The following is the contribution of Maggie Gilchrist. Maggie is a PhD Candidate in IU’s English Department; she is also the current President of the Medieval Studies Institute’s Graduate Student Advisory Committee. Her research focuses on death and the dead in Late Middle English Romance.
In the Spring of 2019, I found out that the Medieval Academy of America’s annual meeting would take place at IU Bloomington in 2021. I was delighted! I couldn’t wait to listen to medievalists from all over the world; take pride in being a representative of the host university as we showed off some of our stunning Lilly Library manuscript collections; check out book vendors; and mingle with fellow graduate student medievalists. I immediately realized that one of these (the Lilly Library displays) would never come to be, as the library began a remodeling that resulted in closing the building for over a year. “Oh, well,” I thought, “I still have all of the other things to look forward to!” Ah! The before times… I could not have imagined the global pandemic of 2020 that would put obstacles in the way of each and every one of these plans. Despite these obstacles, the MAA Programming Committee was able to create a virtual space that not only facilitated academic discussion and scholarly debate, but that also fostered community across distance that was truly remarkable.
As a member of IU’s Medieval Studies Graduate Student Advisory Committee (MEST GSAC), I was fortunate enough to take part in and help organize several graduate student events that helped cultivate community amongst grad-student attendees and promoted mentorship between graduate students and more experienced medievalists.
To start with, MEST GSAC joined with MAA GSC to host both a Graduate Student Social Hour and a Graduate Student Roundtable entitled “Graduate Student Medievalists and the Institutions We Work In: Community and Activism.” The social hour was wonderful opportunity to make connections with fellow medieval graduate students, share ideas, and even discuss future workshops and projects to help graduate students navigate dissertation projects (I began talks with some MAA GSC members about a possible workshop on note-taking and citation software to aid research). The roundtable (which included speakers such as IU’s own fearless community organizer, Abby Ang) focused on how graduate students, who are in a particularly precarious position in the university, can participate in community activism both within and without the frame of our research and teaching, as well as how this very real work is often overlooked and undervalued.
In addition to these specifically graduate student events, MEST GSAC and IU MEST co-hosted a Transcription workshop and three-day Transcribathon. The workshop, led by IU’s Prof. Liz Hebbard, focused on sharing transcription tips and tricks (particularly for those new to the transcription process). For the Transcribathon (also led by Prof. Hebbard), five teams worked to transcribe, review, and edit an entire medieval French bestiary over the course of three days. I was blown away by the comradery and sheer eagerness to learn and share knowledge that each team modeled. Team members from all over the world ranged from those who had never transcribed to professional archivists. Each team created a Slack channel to collaborate and share our diverse range of experiences. My team, Team Unicorne, shared many screenshots of unclear abbreviations and confusing images (such as the image included here of three wild donkeys seemingly held up on a platter by a devil figure, while two monks wash…something…in a basin). Everyone (from amateurs such as myself to experts) was eager to join in and workout trouble areas. To learn more about this event and accessing the archived transcription, visit our Transcribathon website.
Each of these events contributed in no small way to maintaining a sense of community and communal learning during a time of extreme isolation. From having the opportunity to chat with medieval grad students to sharpening my transcription skills, I was wonderfully surprised and encouraged to see that community and the desire to learn and share what we learn with others has not been slowed down in the time of social distancing; we have simply had to reshape what the communal space looks like.