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Experienced Meeting Goer Provides Presentation Tips To Newbies

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member, Kirsten Bell. Bell discusses how to present a paper at an anthropology conference.

How to deliver a paper at an anthropology conference

By Kirsten Bell

Academic conferences, as several observers have noted, are a singularly understudied phenomenon.  One of the more profound insights on this topic is to be found in an article by Jacobs and McFarlane published in, of all places, the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.  They note that conferences are sites where inexperienced neophytes learn how to become professionals – how to (quite literally) walk the walk and talk the talk.   While we learn from the practices and attributes of our individual teachers, it is only at our discipline’s most cherished events that we get to see The Anthropologist as a larger species of academic in all of his or her glory.  Thus, more than any other academic pursuit, be it fieldwork, writing or teaching, it’s at conferences that we learn how to inhabit an anthropological habitus.

At some level, we’re all aware of this.  Certainly, for those budding anthropologists who have never previously presented at an academic conference, they can be a nerve-wracking affair.   If not careful, one can become the academic equivalent of a gauche guest at a dinner party, or the Nigel-No-Friends on the playground ignored by other students and picked last for team sports.

I learnt this lesson the hard way at the Australian Anthropological Society conference in 1997, where I presented my first paper.   Having never previously attended a conference, much less presented at one, I turned to my older sister, a geologist, for advice.  Amongst her several pearls of wisdom were the instructions to ‘use PowerPoint. Everyone’s doing it’.[1]  She then gave me her own personalized template (blue background with yellow writing, fashionable amongst scientists in the mid 1990s and heartily despised by the time it finally went out of fashion a decade later) and I diligently made up my slides, paid to get them transferred onto actual slides[2] and took the slide box with me to the conference.

The conference paper was an abysmal failure.  While my unfortunate mispronunciation of the word ‘cacophany’[3] didn’t help matters, I blame the PowerPoint slides for the paper’s poor reception.  Afterwards, the academic who chaired the session politely informed me that while the use of PowerPoint might be de rigueur in scientific circles, it wasn’t at all the thing amongst anthropologists, as our complex and abstract ideas didn’t lend themselves well to bullet points on a slide.  Clearly, my fatal error was asking a geologist for advice on how to communicate at an anthropology conference, which, as it turned out, was rather like asking an ice hockey player what strategies suit competitive netball.

In light of the upcoming AAA Meeting in San Francisco, and in the spirit of offering collegial advice to a new generation of anthropologists forced to navigate the shark-infested waters that constitute the typical academic conference, I’ve compiled a list of how to present papers at anthropology conferences.  However, before I outline these tips there’s one fundamental piece of advice I need to impart.  You must disabuse yourself of any naïve notion that conferences are about disseminating knowledge and sharing intellectual ideas.  It’s precisely these sorts of pie-in-the-sky fantasies that will get you into trouble.  As Erving Goffman pointed out in Forms of Talk, if one’s goal is merely to transmit information, an academic talk is an extraordinarily ineffective way to do it.  We don’t attend talks to actually learn something new but to imbibe the essence of the speaker’s identity. To quote Goffman, “To the degree that the speaker is a significant figure in some relevant world or other, to that degree this access has a ritual character, in the… sense of affording supplicants preferential contact with an entity held to be of value” (p. 187).

This ritual character extends to the structure of academic talks themselves.  In an article on graduate student seminars, Bob Weissberg observes that such presentations are a speech event with a distinct rhetorical structure.  The same is true of a typical anthropology talk. Below I outline four key elements of a successful presentation at an anthropology conference.  Some of these elements I have used myself with a reliable degree of frequency over the years; others I have gleaned through watching (and marveling at) other anthropologists present at conferences.

1) Start with a fieldwork vignette.

This component is so obvious, so self-evident, it’s hardly worth stating, echoing as it does the standard conventions for writing an anthropology paper identified in Writing Culture.  However, I’ll say it anyway in case some of you are so green as to somehow have missed its prime importance.  You must start your paper with a vignette from your fieldwork.  It doesn’t need to relate to the focus of your paper or even make sense.  The introductory anecdote is there to serve one purpose and one purpose only and that is to authorize you, to say to the audience: “see, I’ve done fieldwork”, which, as Nigel Barley has so eloquently observed in The Innocent Anthropologist, is your main form of anthropological street cred.[4]  Sure, it gives you endless fodder for lectures (especially the ones you’ve forgotten to prepare) and makes you an interesting guest to have at dinner parties, but one of its less recognized advantages is its ability to allow you to skip boring literary and rhetorical conventions such as actually bothering introducing your topic.

2) Name drop trendy theorists – preferably impenetrable continental ones.

Based on the number of times I heard his name mentioned at the 2010 Australian Anthropology Society conference and the 2011 AAA conference, I’d suggest Georgio Agamben as a potential candidate.  To those of you who happen to think that Bare Life is the name of a National Geographic documentary, or who – even worse – don’t think the concept of homo sacer is relevant to your work, I say this.  The point of impenetrable theorists is that their concepts can be applied to anything – their very opacity allows them to absorb whatever phenomenon you are interested in, kind of like an intellectual equivalent of a black hole that sucks up matter and then spits it back out in the form of a shiny new star.

3) Sprinkle your paper liberally with non-English words and phrases.  This is easiest done if you work in a locale where English is not the lingua franca.  But don’t – and this is critical – actually translate what you are saying.  Neophytes tend to worry that such tactics might be confusing, and unnecessarily alienate audience members who don’t speak the language.  These are spurious concerns based on the mistaken assumption that your presentation is designed to do anything as mundane as actually convey useful information.  Let me reiterate that your presentation is about establishing your credentials as an anthropologist.  Throwing in words and phrases in the local language without explaining them serves this function by demonstrating that you are so fluent, engaged and immersed, etcetera, etcetera, you’re not even aware when you have slipped into the local language.  In Barthian terms these words and phrases also stand in syntagmic relation (note use of strategy 2 here) to the fieldwork vignette that you will use to start your presentation.

Obviously, if you work in an exclusively English-speaking context you’re at a disadvantage here (but, of course, unless you were raised intellectually in one of those new-fangled cultural studies-type departments, you knew that already).  The only way to successfully counteract this handicap is to bump up your use of strategy 2.  Also, if you know any Latin, French or German phrases you can throw in, use them promiscuously throughout your presentation.

4) It’s important to prepare your presentation as you would any other paper – i.e., as something to be read rather than spoken.   I know this is the opposite of the advice any communication specialist will give you but, remember, the purpose of your paper is not to convey information but to credibly perform your identity as an anthropologist.  So what if you have to flip through a couple of pages half way through your talk when you realize that you’re running out of time and still have 5 pages to go?  This merely reinforces your cultivated disheveledness (see discussion of dress below).  Who cares if you write in paragraph-long sentences that are incomprehensible to all but the most devoted listeners?  Ultimately, the less the audience understands, the better.  That way, you will have fewer thorny questions to deal with, and you can accuse any detractors of completely misunderstanding your paper.   Moreover, you can immediately submit it to a journal without having to rework it, thus killing multiple birds with one stone.

Finally, although not relating to the content or structure of the anthropology paper per se, I’d like to give one final word of advice on presenting a successful paper, which relates to the need to dress appropriately.  While you may think that anthropologists are above such banalities, dress is a central means through which an anthropologist communicates his or her professional identity.   If you don’t want to take my word for it, then re-read Natural Symbols, where Mary Douglas points to the contrast between academics and stock brokers, noting the carefully modulated shagginess of the former (which, I would suggest, reaches its epitome in the sartorial stylings of anthropologists).  Therefore, you must assiduously cultivate this disheveledness, even if you heart secretly desires the perky preppiness of a Tommy Hilfiger polo shirt or the understated refinement of a Brooks Brothers suit.

The following should be avoided at all costs: suits (unless worn ironically)[5] and ostentatious bling (unless vaguely ‘ethnic’ or ‘ghetto’ in design).   It’s worth noting that clothing also has a valuable symbolic function to perform in advertising your fieldsite, so try incorporating some subtle references in your mode of dress: for example, some sort of beaded accessory if you specialize in Native American studies, a brightly printed headscarf if you work in Africa, an intricately embroidered bag if you work in Southeast Asia, etcetera.

If you don’t work in a fieldsite that promotes the use of such items, I’d advise you to develop a preference for generic ethnic/arty clothing shops.  For example, during my PhD, on days when I was tutoring I would gravitate towards a shirt with an Indonesian-style batik pattern that I bought from an op shop for $5.  In fact, it got to the point where my sister would snigger whenever she saw me wearing it and say “you must be tutoring today”.  Did I do fieldwork in Indonesia?  No.  But South Koreans tend to dress fairly conservatively and wearing my bright pink hanbok (note use of strategy 3 here) to teach in seemed a little excessive.

Actually, this is an important point: there’s a line between dressing like an anthropologist and crossing all sorts of other potentially unsavory boundaries.  Lean too far towards the arty side (especially if your taste runs towards clean, simple lines) and you run the risk of being seen as a sociologist.  Too disheveled and you risk being mistaken for a homeless person (please refer to the ‘Prof or hobo?’ quiz for valuable lessons on how to avoid crossing this line http://individual.utoronto.ca/somody/quiz.html).  Also, beware of going ‘full ethnic’.   No anthropologist wants to be accused of cultural appropriation or grotesque mimicry.

While I think you’ll find these strategies of great benefit when presenting papers at anthropology conferences, tread with caution before attempting to import them into your performance repertoire at other types of conferences.  If, for example, you regularly attend health or medical conferences, you may find your cherished symbols subject to an unexpected resignification.  Trust me on this, anthropological forms of cultural capital do not translate well into other settings.[6]

Acknowledgements: This piece was informed by conversations with fellow anthropologists too numerous to name here (and who’d probably prefer that I don’t make the attempt).  However, I’m particularly indebted to Eric Mykhalovskiy – not actually an anthropologist at all, but a sociologist who shared some invaluable insights about the differences between anthropology and sociology conferences and who introduced me to the ‘Prof or Hobo’ quiz.   Needless to say, Eric and the unnamed anthropologists bear no responsibility for the final content of this paper.

Biography: Kirsten Bell completed a PhD in social anthropology in Australia at James Cook University (2000).  She is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia and has also held faculty appointments in anthropology departments at Macquarie University in Australia and the University of Northern Colorado in the USA.  Her current research interests are located in the anthropology of biomedicine and public health.


[1] I can conclusively say that NO ONE at that time was using it in anthropology.  I may very well bear the dubious honor of being the first anthropologist ever to use it at an academic conference.

[2] Readers born after 1985 probably don’t have a clue what I’m talking about.

[3] Not CACK-oh-fanny, it turns out, but the rather more counter-intuitive ca-COFF-any.

[4] Of course, as Barley was well aware, your street cred varies substantially depending on where you did your fieldwork.

[5] I’m not entirely certain what an ironically worn suit looks like, but if you have to ask it’s probably best not to make the attempt.

[6] For example, while a messy office is part of the cultivated disheveledness of any anthropologist worth his or her salt and demonstrates a busy and creative mind at work, in medical settings you will invariably be labeled disorganized, erratic and, yes, incompetent.

11 Responses

  1. Is this humorous or cynical? The clothing part was the most believable. Is she serious?

  2. If she’s Australian (or been there long enough) it’s probably sarcasm … take advice with that in mind.

  3. this is possibly the funniest article I have read all week.. thanks :)!

  4. Cynical, humorous and Australian AND bang on the money!!

  5. Extremely funny. She should have her own blog. Good to see some self-deprecation in academia.

  6. Laughed so hard I hurt something. More please Kirsty.

  7. Great insider information on anthropological circles. Thank you for making me laugh so hard :)

  8. If you liked this article you’ll probably like this, too

    http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/pdf/20050224-Bloch-Anthropology.pdf

  9. [...] Experienced Meeting Goer Provides Candid Presentation Tips To … Joslyn O. “Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member, Kirsten Bell. Bell provides a candid approach towards her experience presenting a paper at an anthropology conference. How to deliver a paper at an anthropology conference By Kirsten Bell …American Anthropological Association” http://blog.aaanet.org/2012/10/12/experienced-meeting-goer-provides-candid-presentation-tips-to-newbies/ [...]

  10. [...] Experienced Meeting Goer Provides Candid Presentation Tips To Newbies (aaanet.org) [...]

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