Conference Benefits

In my view, conferences have manifold benefits and significances for researchers at every stage of their career from student to retiree. For me, I think they are important, focused time to network, learn about and think about other’s research, develop my own projects and ideas, and present my working ideas and near-complete work. They are one element of my activities and identity as a public intellectual and academic.

I like and regularly attend the annual TAG conferences. I go to the EAA conferences when I can. More rarely I’ve showed up at the Leeds IMC. I also attend many other workshops, seminars, colloquia and conferences on themes and periods that are relevant to my research. Last year, 2016, for example, I supported my students organising their own public day conference in Chester – Dead Relevant – and presented therein. In addition, I presented a further 8 conference papers at 6 events. I also gave 7 public lectures.

Problems with Performance

However, I cannot be at every event, and events have to work around my other work and personal commitments. Even if I do attend, I can only see a fraction of what was presented at big conferences since they have many parallel sessions. There are clear limitations to the benefits of conferences as a result. They are time-consuming, expensive, have restricted audiences and many times I never get to hear papers or talk to the people I want to. There is also the focus on parties and pubs as venues for social interaction, which brings with it as many problems as benefits.

Linked to this, I detest presentist thinking and the idea that conference papers are performances that define researchers’ identities and legitimacy. In the same way, I get sick of archaeologists defining themselves in relation to ‘fieldwork’ with the same mixture of attendance self-hate and anxiety combined with smugness and oneupmanship. Both are important, but conference participation and summer fieldwork are simply examples within a range of archaeological research activities by which we operate individually and as communities of researchers.

Being at a conference and delivering a paper does not make you an academic or researcher any more than those that do not/cannot. It is not part of a ‘club’. Despite the benefits, not every researcher and student has the time and money to attend these events, and there are multiple responsibilities as carers that many researchers have. In any case, there are many other things that make one a researcher. Conducting original research is fundamental. Research-driven teaching is another for me. Engaging beyond the academy is key too. Publishing is central!

I was taken aback by a recent implication on social media that because I’m not able to attend a particular annual conference, I was somehow not dealing with the academic subject or aware of the latest debates. This might be true in some disciplines, but publications and other media allow me to keep abreast of many areas even if I cannot attend particular conferences.

By another archaeologist, it even got it implied to me that, even though I attended most of a 2-day event, because I had to leave before the final discussion, I somehow missed the entire point of the event. Well pardon me! They couldn’t actually tell me anything salient I had missed, so I suspect this was merely posturing…

The stupidity of this presentist and performative approach to conferences cannot be under-estimated, and its negative affect on the morale and esteem of those unable to attend likewise. If we follow this logic, my (as seen by some at least) copious teaching activities and expertise, and many numerous books and published research articles, let alone my blog posts and field research, are not legitimate ‘archaeological research activities’ unless I have ‘performed’ them at specified conference venues to some imaginary audience who are the ultimate judge of my academic worth. This is beyond ridiculous and reveals a particular kind of snobby clique behaviour that only the most self-loathing and insecure researchers indulge in.

Inclusive Archaeology

Therefore, I largely endorse the efforts of many, most recently of the Inclusive Archaeology project, to encourage conferences to follow best practice to include as many as possible, as well as communicate via blogs and other media too. These include (among other things and where possible/feasible) videoing sessions for those unable to be there, and allowing reduced rates for students and day rates where appropriate. Digital record and debate is key; allowing an archive of activities and those in the future to tap into the debates and study approaches at that time, as well as to include those unable to attend. I also think it is important to, as most conferences do, share details of programmes and papers, and speakers’ contact details, so that those not in attendance can follow-up on the debates.

It is disappointing that the Inclusive Archaeology project targeted TAG for criticism in this regard. Not only do I doubt whether most of those advocating these ‘best practices’ have organised a TAG conference themselves and/or are aware of the many challenges involved, including working on tight budgets at very different institutions. I also think TAG is a poor target to fix on since it is in a very difficult position in being an attempt to simultaneously fulfil multiple expectations of being: (a) a postgraduate training event with low rates for students, (c) a national archaeology conference open to all, (c) a theoretical archaeology conference for driving forward new debates and approaches on an international standing. This makes it particularly hard for TAG to enforce particular structures year-on-year and meet everyone’s expectations. I agree that inclusivity is not a luxury, but essential for all of these demands, but without the support of a well-financed organisation, and without set rules of how conferences should be run, it is unfair to criticise the sterling efforts of individual conference organising committees attempting to work within tight constraints on resources and personnel to pull off TAG year-on-year.

In any case, Inclusive Archaeology did not formally lobby or contact the TAG National Committe with their concerns, which is a pity. This website and its proposals were not tabled at the Southampton meeting. Perhaps they will be at Cardiff in 2017?

Beyond Inclusivity

However, I don’t think this goes far enough, because inclusivity at conferences still embraces the idea of presentism and performativity as key to conference-going – that being there physically matters more than other modes of interaction. This continues to accept that, and support the pernicious anxiety-creation that conferences as so integral into scholarly research activities that ‘being there’ matters beyond all else.

A further way of escaping this, or at least broadening inclusivity and also varying the media by which we engage and disseminate in research is through blogging and digital conferencing. By this I don’t simply mean the live-streaming and/or videoing events and integrating discussions on Twitter and other social media into the debates in the conference rooms. This can be good – and I spent the day after the Southampton TAG actually listening the previous day’s video of the Politics session which I couldn’t be at in person because I was in other sessions. Doug’s Archaeology is a great augmentation for TAG, thanks Doug and Co.!

Yet I propose more than this. By digital conferencing I also mean promoting purely digital events and activities that provide an opportunity for people to virtually present and debate current research topics. These have the potential to be ‘beyond inclusive’, in the sense that they take the agenda away from simply being there at a particular time and space digitally, and all conferences to happen on particular days, but the conversation to continue in a more open-ended way in following days, weeks and months.

This is exactly the initiative that Lorna Richardson is promoting with her new, first-ever, Public Archaeology conference via the medium of Twitter. I’ve put in my paper proposal for this, since I want to see if I can present and foster debate through 6-12 tweets rather than a 15-20-minute talk. Join up and participate in this event, it is one of many potential futures for digital conferencing and ways of engaging beyond the traditional conference. I want to see it working.