Conference Paper, Schmonference Paper
Having now finished two fabulous research stints at Colonial Williamsburg and the Virginia Historical Society, I am spending my last two weeks in Virginia engaged in solving small research problems at the Library of Virginia. I’m talking about those small, lingering problems that buzz around in your head at night and seem to have no resolution, such as: I’ve seen repeated references in secondary literature to Anthony and Isabella, clearly Africans, who lived with Captain William Tucker as either servants or slaves, and in 1624 had a son they named William who was baptized. Every secondary source, though, cites Alexander Brown’s 1890 tome “The Genesis of the United States” on this. Brown, very unhelpfully, did not adhere to modern conventions of scholarly citation, and listed no primary source for this information. Clearly I want to see this primary source for myself, especially if it involves a baptized African-American child. About three hours of work yesterday, chasing up and down the reference shelves of the LVA, burrowing into the Swem index, I finally come up with the 1625 muster list, which is the source for information about little William’s baptism. And, what about the marriage of Reverend John Bass to Elizabeth, daughter of the “Nansemond King” in 1638? Another mystery, which finally led me to a digital picture of a privately owned record alleging the information (privately owned by whom? good question) and a 1960s era genealogy which traced the descendants of this Anglo-Indian couple. I’m not sure if any of this information is useable…But I sure would like to be able to write about an Anglo-Indian marriage AFTER that of Pocahontas and John Rolfe.
So that’s how I spend my mornings, chasing obscure references and often getting more confused in the process. Afternoons I spend finishing my paper for the Berks. My title is “‘She defyled her body wth a Pagan’: Religion and Interracial Intimacy in the Early Chesapeake.” Yep, I get to talk for twenty minutes about religion, race, marriage, and, that great draw of academic audiences, FORNICATION. I gave a version of the paper in January at the AHA that went over well; now I find myself trying to revise that paper and say something of true significance that will also focus my argument for the dissertation chapter that examines these issues in greater depth.
It has caused me to wonder, why on earth do we have conferences? I have twenty minutes to talk. That’s about ten pages of text. I can make just one argument in that amount of time, and that not in a very well-developed fashion. The issues are complicated, involving what made a body “Christian” and what it meant to “defyle” that body outside marriage, and why it was even more of a “defilement” to mix a Christian body with a heathen one. This touches on some delicate issues, and also requires a nuanced reading of the available source material. In twenty minutes and ten pages it will be difficult if not impossible for me to fully and convincingly make my case. I’ll get some questions that ask me why I didn’t talk about x, y, and z, and I’ll have to say, yes, those are interesting ideas and I address them elsewhere. I will probably get one or two suggestions or questions that are genuinely helpful. And two days after my paper, I am sure no one in the audience will remember what I spoke about. Yet we’re asked, in the name of professional development and scholarly exchange, to do this exercise on a regular basis. I have to ask, why?
Of course, I have no solutions to offer to this problem. A conference that allows longer papers and therefore longer sessions risks numb brains and numb behinds in the audience. I could just write it up and publish it somewhere, but to do so would be to add to the cacaphony already overrunning journals. So, my complaint is offered without solution. How can we do better at exchanging and critiqueing ideas?
Maybe I should just start posting conference papers to my blog…