This issue of ASA News features two reflections from First Time Attendees at the 60th Annual Meeting in Chicago, IL. The ASA thanks both participants for their pieces for ASA News, and hopes to welcome them at future ASA Annual Meetings. Special thanks to Dr. Josephine Dawuni, Howard University, for organizing these pieces. After serving as a mentor at the First Time Attendee Breakfast at the 60th Annual Meeting, she solicited the input of two attendees she met at the event to compile a report on their experiences. The report below is a highlight of two students, Elom Tettey-Tamaklo of Haverford College and Janet Mills of Dalhousie University.
Elom Tettey-Tamaklo, Haverford College
I recall hearing about the African Studies Association meeting for the first time during a meeting with my advisor, Professor Susanna Wing. I was intrigued, to say the least. The world’s largest gathering of Africanists, that should be paradise, I thought excitedly. I could not picture what this would look like but I was sure it was an event I would love. As an undergraduate, majoring in political science with a focus on African politics, this seemed like a great opportunity to meet the scholars whose works I was reading and who’s theories my classmates and I debated. However, I was filled the much anxiety as I did not only know what to expect but also because I had heard of only few undergraduate students who attended the conference. I certainly would be a sardine in a pond of whales, I thought. After weeks of encouragement by my professor, I was certain my next stop was in Chicago; the windy city.
It was the night before the conference and I was still unsure about whether I had made the right decision to come to Chicago. I did not know what to expect, much more what a participant should do the night before a conference like this. “I am here already and must make the best of it,” I told myself. The morning of Thursday, the 16th of November, was a beautiful one as I walked to into the lobby of the Chicago Downtown Marriott Magnificent Mile. Filled with so many people, I managed to find my way to the registration desk where I completed the necessary paperwork. Clutching my registration materials and beaming with pride after accomplishing my first conference ‘task’, I walked into my first ASA session, “The Decolonization of African Education.” Expecting to find a room filled to capacity with older scholars in suits listening attentively to unintelligible research presented, I was pleasantly surprised to find a vastly different picture. In a room of about twelve individuals, Madam Hadiza Abdulrahman presented her paper on Northern Nigeria’s Almajiranci, a topic I had not heard of before. A few minutes into her presentation, I was immediately interested at the research findings she presented and the research methods employed. The question and answer time gave the presenter the chance to discuss the project further and clarify the questions which audience members, including myself, had. The varied intellectual exchanges that took place in that first session excited me. At this point, I was sure that I had made the right decision to come to the ASA meeting. Walking out of the session, I began to think about the kind of work I was interested in and the broader, more practical implications of my work. My research on Fela Kuti and his resistance to the post-colonial Nigerian state suddenly exploded beyond the walls of the classroom. I began to see how it not only mattered in helping us gain a better understanding of socio-political events but its implications on assessing governmental character and its responses to civil society. The day ended after having attended many more enthralling sessions.
The next day, with a slightly better sense of the hotel’s geography, I walked into the first time attendee breakfast meeting. I was excited to meet other first-timers as well as listen to the experiences of seasoned ASA meeting attendees. Amongst other scholars Professor Susanna Wing introduced me to, I was also privileged to meet the incoming president of the ASA, Professor Jean Allman. Everyone seemed to be excited that an undergraduate student was attending the conference and had little pieces of advice for me. I devoured every single piece of advice gleefully. Breakfast was over and I was heading to a session I was already running late for. Being the college kid I am, I stopped by the yogurt table to grab one more Yoplait cup-strawberry, to be precise. In that moment I saw a group of individuals sitting around a table and having a rather hearty discussion. Two things attracted me to the group; firstly, most of them looked like my age mates and secondly in the midst of an almost empty breakfast room, they seemed to be having the time of their lives! Pulling out the networking skills college career counselors so emphasize, I walked up to the table, which we later christened the ‘late table’, introduced myself and sat down. Before I knew it we had exhausted about an hour discussing a wide range of topics and getting to know each other. Present on the table were graduate students from various institutions all over the world and Professor Josephine Dawuni from Howard University. That single interaction did not only expose me to the work that other young Africans all over the world are doing but also established great personal and academic connections which I believe will be helpful in the future.
The rich and varied experiences that the ASA meeting afforded me helped me understand the issues, challenges and developments of the African continent in a more holistic, multifaceted way. The presence of such a diverse conglomerate of individuals; economists, philosophers, political scientists and artists amongst others provided a platform for interdisciplinary discussions, from which I gained a better understanding of the important role of academia on the continent.
Janet Mills, Dalhousie University
Joining academia when you are in your mid-50s can be an awkward experience. Not only are you older than your classmates, you are often older than your professors. Finding out that you can manage to get good grades is terrific, and then to be invited by a former professor to present a paper with him at the largest gathering of academics in African studies is a great compliment, but rather unnerving.
That was the situation I found myself in heading for Chicago this past November, while in my first year of graduate school. I had decided to become an undergraduate and to study history a few years before and found myself in a class on African studies. I had no real background in the topic, and am not of African descent, but it was fascinating, which likely had a lot to do with my professor, Dr. Jonathan Roberts. I found it so intriguing that I did an honours thesis under his supervision, and then was delighted when he asked me later in the year to present a paper with him at the 60th annual meeting of the African Studies Association.
Having spent twenty years as a fitness professional, I could at least fake confidence, but nonetheless I knew I would be one of the least well-read presenters and attendees, as far as African studies went, and knowing how high the percentage was of people with doctorates in attendance, it was apparent that I was going to feel pretty far out of my league. I was rather intimidated Thursday night when I went looking for my mentor at the reception and did not know a soul there, but everyone else seemed to know a good many people. (It had also not helped that I had locked myself out of my cell phone and could not even make plans to meet the one person that I did know.)
I need not have worried. One of the greatest innovations at the ASA conference was the breakfast meet and greet for first time attendees. Here there were people to help newcomers feel at home and provide a firm grounding in how to navigate a large and unfamiliar conference. Discussions with folks with lots of experience who wanted to know about my interests and work put heart into a first-timer. It is so important, when you are new, to see a now-familiar face and exchange a smile, and in some cases a hug.
At a conference we naturally tend to go to sessions that are directly related to our own areas of study. However, attending some discussions for the sole reason that they sound interesting is important for a first-timer, especially if you are still early in your academic career. It can open doors to ideas that you might not otherwise be exposed to. I discovered how interested I am in law, especially as it pertains to African tradition, simply because I met and instinctively liked a couple of people and wanted to hear them speak on their topics. As students or newly-minted professional academics, we are often of necessity so absorbed in our own theses that we miss out on the joy of randomly picking up on others’ thought processes. Going to this conference provided me with the experience of hearing a speaker express themselves in ways that spoke to that niggling idea at the back of my mind and had me mentally saying, “Yes, that’s it. Someone else thinks that way too and is able to communicate it.” It gives you confirmation and validation that you do have a handle on this subject after all.
The venue itself was an excellent choice. As a Canadian from a small, largely rural province, it takes some time for me to get accustomed to a large city, even one that I have visited before. Add in the number of attendees at this conference, and it could have been downright uncomfortable with everything compressed into a few days. The set-up for the conference itself was done very well, and the staff at the Marriott was fantastic. I was welcomed at every turn and did not have any difficulties with navigating the event or the stay in general.
I came away with a sense of excitement about my studies and delight at having met so many lovely people. I am hoping to further explore some of the new areas revealed to me within African studies, and I look forward to future ASA events and opportunities. The only regret I have, and that I will correct the next time, is that I will stay an extra day so that I do not have to get up early on Sunday morning and therefore miss the dance party on Saturday night.