Interview with Elisabeth Carnell

We are delighted to have been able to interview Elisabeth Carnell, Congress Coordinator for the International Congress on Medieval Studies, the largest academic conference for medievalists.  We wanted to get her perspective on how the congress is organized, and what one could expect for this year.

1. For those who have never attended the International Congress on Medieval Studies, how would you describe this event?

As we’ve described on our website, the Congress is an annual gathering of over 3,000 scholars interested in Medieval Studies. It features over 600 sessions of papers, panel discussions, roundtables, workshops, and performances. There are also some 90 business meetings and receptions sponsored by learned societies, associations, and institutions. The exhibits hall boasts nearly 70 exhibitors, including publishers, used book dealers, and purveyors of medieval sundries. The Congress lasts three and a half days, extending from Thursday morning until Sunday at noon.

Casually speaking, it’s a major pilgrimage point for scholars of the Middle Ages from a variety of disciplines, where the largest number of medievalists gather in one place for  professional discourse, vital networking, and formal and informal gatherings.


2. One of the ongoing issues with the congress is that it is such a large event, with hundreds of sessions and thousands of participants, leaving some to ask whether or not it has become too large. What is your perspective on this?

It’s large. It’s very large. Scheduling sessions is difficult, particularly as we have more and more need for AV-capable rooms every year. We must consider the needs of thousands of attendees when we look at transportation needs, hotels, and routes. It’s a struggle to keep chaos at bay long enough to get through each year. You can well imagine the exponential increase in Things That Can Go Wrong as our participant numbers grow.

On the other hand, the argument can be made that the sheer magnitude makes it that much more of a ‘deal’ for the scholar with a limited travel budget, as the number of pertinent sessions to attend or present in, meetings and events to schedule, and colleagues they have the opportunity to connect with is maximized. The diversity of the scholarly population present is staggering, and the opportunities to participate in this community of medievalists are as numerous.

Eventually a ceiling will be reached by sheer virtue of the available space on campus, but perhaps the questions to ask are ‘what is “too” large?’ and ‘who decides what “too” large is, anyway?’


3. You have to schedule quite a lot of sessions at a time, and since it is only a 4 day conference, you have to do a lot of work just to schedule them. I was wondering how you deal with issues such as avoiding conflicts between similar sessions and arranging things to accommodate everyone as much as possible?

Our Assistant Director, Elizabeth Teviotdale, spearheads the very difficult task of scheduling the sessions. She tells me that “the 2009 Congress will have 626 sessions, the vast majority of which (615) are scheduled in the Congress’s 12 session time slots. We endeavor to spread sessions on similar and related topics as evenly as possible across the three and a half days of the Congress. With as many as 63 sessions going on concurrently and given the interdisciplinary nature of many sessions and the sheer size of the Congress, attendees will always find, however, more than one session of interest to them at any given time. We never schedule a participant to be in two places at the same time, and we do our best to create as few conflicts as possible given the Congress’s physical limitations.”


4. What are you looking forward to seeing at this year’s congress? (Perhaps you could talk about new events, the plenaries or just sessions that you are interested in)

This year our concert offering is Music from the Hapsburg Court of Renaissance “Germany”: Sixteenth-Century Music for Tenor and Viol Consort by The Catacoustic Consort, and it should be marvelous (alas, given my schedule I haven’t been able to attend the concert since I was a mere participant, myself!)

You will be interested to know that our Friday plenary address will be given by Roberta Krueger of Hamilton College, titled “Fictions of Conduct in Medieval France,” and the Saturday plenary address, “Michael of Rhodes: A Venetian Seafarer and His Book,” will be given by Alan Stahl of  Princeton University.

Many of your readers might find the Friday evening demonstration titled “How a Man Shall Be (H)Armed: Interactions of Weapons, Armor, and Martial Techniques in the Late Middle Ages” interesting. And the Societas Fontibus Historiae Medii Aevi Inveniendis (vulgo dicta, “The Pseudo Society”) session this year is titled “Fee, Fie, Faux, Fu(m)n,” and it’s safe to say they never disappoint. (Come early to get a seat – the session is always very popular!)

There are often sessions in which I’m personally interested, but scheduling often works against me. My making an escape Thursday morning, for example, is near-impossible. On the other hand it means I won’t have to choose between two sessions I’d like to attend, J. K. Rowling’s Medievalism (session 8 ) and the Societas Alchimica organized Astronomy and Alchemy (session 48). I stubbornly make a point of scheduling enough minions to allow me to sneak away for at least one Societas Magicia session-I am very much looking forward to their roundtable New Methodologies and Paradigms in the Study of Magic (session 324).

Additionally there is my own session, Weblogs and the Academy: The Scope of the Professional and Boundaries of the Personal in Open, Pseudo-Anonymous, and Anonymous Blogging. I have co-organized the annual Weblogs and the Academy sessions with Shana Worthen since 2006. This year’s subject matter sprang out of runaway discussion last year on identity and academic voice in blogging, and it should be a very good session (if I do say so, myself.)


5. For those people interested in starting their own session at next year’s congress, what advise would you give them on developing a proposal?

The Asst. Dir. sez: A successful session proposal for the 2010 Congress (deadline: May 15, 2009) will include an intellectual justification for the session that highlights its potential contribution to scholarship and its timeliness (Does it commemorate an anniversary? Why is this vein of inquiry potentially fruitful at this time?). It should be remembered that the intellectual justification needs to be rigorous enough to be convincing to members of the Congress Committee who are conversant in the field(s) but also accessible to those committee members whose expertise lies in other areas of medieval studies. The committee also appreciates being given a sense of how far along the planning is at the time the proposal is made (Have scholars committed to participating in the session should it be approved? Does the proposer intend to approach particular scholars to participate should the session be approved?).


We thank Elisabeth Carnell for answering our questions.  Please visit her blog

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