Reading Roll Call…

What’s everyone reading these days? 

On the academic front, I’m reading Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation.”

For fun, I’m making my way through Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

When you type “how to organize an academic conference” into Google…

seacu

…you are given the option to search “how to organize an acapella group.”  Obviously, this discovery can lead down a fairly precipitous link-clicking rabbit hole… but I digress.

In the last couple of days, I’ve been amazed, encouraged, and humbled by the online conversations that have emerged from Shane’s post about recent changes to the SEAC submission process. Via email, on Facebook, and in the comments on this blog, all sorts of folks are mobilizing for the improvement of SEAC, in no small  part because it is an organization that, generally and only-slightly-hyperbolically, is beloved by its membership. While Matt sparked some debate about ways to improve the quality of papers submitted to the conference, it seems to me that the issue that started the whole discussion – limits on the number of papers one can submit as a non-first author – could initially be addressed by improving the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the conference organization process.   Fortunately, in A.D. 2013, technology could help us out on this front.

Let me preface this whole thing by saying that I do not consider myself to be especially tech-savvy, at least for someone who came of age alongside the internet. As a result, I might not fully appreciate the  logistical or financial challenges in implementing some of the ideas below; in reality, they might be more trouble than they are worth. But, taking Matt’s lead, I hope this will spark conversations that will render us all better prepared to make substantive proposals for change.  So, just spitballin’ here…

(1) Conference planning software: According to Google, such programs exist. No idea about their cost/utility, but if creating a program in which a first author is not scheduled for two papers simultaneously is a major hurdle, then maybe such software could help. Given the perceived increase in collaboration among the younger generation of southeastern archaeologists (see Shane’s post), attempting to avoid all overlaps for second, third, or fourth authors might be unfeasible no matter what, but making sure that no one is slated to read in two places at once is surely doable if people are limited to one or two first-author submissions (note – not necessarily easy, but at least doable).

(2) Delegating through Google drive: My quick and dirty Google recon led me to some advice and reflections from conference organizers that all emphasized the importance of teamwork in the planning process. All that said, in my experience, much-lauded “teamwork” can easily devolve into “herding cats” if delegation isn’t managed through fairly constant feedback. To that end, future conference planners might find it useful to work collaboratively on something like Google Drive, which can track their contributions to planning materials as they are completed. This might also be a viable tool for session organizers and participants – if groups of presenters can have an easier time getting their ducks are in a row, it seems like organizers would also benefit.

(3) Digital conference materials: Shane and I both mentioned this earlier but I think this might be one of the quickest/easiest/best-bang-for-our-buck changes we could institute for SEAC. Could we give members the ability to opt out of receiving a paper program (perhaps just a box to click during registration) in favor a digital program they could access on their tablets, smartphones, computers, etc.? Of course, a shift like that isn’t for everyone, but some might actually prefer this option. Plus, it could reduce printing costs, and it would be hella green.

Certainly, there are other possibilities – please, propose them in the comments! As we keep this ball rolling, it might also be worth considering how else we can use 21st century tech and connectivity to improve the SEAC experience beyond the conference planning stages. Anyone up for live-tweeting in Tampa? (Full disclosure – I barely know what twitter is, but still, I think this could be an interesting SEAC Underground initiative…)

Is it time to abolish general sessions?

Once again, Shane has proved himself as more than capable of stirring up trouble!  Here are some of my thoughts provoked by his earlier post

At the last TAG I had the opportunity to have lunch with a couple distinguished members of the discipline who were talking about the structure of the annual SAA conference.  One had recently sat on a board meeting in which everyone lamented two things – 1) the quality of conference papers has sunk to a new low, and 2) there were way too many papers.  They were racking their brains trying to come up with a way to solve these two problems – which is probably one of the reasons that SAA abstracts are now 200 rather than 100 words long.  I think that this is a problem across the board from regional meetings like SEAC, to the national SAAs and AAAs.  SEAC reducing co-authorship, as Shane points out, will do almost nothing to either reduce the number of papers OR increase their quality.  Instead, it will put a chill on shared work and dramatically reduce the chance your input into a larger project will be acknowledged.  Likewise, doubling the size of an abstract might give conference organizers a chance to weed out a couple of junk papers – but more likely it will just mean twice as much bullshit for them to read.

So here is my suggestion – abolish general sessions.  I know this makes many people uncomfortable.  They will cry – will this make it more difficult for grad and undergrad students to present?  Will this improperly award those few who are well-connected and cut out the many which are off the broader disciplinary radar?  Will this make it even harder for people who work outside of the area of study (particularly at regional conferences) to offer their work?

As someone who is a grad student, residing and studying outside of my research area, and only marginally more well-known then the average PhD, I can answer yes to all of the above questions – and still say it is worth it.

Abolishing general sessions will do three very positive things – 1) the number of papers will decline dramatically, and most likely, their quality will increase, 2) it will force more of us to organize symposiums, and 3) it will actually increase broader discussions across the discipline.

Shane made many great points in his post (or should I say Manifesto!), but one that I disagree with is his belief that presentations are still viewed as useful padding for CVs.  The hard fact is presentations, particularly within general sessions, might be a line on the resume, but once you have a couple under your belt – THEY REALLY DON’T MATTER.  And why don’t they matter?  Because ANYONE can do them – there is no quality control, there are no ramifications for giving a bad paper, and if you are in a general session, most likely the only people who saw it are your friends, the poor bastard forced to be the chair, and the person presenting after you.  

We need to reinstate a level of importance to presentations – which is not going to be achieved through longer abstracts or reduced co-authorships.  The best option I see is making us all step up to the plate, offer a symposium idea, and regulate each other.  That is our job as serious members of the field.

My thoughts on the new co-authorship limits for this year’s SEAC…

So, like any grad student, I have managed to find myself with several irons in the fire. This year, when the dust settled after the SEAC submission deadline I realized I was…

-Fourth author on a paper involving some of my thesis data

-Third author on a paper with some ongoing research with several other grad students.

– First author on a co-authored paper that is related to my dissertation research.

– Co-organizing a symposium with another graduate student in honor of a retiring archaeologist who means a lot to the both of us.

Now, the point of this is not to say, “Hey, look at everything I’m doing.” Instead, I’d like to say there are a lot of graduate students like me, and we happen to find ourselves involved in a lot of different projects. I’m not a rarity. I’m the norm. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, in the 21st century, every beginning grad student is read the riot act by their profs as soon as they start in a program. I image just about everywhere it’s something like, “If you want a job, you better go after <insert list of grants> and publish as much as <insert name of rock star recent graduate who recently landed a tenure track job> if you want to make it as an academic these days…”

At Arizona, that person is Todd Surovell. His term papers for Vance Haynes’s Paleoindian class and Steve Kuhn’s Hunter-Gatherer seminar were both published in Current Anthropology.

I’ll be honest. That still freaks me out, and it’s a nice reminder not to rest on my meager laurels. There is always more that can be done. I know a lot of other grad student who have a similar person in mind, and use that as motivation to roll up their sleeves and keep pouring it on.

The second reason why a lot of us find ourselves on a bunch of papers is because we’re really connected to each other through the social networking universe. As a result, my generation shares a lot of ideas, and as a whole we just get along. Why write two competing papers when you can co-author? Most of my research so far has been in Paleoindian archaeology, where sunshine fades, butterflies die, and angels fear to tread. However, several of the older generation who bear the scars of the Clovis vs. Pre-Clovis war marvel at how my generation can agree to disagree, and how we’re all friends even when our advisors clearly aren’t.

I always respond by saying, “Because of the combination of Facebook and going to conferences, we’re not simply faceless names at some other university. No one wants to be the person at the bar alone because he/she ticked everyone else off by being a jerk.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I listened to a lot of Rage Against the Machine as a teenager. I think the pot should be stirred from time to time. In fact, it’s probably a good thing that we don’t hold hands around a campfire singing kumbaya, because those disagreements end up becoming really good conversations. Those conversations then become the fodder for new ideas. Those new ideas then become abstracts that are submitted to SEAC. And then the wheels of feedback, manuscript prep, and peer-review begin churning.

In fact, that was kind of the point of point of this entire blog. It began as a not sober conversation about theory one night at SEAC between Matt Sanger and myself.

This thought brings me back to this year’s SEAC. I recently received an email from the organizers saying that I’m on too many papers, and I have to withdraw my name from one.

So, which one do I pick? The one using my thesis data that I poured my heart and soul into? The one with my fellow grad students where we’re pulling together a really cool story I’m pretty excited about? Maybe the one where I’m the first author and just be lazy and use the new rule as an excuse to avoid public speaking? How do I tell which friend that their particular iron isn’t as important as the others? How am I supposed to feel when my co-author tells me that?

More importantly…why is this rule even in place? Shouldn’t we be collaborating with each other? And frankly, as a grad student, aren’t we told to network, get our research out, and work with others?

So, I find myself wondering, am I a frustrated, uppity CV padder that needs to find a hobby?

Maybe you think so. That’s fine.

Instead, the voice in the back of my head is telling me that I really like what I study.  I really like working with my fellow graduate students. I don’t mind be the 2nd or 8th author, because just getting a chance to work with people who like the stuff I like is a lot of fun. Why does it matter if I’m on three or thirteen papers if I only have a lead author time slot on one? Is it about printing the program? Is it worth limiting collaboration to save paper in the era of pdfs, Ipads, and smart phones?

Maybe I’m just living a pipedream. Maybe we should just go all the way and tell everyone they can submit just one single authored abstract. It might make the program smaller, but I’m not sure that I would make the trip from Tucson to see that kind of show.