Learning from TED, SFAA and BarCamp

The 2009 SEAA conference was held in Taipei this year and it was a real treat to see so many anthropologists visiting the country I currently call home. I thought the Jurassic Restaurant was a great place for our final dinner! But as much as I enjoyed it, I am always left somewhat disappointed by anthropology conferences, so I thought I’d write a blog post to try to put some of the reasons for that disappointment into words, trying to think aloud about how we might do better.

The first thing I would do, if I had the power to do so, would be to ban the reading of papers. It seems to me that there is often an inverse relationship between how famous an anthropologist is and how boring their presentations are. All too often they simply read aloud seven to nine pages of dense double spaced text extracted from their most recent publication. Thanks, but no thanks. I’d rather read the paper at my own pace, thank you. How about trying to learn from the wonderful TED talks? Although the TED curators seem to be a bit too fond of neoliberal and technocratic solutions to the world’s problems, there is no doubt that the talks one finds on that site are rarely boring.

Secondly, putting all the TED talks up as online video might have something to do with the quality of the talks. Surely this keeps presenters on their toes? The SFAA podcast site is a great example of what anthropologists can do in this regard. This should be standard practice at all anthropology conferences, and included in the conference budget. All too often there are a million talks scheduled at the same time, so it would be great to be able to hear the ones you missed later on. It is a great way to “open access” our conferences.

Third, I’d like to see a little more time devoted to discussion. Lets be honest, fifteen minutes is not enough time to present all your data. It seems to me that anything less than forty minutes is going to be little more than an advertisement for your work, encouraging people to read more if they are interested. So why not keep the papers short, maybe under ten minutes, and open up more time to some real discussion. Make the papers available online for those who want to read them.

Finally, I’ve never been to BarCamp, but it seems to be one of many participant-driven “unconferences” like the citizen journalism one I attended at Wikimania 2007. The entire agenda was determined on the spot, with the second round of topics picking up from where we left off at the end of the first round. I loved how dynamic this approach was, compared with what I’m used to at academic conferences. It would be great to open up the format of anthropology conferences to experiment with these other forms. This could even be extended to after the conference is over. Perhaps there could be some kind of built-in mechanism by which each year’s conference builds on questions raised the previous year?

8 thoughts on “Learning from TED, SFAA and BarCamp

  1. Ruth and I were also ad the SEAA conference and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. For us it was a huge treat to see so many old friends and to make a bunch of new ones. This was a very happy conference, not least because the folks at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, who hosted the conference were hosts to die for. Everything was well-organized and mostly kept on time and the food, the food, the food — who was it who said that for Chinese life is a banquet? For a glimpse of the mood check out the photos at

    http://www.me.com/gallery/#100385

    That said, I’d like to endorse Kerim’s suggestions. It is, after all, the 21st century. If papers were made available for download a week or so before a conference was held, sessions could be transformed into brief introductory statements, followed by discussion that, who knows? might even get beyond a first round of comments.

    The more ambitious and techno-literate could go beyond putting up a PDF for download and, if they wished, put a full-blown TED-type presentation online.

  2. bq. Secondly, putting all the TED talks up as online video might have something to do with the quality of the talks. Surely this keeps presenters on their toes?

    Surely it would, but wouldn’t it also contribute to the podcastization of intellectual life? I hate paint by numbers conference papers, too, but to me one of the things that makes going to a conference worthwhile is the fact that I am part of a face-to-face audience getting something I can’t get at the library or off the internet. I find it really depressing to think of digital communication turning the conference experience into a taped in front of a live studio audience situation in which the presenter is talking to the digital camera and the future rather than to the people in the room.

  3. MT, I think you have it backwards. The stuff that I am talking about (and, Kerim, correct me if I’m wrong, Kerim is talking about as well ) is all about enlarging the chance that the conference is more than rushed 15-minute presentations followed by at most one round of comments, at which point discussion ceases as everyone heads for the coffee, the restroom or the next session./ You hear or see the podcast then find yourself face-to-face with the person who made it and others with an interest in the topic and — hallelujah! — time in which some real conversation can occur.

    That said, the reason that I just clicked on _Savage Minds_ was my wanting to provide the link to the following presentation by Howard Rheingold. It’s forty minutes long, but, in my view, worth every minute of it. Be interested to hear what others have to say.

    http://blip.tv/file/2373937

  4. “I find it really depressing to think of digital communication turning the conference experience into a taped in front of a live studio audience situation in which the presenter is talking to the digital camera and the future rather than to the people in the room.”

    If they were actually “talking to the people in the room” now, I would totally agree with you. The problem is that they are not. And the people in the room don’t have a chance to talk back either. Surely with so many experts on discourse analysis in one room we can figure out a way to have some real discourse?

  5. A lot of these new conference forms remind me a lot of the conferences that Sol Tax used to put together, such as “Heritage of Conquest” and the Darwin Centennial in ’59. Papers were circulated (by snail mail!) to participants beforehand so that the conference itself was an opportunity to *discuss* them rather than to *present* them. In the published proceedings, Tax often published the papers along with transcripts of the conversations about them — a nod, I think, to the fact that incredible ideas often emerge, fleetingly, in conversation that get lost to poor memory. These conferences were, in the end, working meetings where significant advances to current thinking on the topic were expected as a result.

    Today’s equivalent are the BarCamps and unconferences, almost Quaker-style meetings where everyone participates as peers with the goal of hammering out an idea or set of ideas that are an advance from what everyone entered the meeting with. I love the idea of anthropology unconferences — and given the massive expense of official conferences, both to the sponsoring association and to participants, I wonder if such a model might be a lot more sustainable. 20 attendees in a Days Inn in a tier-two metropolitan area for a weekend would probably be cheaper than it is for 5 people to attend the AAAs — and likely more productive, as well. I know I’ve gotten a lot more from the smaller conferences I’ve been to at University of Chicago than I ever did from AAA meetings.

  6. John McCreery: you know if everyone wore clothes like Howard Rheingold for their conference presentations, I bet we’d all perk up. That is the awesomest shirt and jacket combination I’ve ever seen.

    Kerim, I think it’s really interesting to think cross-disciplinarily about read papers vs unscripted presentations. Colleagues tell me that political scientists and economists rarely read papers, while anthropologists and lit critics usually do. Could it have something to do with the value placed on literary creativity in our writing, while economists and political scientists get more credit for the ideas and analysis but the literary presentation of those ideas does give them much added value?

  7. bq. Surely with so many experts on discourse analysis in one room we can figure out a way to have some real discourse?

    I would settle just for a good lecture. A starting point might be reminding colleagues and students that oral and written reports of research are not one and the same.

  8. MT, would you settle for meetings at which only a small fraction of your colleagues would ever have a chance to speak? Who will get to select the chosen few? How will those who don’t make the cut get funding to attend? Lots of practical issues here.

    At the SEAA meeting in Taipei, Maurice Godelier gave a superb keynote address in the hour alloted to him. The same could not be said of those of us who filled the regular sessions, rushed to squeeze the results of weeks or months of research into fifteen minutes and were only able to hear and respond to a few scattered comments before it was times up.

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