Notes from AIA-SCS 2021

The 2021 Joint Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies occurred virtually from January 5 to January 10, 2021. For six days I sat on my couch and attended far more paper sessions, workshops, and networking events than I can count on one hand. This was my second time attending AIA-SCS (my first in Toronto, 2017), and I have a few thoughts.

On my last day attending the AIA-SCS annual meeting

Diversity, equity, and inclusion?

I would be remiss not to address the latest misstep at the AIA-SCS annual meeting. While I did not see the talk myself, #ClassicsTwitter erupted when we found out that a women presented on how she asked her students to ‘justify slavery’ as a thought experiment in her class.

If you’re surprised that this happened (yes, it actually happened), then might I point you to some reflections on the events of the annual meeting in San Diego.

The incident at the AIA-SCS annual meeting this year points to an unfortunate pattern of blatant racism, questionable takes, and microaggressions at recent meetings. It is suddenly unsurprising that these meetings tend to be overwhelmingly white. This objectively Bad pedagogical approach sits comfortably among the instances of digital blackface and the lack of trigger warnings in a presentation featuring an image of someone being lynched that also made appearances this year.

It has already been mentioned that when choosing your pedagogical approaches, you should always ask “might I be doing harm.”

However, I think that this should apply to every aspect of our personal and professional lives, not just in our classrooms.

Despite the negative aspects of the conference in this respect, some of the most inspiring and thought-provoking panels that I attended were also some of the most diverse in terms of voices and experiences.

“Classics In/Out of Asia”

On Tuesday morning I attended a panel organized by the Asian and Asian American Classical Caucus.

I appreciated how honest and open everyone was about their personal experiences and connections with the material. This is something that seems to be rare in our field, but a common theme in sessions that highlight diverse voices and members of the discipline.

I look forward to going back and re-watching the session when I have more time to focus on it and really digest the presentations.

“Building Networks of Inclusion and Success”

On Saturday morning I attended this workshop organized by the Women in Archaeology Interest Group of the AIA. Deciding on a session to attend this day was particularly difficult because the “Greco-Roman Antiquity and White Supremacy” panel was happening at the same time.

While it seemed like lots of people were enjoying the “White Supremacy” panel, I’m glad that I stuck with the “Building Networks” workshop, because it really grounded me to hear the panelists share their experiences in the field.

Some important takeaways (just a few, there were a lot!) from the panel:

“Advocate for yourself as much as possible. Don’t be afraid to study what you’re interested in, no matter what the field says you can or can’t do.” – Dr. Lisa Pieraccini, University of California, Berkeley

“You should try to find folks [who will be mentors to you] who treat you like a full human being [and] who will remember things about you that do not simply consist of what you do in the classroom” – Dr. Dan-el Padilla Peralta, Princeton University

“So much of early learning and experiences [are] just talking to students a year or two ahead of you…Being able to use your fellow cohort as a resource is an invaluable thing” – Dr. Maryl B. Gensheimer, University of Maryland

COVID-19 and the graduate student experience

The last year has shown us that work dealing with diversity, equity, and inclusion is deeply intertwined with our pedagogical aims and approaches. The pandemic derailing my plans to do crucial data collection for my dissertation allowed me to delve more into learning (and teaching) about pedagogy.

In many ways, the effects of the pandemic and the concurrent calls for more anti-racism in our classrooms, departments, and institutions impacted both my life and my graduate school experience in more ways than one.

“COVID-19 and the Future of Classics”

While the more DEI-focused sessions addressed some of my concerns relating to diversity in the field, I think that this workshop, which I attended on Friday afternoon and which was organized by the Graduate Classics Caucus, really captured another equally important parts of the issue: equity.

Since it seems like some people still struggle with the difference between equality and equity, here’s a quick distinction:

Equality is providing everyone with the same supports (i.e. opportunities and resources) with the assumption that everyone will benefit in the same way. This often manifests itself as a department chair or administrator denying “special treatment” for one student who might ask for accommodations, assuming that this is in the best interest of all of the students in a department.

Equity is providing individuals with different supports so that everyone is given equal access to the overarching structure. This would mean allowing enough flexibility that it would be possible to adjust expectations, or provide individualized accommodations, for those who might need it.

A more equitable experience for graduate students, especially in light of the ways in which the ongoing pandemic has affected our abilities to do research and make progress on our projects, was the focus of the papers of this workshop. Some specific areas of interest included:

  • Necessary adjustments to curriculum
  • More realistic expectations for degree requirements
  • Better preparation for the ever-changing job market
  • More formal, expansive, and systematic training for teaching

As Alicia Matz importantly insisted, it’s time that graduate students were treated like whole human beings, “not just brains in jars.”

Networking at AIA-SCS

No matter how you spin it, networking is scary. Just thinking about cold emailing anyone – especially someone I’ve never actually met before – immediately prompts me to find just about anything else to do instead. Conferences are no different. 

If I’ve ever met anyone I didn’t know already at a conference, it’s either because:

1) a friend introduced me to them, or

2) the conference was small, I was on my own from the start, and the receptions would’ve been super awkward if I didn’t talk to someone (shout out to Sarah Sheard for saving me from myself in Prague 2019).

At the AIA-SCS annual meeting this year, I decided to go out on a limb and attend more of the networking events. It’s probably because I felt I had nothing to lose in an online setting. 

I attended three such events at the AIA-SCS meeting: the “DEI Networking Brown Bag Hours”; the “Student Affairs Interest Group Meeting”; and the “Classics and Social Justice Open Meeting.” If you’re interested in getting involved a committee (any kind!), this post might be useful to think about.

While entering a Zoom room on my own was still daunting, there were still some familiar faces every time. The difference is that in an in-person meeting, it’s easy to feel left out if you show up by yourself (so you avoid the interest group meetings altogether, like me). In an online meeting we’re all staring at each other the whole time, so it’s not as easy to feel left out.

I also realized that, while I often complain about the breakout room format, I didn’t mind them so much during these meetings. I enjoyed meeting new people at the meetings, and seeing a lot of the same faces (even if we had not formally met) each time.

Concluding Thoughts

I still don’t know whether the pros of the AIA-SCS annual meeting outweigh the cons this year. I mentioned before that this was only my second time attending. I do think that I was more inclined to attend this year than others for a number of reasons (waived fee, no travel, greater interest in panels and workshops than in previous years). 

I have a lot of hopes for the field as a whole, but for the annual meeting at least I hope that some element of the online format is retained for future meetings.

I’d like to attend again some time in the future (maybe presenting my own work?? lol) not least because I am looking forward to meeting so many of the people I’ve met virtually in person!

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