Abstractions

I’ve never been good at writing conference abstracts.

Not for the usual reason: I love writing in general, and thankfully it’s always been extremely easy for me. What isn’t easy is reigning myself in. I often come up with some pretty “out there” concepts for papers, especially the theory-heavy ones, and it’s the actual work of translating the million-miles-a-minute thoughts I have to something semi-coherent that’s the difficult part. I can WRITE plenty of words– it’s all about whether they make sense.

Some of you might be wondering why archaeologists go to conferences (sometimes referred to as annual meetings) in the first place. I’m sure some archaeologists end up asking themselves the same thing after a long weekend of networking, organizing, presenting, and socializing.

The “point” of any academic or professional conference is, ostensibly, to gather interested parties together to discuss research and new inventions, formulate projects and strengthen relationships. Usually they’re held in different cities each year, with different themes, and different committee members organize them. Some conferences are region-specific (CNEHA, MAAC, EAA). Some only take place every few years (looking at you, ICAZ). Some jointly combine different subdisciplines (AIA/SCS, SHA/ACUA) Some have a “large” crowd of 250 people, while others might consider 25,000 attendees a “bad” year. But what unites all conferences is the space they provide for academic and professional development.

And beer. At least in the case of archaeology conferences. Which is a good or a bad thing, depending on who you ask. I’m personally all for a shower beer after a day in the field, or a couple of glasses of whiskey in the hotel bar after presenting. But while the drinking culture in archaeology can be a problem, as others have noted, and we may all joke about the real point of a conference being the craft beer swap, in reality it is all about the relationships.

These meetings are a wonderful opportunity to not only see the new research my fellow archaeologists are working on, but where I get to meet and talk with them, face to face. Conferences are the one time a year where I’m guaranteed to see a lot of people I know “from the internet” — this year I finally met Sarah @averagearchaeologist at the SHAs, and I’m looking forward to meeting Steph @bones_canada and plenty of other people at this year’s SAAs. I’m also hopefully going to be seeing some past acquaintances this year as well, since several people I worked with at Salitrena Pecina will be presenting their research at the SAA meeting in Albuquerque.

Picture of me and my fellow presenters from the 2018 SHA conference. A bunch of us in this photo are now working on organizing the 2020 SHA Conference in Boston!

But aside from catching up with friends and colleagues over dinner, marathon live-tweeting three days worth of sessions, and, inevitably, getting delayed at the airport, conferences are an opportunity to show people exactly what you’re working on. Whether you’re in CRM or academia, you consult with a town of 300 or work for the federal government, you’re a tribal council member, community organizer, or undergraduate– everyone can submit their relevant work and, theoretically, everyone can present. Of course many people are limited by their ability to attend conferences, and I’ll be posting about this topic specifically a little later in the course of this project. One thing I really love about going to conferences is that I can go from one session where I hear a paper on zooarchaeological analysis of urban excavations in Philadelphia, to another where I hear the preliminary results of a community-driven oral history and survey project in Sierra Leone. I also love the opportunity to talk to others about my own work, getting feedback from people I admire and look up to, coming up with ideas to strengthen my arguments and revise my methodology. Conferences challenge me, and I love it.

So, you see, when I’m writing an abstract I have all this weighing on my mind as I try to reroute the stream of consciousness of my brain into something approximating intelligence. I psych myself out thinking that these 250 words I’m going to write are somehow going to be the most important thing I’ve ever done (its really, REALLY, not). Which is why I usually spend about three days opening and closing a blank document before actually writing anything. And when you add to that the fact that, 95% of the time, you haven’t even written the paper or done most of the research before you write the abstract? You’ve got a recipe for making your own life difficult. I wish I had a dollar for every time someone said a variation of “I wish I could go back and smack the ‘me’ that wrote this abstract” when they finally start to write.

But we do eventually get the abstracts in, they get accepted or rejected, the paper gets written (sometimes on the plane the day before).

So what was the point of this post?

Procrastination, mostly. I really don’t want to write this abstract.

Cheers,

Liz

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3 Comments

  1. I don’t usually have that much trouble writing abstracts but I do really identify with your wondering what Abstract-writing Me was thinking when I come to actually write the paper! My real issue, though, is that once the conference is over I lose interest, where I should be continuing to work on the paper and sending it off to be published…

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    1. Same issue here! Although I have managed to keep one conference paper alive by just turning it into my thesis. But others just go into my “Finish This You Useless Grub” folder and never get looked at again. Or at least not until I have a weekend off, which I think I’ve got scheduled for April of 2021 ☉_☉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I like your folder name! I’m thinking the path forward might be to form some sort of writing group that would agree to hold each other accountable for sending in papers, revising them, and resubmitting them on a regular schedule. And then meet to have parties whenever papers actually were accepted and published…

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