You’ve heard about Kalamazoo and maybe you’ve even heard some stories about it. But you’re an amateur, AKA a geek, who simply has an interest in the period. You’re not employed in the field in any capacity. Nobody’s asking you to publish anything, you’re not a graduate student in Medieval, Religious, or Classical Studies, or even English Lit. There’s nobody to turn a request for reimbursement form in to – or if you did the response would range anywhere from laughter to advice that you might want to sharpen your resume. Not only that, but you have to use some of your vacation time (or pretend to be sick and hope nobody discovers that your bout with the flu requires you to go to Michigan – I do NOT recommend this tactic). So why would you go to Kalamazoo?
First, the official name of the program is The International Congress on Medieval Studies and it’s held for four days each May in Kalamazoo, Michigan at Western Michigan University. It’s the largest gathering of Medievalists in the world. This year’s Congress runs from May 13-16. You can find the program and registration information at The Congress website. I registered the first day it was open (I know, kind of geeky – there’s a reason I picked that name for this blog) and had the same struggle with how to fill out the “affiliation” part of the form as always – I ended up putting Independent Scholar, again, even though my knowledge level doesn’t come close to that of most of the true Independent Scholars – folks working in the field, scrounging for grant dollars, etc. Some day I’ll get some courage and put “History Geek” in the field – and see if they print my name badge that way.
Why I attend
1. It’s relatively inexpensive, sort of (see number 4 for the reason for the disclaimer). The conf registration is only $135, airfare from N America is pretty cheap IF you fly to Detroit or Chicago and grab Amtrak to Kalamazoo. Rooms are only about $35 per night. Of course those are dorm rooms – hotels are another story. And the meal rates are very reasonable if you eat in the dining hall and not too bad elsewhere. When I do have the opportunity to be reimbursed for a professional conference the number on my form is much larger than what I spend here. Granted, it’s driving distance for me but even with round-trip airfare from most places in the US, it isn’t bad.
2. Where else can you hang out with 2,000 people who share your interest? Of course some will be interested in a different aspect of the Middle Ages but that’s a small difference. The casual conversations you can get into with people you don’t know are fantastic. I think I really got hooked on this at my first congress when I was standing on the steps outside a building after a session and someone I didn’t know started to shoot the breeze with me and before I know it we’re in the middle of a discussion about Merovingian burial practices – and we both knew what we were talking about. Total Geek Heaven. I don’t know how it is where other folks live, but here in Central Indiana it’s very difficult to strike up that kind of conversation at a Starbucks. Even my friends start to zone me out after about 10 minutes.
3. The sessions. The toughest thing is figuring out what sessions to attend. I can generally get down to 2-3 choices in each time slot and then just have to flip a coin. Every now and then you’ll get a bad one but by and large I’ve been fortunate to attend well presented, thoughtful, insightful sessions which include the attendance of leading experts in the field who add to the discussion with Q & A. There are 605 Sessions offered this year – you’ll find some that will interest you.
4. THE BOOKS!!! OK, I need to restrain myself. The Conference Exhibit area has bookseller after bookseller, academic publishers, used book stores – another piece of Geek heaven. Not only that but you get a conference discount. Not only that but by attending, publishers will give you a catalogue with other books they didn’t bring which are eligible for the conference discount. As I may have mentioned once or twice, I don’t get paid for being a Medieval History Geek – no publication budget like I have for my real job. Kalamazoo means I get books from publishers such as Cambridge, Routledge, Ashgate, etc., which I’d never buy otherwise (haven’t worked my way up to Brill yet – you think they might get their Transformation of the Roman World series down to, say, 50 bucks each?). Last year I bought 37 books. The time before the number was similar. In this day and age when your bags are charged a fee for flying the friendly skies it may be worth your while to find out what ground shipping costs from K’zoo to home are.
5. Miscellany. There’s more but I’ll be brief. Free coffee (ain’t great but last year it was surprisingly drinkable), free wine at receptions (not sure it’s even drinkable but if you down a few beers before hitting a wine reception it works), and I can absolutely recommend the mead tasting. The pseudo session (a humorous program) is great – last year there was a presentation on Medieval mortality patterns that was as funny as anything I’ve ever heard. A meal and beers at Bilbo’s is still a congress tradition – even if they did move the damn place. There’s a dance Saturday night but I skip that – it scares me. And if you’ve contacted other people interested in Medieval History in the electronic world, chances are you can meet some of them in person. You’ll probably leave having made a new friend or two.
This is a great conference. As I’ve said – Geek heaven. I hear there’s another piece of heaven each July in Leeds but it’ll be a while before I make that one. Amateurs are welcome – you won’t feel out of place. You may feel that some of the discussion is over your head but nobody will notice.
Every year I get into discussions with people about K-zoo so by posting this I’ll have a ready-made site to point them too – which will have the added benefit of getting folks to read my blog! Also, if anyone would like to add something I’ve missed, please include a comment. I’ll likely throw in another post or two about this as we get closer – particularly a first-timers guide.