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’. 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 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’ 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). Continue reading