>Bullock thinks it’s really weird that we have a dance at the International Medieval Congress. (For those of you who don’t know this, it’s true, we have a dance. Really.) Frankly, I think it’s a little weird, too, but it’s also fun. I didn’t dance much this year — mainly because I didn’t really want to get all sweaty in my good clothes — but I had great fun chatting with people and doing people watching. And it’s always fun to see some of the, uh, creative styles of dancing some people have. And seeing scholars you respect and even fear do the white-man’s overbite helps to humanize them.
There’s the ever-present problem of inappropriateness and trying to figure out where the boundaries lies. Last year one of my friends was absolutely horrified by the number of very old men who wanted to dance with her. And I’ve spent more than one year trying to stay out of sight of certain senior medievalists with other than professional interest in me. There’s one in particular who has been hitting on me routinely every year we’re both there. One good thing, at least, is that if I use the phrase “my boyfriend,” he backs off. So as uneasy as he makes me, at least I know he has some boundaries he won’t cross, which makes it easy to get him to back off. He’s a good guy at heart and I think his interest in me is actually sincere, if misguided; in other words, he’s not going to turn into an ass-grabber.
But the dance makes boundaries a little blurry. I have no doubt that the medievalist above would ask me to dance if he saw me there. Certainly dancing can be a completely platonic activity, especially the way most of use who’ve grown up dancing to rock do it. There’s little touching involved in dancing to rock and pop. But the person discussed above might be asking me to dance for other than platonic reasons. So when he comes to the dance, I avoid him.
He wasn’t there this year, so that wasn’t a problem. But his case makes me wonder about others. For instance, this year a senior scholar I don’t know very well asked me to do the “Time Warp” with him (no, that’s not a euphemism — I mean the song from The Rocky Horror Picture Show). I believe he really was just inviting me to join the fun, and wasn’t doing anything untoward, but I said no for all sorts of reasons, one of which was simply because I had my purse with me and I was far away from my table where I might have been able to leave it. But another reason was comfort level. I don’t know this scholar well, having only been introduced to him that day, and so my inability to read the situation — and my knowledge that some requests are less innocent than others — made me err on the side of caution. But then I worried I shouldn’t have turned his request down, that dancing at K’zoo is a form of being collegial.
So, I told this all to Bullock and he said, “That’s exactly why there shouldn’t be a dance at a conference.” Or maybe those of us who like our professional/personal lines to stay intact shouldn’t go. But then I do enjoy dancing with my friends with whom I have clear relationships. And I think many of the graduate students really get a kick seeing their profs let their hair down. But then the creeps who horrified my friend last year certainly shouldn’t be the ones to ruin it for the rest of us, shouldn’t make us (women, that is) feel like we can’t go or have to watch how we dress or have to hide from them or whatever. But it’s not really the creeps that unnerve me so much as those not-quite-inappropriate-but-not-exactly-professional cases such as what I described above. (I should note, too, that in the case of Mr. Flirty above, not only do I think his interest was sincere, but he also never flirted with me until I was tenure-track professor.) It’s always awkward when someone likes you and you don’t return the interest, but it’s especially awkward when you have a professional relationship. And when there’s a status difference, there’s obviously still a power difference. And I doubt very much that the male grad students and assistant professors feel quite as conflicted about all of this as I do.
And the dance is not just an opportunity for leering old men to see pretty young things shake their booties (although it certainly can foster that). It really is part of what makes K’zoo a more relaxed atmosphere. It also allows for much easier mingling than a banquet would, and on some level breaks down categories of position, status, and power. Seriously, how can you be intimidated any more by someone you’ve seen act like a fool on the dance floor? It’s awesome!
But then, if I’m still wondering about whether I should have danced the Time Warp with that senior scholar, then there’s a problem. Of course, it’s a problem that’s bigger than the dance itself. It’s a problem of gender inequity and sexism that isn’t going to go away by getting rid of the dance or by me absenting myself from it. Sigh.
[Btw, future K’zoo posts — including the one about the Blogger Breakfast — will be much more cheery and positive, I swear!]