Undergraduate Ethnographers Infiltrate the AAA: Part 1

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger, JANE EVA BAXTER]

November’s AAA meetings are a distant memory after a season of holidays, finals, grading, and course preparation for round two of the academic year. Before they slip away completely, I wanted to share some thoughts about assigning 30 anthropology seniors the task of writing a brief ethnography based on time spent at the AAA annual meetings. That’s right- a small contingent of undergraduate ethnographers was among you. They may have handed you your conference program at registration, sat next to you in a session, or been at the next table at Kitty O’Shea’s or Starbucks. So think back, while you were busy conferencing you were being observed, perhaps were engaged in casual conversation, and certainly were studied thoughtfully by students in a senior capstone seminar trying to learn what it really means to be an anthropologist in 2013.

Teaching “The Anthropological Life” Using the AAA Meetings

The anthropology senior seminar at DePaul is titled, “The Anthropological Life” and is a course designed to help students simultaneously reflect on four years of education, and contemplate the transition from life in school to life without school. Each faculty member who teaches the course takes a different approach, but I’ve always embraced the seminar as an opportunity for students to connect with anthropologists working in a variety of vocational capacities. Usually, this means in a ten week quarter I invite four guest anthropologists from outside academe to come to campus, give a public lecture, have dinner with our seniors, and then have the seniors interview them for about 90 minutes where they can talk about their “anthropological life.”

My two main goals for the course are really quite simple. First, I want students to recognize that anthropology is not a particular vocation, but rather a way of engaging the world. I ask them: How do people with anthropological training see the world differently from those without such training? What are the core values of the discipline and how do those values become actualized in the daily practice of lived lives? Second, I want students to reflect actively on their own “anthropological lives” and consider how anthropology will shape their future regardless of their career or life path. In many forms we engage question such as: What does anthropology mean in the context of your life? How has anthropology shaped who you are as a person and how do you see anthropology shaping your future?

The AAA coming to town was a pretty remarkable opportunity in the context of this course. Where else could students gain so much exposure to contemporary anthropology so efficiently? And so, for the 2013 permutation of the course, it was decided to substitute a guest speaker with a somewhat structured encounter with the AAA meeting that would result in a very brief piece of ethnographic writing.

Step 1: An “Ideal Schedule” and First Impressions

The first step of the project was to have each student use the online preliminary program to create an “ideal meeting schedule.” I emphasize this here, because it’s a part of this experience that doesn’t require the AAA coming to town, and it was an incredibly effective way to have students engage anthropology in the moment. Students were expected to create a perfectly full schedule from Wednesday-Sunday and identify poster and paper sessions, business and organizational meetings, keynote lectures, and workshops that they would want to attend if time and energy were not obstacles. They were also encouraged to include time to visit the exhibit hall and attend an installation or salon.

It’s easy to forget, but confronting a full AAA schedule for the first time is incredibly daunting. Students were expected to use this scheduling exercise to come up with some ideas for questions to guide their ethnographic observations at the meetings. This went incredibly well and the diversity of student questions was impressive. Perhaps equally important was that each student found a meaningful way to connect his or her own understandings and interests in anthropology to the material in the program. There also were some universal responses to the program.

1) Students were overwhelmed and intrigued with the quantity and diversity of what anthropologists are actually doing (a big win for the course goals). One of our most animated pre-conference conversations was around the idea of an anthropological community: With so much diversity, what is it that holds such a large group of anthropologists together? What is the common ground in anthropology today that perpetuates an anthropological identity for so many people? Good questions!

2) Students were impressed that there was so much going on for students and by students at the meetings. They were surprised that anthropologists get together at conferences and talk about teaching. They were surprised that a major organization would have so much programming geared towards them.

3) Students felt rather nervous about their upcoming meeting experience. On the one hand, they felt drawn to the program, were excited by the content, and felt certain that this was a gathering of people doing the things they had been learning about over the past few years. On the other hand, they were acutely aware of their lack of knowledge about “conference culture.” What should they wear? Would they get lost? Would people be willing to talk to them? How should they approach people? Should they approach people? Did they have to sit through a whole set of papers even if they only wanted to see one? There was an impressive awareness of the need to know the norms of self-presentation and the rules of social practice for what was to them, a new cultural space. Fortunately, the very popular posting on fashion at the AAA came out just in time and was a perfect primer for their first meeting experience.

Steps 2 and 3: Structured and Unstructured Observation Time at the AAA

Designing a project for students at the AAA annual meeting took some time and planning. The major issue was cost. The assignment was designed so it could be completed successfully without registering for the conference. Students could complete all their observations in the common areas of the conference hotel. The Anthropology Department did incentivize meeting attendance by organizing an undergraduate group membership to the AAA and reimbursing students for the reduced membership rate of $20.00. Membership allowed students to register at the student member rate - less than 100.00 and a good many students took advantage of this option. Finally, students were encouraged to volunteer for the annual meeting- an option that simultaneously paid for their registration AND gave them a perfect platform to be a participant observer at the meetings. This was a very popular option, too.

Time at the annual meetings took two forms. First, students were required to attend the meetings on Thursday during our normal class time. For this three-hour period they were given some questions to facilitate their initial experiences at the AAA, to get to know their study population a bit, and to ameliorate some of their nervous concerns expressed pre-conference. They were asked to 1) Look at how people were using space at the conference- how was a hotel transformed into a social space? 2) Observe self-presentation among anthropologists- did the writers of the Savage Minds blog post get it right? What did seasoned conference-goers overlook that a first time attendee might notice? 3) Survey the crowds and characterize the population of AAA attendees- who are anthropologists? 4) Study social interactions at the meetings- how do people connect with each other at the AAA and why?

Students were required to spend at least three additional hours at the meetings engaged in activities related to their particular question of interest. Happily, I can report that most students spent much more than three hours at the meetings on their own. They attended sessions, went to workshops, hung out at the bar and coffee shops, talked to meeting attendees and members of the Hilton staff, and perhaps the most adventurous duo even snuck in bathing suits and wound up in the hotel pool. Want to know what a group of senior anthropology majors at their first AAA meetings learned about anthropology? About all of you? It’s good stuff- stay tuned for Part 2.

Jane Eva Baxter is an archaeologist and Associate Professor of Anthropology at DePaul University in Chicago, IL, USA.

I am a historical archaeologist with interests in the archaeology of childhood, labor, and identity as well as contemporary and community archaeologies. I am also a passionate teacher and have built my career on a teacher-scholar model. I am very interested in pedagogy. My PhD is from the University of Michigan (2000) and I am an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at DePaul University. Follow her on Twitter at @janeevabaxter.

2 thoughts on “Undergraduate Ethnographers Infiltrate the AAA: Part 1

  1. Pedagogically, this is so fantastic. I would’ve adored such an assignment as an anthropology undergrad, and as a professor, am already thinking about ways to incorporate this into my teaching next year, or perhaps even better, when the AAAs come to Denver in a few years. Very inspiring, and as you say so well, a great dual opportunity to (1) have the students see anthropologists in action and en masse, and (2) for you to see them applying everything they’ve learned. Experiential fieldwork at the AAAs as pedagogy plus a term-long consideration of “the anthropological life?” Lots of great food for thought and for future teaching here—thank you!

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