I have to say, you know you’re in the right field of study when you feel lucky to be a part of it. This weekend, I returned to my beautiful alma mater, the University of Toronto, to spend the weekend at the Medieval Academy of America annual meeting/conference. I think that the people who are down on experts these days haven’t met a lot of medievalists. After all, no one goes into Medieval Studies for the money or the prestige. Everyone in the field is someone who fell in love with it and (hopefully) still feels that love. The atmosphere at the medieval conferences I have been to is open, congenial, and genuinely collaborative. Everyone wants to know more, so everyone wants to share more – sometimes share a lot!
Don’t get me wrong: it’s not all sunshine, rainbows, and unicorns (okay, someone usually is studying unicorns). There are always the raw nerves of presenters for whom public speaking doesn’t come naturally, or who are self-conscious about their proficiency in English. My heart also feels a painful squeeze every time I see the forced smiles of graduate students, desperately afraid they won’t get a job in the shrinking ivory tower. As someone outside of those walls, I always want to give them a hug and show them there is, indeed, a place for their passion and their work, either inside or outside academia.
Still, even though a medievalist may show up at a conference drained by the everyday, jet-lagged, or worried about the future, if you watch the audience in any panel session, you’ll see people deep in thought. They’ll be leaning forward, scribbling furiously, smiling to themselves, or furrowing eyebrows, but you can practically hear the hum of busy brains making new and exciting connections. There are always hands up in the air at the end with helpful suggestions, new avenues to explore, or new questions. I’m not sure if it’s like this in every field, but medievalists are definitely keeners, and it’s so much fun to witness.
This particular MAA meeting was uplifting in other ways, too. There were sessions on diversity (much needed: most scholars are still white and Eurocentric in their work), and on work outside of the tenure track. There were talks on refugees and sexual assault, topics which are timely and crucial to discuss. There were scholars young and old exchanging ideas, and women confidently speaking beside men without feeling the need to shrink themselves or appear unintimidating. There were calls to share our expertise with those in other fields, and those on the front lines of early education. More than this, there were people showing up, ready and able to meet these new challenges and spread the love and the expertise.
It’s hard to be down on experts when they wear their love for their subjects right out there on their sleeves. It’s a privilege to be among them, and to learn from them. On the outside of Victoria College, where much of the conference was spent, is an inscription: “The Truth Shall Make You Free” (behind me in the picture). For me, and many of the medievalists I had the pleasure of spending the weekend with, getting together and working to learn the truth about history sure does feel like freedom