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:

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