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.)
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…