Undergraduate Ethnographers Infiltrate the AAA: Part 2

[Savage Minds welcomes guest blogger Jane Eva Baxter]

Structuring a course experience or assignment to enable a particular type of learning is a challenging task, and never guarantees a specific set of results. In Part 1 of this post, I described the course context, learning goals, and assignment structure for sending 30 DePaul senior anthropology majors to the AAA Annual Meeting to participate, observe, and write about their experiences as brief ethnographies.

I did not ask students in advance what their expectations were for the AAA meeting (opportunity lost) but my sense, based on their reactions, is they imagined the meeting to be a rather serious, sober, and scholarly affair. They were overwhelmed by how social, dynamic, and fun the meetings were not just as first time attendees figuring out how it all worked, but also for all of you who were busily conferencing away as they were attentively observing you!

Several of the resulting essays were so good I wish I could share them with you in their entirety.  Nearly all were thoughtful, competent, and reflective pieces of writing.  The best were innovative, humorous, and insightful. It is impossible to convey effectively the results of 30 different research projects at the AAA.  Instead, I’ve tried to summarize some of the students’ perceptions using the four broad categories assigned for their structured observations, and to offer some thoughts on what they learned by participating in the annual meeting as undergraduate ethnographers.

On the Use of Space and Technology

The most notable aspect of the AAA meetings for students was the dynamic social environment that permeated all the common areas of the hotel (including the bathrooms and elevators) as well the meeting rooms between scheduled moments of scholarly interaction. The hotel was most commonly described as being uncomfortably overcrowded, and the students noted the appropriation of otherwise functional spaces, such as staircases, as additional seating areas for conversation.

For first time attendees, this conference space was daunting, foreign, and difficult to navigate. One student noted the only AAA signage on the first two floors of the Hilton was a single sign pointing to conference registration, and that lone landmark was easily lost in the dense crowds. This transformed hotel lobby, unmarked and overrun, made it difficult for students to feel connected to the conference, and many of them reported feeling a bit self-conscious that they were not taking part in the happy reunions, the chance encounters, or the more formal introductions that were happening all around them. Being in the space as a researcher helped to ameliorate their sense of discomfort. Many students described feeling increasingly comfortable as the meetings progressed, and took this as a sign that they were “learning the rules” while others described becoming aware of “conference culture.”

One observation that made students more comfortable was the use of technology in common areas of the hotel. They observed it seemed uncomfortable for anyone (not just a student or newcomer) to be standing idly alone. Technology, was the crutch people used to normalize being solitary. One student noted, “The anthros always needed something in front of them when they weren’t being social. They were always on computers or their phones; they used connectivity to elsewhere as a means of rationalizing their lack of socializing with others in a hyper-social space.” Another student walked through Kitty O’Shea’s and peeked over computer users shoulders, just to see what people were up to when on a computer in a crowded bar.  There were nine such people in the bar at the time: six were writing their conference papers (shock), two were checking the “green” program, and one was checking email and Facebook.

 On Self- Presentation

The student ethnographers were particularly fascinated with the very intentional self-presentation of conference attendees. Students read the Savage Minds post on anthro-chic fashion in preparation for the AAA, and found it refreshing that anthropologists were so aware of their peculiarities in self-presentation. They recognized the “ethnic feel” of many ensembles and the disproportionate number of scarves worn by women. Most students interpreted these “bold and visually distinct accessories” as simultaneously fitting a particular disciplinary fashion code and creating a way for each individual to stand out and distinguish themselves in the crowd (“She’s over there in the pink and orange scarf.”).  Men were less interesting in terms of dress, and often described as being very “tweedy.”  However, as one student noted, “If you like men with long hair as I do Anthropology is the right field for you. Now I don’t have data to support this but I would bet my bottom dollar that Anthropology has statistically more men with long hair than any other field.”

Students began to recognize sub-groups of anthropologists, and two made a systematic attempt to do so by matching session titles to attendees’ attire. All realized that one could learn to distinguish between different types of anthropologists based on self-presentation. A few students focused their research on interdisciplinary aspects of the meetings, and found people who came from outside anthropology or worked in anthropology and something else (public health, marketing etc.) could be visually distinguished from the anthropology-only conference goers.  Some students noted with pride that by the weekend they could recognize anthropologists anywhere in downtown Chicago.

This emphasis on self-presentation was interesting to students for two reasons.  First, many of the students described these well-dressed, well-groomed, and well-presented people as being, “oblivious,” “clueless” and “preoccupied.”  This kind of disconnect seemed directly at odds with being so concerned about one’s appearance. People would hold an elevator full of strangers in place so they could conduct a conversation with someone in the foyer.  People would bump into others and barely notice, or once finally at the front of the coffee line appear startled that they were anywhere at all and be unprepared to give an order.  One student remarked on her experience volunteering at registration:

“It became apparent to me throughout the day that although you may have a PhD it does not ensure that you have an abundance of common sense. For example, many people walked around the ropes into our area, which was clearly separated from the open area intended for their use. I do not understand why so many people invaded my roped off space. Second, about two thirds of the people who registered green exclaimed in disbelief when I did not hand them a program. Some also looked at me dumbfounded when I explained that they did not receive the 700-page paper volume because they opted for the cheaper and eco-friendly registration.”

A second student found there to be disjoin between the concern for readying one’s appearance (ostensibly in one’s hotel room), and an interest in one’s appearance once at the conference. This student was particularly fascinated with the “bathroom culture” at the meeting- an interest that was incited by observing three men leaving a restroom together in convivial laughter. She began spending time in the women’s restrooms to see what was happening in such spaces, and was surprised that people were networking, gossiping, and making connections. She also observed, however, that women who were so concerned with their personal style did not use the bathroom in ways women do in other venues. She wrote:

“I left the stall and went up to the mirror to wash my hands and fix my mascara, which had smeared. As I was rubbing my makeup off I looked around the large bathroom and noticed I was the only woman doing this. Of the other nine women in the bathroom, they shared the commonality of washing their hands and hardly glancing in the mirror, not concerned with primping while they made their way out. I almost felt embarrassed to be concerned with my looks and for a brief moment slightly excluded from the community, feeling like I had missed some sort of, “we don’t care” memo.”

On Who Anthropologists Are

Students were unprepared for what they referred to repeatedly as the “whiteness” of anthropology at the AAA.  Many expressed a sense that a discipline with the goals, ideals, and foci of anthropology should have a much more diverse community of practitioners. A few noted that their class of 30 student anthropologists was far more racially and ethnically diverse than the meeting as a whole. Many students actively wondered about the barriers to participation in anthropology, and when those barriers occurred in a person’s life.

Similarly, students wondered about the gender composition of the meeting attendees. They remarked on the relatively equal representation of men and women at the meeting, but wondered why undergraduate cohorts in anthropology programs differed from the professional cohort at the meeting.  With the anthropology program at DePaul being (not atypically) about 80% women and 20% men, what happens after college that shifts the balance so much closer to 50/50?

Other students expressed surprise at the international attendance at the conference.  One student who was interested in linguistic anthropology spent her time listening to different languages being spoken and counted 14.  She reflected on language as a potential barrier to inclusion and as a means of exclusion in anthropological conversations.  How many people can’t participate in the AAA because of their level of English proficiency? And, just what is being missed because we aren’t consuming the knowledge of non-English speaking scholars?

On How People Interact

Before the annual meetings students were impressed by the incredible diversity of the AAA program and wondered how a sense of community arose out of such diversity? Observing interpersonal interactions helped students understand how a community is formed.  Students found there actually were many communities operating simultaneously at the AAA meeting, and that interactions in social spaces and scholarly spaces differed.

There were communities of insider and outsider knowledge. Students observed a clear divide between those who knew the rules of space, self-presentation, and social engagement and those who did not.  This divide extended to other kinds of specialized knowledge; some people could “read between the lines” of the program and decide the value of a scheduled activity in ways others could not. Only some people knew of exciting parties and social events not on the program- it depended on who you knew.

Sub-fields and interdisciplinary participants formed their own communities.  It was very clear that specialized communities formed in part because of shared disciplinary interests and also distinct program tracks that allowed different groups to move past one another in the larger conference arena. One student wrote, “It seemed clear that anthropology at the AAA really means cultural anthropology, even though they emphasize the inclusiveness of it all. If you aren’t a cultural anthropologist, they type of anthropologist you are or your home discipline of interest define you at the meetings both in terms of how you participate and with whom you socialize. These other fields are somehow peripheral and other to ‘Anthropology’ while also a part of the greater whole.”

Finally, students observed that in informal and formal spaces (lobby, bar, restaurants, receptions) social interactions were somewhat determined by gender, with men talking to men and women talking to women much more than to one another. However, the dominant way such social interactions were structured was based on age. The most common social interaction observed was reunions of friends and colleagues. One student noted, “If you saw a group of people together they were always about the same age.  Some groups were all grey haired older anthropologists, others were 30-40 somethings who seemed to be at the peak of their careers, and the students all huddled together in their own little cliques.” More than one student described the socializing at the AAA as “cliquish” and said it would be hard for them to approach a group of older, established anthropologists to network given the fact that people didn’t seem to spend time outside their age-groups.

This observation broke down, however, when students described experiences in panels, sessions, and workshops where they universally reported being met with interest, care, and enthusiasm by colleagues of all ages. In these spaces, the only variable determining interaction was the depth of interest people had in a subject. Those who stayed in a panel for its entirety developed a repartee with fellow participants, even if they were not presenting.  Conversations took place, in one case contraband liquor was passed in Styrofoam cups, and networking opportunities arose based on shared interests and a commitment to learning in a particular panel or session.

What They Learned About Themselves

Perhaps most the most rewarding outcome of this pedagogical experiment was the fact that nearly every student reported a deepening of their connection to anthropology because of their experiences attending the meetings.  Most of these students do not intend to pursue graduate work in anthropology, but nearly every one of them realized that in the course of four years they had become, and would always be, in a certain sense, an anthropologist.  Many expressed a strong sense of identity with anthropology and anthropologists, stating the felt they were among “my kind of people” or found anthropologists to be “my people.”  They took a sense of satisfaction from learning to fit in and felt through participation they had been accepted into the anthropological community. For some students, this realization was simply an affirmation of the obvious, but for others it was a real opportunity for self-reflection and discovery. Perhaps the most moving was the following:

“It was then in discussing my plans for collaboration with [another student] that I realized I am an anthropologist. I am in the right major. I belong at this conference. This is where I am supposed to be and this is what I am supposed to be doing this weekend. I then confided in [other student] that I have been resisting anthropology because I hate myself. I believe this is because I was raised to be racist, sexist, close minded and conservative. It was that part of me which hated that I was a “hippie” anthropology major who wants to study and appreciate people who are seemingly very different from me. So once I got all that self-discovery out of the way I could really and truly enjoy the conference.”

And, so she did.

Two Quick Notes

My colleague, Dr. John Mazzeo, also taught a section of this course using the structure and assignment I developed and described in these two posts.  The students quoted in this paper all gave their permission for their work to be used anonymously.  They are very excited about this post and having their work shared.

Jane Eva Baxter is an archaeologist and an 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.

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