In the first of a serious of posts on what have been an exciting and formative few weeks for me as a PhD researcher I will begin, perhaps sensibly, at the beginning, which is with the Medieval and Early Modern Studies Summer Festival.
Not so well known and with much less mud than Glastonbury, the MEMS Summer Festival was great fun to be a part of and, believe it or not, was witness to much of the same community spirit…
MEMS Summer Festival was an entirely student-led event held at the University of Kent 17th-18th June. This was the second year of the event, organised to celebrate all research in medieval and early modern studies. I spent the last six months organising it, along with my four remarkable co-conspirators, and gained so much experience along the way; experience of applying for funding, holding meetings, handling a budget, and perhaps most importantly, handling people. Although it’s clear I was never meant to go into event management, I learnt a lot about my own flaws – such as having control issues, or difficulties with prioritising, and I learnt to let go just a little bit, to handle my own expectations. I also gained confidence in talking to and taking charge of people when needed, learning that you can do these things without being ‘bossy’ – a term all women hate and something I certainly never want to come across as, but have nevertheless been described as at various stages in my life.
As we got closer to the event the Festival demanded more and more time away from my PhD, but the work was worth it to see an idea materialise. The central idea behind the Festival was inclusivity; to create a space for those of any level of experience to present and discuss research as equals. We are very lucky at my home institution to be surrounded by supportive colleagues, we have a very tangible community of research, which I believe partly explains the high number of students which, having completed the Medieval and Early Modern Studies MA at Kent, continue onto the PhD programme. It is our intellectual home and we wanted to continue to develop this, expand it outwards, welcoming all who share our interests to join, to discuss, and to build a lasting network.
There were several things that were crucial to making this happen. Firstly, it had to be free. As much as we recognise and appreciate the importance of large conferences with big-name academics presenting their ground-breaking research, this often comes with large registration fees, unobtainable to many who are then excluded from the conference experience, unable to attend that which is not specific enough, or significant enough, to their field to warrant that £40 train ticket – let alone the registration. We wanted people to be able to come just because it was interesting, to give them an opportunity to meet other interested people. We made the decision therefore to forego both the cost and the implied superiority of the keynote, whose hour-long paper when compared to the twenty minute paper or perhaps poster of a postgrad is, quite literally, worth more. We wanted to treat the research being undertaken by MA students, PhDs, Early Career Researchers, and Senior Academics as all being of equal importance to the field. To enable this we sought outside funding, perhaps the most trying part of the organisation, but so worth it. We are incredibly grateful therefore to the Consortium of the Humanities and the Arts and to the University of Kent’s Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies for jointly funding the event, and to Eastern ARC for contributing a bursary fund. They made it possible to build this inclusive space and enabled a community to come together.
This community saw a converging of archives, with an exhibit from Special Collections and Rochester Cathedral Library, practical skills, with workshops on methodology and digital practice, discussions in the form of object-orientated roundtables, intellectual knowledge present in the many papers offered, and performances of both music and drama. This was all to a mixed audience of undergraduates, postgraduates, senior academics and members of the public.
The most obvious levelling of age, experience, and knowledge was revealed in the final session of the first day, our ‘Would I Lie to You?’ quiz, where a team of MA students were pitched against the indomitable senior staff in a game of whose facts are the most false. It was as members of the audience booed, cheered, and interrogated the presented absurd facts that I felt our aim of establishing a comfortable environment had truly been met. It also provided me with my one tweet of fame, being retweeted with enthusiasm by the official WILTY twitter account.
The first day was finished off with a wonderful tableau: Invicta Voices, a London chamber choir performing pre-1650 choral pieces to us from Canterbury Cathedral’s 12th century water tower, as all the delegates stood in the Cathedral’s garden, drinking wine at a reception hosted by the always welcoming Canon Librarian of the Cathedral, Chris Irvine.
The Festival was further shaped through an intentional move away from the traditional format of conferences (a trend gaining currency in many of the major conferences) as we believed that workshops, informal discussions, and performances can be as much of a site of intellectual exchange as the traditional twenty-minute paper. Each day began with parallel paper sessions, which ranged from topics as diverse as Gothic Art, Medical History, Late-Antique Literature, Gender, and Law. After just two paper sessions per day, the Festival’s afternoons then continued with methodological and practical workshops, my personal highlights being the Painted Elizabethan Cloth workshop with the captivating and talented artist Melissa White and the ‘Taste of Medieval Life’ workshop, with the “hopless and hopeless” ale brewed by beer-enthusiast Dr Phil Slavin, who described his own brew as “two pigs in a wash”. This was paired with PhD student Stuart Morrison’s medieval breads, which were hard, dense, and certainly in need of the ale to wash them down. (It must be said that Stuart’s baking skills are superb, and I therefore blame the recipe, not the baker). This tasting workshop, as informative as it was fun, demonstrated the kindness that underpinned the success of the festival; friends and colleagues volunteering time and effort to put together sessions based on their personal interests. This kindness could be seen throughout the Festival and is something that will stay with me, the generosity of new and old friends, which began with the staff who supported our endeavour and was epitomised by the MA student who stayed for 2 hours un-stapling and re-stapling misprinted programmes on the Festival’s eve with nothing more than a promise of a thank-you pint.
After two years running this event I am sad not to be able to take part in the organisation for 2017 (though I think both my thesis and supervisor will thank me for it), but I feel confident that this research culture will continue to develop and hopeful that it will remain as defined by the kindness, generosity of spirit, and unflagging fascination with all aspects of the premodern world that I have been lucky enough to experience.
Most of all I wish luck to the postgraduate students who will be taking over the event and know they will have a great time redefining the Festival for themselves – I can’t wait to attend.
Take a look at the MEMS Summer Festival tweets, storified in the slideshow below: