By Joshua Clark
I began working with the Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (APLA) in early 2012, when I was approached about serving as the section’s graduate student representative. The graduate student representative’s main responsibility is to create special programming for graduate students during the AAA Annual Meeting, the heart and soul of which are APLA’s off-program and off-site graduate mentoring workshops. These workshops are held annually in cafés and restaurants near the conference hotel, and are, by design, given to appear informal, modest and candid. But organizing five of them for each conference takes considerable work, careful coordination and, above all, it takes a team.
These teams are now institutionalized as APLA’s Graduate Student Program Committee, which offers an excellent opportunity for students who wish to become involved in the section. The committee is integral to every aspect of mentoring workshops, from conceptualizing the themes and corresponding with faculty mentors to having their own research projects workshopped. I have greatly enjoyed watching committee members collectively develop embryonic ideas into innovative and unforeseen workshop themes, and I have learned to be cautious about thinking any of these topics are too quirky or esoteric to resonate. The workshops fill up every year, almost without fail. The quirkier the themes, the more likely I hear back that one of the participants had one of those cherished mind-meld moments with someone from another university, state or country that they never would have met otherwise.
Because APLA is committed as an institution to mentorship, and its board members to treating graduate students as equals, opportunities to serve and meaningfully impact the section’s future tend to build on themselves. For example, I was able to serve on the Political and Legal Anthropology Review (PoLAR) Editor Search Committee in 2014, and am now on the committee that nominates new board members. My hunch is that not every professional organization makes room for graduate students in such positions. Other recent graduate students who worked on mentoring workshops subsequently became APLA’s communications liaison, APLA’s mentee for the AAA Emerging Leaders program and PoLAR digital editorial fellows.
All of these activities make for generative encounters with scholars from all over, often leading to collaborations extending beyond APLA itself. Involvement with APLA offers opportunities to meet, work on shared projects and engage with well-known and emerging thinkers in our sub-field. To echo Susan Coutin’s piece from this column in May 2014, there may be no more comfortable way to connect with like-minds and build collegial ties than becoming active in the association or section of one’s area of specialization.
Given graduate students’ workload, and an extremely competitive academic job market, it is tempting – and indeed practical – to weigh investments of time and energy in tangible terms of gaining contacts, networks or other resources for professional advancement. This is important, but I would refer again to Coutin to encourage graduate students not to undervalue other aspects of what she says she gained from APLA service: an intellectual home. The intellectual side may be obvious. There are always fresh ideas, insights and angles to be gained on one’s work by broadening conversations beyond one’s own department and this certainly includes fellow students. But just as important is the home, or community side. Personally, I have benefited immensely from the camaraderie of fellow graduate students and junior scholars I have gotten to know through APLA. They are people who share in experiences, struggles and humor about this all-consuming endeavor that is entirely foreign, and indeed strange, to most others in our lives.
So while you can approach service seeking important connections, first, these don’t always pan out and more importantly, it may mean looking past peer-colleagues with insights and intellectual and personal generosity equally crucial to helping you on your way. What I appreciate most about APLA is that it fosters an organizational culture and community in which the person beside or behind you is recognized as having just as much to offer as any keynote speaker.
Joshua Clark will receive his PhD from the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine, in Fall 2016. Together with Miia Halme-Tuomisaari (U Eastern Finland), he is currently editing a special virtual edition of PoLAR on the topic of anthropology and human rights.