AIA-SCS San Diego: A Reflection

I spent the last weekend at the annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies in San Diego, CA. I composed this post to reflect on my experience at the conference, almost entirely in two airplanes and the San Diego and Denver airports. The bulk of this post follows the jump, since I ran long and I doubt most people reading this are interested in the proceedings of an academic professional society.

For those who are interested: this is a birds-eye reflection rather than a blow-by-blow recap. See my Twitter feed for specific comments about papers.

San Diego is beautiful. Other than one day of light rain, the weather has been 60 degrees and partly sunny the entire conference, with palm-lined walkways and greenery. As a destination for an academic conference in January, these are all virtues. For comparison, the other meetings I attended were in Philadelphia (dreary, but fine), Chicago (bookended by a snowstorm and the Polar Vortex), and Boston (Bomb Cyclone). In that sense, I liked San Diego.

After the mess that was Boston last year some members of the profession called for meetings in warm destination. Joe Farrell, the SCS president, responded to these calls with a series of emails detailing annual meeting logistics. The core takeaway is that they need to hit a threshold of attendees to break even on the cost of reserving the conference centers and while places like San Diego poll well, they draw smaller numbers so the SCS needs to have several meetings in places like Boston, Chicago, or Philadelphia for every one held in, say, San Diego.

Sure enough, conference gossip and casual observation said that this was a smaller meeting. For my part, I had professional reasons and support from my department, but had neither of those been true I would not have been able to justify the expense.

San Diego, at least the part around the conference, was pretty and expensive in equal measure. The conference center was a gargantuan place with cavernous halls with garish lights in the ceiling that would sometimes change color during the evening events. I started jokingly referring to as the Domus Aurea, Nero’s infamous palace in Rome.

Stepping out of the conference center brought the expenses of San Diego into stark relief. The opulence of the venue towered over numerous homeless men sleeping in a park across the street. Homeless men were a common sight and the hotel grounds were patrolled by staff from the hotel, leading to a particularly nasty episode where two members of The Sportula, an organization dedicated to providing micro-grants to low-income classics students, who were there to receive an award were challenged on the grounds that they looked like they did not belong. I will return to this issue.

San Diego is my fourth SCS annual meeting and the second in a row. The vibe of last year’s conference, particularly among the people who beat the storm to Boston was one of defiance. Defiance toward the snow, the wind, and a field that tends to wrap itself into a cocoon of tradition rather than accept not only that it is changing, but that this tradition has never been static.

There was some of the same ethos on display in San Diego, but not quite to the same level. Writing this from airports and airplanes on Sunday afternoon, I don’t know the actual demographics of the conference, but anecdotally I thought it skewed older than last year.

Meetings are stressful in general, and this is one filled with anxious job seekers trying to make a good impression. As Amy Pistone mentioned in her pre-SCS blog post, having buddy system can mitigate physical and emotional risk, but in past years I attended the SCS without a strong network. For the first time this year, though, I reached a critical mass of colleagues this year between ancient world Twitterati and various people I’ve met at one point or another, so it only rarely felt like I was lost in a sea of strangers.

I attended fewer panels this year than I have in the past. The things I did see were uniformly excellent; I particularly enjoyed a well-attended panel on inclusive pedagogy and what I saw of a panel on GIS and spatial mapping of ancient texts that was, ironically, not found in the location listed on the conference schedule. My twitter feed contains a record of the papers I saw, and I walked away with a pile of notes of ideas on how I can bring what I learned back to my research and teaching.

The rest of my time was taken up with various meetings, including a job interview, and networking. In other words, I tried to make my absences a productive use of conference time.

A word on this point. There are people who attend the SCS to visit cities and spend the conference mostly not attending the conference. I make a point of experiencing the city when possible, but try to make it productive because this is too much money for me to feel comfortable doing otherwise.

But several underlying issues ended up casting a shadow over the content of the papers.

One was the ethics of live-tweeting panels. There is an audience ancient content of this sort, but are also any number of reasons scholars might not want their work out. To name a few, it might be on sensitive topics that invite abuse or be preliminary material that could tarnish their reputation (particularly true for junior scholars) or they just do not want it public. I disagree because the best way to develop an idea is to solicit feedback whether from a conference audience or a digital one, but this their intellectual property, their say, no explanation necessary.

In a perfect world the every presenter would indicate their preference, but I suspect that there is a non-negligible section of presenters who are totally unaware that this is happening. The next best thing is to ask, but this poses its own logistical challenges when audiences come and go throughout a panel or do not have a chance to interact with the presenters. In the absence of professional standards I am not sure where I stand regarding whether the lack of explicit consent should mean no tweeting. I did live-tweet panels I went to, though, despite doing an inadequate job asking permission; if anyone whose work I tweeted about reads this and would like my notes removed, ask and it will happen.

The second issue returns to the systemic problems in the field. Despite keynote talks that stressed change and public engagement and events by the WCC and LCC that aggressively pursue social justice in the field, resentment and privilege festered just beneath the surface. Most of the time these sentiments stayed buried or shared primarily in private conversations, but this year they also erupted. Just as the conference started, an attack on the SCS keynote speaker Mary Beard appeared in Medium under the nom de plume Novus Suetonius. (I have elected not to provide the link.) The timing was unlikely to be coincidental, and social media began to speculate that one of several vocal critics of Mary Beard’s at the conference penned it (they denied the accusations, saying that they put their names to their critiques). Then things happened on site. In addition so some smaller, but equally uncalled for incidents, there was the one discussed above and then during a question and answer session for the Future of Classics panel someone declared that a scholar had his prominent position because he was black. I did not witness the second incident, but it became the talk of the conference and people I was around frequently expressed concern that the speaker on said what other people thought. The abuse is entirely unfounded and the victim of it does not need my particular defense, but it put an exclamation point on the year that was in Classics and its related disciplines.

Update: I did not include any names or a link to the Inside Higher Education article in the initial draft because I felt uncomfortable speaking for those people. Dr. Dan-el Padilla Peralta has now published an essay on Medium detailing the story from his perspective. I recommend every person working in Classics and related fields read it.

Classics is a field with numerous, overlapping systemic issues. Historically it simultaneously served as a tool of colonial oppression and rejected the inclusion of minorities. The literary sources that long held primacy in the field often construct a world view that normalizes slavery, oppresses women, and asserts a vision of civilization exclusive to privileged associations of men. The language expectations of the field give people who benefited from elite education their entire lives a significant leg up and the other expectations of graduate school privilege people with independent resources. The precarity of higher education labor systems also further threatens even greater retrenchment to the most elite schools because matriculating at state schools is seen as a career dead-end.

I am only limited by educational privilege, and even then I had more opportunities than a lot of people. Doing a PhD outside the elite institutions does not leave a mark that can be read on sight. Although I have not yet molted into my tweed, I am roughly what people expect to see in a classicist or historian when I walk into a classroom or auditorium.

(While proofing this post, I saw that Ellie Mackin Roberts noted on Twitter that privilege is a spectrum, not a binary, which sums up what I am wrestling with here.)

I had a positive and productive SCS meeting in sum. I caught up with some people, met others, and came away with ideas for future projects without becoming a nervous wreck. In short, I had exactly the sort of conference you are supposed to have. Productive, stimulating, exhausting. Other people were less fortunate. These issues are not going away, but for study of the ancient world to stay vibrant the field must embrace diversity in all its facets and recognize that these issues do not exist in isolation. The slow-moving psychic crisis in Classics mirrors American society at large. There are no easy solutions, but these are problems that can be overcome through conscious, self-critical, collective action. Let us see what 2019 brings.

In close let me offer an optimistic wish modeled on the one that concludes the Yom Kippur service and Passover seder, a symbolic gesture of inclusion and hope. Next year in Washington DC.

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