Last May, I had the privilege of attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. (Affectionately called K’zoo or the Zoo by medievalists who attend.) This trip was a rather exciting career experience, because it’s one of the largest medieval conferences in the world, and I was presenting a paper. Due to a series of strange circumstances, it ended up being my second conference paper presentation (my first was at the CCCC two months earlier. I’m still a very green academic). All-in-all, my paper went fairly well. I was entirely unhappy with it, but I got some compliments on it. The other two presenters in my session were fascinating and left me with a lot to think about regarding my paper. I also have several ideas for expanding the research I did for this paper. That in itself was rewarding, because I hadn’t written the paper for a seminar. I researched it completely independently, and I was worried that it was actually a strange tangent from my other research interests. I also got to attend several very good sessions, including some interesting papers on translation theory and practice, medievalisms in video games, and an excellent paper by Elaine Treharne on The Silence and Noise in Middle English, 1016-1066.
Come Saturday morning, I was feeling very good about the conference, but I was also exhausted. Little sleep, constantly going, and I’m not as young as I once was. Three of us, from the group who had traveled up together, had decided to leave after the 1:30 session on Saturday. Since I was rooming by myself, this meant that Saturday morning I could wake up slowly, get my coffee and bagel, and pick a fun session to attend by myself. Since I was exhausted and leaving that afternoon, with no networking that really needed to be done, I decided to wear jeans and a nice-ish t-shirt. I decided to attend the Charrette Project’s session on Medieval Literature and Celtic Studies, because I’m very interested in Celtic Studies and how they might fit into my own research. Since this wasn’t my area, I figured I’d sit in the back, take notes, and be generally low-key and out of the way. This ended up being both a blessing and a curse.
The session was an abysmal disappointment. And consider, I ascribe that description to this panel, even though I sat through a terrible paper on video games that had no argument and was basically a loose conglomeration of theoretical terms with no definition and no application. No, this panel made that paper seem refreshing. It started off promising. The presider was very dry, but academics are not performers. A couple of the graduate student papers piqued my interest, but as the final speaker read his paper, I felt the blood drain from my face. I started looking for an exit, but I hadn’t sat in the back. I’d sat in the middle on the aisle, and the room had filled up. I was horribly aware of how casually I’d dressed. I felt like the paper was about me. I found myself shrinking into my chair, trying to control my dubious expression so that I wouldn’t draw attention to myself. He was speaking about Wicca, and, as expected, he wasn’t speaking kindly.
The final paper was entitled “Medieval Literature and Modern Celtic Culture: The High Road and the Low Road”, presented by William Calin from the University of Florida. The presider made a big deal about how honored they were that Dr. Calin was presenting as part of their panel (the other four papers were presented by graduate students and the presider was also a graduate student). I expected, therefore, a well thought-out and scholarly rigorous paper. Dr. Calin’s paper was anything but. “The Low Road”, for Dr. Calin, is the appropriation of Celtic cultures by modern American “pop-culture,” however, his focus was Neo-Pagan and New Age religions, not “pop-culture.” Rather than examining this appropriation in a critical manner, Dr. Calin simply listed some of the titles that can be found in the “New Age” section of major booksellers. Many of the titles he listed (such as Silver Ravenwolf’s “To Ride a Silver Broomstick”) didn’t actually have anything to do with Celtic culture. The more titles he listed, the more titters he got from the audience. It was surreal. He spoke condescendingly about a colleague, who is Wiccan, and about her coven. He apparently “researched” Wicca by browsing internet forums (a not completely illegitimate research method), and from the postings there, he drew the conclusion that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon is Wicca’s “holy scripture.” At that point, I really wanted to throw a religious studies scholar at him.
The most appalling part was the laughter he was drawing from the audience. It was as if all of the Celtic studies scholars, anxious in their place within the humanities, had gathered to make fun of pop-Celtico-mania and New Age spiritualities because they saw these things as a threat to how serious other scholars would take their discipline. And maybe that was it. Not once did Dr. Calin consider how Wicca functioned as a religion. His charge was some sort of post-colonial vilifying, which seems backwards and unjustified since it was directed at American culture.
The moment that finally made me bolt was during the question and answer session. A woman sitting four seats down from me raised her hand and said, “I just feel the need to clear my name, since I worked with Bill on the conference in question. I am not a witch.”
It was too much. I was loosing respect for my profession with each word. What I wanted to do was stand up and say, “Well, I am a witch, and this is the most unscholarly excuse for a paper that I have ever heard. Dr. Calin’s criticism was unrigorous, poorly researched and showed a complete lack knowledge of religious studies methods. I am deeply offended, and shocked by the behavior of everyone in this room. You should all be ashamed of your behavior.”
But I was aware of my lack of makeup and my jeans and my only slightly dressed up t-shirt.
Most importantly, I was aware of the fact that raising my hand would out me. My professional life and my spiritual life would come crashing together in public. And Dr. Calin had just proven to me that the Academy is not ready to accept Witchcraft or Neo-Paganism within its walls.