person, but at the start the mic was picking up sounds in the room and it was difficult to hear the speakers before it could be fixed. Also, one of the in-person speakers had a weaker voice, and because there was only one mic in the room, it was difficult to hear parts of his presentation. In this session, the classroom was full, and the audience was in a good mood and talkative. All this is great, but the result was, as a remote participant, the session ended up an experience similar to watching live-TV. One of the moderators addressed us who were attending virtually and asked if we had any questions, but if I had turned on my camera and unmuted myself to speak, it would have felt as if I were intruding, rather than contributing.

Overall, my experience of the 2022 MAA annual meeting is similar to my experience of the 2021 and 2010 MAA annual meetings in that this is not a meeting for me. I don’t mean this as criticism of the MAA; they are doing a great job putting these meetings together in an age where everything is in flux while also working to make the field more welcoming towards scholars of color and scholars who, for one reason or another, are on a professional trajectory other than the traditional path.

The feeling I get when I attend the MAA, regardless of the conference format, is one of alienation. I am on the outside looking in. I think the reason why is because the community of medievalists in the United States is small, and the group of scholars who would attend a meeting such as the MAA is even smaller. Personal contacts are key, and these personal contacts are mainly established during post-gradual studies.

Coming from the outside with no connections to any parts of the American educational system makes it nearly impossible to break into a conversation that has been going for decades, unless you yourself have participated in at least some part of it. (I am aware that all scholars who move between countries face challenges like this, but, what sets the American higher education system apart is that universities here claim to be places where scholars can come from anywhere and thrive, which is not true. Classism and xenophobia is rife, is what I’m saying.)

Also, the view of the medieval world that is presented at the MAA, whether it be in its original Eurocentric form or in its expanded Global form, is decidedly American. At its core, the study of the Middle Ages is the study of European history, but as a person from Europe with a terminal degree in medieval history from a university in Europe, what I find when I attend the MAA are ideas about an abstract Europe in the distant past with little to no connection to the actual Europe existing today and how this Europe interacts with its own past.

Yes, the MAA is the Medieval Academy of America, so it makes sense that the participants are either Americans or based at an American university. However, to come across references to research done on medieval Europe in Europe by scholars at European universities that are not Oxford and Cambridge is rare.

The problem here is that positioning yourself among other American medieval scholars matters more than engaging with research outside of American medieval studies. After all, this is how careers are made, regardless of where your university is located. However, if you are studying a part of the world that is not where you live, you need to start paying attention to what is going on there. And here I’m not talking about American scholars traveling to European archives and reading the primary sources in the original languages; that they do and they are very good at it. But any kind of production of knowledge is ultimately a conversation among scholars, and that conversation is here being ignored.

With the 97th Annual Meeting of the Medieval Academy of America behind me, the question remains what I will do when the 98th annual meeting comes around in 2023. Right now, all I can say is that it remains to be determined.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.