Monday, November 30, 2009

This Week: "On Location" at the AAAs

The American Anthropological Association is holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia this week, and I'll be there with bells on (maybe literally).

I realize that the last time I mentioned anything about academic conferences in one of my blog-posts, the critical responses came fast and furious.

One of the consistent commenters for that posting was someone named goxewu, who kept asking me if I had to cancel any of my classes so that I could trot off to these conferences. Even though I answered the query a few different times (and a few different ways), goxewu continued to push the point, even implying that I would probably have canceled my classes this semester if they were on Mondays and Fridays (instead of Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays).

But goxewu's major gripe wasn't necessarily about those missed class sessions. One of goxewu's final comments makes the argument plain: "Prof. Jackson may have done academe an unintended service with his post on conference-going, which unintentionally shone a light on the academic equivalent of Congressional junkets (which are also about a third legit, a third of marginal use, and a third paid vacations)." But are only a third of all academic conferences really legit?

Back when I was in graduate school, we used to read the yearly journalistic stories (some called them "attacks") on the ostensibly bizarre themes found among offerings at academic conferences. And these stories were seemingly offered up with a similarly delegitimizing impulse at their core.

A Philadelphia Inquirer article on the 2004 Modern Language Association meetings started with the following line: "When a professor draws a parallel between Dumbo and Detective Monk, you just know you're at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association."

The annual news stories about the AAA meetings often playfully invoke the tone and register of traditional ethnographic monographs, as does this Chicago Sun-Times piece from 1991: "Adorning themselves with jackets of tweed or gaily colored beads, puffing on elaborately carved pipes, ears pierced and decorated with rings, members of a national tribe are holding their annual potlatch in Chicago this week. They number some 3,700 [closer to 5,000 will attend this year]. But once here, they will break into smaller groups."

In many ways, I am an advocate of the academic conference. And I don't think that these venues are a waste of time, or a scam--or that they will be quickly/easily scrapped for cyber conferences in the not-too-distant future (another theory offered up after my last post). But I do sometimes mildly grumble about the fact that I can't make all of the interesting ones that are relevant to my work. And new meetings seem to pop up every single day.

For instance, on Wednesday night, E. Patrick Johnson is performing his electrifying one-man show, Pouring Tea, an adaptation of his powerful new book Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South, based on an extensive oral history project. On Thursday night, the AAA will host a book launch and reception for Surviving Against the Odds: Village Industry in Indonesia, by S. Ann Dunham, the mother of President Barack Obama, who died in 1995, before she could publish her work. Dunham's daughter, Maya Soetoro-Ng, will be present to offer remarks at the reception, which follows a panel about Dunham's work. And the exhibit "Righteous Dopefiend: Homelessness, Addiction, and Poverty in Urban America," opens on Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia (and runs through May 2010). The exhibit is based on ten years of ethnographic research by anthropologist Philippe Bourgois (my Penn colleague) and photographer-ethnographer Jeff Schonberg. They worked among a community of heroin injectors and crack smokers in San Francisco. The exhibit is based on their new book, also called Righteous Dopefiend. (Another Righteous Dopefiend exhibit is being presented in conjunction with the Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut Street. It is a multimedia installation that will run from December 3 through 31.)

I'll blog about these conference events--and others--all week.