Reflections on the year (teaching, conferences, and mourning)

I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance.

Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, 18

Now that the semester is well and truly over and I’ve done a mad dash of pleasure reading just to remind myself that I still can, I wanted to think a little bit about the past year.

Of course, this means that it begins with Michael. For a long time after his death last summer, I wasn’t able to do much at all. I was unable to read more than a few pages at once and couldn’t write at all. The funeral was delayed a few weeks to allow more people to travel, including my sister who received the news immediately after landing in France for a vacation, which meant that it actually took place the weekend before my fall faculty development week and the subsequent start of the new semester.

I’ve never been very comfortable with some of the more public facing elements of grief. I’m someone that is both quickly moved to tears and deeply uncomfortable crying while talking to other people. I knew this beforehand, so I wasn’t terribly surprised to find that this was still the case. A consequence of this is that I have talked to my sister about Michael more than anyone else, because so many of our memories of Michael are about him being mean to us in funny ways, like praying at the dinner table that we would go back to Kansas/Toronto/California/New York/Michigan/New Mexico. Pretty much wherever we’ve lived, we’ve been instructed in no uncertain terms to return there through prayer. At the same time, I haven’t been very comfortable talking about him to the many well meaning friends who wanted to find out how I was doing, but I knew that would be the case in advance.

What I have been surprised by was my desire and willingness to talk about him in more performative contexts, both in my teaching and in my more public facing research. In the fall, I taught a grad-only seminar, a relative rarity in a program where most advanced courses are of necessity due to enrollment numbers opened to both upper level undergraduate and graduate students. Given that none of our graduate students are medievalists (and that my position primarily focuses on linguistics), I wanted to focus on something a little broader that I hoped would be applicable to people who were into creative writing or literary study or linguistics or rhet/comp, and so I taught a seminar on metaphor. It was reading intensive (probably a bit too reading intensive, especially at the end of the semester), but one thing I had the students do was keep a metaphor observation journal. The assignment was simple. Keep track of metaphors encountered in the wild, whether in conversation, TV shows, music videos, novels, etc, and every class, we spent anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half sharing and discussing the examples that we found. Throughout the semester, I found myself trying to think through Michael’s own use of figurative language, initially on my own, but in small doses in my own reflections in class too. I brought in David Perry’s wonderful article on how his son used lyrics from Hamilton as a form of communication, because it reflected well how an array of references to country music and pop culture of the 90s informed Michael’s language.

I was also surprised that both of the conference papers I gave this year were on grief, both made connections between my own feelings of grief over Michael’s death, and both were on projects that I had been mulling over long before Michael died. I’m still not entirely sure how that happened. At the Denver Seafaring conference, I was using Aldhelm’s riddle of the arca libraria (the book-chest) to think through how we create archives in times of loss. I began the paper by talking about a very personal archive that I began creating at Michael’s memorial service. Michael was a prolific phone correspondent, even if most of his conversations were relatively short, and he always left a voicemail if you didn’t pick up, and after his services, I went around collecting voicemails from people who were on his call list.

At Kalamazoo two weeks ago, I spoke about Alcuin’s elegiac poetry, especially O mea cella and De luscinia (On a nightingale) and how memory works to undo us in times of grief, building off of Judith Butler’s comments from Undoing Gender up at the beginning of this post. I’ve actually been thinking about Butler a lot in the past year. When I taught our undergraduate theory course last spring, I included a chapter from Undoing Gender on the advice of a friend, although her comments on grief hadn’t necessarily stuck out to me at the time, but the theory reading group that I organize at the university decided to read that book for our fall selection. Of course, Michael’s death occurred in the intervening summer, and I found myself reading Undoing Gender in the midst of my own transformative grief.

I was glad for the space both conferences provided and for the supportive (and sympathetic) reception they received. Micah Goodrich has a nice blogpost up thinking through issues with how we do conferences that I’ve been thinking about a bit in the last few days. The two conferences I went to, Denver Seafaring and the Kalamazoo Medieval Congress, are very different. Seafaring was a relatively small conference, built on a linked-seminar model. My paper was in a seminar on archives and memory organized by Mary Kate Hurley and Jordan Zweck that unfolded in three sessions spread over three days of the conference. Our seminar pre-circulated drafts of all the papers and the actual presentations were delivered much more informally, with more emphasis on collaborative discussion of projects.

By contrast, Kalamazoo has thousands of papers unfolding in hundreds of sessions spread across an entire university campus. And yet, even if the overall conferences were very different, I’m not so sure that my panels were so different. My Kalamazoo session was focused on Affective Transformations in Anglo-Saxon literature, organized by Erica Weaver and Helen Cushman (together with a paired session on Affective Transformations in Middle English). While the four papers in my session covered a lot of very different textual ground, our theoretical underpinnings drew from some very similar sources, and in question period at the end of the session, almost all of the questions were addressed to all of us, and our answers developed very much in dialogue with each other. This seems to me to be the mark of a really great, cohesive session that is more than the sum of its parts. Quite often, in a themed session, the people presenting are the ones who are most invested in the kinds of projects the other presenters are working on, and yet in a traditional session, when one presenter asks a question of another, it’s often with a little laugh about the apparent oddness of it, Can I ask a question? when it should be the most normal thing in the world for presenters to talk with each other.

For a long time, I felt very similarly to Micah that small, themed conferences were better both for academic work and for socializing than large ones, but one of my takeaways from this Kalamazoo was that it is possible to carve out a space for that kind of atmosphere in a larger conference, and I came away really impressed with the state of Anglo-Saxon studies for creating friendly space for mentorships, for exciting work like the Renaissance in Feminist Anglo-Saxon Studies, and for talking about teaching.

On a personal level, while I find small conferences more conducive to networking with people I don’t already know, I appreciated Kalamazoo for the number of chances it gave me to catch up with people I’ve gotten to know over many years of conferencing. This was the tenth anniversary of my first Kalamazoo, which meant that throughout the week I was treated to so many Facebook memories of sweaty, sweaty dancing, but it also meant that I got to see people that in some cases I get to see every other year at most. The biggest change for me from grad school to teaching has been a sense of isolation in my academic work. The nearest concentration of medievalists for me is a two hour drive away, and I’ve found it almost impossible to contemplate doing it during the school year while teaching a 4-4 load, and it seemed like every time I ran into someone who was a lone medievalist at a regional public, we were practically giddy over having so many people so close who could connect with us over what we do.

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