I just wanted to say I’m sorry about the appearance of the blog at the moment – WordPress appears not to be displaying colours correctly. I’d sort it out, or swap themes around, but I’ve just got back from RAC/TRAC and I’m exhausted.
In other news, RAC/TRAC was okay. As I guess is the norm for conferences, I found the papers either very useful and interesting or essentially uninteresting. The two post graduate student papers I saw were clearly from researchers just starting out and reflected some of the problems I imagine many early career researchers come across.
The first one was Benjamin Luley from the University of Chicago, talking about economic transformation under the Roman Empire and the rise of elites in Southern Gaul. It was rather destroyed by the audience, which wasn’t very pleasant to watch. To be honest I didn’t think what the audience said was fair on Benjamin. They were extremely critical over issues that I think may have arisen out of either a lack of understanding of the archaeology or a miscommunication. I also felt he suffered a little from a culture clash, with the British Romanist approach being quite different from the North American or indeed the Continental, and I did wonder whether someone might have warned him that the British are a grumpy lot!
I am not entirely familiar with the crowd at RAC/TRAC, but I got the distinct impression that there was an accepted way of doing things, or an accepted knowledge surrounding certain things, and they were pretty unhappy that Benjamin was challenging that. I am not a scholar in this area, but I got the impression Benjamin had some interesting and paradigm-shifting evidence and it would have been better to see the audience critically engage with that, rather than exhibit what seemed to be a defensive over-reaction. But I would judge that this is the sort of problem any graduate is going to come up against if they do challenge the established orthodoxy.
The second one was Melissa Ratliff talking about iron and ‘bronze’ consumption in Pompeii. She appeared to be a first-year student who hadn’t done a lot of work and who had some rather massive and apparently uncritiqued assumptions underpinning her work. I was really surprised that whilst Benjamin’s essentially solid work got an undue level of criticism, Melissa’s methodology passed without comment.
I was unimpressed with her work, possibly because it’s my area so I’m better equipped to critique this paper than the others I listened to. I couldn’t believe she was just counting objects in rooms, with no differentiation between the objects value – so that a copper bowl counted as much as an iron nail. Surely a basic calculation of ‘work hours’ for each object is necessary or what use will the data be to discuss social differentiation or stratification?
In addition she stated that “mass production lead to many objects being made of these metals [bronze and iron]” as if mass production was the driver to mass consumption – as if we could even use the world ‘mass‘ without some kind of discussion on whether it’s applicable to the Roman world! Just one example of a number of problems I had with her terminology that I though showed a lack of engagement with current understanding of metal and object production.
Thinking reflexively, the negative response to the papers was interesting for a number of reasons not related to individual content. I think it is worth considering whether all post-graduates will come across the same problems that I noted at RAC/TRAC and other conferences, and whether these are standard for post-graduates:
- Presenting at too early a stage and having nothing really to say
- Ugly, misleading and essentially useless graphics (3D pie-charts, oh the horror!)
- Lack of in-depth understanding of the background of the issue/object type/period
- Unexamined suppositions/assumptions in basis of work
- Not having any theoretical structure to the work
- Shoe-horning in of only tentatively related theoretical structures at the interpretation stage
- Essential conclusions ‘going against the grain’ of current understanding (that doesn’t mean it was wrong, just that no one present agreed with it).
I hope not to fall into any of these traps in the future, but I don’t think they are completely escapable. But then that is presumably the learning process of presenting in the early career stage. At least, I hope it gets better as you progress!
Having seen the papers given at RAC/TRAC I’m wondering if I could try to get a paper accepted to 2011’s sessions. Hopefully by then I’ll have a case study, and something exciting to say. But I’m only going to do it if I’ve actually worked out my paradigm and firmed up the more theoretical aspects of my work. I don’t want to present too early, that’s for certain, and thinking about the negative or uninterested response of the small section of TRAC/RAC I witnessed, I’m not sure I want to present at all!