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This Post is a Reply to #AAAfail as PR Meltdown

I respect Strong when he comments that the AAA is fine.  I certainly agree that anthropology is fine.  The AAA may or may not be fine. At an empirical level that is an open question about which there is evidence-based disagreement among thoughtful people. Rather than offer another long-winded plea for our association to rethink its most basic assumptions, here is a simpler observation and a open/positive proposal for the AAA leadership to consider.

The AAA website suggests that the home office staff hovers around 15-17 people at any one time.  At any one time, only a small number of these folks are likely to have some background in anthropology. If they do have such background, it will likely have been at the B.A. or maybe M.A. level and this experience will have been seen as a “added” strength that augments a core competency in accounting, public relations, publishing, grant writing, etc. Its just not the case that a person with an extended set of career experiences in applied anthropology, college or university anthropology teaching, or anthropological research is going to wind up working in the association business office.

What does this mean in an instance such as this one? While the AAA staff can get on the phone with the (certainly very busy) AAA elected leadership, there is probably not an experienced anthropologist in the building on a day to day basis.  (If I am guessing wrongly about this, I hope that a AAA staff member will correct me.)  This means that there is no in-house expertise about anthropology to turn to when the professional staff needs greater understanding of the intellectual, conceptual, methodological, interpersonal, historical, etc. background of the field.

How might this absence be addressed short of hiring another expensive staff member whose day to day responsibilities would, under present conditions, remain nebulous?

Under the kind of conditions that Rex has described (and that have been illustrated in the case of the phenomena now known as #AAAfail), I suggest that the association as a whole would be strengthened if (following the lead of the NSF and its program of augmenting its program officer staff with shorter term appointments of faculty on leave from home institutions) there could be established something like an “Anthropologist in Residence Program” in the AAA home office. With four or six month terms tied to academic semesters, the Anthropologist in Residence would be selected from a group of applicants. There would always be one in the office and they would be given a modest work office in Arlington (desk, internet, etc.).  Much of the time, they would be free to pursue their own work–writing or doing research in the DC area–but they would also have modest obligations in the home office.  They would do professional development activities (informal teaching) with the AAA staff, the aim of which would be to strengthen the staff’s knowledge of the field. They would also be available to (and would be chosen in part because of their capacity to) assist the staff leadership in such areas as lobbying on behalf of anthropology and representing the field in wider discussions that take place in Washington.

As importantly, they would be informally accessible as a consultant and sounding board to the staff as a whole.  They would also be chosen with an eye towards those who are prepared to, and are willing to, help the staff connect better with the rapid and mediated conversations that are now a constant background presence and, as in this case, sometimes a very precarious foreground matter.  This would not just be blog (etc.) posting, it would also be a matter of listening and translating and explaining.

This description frames the matter mainly in terms of translating the field for the benefit of the staff, but the matter would work in the other direction too–fostering understanding of the staff and its work by the membership.  To have a series of Anthropologists in Residence would contribute to the kind of ethnographic analysis of the field and its institutions that Rex has urged while, at a simple level, the staff would come to have a growing number of better-informed interlocutors and perhaps advocates in the membership at large.  Whether the Anthropologist in Residence were a primatologist, a discourse analyst, a social network specialist, an Egyptologist, or whatever, they could all contribute to strengthening the association and its self-understanding.

If this role were mainly filled by people granted the luxury of a sabbatical (and I know that this institution is under greater pressure for those who even still have access to it), the costs associated with this scheme would not be the same as the “full salary and benefits” costs attached to an actual staff member.  Washington, DC is a really wonderful place for anthropologists to be and I think that it would be an appealing challenge and an appealing opportunity for mid-career and senior scholars in our field to be at a key nexus in the field where they could be making a major difference.  Selfishly, they would have an opportunity to connect in depth, for instance, with many of the key elected leaders in our field, most of whom are also key intellectual leaders in our field.

Were such a scheme to become institutionalized, Anthropologists in Residence could be recruited to help advance particular strategic goals, such as outreach to archaeologists or preparing for a major grant initiative (such as the RACE exhibition) or consulting with the publication staff on implementing a significant change. In other words, expertise of a diverse sort could be recruited for strategic and tactical purposes.

There are people in our field who have experience setting up visiting fellowship programs and similar kinds of arrangements who could be called upon to use past experience elsewhere to help properly plan such an initiative, including calculating its costs realistically.  It might be possible to set up such an arrangement in partnership with relevant units of the Smithsonian and/or local Departments of Anthropology.  That could be good and could help distribute the real costs.  It would just be important not to loose sight of the key “in Residence” dimension.

Previous to the so-called #AAAfail event, I had written about the kind of PR problems that open discussion of AAA policy on the web was fostering. It was claimed to me after I had posted “Ignored” that most of the AAA elected leadership was actually reading postings like it and the regular AAA-related discussions at Savage Minds and elsewhere (and just not commenting).  I am not sure if that is actually true. (I am doubtful.)  If anyone in a policy-considering role within the AAA elected leadership reads this post, feel free to sign the guest book (so to speak) or to send me an email.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Do you also find a disconnect between the AAA and their twitter feeds? @AmericanAnthro never posted links to their website post on the long range plan, never made a comment about #aaafail, but DID post a link to the Long Range Wiki Daniele Lende posted (without acknowledging who created it, them or others). Then @AAAPubs posted a link to the less-than-popular NY Times article about #AAAFail, but NOT the rebuttal Opinion Piece by a AAA Editor. This all just boggles my mind.

    December 16, 2010

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