At the recent International Congress on Medieval Studies, at Western Michigan University, I received a mild surprise when I opened my envelope of conference materials: My badge had my name, the Congress logo, and a large blank space below my name where I was accustomed to seeing my college’s name.
That’s right; contrary to the norms of academic conferences, the badge said nothing of where I was from. Wondering if this were a mistake, I quickly glanced around the room where confreres came and went and saw that no one had an institutional identity on his or her badge. Mirabile Mirabilis! Was this a new custom of the castle?
Well, at least there was now something to talk about at lunch. Of course, instead of glancing at a lunch partner’s badge and asking, "So what do you do at …?" I would have to ask, "So where are you from?" after which I figured the conversation could slip into safe, familiar channels (I’m used to this: The badges at the Conference on College Composition carry the conventioneer’s hometown rather than institution, so conversations quickly go the same way). If nothing else, there would be the topic of the blank spot below our names.
I imagined there would be inconveniences. This is a conference where many foreign accents and languages are heard, and it helps to know if someone is from Gröningen, Gdansk, or the Gutenberg Press (hey, some of us have book proposals to pitch). And sometimes one is happy to run across another who works with out-of-touch friends and schoolmates, something that can only be discerned from seeing a university name upon the badge.
These nuisances aside, the blank space below my name seemed downright chivalrous, as befits a medieval studies conference (and there were a few sessions on chivalry). It was one of the polite fictions of chivalry that all knights were fundamentally equal in their knighthood regardless of whether one was the Holy Roman Emperor or a pauper who couldn’t afford to keep his charger in oats. As in chivalry, so it was here: we’re all medievalists. Does anything else matter?
Well, yes, it does, and the polite fiction that all professors are created equal runs about as far as the selfsame fiction about knights.
At a scholarly conference, almost everything conspires to convey the notion that research is the privileged activity of our profession, and that, ergo, those whose badges say “I research” are the worthiest -- a good reason, I suppose, for the conference organizers to gamely try to suppress that signifier (and, to its credit, the medievalists’ group regularly offers a handful of sessions exclusively devoted to teaching – more than any other research-oriented conference I’ve attended).
It isn’t just the fact that we’re all here to exchange scholarship. When I catch up with a former professor from my prestigious grad program and begin waxing effusively about what I’m teaching, she cuts me short with, “But you are still writing, I hope” (I must be, since you are reading, but perhaps this isn’t what she meant). When my dissertation director asks me what I’m working on now, I know instinctively he’s not all that interested in how I taught the freshman research writing course.
Even at a session on “Teaching the Middle Ages at the Small Liberal Arts College,” a pleasant 90 minutes in which a tiny band commiserated and exchanged tricks for Monday morning (and got in the castle gate by disguising those tricks as scholarship), I felt a sense that we were huddled together, putting up a brave front against the profession’s real priorities. Other sessions discussed the hermeneutic practices of Cistercian monks and the play of signifiers in Chaucer. We discussed how to get our students to use the dictionary.
While, in the end, all of us at that session have found contentment, identity, and even a sense of calling teaching 12-credit loads at small liberal arts colleges or second-tier state institutions, nary one of us sits at table or in session across from a nametag advertising “Harvard” or “U. California” or “Carnegie Mellon” without a touch of envy and an anxious vacillation between self-affirmation and self doubt. But this is what I wanted, I tell myself. And I’m good at it. Teaching -- that’s what matters, anyway, not those obscure articles almost no one reads. Then again … could I have done something differently? Was it bad luck, or bad timing? Did I compromise too readily? Was I really not good enough?
As I popped my badge into its plastic holder, I mused that pride was the deadliest of deadly sins (there were sessions on those, too, for anyone who hasn’t yet mastered them) and wondered: how long could this comity last? Not very, it turned out. I signed in Thursday morning, but by Thursday afternoon pens had been drawn and ink had been spilled. The first sighting was of a young lady who had written in large, legible letters under her name, “U. Toronto.” Then a few more popped up: Cornell. Yale. UCLA. All were sported by young adults who seemed to be grad students preening in their quality coats of arms, and I mused, "Flaunt it while you’ve got it. It won’t be long before you’ll be grateful to sign a contract to teach remedial writing at the Jonathan Edwards School for Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God." (I admit it. I’m prone to envy, with its accompanying bitterness and spite.)
And indeed, as a few more nametags popped up with handwritten university names upon them, I remarked that no one was advertising that he was from The Diminutive College of the Magna Mea Culpa, That Affordable Place across Town, or the Jim Bowie College of Cutlery Science. The handful who wrote in their colleges all touted names that suggested prestige, privilege, and class. And that’s chivalry. Where you’re from is who you are. Descent is destiny. Some knights are more equal than others.
On Friday I lunched with my dissertation director and some fellow medieval drama folk. One among us, this time a senior professor, had written “UCLA” under his name. He was engaged in an animated discussion about the trials of running department meetings with 65 members, when I interrupted: "My department has only six."
There was a moment of surprised silence and astonished looks, after which he asked me, "And where would that be?"
I told him. He smiled and reached into his pocket, pulled out a nylon-tip pen, and offered it to me, saying, “Would you care to write that on your badge?” It was gracious. Courteous. Chivalrous.
I accepted, borrowed his pen, and wrote, “The College of St. Elizabeth.”
"I’m leading a rebellion,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Against what? I had to wonder, as I returned his pen. The new custom? The whole game of signifying prestige?
So for the rest of the conference, I happily bore my coat of arms, for which I received a few strange looks. Was it for violating the custom of the castle? For daring to advertise such a lineage? For mocking a prerogative of the prestigious? It may, of course, have merely been for my sloppy handwriting. Perhaps I was a curiosity of sorts as I entered the lists, my visor up and my heraldry fully visible, armed with nothing but a fresh bag of tricks for Monday morning.
And yet, revealing my origin was mostly to my benefit. It led to conversations with other small Roman Catholic college teachers who wanted to compare notes. One priest struck up a conversation about a nun of the order that founded my college whose spiritual conferences he had read. Monks and nuns looked kindly upon me. And conversations tended to begin, “So what do you do at the College of St. Elizabeth?” or “Where exactly is that?”
Folks largely behaved as if seeing my college name was normal -- because it is, I suppose.
John Marlin is a professor of English at the small but spirited College of St. Elizabeth, in Morristown, New Jersey. He teaches writing, journalism and literature -- from Aeschylus to Austen.
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