Providing a beginner’s guide to the largest medieval conference in the world is no easy feat in 800 words or less. Here are just some of the things to expect during your first visit to Kalamazoo.
Kalamazoo in a Nutshell
The annual International Congress on Medieval Studies is the largest international medieval conference in the world, with over 3000 delegates in attendance. It brings together students and scholars from all disciplines who are interested in anything and everything medieval. An inside source told me that the conference brings in about $3 million for the local economy once you factor in things like travel, accommodation, sales, food and drink!
Where on earth is Kalamazoo?
The conference is held at Western Michigan University (WMU) in the small US city of Kalamazoo (Pop. 75,000), about two hours west of Detroit and two and a half hours east of Chicago.
The sessions themselves are held in several teaching rooms and lecture theatres across the large site. A minibus is even provided for those who aren’t up for walking, but it’s almost always quicker to do the twenty-minute trek across campus on foot. WMU is a very green campus, with a lake similar to the University of Nottingham’s, and with leafy halls situated in a similar setting to ‘The Vale’ at the University of Birmingham.
The conference lasts four days, and there are three main sessions a day (10AM-11:30AM, 1:30PM-3PM and 3:30PM-5PM) with larger keynote lectures at 9AM and in the evening. Complimentary tea and coffee is served in-between sessions and this can be a great time to network with other attendees.
The main sessions are normally three or four 15-20 minute papers based on original research, with an opportunity for Q+A or discussion at the end.
Sessions are provided on a massive variety of topics covering a broadly defined ‘medieval’ period of roughly 400-1600AD. You’ll often find yourself torn between several papers in different sessions that you really want to attend. There are also a number of sessions devoted to modern approaches to the Middle Ages, such as those on J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and even medieval-themed video games!
Where to Stay
Accommodation is… interesting! It all depends on your budget.
For myself, a humble postgrad, I opted to stay in ‘The Valleys’, three massive multi-storey student halls of residence on campus. These halls contain large, basic rooms, which you can either share with a friend or have to yourself, with a shared bathroom. The problem with the shared bathrooms is that they’re accessed from individual bedrooms, not from the main corridor. The person sharing with you also has access to the bathroom via their own door, which means there’s worrying potential for your neighbour to walk in on you! (Thankfully I avoided this fate, mostly through tactical coughing and whistling).
Each attendee is provided with a few sheets and towels, but otherwise the room is very spartan – breeze-block walls, simple wooden furniture, and no possibility of altering the radiator, which never seemed to switch off, even in the 25+ Celsius heat of a late Michigan spring!! Thankfully they’re building new accommodation blocks ready for 2016.
If your budget is a little less restricted, nicer accommodation such as the Radisson Hotel is available off-campus, and the conference puts on a free minibus from the centre of the city to the University which is about a 5-10minute drive.
Medievalists let their hair down!
It’s not all serious study and historical discussion though – there are plenty of informal opportunities to socialise with your fellow academics during the conference.
Evening receptions are hosted by different academic institutions and societies and often provide open bars and/or free food! It’s a great opportunity to talk to medievalists with similar interests to your own, but you’re free to attend whichever you like, regardless of your field!
On the final evening the University hosts a dance, which is a really surreal experience. The largest lecture room is transformed into a dancefloor with tables and bars at one side. A DJ plays a variety of classics until 1:30AM, and the whole event has the feeling of a family wedding – everyone is in a great mood, catching up with old friends, but no-one can really dance, and you see top-level professors attempting to strut their stuff…
A couple of less serious papers are also given on this evening, before the dance takes place. These are known as the Pseudo-Society papers and are generally a cross between stand-up comedy and academic lecture. Four papers were given this year, one of which linked Njal’s Saga to the origins of Ikea!
Kalamazoo is a fantastic conference and one that every medievalist should attend if given the opportunity. Just remember to bring plenty of money for the book fair and to leave expectations of luxury behind!
For more info, visit the conference website.
Tom Rochester is just finishing the 2nd year of a PhD in Medieval History at the University of Birmingham, studying the Venerable Bede and miracles. He gave a paper entitled ‘The Place of Luke-Acts in Constructing Bede’s Ecclesiastical History’ at the 50th International Congress on Medieval Studies, 14th-17th May 2015.