Guest Post: “Action, Collegiality, & Courage: An Open Letter to the Participants of Currents”

Editor’s Note: This guest post was written by Dr. Katherine Sinclair, Anthropology Assistant Professor. She kindly submitted it in response to an open call Drs. Shulist and Biittner made at the Currents conference following their keynote address. Drs. Shulist and Biittner encouraged all of the conference participants and their faculty colleagues to write for AnthropologyAs. We all hope that Dr. Sinclair’s post will be the first of many future contributions to come out of Currents. 


I’ll admit it: I struggled a little bit to get out of bed last Saturday, March 3.

I threw open my curtains to see a snowstorm. Add to that the fact that it was my birthday, and I thought this was the perfect recipe to stay home with my current book, my favourite sweatshirt, and (unfortunately) a pile of grading. I try to set aside a bit of time each year on my birthday to think about how I want my next year to look, and Saturday morning seemed like a good moment to do that reflection.

However, this year I had a conference to attend! The MacEwan Anthropology, Economics, and Political Science student conference. I had been lucky enough to be invited to be a discussant.

This conference takes place every year and is organized by the effervescent, optimistic, and boundlessly encouraging Dr. Franca Boag. Dr. Boag solicits abstracts from students at MacEwan, but also students from Mount Royal, the University of Calgary, universities in Saskatchewan, and probably more that I’m not aware of. To say that this amount of work is vast, and the success of the conference impressive, would be an understatement.

The title of the conference this year was Currents: A Transdisciplinary Undergraduate Conference about Flows, Movement, and Directions. Like the title promises, the papers were diverse, ranging from discussions about the intersections of humans with the environment, questions of gender and the #metoo movement, meditations on race and racism, concerns about economic equality, and finally to material culture. Despite this diversity, the papers flowed together and moved in similar directions within each panel.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to outline each of the excellent and insightful papers here, so what I would like to do instead is draw out the currents that brought some of these papers together, the insights they offered for anthropology, and how they helped me tether my own day in the context of my upcoming year in unexpected ways. One of the goals of this post is to honour the students who participated. The other goal is to communicate to them, and others, how inspiring I found the conference to be.

The first thing to say is the quality of scholarship of the papers on the panels. I know that many hours of work went into these presentations, and it showed.

The second thing that struck me about these papers was their focus on action. Anthropology has at times been critiqued as inward focused, and neither ready nor willing to contribute ideas to work towards solutions of local and global problems. While this has changed in some realms of anthropology, it remains a trend in some areas. What I saw in the conference convinced me that this current truly is changing. Strong scholarship was tied with suggested courses of action and movement. The focus on social change – both already existing and potential for the future – was striking. Rather than an air of cynicism, the conference sparked with hope and optimism.

As the day went on, the next aspect of the conference that resonated with me was the collegiality of the students, an area that academia broadly can on occasion struggle. Conferences and other public platforms can be used as a moment to critique the work of others in an attempt to bolster one’s own image. Who hasn’t attended that session where someone asks question that is significantly longer than any response could be, and should be bracketed by footnotes referencing their own work along with prestigious academic names? In the Currents conference, questions were asked respectfully, thoughtfully, and answered in the same fashion.

Finally, and perhaps most powerfully, the courage the student participants manifested during the conference was one of aspects of the day I found most inspiring. I saw this courage on many different fronts. First of all, having the courage to submit an abstract. One of my Ph.D. professors once told me that to be an academic means to be able to wallpaper your office with rejection letters, and too often that process starts at the undergraduate level. To reflect, to write, and to apply for a conference can therefore already a moment of overcoming uncertainty.

To then present that very paper – that one has dedicated many hours to researching, writing, subjecting to self-critique, running through with peers, family members, professors, and more – in front of an audience is itself an act of courage. Aside from the fear of public speaking, putting one’s ideas to a group always has an element of uncertainty.

Finally, as someone who tends to be reserved in nature and private arguably to a fault, the act of revealing one’s self to the group was one of the aspects of courage during the day that I found most inspiring. Whether it was talking about research, answering questions, or sharing one’s own personal story, every student who presented that day manifested it.

This conference, then, not only provided me with that very moment of reflection I needed for my next year, but also gifted me with something unexpected: coming away truly inspired. Inspired to be courageous, in my thinking, acting, and relationships with others. Inspired to be a good colleague in the workplace and a good friend socially. And finally, to try to inspire others, as the very students I have the privilege of interacting with everyday inspired me at this conference. Currents for my next year, indeed.