Okay, having now written about all the things that happened before I went I really need to get down to writing up Kalamazoo. I think that the way to go here is a post per day of conference, which means that the first day doesn’t actually have any academic content, at least as long as I measure ‘day’ as ‘space between periods of sleep at night’ rather than measuring it by the clock. So instead maybe this is the place for an overview before doing details.
When I wrote up Leeds of 2008 I wound it up with a summary post trying to give a flavour of the whole conference, and a few people responded saying, “yup, sounds like Kalamazoo” or similar. Being much more familiar with Leeds, I was inevitably drawing comparisons throughout the experience of Kalamazoo, and those seem to be the best way to generalise, so here goes.
Point 1, Leeds is smaller than Kalamazoo. This is true in a number of ways, but they interact strangely. I said to a lot of people that Leeds has half the number of people in a third of the space. Actually I suspect the figures are less severe than that but the proportion is probably right. The physical space occupied by the conference at Leeds is smaller and quite a lot of it is not normally teaching space, so the rooms available in it are only just sufficient and not usually very big. Kalamazoo has far more large rooms available, and they’re much more distant from each other. This meant that I felt much less squashed in, both in the sessions themselves and in the phases of movement between them. Also, because of the distances I suppose, the gaps between sessions at Kalamazoo are longer, and the scenery of the campus more agreeable (though also a lot more precipitous). Also, the sessions are timed differently: a ten o’clock start and only one morning session may leave the people with the evening sessions without an audience, but it suits my Circadian polyrhythms a lot better than nine o’clock and six papers before lunch. The whole conference thus seemed much more relaxed and less rushed and packed and so on. I enjoyed this a lot.
Point 2, however, Leeds is a lot more plugged-in than Kalamazoo. At Leeds it would be an unusual session where no-one used a data projector, and most of the session rooms have one (if it’s been booked, anyway). At Kalamazoo sessions with no visual aids at all were not unusual, where I went, projectors seem to be sparsely distributed and they had sometimes been requested but not been made available. In what may be a linked point, far more people actually read their papers from a text than I’m used to in the UK. It does happen in the UK, and it is something that I’ve had scientists incredulously check with me, “Do you guys really read out your papers from a text?” and so on as if it’s some weird religious practice held over in the humanities because of our innate connection with the Dark Ages. All the same, it is not encouraged especially, it’s feared to damage one’s presentation and make it dull. Now, I tend to react against this, figuring that (perhaps unlike scientists) writing is part of what we’ve learned and that we can usually write a text that reads out well, probably better than improvise a talk. I don’t read myself, but I have a text to fall back on. So, there was a culture difference here I noticed, although it didn’t damage the papers as far as I was concerned.
Point 3: the campus food is better at Leeds. Sorry, but it is. Not by much, but people risk it rather than plot alternatives, and the breakfasts are life-savers which make the queue to get them almost worthwhile. (No real queues at Kalamazoo though, in their favour.) The coffee, on the other hand, is better at Kalamazoo, though I know this because the tea, which I would usually favour, was so dreadful that I was forced onto the coffee instead. Finding that Mug Shots actually used boiling water to make ‘hot tea’ with really made my conference dramatically more possible. On which subject! I must have mentioned this song to a thousand people, because it is TRUE.
I even have a teabag wrapper with those actual instructions on that was brought back from the USA for me by a fellow sufferer, and here it is.
You see, Ginger Baker is not making it up, unlike that incredible drum part. I mean, guys, I could believe that that Boston Harbour business was a serious attempt to brew up given the standards of tea I have met in the US. So, Mug Shots, thank goodness and hurrah.
Anyway, Point 4: Kalamazoo has no focal points apart from the wine hours. If you want to find someone at Leeds, there are two bars to check and most people will pass through them at some point or be on the grass in front of Bodington Hall enjoying the afternoon sun. Apart from anything else, the town is a long walk away, and the shuttle buses infrequent, and driving is less usual there. At Kalamazoo, there are no bars, people go out, usually have cars, and you actually need to arrange to find people or risk being left without friends and having to make new ones or go back to your room. Happily, I could usually forecast which of the receptions people I knew would be at, but it does take a bit more planning. Also, it’s much easier to get lost at Kalamazoo so planning counts here too.
Point 5, on going back to one’s room. OK, in the Leeds report I put a photo of the basic dormitory room you get there and someone said that it seemed much like Kalamazoo standards. Now, yes, from the photo you could even think that, because there are some things I just didn’t dream of mentioning, so basic did I think them:
- bathrooms – when I said that the bathrooms at Leeds are shared, I didn’t express this properly; they are large rooms off the corridor with multiple, lockable shower, toilet and bath stalls, shared between maybe twenty people each. You can go in and shower or whatever secure in the knowledge that other than needing to keep a towel gripped about you in transit, you are safe from interruption. At Kalamazoo the basic dorm rooms share their own bathroom with the neighbouring room, and there are no locks, or indeed doors, on the toilet stall or the shower. So, not only can your neighbour surprise you in either act, but also, because of how the locks are set up, while you’re in the shower they can go straight through into your room and rifle the drawers or whatever. I didn’t like this possibility, though the gentleman scholar opposite never availed himself of it I should say, and nor did I of course. I mean, I trust most of my colleagues more or less implicitly, but I gather these room pairs aren’t even gender-segregated, and really, these are worries you don’t have at Leeds.
- My room was partly serving as a store for disassembled beds. I felt as if I’d been put up in a lumber room.
- Perhaps connectedly, the floor was unswept as I arrived. At Leeds one’s room is cleaned daily. This is one of those things that I wouldn’t even have considered worth mentioning, so expected is it when one’s paying for one’s accommodation. Not so at Kalamazoo.
- bedding – actually it turns out two sheets and a thin blanket was enough to keep me warm, though keeping them on the cheap plastic mattress and slatted bed-frame was another thing entirely, but getting in at two-thirty in the morning after meeting the worst face of US customer service care of American Airlines, who were willing to dawdle forever rather than find stranded people accommodation themselves, was not a good time to find I'd have to make them into a bed myself. Again, at Leeds, you get a duvet and someone makes the bed daily and this is part of what one's paying for. What one pays for at Kalamazoo is a lot harder to work out.
- toiletries – I actually think the European trend for little complimentary bags of soap, shower gel and shampoo is a bit ridiculous, and I’m still working through a considerable stash assembled over the years because one never uses a full set in the course of a conference and I don’t like to throw them away. Nonetheless, if you’re going to make the effort at all, two tiny bars of bad white soap doesn’t really count.
- geese – I realise that this is not so much part of the accommodation standard, but, I did wish each morning that there were either fewer Canada geese on campus or else that one of them had not been allowed to develop a habit of loudly greeting the day from on top of the block in which my room was situated. That, the jetlag and the fabulous but ill-timed electrical storm that reached town about ten minutes after I’d made that bed did mean that my first day or two on site was spent in a waking daze.
So yes. I loved the conference, enjoyed the more relaxed feel of it and the seeming omni-presence of academics even in the town—I was expecting to find historians in the aisles of my local supermarket for some days after I returned—but goodness the accommodation was scummy. As to the actual events and academia, this will follow, between other things I still need to mention. Thankyou for your attention…