[Note – post written and scheduled in advance; it should go up while I’m in transit or staggering about jetlagged.
Ed – or not. I have no idea what time schedule my WordPress Dashboard is on. Never mind. You will get *a* post while I’m in transit. Possibly one about intimate encounters with statuary.]
One of the really great things about this trip has been meeting so many people. I stayed for two days with friends I’ve known since I was fifteen and yet never met until now (and their four-year-old son: I had a fabulous time on his slippery-dip and swingset). I travelled for a while with a friend who knows all the ins and outs of my thesis woes and medical problems but had never laid eyes on me; I was hosted by another internet-friend with whom I’ve had a more distant friendship for a long time; I met up with a friend who’s a classicist on archaeology camp and we went to the Polar Museum (as you do, two medievalists and a classicist out in Cambridge for the day); and baked biscuits in a fellow blogger’s kitchen.
The internet, in short, is bloody awesome. But… odd. There’s often that period of re-negotiation where you figure out how your online rapport works IRL; or there isn’t, which is even weirder. None of this is bad: bloggers rescued me from accommodation crises in London, let me tag along with their dinner outings, came to my paper at Leeds, and were generally wonderful people. But this has been one of those times when I notice, over and over again, how different the Intertubes are from regular social spheres, and even how different blog platforms lend themselves to very different sorts of on-and-offline friendships.
At Leeds I had the joy of meeting Jon Jarrett, who is fabulous; Magistra, whom I will probably always struggle to address by her first name instead of her blog-title; ADM; Gill Polack; A Stitch In Time; and a handful of other medievalists whom I knew better from livejournal, and two of whom I’d already met at ANZAMEMS. Many thanks to Jon and Magistra for organising the blog-meetup!
Leeds was intensely social – I think because of the wide range of papers, the streaming tended to mean I saw the same faces over and over again; and the conveniently centralised coffee places and bars leant themselves toward meeting up with those new faces repeatedly. I bonded with one chap who was on my panel over our respective footwear1. I made friends with another couple of people by pouncing on them with citations. I did get up the courage to introduce myself to at least one person on the list my supervisor had given me of People You Need To Speak To.
So I guess I’m not doing too badly. I met people. I don’t think I annoyed anyone terribly much. I owe my Old English tutor a bottle of wine for impressing on me the necessity of learning to hold my liquor if I ever wanted to survive major conferences.
The IAS is much less sociable, at least for me – I know far fewer people to begin with; the Australian contingent is tiny2; and although the entire conference meets in the one place for coffee twice a day, it actually seems to be harder to find anyone I recognise, perhaps because there’s so little room to spread out. It’s great being in the centre of Bristol – easier to find food, easier to get whatever one needs to do done between sessions; but that dispersion factor has its downsides. On the one hand, Leeds was hectic and it’s really nice to have time to myself at the IAS. On the other, I’m fretting a bit about talking this over with my supervisor when I get home – she loves the IAS and keeps telling me how the people I meet here will be my colleagues and contacts for the rest of my life. What if I’m doin’ it rong?
Here’s the thing: it’s hard. I’m an extrovert and it’s still really difficult. I know I’m not alone in this – if you weren’t a bit socially awkward when you came into academia, academia will make you so at some point. But it’s hard.
Leeds was hard because it pushed me into social overload (or I didn’t calculate for social overload). It reminded me of church camp when I was in high school – frenetic activity, quick-forming friendships, embarrassing disco. And with it the probability that you won’t see these people again for a year, if ever. At least academia offers other modes of communication. I can read people’s publications! Publish things they might read! Send them carrier pigeons! Besides. I just checked my finances and I have, somehow, miraculously for a grad student, enough money to do this again next year.3
With the IAS, I have the opposite problem.I’ve run out of things to say to people. And what are you supposed to do once you’ve spoken to them? (Aside from ‘start drinking’, which appeared to be the modus operandi at Leeds.) It’s not even raining, so one can’t complain about the weather. In theory, this conference ought to be easier, since it’s more specialised: but on the other hand, you can’t ask someone to explain to you obscure historical features of things you didn’t care about before and probably never will care about again. Too many specialists stifles conversation!
Someone tell me what I’m supposed to do with all these business cards I collected at Leeds? Does one follow up contact? How?
One thing I have noticed is that choice of supervisors appears to be critical. Lawrence, you’re a godsend: everyone knows you, have you noticed that? At the IAS mostly people tell me how much they miss my main supervisor, but Lawrence is much more useful as a conversation starter.
… no, this post has no argument, I just wish to express my mixture of enthusiasm and anxiety about medievalist social interactions. Comments, criticisms, commiserations, anyone?
1. I had Docs; he had Cons; we spent question time sussing each other out by our shoes. I’m not sure that I’m entirely happy with his conclusion that I came across as someone who didn’t feel at home in SRS Professional Clothes and Situations and, like him, am better suited to alt-culture situations. I figure if Natasha Stott Despoja could wear red Docs in Parliament I can wear them anywhere I please. I’m actually perfectly comfortable in my SRS Clothes and take quite a lot of pleasure in them, now that I’ve hit on a(n ecclectic) range which works for me.
2. I am pleased to report that while the other branches had SRS meetings, the Aus/NZ branch had a brainstorming session in a pub, appropriately named the White Harte.
3. Provided the Australian dollar stays above, oh, 50p. Interest rate rises also appreciated, for the good of my savings. Someone send a memo to the RBA.