Organizer Report-back from the Inaugural North American Studies Network Conference
Jesse Cohn, Luis Fernandez, Nathan Jun, Deric Shannon, Abbey Willis
November 21st and 22nd marked the dates of the Inaugural North American Anarchist Studies Network Conference in Hartford, Connecticut. We came together to organize this conference in order to begin the development of this larger project–the network–which we hope will serve as a space for the development of intellectual work on and within anarchism. Further, in the organizing committee, the conference, and the network we have consciously included academics as well as grassroots scholars. As anarchists, we feel that academic institutions should not have a privileged role in the production of knowledge and hope that the network can serve as a point of rupture with the notion that intellectual work is limited to academic institutions.
The conference drew around 300-350 participants over the course of the two days of the conference. The numbers of panels, workshops, and paper presentations were well beyond our expectations and this cannot be stressed enough in conference attendance (we expected somewhere between 80-120 people). Since the conference, through the email list, we have seen the development of two working groups: one centered around anarchist cultural studies and another on archiving anarchist work. The website for the network is being developed through the current blog site and members of the network have started an initiative for popular education (to be announced).
It was decided in the session for network development that the conference site and organizers would rotate from year to year. This report back, then, is the conference organizers’ attempt to reflect on some of the successes and failures of the initial conference. It is our hope that this can be of use to future conference organizers, as well as be an item of interest for people who could not attend the conference but might want to read about its internal workings and the way things played out on the ground. As anarchists, we believe in a self-reflexive process that requires thinking about what we’ve done, how we’ve done it, why we’ve done it, and how it manifests itself “on the ground” in order to refine our theory and improve our practice (forming that nexus often referred to as “praxis”). What follows, then, are some of our reflections on the conference (in no particular order):
1. First and foremost, to have a “North American” network, we need to include Mexico. Due to a lack of resources and time, the organizing committee was not able to get translators for talks (neither French nor Spanish). Further, we could have reached out to folks in Mexico to join us. In the future, we would all like to see the network be more inclusive in this regard, though representation from the US and Canada was fairly good.
2. Similarly, along these lines, the conference should have been much more racially diverse. Anarchist conferences are often white-dominated spaces, and this conference was no exception. Reflecting on our process, we believe that we could expand future calls for papers/workshops/etc. in ways that address this issue. We might, for example, include within the call suggestions for topics of relevance to communities of color. We could also place the call in places outside of commonly-known “anarchist” spaces, used as hubs by scholars of color–both grassroots and “academics” (and those that blur the lines between the two). This was despite one excellent panel organized on anarchist perspectives on environmental justice, which was well organized and well received at the conference.
3. The conference ran well, in part, because of strict time limits and principled debate. We would encourage future organizers to stress an open intellectual environment, open to debate, but free of personal attacks and ad hominem. Further, strict time limits allowed the conference to be accessible to people with constraints on their time in ways that many anarchist events, unfortunately, do not.
4. That said, some of the panels (particularly the “What is Anarchist Studies?” panel) meandered from their stated purpose and, at times, the time limits did seem to be too tight. Better moderation and a larger time allotment for some discussions might address this.
5. Stressing an informal presentation environment and not just reading papers fostered good discussions all around. It also made the presentations more engaging than simple paper-reading sessions.
6. There was a lot of energy in the space, as well, which also contributed to a high level of discussion at times.
7. There was too much concentration of organizer duties in this conference. Most of the planning and structuring were done by Abbey and Deric, due to the fact that they lived near the conference space and knew it well. This led to a process that was less participatory than desired and could be addressed by having the organizing committee all local to the area where the conference is being held. This is not to erase the efforts of the other organizers, all of which had a hand in fashioning this event.
8. In the future, it might make sense to provide space for unplanned “guerilla” sessions. This would allow necessary discussions to continue that are cut off due to time constraints. It would also allow space for presentations that might not have made deadlines or concerns that come out of specific sessions.
9. The network development discussion should have taken place much earlier in the conference instead of being tacked on at the end. This led to less people participating due to other obligations. As well, the session could have been moderated better, in addition to the break out sessions that followed.
10. The constant university-affiliation identification made breaking down the divide between professional academics and grassroots scholars problematic. Nevertheless, discussions around the nature of the Academy in anarchist work are necessary in a space like this. This is a tension we are unsure how to address.
11. With some of the occupations and exciting student activism taking place in university campuses in North America, we would like to see a greater degree of student involvement in the network and conference planning. The organizing committee this year consisted of three professors, one graduate student, and one working member (a secretary for a non-profit). This could be further diversified in the future to facilitate the involvement of students–especially undergraduates–and, as we’ve mentioned before, folks who are not connected to the Academy.
12. The play (a local group did a production of Howard Zinn’s “Emma”) and movie were good breaks in discussion at night. We would encourage future organizers to include an element of cultural production and entertainment in their conference.
13. In the future, a space at conferences for report backs might be helpful in facilitating project development for the network.
This network was initially inspired by the Anarchist Studies Network in Britain, though it is being developed independently of it. We hope to be able to work together on future endeavors. Likewise, we hope that the network will continue to work collectively on the development of network projects based on affinity and desire. We have seen the start of this in the creation of the various working groups, and hope that this trend can provide some use for the creation of a new world free of domination. Likewise, we hope this brief report will be helpful for future organizing committees for the annual conference.
If anyone would like to be added to the NAASN listserv, to participate in discussions, working groups, propose shared projects, or just hear about what we’re up to, please email Abbey with your requests (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Yours in struggle,