Kalamazoo and Back, I: Arrival and Accommodations

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.

Goldsworth Valley Complex, Western Michigan University

Goldsworth Valley Complex, Western Michigan University

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:

  1. 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.
  2. My room was partly serving as a store for disassembled beds. I felt as if I’d been put up in a lumber room.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
Geese on Goldsworth Pond, Western Michigan University

Geese on Goldsworth Pond, Western Michigan University

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…

39 responses to “Kalamazoo and Back, I: Arrival and Accommodations

  1. I’ve had scientists incredulously check with me, “Do you guys really read out your papers from a text?”

    As a person from a science background, I said something very like this to Kathy Talarico (City University of New York – I’ve looked for her in vain the last 2 years). I think she was a bit surprised – this is 10 years ago – and told me that humanities/social sciences do this. When in Rome – but I’m very used to putting together a visual presentation based on findings/experiences and saving the paper for publishing somewhere.

    I had never thought of the mixed gender bathrooms until Larry’s comment – I figured the floor sides were gender-segregated though husbands and wives do attend so in retrospect that might be difficult.

    Don’t get me started on Canada geese – in the Midwest they’re weeds with wings. And protected.

    • Scientific papers in print are quite different to humanities ones, however, so I can imagine how the distinction has arisen. I mean, one can’t easily read graphs of data or equations aloud, they don’t convey much sense like that and they’re not constructed so as to be read out. Papers based around those are already multimedia in an important sense. In the humanities the actual written word remains naturally important, and we step away from it only uncomfortably.

      Canada geese are a problem in the UK too, or certainly have been, though the ecology seems to have balanced them out. It used to be feared that they would drive out swans, but the swans have proved capable of holding their own.

    • They are supposed to be gender segregated; somehow my accommodations weren’t.

      • Well, yours wasn’t the only case I found on the Internet, though I couldn’t subsequently remember where the other post was. So unless that was the person you were sharing with, there were at least two people in the ‘wrong’ bathroom…

  2. Gender-mixed bathrooms without locked doors or anything? How barbarous!

    I wonder what the attraction is of universities to vile fowl. At the University of Queensland, one flees if an ibis approaches. Those things are terrifying, antediluvian beasts- fanged and clawed and hold a loathing for humanity deep in their black hearts.

    • Well, the gender aspect doesn’t particularly worry me but I can imagine it bothering others, and of course I’m on the statistically safer side so it’s easier for me not to be bothered. I’m more concerned about the possibility of being disturbed ‘at stool’ by someone I’ve never met before.

      I was going to reply to the second bit too but find myself stumped by an inability to construct the plural of ‘ibis’. Ibes? Iboi? Ibises seems very unsatisfactory.

      • You can see why I phrased the second part as I did. I, too, have no idea of what the plural of- of- of those birds would be.

        • Having applied my advanced skills in research (and curious as just what sort of beast you were discussing) I have utlized these 6 words, certain to fill a researcher in any field with horror – ergo, I found it on the Internet (I have a bucket full of stories related to this as I’m sure most do).

          Anyway, based on Wikipedia, “The ibises (collective plural ibis[1]; classical plurals ibides[2][3] and ibes[3])” as found at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibis.

          Though might I say, at least Canada Geese are pleasant to look at – those pictured on the Wikipedia article look like some strange species of vulture.

          Here we have created an entirely new subspecies, resident Canada Geese – as opposed to migratory. I’m not a wildlife biologist but I have a feeling that if we give it a few thousand years of birds interbreeding based on an extremely reduced gene pool, we may find some strange things happening at ponds and lakes around the country – sort of our own mini-Galapagos.

          This really isn’t Medieval any longer is it? I’ll shut up now.

          • I think of ibises as Egyptian, ergo Classical rather than medieval (I realise that both Egypt and ibises (yes, that seems to be what I’ve settled for) continued to exist after the Romans but I’m pretty sure it was as facets of Classical civilisation I met them). I had no idea they ranged as far as Australia. I also didn’t realise quite how distressed they looked. Then I thought: what I know about these birds is that at least one subspecies climbs into crocodiles’ mouths for its sustenance. This is not the breakfast of champions.

          • Oh, vultures are charming creatures, full of wit and energy, compared to the dreadful ibis. Foul things, descended from creatures God allowed to drown in the flood of his wrath.

            As for your fancy research: Bah! :P

        • I think it might just be Ibis…?

        • The OED has:

          Pl. ibises; also (now rarely) ibides, ibes.

  3. I’m sat here, reading the description of the toilets and suddenly my 2 year old pipes up “Mummy, why are you making a face? What are you looking at?” He wouldn’t believe that it was just writing, and the mental images, that caused me to look so disgusted. It does, indeed, sound “scummy”.

    I’m even more appalled by the thought of tea being so terrible that coffee is a better option.

    I know, I know, I stop over to share the most worthwhile things.

    • Good coffee is a thing it took me far too long to learn to appreciate, and now that I do I fully accept the counter-claim of the US citizens I know that it’s far easier to find good coffee in the US. That said, it’s not what I need in the morning. Leeds also provides kettles, tea-bags and instant coffee in the kitchens but I don’t expect that in the USA because electric kettles aren’t really practical on the 110V power system. On the other hand, the Leeds rooms also have shared kitchens!

      • Ahem — electric kettles work just fine here. I’ve got one at home and one in the office. They take a teeny bit longer to work, but honestly not much. They are readily available, too!

        We just aren’t a nation of tea-drinkers, which is why I have to spend exorbitant amounts on drinkable tea (although it’s still far cheaper than good coffee, which Starbucks isn’t imo)

  4. As I understand it, the stall is placed next to the door to one of the rooms, so that when that door is opened into the bathroom, it automatically swings over to shut off the stall. So if your room’s on the stall’s side, then you can close off the stall by leaving your room’s door open and if it’s on the other you have a chance to shout a warning before the person gets through the door.

    It’s still a bloody stupid arrangement, though.

    • These things are true, and the same is true of the shower at the other end.

      And these are student rooms, presumably shared given they’ve got two desks as well as two beds. They are spartan. I pity the West Michigan students quartered there. Limited privacy for four days is one thing but living like that for a term at a time with permanent resident company? Not my idea of fun, and no way to encourage people to behave like adults either.

      • One of the things I loved about the accommodations at Warwick when I was there for a summer was the size of the room. I really *could* work and sleep comfortably. One of the things you didn’t see was the room as students live in it. During the academic year, you would normally see two students and the furniture already there. The beds might be stacked in order to fit in a couch or comfy chair from home. There would be at least one TV, standard-sized stereo, a game console or two (because you need at least two of three: Playstation, Wii, and Xbox), plus a dorm-sized fridge and microwave, and of course their computers. Sometimes there are non-required books, but seldom, unless the students are leisure readers.

      • My room only had one desk and dresser – and closet. I think the closet is key – I can’t imagine that they’d force college students to share that.

        • Mine had two beds, two desks and a long open hanger rail and shelf, no actual closet. Maybe as ADM says they bring their own furniture… but that seems like something few students would own or want to. Something with lockable storage would definitely be a desideratum, though, wouldn’t it?

  5. I can only concur Jon. If I had someone to share with, it would be the Radisson for me, but just too pricey on my bugdet!
    One point to add to the horror is the fascinating way in which none of the sheets supplied is actually large enough to cover the bed and/or tuck in on both sides (let alone all 4). Lots of my American acquaintances drive to the ‘Zoo from long distances simply in order to bring a car load of bedding with them. (In which case, the accommodation would seem considerably less worse.) But the problem of dodgy bathrooms remains. This year I had a shower which had no adjustable flow: it was either off, or you were trying to stand up in the middle of a Hurricane at sea. Um… ‘bracing’ is the nicest way to describe it. All good, wholesome, family fun. :)

    • Oh gods, yes, the assault shower, I’d forgotten about that. I was just so pleased with figuring out how to make it run hot that I more or less took the bruising as the price of the achievement.

  6. heptarchyherald

    Ah, America. Always an adventure…

  7. My God, you British types have really become a nation of pansies, haven’t you. If you’re going going to come to Kalamazoo, you ought really to keep a few things in mind:

    1. No pain, no gain. Suffering is preliminary to enlightenment, so just consider the prison-like accommodations a necessary part of the educational process. Alternatively, you may think of it as a camping trip and prepare accordingly.

    2. This is not and never shall be a nation of tea-drinkers, so just shut it with your incessant winge-ing. You can buy one of those electric coil thingies at a hardware store and brew tea in your chambers until it comes out of your ears.

    3. You might consider renting a car if you fly into Chicago or Detroit. It’s not very expensive, and if you’re able to drive on the right side of the road, it extends your mobility enormously at the conference.

    4. As for the shared bathrooms, you need to conquer your fear of being discovered whilst pooping. It just doesn’t happen. I don’t why it doesn’t happen, but it just doesn’t. It’s sort of mystical.

    5. Take solace from the fact that if this were really the Middle Ages (instead of some ongoing phantasy we’re collectively having about them), you would be sleeping nights on a straw mattress in the same bed with a half-dozen other conference participants.

    6. Go find one of those medieval excrement scholars and inquire at what point in history humans began to require to sleep and to poop in absolute privacy — I mean, they don’t do this in the British Army, do they? I am convinced that capitalism is somehow responsible, but am uncertain how exactly.

    • My God, you British types have really become a nation of pansies.

      Oh no, it’s a distinct quality of my own. Perhaps in deference to others reading, though, you might find less sexually-loaded terms of abuse. The important difference between the British Army (whose barracks I may know a bit more about than you do: there are bolts on the loo stalls of those I’ve seen) and an academic conference is that the Army pays its soldiers, whereas here the ‘soldiers’ were paying for these rooms. Capitalism is probably responsible for that, too, depending on when you think it started. Feel free to discuss that.

      • Oh dear, I do apologize for my insensitivity. Actually I was thinking of that awfully funny line in Eric Newby’s “Walk in the Hindu Kush,” when he and his equally knackered companion chance upon the professional explorer Wilfrid Thesiger in some incredibly remote place in Afghanistan. They are carrying camping stuff, and Thesiger, who has apparently developed a facility for sleeping naked on the open rocks, says mockingly, My God, you are a couple pansies, aren’t you.
        But don’t you think the inquiry into changing concepts of intimacy and private spheres is a legitimate historical question? Think of those long rows of open-holed marble toilets in the bath houses at Pompeii — it must have seemed odd to patrons to want to transact their excretions in private. Maybe they viewed it as a social occasion, or perhaps as an opportunity to talk business.

        • Sorry, I may have over-reacted; I should have known better not least because a certain amount of clicking links led me to realise that since you wrote this you’re probably not approaching with the ideological set I’d briefly assumed. (‘You might also like this…‘).

          As to the actual question, well, yes, I think I do agree with you that there’s a question there. I presume that it goes to an extent with separate accommodations and privacy actually being available. One paper I saw about Alfred the Great’s court stressed the lack of privacy, and the old story about the crowds outside the Versailles bedrooms the evening of a royal wedding might tend similarly. But kings are public figures, of course. At the other end, the peasantry are unlikely to have been able to aspire to separation of washing and toilet functions from the household by very much distance, and presumably these things would all have been done outside until very late. Capitalism must hinder this initially, if by capitalism we mean industrial capitalism (which I usually don’t—I’ve got people in my material time-sharing mills for profit, after all), because of cramming workers together in tiny houses so much. But eventually, a private bathroom becomes an aspiration within their reach, and presumably at other social levels much earlier. I wouldn’t want to put dates to any of it myself but I suppose someone is working on it or has done so.

          The question of disposal must also be a factor. It’s harder to be fastidious about contact with excrement if one’s going to have to shovel it oneself…

          • We were honored by your presence at Kalamazoo, and you’re absolutely right to describe its several inconveniences so as to forewarn future participants. But from our perspective — and I’m not speaking merely as a sophisticated San Franciscan en route in the American hinterlands — it’s a miracle that something like Kazoo could happen to begin with. After all, there aren’t that many campuses here with the ability to support up to 4000 visitors over a five-day period. So one simply endures what must be endured, and it does seem to help if one views it more as a camping trip than a nicely-appointed holiday.

            Thank you for looking at Plainfeather’s Blog, which I’m afraid is a monstrous hodgepodge (today absorbed with Biden’s ridiculous comments about Gaza on Public Television earlier this week) compared to your own well-ordered and carefully-reasoned assault upon the Internet.

            “Locating Homosexuality in Carolingian Monasteries” convinced me that there is a wealth of unexplored material in Alcuin’s correspondence and poems, and among his clerical contemporaries as well (in MGH: Poetae Latini aevi Carolini). I follow M&M regularly, but the article you reference doesn’t make mention of the 9th-10th c. texts from German monasteries, which as far as I can see nobody has seriously studied (Buswell just skims over it)– I suppose I should have piped up with a comment on M&M.

            Actually there is so much material there that I thought it would take a couple years to sort it, but instead I have moved on to Widukind of Corvey’s Res gestae Saxonicae, which, unaccountably, remains only partially translated. The Saxons had been fighting with the Franks for centuries until, as W. charmingly puts it, Charlemagne “made us so speak one people in the Christian faith” — that has to be the biggest understatement of the entire tenth century — and now that the Saxons have gotten the upper hand and seized since 962 most of what used to be Charlemagne’s empire, Widukind wants us to know how it happened.

            We may take especial comfort in this, since we are presently conversing in a highly-modified dialect of the Old Saxon language, the original ancestor of English.

            If I may know your email address, I would be happy to send for your archives a .pdf of my translation of Walafrid’s On the Cultivation of Gardens, which brings some interesting snippets of information on 10th c. life. Richard Pollard, whom I was pleased to encounter last year at Kazoo, seemed to like it, and together you both may be the only persons in the U.K. to own a copy. The nearest purchasable printed copy is I think in the gift shop on the Insel Reichenau, which I suspect is too far to travel, despite the doubtless improved accommodations.

            • The Insel isn’t currently in my travel plans, I do admit, but Richard’s recommendation is good enough for me, plus which, I’ve been quite taken with Walahfrid’s garden catalogue since I met it in Dutton’s anthology long ago. My e-mail address is here. Thankyou!

              The complete change of heart between Widukind, and, well, Widukind, has always struck me as one of the most astonishing successes of the Carolingian ideological project, ever since I first read Tim Reuter’s Germany in the Early Middle Ages and realised that he was right, even Louis the Pious always found ready help in Saxony. It does make one wonder how deeply the pagan religion was rooted there.

              The scale of Kalamazoo is indeed impressive—I don’t think there’s anywhere obvious that could handle it in the UK either, which is why Leeds is smaller of course, and I do realise that they can only offer the accommodation they have. I suppose that my hope is that no-one reading this will book for either Leeds or Kalamazoo without being aware of what they’ll get if they opt for the cheap accommodation, and can therefore decide whether they’re as fastidious as I am or not.

  8. Pingback: Kalamazoo and Back, II: ritual, chronicles and arm-wrestling « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  9. Pingback: Kalamazoo and Back, III: bloggers, bishops, Bavaria and bastions* « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  10. Pingback: At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part II « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

  11. Pingback: At last, Kalamazoo 2011… Part IV « A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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