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On Good and Bad Conference Feelings:
A Thank-you to Tara

A little over a week ago, I, as part of the VALUE group, received what is and quite possibly will remain the best review of my life. It is a review of The Interactive Pasts Conference (TIPC), which VALUE had organised earlier this month. It is written by Tara Copplestone, one of the speakers at this conference. Before reading on, I would suggest you read her “Interactive Pasts: a Thank-you Letter to VALUE” first.

No… Thank YOU!

As a response to Tara’s beautiful letter, I would like to issue my own thank-you right back at her. This is not a matter of “you scratch my back, I scratch yours.” My thank-you is neither based on her positive appraisal of the conference, nor on how proud she made me feel of my VALUE fellows, Aris, Csilla, Krijn, Vincent as well as myself. It really made my day; I even showed the letter to my mom. Instead, I would like to thank her for her letter because she addresses something academics spent very little time talking about: how working in… nay, living and breathing academia makes us feel.

Every psychologist, trained or layperson, will tell you that bottling up emotions and experiences is the wrong thing to do. Yet it can be very difficult to open up to others, especially if we do not trust them fully with our more precarious feelings. More so than the general hesitance we have when communicating our emotional states, the reality is that this is simply “not done” in academia. Feelings should not be a differentiating factor in the sterile scientific process, we are taught this from very early on. How irregular showing and talking about feelings in academia is, becomes obvious from the disclaimer right before Tara starts her letter. In it she refers to what follows as “personal” and “mushy”, while promising she will also do a “standard review” of the conference sometime soon.

I would say that what follows is not “mushy” but certainly comes from a genuine and genuinely brave person. In her open letter Tara talks about the “inconvenient truths” of her own psyche candidly, which involve introversion and anxiety. These feelings are particularly tenacious during public presentations and while mixing in the academic “social arenas” we call conferences. Although I cannot say I experience the exact same set of feelings Tara does, I understand where she is coming from.

Fear and Loathing at Conferences

I too have my own memories of feeling terribly left out, intellectually and socially, during some of the conferences I attended. Although I never have much stress beforehand, such negative encounters during conferences have always left me reeling after. When a conference in which “something” happened is over, I usually need at least a couple of days to get back on my feet.

My very first public presentation is a “great” example of this.

After the presentation — on guaízas, of course! —, I got into a very heated debate with a professor. It was one of those paradigmatic clashes that seem like it would be a fun idea for a professor and a student to verbally cross swords on, but that’s only when you have never experienced it before. Our argument, only veiled by the thinnest layer of rhetoric — he accused me of not “doing archaeology”, my repartee was a “you’re stuck in the ways of processualism” — , was not based on the contents of the talk or discussion, but on how they made us feel. Even if the professor was not a Caribbean archaeologist he was quite invested in the field, being one of the original advocates of Caribbean research at Leiden and the promotor of my own promotor. He was and is a man who values dirt and data, not the armchair and theory, above all. I, naturally, was quite invested in not being told that my research, which I thought was a nice mix of data and theory, wasn’t real archaeology.

The results were to be expected, the professor, way more advanced in years, academic reputability and probably wisdom, was quite “upset“. The possible fallout for my nascent research career was mitigated by my promotor, who mollified the angry professor somewhat during the break that followed. Yet I was left up there on the dais with a whole room of fellow students, junior and senior researchers doing their best to ignore the conflict and my presence. I could only just bear to drag myself to that evening’s social occasion and stayed in bed the day after.

That’s the first but certainly not the last time I felt really alone at a conference. A scholar’s persona is a carefully constructed and fragile thing. It is based on the community’s perception of his or her ideas. As a result there is no lonelier feeling for a scholar then when those ideas are sidelined, ignored, or even scoffed at during a conference. Especially because we are not to acknowledge or even talk about this “failure” to our colleagues later on, as this will only increase the damage that is already done to our scholarly person. What’s more, like any get together — the word conference comes from the Latin conferre, “to bring together in opposition”, and its near-synonym symposium comes from the Greek συμπόσιον , meaning “to drink together” — conferences can be truly dangerous and liminal places. Better be prepared!

After long days and short nights tensions are running high, egos are everywhere and easily bruised, research collaborations arise or are missed out on by being in the right/wrong time at the right/wrong moment, careers are decided during a late night alcohol-infused drinking session and so forth. In short, when they go well they can be invigorating, if they go wrong they can put a serious damper on one’s emotional state. Regardless, conferences are taxing affairs, physically, mentally and socially. I am sure most other academics will tell you the same and will be able to share similar experiences with you, if we would only talk about it. Some of our participants at the TIPC-Twine workshop made a game about the pressures of a conference. You will be able to read Tara and my thoughts on that in some weeks on the VALUE website.

Let’s talk!

Yet before Tara wrote her piece, I never even considered talking about this with another person who also works in academia — with the exception of Hayley, my fiancée. This is why I think pieces like Tara has written are a boon for academia and why we need more of it. They may or may not offer katharsis to individual scholars, but being clear about how we feel about what happens to us in academic contexts can certainly impact the community at large. This has happened and is happening, but it is rare and often (too) late.  Just look at how the current frankness of the discussion about the oppression, intimidation and assault of women and other genders by men in anthropology, started and evolved: during a conference, continued via Twitter and blogs, and conferences again, before also being picked up by mainstream academia.

That is not to say we should all take to blogging and other forms of social media as a form of emotional outlet. Out in the open can also be out in the offline world. A heart- to-heart, eye- to-eye talk with supervisors or peers will be a great first step. Afraid to fail, impostor syndrome, feeling intimidated by a colleague, trouble combining your social and professional life? Talk about it with your advisor, mentor or head of your department. If he or she won’t listen, take it up with the department or university’s support person. Not feeling research this week, writer’s block, or just feeling not entirely in your place in academia in general? Talk about it with your colleagues. Also, talk about it sober. Academics are great at venting and bitching when they are participating in a “Greek-style” symposium, but showering feelings in a mist of alcohol in a watering hole away from campus may as well be the same as not showing them. All that has been fiercely felt and said during Friday drinks will be doused by Monday morning coffee.

The Good Vibes

While on the topic of academic venting, there is one particular, and I think, immensely important thing for which I want to thank Tara: the fact that she did not only talk about what makes her feel bad but also what makes her feel good. It is very easy for academics to become cynics as part of their training in being critics. Reading another opinion piece on how higher ed is failing across the board, sitting in on yet another meeting which foregrounds the university as a company rather than as educational and research institute, learning about another colleague’s tenure-track woes, reading a highly critical and personal review of your work, can all quickly lead to cynicism. And cynicism leads to anger and anger leads to the dark side, where we ourselves will start to think that feeling this way and making others feel this way is “just part of academia”. It most definitely should not be and it does not have to be that way. This is what Tara highlights as one of the achievements of TIPC: how it made her feel positive about herself as a person and about the scholarly community that she is a part of.

Dear Tara, I cannot tell you enough how happy this made us — I am taking the liberty of speaking for the other VALUE members here as well — feel. Creating a seriously fun and intellectually engaging while socially pleasant conference is one of the main things we really wanted to achieve, even more so than our stated aim of helping to put archaeogaming on the map. We have received a lot of good feedback from other participants as well and, even if it was a helluvalotta work, we also felt completely invigorated after. Speaking for myself again, I can tell you the good vibes carried me through a stressful SAA conference — one of the best things about that conference were the informal, recorded chats in the hotel lobby that Alice and I had with our fellow Caribbean archaeologists, look out for those in this week’s and the following episodes of our podcast.

TIPC Tips

Was TIPC a one-shot? Could we do it again? Is there a recipe for a largely stress-free, positive feelings conference? I am not entirely sure, but extrapolating on this and other conferences I have attended that carried a similar vibe, these are my totally non-scientifically supported, gut feeling-based suggestions for conference organizers:

  • Only organize conferences together with people you can work together with, but preferably also (really) like.
    • Trust me, if the organizing committees relations are fraught by tension caused by pre-conference stress overflow, this will be picked up instinctively by all participants. This means you will have to work extra hard to create that positive mood, which will be extra difficult because you cannot work at it together. Also NEVER organise a conference with more than 12 attendees just by yourself: you will not be able to enjoy a single minute of it.
  • Try to only invite or accept speakers who you know have a passion for the conference theme.
    • Too often (keynote) speakers get chosen or accepted because of their political importance or out of respect for their track record. You don’t need that: what you need is good speakers who are the creative minds in their field.
  • Let the conference revolve about its themes, not about you.
    • Everyone knows that archaeologists are in it for fortune and glory, but this should be the fortune and glory of your chosen (sub-)field, not your own personal fortune and glory. If your (sub-)field is doing well, all in it, including you, will benefit. This can be played out in miniature during a conference, in which you should seek to push the field to the next level, not your own agenda.
  • Make your audience and presenters feel welcome
    • Of course you will have an official welcome, but even before the conference has started, try and give as many people as possible the feeling that they are welcome through e-mail but also personal communication. It’s easy: thank them for coming, ask them how their trip was, apologize for the weather (works great in the Netherlands, not so much in California), et cetera. No matter if they live around the block or on the other side of the world, they have put effort into coming over, for that alone they should be acknowledged.
  • Make sure the conference is in a suitable space
    • Yes, this means audiovisuals and other technical bits have to be in order, but a good conference space does not end there. Consider noise levels and even (natural) lighting. I get depressed if I have to sit in the dark all day, don’t you?
  • All presenters are equal
    • … and no, no presenters should be more equal than others. For TIPC we decided to not have keynotes, but even if you do: keynotes should be about the key issues of the conference, not about the key figures present. Don’t put all the heavyweights in one (morning) spot either: pair the veterans who talk from experience and seemingly infinite wisdom with the young creatives that take old and new ideas and run with them.
  • Encourage your presenters to present free-form
    • Even with the most suave of voices, a paper will always be more engaging if it is presented free-form and not read out. Of course, presenters should always stick to the approximate time limit regardless of format.
  • Plan your question and discussion rounds, but don’t hesitate to improvise
    • Always know where a question or discussion round can go: always be prepared to field a couple of questions to a speaker when there is a lull in audience awareness. On the other hand, a discussion or question round that is in a state of flow is a beautiful yet fragile thing: don’t push your own ideas of where it should go, but let the discussion run its course.
  • Have moderators who engage with the presenters as well as with the audience.
    • Just like public speaking, moderating is part content, but also part performance. Have someone moderate who is prepared and has a good overview of the topic but can also speak directly to an audience and pick up on the energy in the room.
  • Create the right context for social interactions during regular breaks.
    • No one will feel like talking to other people during a 10-minute toilet break when they just sat through 3 hours of paper reading. Also make sure social interactions can take place with a full belly and sober mind and not only while tipsy.
  • Don’t take it all too seriously
    • Yes, archaeogaming or [insert your own passion project here] is serious business, but who wants to look at red, frowning faces and listen to overheated debates? No one. If you set the mood with your smile and a (not so) funny joke now and then, people will feel more at ease and easy people are people who have the energy and attention to listen to and engage in solid debates.
  • You should still enjoy yourself if not all goes according to plan.
    • You cannot orchestrate everything, so you should feel lucky if your conference had not one technical hiccup, crazily good talks, and participants with an amazing chemistry. We certainly do!

I hope that these tips as well as the heartfelt if slightly meandering discussion of good and bad feelings before, during and after conferences has been of interest. Regardless, let me know how you feel about it all in the comments below or via Twitter.

Finally and one more time: Thank you, Tara. Not only for your honest and thought-provoking letter, in which you voice what many of us feel but hesitate to talk about, but also for being part of bringing the good vibes to TIPC. Without you and all the other rockstar participants it would not have been such an academic, social and emotional success.

Categories:Essays,On Academia

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