Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Do you have to be rich to be an Anthropologist?

While renewing my American Anthropological Association membership today in order to submit an abstract and be able to have the honor to present my work at the annual AAA conference in November, it occurred to me (as it always seems to when I go through this process) that you really need to be rich to be an anthropology graduate student.  The system of professional membership and conference presentations that is currently in place certainly excludes a large portion of students who simply cannot afford to trek all over the country presenting their work, making professional connections, hearing the exciting new research being done in the field, and generally cavorting around with other anthropologists talking about anthropology things and being all anthropological.  This frustrates me beyond belief when I think about this kind of exclusion from the scholarly community, and I really wish I could wrestle a solution from my brain to solve this and many other seemingly enormous and insurmountable problems.

In order to even submit an abstract for the AAA conference, I have to be a member of the AAA and must register for the conference.  Then I pay for a flight to San Francisco, as well as accommodations and food during the 5 days of the conference.  For me personally, the costs are approximately as follows:
$132 Membership renewal for AAA and subsections
$94 Conference registration (student rate)
$400 Flight from Cleveland to San Francisco
$100 Food costs for 5 days (This is a very low estimate as you have to eat out most meals.)

That’s $726 BEFORE you factor in a hotel!  Staying in the conference hotel is the best thing to do, but that is a major budget cruncher even for our professors who all double-up at conferences to save on costs.  Thankfully I have family that lives in the SF area, so I don’t have to spring for a hotel if they have space on their couch.  This is also not factoring in other costs such as local transportation, book purchases, etc.  All in all, I typically have to spend about $1000 to go to a conference.  My department DOES reimburse us for part of that expense, but most assuredly not the full amount that we have to spend.  My university will also reimburse parents for child care costs during conferences, which is a REALLY nice and an awesome way to help us out.  (Of course as a grad student that is pretty much the ONLY time I can pay for child care!) 

Wait, did you catch that R word I just used twice: REIMBURSEMENT?  Yes, that’s right we have to spend the money in order to get it back at all.  (Check out the PhD Comics take on this which I thought was spot on HERE!  There are about 10 of these, so keep reading for more.)  So, in order to get any financial help for presenting my work at a conference, I have to actually spend the money (that I probably don’t have) first.  Yes, I know this is primarily for tax purposes and every university is probably not like this.  The whole thing really bothers me for multiple reasons, most especially because if you aren’t a rich graduate student (and isn’t that mostly an oxymoron) you have to pony it up somehow, and that may involve a credit card which you will then accrue interest on the debt before it is actually reimbursed.  This is NOT how I do things, but it is how many students I know who aren’t rich DO, and it is not smart but sometimes unavoidable. 

Three real kickers about conferences for me: Firstly, if you don’t go and hobnob with all the fancy kids and make connections and hear all the buzz about the newest research, then you are really missing out on one of the most fun and amazing parts of being a scholar.  The second kicker is that not going to a conferences means you miss that amazing post-conference high.  There is nothing like spending a few days with your colleagues from all over the US and geeking out about the stuff that turns your crank intellectually to revitalize your professional energy.  Conferences are the only real way I can get rid of my academic doldrums, but that’s a pretty expensive hit for the academically addicted.  Lastly, our large annual academic conference is not only awesome for rubbing elbows, but is one of the places that departments conduct job interviews for potential professors.  There is also a HUGE job fair, and don’t even get me started on the awesomeness that is the book sale at the AAA conference.

I will go to the conference.  I will present my work.  I’ll even have fun seeing all my other anthropologist friends and my family and friends that live in the SF area.  It is going to cost us a chunk of change for me to do this, but it’s better than staying home and great for my professional development.  This is most assuredly a first world problem, and I know it is really quite funny to complain.  I just think conferences are one of the greatest examples of ivory tower elitism and the utter disconnect between academic ideals and the reality of the cost of participating in the conversation. 

Some notes: I have attended several awesome smaller conferences that have actually been able to help subsidize graduate student travel with scholarships.  One student representative even went so far as to set up a housing share project to hook up graduate students traveling to a conference with students from the hosting university.  The cost prohibitive nature of conferences is a recognized problem, and I’m really not breaking new ground by discussing it here.  Also, some departments are able to better fund their students’ participation in conferences, so my experience might not be the norm.  There are plenty of departments who can’t help their graduate students at all with these kinds of funds, and I’m not writing this to say we have it bad by any means.  I merely wish to point at the ridiculousness that is the academic ideal that we are supposed to uphold and mock the absurdity of the idea that it is attainable for all who pursue it.        


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