Friday, May 20, 2016

Post-Academic: Back from the ‘Zoo

Me at the Anglo-Saxonist Dinner at Kalamazoo.  Also visible: Larry Swain,
Robin Norris, Andy Scheil. Photo by Ilya Sverdlov.
The annual Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is a strange and wonderful event. Thousands of medieval scholars and interested others gather for academic discussion, professional networking, and friendship and fellowship. I have attended, off and on (more on than off in recent years), since the early 1990s, and I have annual meet-ups with some of my dearest friends in the world. This year and last, I’ve been working in the exhibits hall, in a tiny little booth (three six-foot tables), where I try to sell books and manuscript items.

Two or three or four other dealers in medieval manuscript items regularly set up there, too, although we probably all have slightly different niches we fit into. Others also deal in used books more generally. My stock is mostly oddball items: I buy things I think are unusual and interesting, rather than typical and common, and I hope to find buyers intrigued by the unique. Many of the items I specifically bought to take to Kalamazoo have appeared here in previous blog posts. And some of them sold.

But I took out time, this year, to attend one panel and one round table, and I gave short little papers at each. At the round table, in particular, I was somewhat surprised and pleased to look at myself and my co-presenters and see that together we made a group of five serious scholars in their forties and fifties, and our task was to talk about the business of Old English. Somehow, without my really noticing or expecting it, I had found myself in a position to address the state of the field, as an insider, and as someone perceived to be capable of looking at some sort of big picture.

And one evening, I was invited by a close friend to tag along to a dinner she had organized at a local restaurant, at which a handful of Anglo-Saxonist mentors and mentees were meeting up. I felt, in some ways, like a ghost at the banquet: what advice could I possibly have for young people in the field who were hoping to have a better record of academic employment than I had managed? And yet, the people I talked to there were interested, among other things, in thinking about and addressing issues like what is called the “work-life balance.” Some of the professional choices I've made, I think, can be understood, perhaps even appreciated, through such a lens. And I got to tell some stories.

Both experiences were gratifying, of course: here on this blog, I’ve chronicled, in some ways, my personal frustrations in trying to work out an identity as a scholar and academic who works outside of what the MLA’s annual house-organ identifies as the Profession, in the singular. This year, at Kalamazoo, I felt more than ever that my hybrid identity was working, somehow: I felt more than ever that my scholarly identity and my professional work as a book and manuscript dealer were fitting together, rather than conflicting with one another.

I’m sure I’ll feel a tension between these roles again: I don’t really think that the academic world really has a comfortable place for folks with a career trajectory like mine. But it was a delight, for a few days, to feel like there might, after all, be room to make such a place. But we all have a role, I think, in making such places visible and habitable. Or not. For my part, part of my role, I think, must be to continue to try to be visible in my field, and in the academic world more generally.

So I guess I will continue to try to write these “post-academic” blog posts. Though the truth is, my academic life is not really in my past. I am “post academic employment,” but not really “post-academic.” It seems to be a meaningful distinction, to me at least.

And of course, for those who’ve known me a long time, I went to the Kalamazoo dance, but I did not dance.


  1. Thank you for posting this — nice and informative!

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.