This weekend the AIA/APA Annual Meetings took place in Philadelphia. Several other major disciplinary academic conferences take place the first weekend in January, taking advantage of the semester break (for most), including AHA 2012 in Chicago (American Historical Association) and MLA 2012 in Seattle (Modern Language Association).
I didn’t go to any of them, but I checked in on my Twitter feed periodically, and was struck by the differences in the conversations that went on around each of these three meetings. Tweets from #aiaapa actually appeared this year – a stunning difference from the 2011 meetings in San Antonio. (I looked for twitter messages about AIA/APA in January 2011, and there were literally fewer than 5). This year, several doughty reporters tweeted the conference panels they attended, including Francesca Tronchin (@tronchin), Tom Elliot (@paregorios), and Kristina Killigrove (@BoneGirlPhD, who made a nice summary of her Twitter work at her blog, Powered By Osteons, and also wrote a valuable post about the Lessons from Live-Tweeting), and others I probably missed. Many thanks to them – it’s fun and enlightening to be able to drop in on a conference remotely.
In contrast, twitter took over MLA in December 2009, and the #mla2012 and #aha2012 hashtags both ticked forward so fast one could barely follow them this weekend. At MLA, tweeters started adding second hashtags for the session numbers, so those following along could separate the streams coming from each room and topic. Some of the difference in volume between these three conferences can be attributed to size – AIA/APA had about 3000 registrants, while AHA had about 3700, and MLA twice that (no 2012 numbers yet, but 2011 in L.A. attracted 7745). But much more of the difference has to do with disciplinary cultures. (And it’s not age of the practitioners – I’m 39, the average age of a Twitter user, and Twitter is actually most popular among the 26-44 demographic, not among undergrads or early grad students.)
There weren’t just differences between AIA/APA and its sibling conferences in their use of technology for conference conversation. There were differences in what the conversations were about, as well. Blogs at the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Ed reporting on AHA and MLA tell the story that was unfolding on my twitter feed – most of the “news” was about the future of higher education, the job market for PhDs and what a dissertation should even look like, and whether or not digital humanities and/or public history will save us all. The titles tell the story:
- Historians Reflect on Forces Reshaping Their Profession
- A Tough Sell
- Dissing the Dissertation
- New Era for PhD Education
- Anguish Trumps Activism at MLA
In contrast, I could find no reports at Inside Higher Ed or The Chronicle about what was discussed at AIA/APA, and the tweets from those on the ground were about actual archaeological, historical, or philological (I suppose, though I don’t think I saw any) content.
Does this mean AIA/APA – and by association classicists and archaeologists – are better or worse off than historians and modern language scholars? There’s an argument that all the tweeting and blogging and navel-gazing and raging about the future of the humanities in the press are just a distraction from the actual purpose of a scholarly meeting – the dissemination of scholarship. On the other hand, some self-reflection on the part of disciplines is healthy, no? Especially in light of political and economic trends that threaten the values of academia generally, and the humanities in particular? I don’t think public history or digital humanities will save us all, but I do think they are ways to engage the public – the college-attending, state-legislature-lobbying public – in the scholarly topics that matter to us all. Is there a way to achieve the reflectivity and growth without the “anguish”?
I should note there were certainly potentially self-reflective sessions on the AIA/APA program: “Cultural Heritage Preservation in a Dangerous World,” “Presenting the Past,” “Discussions and Strategies Regarding Applying for Grants, Fellowships & Post-Docs,” “The Politics of Archaeology,” “Beyond Multiculturalism: Classica Africana…,” “Authors Meet Critics: Race and Reception,” “Intertextuality and its Discontents,” “Teaching About Classics Pedagogy in the 21st Century,” “Classics in Action: How to Engage with the Public,” and more. Maybe it’s just that nobody tweeted about them?