Bartolus de Saxoferrato (1313-1357) a Bolognese jurist, constructed one of the more ingenious arguments for special legal and social privileges for academics. The legal codes of Justinian defined the athletic hero as one who survived “at least three trials of courage in competition.”* Bartolus reasoned that the heroic trials of the academic began during the student years with constant testing by the Masters. The second trial took the form of the private disputation — the equivalent of the thesis defence. The final trial was the public disputation under the scrutiny of the University and the academic public. We might understand this now as the conference paper. Bartolus went further than the Roman legal precedent and claimed that his contemporary academic trials were the same, conceptually, as the joust and deeds of arms that defined the martial elites.
The analogue with jousts is not quite a stretch. Bartolus was roughly contemporary with Geoffroi de Charny who graded the relative merits of martial accomplishments in a similar three-fold way. For Charny the good man-at-arms was defined by his progress through the joust, the tourney — the medieval melee version — and finally war.**
Few modern academics would claim the elite privileges supported by Bartolus, but I doubt many would miss the charm inherent in the argument. My thesis defence certainly felt like a trial of courage, and although I actually enjoyed it I would not want to make that sort of academic performance a habit. The anxiety of my first conference paper would easily fit the trope of baptism-by-fire.
Conference papers are the most common medium of academic discourse, yet few new academics are told how to do it. All those guides for students, and academic writers, teachers, researchers, will happily discuss, in great detail, the most obscure forms of scholarly discourse and professional writing, but they rarely spend time on the construction and delivery of conference papers. The result is terrified speakers, convoluted scripts, and routine commission of the most mortal of conference sins, going over time.
This means that the new academic, faced with a conference paper’ will have only his or her judgment as guide. Attending conferences can give some idea of how papers are often delivered, but the model example is rare and it’s debatable if many would know the difference.
Kalamazoo has all kinds. There are the articulate, and carefully arranged papers read with a casual ease, without notes, while still keeping to time. There are the rushed, tedious, convoluted, overly complex, sometimes confrontational, cramped, stilted, and over-long papers. Both venerable scholars of long-standing and enthusiastic amateurs or nervous undergrads can, and do, deliver papers from these extremes and everywhere in-between. That is the curse and gift of Kalamazoo.
* William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University (Chicago: 2006), 74.
** Geoffroi de Charny, A Knight’s Own Book of Chivalry trans. E. Kennedy (Philadelphia: 2005), 22.