I have always wanted to check out one of the many Harry Potter conferences that take place each year and I have just finished participating in Infinitus 2010. They are a fascinating combination of academics and fans, with professors with advanced degrees given equal status with a very informed fan base that also presents their analyses and opinions on all things Harry Potter. I have previously criticized traditional academic conferences for their deadly boring presentations: someone will stand in front of an audience of their peers and read a paper to them while one slide sits on the screen for the whole time. This bizarre ritual has not changed in decades and fan conferences like Infinitus provide an alternative model, especially for anthropologists. At Infinitus, there is no “Other” as “informants” and “anthropologists” switch roles endlessly, seamlessly, and delightfully.

I am not necessarily suggesting that we bay at the moon that one presenter urged as she began her presentation on werewolves but that communal howling (which she led) did start us all off on a more equal paw. The point is that new models of the presentation of research, thought, analysis, and appreciation could be a great benefit to anthropology, and fan events could provide a dynamic model that anthropology always claims it wants to have but doesn’t want to be embarrassed trying.

The Infinitus conference took several years to prepare and the range of activities and experiences offered to audiences suggests why. Each component of Harry Potter fan culture was well represented and showed the variety of approaches people take to understanding the world spawned by the Harry Potter books. There were academic and fan talks on particular aspects of the books or movies (themes like friendship, fat, religion, failure, mentors, mothers, money, and bullying) as well as applications of the lessons from the wizarding world to everyday muggle teaching, political and social activism, the creation of art, and official and fan merchandising. There was a dance and a quidditch tournament and life-size wizard chess.

Fan-created literature, parodies, spoofs, and homages in the form of wizard rock bands, paintings and drawings, crafts, fanfiction, podcasts, videos, and musicals were abundant as were discussions and presentations about all these productions. Performances were large-scale (the premiere of a full-length parody movie as well as a musical) and intimate (coffeehouse-style performances by singers and comedians). One group put several of the characters on trial in a fascinating debate that determined the possibility of their ultimate redemption (an activity that could be directly applied, with interesting results, to the AAA meetings).

The point is, I learned more about the world of Harry Potter by seeing and hearing the many different approaches to engaging with the ideas, passions, and interests that these folks, academics and fas, wanted to share. And in order to truly share they had to cross over into each others’ worlds and be flexible and knowing about how to communicate. That was the magic of Infinitus and should be the magic found in anthropology conferences, but it is not.

Advertisements

Now I remember why I dislike academic conferences so much:
1. I don’t like having papers read to me (does anyone?).
2. I don’t like having one image projected on a screen and never changed for the 15 minutes when someone is reading to me.
3. I don’t like time hogs who use up discussion time: there is never time for discussion
4. I don’t like constant references to failed technology or unfamiliarity with projectors, computers, presentation software, or DVDs.
5. I don’t like that most presenters have no clue how to construct a text slide: your squinting audience is not proof that they are intensely interested. The fact is they can’t see what you wrote in your 12 point type.
6. I don’t like …, well, you get the idea.

The academic conference is a time-honored ritual that needs a facelift. Who could possibly think it is interesting to have someone read a paper to you? At least tell me about your research, like you were giving a lecture in one of your classes. I don’t need the citations and requisite references to this philosopher and that theoretician. TELL ME what you do and why it is important. Put the paper online so I can read it if you have convinced me.

For god’s sake learn to make visual presentations and how to run them. There are tons of websites that tell you how to do this and if you just use the simple rule that a picture really really helps get your idea across, you will awaken true gratitude in your audience. Don’t know what button to push to advance your images? You are not ready to face an audience.

The fact is, I am spoiled. I have been going to digital media conferences (SIGGRAPH, for example) and popular media conferences (Comic-Con, for example) for several years and there, performance is everything. You convince people of your ideas by demonstrating them, verbally and visually. You talk and joke and lighten up. They have billions of dollars at stake and they can do that. Why can’t we?

So here is my strategy for a much improved AAA meeting:
1. Have 3 sessions a day. That’s it. Sessions everyone comes to. Make them big, raucous exchanges. Have the presenters give examples of the most current ideas and most interesting trends in the field. Then open it up to discussion. A big, raucous, out-of-control discussion (with a great moderator to keep it semi-confined). Comic-Con style, people get in line at the microphone and are projected on the screen when they are asking a question. Nothing anonymous about it. As at Comic-Con, you would not be allowed to ask the presenters for an autograph or if you could have their baby.

2. Have the presenters in those three session do dynamic visual presentations designed to get people thinking. If they don’t know how to do this, I’ll show them. These should be prepared weeks ahead of time and refined by presentation date, not done on the airplane ride to the conference.

3. Provide a virtual conference online where those adored papers are posted and where everyone at their own time and place can read and comment on them. Have at least one session a day comment on the most interesting posted papers.

4. Have a big-name lecturer who gets people going and thinking. I remember the year Stephen J. Gould was there. The place was all abuzz after that.

5. Have Michael Herzfeld from Harvard be the Master of Ceremonies. I have never heard a more gracious, interesting, or smart discussant (he was the discussant in session 2-176 on Friday). And he has a great voice. I just hope he likes to sign autographs. http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~anthro/social_faculty_pages/social_pages_herzfeld.html

6. Have Tom Boellstorff provide everyone with a metaphor so their presentations are more meaningful. He gave a talk on cloud computing (sounds dull, huh?) that was delightful and structured by a cloud metaphor and it all made sense. http://www.anthro.uci.edu/faculty_bios/boellstorff/boellstorff.php

7. Have Ruth Behar direct a photographer and/or videographer to record the whole thing and then post it online so we can all comment on it. Ruth showed her work with Cuban Jews (cool topic, eh?) and accompanied her talk with the most amazing photographs (taken by another photographer under her direction) and personal reminiscences. Ruth could direct it all and make it both beautiful and meaningful. Ruth Behar: http://www.ruthbehar.com/

8. Have a digital “film festival” in which everyone who wants can try to show their research in a one minute digital video. The model can be a video Faye Ginsburg showed by a man with ADD. It was brilliant and really immersed the viewer into his world. See Scott Logon’s work at: http://www.ligon-art.com/scottvideo.html (why aren’t we making videos like this????). Faye Ginsburg: http://as.nyu.edu/object/fayeginsburg.html

9. If there are still going to be thousands of papers, use an idea from SIGGRAPH (a very competitive, high-end, very technical digital technology conference): run a “Fast-Forward” session the first day. In this session, everyone has 30-60 seconds in which to present their main idea and get people to come hear their presentation. It is fascinating, funny, informative, exciting, and sometimes weird and it helps make conference planning easy. You also get to present your ideas to a huge audience even if they don’t come to your session. See it at: http://www.siggraph.org/s2009/performances_special_events/fast_forward/index.php

10. I could go on but other ideas, like getting the Family Guy  cast to read all the papers, just might not be practical but would be a lot more interesting and thought provoking. But now I remember why I don’t like the AAA meetings. Thanks for the memories…

I am not going off to the annual American Anthropological Association meetings until Friday, and then only for a day. In fact, I have not been to the meetings in years. We are a two-anthropologist family (a dangerous enterprise) and it always seemed more important that my husband go and keep us his contacts since he had the tenured position and I simply floated from one temporary teaching job to the next. Now, don’t get all gender-pissed at me: I can uphold my feminist credential against any onslaught but the fact is, we under-employed anthropologists have to pick and choose how we spend our non-existent conference dollars and how we exercise our minor status. The meetings, quite simply, just make me feel bad when I see so many happily employed anthropologists in one place.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t miss the session at 10:15 that Faye Ginsburg is chairing tomorrow (Friday): EXPLORING THE “BOUNDARIES” OF EXPRESSIVE MEDIA IN ANTHROPOLOGY. This is what I do (I think), in my research and my classes and it will be worthwhile hearing how other people are doing this. The fact is, way too much anthropology for me has become one of two things: an attempt to quantify everything and emulate the hard sciences, or a noble but I think misdirected effort to cozy-up to social work. My research involves talking to people (easy to quantify: today I talked to 10 people) and listen as they tell me how they think their world works. But I don’t feel the need to step in and fix their world or help them see how they can change it. If that condemns me as more of an observer rather than a participant, so be it.

Take offense if you will, but I love applying “old-fashioned” anthropological concepts (worldview, “the Other,” mythology, symbolism, ritual, categorization…) to the most contemporary topics: participatory fan culture, Hollywood blockbusters, and weird everyday stuff like 2012. And this is where the bedwetting comes in. 2012 (the movie) is worthwhile if only as an excuse to really really wreck Los Angeles this time. I saw, with true awe, my old house uplifted on a chunk of expensive realestate and plunged into the sea. The stuff of mythology.

Besides the quiche fiasco I described in my previous blog, there is a framing story that deserves mention. John Cusack plays a divorced dad who picks up his kids for a camping trip. His ex-wife hands him a tote bag that contains “Pull-Ups” (big kid diapers) for his daughter who still wets her bed. This was done in whispers, a shameful thing.

Now what this kid goes through in the next two hours would make anyone wet their pants but she remains fairly calm, protected by a series of heavy-handed symbolic hats. It is not until the end that she announces that she does not need the “Pull-Ups” anymore, thanks dad. I swear, that is the line the movie ends on. Makes you wanna scream, “It’s a damned good thing, kid, because that factory is probably lava-encrusted by now.” Is this the best story we can come up with about what is important at the end/ends of the world (of anthropology?). Maybe it’s a good thing the diaper factory is gone. Maybe we will learn to “Depend” less on the things that make us ashamed to put on our symbolic hats and face the apocalypse.

As the AAA heads to Philadelphia to discuss the End and End(s) of Anthropology, it will find itself face-to-face with a readymade case study.
The story of “What Really Happened at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology” started in November 2008 when the research scientists of the museum were informed that their positions were being terminated as of May 2009. The 18 or so researchers (the number is uncertain because of odd job categories) were told that this was a cost-saving move to protect the future of the museum. Soon after the announcement, the administration of the museum began defending its decision, explaining that the researchers had originally been hired on grant money (which was not the case; most were never on grant money) and now that the grants were over the museum could no longer afford to keep them on.
Some mild protests were lodged in the press and an online petition campaign aimed specifically at saving the archaeologists and lab scientists who were supposedly under the knife garnered several thousand signatures. The administration of the museum had to explain in several press interviews that it had every intention of “saving” (their term) the researchers who did worthwhile work. Internally, several curators and administrators announced that they would make every effort to “save” the people in their own sections (geographic areas).
In the end, all but three of the researchers were “saved” and are still working in the museum, most at similar or the very same jobs they had before the economic crisis that was supposed to be solved by their departure. The only cost saving came from the three researchers who were not offered a continuation of their employment. All these researchers were women, all were over 50, but perhaps most significantly, all were cultural anthropologists. In fact, they were the only full-time cultural anthropologists in the museum. As Agatha Christie would say: And Then There Were None.
Coincidence? To understand what really happened, we need to step back to the first months of the new administration of the museum (see note below•). Quite often when the new director mentioned the name of the museum, he called it the Museum of Archaeology. Now, granted, the museum’s full name is a mouthful but everyone had gotten used to taking the necessary extra gulp of air needed to say the whole thing. After a few months of this shortened version of the name, several of the cultural anthropologists took to saying out loud, “and Anthropology,” when this happened at staff meetings.
At the same staff meetings, this archaeology-only agenda for the museum started becoming more specific with direct and unambiguous statements about the need for the museum to pull away from the influence of anthropology. The long history of association between the museum and the Department of Anthropology at Penn was being presented as a problem that was about to be solved. Also about to be solved was the entire field of anthropological archaeology which, it was stated in several contexts, was misguided and needed to be entirely revamped. It was the plan of the current director to lead this charge to remake American archaeology in the image of British archaeology.
A few weeks before they were formally told that their jobs were being eliminated, the researchers met with a representative of the museum administration to discuss why they had not received information about their research money. Again, this person said “The Museum of Archaeology” several times and I finally asked directly, “Why do you and the director say the name of the museum that way, without saying ‘anthropology’?” His answer confirmed for me that the naming was deliberate and was in support of the goal of eliminating anthropology at the museum. His answer was that the director felt that the term “archaeology” covers both archaeology and anthropology, just like it does in the British model. If I am not mistaken (and I have taught the history of anthropology), the exact opposite is true: archaeology in most of Britain does not include socio-cultural anthropology at all.
The end of anthropology at the museum has come and gone. Some of the curators at the museum are anthropological archaeologists but no full-time socio-cultural anthropologists remain either as researchers or in other capacities. The museum has a series of lectures and programs that are almost exclusively focused on archaeological sites and its newest venture is a degree at both the undergraduate and graduate level in “world archaeology.”
The greatest loss, in my mind, is the larger perspective that cultural anthropology always introduces. The collections of the museum are ethnographic as well as archaeological and both types of material benefit from the attempts made by cultural anthropologists to connect material culture with living people. Whether it is using the depth of time provided by archaeological artifacts to demonstrate some continuity with contemporary behavior, or it is using more recent ethnographic materials to draw people to their past, cultural anthropology has the tools, the perspective, and the history of doing this. But this is no longer the case at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Dr. Louise Krasniewicz
Penn Department of Anthropology
•Full disclosure: my husband was the previous director of the museum and was replaced by the current director. He is an archaeologist and I have been an archaeologist in the past so there is no denigration archaeology intended in what follows.

As the AAA heads to Philadelphia to discuss the End and End(s) of Anthropology, it will find itself face-to-face with a ready-made case study.

This story of “What Really Happened at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology” started in November 2008 when the research scientists of the museum were informed that their positions were being terminated as of May 2009. The 18 or so researchers (the number is uncertain because of odd job categories) were told that this was a cost-saving move to protect the future of the museum. Soon after the announcement, the administration of the museum began defending its decision, explaining that the researchers had originally been hired on grant money (which was not the case; most were never on grant money) and now that the grants were over the museum could no longer afford to keep them on.

Some mild protests were lodged in the press and an online petition campaign aimed specifically at saving the archaeologists and lab scientists who were supposedly under the knife garnered several thousand signatures. The administration of the museum had to explain in several press interviews that it had every intention of “saving” (their term) the researchers who did worthwhile work. Internally, several curators and administrators announced that they would make every effort to “save” the people in their own sections (geographic areas).

In the end, all but three of the researchers were “saved” and are still working in the museum, most at similar or the very same jobs they had before the economic crisis that was supposed to be solved by their departure. The only cost saving came from the three researchers who were not offered a continuation of their employment. All these researchers were women, all were over 50, but perhaps most significantly, all were cultural anthropologists. In fact, they were the only full-time cultural anthropologists in the museum. As Agatha Christie would say: And Then There Were None.

Coincidence? To understand what really happened, we need to step back to the first months of the new administration of the museum (see note below•). Quite often when the new director mentioned the name of the museum, he called it the Museum of Archaeology. Now, granted, the museum’s full name is a mouthful but everyone had gotten used to taking the necessary extra gulp of air needed to say the whole thing. After a few months of this shortened version of the name, several of the cultural anthropologists took to saying out loud, “and Anthropology,” when this happened at staff meetings.

At the same staff meetings, this archaeology-only agenda for the museum started becoming more specific with direct and unambiguous statements about the need for the museum to pull away from the influence of anthropology. The long history of association between the museum and the Department of Anthropology at Penn was being presented as a problem that was about to be solved. Also about to be solved was the entire field of anthropological archaeology which, it was stated in several contexts, was misguided and needed to be entirely revamped. It was the plan of the current director to lead this charge to remake American archaeology in the image of British archaeology.

A few weeks before they were formally told that their jobs were being eliminated, the researchers met with a representative of the museum administration to discuss why they had not received information about their research money. Again, this person said “The Museum of Archaeology” several times and I finally asked directly, “Why do you and the director say the name of the museum that way, without saying ‘anthropology’?” His answer confirmed for me that the naming was deliberate and was in support of the goal of eliminating anthropology at the museum. His answer was that the director felt that the term “archaeology” covers both archaeology and anthropology, just like it does in the British model. If I am not mistaken (and I have taught the history of anthropology), the exact opposite is true: archaeology in most of Britain does not include socio-cultural anthropology at all.

The end of anthropology at the museum has come and gone. Some of the curators at the museum are anthropological archaeologists but no full-time socio-cultural anthropologists remain either as researchers or in other capacities. The museum has a series of lectures and programs that are almost exclusively focused on archaeological sites and its newest venture is a degree at both the undergraduate and graduate level in “world archaeology.”

The greatest loss, in my mind, is the larger perspective that cultural anthropology always introduces. The collections of the museum are ethnographic as well as archaeological and both types of material benefit from the attempts made by cultural anthropologists to connect material culture with living people. Whether it is using the depth of time provided by archaeological artifacts to demonstrate some continuity with contemporary behavior, or it is using more recent ethnographic materials to draw people to their past, cultural anthropology has the tools, the perspective, and the history of doing this. But this is no longer the case at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Dr. Louise Krasniewicz

Penn Department of Anthropology

•Full disclosure: my husband was the previous director of the museum and was replaced by the current director. He is an archaeologist and I have been an archaeologist in the past so there is no denigration of archaeology intended in what follows.