Redesigning the Annual Conference: Contagion, Carbon, Access, Equity

Spring is a time to look ahead in places like where I live on the East Coast of the United States, as people come out of doors and dormant plants and other creatures inch back into life. This spring of 2020, however, has been one of looming, even paralyzing uncertainty. Between COVID-19, the national political climate, and a host of other existential concerns in the air, who can say what this summer and fall will bring—let alone this spring, as each day brings fresh news of further lockdowns.

There is also that particular form of future-oriented hustling that the season brings for anthropologists in North America, looking ahead to the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). The submission deadline is fast approaching, and plans are coming together fitfully for the meeting this fall in St. Louis, even as we learn of conference after conference canceled this spring, nationally and internationally. Just as I was finishing a draft of this post, in fact, news came of the Association of American Geographers April meeting in Denver: canceled in person, headed online, to whatever extent possible.

Crises bring habits into focus. For a scholarly discipline like ours, the practice of gathering by the thousands somewhere each year is a habit that merits some scrutiny. Sharing work and meeting colleagues and potential collaborators is essential to the development of a field. But is an annual conference that demands physical travel to a single place the most effective and ethical means of meeting these needs? What would it mean to approach this moment not only with precautionary reaction, but also as an occasion for speculative work, a chance to devise the kind of conference we would like to see?

The March 9, 2020, member letter from Akhil Gupta and Ed Liebow, President and Executive Director of the AAA, brought welcome news regarding this fall’s AAA meeting: the promise of registration refunds in full for those who decide not to attend, and plans to allow for virtual attendance and participation: “this year’s extraordinary circumstances will prompt us to consider such possibilities as allowing a mix of live presentations and remote presentations that are pre-recorded on video and presented in St. Louis with tech support in hand.”

This would be an unprecedented move for the AAA, which also has the chance to address, over and above the threat or fear of contagion (Wald 2008), many other reasons why anthropologists have been calling for a redesign of our annual conference: the steep cost of long-distance travel and hotel accommodation, most especially for graduate students and precariously placed academics in the United States and abroad; the massive carbon footprint of the megaconference model; the challenge of crossing international borders in an era of travel bans and xenophobic border politics; the hardships posed to those with physical disabilities; and the challenge for parents and other caregivers juggling professional demands with responsibilities for kin. How do we wrestle as a profession with such problems? What alternative forms of conversation and interaction may we develop instead?

A Short History of the Annual Meeting

As such concerns accumulate, it is worth pausing to consider how this convention of yearly conferencing took shape. The annual meeting as a scientific practice dates back to the 1820s and the work of the Association of German Natural Scientists and Physicians, from which the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) borrowed the practice beginning in 1831 (Clark 2006). The BAAS meetings took place in a different provincial town or city each year as a week-long “parliament of science,” catalyzing the development of local scientific societies and public scientific discourse in these localities (Miskell 2012).

Ethnology and anthropology found a place in these BAAS meetings from the mid-nineteenth century onward, as the focus of particular sections of scientific inquiry (Sillitoe 2004). And the scale of these meetings was already international, given the imperial networks that organized scientific expeditions and institutions at the time (Pietsch 2010). The 1924 annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science was held, for example, in Toronto, where speakers included A. C. Haddon, C. G. Seligman, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir; “special features of interest to the members of the Section were a visit to the Royal Ontario Museum, where Mr. Currelly showed them the splendid Chinese collections installed under his care,” Sapir (1924, 565) reported in American Anthropologist.

A total of forty people were invited to the inaugural meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Pittsburgh, in 1902, with 175 members recorded in American Anthropologist by the next year (McGee 1903). “Our membership is still numbered by hundreds when it should be numbered by thousands if the Association is to fulfil the function for which it was founded,” the Secretary of the AAA wrote about a decade later (MacCurdy 1911, 100). It was not until the 1960s that annual meeting attendance would regularly climb to well over a thousand in number. And, as it happened, this development provoked serious misgivings on the part of some senior anthropologists, when students, in particular, began to flood the meetings.

“The highly successful small organism has become a dinosaur, apparently incapable of adapting to any but the original context,” a writer for the AAA Newsletter observed in 1963 (S.T.B. 1963, 1). Various ideas were floated to contain this growth—shifting to regional or subfield meetings, rejecting more paper submissions, even restricting presentations to five-minute summaries—but the organization elected to operate in a more expansive mode (Trencher 2000). Indeed, when a debate erupted as to whether or not to hold the 1970 annual meeting in Honolulu, as originally planned, the Executive Board of the AAA voted to shift the meeting to San Diego to enable wider access to the conference. As AAA President George Foster (1969, 1) wrote,

Traditional anthropological policies and philosophies increasingly are being questioned, especially by our younger colleagues. The charge frequently has been levelled at the Board that to hold the 1970 meetings in Honolulu would prevent large numbers of students and other interested people from attending, regardless of how economical the trip could be made, by means of charter flights and other arrangements. By excluding large numbers of younger people, the Board was told, it was reducing the opportunity for dialogue between older and better established members of the profession, and younger (and less well-heeled) members, at a time when this dialogue had become critical to the well-being of the Association.

It’s worth keeping in mind that problems of access and equity were at the heart of these debates in the 1960s regarding the organization of the annual meeting in American anthropology, and that many of these questions turned at that time, as they still do today, on the costs of participation. In the 1990s, attendance at the annual conference reached the level where it remains to this day, between five and seven thousand people.

Bringing people together at this scale is a remarkable feat of vision and organization, not to mention inclusion. At the same time, however, these meetings have also become one of the most significant carbon burdens that our scholarly societies ask us to bear.

The Carbon Footprint of a Conference

Looking back in retrospect, what becomes obvious is that the AAA and its meetings exploded in size in the very years that saw precipitous growth in travel of all kinds, the burst of quick, long-distance movement fueled by cheap fossil fuels that climate scholars now associate with the “Great Acceleration” of anthropogenic activity in the postwar era (Steffen, Crutzen, and NcNeill 2007). Gathering for a disciplinary megaconference in North America can produce as many carbon emissions over a few days as a human settlement of similar size may generate over an entire year in many countries of the global South. A carbon footprint analysis of the annual meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) estimated that the aviation-related emissions from the travel of 6,700 attendees to the 2010 AAG meeting in Seattle were equivalent to the annual carbon emissions of over 55,000 people in Bangladesh (Nevins 2014).

This is an instance of “ecological privilege” and profound ecological injustice, the geographer Joseph Nevins (2014) argues, and the #flyingless movement in academia led by Nevins and many others has lately grown into an international movement to redesign the conference form. What would it mean to reduce the carbon footprint of such meetings while also acknowledging the importance of live interaction and face-to-face encounter, as well as the commitments to broader access that propelled and sustained their growth?

“Reshaping the relationship between people and their carbon-intensive lifeways entails a shift in habitus,” the AAA Global Climate Change Task Force noted in 2014, recommending that the AAA “continue aggressively with developments in AAA that reduce the carbon footprint due to association-wide activities.” But our association has yet to tackle this recommendation with requisite heed, and we have seen, thus far, very little from the AAA by way of the alternatives that our peer associations are developing: the Nearly Carbon Neutral stream of panels that the European Association of Social Anthropologists are organizing for their 2020 biennial; the diverse avenues for remote presentation and participation developed for the 2020 Society for Social Studies of Science conference; the plans made by the Annual Meeting Climate Action Task Force of the American Association of Geographers; the plans for “reducing the carbon footprint and expanding remote engagement” now pursued by the American Geophysical Union, among many other such efforts one could cite.

What would we learn if the AAA committed, as an organization, to pursuing a rigorous carbon footprint analysis of the annual meeting, as scholars in the AGU and many other fields have begun to do? And now that the coronavirus may have finally forced our discipline’s hand, with regard to such questions, what kind of alternatives will we find ourselves with?

Emerging Lines of Possibility

The space of alternative conferencing seems to have a DIY ethos, with many guides and how-tos in wide circulation. In 2018, I worked with a team of nearly two dozen people to design a “distributed” biennial conference for the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology, called Displacements. Nearly 150 presenters prerecorded their contributions for circulation through a virtual platform, a Wordpress website. Panels were livestreamed on a twenty-four-hour webcast schedule to facilitate participation by people in diverse time zones, and archived thereafter for on-demand viewing. We relied on chat boxes and social media channels like Twitter and Instagram as platforms for response and discussion.

Many participants gathered in small groups in one of dozens of local nodes in cities and localities scattered around the world, many of which were in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Others tuned in on their own, sometimes, as they conveyed to us, from the spaces of their own homes, where they juggled conference attendance with the demands of childcare and domestic life. Our access advisor, Tyler Zoanni, helped us pursue access as an “art of conviviality,” one that “requires conscious reflection, creativity, and openness to difference,” a philosophy we sought to fold into the evolving design of the conference.

The alternative platform we developed together transformed the Society for Cultural Anthropology biennial from a regional American conference of about 200 people to an international event that drew more than 1,300 people from forty-five countries around the world, more than half of whom were outside the United States, all at a fraction of the carbon footprint of a conventional conference. The Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology are partnering once again on a virtual and distributed biennial this spring, called Distribute, scheduled for May 7–9, 2020. This second iteration promises to be more exciting and sophisticated than the first, involving the curation of contributions and conversations from around the world, and the development of many new technical platforms and resources for remote interaction.

How might such efforts look when scaled up to an event like the AAA annual meeting? The organization, understandably, may be concerned about the effect such alternatives might have on physical attendance, conference revenue, and even membership revenue, which often tracks with conference registration deadlines. These concerns seem to have had a hand in the scope of the virtual package that the AAA piloted as an alternative to the physical conference in 2019: a handful of pre-selected panels accessible online for a virtual registration fee of $50–$75. No provisions were made for remote presentation, and only thirty individuals ultimately registered for this experiment.

I was invited to join the task force that developed this pilot project, and I was not the only participant who found frustrating the calculus of cost and return that shaped the choices that were ultimately made. Responses to a survey that the AAA later circulated about this endeavor dwelt overwhelmingly on the cost of the annual meeting and the surprising expense of this alternative. Respondents described themselves as graduate students and adjuncts who could not afford to travel, as older and disabled individuals who could not manage it physically, as recent parents, and as immigrants facing visa restrictions. What would it mean to truly meet their needs for scholarly interchange? Could such alternatives be pursued instead as ways to widen access to the annual meeting, to increase rather than decrease overall registration, attendance, and participation?

Even at the 2019 annual meeting in Vancouver, in fact, this was the experience of those of us who made our own panels accessible remotely. We all know what it’s like to speak avidly into the vacuum of a massive and empty conference hall or hotel ballroom, to share our stories and findings with a handful of individuals scattered among countless rows of vacant chairs. This was certainly the case with a roundtable that I organized for the Society for Cultural Anthropology and the Society for Visual Anthropology, which we called “Reimagining the Annual Meeting for an Era of Radical Climate Change.” We spoke into a cavernous void of physical space. But we also livestreamed the session and made our pre-recorded presentations available online for those who wanted to tune in from a distance. The live video stream via the SCA Facebook page drew over 740 remote viewers, and each of the individual presentations, freely accessible still via, has since been viewed, on average, by nearly 110 people on multiple continents.

As it circulated online as a freely available resource, the roundtable even drew the attention of the NPR radio show “The Pulse,” which featured the panel in a January 2020 segment called “What happens when academics fly less to conferences?” The segment featured the presentation made by an undocumented Oregon State University graduate student in anthropology, Argenis Hurtado Moreno, who could not cross the border into Vancouver and could only participate in our roundtable because of its virtual format. The segment also described someone who had tweeted about the roundtable from Karachi—because of its virtual format, it was the first AAA session he had ever attended.

Prospects for Alternative Design

There are many reasons why the AAA’s promise to expand the format of the annual meeting this year is a welcome one. It matters that “Truth and Responsibility” is the theme of this fall’s meeting, the invitation “to reflect on our responsibility in reckoning with disciplinary histories, harms, and possibilities.” Given this call, and the nature of this moment, there is no better time to confront the problems of the conventional conference model, and to begin to devise equitable and effective alternatives. With this, as with so many things, however, much will turn on the specific form that these alternatives assume.

With the 2018 Displacements conference, for example, we found ways of approximating the charge of live encounter, the sense of a shared experience in time, by using techniques like the livestream webcast, social media threads, and node-based gatherings. At the same time, we also learned that distraction was a serious challenge, most especially for participants tuning in on their own. This challenge brought into focus the conventional form of the conference presentation itself, and the question of whether or not a talking head video recording or even a voiceover slideshow would be an adequate response both to the possibilities and the constraints of the audiovisual medium (Pandian 2018).

Can we imagine the standard fifteen-minute structure of the AAA presentation itself evolving, as the conference opens into virtual and hybrid formats for participation? How do we ensure these novel formats and participation options will meet the expectations set out in the accessibility standards developed by networks like the Disability Research Interest Group?

There is also that other essential side of the conference experience, the chance for face-to-face conversation and socializing with colleagues and friends. This is, of course, precisely the dimension of our collective lives as academics that has become most fraught with the looming threat of a new pandemic. Here again come design questions with regard to the structure of virtual and remote alternatives, questions that we, as students of social life, ought to be better prepared to address than any other academic community.

What would it take, if not to replicate, then at least to learn from and approximate the texture of what happens through one-on-one meetings, informal interaction, and accidental encounters? What virtual spaces of dialogue and exchange, beyond the formal giving and receiving of presentations, might help to facilitate such interaction? And will the cost of accessing such possibilities remotely, through registration fees and other requirements, be set at a level that would enable broader participation by students, adjuncts, field interlocutors, and anthropologists from the global South—that might make possible, in other words, intellectual exchanges that the cost and distance of a physical conference render impossible?

We ought to recall that the modern development of the scientific society as an institution typically included “corresponding members” as essential constituents from afar (Ogilvie 2016); even the AAA has had provisions in past years for lower dues from “Corresponding Members” and “Foreign Fellows.” Could this turn in the structure of the annual meeting be an occasion for us to ask once again what it would mean to belong to, and participate in, the intellectual life of the association from a distance? What could such correspondence look like in the era of streaming video?

Conferences Past and Future

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread, conferences and other large public gatherings are being cancelled or postponed with a strategy of “social distancing” in mind. There is little choice but to do this now, given the conventional structure of the meetings we have, their wont to jam many people at once into the same confined space. But say we approached this moment as more than a crisis, as a chance as well to imagine what the conference of the future might look and feel like. What formal structure could the event assume, and need we presume that its heart must lie in a single, geographic place?

Back in the 1960s, when the AAA wrestled with the challenge of a ballooning membership, one anthropologist, Richard N. Adams, proposed that the annual meeting could be held each year in multiple places at once, with plenary status rotating between these regional gatherings each year. “With the decentralization of meetings, most business on the national level would be handled by mail,” and this structure, Adams (1964, 1–2) wrote, “would make a major annual meeting accessible to students from each major region on a much more frequent basis.” Although the idea was dismissed at the time as dangerous—“If anthropology is to remain whole and to continue to have a sense of national existence, it requires . . . an ingathering of the clan and a reaffirmation of shared values, interests and purposes” (Goldschmidt 1964, 2)—in retrospect this vision seems astonishingly prescient.

Imagine an annual meeting of American anthropology organized through several or a dozen—or maybe many more—regional nodes around the country, more easily accessible to those nearby, and networked virtually with what is happening everywhere else as well. Imagine the more human and intimate scale at which such regional gatherings might unfold, suitable for the capacities of universities and local public institutions rather than convention centers and corporate hotels alone. Imagine a conference, in each of these places, more invested in public-facing engagement than exclusive lanyards to flash at the door. Here again is a vision of contact with unknown others, yes, but perhaps at a scale more liable to managing its risks and threats.

This is a time of serious challenges for the most basic institutions we rely upon as teachers and scholars. So many of us now have been told by our institutions to shift to online instruction, and we will mourn the loss of that affective charge that surges most powerfully through proximate spaces of telling and listening. But we are still anthropologists, and our learning is made for confounding challenges. It is good to know that so many leaders and staff of the AAA share the conviction now that a serious redesign of the annual conference is necessary. I hope that this and other institutions of anthropology might meet this circumstance with an ethnographic sensibility, taking the time to think and ask and imagine how best to meet the range of needs at stake in this situation.

I can’t help but recall a message that the Métis anthropologist Zoe Todd shared via Twitter in 2018, as we anthropologists descended in droves on smoky San Jose that November:

#AmAnth2018 is taking place in the midst of one of the deadliest fires in California history. If breathing in the smoke of burning trees, homes, cities doesn't convince us that we need radically different ways to engage beyond the conference center model . . . I don’t know what will.

Here we are again, in the midst of another radical, existential challenge. Contagion, carbon, access, equity: what, concretely, will we do?


My gratitude to Anne Allison, Krista Billingsley, Mayanthi Fernando, Hannah Knox, Jessica Lockrem, Andrea Muehlebach, Ben Orlove, Taapsi Ramchandani, Jerome Whitington, and Emily Yates-Doerr for their insights on this writing, and to everyone who has collaborated on the experiments and alternatives sketched above.


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