I've kept this blog, on and off, since 2006. In 2015 I used it to chart daily encounters, images, thoughts and feelings about volcanic basalt/bluestone in Melbourne and Victoria, especially in the first part of the year. I plan to write a book provisionally titled Bluestone: An Emotional History, about human uses of and feelings for bluestone. But I am also working on quite a few other projects and a big grant application, especially now I am on research leave. I'm working mostly from home, then, for six months, and will need online sociability for company!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

And a partridge, etc.

I don't want this to sound like a rehearsal for my annual performance appraisal (coming up in January), but since, like everyone else, I have worked to the point of exhaustion this year (damn! and I really meant not to), I thought it was time for a kind of reckoning. So here goes:

Number of articles published: 1.5 (already below the recommended level, because of a delay in a journal that was meant to be out before Christmas).

Number of articles (extra ones) finished or finalised this year: 3 (the last one sent off, to meet the deadline, last Friday: phew!)

Number of chapters written on the Garter book: 1 (completely from scratch, and pretty much polished: it's my favourite so far, and is called "Dressing Up")

Number of extra bits and pieces written on the Medievalism book with Tom: a few (must start turning these into chapters now)

Number of conference and seminar papers delivered: 7 (Melbourne, Perth, Leeds, Swansea, Riverside, Melbourne, Hobart [and only one of these was a partial repeat of one other])

Number of public lectures given: 2 (Heraldry Society and Friends of Baillieu; Lyceum Club)

Number of PhD students successfully being confirmed: 3 (congratulations to Anne, Anne and Duncan)

Number of MA students getting their results: 1 (congratulations to HerOverThere, recently sighted buying coffee at Baretto's)

Number of PhDs waiting to be examined for other universities: 2 (will be on to them straight after Christmas)

Number of plane trips: 2 international; 6 domestic (inside US and Australia). Very bad for carbon emissions: am about to be promoted back up from Bronze to Silver frequent flyer.

Number of teaching awards: 2 (ahem)

Number of literary awards and scholarships judged: 2 (plus 1 more to go over the break)

Number of resolutions about email and internet use broken: countless

Number of days missed morning walk: growing

Number of "Sing Your Own Operas" with Richard Gill and Opera Victoria: 2 (as of yesterday: a blissful Messiah with four friends. Head still ringing from the high A's: feel sorry for those sitting next to me).

Number of Christmas puddings made: 3

Number of Christmas trees decorated: 1 (just as soon as I post this blog post)

Sum total of weight gained and lost: 0 (which, given the combination of one's medication and one's time of life, is No Mean Achievement)

Number of doses of Tamoxifen: 365 (didn't miss one, even when travelling)

Improvement in topspin backhand: 100% (especially since last week, when I had a whole lesson with Larry on my own, and when he told me in some respects it was better than Paul's, after which I promptly sent the next six into the net).

Other statistics (difficult meetings attended; jobs at risk; curriculum reviews) are too depressing and confusing. And in any case, I'm trying to resist the way our Faculty now just counts everything. And besides, it's Christmas. Or the holidays. Or the end of the year. So it's time to let go of all the counting. I'm still "on deck" at work, with the exception of the Christmas break, till the end of January, when my eleven months of leave (sabbatical plus long service plus annual: not that I'm counting) begin. But right now I'm going to put up the Christmas tree, clean up my desk, and head up to the tennis courts to work on my backhand.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Finally, some good news. I think.

After what seems like a full two years of misery, my Faculty has finally declared an end to the rigours of its "renewal strategy" with the announcement yesterday that we will not be proceeding with a round of involuntary redundancies. You can almost hear the sigh of relief running around the place. Mostly, I'm just delighted for the brilliant young scholars I know who were put in the awful position of having to fight for their jobs, often when they were doing all the things one is supposed to do.

Many of us know the enormous effort it takes to edit a volume of essays, and how important those collections are for the development of our field, but if you do such work in our system, you get only one "point" for this work, and only so long as your introduction is over 4,000 words long. If you co-edit this volume, you get half a point. If you write a major monograph you get only five points. I think many of us could have been caught out not producing enough articles to get over the line; and it was horrid to realise a number of the people targeted were women who were also parents of small children.

It would be wonderful if we were now able truly to start renewing ourselves. We are a great faculty, really, ranked in the top ten, internationally, on a number of indexes. In two years we have been through a major re-structure of departments into schools, a massive university-wide curriculum reform, and a budgetary crisis, all under national and local scrutiny in the press. We have already lost some wonderful colleagues. And some people's careers have been changed for ever, as they move, over the next few months, into pre-retirement plans, or teaching-only positions.

Other changes are less tangible, and will change the way we work. I think we have all now been frightened into producing a regular stream of articles that will appear quickly, as opposed to working on large-scale projects. A "book" in the humanities is a major measure of success and intellectual achievement; but it is rewarded only as if it were a science textbook. Some of us will still go on editing essay collections, refereeing for journals, reviewing, and all those other academic tasks, but some will refuse even that, I think. Many of us will think twice about taking on large administrative portfolios that erode our time for research, since so little quarter has been shown to those whose productivity has been slowed by such service.

Mostly, I'm concerned that others will feel the way I do, that the threads that have bound me tight to this university have been loosened by the trauma of the last few years, that the love I've felt for the university has been betrayed and irreversibly damaged by the imposition of a punitive, rather than a supportive collegiate culture. I hope I'm wrong.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Wanna read a blog about a trauma?

Hey, guess what? Someone has written an article (partly) about my blog.

A couple of years ago, in a post I don't think I could easily find now, Pavlov's Cat suggested that blogs about illness and trauma were under-recognised as ways of processing the experience of diseases like cancer. Critical commentary seems to be catching up with her, though.

Yesterday I came across (ok, by checking the referral pages to my blog on sitemeter) an article in M/C Journal (a journal of media and culture) 11.6 (2008), special issue:'recover', by Anthony McCosker, called "Blogging Illness: Recovering in Public", in which he discusses a number of blogs: Brainhell; Prostate Cancer Journal; Leroy Sievers' My Cancer; Tom's Road to Recovery; and Humanities Researcher.

I came upon Brainhell's blog just as he was dying, and had heard of Leroy Sievers', but it was all the same quite odd to read about my blog in this context and in this company. Anthony (I knew him a while back) uses these blogs to make an argument for the particular kind of writerly practice blogging represents:  

an expressive element of the substance of the illness as it is experienced over time, as it affects the bodies, thoughts, events and relationships of individuals moving toward a state of full recovery or untimely death

He concludes, in part:
Whatever emancipatory benefits may be found in expressing the most intimate of experiences and events of a serious illness online, it is the creative act of the blog as self-expression here, in its visceral, comprehensive, continuous timestamped format that dismantles the sense of privacy in the name of recovery.

But one doesn't have to blog about one's own illness to accomplish the work of re-thinking privacy: see Liz Conor's In One Stroke, which recounts her partner's stroke, while on a camping holiday. It includes these memorable lines:
At the moment it dawned on us that something was not right he half turned to me, rolled his eyes back and sat hard on the floor. He tried to get up, half fell out the door and rested there, assuring me he was fine through the right side of his face, drooling from the left.

I also liked this bit:
It is a big part of Jeremy’s job to give the assembled public the assurance of his own calm competency. This he offered to the riveted campers, smiling half-faced through his oxygen mask.

I love this: that remarkable capacity we have to keep going, to reassure others (especially our children) that we are "fine". Just keeping on going on.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Hard Times for Breast Cancer Survivors

I know there's a lot of dispute about the term "survivor" for anyone who's had cancer and is still alive. But when you read about two women, roughly your own age, who've died of breast cancer in the last week, it can be a bit tough; and you do feel like a survivor, with all the resultant complexities. Not guilt, exactly, but certainly a shiver that barely separates you and your own excellent prognosis from them and their much harder stories.

And when they are famous, there's a lot to read about them: pictures of them, their children, and reminders of their public achievements.

I think a lot of Australian women thrilled at Kerryn McCann's marathon victories, especially those with children who saw an elite athlete just powering on through with her inspirational running. She died last week at 41.

And yesterday, Dorothy Porter, a wonderful poet, also succumbed to breast cancer at the age of 54. I loved her work, and heard her read and speak a couple of times. Link to a beautiful photograph that I think is copyright-protected.

The only time I spent any different kind of time in her company was on the oak lawns in the Botanical Gardens in Melbourne, where she had invited a small group of people to celebrate the life of Gwen Harwood, who had died, also of breast cancer, a few months before. We each read our favourite poem. I read "Dialogue", an early poem addressed to a stillborn child.

If an angel came with one wish
I might say, deliver that child
who died before birth, into life.
Let me see what she might have become.
He would bring her into a room
fair skinned —— the bones of her hands
would press on my shoulderblades
in our long embrace

[She asks what brought the ghost to her; and the child replies...]

— It is none of these, but a rhythm
the bones of my fingers —— dactylic
rhetoric smashed from your memory.
Forget me again

I had never heard Gwen read this in public until I was interviewing her at the Melbourne Writers' Festival in 1992, when I was writing my book on her (you can download a full-text pdf from the e-print repository). She had agreed to do it over lunch, but all the same, had to pause, half-way through, and collect herself.

Ahhh. These women. This disease. These deaths.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Conference blogging/Hobart/Three

Conference blogging. Meant to do this over the last week, but am now going to do it in several posts. This is the third. Scroll down for more.

When I was sitting about to get up and read my paper in Hobart, an odd thing happened. For once I was fully organised with pretty much a complete typescript of what I wanted to say. I had followed good conference practice and gone to find a box on which to prop my papers in the absence of a lectern. I wasn't too nervous, and was able to listen attentively to Clare and Louise. And then as my time to speak got closer, I realised I would not be able to stand up. I felt I might fall over (which, as Louise said later, would have been an unfortunate reprise of my Leeds theatrics). I felt quite odd, and a bit faint, so I stayed sitting down to read. And even then, once I started to read, found my voice shaking, and I had to suppress a sob, collect myself, and kind of start again. Once I got going, I was fine, but I think I was just exhausted, unable to muster any adrenaline, or whatever it takes to put oneself together in order to stand up in public to speak. I’m not the only one: we are all just staggering towards the end of a really difficult year in the School.

Anyway, I think I was pleased with the paper, and am going to take what for me is a very bold step and post it here. I know the folk over at In the Middle do this routinely, but it's a first for me. I'm not even going to work over it very much, so it'll sound a little raw, I'm sure, and quite odd without the papers of Clare Monagle and Louise D'Arcens, which grappled much more closely with the terms of the book's own inquiry. It might also sound as if I'm criticising Bruce Holsinger for not writing the book I'd like to read. I hope not. But if, as I hope, I get the chance to publish this, I'll expand it and slow it down a bit, so questions and comments will be welcome.

There was some very interesting discussion afterwards about what the book seemed to license, and about the always vexed relationship between "theory" and medieval studies.

I'm also trying to figure out how to abbreviate posts on blogger: it seems very complicated, so please bear with me as I try and sort this.

“Transgression, perversion, and fanaticism”: Postmodern Medieval Conditions

From a panel discussing Bruce Holsinger’s Premodern Condition

Word is out: something is happening to the Middle Ages. As a field of academic study, as a sequence of historical and cultural formations, and as an idea about the past, the Middle Ages is undergoing radical transformation. The Middle Ages have never looked so rich and complex as they do now; as a series of multi-disciplinary projects and imperatives brings the Middle Ages into productive dialogue with other disciplines and other periods; and as we re-think many of our inherited scholarly narratives and traditions of study. The question of periodisation is being re-visited, with the effect of re-making the boundaries between medieval and post-medieval. Similarly, a range of new histories of affect, some politically motivated, some less so, help us to “touch” the past, to bring it into closer dialogue with the present, in a way that used to be forbidden on strict historical grounds.

And if we add the field of popular culture and the imaginative revival of the Middle Ages in fiction, film, gaming, and on-line culture, for example, it is easy to see that interest in and general familiarity with the Middle Ages is stronger than ever before.

But this is nothing new. As soon as they were declared over, as soon as they became the matter of the past, something has always been happening to the Middle Ages. Sixteenth-century editors of Chaucer generated publicity for new editions of texts “never before imprinted”, while successive waves of twentieth-century critics have re-discovered a new feminist Middle Ages, or a heretical, sexually diverse or revolutionay one, or have rhapsodised about new critical modes and new perspectives. The titles of our book series and essay collections tell the story: The New Middle Ages (Palgrave); Making the Middle Ages; The New Medievalism. The imperative to find novelty in the Middle Ages, to renew our study of this distant era is powerful indeed.

And each time we renew, or re-visit the Middle Ages, it seems as if we are discovering them anew all over again.

My opening sentence, for example, reprises Alexandre Leupin’s words, in 1983:

Word is out: something is happening in French medieval literature. It’s beginning to be understood that far from being the province only of specialists medieval studies could play a crucial role in ongoing discussions of literary theory.

Writing in Diacritics twenty-five years ago, Leupin attempted to capture current excitement about the potential of medieval literature to play an active role in contemporary literary theory. It was not just that medieval literature could benefit from literary theory; but that it could make its own distinctive contribution to the field, especially in the study of semiotics and psychoanalysis. Leupin was writing principally about the Lacanian work of Roger Dragonetti, in La vie de la lettre au moyen Age: Le conte du Graal (1980) and Le gai savoir dans la rhetorique courtoise (1982).

This perpetual rediscovery and reinvention of the middle ages, and re-writing them anew for a new generation, or putting them to work in a different way is a structural condition of modernity. We know that modernity defines itself in opposition to the medieval: we might go further and say that modernity defines itself by its capacity, and indeed, its desire, to re-invent the medieval; and to declare, over and over again, the novelty and the newness of those re-inventions. If Lyotard talks of the post-modern condition, and Bruce Holsinger of the pre-modern condition, I suggest we might also diagnose a modern condition, at least in relation to the medieval past: a condition that perpetually desires to re-invent and to renew the medieval, and to foreground those acts of renewal as, themselves, novel.

Holsinger’s “discovery” of the importance of medieval philosophy and literature to the invention of “theory” is part of this formation, part of this modern condition.

It is interesting to speculate about this seemingly perpetual novelty of the Middle Ages. The “medievalism” of Holsinger’s sub-title, “Medievalism and the Making of Theory” refers to a somewhat narrow understanding of medievalism, as closely approximating medieval studies, and perhaps shading very slightly into that sense of the word which tries to encapsulate the cultural desire for the middle ages. But he is resolutely unconcerned with popular or imaginative medievalism, and so I thought it might be interesting to try and triangulate Holsinger’s work, to look at some of the relations not only between the Middle Ages and high theory, but also this broader understanding of medievalism.

The presiding figure here, of course, is Umberto Eco, and Holsinger does refer to his work a number of times.

In 1972, Umberto Eco inaugurated several decades of interventions into the relationship or more specifically, the affinities between modernity, postmodernity and the Middle Ages. In the first essay in this series, “Towards a New Middle Ages”, he sketches out the contemporary political, social and technological contexts in which the first world was heading into a new middle ages. He re-visited the essay in 1985, and then again in 1986, when he published his better known essay, “Dreaming of the Middle Ages”, in which he discusses the work of contemporary medieval studies, dismissing as tedious the iteration of “all the round tables and symposia that have recently been devoted to this problem, as the topic of ‘the return of the Middle Ages’ has become obsessive.”

The essays Eco wrote around this period are riddled with interesting contradictions. The new Middle Ages are both new, and yet not newsworthy. “Dreaming” of the Middle Ages risks the indulgence of “escapism à la Tolkien”, but is also a fundamental condition of modernity. The Middle Ages are the infancy of modernity, the primal scene of childhood that produces our present neuroses, but repressing the complex and unreliable hermeneutics of the primal scene, Eco insists on the importance of discovering a “reliable Middle Ages”.

There is another set of contradictions in Eco’s essays that similarly haunt Holsinger’s work: the question of the relationship between high theory and popular culture; and I’ll return to this in a moment.

Eco’s problem, about the new-oldness and the old new-ness of the new Middle Ages, and Holsinger’s book both suggest that we can, and should still usefully ask the question: what do the Middle Ages have to do with the twenty-first century?

Recent local events make the question imperative for us to consider, especially at this time, and in this place.

Medieval literary studies is a highly sophisticated critical field; and contemporary medievalism is ubiquitous, yet for all this novelty and all this re-making, we are all familiar, I’m sure, with the claim that the medieval has nothing to do with modernity, or with contemporaneity. The simplest way to answer this question is to appeal to the vast enterprise of popular medievalism, and the great extent to which our fantasy literature, our cinema, our game-playing, our unconscious fantasy life and dreams, our social models and aspirations are still to a large degree medievalist in both form and content.

This is not the place to develop a theory of how to read contemporary medievalism, but it is the place to probe the repression of popular medievalism in the work of both Holsinger and Eco.

In The Premodern Condition, Bruce Holsinger draws a contrast between contemporary culture, where “the Middle Ages represent a semiotically rich site of transgression, perversion, and fanaticism”, and the 1960s avant-garde, whose theorists disclose a medieval “archive of cultural and intellectual production”. This is clearly a value-laden contrast: Holsinger’s preferred Middle Ages offer deadly serious and high-browed meditations, fitting subjects for the heavy-weight theorising of Bataille, Lacan, Derrida, Bourdieu and Barthes. But even when they are more playful, as in the obscene poem by Arnaut Daniel, the message is serious.

Daniel’s poem dramatises a lover’s reluctance to fulfil the anal desires of Lady Ena, that he “blow in that funnel between spine and mount pubic, there where rust colored substances proceed. He could never have been certain that she would not piss all over his snout and eyebrows.” In Holsinger’s reading, Lacan reads this “as a kind of ethical mirror in which his auditors are to view the alterity of the medieval even while recognizing in this trashy bit of medievalism the lingering Thing at the core of modernity” (86).

It’s hard not to be struck by the term “trashy bit of medievalism”, cheek by jowl, as it were, with the “core of modernity”. It shows us that for Holsinger, medievalism is barely distinguished from the medieval, but we must also note his willingness to abject medievalism, and medieval popular culture, as trashy.

It’s a dynamic that threads through the whole book. As I said, Holsinger is not particularly concerned with medievalism in the sense that scholars who study the post-medieval invention of the Middle Ages use that term. He is frying a very different kind of fish altogether. But I am suggesting that the sense of novelty and innovation about this book is barely distinguishable from the sense of novelty that also characterises the work of medievalism. Medievalism is often described as the act of re-making or re-inventing the Middle Ages for present concerns. Medieval Studies and Medievalism have much more in common than is customarily believed, and I suggest they are part of the same productive enterprise, which we might define as making the Middle Ages new again, bringing them into dialectic with the present.

Let me quote Holsinger’s most specific remarks about popular medievalism, from his Epilogue, in which he writes:

If the Middle Ages represent a semiotically rich site of transgression, perversion, and fanaticism for contemporary popular culture, for the 1960s avant-garde, the medieval provided above all an archive of cultural and intellectual production that seemingly escaped the moral compass of the Enlightenment — and (in this reading) without the baggage of humanism, capitalism, colonialism, and triumphalist individualism represented by the Renaissance (p. 197).
Holsinger attempts to put some distance between himself and this redemptive view of the Middle Ages, which he goes on to describe as “idealized”, and conducive to “nostalgia”, but it is hard not to hear the enthusiasm in his characterisation of the way this version of the Middle Ages “provided postwar critical thought with an almost inexhaustible source of intellectual sustenance in its assault on post-medieval legacies to the Western tradition”. If anything, this resolutely muscular version of the Middle Ages is a powerful antithesis to the nostalgia of popular medievalism. And it is not just a historical account, either: Holsinger suggests that “the avant-garde pre-modern might perform a considerable corrective function in relation to other modes of critical neomedievalism that have gained some currency in recent decades” (198).

Holsinger doesn’t give much content to the “transgression, perversion and fanaticism” of the Middle Ages in contemporary popular culture, but it’s not difficult to see how the stakes are stacked against popular culture in favour of intellectual history: the latter will “correct” the former.

Tom Prendergast and I have suggested elsewhere that much of the resistance to contemporary or nineteenth- or eighteenth-century medievalism by medieval scholars actually masks a resistance to popular culture, and I think it’s not difficult to see a similar dynamic in Holsinger’s work.

And yet he is, in spite of himself, drawn to popular culture, and to the energetic and frankly exciting dynamic it can bring to academic work. In discussing the Daniel poem, for example, Holsinger comments that it is perhaps the only occasion in which Lacan — “the master” is how he describes him in this sentence — “recited an entire literary text, from beginning to end, before his Parisian audience” (86). It is also the only literary text Holsinger quotes in full. He admits that he is following Lacan in doing so, but it’s hard not to read his characterisation of this “spectacularly gynephobic poem” as an invitation to thrill at an example of the “transgression, perversion, and fanaticism” he associates with popular medievalism.

A similar thrill ran through me when I realised Holsinger was describing the workings of modern avant-garde intellectual culture as a subculture. Perhaps this is an attempt to dramatise his own work of recovering its widespread interest in the Middle Ages; but from many perspectives now, the idea that the work of these influential theorists represents a subculture seems to suggest a very special kind of subculture — certainly not one that’s related to popular culture.

Umberto Eco is similarly conflicted on the question of the relations between the Middle Ages, medievalism and popular culture.

When measuring the extent of interest in the Middle Ages, he remarks, “If one does not trust ‘literature,’ one should at least trust pop culture.” Eco, after all, is one of the founding figures of modern cultural studies, and its valorisation of popular culture, and the argument for respecting the enthusiasm and knowledge about popular culture and its consumers. But two pages after this, he writes:

Thus we are at present witnessing, both in Europe and America, a period of renewed interest in the Middle Ages, with a curious oscillation between fantastic neomedievalism and responsible philological examination. Undoubtedly what counts is the second aspect of the phenomenon. (‘Dreaming of the Middle Ages,’ 63).

Similarly, in his famous taxonomy of the ten little Middle Ages of which we dream, he privileges the eighth, the Middle Ages of “philological reconstruction” as a kind of uber Middle Ages:

Not fully free from the curiosity of the mass media these Middle Ages help us, nevertheless, to criticize all the other Middle Ages that at one time or another arouse our enthusiasm. These Middle Ages lack sublimity, thank God, and thus look more “human” (71).

This privileging of the position by which expert medieval scholars can criticize all the others, those manifestations of what Eco calls “enthusiasm”, and which Holsinger calls “transgression, perversion and fanaticism”, is buried deep within Eco’s taxonomy, and is rarely foregrounded by those who simply use this list to classify the particular example of medievalism they are describing. But it sets up a crucial hierarchy between the work of scholarship (“responsible philological examination”) and the work of the imagination, between the Middle Ages and medievalism, between medieval scholars, and scholars of popular culture and popular medievalism. It also gives force — thank God, he says — to the idea that we can retreat into the safety of academic research, without the risks of the sublime, to criticise the work of popular enthusiasts.

Holsinger’s book is a wonderful archaeology that demonstrates the mutual imbrication of medieval literature, philosophy and theology with some of the most influential movements associated with high theory. Commendably, in my view, it eschews anything so crude as a critique of modern scholars’ understanding of the Middle Ages: it is not so much concerned to correct their scholarship as it is to correct some aspects of the trend towards popular medievalism. But in its abjection of medieval popular culture as the salacious or fantastic, and its absolute separation between intellectual work of and about the Middle Ages, and the work of the popular imagination, Holsinger’s book, it seems to me, revisits the dynamics of Umberto Eco’s work.

In Holsinger’s epilogue, he emphasizes the sacramental character of the avant garde’s relation to the medieval past.

Modes of critique, habits of mind, and means of subjection are not simply inherited from the medieval past, nor patiently reconstructed out of its ruins; rather, they are invoked, called into being, summoned from another place, translated from isolated fragments into whole systems of thought that maintain the dialectic of belief and doubt that characterized the sacramental culture of the Middle Ages.

I like very much this dialectic model. But I suggest the dialectic could be fruitfully expanded to consider not just the dialectic of the Middle Ages, and the dialectic between the Middle Ages and modern intellectual culture, but also the dialectic between intellectual and popular culture.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Conference blogging/Hobart/Two

Conference blogging. Meant to do this over the last week, but am now going to do it in several posts. This is the second. Scroll up and down for more.

One of the conference receptions was held at Government House, a beautiful example of colonial gothic in golden sandstone, high up in the Domain, overlooking the city. We had to pre-register for this in order to receive our gold-embossed invitations; and had to dress up a little; and practice saying "Your Excellency" in case we got introduced.

It was a beautiful afternoon.

We all lined up to be introduced:
And did a little Garter research as we waited:
We were then shown into this rather odd hall:

The decorations were suitably vice-regal:

And the guests suitably elegant:

This is my favourite photo:

And here is The Dress:

But after all this finery, here is one of the prettiest images: a little cottage in the grounds, which I have made my computer's desktop for a while....

Conference blogging/Hobart/One

Conference blogging. Meant to do this over the last week, but am now going to do it in several posts. This is the first. Scroll up for more.

Someone said to me over coffee during this recent ANZAMEMS (Aust and NZ assoc. for med. and early mod. studies) conference that it was becoming the third in the series of the big three. How does that sound? Leeds/Kalamazoo/ANZAMEMS?

A couple of riders, though. This analogy would work only for medievalists: ANZAMEMS has a much broader historical range, though is similarly multi-disciplinary. Second, ANZAMEMS is much smaller: about 190 papers over nearly five days. Third, as a society, not a place, ANZAMEMS offers a range of great locations in Australia and New Zealand. This is absolutely a plus, of course. I'm on my way back from Hobart, and am sitting in the Qantas club, having come out to the airport early with Paul and Joel, who came down for the weekend, and were booked on an early flight so Joel could get to school on time (though having got up at 4.15, he didn't look, 30 minutes ago, as if it was going to be his most productive day).

But it used to be that the only international visitors to ANZAMEMS were the plenary speakers we fly in. This is no longer the case. ANZAMEMS is also wonderfully friendly to postgrads, and reminds me of NCS in its mixture of absolute seriousness and its collegiality. It is also truly interdisciplinary, and over the years, the sometimes brusque encounters between historians and literary critics have given way to much more respectful engagements. Sometimes it isn't even possible to tell.

Like NCS, too, ANZAMEMS now has a respectable medievalism thread. A highlight this time was hearing Kim Wilkins, well-known fantasy and horror writer, who is also Dr Kim Wilkins, lecturer at UQ, give a wonderfully reasoned account of Australian adult medievalist fantasy writing.

My own paper was a discussion of Bruce Holsinger's The Premodern Condition. Perhaps I'll post that paper here too.

Plenary speakers of greatest interest to this blog were probably Ruth Evans and Mary Carruthers. Ruth spoke about Freud and Lacan and Chaucer's dream theory, and Mary developed more of her work on the arts of memory. Both were model conference participants, giving tightly argued, original papers, and attending session after session, valiantly fighting jetlag and contributing to debates.

It is also a great occasion for catching up with friends and colleagues, though given the threat to medieval studies at the University of Tasmania, and the threat to the job of another medieval scholar at the University of Melbourne, the overall mood was less than joyous.

I'm also heading back to a meeting where we will have to discuss the way we teach Old English in the new Melbourne model. More curriculum reform. Sigh.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Talks, Tears and More Travels

I spent most of today at the Vice-Chancellor's Colloquium for Teaching and Learning. Presentations to the university's teaching award winners (my Grimshaw award is gorgeous: the colour and luminosity of a bottle of Bombay Sapphire); short presentations from the award-winners; and from teams of people who've taught the university's new multi-disciplinary breadth subjects; and a panel of a journalist, school principal and the CEO and founder of seek.com.

It was a most passionate day all round. The unofficial theme was passion in teaching and in one's choice of vocation.

We were welcomed to country by Auntie Diane of the Wurundjeri people, who called on the land to bless us from the tips of the trees down to the earth on which we stood. The Vice-Chancellor presented her with a big bouquet of flowers as a thank-you. She turned away from the audience and whispered at some length in his ear. He told us later during one of the photo-shoots that she had said her husband died six years ago, and that since then, no one had brought her flowers. And then burst into tears.

When Glyn spoke, the text of his talking (not a prepared speech) was flashed above him through Live Remote Captioning. A scary thing, to think that one's speaking could be transcribed and transmitted so quickly (and really pretty accurately), for the hearing impaired. Testimonials from profoundly deaf students reinforced how marvellous this would be. Imagine the tedium of attending lectures and watching while your assistant took notes? And what a difference this would make.

Matthew Brett then spoke about this invention, and about his motivation for devising this technology. Both his parents are profoundly deaf, and he grew up with Auslan (sign language) as his first; and English as his second language. Because their educational and employment opportunities were so limited, he grew up in difficult circumstances, able to afford only two textbooks over the course of five years' study. He choked up a bit as he was speaking; and I think we all did, too.

The other ALTC winner, Catherine Bennett, told me over morning tea that she too was the first member of her family to go to university, and that her own parents, now deceased, would have been so proud of her today. This day was really for them, she said.

When it was my turn, I wanted to speak about the experience of being a medievalist in a country that does not always value the study of the past. I also tried to talk about the problem of mentoring when university policies and practices don't always fit the career trajectories of students who have babies through their PhDs, who are caring for aged or sick parents and can't travel overseas, or who are working on major research monographs that are poorly rewarded in the "points" system that is now driving our policies for promoting and even retaining staff.

I don't think my talk would have been very popular with some folk, but enough people came to talk to me afterwards in agreement (and not just from the humanities) to make me feel that there is a considerable tide of resistance to recent developments.

I also talked about this blog, and the experience of writing through breast cancer; and then over lunch found out about a number of other women with breast cancer; or men whose partners had also gone through its rigours.

All this emotion was draining. But also makes me think that once I've finished with some of the current projects, it's time to think more carefully about the literature of affect.

Last night Ruth Evans gave a wonderful talk to the Medieval Round Table about Chaucer's affective understanding of memory: it'll be a great starting-point.

Now, time to pack and finish my talk for Hobart. I arrive at my B&B after 11.00 tonight; and they are going to leave the key by the front door. Fantastic!