When was the last time I attended a ten-day academic event without wearing any shoes (except for last Friday when I snuck off into the snowy woods and missed a talk)?
Masterfully organized and hosted by Francesca Mackenney and Jeremy Davies at Leeds University in the UK, this ten-day event brought together twenty speakers, arranged in pairs at the same time during each weekday — it was 11 am – 12:30 for me in CT, but most of the British and Irish speakers and audience were talking about tea time — and speaking informally across disciplines. The range of ideas was dazzling and sometimes overwhelming — my head is buzzing with ideas about the movements of plants, ideas about agriculture, canals, walking, property laws, landscape, enclosure, labor, revolution, religion, Romanticism, many other things — even that old bugbear the Anthropocene (about which topic Jeremy Davies has written probably my favorite book) snuck its gnarled toes into the conversation.
My two favorite things about the event were the informality and the cross-currents. Just reading the list of disciplines in which speakers work comprises a wonderful play of differences — most of us are variations on English and History, but we also had landscape geography, historical geography, and rural geography. (I’m about to attend my first-ever AAG, the big geographer’s conference, next month in New York — and I’m feeling excited about geography as a discipline from which I have much to learn these days.)
To keep us informal, we were each tasked with just one page about a current research problem we are working on (here is a link the the 20 individual pages). I’m not sure I can do justice to the eight conversations that I heard, though the last one, this morning, about the relationship between walking and history, seemed to bring out everyone’s enthusiasm in the chat and q&a. Perhaps it was that many of the other people on the Zoominar — the format doesn’t allow us to see each other, unlike some Zooms, but we did introduce ourselves in the chat — were feeling anticipatory nostalgia for the vanishing of these daily sessions? Like many academics, I deeply miss the human and even playful side of academic conferences — alas for the days that Lowell Duckert and I plunged into the freezing waters of Lake Michigan near Kalamazoo! — but if we must be in Zootopia, this particular slice of it was especially congenial.
A few thoughts about what worked Zoomishly — meeting for ninety minutes a day across a ten-day span meant that it was possible to juggle life and work, though perhaps that was also easier for me since it’s still my winter break. The time was workable for UK, Europe, and both coasts of North America, though not, alas, for Australia. Not recording the sessions was clearly a deliberate effort to preserve spontaneity, and I think it worked. (I have some dreamy fantasies about a massive bibliography that like riches may be about to drop upon the head of my email inbox, but perhaps that’s too much to ask. Update: Here’s the Zotero link. With thanks to Cathryn Pearce for directing me to it, and to Jo Taylor for creating it!) Jeremy’s sense of fun and tireless engagement kept the hours moving – I can only imagine how exhausted he must be now, but his and Francesca’s good cheer and mastery of assorted e-systems worked seamlessly.
I’ll talk just a bit about my exchange last Monday 10 Jan with Miles Ogborn, a geographer from Queen Mary University of London. I was thinking about how ships at sea shape collective identities across the global early modern ocean, and Miles was pursuing the influence of landscape on a particular uprising in plantation-era Jamaica, the Baptist War of 1831-32. In some ways our materials were pretty disparate. I talked about ships, logbooks, rosters, a few maritime maps, my usual set of poems and navigational manuals. (Of course I played the old hits — “experience is better than knowledge” &c). Miles showed a lovely pair of paintings of a plantation landscape, one with and one without revolutionary violence. Trying to bring our perspectives together, we talked about the nonhuman forces that shape and influence human collectives. These factors include landscapes and seascapes, histories and the movement of peoples — but also things like literary genres and the conventions of 18c painting. Talking with Miles not only made me want to go back to Jamaica, which was my last international destination before Covid, but it also made me want to work more closely with geographical ideas and frameworks. Fortunately I am going to AAG next month!
These sessions also pushed me far past my usual chronological comfort zones, barelling through the eighteenth into the nineteenth century and thinking directly about things that appear in early modern studies only via the fudge-prefix “proto” — industrialization, Romanticism, global British imperialism, &c. That said, so many of the concepts and ideas, including terms such as “waste,” “enclosure,” the kinds of knowledges that enable the management of lands and peoples (including accounting and agricultural “science”), seemed quite familiar for a 16-17c person such as myself. Perhaps Zoomtopia makes feasible dropping in to an event like this from an adjacent sub-field — which is a reason, perhaps, to keep some aspects of this e-world going even when (if?) the pandemic releases its anxiety-making grip. (As Jeremy noted each day, it’s not just Covid that encourages us to keep our conferences en-screened, but also and unrelentingly carbon emissions and climate change.)
In sum — a midwinter treat! I did need to sneak out of the last session today to respond to the increasingly urgent calls of my pandemic puppy, and I hope I didn’t miss too much. I also hope I’ll cross paths again with some of these lively and brilliant people! In a back-channel email exchange, I expressed the hope that Jeremy’s wizardry would extend to conjuring us all into a cozy and Covid-free pub for a post-conference chat. But since that, alas, wasn’t to be – I hope that comparable opportunities may open up at some point soon. Anyone else going to AAG in New York?