When I first saw my friend G. at NCS Siena, he said something like this: "Virago, I have to say, I'm a little surprised to see you here, because when I saw you at Swansea, you didn't seem to be having a very good time." And back in this post from two years ago, I hinted at why.
But NCS Siena was a completely different experience for me, and I don't think it was just because it was in Siena and not Swansea (although geography does play a part in this). It was different from the start, back when we were all submitting panels and abstracts. First of all, my friend H. approached me about putting a panel together, and that was the first step in what made me feel more involved, and less of an outsider, where this conference is concerned. (I should mention that part of my outsider status is that I don't work on Chaucer -- although my current work sometimes makes reference to him -- but NCS seems, in the last few iterations, to be more and more open to being about the "age of Chaucer," as its journal, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, suggests.) And then when the panels were all arranged and the CFP came out, I felt my current work fit one of the panel proposals much more than it had last time. What's more, I'd since met one of that panel's organizers, so I didn't feel as though I was sending a proposal out into the unknown quite as much. Two years ago, on the other hand, I was rejected from a panel, then told I was rejected from the conference as a whole, and then finally told a spot was found for my paper -- as I detailed here. And the panel on which I finally presented -- along with my friend G. -- was a truly miscellaneous panel in the last time slot of the conference, and it didn't really generate questions very useful to my project. This time around, though, I was accepted to the panel to which I applied, which was a good fit for my paper. More on how that all went -- very well, I think -- in a bit.
At any rate, before it even started, NCS Siena was already proving to be a better conference for me than NCS Swansea had been. And it continued to live up to its auspicious beginning. And yes, part of that was Siena -- but not just because Siena is a more historically rich place with more things to do. [Digression: in defense of Swansea, the weather was better there, the opportunity for good running was better (something that was once important to me), the bay was lovely (I'm a fan of water, of which Siena has none - not even a river, which struck me as odd), and I'm a weirdo who prefers the British climate and flora and fauna to Italian in the summer (though I did like the presence of cicadas, which reminded me of home - both Kansas where I grew up and the Great Lakes region I live in now). But that's the subject for another post.] The geography of Siena was better for my mood than Swansea's was -- and perhaps better for the mood of the conference as whole. At Swansea, there were a few people who stayed off campus, but most stayed in the dorms, which weren't terribly comfortable. But not only that, it meant that we were too much together, I think. So many meals were taken together in the dining hall that you were too often faced with the conference equivalent of the high school lunchroom hierarchy -- will I get to sit with the cool kids? And it was hard to escape the campus, situated as it was outside of the city. The edge of town was a long walk away, and the center of town was a cab or bus ride away. And so you were either trapped or, worse, stranded, if the people you knew had escaped and left you behind. But in Siena, we were in many different hotels, and the Arcobaleno, where I stayed, was lovely and comfortable -- best sleep I'd had in awhile! And I had a conference buddy this time -- my friend The General -- which eased any and all anxieties about finding company at meals or on excursions. And even at a hotel 2km outside of the city center as the Arcobaleno was, it wasn't hard to reach that center, and there was plenty to do there, of course. I actually regret not playing hooky a little more from the conference to be a tourist. I had the morning after the end of conference for that, but that left time only for a couple of things. Anyway, back to my main point here: I think less anxiety brews, and there's less posturing, when the conference itself isn't the only focus of your energies, and when you're not always forced together. And the Siena sun and heat, which could have made people cranky, seemed to mellow people out, to slow us down -- we were all in it together, we were all a little sweaty, we all dressed a litte more casually because of it (a strong effect on attitude, I think -- especially with all those previously unseen medievalist man legs in shorts!) and hey, we were in Siena!
But really, what made it a different conference for me was more about where I am in terms of my professional identity and in the number of people I know (and blogging has been no small part of that, though traditional networking has helped, too). As I said to G. when he made the comment above, "It's amazing what a difference two years and a good review in Speculum makes." Two years ago my book was out and I had tenure, so I should have felt confidence, but I was still uncertain about whether any of it mattered, whether I mattered. The feedback we get on our printed work -- the evidence of its impact -- is slow to surface. And when you have a job at a place like Rust Belt University, it's easy to think you're disappearing, that you and your work don't matter, that you peaked in graduate school, that after tenure you're *stuck* rather than *secure*. But in the last two years, four positive reviews of my book came out and I started to be cited in other people's books and articles, and my work started showing up on people's syllabuses. And people solicited me for conferences because they knew my work. Over time I became not Dr. Virago, random drudge at RBU, but Dr. Virago, who does good work that people know about.
And this conference reinforced that effect. Here, in bullet point format, are a few really cool moments that continued to boost my confidence throughout the conference:
- On the very first day, in the first morning break, a Known Figure whom I know and admire, but to whom I'm not very professionally close in any way (despite being FB friends with him!), crossed the courtyard to say hi to me and said, "Virago, we were just talking about you last night!" An auspicious beginning to the conference!
- A recent PhD had one of her professors introduce her to me at dinner in town one night, and said to me, "I just wanted to meet you and tell you I'm a huge fan of your work and I'm so excited to meet you!" Seriously. I have a fan! If said person happens upon this post, I want you to know you'll forever be my #1 Fan -- I *heart* you for that!
- One of my friends told me she kept hearing me quoted in a number of papers. Really? I told her I hadn't heard that -- clearly we were going to different panels -- but she said that was a good sign: I was moving on with my work, and the work was speaking for itself.
- The organizers of the panel I'd been accepted to told me that they had rejected papers, even after making three or four panels out of the best submissions they got. And while I feel bad for those who were rejected, it's still nice to know you made the cut.
- My paper went really well. I started to feel a little guilty that I kept getting most of the questions in the Q&A, but for whatever reasons, people responded to what I had to say. And they liked it and had useful suggestions (or suggestions phrased as questions). They also liked the phrase I coined to name the phenomenon I was describing, which I wish I could share with you here, but even though I fully expect people to know or figure out my real life identity, I'd still rather not be Googlable.
- Other than some technical difficulties, the panel I organized with H went really well, too, and people were still talking about it later that day. I've seen at least one of the papers on it mentioned as a highlight of the conference, too, out there in the blogosphere.
- And finally, my paper was mentioned in the one of the final round-up presentations! Woot! I don't know if the person really *liked* my paper -- she was actually maybe a bit snarky about it -- but hey, all publicity is good publicity, eh? And it's always cool to be mentioned in a summary of the conference.
The other thing that made this conference better for me than the one in 2008 is that I know more people, and the people I know I now know better than I did then. As I mentioned above, that's in no small part to blogging. I'm especially grateful to the In the Middle bunch for inviting me to lunch in the city the first day, when, because of the business meeting, we had more time to leave the conference site. What a lovely lunch that was! I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to join them on one of their late nights drinking prosecco in the Campo (one of the drawbacks of being in the further-out hotel). But all in all, I felt like this conference was full of fun and friends, and though I'm kind of a social butterfly and flit from group to group, I was happy in all the company I kept, however briefly.