This past week, I attended the 48th annual meeting and first ever virtual meeting of the Alaska Anthropological Association. I entered with more than a bit of hesitance about spending another chunk of my week interfacing with Zoom, perhaps even more reluctant because I had heard how awkward and stilted the Zoom conference could be. What I experienced was, sure, a bit awkward in comparison to the normal conference ritual but ultimately, very rewarding.
Much to the organizers' credit, the sessions were remarkably glitch-free, and Zoom-bombless to boot. I attended as many sessions as I could in addition to my own, a session on professionalization geared at undergraduate and early graduate students. I also participated in a virtual tabling event for summer jobs and field opportunities. Both were new additions to the conference. In the past, sessions have focused on the traditional stodgy retelling of research finds by, typically, grey-bearded scholars. The virtual conference venue was lighter in these types of talks and instead favored new, more reflexive conversations about the state of Alaskan anthropology. All participants welcomed a shift towards Indigenous and decolonized voices in archaeology particularly.
The best thing that the virtual conference offered was flexibility and openness. Many researchers who presented in my session, including myself, happily uploaded their slides to the conference website. During our virtual tabling session, it was easy for young anthropologists to network and meet whomever they were interested in and it didn't require them to learn and perform the normal (daunting) ritual of conference attire and etiquette. The laid back atmosphere made it easier to broach difficult subjects and under-discussed topics, down to article writing and preparing a CV or resume. I'm certainly no expert on article writing but I certainly relate to first-time solo or first authors facing the challenge of tackling it alone. It was fun to share that experience with the next generation.
I hope that we can bring the attitude of the virtual conference to our in person conferences in the future. Posting materials online, having more meta-conversations about the state of the discipline, and eschewing some of the stuffy grey-bearded culture opens up our scholarship and makes it more accessible to those who are just getting started. Holding the doors open will welcome a new generation of anthropologists (and other interested parties). To find answers to the most pressing anthropological questions, we need those young scholars, college and graduate students. Really, we need all the help we can get.
Bree is an Alaskan Archaeologist and Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wyoming.