The Art of the Conference

The 119th Annual Archaeological Institute of America conference was held in Boston Massachusetts this year. Seems I am making my way through all the states that start with an “M.” Next stop, Missouri? Yours truly almost didn’t make it to Boston because of the massive winter storm that hit the Eastern Seaboard on the 4th. Boston was shut down, every flight into the city was canceled. I managed to get an 8 o’clock flight the next day that would get me in Boston before 10 am. The poster session which I was participating in began at 11 am. To make matters little more interesting, the guy sitting across the aisle from me realized that he did not have his phone AFTER the cabin door was shut. We landed at Logan International Airport slightly after 10 am, late, of course. By some miracle, I made it to the conference hotel by 11 am and was able to have my poster up only 15 minutes late, I patted myself on the back – “way to go E.” This was not the first time that I had attended the AIA’s. But this was an especially exciting conference for the Albanian Archaeologist because it was the first time that I was presenting, rather than just attending – a big step forward in my opinion. I’ve noticed that every time I attend a conference there is a certain theme that pops up each year, last year it was drones and 3D modeling of sites. This year it was “the long duree.” I found this to be quite fortuitous because my own thesis research encompasses quite an extensive time period, from 1100 BC to 395 AD. So, I guess you could say that my research was “en vogue” this year.

I stood proudly by my poster, in the very rumpled clothes I had traveled in. It didn’t matter anymore, I was there, and my poster was up. And within minutes of setting up, I had my first observer come up. Not only did he like my poster but he was specifically keeping an eye out for it after reading about it in the program! The content of my poster focused on the preliminary results of my thesis research, which of course is focused on Albanian prehistory. I am looking at the settlement patterns in Albania from the Iron Age, through Greek colonization and Roman integration. Essentially looking to see if there is a change in the settlement pattern between the three periods and if so, what is the nature of the change. My preliminary results show that through time the amount of clustering of sites increases, and the location of these clusters changes. The biggest change is in the clustering from the north to the south for the prehistoric period to the Greek and Roman periods. Also of note is the presence of a linear cluster along the Via Egnatia during the Roman period. I’ll explore these patterns more in my thesis – dropping May 2018 so stay tuned folks.

Conferences are an interesting thing. For the seasoned experts, they are like a big reunion. They are fun, a way to reconnect with old colleagues and present their latest findings.  For a newcomer like myself, they can be a bit daunting. Think “little fish, big pond”. Yet, no matter how daunting they can be, I urge every newcomer, myself included, to swallow their fear and take the plunge. The more you go, the more comfortable you become, and the more opportunities you open up for yourself. Conferences are a great way to stay up to date with what is going on in your field. What methods people are using, what discoveries they have made and what conclusions these new methods and discoveries lead too. They are also a good way to network and meet new people. This is especially important if you want to make a career for yourself in academia. You can meet professors who teach at the universities you might apply to, maybe even your future PhD advisor. Or meet the directors of projects you might want to attend. They are a great way to put faces to the countless papers you read in classes, and an even better way of putting a face on your future PhD application.

While I am by no means a conference wiz, in fact, I am quite the opposite. I have come up with a set of guidelines for myself as I navigate the art conferencing which might also be useful to anyone else new to the process.

  1. Start small – if you, like myself, are a bit on the socially awkward, shy, side when it comes to these things, don’t leap head first into a big (and expensive) conference that is far far away. Instead, go to a local conference for a day. Walk around, listen to some talks, and try to ask at least one question or introduce yourself to one person.
  2. Apply for funding – everywhere! Exhaust all of your resources. There are a wealth of grants, scholarships, and funding opportunities out there, so apply to all that you can. Start within your department, and then branch out. Don’t forget to see if the conference you’re attending offers funding too! Boston cost me about $200 out of pocket. The combined funding, I received from four different sources almost entirely covered plane tickets, ground travel, food, and hotel costs. It’s possible friends. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can spend lavishly, but if you budget and plan, its possible friends.
  3. Get involved – by this I mean, make your way into the program. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to get up there and present a paper, but presenting something is a good way to network. I suggest starting small in this case as well. Maybe present a poster the first time, do a lighting session presentation the next time and then a paper presentation, whatever you are comfortable with. Personally, my next step is to participate in a lightning session round. Five minutes to talk about settlement patterns in Albania to a room of strangers? Sign me up. Talking in front of people has always been a fear of mine. But like all things, you get better and more comfortable with the experience. So, put yourself out there. Remember they are people too.
  4. Volunteer – this is a really good way to meet people and network. I find it is easier to interact with people when I have a job to do. if it is my job to greet and check people in, then I do it, surprisingly well actually.
  5. Always double check your poster before you print it – always. Ask your supervisors, your colleagues, your sister, why not, even ask Nona to look at it? Everyone. The more eyes you have on your poster before it goes to print, the lower the chance of having some embarrassing typo. Your poster is your way of presenting yourself, how terrible would it be if you have a typo in your title? With this said, we are human, we make mistakes. So, if there is a mistake in your poster, accept it, don’t let it defeat you. Now you know for next time. And if you’re wondering….yes there was a mistake on my poster. Let’s not talk about it.
  6. Consider traveling with friends or colleagues- if you know someone who will be attending, contact them to meet up for a coffee and catch up. Travelling with people can not only help cut down costs ( such as splitting hotel fare) but makes the whole process more fun. you have people to go to talks with, to grab dinner or explore with. if you. Of course, you don’t need to, especially if you’re comfortable doing things alone. I have become especially good at going to conferences by myself, and don’t get me started on my eating alone skills – expert.
  7. Introduce yourself – if you see someone who you want to meet or whose work you admire, go, and introduce yourself. What’s the worse that could happen? They could half-heartedly shake your hand and walk away? That’s not so bad. This doesn’t mean you should just march right on up at any time, however. Bathroom? Yea, not a good place to say “hi”. Look for an appropriate moment. One of my profs told us once that the book room is the best place to introduce yourself as often people that are there are killing time. At the AIA’s I met one of my former professor from the University of Toronto. Not only was it pleasant to say hello, but I found out about a new program that is launching at the university that would be perfect for my PhD. An opportunity that I would not have known if I had not gone up and said hello.
  8. Dress appropriately, for you – this doesn’t mean full formal attire and perfectly ironed lapels. We are archaeologists. I think the important thing here is to find a nice balance between what you are comfortable in and what you think “appropriate” is. My opinion on attire has changed a lot over time. I used to think only a certain type of dress was appropriate for a conference, but then I found myself thinking one day, who decided this? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed that the rules of what to wear and what not to wear pertained mostly to women. Interesting, no? Many of my male colleagues could show up in jeans and an (un-ironed) button down and still be considered professional. But the same does not apply to women. You can’t show too much skin, you cant wear something too tight, because that is inappropriate. You can’t show up too relaxed either because then it seems like you just don’t care. Without knowing, my own opinions were influenced by patriarchal thought (that’s how deep the patriarchy runs). I even remember judging a woman once because she came to a conference in blue velvet thigh high boots. Not my proudest moment. But I remember being horrified. I remember the people in the room giving her glances. Now I ask myself why? Internalized misogyny maybe? If she felt comfortable in those boots, who am I, or anyone else for that matter to tell her that they are not appropriate? So, I guess this point is more for my ladies (or all female identifying individuals). Wear what you are comfortable in, and what makes you feel the most confident. If it is blue velvet boots, then you rock them! You are an adult and can decide what is appropriate for you and we need to stop letting these unsaid rules (created by a patriarchal society) dictate what we can and cannot wear, and what is and is not acceptable.
  9. Have fun – all this aside, remember that this is supposed to be a positive experience. So, enjoy yourself. And if you are in a new city or country, do some sightseeing! After the last set of talks, yours truly put on five layers and went out to explore Boston. First stop – get some clam chowder. When in Boston, right? Next,  I wandered around a bit and looked at pretty buildings until my fingers started tingling from the cold. I spent the afternoon at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which is really easily accessible via the public transport (a one-way bus ticket only cost $2 by the way). If you’re a student, the museum gives you a (slight) discount and you can go back within 10 days for a second free visit. I’ve been to a few museums in my time, but this was my first time alone, and honestly, it was one of the best times I’ve ever had in a museum. I put my phone away and made my way through the exhibits. Three hours of just me and the art. It was sort of funny to see the crowds of people shuffle from painting to painting, or exhibit to exhibit, barely even looking at the masterpieces in front of them, snapping a picture and moving on. This seems slightly ridiculous to me. I think we have forgotten to be in the moment. A beautiful painting can take you to another world. In the three hours that I wandered around, I went to docks in France, the English countryside, the scenes from the great classical writers, old kingdom Egypt the Cyclades, Rome, Papua New Guinea, even Monet’s backyard. I swear sometimes I could see the scenes moving, hair fluttering in the wind, eyes smiling, waves rippling. I did end up taking some pictures, I made a second round through the exhibits and took a picture of the paint its that really captivated me. My favorite hands down was this blue-grey painting by Monet of ships at dock. Breathtaking.

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Good luck to all the novices going to conferences this year, knock ‘em dead! And if you’re wondering about the guy and his phone, he decided he would not stall the plane. His good karma paid off as it turned out the phone had fallen between the seats behind him. Guess it was a happy ending for everyone.