Thoughts on conference organizing

There have been a couple of interesting posts I’ve run across in my attempts to find out what happened at the 2009 AAA conference (see especially Lorenz’s run-down at These discussions of conferences in general have encouraged me to write something about my own experiences organizing and attending conferences over the past year (see also, Lorenz’s What’s the point of anthropology conferences?, Kerim’s What’s Your Favorite Anthropology Conference? and Strong’s How to attend a conference in a couple hours). I thought I’d add a different perspective; that of the amateur, I’ll-never-do-it-again (dis-)organizer.

I will cross-post this at both and Culture Matters, something I do not usually do, because I think that it’s worth putting up at both places, and both sites are intimately tied to the content of the post. Apologies if you run across this twice; I won’t make it a habit.

Although I’ve probably been to a few score academic conferences since my first in 1992 (the Society for Ethnomusicology), I’ve never really organized anything substantial until this year, when Daniel and I organized our first Neuroanthropology conference, ‘The Encultured Brain,’ and I agreed to chair the annual meeting of the Australian Anthropological Society (the AAS). I also was on the ‘program committee’ for the Australasian Society for Cognitive Science annual meeting, but they realized I was up to my neck in other planning so didn’t ask too much of me. It was probably a monumental act of stupidity to agree to do this, but at least I get this blog post out of it! (Yes, that’s bitter irony you read…)

Before I get into the good bits though, I have to admit that I do enjoy conferences, although less and less, primarily because traveling always seems to leave me worn out, and my travel distances have gotten egregious now that I’ve moved to Australia. I had a hoot changing into my presentation suit in a cab on the way to the AAAs in DC about a decade ago, arriving half-way through my panel but in time to give my paper after United stranded me overnight in Pittsburgh or somewhere like that (it was snowing around the Great Lakes so, of course, United was taken completely off-guard by this freakish, never-before-seen weather). I once did a single panel at the Guadalajara meeting of LASA, spending the rest of the time sight-seeing, eating really well, and searching unsuccessfully for a second-hand accordion. And I met my wife at a Council on International Educational Exchange conference in Santa Fe, our ice breaker consisting of a slightly off-colour joke during the panel set-up that ONLY an Australian woman would find endearing.

So don’t get me wrong; I’m a big fan of the good conference, but I’ve also been traumatized at academic conferences, especially during the FOUR YEARS when I tried to nail down a permanent position. They can be very lonely, especially for the jobless, and I’ve wandered around the AAAs trying to find someone, anyone, to talk to when everyone else looked like they were having stimulating (or at least drunken) conversations. One of the low points was in the cattle pens for an interview with an institution in NY that had a 5-4 teaching load:

INTERVIEWER: Give me one good reason why you might take this job if we offered it to you?

ME: Don’t underestimate how bad the job market is.
[I’m not usually too quick on my feet, but extreme phobia of unemployment and imagining that I might be forced to move into my parents’ basement and work at Kinkos apparently makes me a bit quicker on the uptake.]

But this post is about a different sort of indignity, or my thoughts on why to agree to organize one of these things and some advice from the other side, before the exhaustion and rose-coloured lenses of retrospection deprive me of some insights I might gain from having gone through this hell of a year.

Some general thinking in relation to other posts (list of advice is below):

Lorenz asks a lot of good questions about conferences, but one that sticks with me is the concept of a conference ‘theme.’ Lorenz wonders if the people at the conference should have talked more about the ‘theme’ (in his case, cosmopolitanism). In specialized conferences, themes might make sense; for our Neuroanthropology conference, the name kind of was the theme, and I can think of other examples of the same with organizational conferences.

But with the big society-wide conferences, themes seem to me to be a bad idea although I doubt they’re going away. They just confuse people, and you never really know how seriously the organizers are going to take them, so how much you need to twist your panel or paper abstract to fit the theme. Some folks complimented our theme for the AAS — ‘the ethics and politics of engagement’ — but it was a kind of committee-produced amalgamation, so broad and vague that just about anything anthropological would fit in the category. The theme worked really well for our keynote, and George Marcus admirably worked it into his talk, but the problem is more around the edges than with the central events. That is, I had a student come up to me and tell me that she hadn’t put a paper in because she didn’t think it fit with the theme, exactly the opposite effect from what we hoped.

I think academic conferences need to be inclusive, but that we also have to find ways of making sure that people have an audience. I’ve given papers at the AAAs where the panel was larger than the audience, and it’s terribly demoralizing, and hardly an experience that leaves one ‘professionalized’ in any meaningful way, unless you count increasing cynicism as a quality of the professional anthropologist. So there’s a constant battle between the desire to talk and the importance of having a space to listen seriously, without being overwhelmed. I doubt there’s an easy fix.

Academic societies exist primarily to provide publications and meetings for their fields, so there’s little chance that they will stop holding these mass events (although I really wonder how long-distance travel might change in the next decade). With that in mind, then, this post is for those of you who are considering whether you want to get involved in organizing one. My perspective is shaped heavily by working on the AAS, a medium-sized conference (400 or so people) with no professional organizing support, but I also have had a hand this year in two smaller conferences.

The list of suggestions

Organize two conferences? Sure, why not?
1. Deal with money as quickly as you can.

In both conferences that I played a major hand in organizing, we found a backer with some funding to help us with shortfalls, which took enormous pressure off the budget. In the case of the Neuroanthropology conference, a MAJOR factor in our success was the remarkable support of the Lemelson/SPA Conference fund, a wonderful initiative by Rob Lemelson that’s likely to nurture emergent work in psychological anthropology for years. In addition, Notre Dame moved in to support the conference well in a way that few other universities could match. In the AAS conference, financial support, especially from the Department of Anthropology, became incredibly important when our initial keynote lecturer had to pull out for personal reasons, and about $5000 in donations linked to his appearance dried up. In the end, in both conferences, money was still a stressor but significantly less than it might have been.

It was suggested to me for the AAS that I get a treasurer to take care of the accounts, but I kept this role in the Australian meeting for myself as I have a bit of a background in bookkeeping and running small business. I can’t reveal publicly all of the financial secrets I feel like I’ve learned, but let’s just say that university financial controls are often VERY poorly designed to help facilitate these sorts of one-off, unpredictable, I-need-cash-NOW, just-pay-for-the-damn-taxi kinds of events, so you’ve got to be creative. Contact me directly if you want advice (greg.downey (at) Everything was totally ethical and moral, if you’re wondering…

The registration fees for some conferences have become SO exorbitant, and attendees seem to get very little for their money. In both the AAS and the Neuroanthropology conferences, we really tried to provide value for money, covering our overhead (fixed costs like plane tickets for keynote lecturers) from donations and what you might call ‘premium’ registration (fully employed individuals, especially registering late). The cost of student registrations was kept to a minimum (just food and variable costs like an additional copy of the program) to encourage their participation. And we decided that we could afford to freeze the registration cost at the 2007 level, even though we were going to include food, something that wasn’t done in the earlier conference, in part because the Department wanted to throw itself a 40th anniversary party of sorts.

If you can, find some way to encourage early registration. You still want last-minute walk-up registrations, but you want them to be a smaller percentage of the people who attend. You might encourage them through discounts (we did a $50 discount at the AAS), special incentives (inclusion of contact info in the program), or just repeated, vigorous brow-beating through any mailing lists. We begged, harassed, made outragenous promises, but still had more than 20% of our traffic in walk up registrations. If many had been tighter than it was, this would have given me insomnia.

2. When you delegate, delegate completely or not at all.

That is, find tasks that you can entrust to people that are reasonably self-contained (the tasks, not the people), and then let the delegatees take care of these things without running back to you for every major decision. With Daniel at the Neuroanthropology conference, it was especially easy for me (not necessarily for him) because I trust him completely and he was the on-site person. In the AAS conference, I worked with some extraordinarily motivated and competent junior people — I’m talking about Malcolm, Lisa, Jennifer, Shane and Sophie, especially, but not exclusively. They were fantastic, and I could just trust them without having to consult on every question; they committed their time, so I felt confident backing up their decisions.

In contrast, in at least one case this year, someone tried to micromanage me over my shoulder, and it drove me nuts. That is, someone decided that they (note: I’m intentionally being vague) needed to be consulted on all sorts of decisions and ‘unmade’ many that I had made responsibly, doubling and tripling my work in some places and undermining my ability to negotiate agreements that would stick. In addition, this sometimes slowed down progress terribly. This micromanagement was incredibly frustrating and only increased the work and stress involved with no increase in the quality of the event. In addition, when I put small decisions to the organizing committee for input, the decisions invariably became more complicated. My advice: streamline organization and let people (including yourself) make final decisions without a lot of consultation. Too much time gets wasted in committees on simple decisions that don’t matter; save committees for the big decisions that really DO matter and that you need input on (for us, this was conference theme and keynote speakers and special events).

3. Keynote speakers matter. A lot.

After having done a couple of these conferences, I’ve been startled how important the keynote speaker(s) is (are) for people to attend (here’s the info on the AAS and on Neuroanthropology keynotes). Maybe this is because both conferences were in non-central places (well, Sydney’s central in some ways), and people had to be encouraged to make the trip. But I was surprised at how much it mattered who was headlining the show, and I’m very glad that in both cases we invested some money in bringing in people who were widely known. In contrast, in the places where I was a keynote speaker, I think I gave good talks, but I don’t think I helped attendance at all (and thus the budget).

Also, if you’re organizing the conference, don’t let them (by ‘them’ I mean anyone) talk you into keynote speakers that you’re not interested in. People will tell you that they’ll help you with hosting duties, but you’re going to do most of the work and organizing, so it’s worth your while if you get a chance to meet someone you really want to meet or reconnect with someone you want to see (in the case of both the Neuroanthropology conference and the AAS, I managed to get this right, but not without a few stumbles along the way, so I got to meet Patricia Greenfield, Harvey Whitehouse, Marcia Langton, and Michael Jackson, and to re-connect with Elizabeth Povinelli and George Marcus — a really remarkable set of opportunities). George Marcus wound up coming home with me for a couple of days to the farm, which was great until a friend of ours started showing home movies of horse riding events (and I fell asleep). All I can say is, if you’re lucky, your keynote speaker will be as forgiving as George Marcus!

4. Sweat the details, especially conference programs and handouts.

God, am I glad that I worked my butt off on programs and notebooks for both conferences! I’ll come back to the subject of ‘speed presentations’ in another post, but I think that a bit of planning and polish really made a big difference, and the conference program was a crucial component of the overall presentation of the event. The irony is that the cost of something a bit slicker and more professional-looking, if you do it yourself, is virtually the same as something kind of slipshod and uninteresting. A colour cover on the program, and a few inner colour pages or photos of speakers, for example, add minimally to the overall cost.

In the case of the Neuroanthropology conference, Daniel and the people on-site at Notre Dame came up with some brilliant design work (check out this example, if you like), giving the whole thing a distinctive and instantly memorable look. Especially as we were looking for a kind of visual identity, the work done by the design people was especially valuable. In the AAS conference, we had Chris Barry’s powerful photographs from the art exhibition to work with (see this page, the same photo we used for the program cover).

In the AAS program, we really thought long and hard about how to lay it out to make it easy to access and read (if anyone wants to check out the format, I’d be interested to see what you think; I stole it). Malcolm Haddon, especially, did a lot of work on a quick reference grid, and I came up with a page layout that put key information on the outside page margins and in the lower corners of the pages so that the whole guide was easy to flip through. It may sound trivial, but I always find the AAA program overwhelming and very visually difficult to scan and parse; with 240 papers or so in the AAS conference, we had an easier task laying things out, but we also did have the risk of it being too hard to work through. Design matters.

5. Food, food, food.

Again, in both conferences, we really sweat the details around food, and it paid off big. I’ve been to conferences where eating was an afterthought, a distraction or a logistical challenge that disrupts the whole flow of the conference. At the AAAs, I always wind up in some horrible line trying to get a fix for my Mexican fast food craving (no relief in rural New South Wales). In both the Neuroanthropology conference and the AAS conference (and the Cognitive Science conference, though I take no credit for this), food pulled the conference together, creating opportunities to talk, meet people, lightening the mood, reinvigorating the audience, and generally serving as a social lubricant and psycostimulant. If you have any questions about whether to spend money on food, my advice is DO IT.

In both settings, if conference-goers had to forage for themselves, they would have had to walk far, to make decisions about where to go eat, and the group would have fractured apart. In the Neuroanthropology conference, we adjourned from the main room to the open atrium of the building where the university’s caterers put on a great spread (ice cream bars in the afternoon were a stroke of genius, but I just remember being overwhelmed by these lovely buffet tables). At the AAS, we had great weather and a lovely central courtyard where caterers laid out some great choices (fruit smoothies one afternoon and noodle boxes full of salads on the day of the Lévi-Strauss tribute over lunch were two revelations, especially considering we were on a tight budget).

Ironically, the sit-down conference banquet at the AAS, a traditional part of the meeting, was a bigger let-down in terms of chances to talk and share. In retrospect, I’d cut the price of the banquet to a minimum (more people can attend) and throw a massive outdoor barbecue; or better yet, include the conference barbecue in the basic price to encourage participation.

To make the budgets come together, we had support from our sponsors, but we also went through menus and budgets with a fine-tooth comb, cutting any overcharges, skimping on non-essentials, searching for bargains – Malcolm, for example, scored us excellent wine for our opening reception at the AAS from a wholesaler for less than $4/bottle (and we got compliments on the drop, although our secret’s now out). The per diem food budget for conference packages was about double what we ended up spending on campus; organizing it ourselves rather than handing it over made for big savings. For the Neuroanthropology conference, we didn’t have to be so tight, but it was a much smaller event

6. Get help. Especially the over-committed and over-eager.

This goes with point #2 about delegating. In both conferences, we got great help. I can’t take any credit for this at the University of Notre Dame, as Daniel managed to get all sorts of good logistical support for the conference there, including nifty graphics, travel planning support, and a ton of on-site help from Marina (who was brilliant). UND has this down to an art from what I saw, probably because they do events all the time with alumni and a host of other functions. To be honest, I was blown away by the quality of the work they did.

At Macquarie, we didn’t have this help at all, but I was lucky to find people who could do it (sorry, MU, but your conference support is really weak — especially the utter lack of communication between events and facilities management that led to all the concrete being torn up outside one venue with no warning). My new rule of thumb for conference helpers: get junior colleagues who will over commit and over-identify with the outcome. Senior colleagues are too busy, have too many travel commitments, win grants, have complicated professional lives, and just generally have a well-developed extraneous work-avoidance system. So you have to prey on younger, idealistic colleagues who haven’t yet developed the slippery outer coating that successful academics must eventually grow or become too bogged down with bureaucratic crap.

From the program coordinator (Malcolm), to the exhibition curator (Jennifer), to the registration/IT maestro (Shane), to the film program curator (Lisa), to the ‘head volunteer’ (Sophie), to every single grad student and undergraduate who put on an MU t-shirt, I was blown away with how much they helped and the great impression they made. The volunteers were actually the personal face of the conference, as I was running around backstage most of the time.

In the case of Malcolm, Shane, Lisa, Jennifer, and Sophie, we had waaaaay more volunteered organizational skill than we could have ever bought with professional conference organizers (I’ve been told an estimate for the cost of conference planners, and there’s simply NO way we could have done it). And we could not have hired anyone with their passion. Lisa gave us a full conference-long film program on a shoe-string, and Jennifer surmounted absurd challenges mounting an innovative art exhibition and bringing together scholars from inside and outside of the academy with artists in the opening and a series of conference events (the exhibition was mounted also with Rhonda Davis, Senior Curator at our Art Gallery)

7. Get ready for the squeaky wheels. You will now be a magnet for the irritable.

In every large group, there will be the difficult cases, the terminally stupid, the inconsolably belligerent, the irreconcilable rivalries, the demanding prima donnas… When you put your email address down as being in charge of a conference, you will invariably attract a few bizarre, angry responses: people outraged about a policy decision you made, someone who’s taking issue with the topic, a distant colleague who is incredulous that you would schedule the conference on the same weekend as their anniversary. Remind yourself that 98-99% of the people involved are grateful and enjoying themselves and don’t get too hung up on those who are not. I’ve certainly learned a lot about some of my colleagues, not all of it laudatory, by doing this organizing.

Also realize that academics often hang on in their careers when they might have already been forced to leave other careers due to advancing age. This may sound odd or overly specific, but several of the most belligerent encounters I have had turned out to be with people who might be in the early stages of more serious degenerative conditions, and it was a helpful reminder to be as generous as possible when you get someone belligerent. Sometimes the person on the other end of the angry phone message or email is struggling with demons you don’t know.

8. Shake up the format, even if you fail.

The straight-jacketing format of many conferences has been discussed online at places like Savage Minds (see, for example, Learning from TED, SFAA and BarCamp by Kerim). I think it’s important to share ideas for how to do the format differently, and to talk about the results of our experimentation. (I may even try to put together a post on experimental formats at some point.)

In both conferences I had a hand in this year, we’ve tried to shake up the usual format of a panel of read papers, at least in some sessions. In anthropology (for our non-anthropologist readers), the AAA model is blisteringly-fast verbatim-read 15-minute paper and on to the next, with discussant (sometimes) and 15 minutes of discussion at the end of the session except, oops!, speakers #2 and #3 talked over time so our session is over and the next one is already standing in the doorways looking impatient… The format has been criticized on all sorts of grounds (see, for example, How To Present A Paper – or Can Anthropologists Talk?), and I know it usually leads me to a dull headache and lots of under-breath muttering.

In the Neuroanthropology conference, we attempted ‘speed presentations,’ lightening fast, here’s-my-point-and-contact-details 7-minute talks followed by a few minutes for the whole audience to write comments, suggestions, or just ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ on pre-printed message cards (the notebook discussed in #4 that led to serious sleep deprivation). Then we had extended ‘tea breaks’ for people to catch up and talk, but also so that every speaker got their message slips right away as they were sorted and distributed as we went. In the AAS conference, we tried to set up a ‘conversation’ plenary session where five junior scholars put 5-10 minute questions to a senior colleague whose work we all found intriguing (Michael Jackson, currently at Harvard). At the AAS, Jennifer Deger also tried to create an alternative format by holding sessions in the MU Art Gallery, surrounded by the works people were discussing. (If you’re interested, we’re going to try to get videos and an online catalog up of many of these – see the next point.)

Not every experiment worked, but at least they interrupted the tendency toward somnambulance that can set in when the format is overly formulaic. Many academics must give a paper if they are going to get university support to come to a conference, so organizers needs to be generous with opportunities, and we tried in both conferences to be open and inclusive, but also punctuate the homogeneity with a few interesting twists.

9. Get PR involved; they do this sort of thing for a living.

The public relations and conference support people at Notre Dame were pretty professional, but I’m not sure we got all that we could have out of them. Although they frustrated me at certain points with the AAS, the Macquarie public relations offices (which I guess are now called ‘marketing’) helped with some key issues, but I can also see how they’d be even more useful if I had used them more astutely. They’re great for simple things like getting signs put up to direct people to the registration desk, providing an AV technician for the opening presentation (just in case), coming up with left-over bags to give delegates and t-shirts for the volunteers. After I through a little conniption fit, we even managed to get reject coffee mugs and mouse pads for all our delegates; the initial run had the wrong star in the MU logo, the six-pointed Star of David rather than the seven-pointed Sirius, so they wound up as ‘collectors edition’ swag. Whoever on your campus organizes events for the head honcho is the person (or people) you want. Getting the head of your school or university to agree to show up means that her or his reputation is on the line (at least to some degree) in the event, just as yours is. This really helped when the concrete ripping started, and it was undermining someone’s event who had a lot more authority than me.

The two conferences were great opportunities to do both internal and external PR. In Australia, we used the AAS to promote ourselves as a department, throughout the university but also to other anthropologists in Australia. Promoting the discipline of anthropology seems to me to be especially important in Australia, where it seems to have a lower profile (somehow) than in the United States; don’t ask me how this is even possible, but it does seem to be the case. If I had more time and energy, I would have worked even harder at this, but I did find that the press contacts of the university were interested, as long as I had a story to sell them. It would be worth it to sit down and have a brainstorming session on how you can use a conference to promote your department.

In addition, we worked hard to use the AAS conference to promote our department to our own university’s administration, especially crucial because there’s been a lot of turnover with new administration coming in over the past couple of years. We were able to get the Executive Dean of our Faculty and the Vice-Chancelor of the whole university (kind of like the President in the US system) to come and speak to our delegates, and we have them on video recording saying nice things about our department. It was important to think hard about what these folks, especially the VC, wanted from us to make it work; we provided extensive notes and talking points, ironically tying in nicely to a couple of his own most recent weblog columns and speeches. Although it’s impossible to tell from my perspective, I think that the internal PR gains were likely as important as the external ones, in terms of presenting ourselves as a corporate entity (in the anthropological sense) to the anthropological community in Australia.

10. Try to leave a lasting footprint and reach outside your normal public.

This is something I’m still working on, so I’ll keep you posted, but I often feel like conferences are a bit like a circus (the old-fashioned kind, not the merchanidized and semi-permanent troupes of the Cirque du Soleil). The conference, err… circus, rolls into town, there’s a few days of pandemonium, the acrobats, freaks and animals all come out, performers risk death (or at least career suicide), and then everyone packs up and moves on to leave a ringing silence in their wake. It just seems like so much work not to leave a lasting legacy of some sort, especially when online channels for publication and other presentations are so readily available to leverage the one-time event into something more indelible.

In the Cognitive Science conference, there’s going to be a refereed, online conference proceedings, which is pretty standard for the discipline (albeit a lot of work). With the Neuroanthropology conference, we’re working on a volume based on the more substantial presentations, and we’ve got videotape of the keynotes and opening and closing talks that I need to pull together and post. I’ve also got videotape of the plenary sessions and keynote from the AAS meeting, but, in addition, we used the digital recording capacity of Macquarie University’s lecture halls and classrooms to audio-record every session and will be organizing to make them available as podcasts or ‘audio proceedings’ (the SfAA tried this as well). Keep watching at Culture Matters, where I’ll be posting the audio proceedings as podcasts.

We’ll also put up a lot of photographs with the ‘online AAS proceedings,’ and any other links I can find, just to make the whole thing a longer-term point of reference. Because Malcolm and I worked hard on the program, we’ve got plenty of text that’s all clean and ready to go, so we’re hoping that it becomes a kind of time capsule of Australian anthropology. In addition, our curators, Jennifer and Lisa, have got some rather remarkable resources that we will try to put up. Overall, the conference-related materials should significantly increase our Departmental footprint online, a crucial issue with many of our students (especially doctoral candidates) coming from overseas. Jovan Maud, Australian anthropological online pioneer, tried to talk the AAS as a whole into creating a weblog, but the nay-sayers carried the day, so we’ll just host the whole thing on our own website, and increase traffic to our site (once I can get the memory-heavy video and audio files hosted elsewhere and just link through to them).

11. Remember that, ultimately, organizing is not the focus of the conference.

The more people are happy, the more they will be focused on their papers and discussions, not your planning (well, except for the food): Malcolm pointed this out to me during the AAS conference, and he was spot on. He reminded me that, at the end of the day, conference goers are not there to enjoy the organization of the event, but to listen to and talk with each other.

If you do your job as organizer, about 80% of the conference, even a complex one with lots of extraneous events and planning, is still going to show up with the registrants. That is, the success of the event will be decided by the talks that they carry, by the slides they show, by the comments that they give to each other, and by the conversations they have. Although it’s important to worry about the details, it’s also important to keep the organizing in perspective and reconcile with the fact that most of your work will be largely invisible to the majority of participants. They will have no idea that you’ve been through a kind of super-store death march to get nametags and bottled water (against your better judgment) and last-minute supplies of all sorts; they’ll have no idea that you were swearing over your mobile phone at the guy in charge of ripping up all the concrete outside the lecture hall where the plenaries are to be held; no one else needs to know that you’ve left burnt offerings to the orixás to try to head off a problem with a cranky senior colleague, a run-away photographer, or an over-booked hotel.

In the end, smile, take the compliments, but understand that most folks will have no idea all the work you’ve done. However, the other people who have organized conferences will get it, and they’re very important colleagues to leave with a good impression. The good news is, that’s not hard, as most of them realize what’s gone into the planning, even if it all doesn’t come off quite as you hoped. In other words, some of your most important potential critics will mostly be incredibly generous (as one double AAA conference veteran was to me on the first morning when it really helped).

12. Get your own motivation straight before you start.

This may sound obvious to some, but you’re in for a rough ride, even if you have a lot of help (such as in the case of Notre Dame for me – Thanks Daniel and Marina!). So as a conference organizer, you need to be able to go back to your motivation, to remind yourself why it’s all worthwhile. For Daniel and I, the motivation for holding the Neuroanthropology conference was pretty clear (although Daniel might disagree): we wanted to get together a group of people already working together on a volume, and to see if there were people out there interested in this area of work. It was a chance to take our virtual efforts and see if they transferred over into a real, face-to-face collaboration. And the result was extremely gratifying. I can say that the conference was one of the best I have ever been to, in part because Daniel, Marina and the others at Notre Dame did so much to make it a pleasure. I was exhausted and spent, but buzzing with excitement to keep pushing forward with neuroanthropology.

For the AAS conference, the motivation was a little less obvious, but I had to keep reminding me of them as different problems arose, the stress level increased, and various things started to partially melt down. For me, the health of our professional organization, our profile as a discipline, and our ability to attract new talent is incredibly important — that’s what the conference was about to me. I also have very little professional profile in Australia, so it was like throwing a belated ‘house warming’ party. Both Malcolm and I had a laugh about this, as between us, we’d been to a total of three AAS conferences before the one we organized (it might be four, but I don’t think I’m exaggerating terribly). So this AAS was a bit of a debutante ball for me, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out.

Summary and final thoughts

If you haven’t already decided to get out of the commitment to organize a conference, you might still have a chance if you stop reading. Right. Now.

Still reading? Well, it was actually a great experience this year doing a couple of big events. No, I’m not going to do it again very soon, but I am really happy with how both conferences turned out. If I can in fact turn them both into something lasting (or, be part of the team that turns them into something lasting), I’ll have accomplished what I set out to do. Computers, desktop publishing, digital audio recordings, online proceedings, home video editing… all of these tools have made it possible to ‘punch above our weight’ in organizational terms, to have a kind of electronic reach that was much more expensive before. Keep watching these spaces to see if we’re able to turn our one-time circus events into something more lasting.


Cartoon Greg created with SPStudio (generator of South Park-style characters).

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Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

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