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Disillusions: On Conferencing

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My first time attending the Society For Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in 2011, I was thrilled to have been accepted from the still-mysterious open call submission pool in the first place, and doubly so to be randomly placed on a panel chaired by Rosalind Galt, whose writing on both space in contemporary European cinema and queer aesthetics I knew and so admired. Hours within arriving to New Orleans, I had spotted Steven Shaviro at the one cafe within walking distance of the Ritz, given my talk on masculinities in zombie apocalypse films to a fullish room, and was dodging dreamy gusts of wind-borne sugar at Café du Monde. The latter is a memory that returns in darker moments, such as waking to emails concerning misprocessed travel reimbursement forms and final deadlines on degree progress – at a different time, in another life, there was Rosalind Galt and beignets. Unlike some graduate students, I don’t (yet?) naturally see myself as a junior colleague to my professors, nor to the thinkers whose writing I started to love before they were lines on a seminar syllabus. So attending a conference like SCMS – by which I mean, only SCMS, as there’s arguably no more central, widely-attended event for the Film/Media Studies set – involves some degree of high stakery, if not outright hero worship: as a student presenter, not only do I share work I’ve been thinking about all academic year (given the August deadline for abstracts, three-month reading period, and March conference date)[1], but I brush against all manner of senior scholars: from recent PhDs afloat with post-docs, to first book-releasers, to those long-tenured faculty responsible for the very sentences we aped and eulogized in our application essays. Those who’ve been to SCMS before raise an eyebrow as a backpacked halfling trundles past, not missing an opportunity to knowingly out the person whose canonized terminology you spent your MA thesis “troubling.” For some veteran attendees, SCMS seems to function mostly in a reunion capacity: you see former cohorts and colleagues, but there’s less of the much-discussed pressure felt by grads to “network”: a second shift of social labor somewhere between the corporate exchange of business cards and speed-dating; not unlike the first episode of The Bachelor, receptions find grads attempting to approach established scholars, hoping to strike that note of “sufficiently memorable” without being the girl who gets out of the limo in a wedding dress.

Girl was robbed.

Meanwhile, we negotiate the obvious-but-no-less-sad inevitability that the people we hope to impress or adore in person or grow up to be just like aren’t always that great. Law and Order: SVU marathons aside, I’m typically not huge on live-tweeting; however, I tweeted the following at SCMS last month in Chicago during a panelist’s paper:

Is that a read?

Thanks to requisite tech problems, the chair of this panel had revised the speaking order to place herself first, ahead of a presenter with a Powerpoint – and this is its own problem. Of course flexibility is advantageous and often necessary, but swaps like these also risk confusing what are sometimes highly choreographed (and okay, overly ambitious) panel-surfing itineraries: an increasingly vital strategy for such a densely programmed conference. Which leads to the next issue: at the time of tweet (11:52 AM, subtract an hour for Central time), we were hearing the second of four talks – which, according to the 20-minute-max model, should have ended 12 minutes earlier. Shit is crazy. Aforementioned surfing is based on the 20-min. standard, and there was virtually no time reserved for discussion (AKA The Point of conferencing, as the pleasures of presenting work to an absence of engaged feedback are, for many of us, available and known); most importantly, the chair’s own talk ran a smothering 35+ minutes, despite a panelist’s eventual, and ignored, wrist-raise. In other words, we in the audience sat arguably complicit as the chair stole time from fellow panelists, neglected the responsibility to distribute time fairly, and abused relative privilege in a space where chair authority is likely to go unchallenged. This panel made me long for the caustic interruptions of one Ania Loomba, who with clockwork-regularity called on herself in Q&As of talks I attended last summer. But it’s not always so easy ­(or professionally advisable) to, as a grad student, “Loomba” an established professor – even when the substance of their presentation is disappointing to the point of astonishment. And here, organizational snafus aside, is the T: I attended the panel I’ve been describing to see a grad colleague present ambitious, theoretically innovative, rigorously researched work – work that I sincerely believe is “important” within and beyond our disciplinary field – in the form of an evocatively written talk, and a crafted visual presentation. And though given by scholars with actual salaried teaching jobs, the talks in which my friend’s was sandwiched were from seemingly unrevised article-length pieces, scarily narrow in scope, and unaware of relevant contemporary publications with which even I, admittedly ignorant to this subfield, am superficially familiar. This was, for my colleague as for me, a “what am I doing here” moment – where “here” is this pre-profession profession of having missed the field-defining moment by enough decades that you feel pressure to master the classical cinema stuff while familiarizing with what’s “new,” in order to be both intellectually sexy and a dependable investment. Relatedly, it’s also worrying as a media person-in-training to see employed faculty give work in progress having opted for “visual aids” (clips, Powerpoint, etc.) that clearly exhibit the presenter’s inexperience with those forms. Like: a trauma studies scholar presents work on a play, using low-res Google-searched images from the play’s film adaptation. A tenured teacher of film courses gives a slideshow peppered with blank slides. Another requires a grad student fellow presenter to run, pause, and stop the DVD of their own talk’s clip. You can hear the barrage of questions these presentations would incur in a graduate colloquium, let alone a job talk: what’s the relationship between the images presented and the work analyzed? What responsibility do we have to the formal specificity of our objects, or, more broadly, to the technological character of our field? In other words, how is this okay? It’s kind of a big deal, this conferencing: we spend money we don’t have (and will dearly miss in the intervening months before ever-partial reimbursement) to share hotel beds and experiment with blazers, with hopes that several sleep-deprived days will satisfactorily culminate a year of thought, anxiety, and composition. So it’s more than simply feeling like your panel kind of sucked – it’s looking around and struggling to see what magnetizes you to this pursuit in the first place. For me, one major restorative is teaching – so, should my abstract be accepted, one goal I have for SCMS Seattle is to attend at least as many pedagogy-focused panels and workshops as not. I should also say that my cumulative experiences at SCMS have included such high points as being blown apart by talks such as Homay King’s ranging, eloquent study of Alan Turing (as well as her tech competency in adjusting the screen resolution for a fellow panelist, swoon)[2], and warm catch-ups with many former professors and classmates – Chris Sieving, for whom I TAed a single semester in MFA school, has attended each of my talks regardless of topic for three years. People love to hate on conferencing, to dismiss the whole practice as mere formality, a faceless CV line. But to my mind it’s one of the most promising opportunities currently built into this profession for bodies doing solidarity in a room, for engaged feedback and possible collaboration. It’s weird to sit on the floors of hotel suites, as I did for the Saturday evening Malick extravaganza, but the good weird – the kind toward which we as Pitt film grads aspire, as we spend much of our year organizing an annual graduate conference that I hope will eventually become as desirable a destination for its guaranteed density of fun as its intellectual energy. Considering the number of grad students who attend SCMS, pay registration and membership fees, volunteer at tables, and simply show up to the party, I want to offer some potentially redundant but worth repeating advice from one conferencing grad to event organizers, senior faculty, and panel chairs:
  • Publicize your panel: If you’re employed, tell your colleagues. Tweet it. Take some responsibility for who shows up.
  • Take us seriously: Shake our hands. Ask for our preferred bio. We all know we’re sitting in a room reading papers, sometimes to only each other – it’s helpful and heartening if you act like this was worth coming to, no matter the attendance/time slot.
  • Keep time: Or have someone else do so. I like a 10, 5, 1 minute warning from someone in the front row. Be explicit about how this will work before the panel begins. Maybe most importantly, hold yourself to the same standard.
  • Protect the Q&A time: Don’t short shrift it, and don’t let a single audience member, no matter their relative heft, dominate this opportunity for conversation. Be ready to ask thoughtful questions of your fellow panelists, even if it never comes to that (and let audience members ask first; you already have our contact info, and we’d love if you wanted to send a follow-up email or discuss our work further over a post-panel beverage).
No one’s twisting our arms to apply for and follow through on these opportunities, just as no one’s promised us anything on the other side of the mountain – and it’s likely a matter of poor premises: maybe like successful visits with family, conferences should be rethought as shorter and more frequent, with fewer expectations and the attendant opportunity for pleasant surprise. Maybe the current reality is that grads are expected to pay (literal and professional) dues at this point in the process, and scholars simply experience conferencing with radically changed objectives, concerns, and habitual behavior after employment has been secured. In which case, I’d wonder whether the graduate conference is theoretically a more auspicious venue for the type of networking we’d find most beneficial.

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This post kicks off Disillusions: an ongoing series on Special Affects on the bad feelings associated with carving out a life in academia: discouragement, disenchantment, faltered hope, insecurity, etc. Inspired by Ann Cvetkovich’s recent book Depression: A Public Feeling, feed-clogging reblogs on economic and affective precarity, and a spate of events examining why adjuncting sucks, Disillusions explores how these feelings and sensations are central and intrinsic rather than marginal to the experience of becoming (and being) a scholar, writer, and/or teacher. You’ll see posts such as this from writers at different stages in the game, all reflecting on some topic or moment that, with regard to the academic profession/lifestyle, gave them pause. As wisdom states, crucifixions and resurrections go hand in hand, so posts curated for this series will broadly consider what’s brought us to the ledge as well as what’s talked us off. Disillusions is primarily intended to give voice to/break ice around this aspect of academic life and, as such, enthusiastically welcomes comments and other contributions.

Footnotes

  1. The “all year” thinkspan holds regardless of whether you start writing in the airport, in which case, you’re in “good” company. []
  2. Boston, 2012. []