The space described in this post is not in Port Melbourne, but rather an academic conference.
This year I attended my first Australian Anthropological Society annual conference. What happened after the last panel for the conference resonated strongly with my experience across the days. I will warn you that, now I am back to working on my thesis after a couple of months off, it could just be that I am seeing social order everywhere.
Walking out of the building at the end of the conference, I was pleased to find myself walking alongside the familiar face of a once-upon-a-time fellow student who I had not had a chance to converse with for many months. Just as he started the first word of his response to my request for more information about his intriguing statement regarding the impression he had formed about ‘anthropologists’ over the course of the conference, a professor caught up to us and immediately interrupted. “Do you have any coins? Sorry. Do you have any coins?” the professor asked my interlocutor. All three of us stopped walking but, with the professor clearly not interrupting just to make that request, I felt my presence was not welcome. Wondering what the professor needed the money for, and to what extent it was a strategy to shoo me away, I continued walking.
After that, I was extra keen to engage in a ‘decompression’ activity to help manage my re-entrance to the world from the temporally bounded space of the conference; I went to find ‘a drink’.
There had been no announcement about ‘everybody’ being invited for post-conference drinks. There were going to be drinks, but what was communicated by the absence of an announcement was that students like me were not invited. I knew my place.
I also knew my way around the campus. I went to a different on-campus venue in the hope of purchasing a drink and maybe hearing about the conference experiences had by others, but the bar was booked out for the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences Christmas party. This more-financially-lucrative faculty had exclusive use of the bar and courtyard.
A few familiar faces from amongst the ‘low ranking types’ (students and graduates who do not have ongoing employment in a university) were also loitering around. We quickly settled on a nearby pub to direct people towards. Eventually we managed to engage in the familiar practice of consuming beers after an academic event consumption.
These were not the only instances of hierarchy being enacted during the conference and I found being ignored by people with whom I have previously shared many a drink and conversation unnerving. Was I not trying hard enough to be friendly? Was the noticeable avoidance of eye contact really just the result of poor eye-sight?
After the conference, my colleagues had different explanations for why so many people in more senior roles did not acknowledge our existence. Often these explanations implied they were to blame for making staff uncomfortable because they had not finished yet, being forgotten because of not spending enough time on campus, sending a chapter to be read at the ‘wrong’ time of semester, or taking too much time off for maternity leave. Maybe there is no reason to chat with people you already know at a conference, as you should be getting to meet new people anyway. Perhaps everybody was just too busy having conversations about practical, disciplinary matters they needed to sort out with those of their same rank?
Perhaps I am making too much of the sense of hierarchy. However, it seems to be a lens of analysis useful for understanding observations such as why none of my peers even considered greeting an international invited speaker when he was standing alone, wearing an expression that looked friendly enough to me, as he slowly scanned the room during a break. My sense is that the spatial segregation enacted for the drinks and the exclusive dinner were examples of the more pervasive sense of stratification. With the exclusion of students from certain spaces being a shared experience, we could use it to open up broader conversations about our moments of conference discontent.
Other conferences I have been to have not felt so hierarchical in terms of what conversations you are allowed to be present for. If Australian anthropologists want to be hierarchical, maybe that is a choice they are entitled to. However, I cannot help but wonder if it is a case of anthropology academics experiencing marginalisation within the university, and then reproducing relationships of stratification by marginalising those of a lower rank.