(published on the American Anthropological Association blog)
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.