This week has had the slightly unexpected joy of attending the 2020 IMC (International Medieval Conference) from the comfort of my own armchair!
I’ve only been to the ‘real’ IMC once, back in 2016, and despite getting completely overwhelmed by the thousands of people and panels and having a panic attack at the disco (Panic! At the Disco!) – yes, there was a disco, full of medievalists wearing clothes with things like ‘Vote Charlemagne – make Francia Great Again’ and ‘I feel the need for Bede’ – I had a great time. I was meant to return in July 2017, that time to present a paper based on my dissertation. Due to recognising my own ill health though (about a fortnight later, I went to Italy and got diagnosed with a brain tumour. The rest, as they say, is history.
(Photo of me at IMC 2016 and IMC 2020)
This year, because of coronavirus, the entire conference was virtual – so I signed in on my laptop, settled down with copious cups of tea and spent most of the week listening to people enthusing about history! I heard papers about female spirituality, about medieval baptism and different concepts of disability, among other things. The vast majority were fascinating, even when they weren’t in my field at all. Something I’ve always loved about my discipline is its diversity – it covers such a wide period in terms of time and place, even if Europe still is often a dominant force. I went to a lot of papers that were focused on gender, sexuality, disability and race (and would have been at more but due mostly to trying to pace myself, I didn’t make it to some). I think I managed not to go to any manels, although a lot of the panels were all white – medieval studies has a definite race problem, and some people are working really hard to confront it.
My reflections on making conferences more accessible and whether virtual conferences are the way to go are coming in a few days but for now I just wanted to get my initial thoughts out. Over the last three years I haven’t been able to do very much academic work at all and the last conference I was able to go to was Gender and Transgression at St Andrews back in May 2017. Getting back into that world again was brilliant. It was utterly exhausting – just listening to people talk about things is very draining, especially when you aren’t used to it. It being online had a very big advantage of being able to ‘escape’ when I needed to. I didn’t attend the socials like quizzes and the disco – I’m not very good at socialising at the best of times, and I was trying to pace myself to make the most of the panels and papers, but the one non-panel thing I went to ended up being my highlight of the week – my friend Daisy Black’s beautiful storytelling performance. Although most of the conference was only open to registered delegates (and, unfortunately, some trolls) this was available on Facebook Live. It may still be there, and if it is, it is well worth seeing!
My ‘conference companion’ was my nun-duck, Billdegard Von Wingen (a gift from my friend Kimm) and she also enjoyed it, looking especially excited whenever her namesake was mentioned. In true Leeds tradition, I had cooked breakfast on two mornings, except I could have it from the comfort of my own house!
To finish then, before I turn my thoughts to what can be learnt from virtual conferences, a few very important thank yous. Firstly, to everyone who presented – all the papers I saw were so interesting and the presenters and moderators did a great job, especially when confronted with the challenges of trolls, internet connections and other technology things and having a whole new world to get used to very quickly. Secondly, to Melanie, without whom my attendance wouldn’t have been possible. In the words of the aliens from Toy Story, I am eternally grateful! And finally, a thank you to the IMC itself and all its organisers.