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?