Friday, November 18, 2011

My First American Anthropological Association Meeting

The title of this article rings like a child’s story or artwork – “My First Bicycle,” or “My First Vacation.” Typically, these stories are those of great anticipation for someone that may have not yet experienced it in like, but more commonly they are stories that those experiential veterans can read with appreciation, remembering to forgive the writer for naiveté; after all, it is their “first.” I title it this way because that’s how I feel here this week, at my first American Anthropological Association: a neophyte in a sea of weathered professionals and their favored protégés.

This would have been my second, had our Student Government come through on funding last year. Alas, we did not make a solid case to them, and still more, were going for nothing more than personal enrichment. This year is different; this year, our department sent four students to the AAA to present posters. And here I am. So let’s start with what I expected:

1. Of the many anthropologists that I follow through social networking, it seems that a handful were able to attend. I’d hoped to meet them all, hand out my awesome (and a little pricey) business cards, and ultimately make an impression. For me, coming to Montreal was more about expanding my network than anything. I love what I study, and I make the very best that I can with the resources we have at Cleveland State, and so a good network (I think) is going to get me into a position later where I might have more resources at my disposal. For some reason, I expected that this would be an easy venture, but why would it be any different than penetrating any other social group? So far, my timid sophomoric (literally – I am a sophomore) silliness got in the way, and I backed down in most cases. (What do I have to say to Jonathan Marks? “I love your books and UNC is on my list of grad schools. I’ll send you a letter…in two years.” What could I possibly bring to the table with H. Russell Bernard? “I studied Quantitative Research Methods in Anthropology, but I never got to put it to good use, because my research agenda fell through last summer. Nice tie!”)

I did get to meet a lot of people though, and I did dispense with the cards. My friends and I, in Montreal by Tuesday, had discovered the perfect bar, and proceeded to invite everyone we met to join us. Wednesday night, we were with “representatives” from Texas A&M, Vancouver, and Rensselaer, the second night, Purdue. Of the handful of professionals with whom I am acquainted through social networking, the two I met were simply because I caught them alone. (“Is that John Hawks, looking at his phone [probably trying to figure out the troublesome WiFi]? I have to go introduce myself.” “Oh, is that Katherine MacKinnon grabbing hors d’oeuvres? Perfect!”) The rest of them seemed to be involved in more engaging topics than “Hi, I follow you on Twitter,” a rather strange icebreaker for those that may not have experienced real life encounters with those they might only know virtually. Besides, I hate interrupting people.

2. I brought a video camera. I expected that I would be filming everything I could in Montreal, from the drive there to the experience. I expected that I might even get to film a session.

A couple months ago, fellow Google-Plusser, Bria Dunham, pointed out that the panel, “Science in Anthropology: An Open Discussion” would conflict with her poster presentation, one of the biological variety. I supposed, jokingly, that the AAA was having the last laugh after the #AAAfail debacle last year. Last week, Julienne Rutherford (another person I would have met, but was rather busy) posted on BANDIT that the panel in question actually conflicted with 2 biological sessions and 3 archaeological sessions, and followed up with a call for recording equipment. I had already had the bright idea to borrow a camera from our Visual Anthropology Center, as well as go to that session, so why not combine the two? As far as I knew, no one had permission to record, but I could still record for “personal use.” Ultimately, as I had told John Hawks, I chickened out; who records for personal use with a camera? I didn’t really want to be confronted about it. The kicker is, the speakers granted permission just before the session began. I live-tweeted.

The AAA veterans that I know have told me, time and time again: “Don’t expect to do anything but go to sessions, mingle, and drink like a fish.” The homework that I should’ve kept up on all week – well, it eventually got done. The blogging I wanted to do every night - never happened. And the camera has never come out of its case. Shit, I haven’t even had time to talk to my own girlfriend on the phone.

These are the highlights of the meeting thus far:

Wednesday, I attended a fantastic session by the Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, titled “The Legacies of Teaching Evolutionary Ideas: Not Buckling in the Bible Belt.” While presentations were given, it resembled more of a laid back discussion of each professor’s experience broaching the subject of anthropology in their given regions of “The Belt,” and how they dealt with it.

Wednesday evening, at their invitation, I was at Texas A&M’s “Shared Visualizations of Imagined Spaces.” The papers were generally themed around storytelling, with one on folklore, one on Southern hip-hop, one on Ayhuasca tourism, and the one that got me there in the first place: Dungeons & Dragons.

Thursday, of course, I was at “Science in Anthropology: An Open Discussion.” Aside from actual content of the session (which I won’t go into, as they are written about here, here, and here), what I found interesting was that the chemistry between the professional anthropologists that I know personally (in my own little microcosm) translated here as well: those in defense of science had very good senses of humor while those in favor of more interpretive methods were a little more…well, irritated. That was very interesting, given that those in defense of science were constantly being told that it was they, who were the reactionaries.

Thursday afternoon, I got down to brass tacks and went to a session that was less novel and more in line with my field of study: “HIV/AIDS in Global Africa.” It was clear that they were not readers of the blog SavageMinds, but the presentations were fantastic, nonetheless. Specifically, one was a narrative (sort of) about how anti-retroviral drugs have changed the HIV/AIDS stigma, and thus the culture. In fact, I loved it so much, I went and bought a book on it.

Friday! This has definitely been the best. “Scars of Evolution” started at 8AM (fuck!) but I made it. This four hour session was composed of the best papers I’ve seen…ever (I have been to other anthropology conferences, after all). The papers ran the gamut: It felt like the semesters of biological anthropology classes I’ve taken, crammed into one four hour slot. It seemed like everyone knew each other – it took forever to get setup and started because everyone was up and around and talking, and even once we got started, presenters were heckled from time to time (in good fun, of course). The PowerPoints were (rarely) dry, the presentations were executed brilliantly (they must be Savage Minds readers), and it was a blast.

And this evening, I went to the Biological Anthropology Section business meeting. Well this was a little weird, a little more administrative, and it was clear that everyone knew each other. I sat in the back, observing and thinking, “Hey, this kind of runs like my Student Anthropology Association meetings back at school.” At times, I didn’t know if I should be there…but I am a member. I suppose I just felt a little invisible when they started to talk about how to get undergraduates involved in BAS. (It’s not that I expected everyone to know that I am an undergraduate, because I’m sure it’s not obvious [until I open my mouth], rather that it was very obvious to me that I was more than likely the only undergraduate in that room of fifty.) The meeting was followed up by an incredible keynote lecture by Jonathan Marks on one of my favorite subjects: the history of biological determinism in general (and the conflict between ethnology and evolution, specifically). And that was followed by a reception, which I just came from.

Tomorrow is another day. Tomorrow, I present my poster at 8AM (fuck!) but I can make it. If you’re there before noon, come meet me (and take one of these ridiculous business cards off of me).


  1. How was the 'Shared Visualizations of Imagined Spaces' panel? Who presented, and what did you think of their papers?

  2. Shared Visualizations of Imagined Spaces was great! I don't have the itinerary with me, so I can't give you the names of the papers or their presenters.

    The paper on folklore, if I remember correctly, had some focus on the way certain words are used in stories. It left me, for the rest of the session, thinking of certain words that may or may not translate across cultures. I like papers that get me thinking.

    The paper on Southern hip-hop, I loved, because I had written a paper just like it this past summer. It had a lot to do with how artists identify themselves, their lives, and their environments in their lyrics, and (again) if I remember: how those lyrics in turn influence the lifestyle.

    The paper on Ayhuasca tourism was great. The author tried not to take a stance on it. The conflict is between those that are born into a culture with access to Ayhuasca (and the opportunity to practice shamanism) versus tourists that might like to seek out charlatan practitioners.

    I do, actually, know the name of the D&D paper's author off the top of my head, because we actually talked on and off through the week. Nick Mizer hit a lot of points on D&D, and it's quite difficult for me to summarize into a concise thought (and some of his ideas were a little over my head). The part that really sticks out is how he conveyed that D&D maps have been reused through generations. It highlighted the fact (to me at least), that visualizations of imagined spaces aren't just shared through space, but time as well.

    There actually was a paper that I didn't mention above on Jewish folklore. And I can't even comment on it, either because the author moved so fast or because it was completely over my head.

    I should mention that these things usually aren't my bag, and that I think this was the only non-biological session that I went to. The papers were great, the people were great. Mr. Mizer and I got into some great discussions over beers, and the bastard even got me to completely restructure a paper I'd been working on for months.

  3. Thanks for the mention, Dick! What paper did I get you to restructure? I'm not even aware I did that!

  4. Nick: My paper on the Founding Fathers (which I posted here a few days ago). You and Gareth completely opened my eyes to the fact that my conclusion was not as strong as I thought it was. Not sure if you remember, but at one point you accused me of chronological snobbery, so I had to take the emphasis off of trying to find a function for American ancestor worship, and just accept it in this weird Turner/Geertz kind of symbolism way. The paper is still not as strong as I'd like it to be, but I am much more comfortable with my conclusion.

  5. Oh yeah, now I remember. Snob! *grin.*