#AAA2017 registration sucked. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come.

Even if you are not attending #AAA2017 in Washington, D.C. you have probably already heard about how much it sucked to try to register for it. The stories of frustration and anger on social media were, frankly, pretty epic. Over the past few years, I’ve felt a grudging respect for AAA staff, who have tried to modernize the office and make the AAA into a respectable organization. But it’s hard to find a bright side in the #AAA2017 registration sage. Let’s face it: As the AAA gets more corporate, it begins to suck the way a corporation sucks.

I haven’t investigated any of the complaints about the AAA in detail, so I can’t confirm what precisely went wrong or how fair the criticisms are. But even if only half of them are true, the situation was pretty grim. The interface was, I’m told, impenetrable. One person I know claims the app locked her out of her phone. Several others organizing panels had their participants replaced by other random people, which led to the idea of perhaps doing some sort of LARP at AAAs where you could pretend to be other anthropologists and give papers as if you were them. At one point passwords were changed unexpectedly. It seemed the only way to figure out what went wrong was to call AAA staff and harass them, which of course no one wanted to do. The entire thing was enough of a debacle that the AAA even extended the deadline to register.

I’m sure that these issues were not the AAA’s fault and people report that AAA staff were very helpful. It’s the contractors, I’ve been told — the people who sold the AAA the web portal they use. Given how poor the AAA’s web app was at #AAA2016, I have no doubt that the AAA was able to once again hire the wrong people. But but but… who really believed that  the Deepwater Horizon oil spill wasn’t BPs fault, but their contractors? The diffusion of responsibility in this way is a classical technique of corporations, and the AAA should not take this route, no matter how tempting. The buck stops with them.

And since the AAA is acting like a corporation, let’s examine its product. The AAA meetings are a profit center for the AAA. In 2015, the association made over US$460,000 from it. Are we, as consumers, getting value for money out of the association? I’d say no. The registration system has always been a pain. But now it is getting worse. Most of the new additions to the conference are not very valuable (like the app) or turn us into advertisements (the sponsored bags). And the total cost of attending these events is extremely high — particularly for people who are not wealthy tenured professors. This is true despite the discounts the AAA has very thoughtfully made for the underemployed.

I’d urge the AAA to step up and run a great #AAA2017, and it still had plenty of time to make corrections and do that. But it needs to take these meetings seriously, because so far the AAA is giving us less and less for more and more. From my perspective, it makes more sense these days to small, stimulating, cheap meetings closer to home than it does to splash out for big, expensive events which the AAA — to judge from its registration system — doesn’t actually want us to attend anyway.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

11 thoughts on “#AAA2017 registration sucked. I hope it’s not a sign of things to come.

  1. i had similar difficulties. lets stay calmed,there are things where one can only wonder..#perplexity

  2. If you look closely at AAA’s entire audit report for 2015, particularly page 21, you’ll see that once staffing and management costs are taken into account, the net income from the annual meeting was a much more modest ca. $47,000.

  3. Hmmm how do you get that number? According to that document, the Annual Meeting made 1,433,226 and cost 972,161. Doesn’t that mean that they netted 461,065? That’s where I was getting that number from.

  4. My experience with the app is that it was poorly designed — it didn’t look good, but also I wonder how many people thought they had submitted when they had not, as almost happened to me?

    The analysis of AAA as corporation here is very much warranted. I have been worried for some time about the lack of transparency toward “members” (consumers) — I assume you are using the 2015 data from the last set of annual reports posted on the website? I also inquired about setting up an interest group in the last year and received a terse reply to the effect of that (“service”) being discontinued for the foreseeable future (new Sections too, everyone).

    I’ve had a few conversations in the past few day about the directions that the AAA, meetings as well as organization, is going, and the question coming out of it is — what are they for? What do participants want out of them and how can we get it (whether through AAA as corporation or AAA as professional organization…) I am also a fan of small meetings, but I think there is added value (sorry, more corporate speak!) in a large meeting like AAAs as long as people can get to it!

  5. Rex:

    I direct the American Folklore Society, an ACLS-member learned society like AAA. If I understand the AAA audit report correctly, to know the full cost of any 2015 AAA activity you have to look not only at the annual revenue and expenses page on page 6 of the audit report but also at the “schedule of functional expenses” on page 21.

    On that latter page, each activity’s costs are broken out, and each includes (at the bottom of its column) an “allocation of supporting services.” Most likely, these allocations represent each activity’s share of the general institutional overhead for AAA. Normally, these include salary and benefit costs for AAA general management and administrative staff (that is, those staff members who work outside the departments for meetings, publications, membership, government relations, public education, etc.), for office rent and utilities, and for a variety of administrative operations.

    This allocation is generally determined by calculating the relation of the particular activity’s budget to the budget of the organization as a whole; e.g., if the annual meeting’s direct costs represent 12% of your total direct costs, then it should shoulder 12% of your indirect costs as well.

    Even though these are often called “indirect costs,” they are no less real than direct costs; both are necessary to the functioning of any non-profit, and it’s a common practice to allocate basic management and administrative costs in this way; for example, we also account for expenses this way in our annual audits.

    The $414,377 of indirect costs shown on page 21, when added to the annual meeting’s direct expenses of $972,161, brings the total annual meeting cost to $1,386,538. Since the meeting (from page 6) took in $1,433,226 in revenue, the net income from the meeting was $46,688.

    Sorry to go so far into the weeds, but some of this stuff is weedy.

    Tim Lloyd

  6. On the contrary Tim thanks for this clarification — unless I missed something somewhere, you are far better at providing transparency about the AAA than the AAA is itself! I appreciate that. But as I understand it, this just means that the AAA is using the money it makes on the conferences to fund its functioning, only part of which is the conference. This is what I’ve always understood is the case: that the AAA uses meeting revenue to fund operations. You are correct to point out that when I asked “are we getting value for our money?” the answer is “yes, you are getting an association for it”. Which is fair point, I suppose — perhaps a very good one depending on how much you value the AAAs activities. But I think my question is still a fair one: the hundreds of dollars we pay to attend AAA are not just a donation to keep the organization running. We expect a good conference experience as well. And that’s what I don’t think we’ve gotten so far.

  7. Good point. Although I’m an AAA member I haven’t been to an annual meeting in a while, so people who have are in a better position to respond to it.

  8. What do we want? How can we get it?

    I’m not sure what you meant, Rex, by the comment about “smaller conferences.” But maybe you mean the opportunity to not just touch base with existing networks (at AAAs, one’s cohort mates, people working in the same region or country) but meet new people and networks. This is something that my colleagues from Europe, whom I definitely make a point to connect with at AAAs, have been complaining about, and there seems to be a pattern of people coming in the few years around getting the PhD and then stopping — this has been put to me pretty explicitly in the last few weeks, as we were discussing the blowup around AAA registration on the Anthropology Matters listserv that happened over the holiday weekend.

    (Relatedly, is there any data available about declines in attendance at AAAs?)

  9. Re: Declines in AAA meetings attendance. My understanding is that the attendance at The Meetings has been rising, not declining, but I am happy to be corrected. The larger problem for the AAA, as described at the department reps breakfast in Minneapolis, is that people have a habit of joining only for the years in which they plan on attending the meetings, and even rising levels of attendance at the meetings do not compensate for the loss of long-term membership. This links to the open access issue, since journal subscriptions were once, arguably, the primary motive for joining the AAA, and open access make membership irrelevant except that a version of membership is required in order to register for the meetings. You’d think that, with the growing importance of getting people to register for the meetings, the AAA would make it easier or more efficient.

  10. Thanks Barbara for the info from the reps meeting. I was also thinking about reasons for being a member broadly, and actually the journal access is a major reason for me — it is tied with if not more important than going to the meetings. I do have access to some journal databases through my institution (a California community college), but not many major ones and very few anthropology journals. (We don’t have JSTOR even.) I would think this would be a big reason for membership for many…

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