In defense of the conference

A couple of days ago, Prof. Mary Beard suggested that large-scale conferences in Classics (viz., the joint annual meetings of the AIA and SCS) are not long for this world. I found myself agreeing with a lot of what she wrote, but leaving the piece not entirely convinced. This post is an attempt to think through my resistance.

Obviously, my point of view is going to be radically different from Prof. Beard’s, or anyone else’s for that matter; I’ve only been attending these since 1999, and primarily on the archaeological side. I’ve never been to one of these meetings outside of the US, other than last year’s meeting of the EAA (European Association of Archaeologists) in Barcelona. I also don’t have the high profile or accomplishments of Prof. Beard. I haven’t had to deal with sexism, racism or other forms of discrimination at these events or elsewhere.

First, a point of agreement: big annual meetings aren’t as exciting as smaller workshops, where there’s more time to talk to people working on similar problems, to give longer papers, and to have more intellectual interchange. (This argument isn’t fully developed in the blog post, although it is hinted at; it came out a bit more explicitly on Twitter.) I agree that the best part of any conference (socially and intellectually) is the social interaction and the time spent between and after talks. The best conferences (in the broadest sense) that I’ve been to have been small and focused, and resulted in really interesting and important publications.

Another point of agreement: I don’t think that anyone should feel obligated to go to big annual meetings, and I don’t think that it should be held against people who don’t (or can’t) go. They are expensive to attend, many institutions don’t pay for students or faculty to attend, etc., and if Prof. Beard or anyone else would rather not go, I don’t think that anyone should criticize them for that decision. For many, however, the annual meetings aren’t optional: even setting aside the job market, giving papers can be important for one’s professional development and the annual meetings are for many the best venue, both because of their visibility and because one’s university may be willing to give money for such events (and not for other conferences). So making these events affordable should be a top priority for the field (thanks to Erin Averett Walcek for emphasizing this point to me).

Where I part ways with Prof. Beard is when she suggests that “it is the arguments, disputes, protests and outrages which conferences throw up that… signal its demise.” The controversies about manels and sexism, about the privilege signaled by badges, about the costs of accommodation, about racism — to me these are all signs of strength, not weakness. I feel this way, I suppose, because I can’t imagine how else we can improve the status of the discipline and its annual meetings. I assume that sexism, racism, ableism, and privilege were always present in prior annual meetings, and that organizations like the Women’s Classical Caucus (established in 1972) and most recently the Asian and Asian American Caucus (established in 2019) were created in large part to combat these forces. It seems logical and correct to me that these organizations push for changes, including changes that will make many uncomfortable, and that their membership is outraged by the status quo.

My own view of the recent controversies of the AIA/SCS (and especially of the SAA, the Society for American Archaeology) is not that these institutions are turning in on themselves. Instead, I see a radical disconnect between the leadership of these societies and their membership. To be sure, there can be members who are especially loud and unreasonable, and it is certainly not easy for our professional associations to run these conferences, but generally speaking I think that members are disappointed when they see their societies (for whatever reason) failing to live up to their (the societies’) ideals. The membership wants to see swift and decisive deeds and genuine and resolute words from its professional societies, but more often what it gets are (overly) deliberative and safe actions, and milquetoast (or just weird and confusing) statements. To me, the shape of these controversies suggests the opposite of Prof. Beard’s conclusion that the professional society “has lost confidence in its own function”: on the contrary, the rank-and-file academic membership has an all-too-clear clear sense of its society’s function. If the membership has lost confidence in anything, it’s in its leadership. As Bill Caraher pointed out, our professional organizations seem hampered by their hierarchical leadership, lack of transparency, extensive range of interests being represented, and lack of resources. Running these conferences professionally is a difficult task that most academics are ill-equipped to do.

I’d like to end with a more positive defense of the big annual meeting. It seems to me that there are lots of paths that I could go down: the annual meeting informs you best about the newest North American fieldwork in the rapidly-changing field of Mediterranean archaeology, for instance. But to me the most important advantage is that it allows for social interaction on a scale that can’t be matched by smaller conferences and at a level of intimacy that can’t be replicated on social media. I don’t mean to say that these annual meetings are perfectly inclusive: of course they aren’t, as all of the recent controversies have shown, and I share Prof. Beard’s horror at the racism of the 2019 SCS (even if neither of us is probably very surprised by it). But the annual meeting brings students, professors, and other members (including avocational members) together into the same social space, and this is not something that other gatherings accomplish. The actual makeup of small conferences (maybe especially in the US) tends to be strongly shaped by who is invited, and it thus reflects networks of power and prestige. Early in my career (i.e., the year before my dissertation defense and the year after it), I was invited to two such workshops, in both cases through the agency of senior faculty with whom I had long-standing relationships (my dissertation advisor and someone with whom I had worked in the field since 1999). Graduate students don’t really get a seat at the table at such workshops.

All of this isn’t a criticism of the workshop: surely the advantage of the workshop (or small conference) is that it brought together people who have given a lot of thought to the salient issues of the conference for a very long time. That’s where it gets its power. The annual meeting, on the other hand, doesn’t have the coherency or fellowship of smaller workshops, but it gets its power by bringing together talks by people of varying ranks, from full professors to graduate students, from different kinds of universities, into the same space, even if this space is not magically free of power. It is a place where graduate students and other less privileged members of the discipline can make a positive impression and gain a reputation for good work, and hopefully create opportunities for themselves to get invitations to smaller workshops.

More importantly, though, the annual meeting is a place where the weaknesses of the field are on full display, and where we as a group can try to make things better (i.e., more equitable and more transparent), especially for our colleagues without the comfort of tenure. To me that’s the point of the fervent debates that we see at these meetings. We can’t wait for positive change; we have to make it ourselves.

* Thanks to my friends who read a draft of this post and made some useful suggestions.

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1 thought on “In defense of the conference

  1. myomonchoro

    I mostly agree with this, but since I’ve been around longer (and missed only 2 Annual Meetings of AIA/APA/SCS in about 30 years….) I am witness to a longer trajectory. First: grad students now are much more predominant in the program, due in part to a change some years ago when the submissions became blind submissions. I.e. you couldn’t expect to get accepted because you were who you were, giving (yet another?) paper on your important, if obscure, corner of antiquity; your abstract’s quality is what got you in. It really did change things. Another major change is that the meetings are no longer so crucial to the job market, as they were in the days before Skype interview, or search committees just ignoring the supposed rules of the (now quaint) placement service, and when universities paid to send committees to interview in person.

    As a veteran of the annual meetings of four professional organizations….I can also attest to both the value and the limitations you mention of the smaller conferences, and their publications. Not much to add, except to second what you say about the power and privilege of networks of scholars here and abroad.

    Have you read the Chronicle piece on the “extinction event” of the MLA? a lot of theater, but definitely rings….loud. http://tinyurl.com/y469unkd

    Reply

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