I was scared to go to the AAAs.*
I was worried about so many things. That, after not attending even once since leaving my career as a tenured cultural anthropologist, I’d be alone and friendless. That I’d discover I really had burned every single bridge with my former colleagues, students, and friends. That I’d be shunned as a traitor to the cause.
But truth be told what I was worried about most was not what others would feel about me, but what I would feel about myself. After presenting every year from 1992 to 2009, for the first time, I’d be at a scholarly conference bereft of a scholarly project. Would I be able to face that? Could I handle seeing all the eager, animated scholars rushing from one panel to another, or clustered outside doorways deep in continuing conversation? Would I burst into tears in the middle of a session, or in the hallways, thrown back into the profound grief and loss I have struggled with in the years since I left?
I was scared.
And I went.
I went because in a moment of spontaneous enthusiasm I’d organized and submitted a panel on the job market that, rather stunningly (to me), got accepted. And because I’d been invited to do a small workshop on negotiating the tenure track job offer. And then because I was going to be there, I added on a lunch with TPII clients and readers, and an open-to-the-public workshop. So I had reasons to be in Chicago. I resolved to keep my head down and focus on my work.
My first sign that things might not go quite as I feared was when I arrived at conference registration. No sooner did I walk into the room than I ran into a client. “Karen Kelsky!” she said, grasping my hand warmly. “It is so good to meet you in person!”
“How did you know it was me?” I asked, mystified.
“I recognized your face from the website!” We made a plan to meet for coffee the next day to celebrate her brand new R1 tenure track job.
Once I got my inch-thick program filled with 5 days of panels and events, I found a seat and began the familiar and well-loved ritual of poring through it, panel by panel, name by name. To my amazement, I discovered that I knew someone on almost every single page. Of course, I was aware that I’ve worked with a lot of anthropologists at TPII, but it never occurred to me that in doing so, I would know a significant proportion of the presenters at the national conference. Wow, I thought, my peeps are here!
But that was not the half of it.
First let me explain: I have this thing, this oddity, that I kind of think I’m invisible. It’s plagued me my whole life. It comes from a childhood where I felt invisible in my family—the one who didn’t count. I always think that people can’t see me, or if they see me, that they don’t recognize me. I used to walk around Eugene, when I returned after an absence of 7 years, convinced that if my former colleagues saw me they wouldn’t know me. I have only recently realized that this is not true.
So, when I had fastened on my conference name tag and started walking through the Chicago Hilton, and could barely pass a conference-goer in the 35 or below age range who didn’t read my name and pause to come up and say something to me, it was…stupefying.
I didn’t know these folks. But one after another they approached me. “Thank you for your blog.” “Thank you for telling the truth.” “Thank you for saving me from my advisor.” “Thank you for giving me a place to turn, when I had nowhere else to go.”
And a few of them said, simply, “Thank you for my interview.” And “thank you for my job.”
It was all very hard for me to assimilate. I seemed to have more “peeps” than I ever imagined.
Now, my interactions with the colleagues in the three departments that I call out on my blog were a bit more awkward, when they occurred at all (I can’t say I sought them out. My courage did fail me there). But one dear former professor from my grad program managed to say, in a strained sort of way, “Ah, Karen… I did visit your site. [pause] And I thought [pause], ’Well, Karen certainly has found [pause, as if choosing words carefully]… a way to contribute.’”
And there it was. It suddenly struck me: I knew I was contributing… but I was contributing anthropologically.
No, I don’t have the kind of research project (on Japan, gender, whatever) that I did of old, but I have a project – an urgent and meaningful one, and one that is fully anthropological. I am doing an applied ethnography of the job market, turning an anthropological eye on the unspoken norms and belief systems, language patterns, originating myths, gatekeeping systems, mechanisms of reproduction of privilege, and above all, power hierarchies, of the neoliberal academy. Where 79 panels on the AAA program were dedicated to analyzing the neoliberal economy somewhere “out there” (in India or Germany or South Korea), I have been analyzing the disavowed neoliberal economy right here, in our offices and departments and classrooms.
On my last morning, I ran into a former student. She gave me a big, warm, happy hug, and told me excitedly about her new tenure track job. Then she paused, “Weren’t you scared about coming back to the AAAs, Karen?” she asked, and went on. “When I saw you were coming I thought, oh, that takes some guts to come back here!”
“Yes, I was scared,” I told her. “But I am so very glad I came. And I’m coming again next year.” Because I’m an anthropologist. My field of study? The academy. My topic? The job market, and the myths that we tell about it.
*The American Anthropological Association national meetings in Chicago