On Going to the National Meetings

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

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On Going to the National Meetings — 14 Comments

  1. I just went to my first American Studies Association meeting, and it was a doozy. If you check out the Chronicle or search the meeting online, you’ll see what I mean. I’m not sure if I’ll be going back because my research does not have a home at the ASA, but your experience in contrast makes me wonder if I should give the ASA a second chance in the future.

    The students’ committee discussion about labor and teaching was especially eye-opening. A few of my colleagues would be smart to check out TPII, because they really don’t get what is waiting for them on the “outside.”

  2. I am always suprised and happy to see your blog pop up on facebook or twitter, reposted by another acquaintance, friend, or professor (!). I hope to go to AAA someday, even though my time and money is usually taken up with Archaeology conferences, mostly so I can go to one of your workshops or panels! They looked great this year.

  3. Contributing? You are shaping careers and lives of people whom you will never meet. I send my undergrad advisees to your site. They come away stunned, enlightened, and, sometimes, looking for career paths other than graduate training in English. Thank you for giving them a reality check they won’t accept from me.

    • Good to hear. Although I wish students would accept this news from their profs and advisors. I know that some, like you, really do try to get it across.

  4. You’ve just realized that you’re an ethnographer of anthropology, and academia in general?! That’s the beauty of what you do! I didn’t make the AAAs this year(I know, shame on me, it is the big one)–defending in a few days, two pubs out, one in review. A fantastic cover letter written, thanks to your blog. Keep your fingers crossed for me and THANKS for your contribution!

    • I know. I’m a little slow. No, but actually, this is what the f-ing cult does to a person. It makes you not be able to define yourself as a legit academic without that all-important inst. affiliation. But, I’m over that now. I am STILL an anthropologist!

  5. Hi. I was wondering if one should go a national conference if they have the opportunity? I was thinking of going to the APA (American Philosophical Association) to network and see the presentations. I am not presenting but I was wondering if it would be a good idea because you said we will need recommenders outside of our department when looking for a job. I am PhD student.

    • Please google my column, Graduate School Is a Means to a Job and read that. Also, please see the blog category “How to Do Conferences” and read all the posts in that.

  6. I have that weird invisible thing too. It always surprises me when people who I don’t see on a daily basis recognize me. Not sure where mine originated, though.

  7. Can anyone propose and organize a panel at an academic conference? How does that work? Is the proposal sent to the conference’s committee and then, if approved, a call for papers is issued or does the call for papers go out first?

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