#scms11

Part of the reason I wanted to blog about SCMS is because unlike the glowing reports so many have offered (see especially the SCMS site and Antenna), my experience at my first SCMS conference was very ambivalent. In short, the anxiety of networking just came to feel depressing very quickly and to be honest there weren’t that many panels that I was interested in or that were relevant to the work I do. I ended up going to a few “state of the field” type workshops, but honestly I felt alot of them said similar, sometimes unsubstantive things over and over again. I think alot of my experience was a result of not knowing what to look for and what kind of panels and workshops would be most exciting or most relevant. Another part I think was having my panel be the very last on Sunday. I finally felt somewhat energized and excited after it, but then the conference was over. In light of this lukewarm experience, I want comment on a few things.

First of all, I very much sympathize with many of the things Jason Mittell said in his final blog on the SCMS site. I, too, often have trouble paying attention and garnering useful information from 4 consecutive 20 minute presentations after which there is often little time for useful discussion. Even of my own paper I wondered what would have resulted had I say, cut out all the citations, and read simply the meat of my argument– potentially a ten minute workshop paper rather than a 20 minute presentation. Though we are told we go to conferences to get feedback on our work, I find that that seldom happens. I often get support– “I loved your paper”/”That paper was great”– which is incredibly valuable as a graduate student who inevitably often lacks in the self-esteem department, but real suggestions are mostly few and far between. What could be useful is a more workshop-oriented format with dialogue. I do genuinely get inspiration from other people connecting the work they do to mine (the comment which ends with “could you speak a little more to that”) and so wonder if something between traditional panels and the Flow format could be the best use of time and energy at conferences like SCMS. Among the main problems I think is how application and tenure committees might view that differently from the traditional 20 minute paper and this is a big obstacle, especially for grad students.

Second, also similar to something Mittell suggested in his final blog post, is the need for a better system of representing papers in the conference program. Mittell suggests posting abstracts and a tagging system, the latter of which I also thought of. I think abstracts might be more information than is manageable, but I would love to be able to tag the title of my paper, specifying what conversations I’m entering into. My paper, titled “Beyond the Ruby Slippers: Media History and Citizenship at the National Museum of American History,” I might have tagged not only with “media history” and “museums” but also “television,” “media technology,” “cultural memory,” “the public sphere” and “nationhood.”

Third, the conference raised alot of questions for me about my place in the field. I am an active twitter user (@m_abel) and love many of the people I have gotten to know in that forum. However, I don’t think it has been (or will be) useful to my professional work because the twittersphere ends up being so focused on a certain kind of contemporary popular media. This makes perfect sense as it is a technology designed for up-to-the-minute, real-time conversation, yet it ends up reflecting a certain constitution of the television/media studies discipline. This is not to say that it only reflects “quality” tv and those who work on it– far from it. However, I have not engaged with media scholars on twitter who look at issues of history and memory– as I do. There is little to no live-tweeting of “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” or dialogue on issues of public history and private media. There could be many many reasons as to why this is, and I am absolutely not blaming the field, but I am reflecting on the difficulty I am having in finding and entering a niche in the field. Twitter doesn’t help, it somtimes leaves my work feeling peripheral. This doesn’t affect my work at all– I love the stuff I’m working on and I think its important and an important contribution to the field overall– but it does affect my sense of place in media studies, a place which I have always been unsure of as I am as interested in the cultural studies side of media and cultural studies as the media side. (Ron Becker recited a conversation he and Mittell had with Julie D’Acci as grad students at Wisconsin in which D’Acci asked if they were tv scholars using a cultural studies-influenced theory/method or cultural studies scholars looking at TV. Becker, at least initially, affirmed the former, I have always thought of myself in terms of the latter.)

I know many people love SCMS because they get to interact with people working directly in their sub-discipline in ways they can’t at their home institution. Annie Petersen wrote about just this in reference to star/celebrity studies. Maybe I haven’t looked in the right areas, but I didn’t feel this way at my first SCMS this year. I felt exhausted, a little sad and a bit alienated. I had a great time catching up with friends and colleagues from the University of Texas, and am excited for the day when we are established scholars at SCMS, hopefully helping grad students in ways we were or were not helped. (I want to give a shout-out here to Mary Kearney who more than once did just the things she wished faculty had done for her as a grad student– bought us drinks at the Grrrls Night Out dinner, made sure to introduce us when an old friend entered the conversation circle, etc. She’s a great model for the kind of scholar/mentor I can hope to be one day.) However, I nonetheless spent the weekend becoming increasingly unsure of myself, unsure how to interact with scholars I admired and even more than that realizing that the scholars whose work I invoke most often aren’t necessarily part of the SCMS membership.

This isn’t meant to be a knock on the institution of SCMS. I fully realize that there are other forums for my work which I equally need to pursue and also that there may even be people on twitter who I’ve missed because I have generally identified myself with TV studies and TV studies scholarship. I also hope that my continued presence in this organization helps to continue to expand its horizons in a productive and useful way. But I also did want to offer some small alternative (which may very well be completely unique to me) to the predominant opinions on the conference. (One other caveat for my experience is that being on the quarter system at Northwestern I have three papers due this week so I often felt stressed out in a way that undoubtedly negatively effected my experience of the weekend. Also being a first year PhD is generally a harrowing and overwhelming experience.)

addendum–
Another resource that might enhance my experience at the conference is special interest groups/caucuses whose functions have never quite been clear to me. Additionally those that do exist don’t really capture my interests other than the broad “TV and New Media” group or the strangely designated and equally broad (but I suspect more narrow than its title suggests) “Nontheatrical Film and Media” group (I can’t imagine that includes radio and TV and computers, but those are nontheatrical media…). I also wonder if there should/could be some kind of media history SIG. I thought about going to the media archives meeting but I’m confused as to what exactly that group is since its referred to in the program as a “committee” and can’t be joined online…

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10 thoughts on “#scms11

  1. I think you bring up some very good points here. I actually had a similar experience at a smaller conference this weekend. Cultural memory is so interdisciplinary in some ways that it seems it’s always on the Island of Misfit Interests. But there are scholars who are interested, I swear! (I also need to be better about tweeting.)

  2. Hi Mabel,

    I also work on cultural history and memory (and tried to tweet some non-TV/media studies panels, but didn’t do such a great job b/c I was taking notes at the same time). We definitely should meet up next year.

  3. I appreciate this post quite a bit. I suspect many of us have had the same feelings, but owning up to them publicly is not the easiest thing to do.

    Last year was my first SCMS (I was supposed to go to Tokyo but that of course didn’t work out), and although I did have a very good time in LA last year (partially because my advisor was so excellent at introducing me to people) I often felt jealous of people whose departments had large cohorts in attendance. I do think the location and layout of the conference hotel (lovely as it is) was less helpful for getting people to interact with one another as the LA location last year.

    I think I still felt a little alienated at times by SCMS (and like you, I didn’t find Twitter to be much of a help in connecting me to other people, though that may be because I’m kind of a grump online). I disagree with many about the appeal of workshops (to me they too often get derailed by off-the-cuff-ness or the conversation gets dominated by a few people), but I do sympathize with the feeling of being kind of marginal.

    One of the things that did help me this year was attending an Interest Group meeting, or at least multiple panels from a particular SIG. For me I attended a bunch of sound studies panels, and that did help quite a bit, particularly since I attended a symposium last year with a lot of the big names. You start to see the same people and make connections across different panels and presentations.

    I also found this year that I was getting recognized from the paper I presented last year, and some of the people I met through asking questions and that sort of thing. So I guess part of it is just showing your face and speaking up enough that your face starts to become recognizable. At least that’s what I’m hoping.

    Cheers again for bringing these issues up for discussion.

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  6. I posted on Noel Kirkpatrick’s blog post as well and think some of what I wrote applies to your experience as well so you can check that out here.

    http://noelkirkpatrick.wordpress.com/2011/03/14/scms-2011-panels-tweets-and-challenges/

    Also, I do think that the Nontheatrical Group might be a good fit for you and your work. They do involve all the items you mentioned. In fact, a lot of them did radio-oriented panels this past year. My friend Amanda Keeler is active with that SIG, so if you message me on Twitter I’ll send you her email address to get more info. You can tell her that I referred you to her.

    Twitter @jennyjonesie

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  10. Late response, I know…

    Mabel, I strongly identify with your ambivalence, as you put it, towards the conference this year. I went into (my first) SCMS filled with eager anticipation at all of the great panels I was going to see and the tons of amazing connections I was hoping to make – and then felt both overwhelmed by the sheer amount of “stuff” to see and do (“do I go to the generations of media studies workshop or the panel on affective media??”) and underwhelmed by the ways that some of the panels – particularly the open call panels – lacked cohesion on even the most basic identifying themes. By and large, the pre-constituted panels felt much more engaging, well thought out, and reflective than the open call sessions. This is perhaps an obvious statement, but there really shouldn’t be such a drastic difference between the two types. The whole point of the open call process is to match up scholars working in similar areas or on similar themes, have them present their work in a forum that allows them to speak to one another, and start an intellectual, critically insightful conversation that hopefully extends beyond the conference boundaries. Instead, many of the open call panels I attended featured papers with markedly different foci, with the theme rather generously interpreted to encompass all presentations; additionally, the Q&As tended to either skew questions towards one or two papers only, or led to generalized “What do you think of this phenomenon?” type of questions. I, too, did not receive any critical feedback on my paper, and I was really hoping to share audience thoughts on it with the people about whom I wrote.

    To this end, I do think tagging would help greatly, especially with the open call process as well as with deciding which panels and workshops to attend. I also think that more direct involvement from panel chairs might help spur and facilitate discussion. Some of the best panels I attended were the ones where the panel chairs opened discussion by saying a few words themselves about how the papers fit together, thereby providing a starting point for discussion and openly identifying the critical areas of overlap or even oversight. I also wonder if it might be helpful to require panel chairs to communicate with their fellow presenters at least a few times before the conference – nothing too crazy, but at least send out a few e-mails asking about progress, inquiring about relevant themes or questions for all of the projects, etc. It certainly can’t hurt to be more involved before the presentations actually begin.

    Networking actually turned out to be the saving grace of the conference for me, much to my surprise. This was greatly facilitated by attending the nontheatrical SIG – and yes, it does include TV, radio, any media you can think of that is nontheatrical! – and by simply approaching people after their panels and asking a few questions about their work. It’s completely nerve-wracking, but I found that people tended to be really open and gracious about listening to me yammer on about the potential intersections of their work and mine. But it is much different trying to meet people at this conference versus a smaller, more thematic conference. At SCMS, I focused on approaching just a few people whose work I found strongly relevant to mine, or really compelling within my field, and tried to make strong connections with them, rather than trying to meet a million different people in a very short period of time. That way, I didn’t feel strong pressure to connect with everyone and networking felt much more manageable. The SIGs work in much the same way, by giving you a smaller chunk of the SCMS population to contend with who (presumably) share your interests. I just joined a few SIGs, so only time will tell how useful they actually turn out to be. But I, too, was disappointed to realize that the scholars whose work I turn to most often weren’t a strong part of the SCMS membership… I guess this is where other conferences and other academic forums come into play.

    Anyhoo, those are my two cents. Thanks for your insightful comments, Mabel, and everyone else! Alternative forums like this can be really useful to making the whole academic experience much deeper and more meaningful for us all.

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