I’m sure that there are many people out there who have written much better pieces about how to attend a conference than this one, but with the AAAs approaching I thought I’d share a little of my own thoughts about how and why I go to conferences and what I hope to get out of them:
The thing about conferences is that they’re a bunch of people all in the same place. The main point of going to AAAs is, in my mind, to spend time with people. A couple of non-obvious things fall out from this:
Fist, you shouldn’t spend all of your time going to panels where you listen to papers. You can always read papers in your free time, no? I think in general one panel a day is enough — if I don’t go to any at all then I know I feel a little like I’m playing hookey. But this thing that people do where they run all over the place hopping from panel to panel and spending all their time listening to presenations — well, frankly, I think its for the birds.
Second, NEVER attend a panel because you are ‘interested in the topic’. The fact is that most of the panels at AAA are total wastes of time featuring uninteresting people poorly presenting hastily prepared papers that are too short to say anything interesting anyways. Anyone can throw interesting keywords into their papers or panel titles — that doesn’t mean you should go. The AAA is about people, not topics.
Third, if someone you know or are interested in is presenting, go see their paper REAGARDLESS of what it is actually on. For people who are new to anthropology, it can be worthwhile to make the rounds just to look luminaries and other famous people in the eye and see what they’re like. Inded, this seems to me to be the only reason to hold those awful ‘discussion session’ roundtables where five famous-to-us intellectuals sit at a huge elevated table in an enormous empty ballroom and pretend they have something to say: they are just events where these people are put on display for us to look at, nothing more.
Alternately, if someone has written a paper that you teach or you’ve seen them on the web and you’re intrigued, go check them out — just as viewing luminaries at a roundtable can be an incredibly deflationary experience, attending a talk by a fascinating junior person is a great chance to assess who they are and where they’re going.
There is just nothing like meeting someone in person to assess, in flash, whether or not they are actually The Shit.
Because the AAAs are about people and not topics or papers, panels are not just about particular presenters. Someone’s presence on a panel is an implicit endorsement of her fellow panel-mates. There could be some good discoveries to be made, so stick around — or at least make note of who is presenting alongside who.
Even more importantly, remember: the AAA is about people. This means the AUDIENCE is as important as the panelists. Who has come to see the speaker speak? Often times this is more important than the talk that is actually going on.
In fact, the one reason to go to a session because of the ‘topic’ is because ‘topic’ is just shorthand for ‘the entire social network of people I care about will be at this talk’. When topics are viewed as networks of people disguised as — or perhaps united by? — subject matter, then it makes perfect since to go to a panel. And hang out in the audience afterwards.
You can watch people at panels and meet them afterwards, but the best place to meet them are situations where you can talk to them, There are the obvious ones like parties, planned lunches, social events, and so forth. But chance meetings and serendipity are even better: the enormous lines at the cafe filled with people opposed, somehow, to making coffee in their hotel room; the elevator; the enormous whirling malestrom of social anxiety that is the hotel lobby. Grabbing a drink with a friend whose with a friend whose with a friend.
In this day of search engines we seriously underestimate the lessons that brick and mortar libraries have to teach us: the physical environment is a discovery mechanism, and sometimes the best way to discover new things is literally to run into them.
The AAA is a place where the most terrible, snobbish, and oppressive aspects of our discipline come to the fore: the hierarchical power differentials between tenured faculty, job applicants, contingent faculty, and graduate students. Even worse is the endless rounds of academic one-upmanship, who-is-hot, why-do-you-matter. I mention this because for many people the AAAs is the intellectual equivalent of hypergamy: you want to meet and hang out with ‘famous’ or ‘important’ people who you wouldn’t normally get to see.
Now, if your idea of a good time is performing an anthroplogical version of All About Eve, then a few words of advice: famous people are actually just people, and even the most fame-hungry person wants to stop holding court eventually and just have a drink. For god’s sake don’t tell people how much you enjoyed a book they wrote 20 years ago — chances are they can’t remember what’s in it. As in all cases of brown nosing, talk about what they want to talk about: their cat, the Dodgers, whatever. The more you treat famous people like people (which is what the AAA is all about, remember) the greater chance you’ll have to Know Famous People. In a perfect world you sit down with someone, strike up a conversation about your mutual enthusiasm for X Files Fan Fiction, and then afterwards find out they were Clifford Geertz or something.
But of course — of course! — the AAAs should not be about meeting famous people. Fame is fleeting, academic brownnosing is ugly and, at the end of the day, life is too short. Don’t meet famous people, meet interesting people. If you are a graduate student, don’t feel bad that you are hanging out with the other graduate students while the Famous People are off in some mysterious, glamorous, undisclosed location. Soon you and your new friends will become the Famous People and then your victory will be complete. If you are a professor, the absolute best thing you can do is introduce yourself to grad students and take an interest in what they are doing. Simple acts of kindness like striking up a conversation with The Only Person In The Room Who Doesn’t Know Anyone will be remembered for years. And just think — if someone has the gumption to show up and stand around despite the terribel social pressure of being the odd man out, well…. isn’t that the kind of person you’d be intererested in meeting?
Because people matter and not topics, talk to anyone about anything. You just never know where these connections will take you, both in terms of unexpected institutional perks (“We have money for a Melanesianist? Yeah I know one… I met them at AAA….”) but also the way it broadens your knowledge of topics. Pretty much everything I know about the eighteenth century frontier in the southeastern United States I learned at AAA parties from a friend of a friend — and it became a really important resource to me later on when writing up my own work on contemporary resource frontiers in Papua New Guinea. There is just no better way to have horizons expanded in wonderful, unexpected directions than meeting strangers and always assuming that they have something to teach you. What could be more anthropological?
For academics whose sense of self is deeply tied to their position in the academic world, the AAAs can an emotional roller-coaster, going from despair and a sense of worthlessness to exultation and feelings of euphoric well-being. Its quite strange when you stop to think about it — although really, all the insurance salesmen and medical equipment suppliers have similar experiences at their respective conferences. The most important thing about AAAs is just to remember to have fun and not let it drive you nuts. Academic conferences, like all of academic life, is really the sort of thing you should really only do because you enjoy doing it. If you don’t enjoy doing it — don’t do it. So if you do do it…. have fun!