A True Story About Being White

Editor’s note: I apologize for my long absence, dear readers, but I started a true story blog back in May, Tell Us A Story, and that has monopolized all of my summer blogging time. I promise to return to this blog in the fall, with my usual posts about film, TV and popular culture. In the meantime though, I have a different kind of true story to tell.

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After the devastating ruling in the George Zimmerman case I read a post by the Crunk Feminist Collective in which they asked:

“Calling all white feminists allies: Where are y’all? <looking far and wide> Your silence around the Zimmerman Trial speaks volumes. Six white women (some say five) decided that a young Black man was responsible for his own murder, and they believed that a young Black woman could not be a credible witness. Where is your (OUT)RAGE?! Where is *your* intersectional analysis about white privilege, that not only calls out the operations of racism, but the particularly gendered operations of racism in the hands of these white women jurors? Where is the accountability? Where is the allyship? Why AGAIN do we have to ask you to show up? It is time for y’all to do the work. We refuse. We are tired. We are choosing to take care of ourselves and our communities. “

I took these words personally because these words are personal. They are directed at me and they fill me with shame. So I am trying to not be silent. With all the talk this summer about what it means to be a young black male in America, I thought I would write about what it means to be a young white male in America. I’m going to tell you a story about my son and being white in America when it’s dark outside. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s what I have right now.

***

My husband and I are both originally from the Northeast (New York and Pennsylvania, respectively) but we currently live in North Carolina, due to the somewhat bizarre and unforgiving nature of the academic job market. Don’t get me wrong, I have actually come to love many things about my new Southern home: the heat, the complete absence of winter, the way people wait and hold the door open for you, even when you are a good fifty paces behind them. I even like being called “ma’am.” But there are drawbacks to our Southern location. Obviously, North Carolina’s stance on marriage equality, abortion, voter rights, religious freedom, etc.. etc. is garbage. But that’s a different post all together. The other problem with living here is, of course, that my husband and I are 400-600 miles away from our families. This means that we travel a lot, especially in the summertime. This is a story about one of those trips.

A few weeks ago my husband and I packed up our minivan and our kids and headed for central Pennsylvania. We take I-95 North, a highway which always seems to be plagued with construction, traffic delays and accidents, which means that a trip that should take 6 hours often takes 8 hours. To avoid these delays, we usually try to drive during off-peak hours, leaving around 6pm and arriving around midnight. On this particular trip, my husband and I were delighted to be getting off  the D.C. beltway, onto 270, around 10pm. That meant we would reach our beds by 11:30pm. We were in the midst of high-fiving each other when our 3-year-old son, who only speaks in capslock, announced “I GOTTA MAKE POOPY.” Our faces fell.  270 exists to get people on to and off of the beltway, not for potty breaks. All of the nearby exits led to gated communities and medical parks. There would be no easily accessible bathrooms for many miles.

“Hey buddy, can you try to hold it for a little bit?” my husband asked. “SURE” yelled our son. But ten minutes later he bellowed “I CAN’T TAKE MUCH MORE OF THIS,” a turn of phrase he has recently learned and which he tries to use whenever possible. We sighed and took the next exit, knowing that locating a bathroom at 10 pm in the Maryland suburbs was going to be a challenge. We drove for miles and miles, seeing nothing. “I NEED TO GO POOPY” the 3-year-old periodically reminded us. “I know, honey, we’re trying.” Finally, after 15 minutes of frantic searching, we spotted a group of men playing baseball in front of what appeared to be a recreational center. I suggested we check it out, reasoning that these men would probably need a bathroom break at some point during their game. But as we drove through the complex we could find nothing. “Not even a port-a-potty?” I lamented. “I WILL GO IN THE PORT-A-POTTY” said the 3-year-old. “I know buddy. But there’s no port-a-potty.”

As we were about to turn around and leave, our goal of reaching bed by midnight now a distant memory, I saw a woman sitting in an SUV, talking on her cell phone. “Wait! Look over there! I’ll bet that woman can tell us where a bathroom is!” My husband stopped the minivan and I grabbed my son and headed over.

At this point, I should probably tell you a little bit about my son. My son is adorable: he has big blue eyes, curly brown hair, and a friendly smile. People go apeshit for my son. They stop me in grocery stores and on the streets to comment on his appearance: “Look at those curls! Look at those baby blues!” It happens so often, in fact, that it embarrasses me. I don’t say that to brag, because I have nothing to do with his good looks (he looks nothing like me). And he has nothing to do with his good looks either. He was just born that way. He’s lucky.

So it’s 10 pm on a Thursday night in a Maryland suburb and my very cute son and I approach the woman in the SUV. “Excuse me?” I say, tentatively, because she is on her phone “We’re looking for a bathroom?” The woman raises a finger, indicating that she heard me, and says good-bye to whomever was the on the other line. “I’m sorry to bother you. It’s just that my son really needs to use the bathroom and we’ve been driving around…” “Come with me” she says, leading us to an alley behind the rec center. It is only now that I see that this woman is wearing a blue custodial uniform and a name tag. She works in the rec center and she is going to use her key to let us in. “What good fortune!” I thought to myself.

The alley is dark and garbage cans line the brick walls. “I JUST NEED A PORT-A-POTTY!” the 3-year-old offers. “It’s okay,” I tell him, “the nice lady is taking us to the potty.” We finally enter the building and I immediately see a sign for the women’s locker room. “Thank you so much!” I tell the custodian, as I head inside. “Oh no!” she says, shaking her head, “You don’t go in there. It’s DIRTY,” she explains. I look again at the locker room and see that this is where the rec center staff probably goes to change and shower. “You follow me,” she says, and leads us down a series of hallways, until we reach another set of bathrooms. “See?” she says, “Clean.” I nod and head inside “Thank you SO much!” I repeat. I’m starting to feel a little guilty now, as this is getting to be a lot of trouble for her.

When we emerge from the bathroom 10 minutes later I am surprised to see that the custodian has waited for us at the end of the hall. But of course she had to wait — she let us in with her key, we were now her responsibility. We follow her out of the rec center, and I repeat my thanks. “You feel better now?” she asks my son, smiling, placing her finger tips to his. “Such pretty hair,” she adds. “THANK YOU” my son replies, in capslock. And then we get back into our minivan. “People are so nice,” I tell my husband, as I buckle the 3-year-old  into his carseat. “That woman probably wanted nothing more than to go home, take a shower and go to bed after a day of work, but instead she spent 20 minutes helping a stranger and her son get to a bathroom.” My husband nods in agreement.

As our roadtrip resumed, I continued to think about this encounter and the kindness of strangers. But then I thought about something else. I thought about how this scenario would have played out if I had not been a white woman with a blue-eyed son, emerging from a minivan. You see, this incident happened just 5 days after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, in which jurors decided that being young and not-white and male is inherently threatening, that being all of these things meant that Zimmerman had a right to feel threatened by Trayvon Martin and to “stand his ground.” Indeed, if I had I been a young, African American father whose 3-year-old son needed to use the potty at 10pm in some Maryland suburb, I would have had to think twice before approaching this woman in the parking lot. I would have needed to be careful not “scare” her. I would  have needed to demonstrate to her that I was not a threat. And then, maybe, maybe, my son could use those nice clean bathrooms in the rec center.

But of course, I didn’t need to worry about any of that at 10 pm on a Thursday night in the Maryland suburbs. When I approached that woman in her car, I did so without considering my skin color or my son’s skin color. I rarely need to consider my skin color. All I needed to do was be white and the world curved itself around my needs.  And this is how things are going to be for the rest of my son’s life. He is white, he is male, and he comes from an upper-middle class home. The world is open to him — all he needs to do is decide what he wants. I’m not saying that he won’t have struggles. His life will be hard at times, in the way all peoples’ lives are hard at times. But his difficulties will likely be unrelated to his race or his gender. He will be playing life at its “lowest difficulty setting” and, really, good for him. He’s lucky.

The same is basically true for my 7-year-old daughter, though of course, she will have to fight a few battles that my son won’t, just because she’s a woman. For example, when she goes to a pizza parlor to pick up a tray of manicotti, the men who work there will offer to carry it for her, and even after she tells them, twice, that it really isn’t heavy and she can manage it just fine, thank you very much, they will take it anyway and start carrying it to the door until she says, a little too loudly, “REALLY. IT’S FINE. PLEASE GIVE IT TO ME.” And then they’ll hand her the manicotti and wonder, silently, why some women can’t just accept a little help now and then. And she’ll carry the manicotti, which isn’t very heavy (really) out to her car and she’ll try not to be annoyed at those men because they were just doing what they’ve been trained to do, which is to help white women who seem like they can’t help themselves. She is a virtue that requires protection. This is annoying, sure. But her life won’t be too hard, her difficulty setting being only a little higher than her brother’s. 

I’m writing this because I know our world is filled with all sorts of kind people, like that custodian who looked at me and at my sweet boy and decided to help us out, even though she didn’t have to. For the most part, this is how I experience the world and those experiences show me that the world can be a kind place. But as my family and I made our way up 270, I couldn’t help but think of Trayvon Martin’s family, and how different the world must look to them.

This post is a drop in the bucket. It’s an attempt to talk about being white, which is something white people don’t do very often. This post is me being not-silent. Thanks for listening.

Congratulations! It’s a Beautiful Baby Blog!

LAST UNICORN

Some people have their first child and then decide “This is quite enough excitement for me.” Other people think “I want five of these!” It’s the same with long-running projects (kind of). I started this blog back in 2009, as a reward for completing my first book manuscript. Well, two weeks ago I got tenure (yay!) and therefore decided it was time for another present. I decided to start another blog. But instead of raising this blog baby by myself, I decided to enlist the help of two of my dearest friends from graduate school. And I decided to make it a blog about true stories, even though I haven’t done any creative writing since 1999. But don’t let that frighten you away — my coeditors are real MFAs so they’ll keep me in check!

To check out our mission statement, click here.

I’d love it if you’d check out this new blog project, read my first story (posted today!), comment, share and, if you’re feeling frisky, submit a story of your own.

Everyone has a story to tell.

To read “This is a Dead Cat Story,” click here.

 

MTV Reality Programming & the Labor of Identity Construction

Note to the reader: Below is a work in progress. I am sharing it here in the hopes of generating discussion and recommendations for further reading and research. 

American children born after 1980 are the largest, most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history. They have seen an African American be reelected as the President of the United States of America. Many high schools now have Gay-Straight Alliance clubs (even as the bullying of gay students continues). Thus, Millennials are often labeled as “post racial,” “post gender,” or “pomosexual,” as if they have solved the eternal problem of human difference that none of us, stretching back for centuries, have been able to solve. However, according to studies conducted by the Applied Research Center, today’s youth still see race (and identity in general):

“The majority of people in our focus groups continue to see racism at work in multiple areas of American life, particularly in criminal justice and employment. When asked in the abstract if race is still a significant factor, a minority of our focus group participants initially said that they don’t believe it is—and some young people clearly believe that class matters more. But when asked to discuss the impact, or lack thereof, that race and racism have within specific systems and institutions, a large majority asserted that race continues to matter deeply.”

Indeed, in my experiences working with Millennials in the classroom, I have found that they are quite eager to self identify by race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, and sexuality. In fact, the more invisible the identity, the more eager they are to make it visible. There seems to be a heightened interest in identity, defining its parameters and its meanings. Here I am defining “identity” in very simple terms:  it is a vision of yourself that is based on actual traits (your race, gender, sexual preference, nationality, etc.) but which you might also inflate or redefine to suit your vision of yourself (or how you hope to envision yourself). It is rooted in the material conditions of lived experience and also highly constructed. It is thrust upon the individual but also, quite often, carefully selected by the individual.

As someone who studies media images for a living, I see similar evidence of the Millennial struggle with identity happening in a very specific location: MTV reality programming. MTV describes itself as “the world’s premier youth entertainment brand” and “the cultural home of the millennial generation, music fans and artists, and a pioneer in creating innovative programming for young people.” When it first premiered in 1981 it was a 24 hour music video jukebox (and my favorite thing ever). MTV began producing original non-music programming as early as 1987 with its TV-centered game show Remote Control. Other programming, including Singled Out, Just Say Julie, and The State followed, thus aligning MTV’s content with something other than music. The success of the reality television series, The Real World, in 1991 cemented MTV’s move towards non-music based programming. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of music videos aired on the channel dropped by 36% (Hay). Now MTV is primarily known for creating original, non-musical content. Specifically, MTV likes to produces reality shows about segments of the contemporary youth demographic–the very demographic that is watching MTV.

And what I have learned from watching a lot of MTV’s reality programming is that the youth featured on these shows continue to grapple with racial /gender/sexual/class difference. Cast members on MTV’s most highly rated reality shows (Jersey Shore, Teen Mom, The Hills, The Real World, and now Buckwild) willingly serve as synecdoches for their ethnic group, their subculture, their class, their gender, their sexuality, their religion, or their region of the U.S. I agree with Michael Hirschcorn, who offers a lengthy defense of reality programming in The Atlantic:

“Reality shows steal the story structure and pacing of scripted television, but leave behind the canned plots and characters. They have the visceral impact of documentary reportage without the self-importance and general lugubriousness. Where documentaries must construct their narratives from found matter, reality TV can place real people in artificial surroundings designed for maximum emotional impact.”

When, for example, a cast member on The Real World defends a racist/sexist/homophobic comment in an “on the fly” (OTF) interview with the standard “Hey I’m just being real!” excuse, he is, in fact, being real. In other words, he is performing the identity he was cast to perform and which, he feels, he has the duty to perform since he was in fact cast on the show to perform that very identity.

Jersey Shore’s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino is perhaps the best example of MTV’s labor of identity construction (a runner up would be the Shannon family from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, certainly an integral part of the poetics of TLC). Mike understands that he needs a single identity—that of the guido—in order to thrive on the series. Mike is defined by his abdominal muscles or rather Mike’s abdominal muscles tell us what kind of man he is—a man who is capable of performing the obsessive compulsive grooming ritual known as “Gym. Tan. Laundry” (aka, “GTL”):

I doubt that Mike GTLs as much as he claims to. But it only matters that he claims to GTL. In Jersey Shore and other MTV reality shows, the subject is in charge of defining himself before the camera. Mike tells us that GTLing makes him a guido and so the ritual becomes a clear marker of his identity. As a white American of European ancestry, Mike has the ability to choose his ethnic identity. He can take up a “symbolic ethnicity,” which Herbert Gans defines as “a nostalgic allegiance to the culture of the immigrant generation, or that of the old country; a love for and a pride in a tradition that can be felt without having to be incorporated in everyday behavior” (9). Mike’s identity functions as an “ethnic pull” rather than as a “racial push.” He chooses to be a guido and constructs the parameters of this identity. Nancy Franklin explains the necessity of the utterance in the creation of the reality TV persona “Like all reality-show participants, Pauly D, The Situation, and the others speak in categorical certainties. They know things for sure, then those things blow up in their faces, then they hate those things and take about three seconds to find new things to believe in.” And Mike believes in GTL. Without it, he is unemployed. That’s because clear identity construction is central to the appeal of MTV’s current programming.

Imagine the following scene: a group of roommates have just come home from a night of drinking. An argument soon erupts between two of the female roommates over who gets to have guests in the house; there is only room for seven guests and the house is at capacity. When an urban, African American character named Brianna becomes irate that her friends cannot come inside, her white, Christian, Southern roommate, Kim, replies, “Let’s not get ghetto. Be…normal.” The women then exchange expletives and threaten each other with physical harm. In the next scene, Kim explains the fight to her roommate, Sarah, who is also white: “I don’t care where you’re from, if you’re from the most inner city…” and here she pauses to grimace, “blackville. You don’t act like that.” Sarah, who has, thus far, been a sympathetic listener, giggles nervously and advises, “Maybe you should watch what you say…just a little?”

Had this scene been in a film or a scripted television show about a group of strangers who move in together, we would likely find these conversations unbelievable. We would roll our eyes at Kim’s over-the-top, racially-inflected villainy and cry foul: “Come on, who would say that? A real person wouldn’t say that!” But when we hear Kim say this exact line to Brianna (in an episode of The Real World XX: Hollywood), we know it is real (or realish) and therefore we must engage with this very real racism:

[You can watch the entire scene here: http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/225650/lets-not-get-ghetto.jhtml]

Kim’s statements implicitly align Brianna’s behavior in this situation—her anger, her willingness to swear and make physical threats—as rooted in her class and her race (i.e., she acts this way because she comes from “the ghetto”) rather than the more plausible explanation: that Brianna is simply a hothead (like so many other young people who have been cast in the series. In fact, being a hothead is one of the primary criteria for snagging a spot in the show’s cast). Kim makes the racial and class bias of her comments explicit when she labels the nation’s “inner cities,” a location where people apparently behave in the most distasteful of fashions, “Blackville.”  Yes, Blackville. LaToya Peterson over at Racialicous calls this scene (and others like it) “hit and run racial commentary” because it dredges up problematic racial prejudices without truly engaging with them. She is nostalgic for earlier incarnations of The Real World and Road Rules (ah Road Rules!) when characters who got into heated arguments would have “an actual conversation where they were both screaming and both making very good points, and both walking away determined to do their own thing. Growth. Development. An actual exchange of ideas.”

Though Peterson sees such scenes as indicative of a new kind of reality programming on MTV, where cast members (who were cast precisely so that they would say something like this) make a racist statement and then are chastised and asked to repent (rather than engaging in a productive dialogue about how and why they came to acquire such a racist/sexist/homophobic vision of the world), this kind of dialogue has been MTV’s bread and butter since it first started airing The Real World over 20 years ago. As Jon Kraszewski argues, “The Real World does not simply locate the reality of a racist statement and neutrally deliver it to an audience. Although not scripted, the show actively constructs what reality and racism are for its audience through a variety of production practices” (179). In The Real World (and other MTV programs), intolerance stems from identity. One is racist because one is from the South. One is sexist because one is a male jock. And over the course of a show these individuals are informed that their identities have led them astray–that they are in fact racist or sexist–but now they will know better! Yes, as outrageous as Kim’s comments are, they are nothing new for The Real World.

Currently, I am embarking on a new research project that seeks to understand the contours of MTV’s new cultural terrain, the images it creates for youth audiences, and the way Millennials consume and interact with its programming. Though I have written quite a lot about MTV programs like The Hills, Teen Mom, and Jersey Shore over the last few years, I am only now starting to think about these programs in relation to each other and how MTV understands youth selfhood.  I imagine (I hope!) that this project will grow richer and more complicated as I move through it, but for now I’d like to outline how MTV has fostered what I see as a new poetics of being-in-the-world. While MTV initially catered to Generation X, a generation of passive spectators, Millennials are a generation of active spectators. For them, MTV is an “identity workbook”: cast members speak their differences openly, try on different identities, and pick fights in order to see how these identities play out and to what effect. The Jersey Shore cast members actively and self-consciously constructs “guido” identities for themselves while those on Buckwild tell MTV’s cameras what it means to be “country.” Thus, the difference between the MTV of 1981 and the MTV of today is not simply the difference between music videos and reality TV—the difference is in the way MTV conceives of youth selfhood. Instead of watching and observing, MTV’s contemporary youth audience is generating the identities they consume on screen, and marking out what they believe it means to be an African American, a Southerner, a Christian, a homosexual, or a transgender youth in America today.

This is not to say that Generation X (and I am speaking here not of actual people, but the image of this generation that exists in popular culture) was not also interested in identity, but we rarely took an active role in its construction. Exhausted or embarrassed by our parent’s endless spouts of energy and their marches for equality, we preferred (prefer) to toss our hands in the air and declare things to be “racist” or “sexist,” complain about it, maybe even blog about it (ahem!), but ultimately we don’t do anything. The image of this generation appearing in popular culture is one of apathy and spectatorship. As Jonathan I. Oake writes “Thus, the deviance of Xer subcultural subjectivity lies in its perverse privileging of ‘watching’ over ‘doing.’ While baby boomers are mythologized as those who made history, Xer identity is presided over by the trope of the ‘slacker’: the indolent, apathetic, couch-dwelling TV addict” (86-87).

But Millennials, like the Baby Boomers, are a generation of doers. Or rather, they “do” by “being.” They project themselves into the world—through social media, blogs and yes, through reality television. For this reason, Adam Wilson calls them the “Laptop Generation”: “If the 1980s was the Me generation — marked by consumerism and an obsession with personal needs (Give me hair gel! Give me cocaine!) — then we are living in the iGeneration, in which the self is projected back toward the world via social media.” This generation wrangles with our divisions, even if they lack the language and the critical distance to do so in a way that pleases us.

Take for example, Buckwild, MTV’s new series about West Virginia youth that premiered this week to respectable ratings. MTV is turning its cameras to this region of the country to capitalize, no doubt, on the recent cycle of hillbilly-sploitation (Hillbilly Handfishing, Swamp People, Bayou Billionaires, Rocket City Rednecks, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, etc). The difference, of course, is that MTV presents this subculture from the point of view of Millennials. And, as in all of MTV’s recent reality shows, it centers on a clear definition of identity. To see what I mean, let’s pause and take a look at the trailer for MTV’s new identity series, Buckwild:

It is fitting that the Buckwild trailer opens with a sign that reads “Welcome to West Virginia: Wild and Wonderful” since for so many of MTV’s programs (Laguna Beach, The Hills, The City, Jersey Shore) location breeds identity. It is also crucial that the trailer is narrated by one of the show’s cast members since all of these programs are about self-construction. As we hear the narration, “West Virginia is a place founded on freedom. For me and my friends, that means the freedom to do whatever the fuck we want!”  we see a montage of youthful hi-jinx: bridge diving, tubing, “mudding,” drinking and shooting firearms. In some ways these activities are region-specific—driving off-road vehicles through the mud and skinny-dipping in the local swimming hole are not activities in which Lauren Conrad (The Hills) or Snooki (Jersey Shore) are likely to participate. And yet, for all its specificity, this Buckwild trailer is also highly generic: we have a group of unemployed or underemployed young people in their late teens and early twenties drinking, having sex, and passing the time, believing that their way of life, their identities, are unique enough to warrant the presence of constant camera surveillance. “We’re young, free and Buckwild,” our narrator concludes. But she could have just as easily said “We’re young, free and Jersey Shore!” or “We’re young, free and living in The Hills!” In this way, MTV’s identity project works to both highlight and eradicate differences in contemporary youth cultures.

MTV is not shy about its identity project. Every series has a distinctive look marked by its cinematography, editing, lighting, and/or soundtrack choices. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, The Hills, Laguna Beach, and The City employ a seamless cinematic style—including the use of widescreen, shot/reverse shot sequences, high key lighting, and telephoto lenses—mirrors its cast members’ positions as wealthy white consumers living in a fantasy world. By contrast, Jersey Shore, with its out-of-focus shots, visible leaders, and 70s brothel-chic house, all give the impression that the text (and the people contained within that text) are sleaze. Programs like Making the Band employ “bling” style editing, a surface layer of glitz that mimics the ambitions of the gamedoc’s participants. And Buckwild aims for a naturalist aesthetic, with cast members filmed primarily against the backdrop of leafless trees, mud holes or open green spaces. Buckwild defines West Virginians as naturalists: individuals with little money who must rely on nature for their amusements.

Even MTV programs like The Real World, which maintain the aesthetics we typically associate with documentary realism (long takes, mobile framing, imperfect sound and lighting quality), cast members speak their difference openly so that by the end of each new season premiere most of the cast has aligned themselves with a particular identity: the homosexual, the homophobe, the African American, the racist, the Christian, the foreigner, the Midwestern one, the city child, the girl with a history of abuse, the boy who is borderline abusive, etc. These cast members are not simply participants in a reality show—they are also its progeny. MTV cast members were suckled at the teats of reality television and they understand how identity works within its confines. Identity must be visible if it is to mean anything. And so Jersey Shore’s The Situation must “GTL” in order to be a guido (and to keep his job performing guido-ness) and Buckwild’s Shaine tells what it means to live in the “holler” and go “muddin” (in order to keep his job performing West Virginia-ness). Identity is lucrative today.

So a poetics of MTV is, simply, an engagement with American identities as they constructed, deconstructed and reconstructed. We film ourselves, we watch ourselves, we hate ourselves, we write about ourselves, and then we film ourselves again. It is our challenge to watch these programs and parse through the identity politics they present. I am not trying to argue that MTV is taking premeditated strides towards mending our broken social bonds. Rather, MTV is doing what it has always done—it is filling a gap, in this case, our desire to figure out what identity means in a society that really wants to believe it is post-identity.

Works Cited

Gans, Herbert. “Symbolic Ethnicity: The Future of Ethnic Groups and Cultures in America.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 2:1 (1979): 1-20.

Hay, Carla. “Proper Role of Music TV Debated in U.S.” Billboard. 17 Feb 2o01. Web. 10 Jan 2013.

Kraszewski, Jon. “Country Hicks and Urban Cliques: Mediating Race, Reality, and Liberalism on MTV’s The Real World.” Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Eds. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouellette. New York: NYU Press, 2004. 179-196.

Oake, Jonathan I. “Reality Bites and Generation X as Spectator.” The Velvet Light Trap 53 (2004): 83-97.

My Year of Reading for Pleasure

Bridge_to_Terabithia

The first chapter book I ever read without adult intervention was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was 6 years old and it took  me months to finish it. Or maybe it only took a few weeks. Never trust a 6-year-old’s concept of time. Regardless, by the time I finished Charlotte’s Web the corners of the book were smushed and the cover was missing. I read that book. I don’t remember too much about the experience except this: I couldn’t believe that I was reading a chapter book  all by myself. It seemed impossibly mature.  My next literary milestone occurred a few years later when I read Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia, a lovely tale of friendship between two 5th graders. Then (SPOILER ALERT) one of the friends falls into a river and drowns. This was the first book I read in which a human character — a kid no less! — dies.  I knew the death was coming — my classmates spread the news like a dark secret (“Did you read the book where the girl dies?”) — but the sadness I experienced as I read about little Leslie’s tragic drowning still surprised me. How sweet and liberating it was to cry over something that had no consequences in the real world.

WhereRedFern3

Naturally this led me, at the tender age of 11, to  Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, the big papa of children’s literature death porn. If you’re not familiar with this tearjerker, it’s about a little boy who, after much hard work and much saving of money in an old K.C. Baking Powder can, finally purchases two coonhounds, Little Ann and Old Dan. Why did he want these dogs? To hunt raccoons of course! Old Dan and Little Ann were topnotch coonhounds. Then they die. And let’s be clear: these dogs don’t just die, they perform death in the most melodramatic, Oscar-baiting fashion imaginable. Remember this passage?

“What I saw was more than I could stand. The noise I heard had been made by Little Ann. All her life she had slept by Old Dan’s side. And although he was dead, she had left the doghouse, had come back to the porch, and snuggled up by his side.”

I’m surprised that Little Ann didn’t rise up on her hind legs and recite a soliloquy about love and companionship before collapsing in a heap onto Old Dan’s grave. But those epic death scenes weren’t enough for Wilson Rawls. He continues the torture when he has his narrator reflect on the lives of his faithful pups:

“After the last shovel of dirt was patted in place, I sat down and let my mind drift back through the years. I thought of the old K. C. Baking Powder can, and the first time I saw my pups in the box at the depot. I thought of the fifty dollars, the nickels and dimes, and the fishermen and blackberry patches.

I looked at his grave and, with tears in my eyes, I voiced these words: ‘You were worth it, old friend, and a thousand times over.’”

I defy you to read Where the Red Fern Grows and not have your heart broken. I remember finishing that book, in the summer after 5th grade, and running to my mom’s room, sobbing. All I could do was hold up the book and whine “They both DIED!” My mom nodded and smiled. I think she was relieved. 11-year-olds cry a lot but book crying is much easier to handle than real-life crying.

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In those early heady days of book consumption, I found that, in addition to crying, I liked being terrified. I read most of the Stephen King canon, which I would not recommend for young children. Seriously, 11-year-old’s should not be allowed to read It. After that I was terrified of my sink. And gutters. And really, everything. That’s some top notch parenting, Klein family.

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Sure, I read some of the children’s lit classics, like Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and the period/masturbation/wet dreams books by Jude Blume (Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret, Deenie, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t) but I really loved the trash. There were the Sweet Valley High books,  Flowers in the Attic (V.C. Andrews, you dirty, dirty bird), and Archie digests.  I loved reading so much that when I went to college, I had no doubts about becoming an English major. While my friends complained about their homework, I lounged in my bed reading A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller), Geography III (Elizabeth Bishop) and Nightwood (Djuna Barnes) and loving my major. Most of the time it didn’t even feel like work to me. Ironically, it was when I went to graduate school to become a professional reader of books that I stopped reading fiction completely. Part of this had to do with the fact that I decided to study film, rather than literature. But also, having to devote so much time and energy to  reading and decoding dense theoretical texts put me off the idea of reading for pleasure. For 10 years the only books I read “for pleasure” were the Harry Potter series and US Weekly. 

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This changed when my husband brought home a Kindle Fire last winter. It was a holiday gift from his boss. I wasn’t too interested –you know, since “I don’t read.” But I had been hearing a lot about Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games series  from, well, everyone, and I was tempted to read it myself. I had been tempted by sensational kid-murdering novels before, of course, but usually I would tell myself that I didn’t have time to read. I’m a working mother and I don’t get to recline on a couch somewhere and read a young adult novel about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other. Of course, I could watch a film or TV show about a dystopian world in which teenagers are forced to kill each other (because that’s not pleasure, it’s “work”). When I finally decided to download a copy of The Hunger Games on New Year’s Eve 2011, I did so because I thought it might be therapeutic. My father had died a few days before year’s end and reading seemed like a good way to work through my emotions. So I read.

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A few days later I finished The Hunger Games and decided, on a whim, to buy the sequel, Mockingjay. I bought Catching Fire one week later. And that’s how it went for several months. I found myself reading several books each month. I still had two kids and a full-time job and dishes to wash, but I found a way to fit reading in to my daily schedule. If I ever thought that maybe I shouldn’t be spending so much time reading — that I could be finishing up an article or folding some laundry or letting the children out of their cages for their daily 10 minutes of sun exposure — I reminded myself: this is therapeutic. So I kept reading.

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Now it’s approximately 11 months after I first picked up the Kindle and I have read a total of 23 books. Here they are, categorized by my own personalized genres:

Fun stuff I never would have let myself read in grad school:

The Hunger Games, Mockingjay, Catching Fire (Suzanne Collins)

50 Shades of Grey (E.L. James)

Twilight (Stephenie Meyer)

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

Books written by funny people I like:

Is Everyone Hanging Out without Me? (Mindy Kaling)

Bossypants (Tina Fey)

Half Empty (David Rackoff)

Sad books where people die or are already dead:

Swamplandia! (Karen Russell)

The Descendants (Kaui Hart Hemmings)

The Fault in Our Stars (John Green)

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)

Dysfunctional family stories

Little Children, The Leftovers (Tom Perrotta)

Motherland (Amy Sohn)

The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides)

Room (Emma Donoghue)

Dystopian and/or fantasy

The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)

A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)

Ready Player One (Ernest Cline)

Misc.

Pulphead (John Jeremiah Sullivan)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (Stephen Chbosky)

That’s three times as many books as I read in the preceding decade. Why did I read so much?  I think the e-book format definitely compelled me to read more. The convenience of being able to purchase a book whenever I wanted to coupled with the portability of the device — try propping a real novel on a gym elliptical machine — has definitely made me more inclined to read and to read often. In fact, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey “The average reader of e-books says she has read 24 books (the mean number) in the past 12 months, compared with an average of 15 books by a non-e-book consumer.” I also found that social media really encouraged my reading habits. Every time I finished a book I could go on Twitter and ask people what my next book should be — one thing people are always happy to share are book recommendations. I also got involved with an online book club on Facebook. The group, composed primarily of other female academics, led me to read two books I never would have picked up otherwise: 50 Shades of Grey and Gone Girl.  This culminated with a drunken live reading of 50 Shades of Grey at a conference, which was as delightful as it sounds (at least it was for us, less so for our bewildered bartender). More recently I decided to read Twilight. After tweeting about this decision, several other Twitter-friends decided to join me in the endeavor, forming an impromptu book club (here is a link to a Storify of our conversations). I have not enjoyed Twilight, but participating in Twilight-related tweeting has motivated me to finish. This sense of community, whether it’s an organized book club or simply sharing my thoughts about a recent read with online friends, has greatly added to my reading enjoyment this year.

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I’ve also read a lot this year because I finally remembered that I like to read. It seems like a silly thing to forget but as I get further along in my career it has become easier to marginalize the activities that give me pleasure simply because they serve no purpose other than the giving of pleasure. As if pleasure is purposeless or wasteful. Perhaps this is just a symptom of being a working parent but I suspect it has more to do with the larger culture of academia, which stresses a lifestyle in which everything — including leisure time –must be quantified, accounted for, and somehow contribute to one’s research or pedagogy. In an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education that hit just a little too close to home for me, “It’s Your Duty to be Miserable!” ,William Pannapacker describes the typical thought process of the academic:

“If someone asks, ‘How are you?,’ I sigh, shrug, and say, ‘Busy, like everyone else.’ If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called ‘the turtlenecked hairshirt.’I can’t help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it’s getting stronger all the time.”

In 2012 I have made an attempt to get out of my hairshirt, one e-book at a time. I’m not sure that I will continue my frenetic reading pace in 2013, but I have definitely re-Kindled my love affair with the written word (pun intended). I have found that reading for pleasure is valuable because it is pleasurable, and nothing more.

For those of you out there with e-readers, have you found that you now read more? If so, why do you think that is? What is the best book you read in 2012? And what should I read in 2013?

Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part II: Parenting on the Job

A few weeks ago I published Part 1 of a two-part post entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part I: Grad School Babies.” This post covered the presentations and discussions that took place during a workshop that I chaired at this year’s  Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University, entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” This post discussed the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school. I was pleased to see how many people engaged in this conversation — in the comments section of this blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter. I often feel self conscious whenever I link up my roles as parent and professor since acknowledging that one role might impact the other implies a weakness. It makes me a less desirable employee than my child-free counterpart. Thus, the first rule of being an academic parent is don’t talk about being an academic parent.  I also worry about alienating ,or at least annoying, my child-free friends and colleagues with posts like these — I don’t want anyone to “un-baby” my blog. Wait, you’re doing it right now, aren’t you? Okay fine. Here’s a picture of a kitten:

In all seriousness, I think these conversations are important for all academics to have, even those who never plan to have children. We all need to work together, after all, and we need to find ways to accomodate each other and create policies that help us all to be the best scholars, teachers, and yes, committee-members, we can be. As my lovely colleague, Anna Froula put it:

“I want the colleagues I work with to be happy at work (so they’ll keep working with me), so it’s a quality of life issue.  The reason I defer to [colleagues with children when] scheduling meetings is because, simply put, you have more humans in your family that depend on you to balance work and home life.  My time is more flexible because I don’t have kids. If one of us had an ill parent or some other pressing issue to deal with, it would be the same thing.  We should want to take care of each other so we can enjoy working together and do so efficiently.”

Like Anna, I want us all to enjoy working together. To that end,  this post will replace all cute baby pictures with cute animal pictures. But be warned: my Facebook page remains fully babyfied.

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“The ‘Child Friendly’ Department: Definitions and Expectations”

In this post I’ll be summarizing the portions of the workshop that covered parenting after graduate school. In many ways, the life of a college instructor is ideally suited to the rhythms of parenting.  We have the option to take our summers “off” (though for me, “taking the summer off” means I don’t teach but I do continue to research, write, and work on my fall syllabi and course plans). Most teaching schedules are confined to a Tuesday/Thursday or Monday/Wednesday/Friday schedule, which allows parents to work from home at least one or two days per week (unless they hold an administrative position). And most college courses are over by 4:00 pm or 5:00 pm, which allows parents to be home when their kids are finished with school for the day. Pretty sweet, right? Well, maybe not. In their article, “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate,” Nikki C. Townsley and Kristin J. Broadfoot argue that “…short-term flexibility obfuscates the long term inflexibility of academia for faculty committed to both work and family.” Here are some examples:

* women who get TT job before having kids were less likely to become mothers or get married and were more likely to be divorced or separated.

* female academics were found to hold the highest rate of childlessness amongst professional women at 43%.

* the tenure track model supports a progressive, linear and seamless career model  in that many TT jobs expect professors to teach full course loads, be on several committees and publish at least one book in the 1st 5 years on the job.

* in fact, TT job expectations are built on presumption that professor has a full-time home-based caregiver  and homemaker. The university is not structured to accommodate dual career families.

These statistics beg the question: is being an academic parent harder for women than it is for men? In “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?” Bonnie J. Dow writes that lack of support for pre-tenure parenting negatively affects careers of female junior faculty more than male junior faculty. Here are some of her findings:

*12-14 years after obtaining PhD,  males on the tenure track in the humanities & social sciences with “early babies” (babies born in the first 5 years after finishing the PhD) receive tenure at rate of 78%.

* 58% of women in same position receive tenure.

*women with “late babies” (babies born more than 5 years after the PhD) received tenure at a rate of 71%.

*47% of women reported great deal of tension and stress over parenting/work conflict versus 27% of men.

Dow’s findings indicate that many female professors are unable to fulfill the requirements of tenure while parenting a young child. The later women wait to have a baby, the better their chances for tenure. But male parents don’t face the same problems. They have an easier time having successful academic careers while having families. Indeed, Dow’s article mirrors many of the points made by Anne-Marie Slaughter in her hotly contested piece in The Atlantic from earlier this summer. In her article, entitled “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” Slaughter argues that women have a harder time being mother-workers than men do. I know there was a lot of blowback on this piece but Slaughter makes a lot of great points. For example, she writes:

“If women feel deeply that turning down a promotion that would involve more travel, for instance, is the right thing to do, then they will continue to do that. Ultimately, it is society that must change, coming to value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family. If we really valued those choices, we would value the people who make them; if we valued the people who make them, we would do everything possible to hire and retain them; if we did everything possible to allow them to combine work and family equally over time, then the choices would get a lot easier.”

As I mentioned in my last post, graduate student mothers are told to hide the fact that they are mothers when going on the job market. As if being a parent is a liability.  Academia needs to find a way to better bring together work and family.

Before we move on, though, why don’t we all enjoy a puppy picture?

Ahhhhhh.

Now I’d like to discuss some of the feedback I collected through my survey. First, a quick note on this survey. Although I did obtain IRB approval in order to conduct this survey and share the results publicly, I quickly discovered that I had no idea how to design a survey. I had an especially difficult time crafting multi-part questions. For example, I wanted to know how many of my respondents (which included tenure track faculty, fixed term faculty,  independent scholars, and graduate students) were offered the option to stop their tenure clock after the birth of a child, who took that option and why. The data that resulted from my questions is confusing since the question was targeted only at those people on the tenure track, followed by those who had the option to stop the clock, followed by those who actually took that option. But I did get some useful data. In partIcular, I was intrigued by the responses to my question “What is your definition of a child friendly department?” I read through all of the responses and was able to sort these responses into 5 broad categories, which I will list below (along with some representative responses).

How Do Your Colleagues Define a “Child Friendly” Department?

1. Openness and Acceptance

“I would define it as a place where children are accepted and discussed as a normal thing, where I don’t have to feel like I might be looked down upon for having children, where I can speak freely about them without reservation. You know, like you’d talk about your dogs. No one is worried that they shouldn’t mention owning dogs because they might be judged or it might affect their academic work. Yet I feel like it’s easier to talk about pets than children.”

“Faculty, staff and graduate students would also not feel uncomfortable even *mentioning* children, which can happen among academics.”

“…parents feel comfortable revealing work/family conflict to chair in an effort to resolve them If possible”

“A department that accepts parenting as an appropriate activity for a professor and makes reasonable accommodations for it.”

“One that understands and accomodates faculty with children such that within reason, parents are allowed to be the kind of parents they would like to be. “

2. Flexibility… for Everyone, not Just Parents

“Rather than child friendly, perhaps family friendly or life friendly–a place which recognizes that humans have obligations to other humans that sometimes interrupt the ordinarily scheduled activities of a career. That said, I do think all department members should be thoughtful and respectful of their colleagues, recognizing that obligations come in lots of shapes and sizes–some of which are easier to talk about than others.”

“A department that recognizes that faculty AND staff are humans with human needs and issues including the care of children [and/or ill family members or elderly parents] with willingness to flexibly schedule committee meetings or to understand the need for occasional help arranging coverage of classes in emergencies (as with conferences and other professional demands) and to offer suggestions for newcomers on how to find effective childcare.”

“A ‘child friendly’ department alternates the times at which meetings and events (readings, workshops, etc.) are scheduled, so that not *everything* happens during a parent’s ‘second shift’ at home.”

“One that understands not to schedule events after 4:30 in the afternoon. One that understands that if you do schedule a lot of nightly events, then you won’t go. And one that makes public statements supporting why parents with young children are less able to participate in extracurricular events.”

3. Where Parents Aren’t Penalized for Being Parents

“A child friendly department is one that …promotes/recognizes employees based on their JOB performance, and doesn’t penalize or overlook employees based on their maternal obligations.”

“…a general respect for my decision to have children, where it is not looked at as a problem, or a road block on my tenure track.”

“A department that doesn’t force people to choose between a career and a family.”

“One that makes it easy for me to be an academic and a parent at the same time. As a grad student, I can’t afford day care, and I live away from my family, which means that since I have the more flexible schedule between me and my non-academic partner, I am the full-time caretake of my kids, as well as a full-time student, part-time teacher, union steward, committee member, etc. I don’t have the luxury of separating these out.”

“Provides parents with the same opportunities as non-parents. Does not give parents or non-parents an advantage over each other.”

4. Clearly Defined (& Fair) Parental Leave Policies, Including the Option to Stop Tenure Clock

“Gives teaching and graduate assistants maternity leave…”

“A department that provides parental leaves for both partners and in the case of a single parent a longer leave or reduced load including the leave. In addition, if a faculty member elects to stop the tenure clock then at the time of assessment one should not look at when s/he received his/her Ph.D.”

In “Why Maternity Leave is Important,” Meredith Melnick cites a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that found: “Women with 3-month-old infants who worked full time reported feeling greater rates of depression, stress, poor health and overall family stress than mothers who were able to stay home (either because they didn’t have a job or because they were on maternity leave).” These results suggest that the transition back into employment immediately after childbirth is difficult for the average family. Mothers in particular get stressed and depressed when they must return to work too soon after the birth or adoption of a child. And a stressed/depressed mother has a negative impact on her children. Melnick quotes NBER researchers, Pinka Chatterji, Sara Markowitz and Jeanne Brooks-Gunn, who found that “Numerous studies show that clinical depression in mothers as well as self-reported depressive symptoms, anxiety, and psychological distress, are important risk factors for adverse emotional and cognitive outcomes in their children, particularly during the first few years of life.” Despite the results of studies that demonstrate the necessity of some kind of paid parental leave for new parents, the U.S. is one of two developed economies in the world that do not provide some form of universal paid maternity leave (the other is Australia). This is the same country that produces senators like Rep. Todd Akin,  the Republican nominee for Senate in Missouri, who believes the female body contains “biological defenses” that prevent it from getting pregnant during a “legitimate rape.” In other words, women shouldn’t abort their babies and they can’t take off work to care for them either. But I digress…

In terms of the folks I surveyed, 23% took an unpaid parental leave, 32% took a paid leave and 28% took no kind of leave after the birth/adoption of a child. Of those who did not take any time off, 15% said their departments did not offer paid leave, 9% worried it would affect their ability to keep their jobs, 6% worried it would impact their ability to get tenure, 12% (who were men) said that men do not normally take leave in their departments and 9% said they didn’t take leave because they didn’t want to. In general, it seems that the length of parental leaves (if they are offered at all) vary wildly from school to school. I was lucky to get a paid maternity leave of one full semester after the birth of my son. Since he was born, my university’s policy has been shortened from a full semester (15 weeks) to 12 weeks. I don’t see how this change saves the university much money (do we save money by having a professor teach 4 weeks of a 15 week course?) and since I am currently on my university’s Faculty Welfare Committee, I plan to address this change when we meet again this fall.

 5. Your Question is Illogical! 

4 of my 180 respondents responded to the question “How do you define a child friendly department” with something along the lines of “Girl, you crazy!”

“Why do we need a definition? An employee’s job is to work. Their outside responsibilities belong outside of the work environment. University employees are employees just like in a business. Business does not allow exceptions for parents with children-schedules or maternity leaves. Only in this environment would the employees be pandered to in this way.”

“I don’t have one. Why would other adults do favors for my children? My colleagues interact with me and I am not a child.”

“One of the problems to be considered when exploring the idea of ‘child friendly’ is a perceived disconnect between faculty expectations and the ‘real-world’ workplace. To put this another way, the public is unlikely to be supportive of expressions of concern about the absence of a child friendly culture when they have to do without it in their lives. Nor is the legislature likely to be supportive.”

These comments are not representative of the vast pool of responses I received, but I found them worth reporting because they address something important that academics need to consider: do we expect too much? After all, a parent working in a top law firm can’t expect meetings to be scheduled around her daycare schedule and an ER doctor can’t refuse to work nights because he wants to be able to put his baby to bed.

Bonnie J. Dow argues that lack of institutional support for colleagues with children ends up hurting the entire department: “…as long as family-friendly departments enable academic parents to rely on their colleagues’ informal support, they simultaneously enable institutions to forestall developing the structural solutions that would make that support less necessary.” She claims that when a faculty member agrees to cover a class after a colleague gives birth “…the unintended consequence of such short-term fixes is that institutions continue to rely upon them as ad hoc and interpersonal solutions to a structural problem.” Likewise, academic parents must be careful not to take advantage of colleagues. Dow offers 5 rules that academic parents should follow in a good faith effort to not take advantage of their child-free colleagues:

 1. Don’t bring kids to the office

2. Don’t bring kids to meetings

3. Arrange for child care for meetings (NOT JUST TEACHING)

4. Department couples are not interchangeable—you both need to be present

5.  Colleagues are not required to accommodate your parenting philosophy

I’m not sure that I agree with all of Dow’s suggestions. If your child is ill and you must get to campus to meet with a student, you might have to bring your kid with you, and that doesn’t seem like it should be a big deal. But Dow’s overarching point seems to be: remember that you are part of a department. Meetings, job candidate dinners, and the like, are all part of your work obligations and you should therefore have childcare available for those events. When you stop pulling your weight, your weight doesn’t vanish. It just appears in someone else’s “to do” pile. Colleagues should keep my precarious schedule in mind (if you want me to attend a weekly meeting, then try to schedule it during my kid’s day care hours) but my needs do not trump their needs. At some point every member of a given department is going to have a personal situation conflict with duties at work. As colleagues we need to be able to take up each other’s slack when needed and within reason.

How can we do this? Jason Mittell offered some great suggestions during our worksop. As chair of his department he has instituted and/or supported the following policies to make life easier for the humans who work there (and the humans who depend on them) :

* Make kids visible. By acknowledging that we’re parents & not trying to hide it in the workplace, we all can be more sensitive to various demands & conflicts that can emerge. This means both talking about our kids and making a welcome environment for them to be in the office when necessary.

* Fewer meetings. Whenever possible, we try to deal with things via email or ad-hoc rather than have frequent regular meetings, recognizing that the more flexible our schedules are, the better. Not all faculty members feel this is preferable, but to me, at least, it helps ensure that time spent in the office is more focused on what I need it to be, rather than the formalities of meetings.

* Sensitive scheduling of meetings. When we do have meetings, we try to schedule them during regular hours that coincide with school/daycare coverage (i.e. never later than 4:30, ideally on Friday afternoon or other times when nobody teaches).

* Sensitive scheduling of class times. For faculty with kids, we try to let them schedule the timing that works best for them. This includes screenings, which we allow to be scheduled concurrently to allow us to only be out one night each week.

* No “face time” expectations. For some faculty, there is frequently a culture of “face time,” where being around the office is an expectation & you’re judged by your presence. I’ve tried to push back against this, emphasizing that as long as you’re getting your work done & students/colleagues know how to get in touch with you, it doesn’t matter where you’re doing it. For staff, it’s a bit more complicated (and I’d love to hear ways to make things work better in this regard), but in general I hope that people feel our department is one where being away from your desk isn’t seen as a problem.

* Embrace flextime & telecommuting. When kids are sick, have events or appointments, or otherwise draw you away from the office, it’s not a big deal to work from home or shift your normal hours around, as long as students & colleagues who need to know are in the loop.

* Engage the conversation. When I shared this list with my colleagues, half of them expressed their appreciation that I had raised the issue. As one said, “I knew that the department embraced these ideas, but having them spelled out in an email from the chair makes it feel more validated and legitimate.”

Don’t you all wish Jason was your department chair?

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In the comments section I would love for readers to share their experiences — both good and bad — with being a post-grad academic parent. What policies have been the most helpful to you and why? What changes were you able to make to your department or university’s policies regarding parental leave, the tenure clock, on-site daycare centers, and/or scheduling needs? What changes were you unable to make? And for those academics without children — how have colleagues with children impacted your work life? How have you tried to accomodate them and, just as important, how have they tried to accomodate you? Keep in mind that if you feel uncomfortable having this conversation in a public forum (these are sensitive issues), you can feel free to use an alias. I won’t out you.

Works Cited

Dow, Bonnie J. “Does it Take a Department to Raise a Child?”  Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 158-165.

Melnick, Meredith. “Study: Why Maternity Leave is Important.” Time 21 July 2011. <http://healthland.time.com/2011/07/21/study-why-maternity-leave-is-important/&gt;.

Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” The Atlantic July/August 2012. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/&gt;.

Townsley, Nikki C. & Kristin J. Broadfoot. “Care, Career, and Academe: Heeding the Calls of a New Professoriate.” Women’s Studies in Communication  31.2 (2008): 133-143.

Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent, Part I: Grad School Babies

On July 19-21 I attended the biennial conference, Console-ing Passions: A Conference on Television, Audio, Video, New Media, and Feminism, hosted by Suffolk University (on a side note, if you write about or study anything related to these themes, I strongly encourage you to apply to Console-ing Passions in 2o14. You won’t regret it). In addition to presenting a paper on Teen Mom (don’t you judge me), I also chaired a workshop entitled “Work, Study and Scholarship as an Academic Parent.” During this workshop, Eleanor Patterson, Jason Mittell, and Melissa Click, three media studies scholars at different points in their academic careers, candidly discussed the challenges and rewards, both personal and professional, related to being a parent in academia.

The reason I’m sharing what transpired during this workshop here is twofold. First, as anyone who has ever attended an academic conference knows, the turn out at individual panels and workshops is precarious. You could have 50 people in your audience or 5 (we had more than 5, less than 50). I thought the stories and advice that circulated during our 90-minute workshop would be useful reading for other parents who live and work in the Ivory Tower as well as those who are pondering whether or not to become parents. Second, for my part of the workshop I explored definitions of the “child friendly department” — and what academics with children have a right to expect (or not expect) from their employers, colleagues, and students — and conducted a survey to see how other folks in the academy defined this term. I am grateful that 180 busy parents agreed to participate in my survey. Since many of them told me they were curious about its findings, I wanted share the results here.

I will cover the workshop in two parts to make reading and sharing more manageable. In Part I I will be discussing the challenges and rewards of having a child while still in graduate school and in Part II I will address the challenges and rewards of post-doc life with children.

“Navigating Motherhood as a Media Studies Graduate Student”

During our workshop Eleanor Patterson, a doctoral student in the Media & Cultural Studies program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, discussed her experiences being a parent while still in graduate school. I asked Eleanor if she would participate in this workshop after reading her smart, funny, and insightful post, “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.”  Here are some (but not all) of the key points Eleanor addressed during our workshop, with additional commentary by me (because I just can’t help sharing my own war stories):

Parenting is a feminist issue

Eleanor began her presentation with this statement: “being a parent in academia is a site where power is literally exercised over the body, in how we reproduce and parent. As a grad student, our labor has less political and social power within academic institutions.” It is difficult to be a new parent in any context but when you become a new parent as a graduate student, the low man/woman on the academic totem pole, navigating the field becomes even more difficult. New parents often find themselves in situations where they must request “special considerations” (flexible scheduling, missing meetings to care for sick children, etc.) and asking for these considerations is daunting when you feel like you have no power or that the very act of asking could somehow tarnish your reputation as a “serious” scholar. You become paranoid, constantly wondering how your choice to have a child will impact how others see you. You become extra determined to not let being a parent impact the way you function professionally (which is impossible, by the way).

As the authors of “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics” point out, being a parent and being an academic are similar in many ways: “The intensity and reverence with which academics and parents undertake their respective ‘labors of love’ is undoubtedly similar. And certainly both vocations can be marked by constant self scrutiny and a nagging sense of incompletion and imperfection.” It’s true. Nevertheless…

Being a parent and a graduate student are two roles that frequently appear to be at odds

TEEN MOM’s Maci can tell you how difficult it is to study with a young child in the house

During our workshop, Eleanor rightly pointed out that unlike faculty parents, grad students must adjust to “the new demands of academia while simultaneously adjusting to the new life of parent.” Although very little research has been done on graduate student parents, what is known is that there is a lower attrition rate for graduate student moms. After citing this fact, Eleanor was quick to add “I don’t mean to suggest that grad students shouldn’t be moms, but I bring this up to say that being a grad parent is complicated and there are concrete, material incongruences with how academia is structured and being a grad parent.” To name just one example, graduate students often struggle financially as they are sandwiched between student loans stemming from college and a highly uncertain economic future. And new babies? Well, they cost a lot of money. They need clothing and diapers and constant visits to the doctor and toys that are made with lead-free paint. How can a grad student, who can barely pay her rent, support the life of another human being?

It should not be surprising then that the majority of graduate students decide to wait until after they finish their degrees, or later, to have children. According to Mary Ann Mason’s 2009 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education “Exact figures are elusive, but a study we did of doctoral students at the University of California indicated that about 13 percent become parents by the time they graduate.” This is a problem for female academics in particular since the median age for women to complete a doctoral degree is 33 and for most women, fertility begins to drop starting at age 30. In her aforementioned blog post on parenting as a grad student, Eleanor explains “I also believe that the general discourse that encourages women who want children to wait until they’ve completed their Ph.D. is part of a greater patriarchal discourse that disciplines our bodies. I  think it is similar in many ways to the advice female faculty often receive to have their children over the summer. As if taming our biological reproduction to match the academic school calendar would make academia more amenable to parenting or mothering.”

Graph courtesy of babycentre.com

After my husband and I got together in my early twenties, we began to have earnest conversations about when we could start having children. I was emotionally ready for kids, but I was terrified about how it would impact my academic career. How would I finish my degree with a child in the house? Would I ever get a job if I had a kid first? I asked some of the professors and older graduate students in my department for advice and received lots of conflicting opinions. One popular answer was to wait to start my family until I was awarded tenure. Allow me to explain why this is problematic logic: I started my Masters degree in the Fall of 1999 and finished my PhD in the summer of 2007. Other than taking one year off after my MA to work for AmeriCorps  so that I didn’t start drawing symbols and formulas all over the windows of my Pittsburgh apartment, Beautiful Mind-style (a story for another time, perhaps),  I moved relatively quickly through my degrees. Then I won the academic lottery by snagging a tenure track job for the fall of 2007. If all goes well and I am awarded tenure in the spring of 2013 (fingers crossed), I will be 36 years old.

Me, several months before completing my MA

If I had waited to have children until tenure, I would be trying for my first at age 36. I know many women who were able to get pregnant with healthy babies at age 36 and beyond. But I also know a lot of women my age and older who are suffering through the stress and financial burden (not to mention the heartache) of infertility. Simply put, it is more difficult (and expensive) to get pregnant in your mid-30s. So, for many female academics who want to start a family, having a child while still in graduate school is probably the only way to do both. As Mason points out “[Many women] can see their biological clocks running out before they achieve the golden ring of tenure.”

Grad students are urged to “hide” their pregnancies and/or babies when they go on the job market

Imagine this scenario, but in a tiny bathroom and with lots of nervous sweat

Eleanor explains that “Graduate student mothers are not only confronted with logistical difficulties, limited support, and potentially constrained career paths; they must also contend with conflicting and powerful ideologies that surround academia and motherhood. I know this is an issue, because every professionalization workshop on job talks, and being on the job market, have emphasized that you should not discuss your position as a parent, or your partner, at all, unless once you have an offer, you might angle for a spousal hire.” I was given the same advice when I went on the academic job market in the winter of 2006. At the time, I was still breastfeeding my 7 month-old daughter, so keeping my status as a parent under wraps was challenging. Breast feeding mothers who are away from their babies need to pump every few hours or else they risk diminishing or losing their milk supply.

During my campus interviews I had to ask for a bathroom break every few hours so I could hide in a stall and pump, praying that no one would inquire about the weird “whoosh whoosh” sound of my battery-powered pump.  I would emerge from the bathroom 20 minutes later, with a wrinkled suit and sweaty brow, pretending like nothing unusual had just occurred.  When I finally gave up this exhausting ruse and told one of my future colleagues what I was up to (this was my third campus interview in the space of 2 weeks and I was just fed up with lying), he breathed a sigh of relief and said “Oh great, I’m glad you told me you have a kid. Now I can tell you about child friendly our department is!” How silly I felt for keeping it a secret. I’m not saying that all of you parents should out yourself during your job interviews this fall but a good question to ask yourself is this: do you want to spend the next 40 years working in a department that sees your children as a liability?

Grad students are inadvertently penalized for having kids

“Don’t worry Mama! If you don’t finish your dissertation, you can just hang out with me ALL OF THE TIME!”

Part of being a graduate student is immersing yourself in your field. In addition to taking classes, teaching classes and writing, graduate students benefit from attending talks given by guest speakers, participating in colloquia, and (if you are a film studies scholar like myself), going to (or renting) movies with your fellow students. But when you are a parent, your time becomes limited. Once you have shelled out money to cover daycare while you go to class, teach and write, you are unlikely to have additional funds for a sitter so you can go to a talk, much less a movie. While your friends are having cocktails with Dr. Famous Scholar after her amazing, intellectually stimulating talk, you’re at home stacking blocks with your baby. Yes, your baby is wonderful, but you are definitely missing out on some key grad student experiences.

During her presentation Eleanor cited a study by the American Sociological Association that found that many crucial resources — including help with publishing, mentoring, effective teaching training, and fellowships — were less available to graduate student parents, particularly mothers, than to other students (Spalter-Roth & Kennelly, 2004). Graduate mothers are also less likely to be enrolled in higher ranking departments (Kennelly & Spalter-Roth, 2006). Furthermore, having a child in graduate school often comes with little to no support. Mason found that “Only 13 percent of institutions in the Association of American Universities (the 62 top-tanked research universities) offer paid maternity leave to doctoral students, and only 5 percent provide dependent health care for a child.”

What to do if you want to have a child while in graduate school:

“Hey Girl, let’s make some grad school babies. I won’t tell Wanda.”

Unless you have had a Doogie Howser-like educational trajectory and thus finished your Ph.D. in your mid-twenties, having a child while still in grad school may be the only option for women (and men) who want both an academic career and a family. Eleanor offered up some great questions to ask yourself before you make the decision to have a child while finishing up your graduate degree:

*How much university/departmental support is available for graduate students with children?

*Will you get paid parental leave and/or continuation of health insurance when you take parental leave?

*Will your health insurance cover dependents?

*Will your department “stop the clock” on your funding while you take parental leave?

*Is there an on-campus daycare (or any daycare) that you can afford?

*Are professors in your department willing to give you some leeway (in terms of paper extensions, missed classes, etc) after your child is born?

*How far along are you in your degree? The final years of dissertation work are often the most conducive to parenting since you no longer need to be on campus daily for classes.

Saranna Thornton outlines similar ways to make parenting more amenable to graduate students here.

It’s still hard

“Hey Mama, your dissertation is great…for me to puke on.”

Finishing a Ph.D. is hard. Raising a child is hard. Putting those two jobs together? Very, very hard. Eleanor offers some of the highlights “To get things turned in on time, I have to plan my weeks out in advance, and no longer have the luxury of waiting for my muse to hit before I begin writing. I regularly have to write during my ‘free’ time between class/teaching to get stuff finished.” She also describes typing papers with a sleeping child on her lap. I have clear memories of breastfeeding my newborn daughter while simultaneously typing up my job application letters. I’m not sure that I would ever want to relive the year in which I had my first baby, completed my dissertation, taught two classes, and applied to 40 jobs. But what kept me going that year (and what continues to keep me going) is the realization that the pay off for all of that stress, the many sleepless nights, and endless hustle to write during the isolated gaps of my day (being a parent teaches you how to write any time), is a job that makes me happy when I am away from my children and a personal life that makes me happy when I am away from my job.

Of course, I should add that I had an ideal situation for having a baby during graduate school. My husband worked from home and made a good salary so that we could afford to hire a nanny for 25 hours each week. This gave me just enough time to finish my dissertation and apply to jobs (even though I still did a lot of this work while holding a baby in my lap). But even if you don’t have a partner with a great job, here are some reasons why having a child during graduate school can be a great choice:

* your schedule is far more flexible as a graduate student (especially an ABD) than it is as a full-time faculty member (remember a TT job involves research, teaching, service, and meetingsmeetingsmeetings)

* when things get crazy in the first years of the job, your child will be older and less likely to be keeping you up all night with his/her blood-curdling screams

*since most of your graduate student cohorts don’t have (and don’t plan to have) kids, you will have a built-in community of eager aunties and uncles who will genuinely enjoy taking a break from “the life of the mind” to play with your kid for a few hours while you work on dissertation revisions (or at least, this was my experience)

*the push to publish a book (or two) once you are on the tenure track often scares faculty away from having kids. I know several academics who fully intended to have children before landing their first job and who now say “Who has the time?”

I hope this section doesn’t come off as “this worked for me so it must work for everyone” advice. My point is that graduate students are often under the impression that they must put having children on hold until they finish their degrees or get tenure. I don’t think this is necessarily the best advice.

Embrace your choice

As Eleanor concluded her presentation she offered up a great piece of advice to graduate student parents: “perform legitimacy.” In other words, don’t apologize for your decision to have a child or hide this fact. The more visible student parents are, the better the environment will be for all graduate student parents. She also emphasized the importance of good mentors, both at the graduate student and at the faculty level.

I mentioned earlier in this piece that as a graduate student I was advised by many to wait until tenure to have children. However, I had one faculty mentor who gave me very different advice. She was one of the few professors in my department who brought her child to receptions and events and discussed the fact that she was a mother openly. As a graduate student I watched her do this and I mentally noted: “This is possible. This is okay.” One day I asked her to meet me for coffee and she told me about her experiences having a child in graduate school and why it was a great decision for her. I view this conversation as one of the most pivotal in my entire academic career and I will forever be grateful to this mentor. I hope to do the same for someone else some day.

*****

This post, as well as Eleanor’s workshop presentation, are based almost entirely on personal experiences. I would love for readers to share their experiences below. What kind of advice (if any) did you receive about having children in graduate school? If you ended up having kids as a student, what was the biggest challenge and the biggest benefit of this decision? What advice would you give to graduate students who are contemplating having kids right now? Although this post focused more on the experiences of female graduate student parents, it would be great to hear from all of the men out there who had children while in graduate school (we know it’s hard for you guys too). How did your experiences differ from those outlined in this post?

Works Cited (& further reading)

Collett, Jessica. “Navigating Graduate School as a (Single) Parent.” scatterplot 5 Apr 2010. <http://scatter.wordpress.com/2010/04/05/navigating-graduate-school-as-a-single-parent/&gt;.

Kennelly, Ivy and Roberta M. Spalter-Roth. “Parents on the Job Market: Resources and Strategies that Help Sociologists Attain Tenure-Track Jobs.” The American Sociologist 37.4 (2006): 29-49.

Mason, Mary Ann. “Why So Few Doctoral-Student Parents?” The Chronicle of Higher Education. 21 Oct 2009. <http://chronicle.com/article/Why-So-Few-Doctoral-Student/48872/&gt;.

Patterson, Eleanor. “So You Want to be a Grad Student Mama.” Antenna 2 Aug 2011. <http://blog.commarts.wisc.edu/2011/08/02/grad-student-mama/&gt;.

Springer, Kristen W., Brenda K. Parker and Catherine Leviten-Reid.  “Making Space for Graduate Student Parents: Practice and Politics.” Journal of Family Issues 30.4 (2009): 435-457.

Thornton, Saranna. “Faculty Forum: Making Graduate School More Parent Friendly.” Academe Online Nov 2005. <http://www.aaup.org/AAUP/pubsres/academe/2005/ND/Col/ff.htm&gt;.

Call for Papers: Multiplicities: Cycles, Sequels, Remakes and Reboots in Film & Television

I wanted to use this space to promote an anthology I will be putting together with R. Barton Palmer, a wonderful scholar and colleague who I met back in the Spring of 2011, when he gave talk at ECU. If you are reading this post (Hello, YOU!) and you know of anyone who might like to submit an abstract (due August 30, 2012), please pass along the information below.

Multiplicities: Cycles, Sequels, Remakes and Reboots in Film & Television (working title)

Project Overview:

Like film genres, film cycles are a series of films associated with each other due to shared images, characters, settings, plots, or themes. But while film genres are primarily defined by the repetition of key images (their semantics) and themes (their syntax), film cycles are primarily defined by how they are used (their pragmatics). In other words, the formation and longevity of film cycles are a direct result of their immediate financial viability as well as the public discourses circulating around them. And because they are so dependent on audience desires, film cycles are also subject to defined time constraints: most film cycles are financially viable for only five to ten years.  The contemporaneity of the film cycle—which is made to capitalize on a trend before audience interest wanes—has contributed to its marginalized status, linking it with “low culture” and the masses.

As a result of their timeliness (as opposed to timelessness), film cycles remain a critically under examined area of inquiry in the field of film and media studies, despite the significant role film cycles have played in the history of American and international film production. This collection of essays seeks to remedy that gap by providing a wide-ranging examination of film cycles, sequels, franchises, remakes and reboots in both American and international cinema. Submissions should investigate the relationship between audience, industry and culture in relation to individual production cycles. We are also soliciting essays that examine how production cycles in the television industry are tied to audience, culture, and production trends in other media.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

-sequels, trilogies, and franchises as cycles

-the relationship between film cycles and subcultures

-the relationship between film cycles and political and social movements

-analyses of intrageneric cycles (film cycles within larger film genres) such as  teen-targeted musicals (High School Musical, Save the Last Dance, You Got Served) or torture porn horror films (Saw, Hostel, Touristas)

-analyses of intergeneric film cycles (stand-alone film cycles) like disaster films (The Day After Tomorrow, Poseidon, 2012) or mumblecore (Baghead, Cyrus, Tiny Furniture)

-the transmedia nature of cycles (the relationship between Harry Potter books, films, toys, video games, fan fiction, vids, etc.)

-the relationships between cycles in television, music, and film, like the appearance of fairytale television shows (Once Upon a Time, Grimm) and films (Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror) in 2011-2012

-production cycles found  within television (television musicals, comedy verite, etc.)

- essays that explore the (dis)connections between film cycles, on the one hand, and remakes, sequels, adaptations, and appropriations on the other

Submission Guidelines:

Please submit your abstracts of 400 words and a brief (1-page) CV via email to both of the editors by August 30, 2012. Finished essays should be approximately 6,000 to 7,000 words in length, including footnotes. Acceptance of essays will be contingent upon the contributors’ ability to deliver an essay that conforms to the work proposed by the submitted abstract. We will notify contributors by November 2012.

Please email your abstract and CV to both editors:

R. Barton Palmer: PPALMER@clemson.edu

Amanda Ann Klein: kleina@ecu.edu

I am also happy to answer any questions you might have about this project over email.

Reconsidering GIRLS

A month ago I participated in a blogathon devoted to the new HBO program Girls. The impetus for the blogathon was a series of discussions I was having with some media studies scholars (primarily Kristen Warner and Jennifer Jones) about the hype leading up to the show’s April 15th premiere. The public discourses surrounding the Girls premiere — in commercials created by HBO, interviews with the press, and reviews by critics who received advanced copies of the first three episodes — primarily stuck to the same theme: Girls is an authentic portrait of what it is like to be a twentysomething female today. Had the show simply been promoted as a new quirky portrait of a pirvileged, highly-educated but emotionally immature young woman’s struggles to make it as an artist in New York City, I am not sure our blogathon would have taken place at all. But the show’s generic title, which implies a universality (even as it mocks the maturity of its protagonists), coupled with the ecstatic reviews lauding the program’s authenticity, bumped up against the program’s rather rigid white, heterosexual, upper-class cast in an unpleasant way. Thus, the blogathon was our attempt to ask: do we take a television series to task for claiming to provide an authentic female bildungsroman when its “authenticity” is limited to one vision of female life?

One thing I did not say in my original post about the show, and which I think needs to be said, is that I do not blame Lena Dunham, the show’s creator, head writer, and star, for the way HBO advertised her show or the way television critics made her show, before a single episode ever aired, into a text that “speaks” for all of today’s young women. Dunham did not, for example, ever claim that her show was “FUBU” (for us, by us). That unfortunate statement came from a glowing preview written by television critic Emily Nussbaum. I enjoy Nussbaum’s work, particularly the way she writes about female characters on TV, but this was an absurd thing to write (well, to be fair, she was quoting her colleague). In addition to the problem of appropriating the phrase “for us, by us,” which was first used by Daymond John for his 1992 clothing line, FUBU (made by and for African American clientele), the claim that Girls was written for “us” by “us” implies that the white, heterosexual, upper class experience is generalizable to all women.

Mmmm, FUBU.

I suppose I understand why Nussbaum would include this statement in her review of Girls. Sometimes when I watch a film or television show, a moment rings so true that I wonder, briefly, if the creator has somehow read my diary. Knowing that this is impossible — I burned all of my diaries! — I then wonder if perhaps this truthful moment is something “universal.” That is an exhilarating feeling — that a private, personal experience is actually an experience linking me to a larger group of individuals. Indeed, you can feel Nussbaum’s excitement and her joy as she writes about Girls — the show clearly tapped into something personal and true for her. I too had moments like that when I watched Girls this season. But, I am also aware that I will have many more moments of personal recognition than, say, a white woman who had to pay her own way through college, or an African American woman who is looking at the screen and seeing no black faces, or a lesbian who is thinking “Seriously ladies, this is one of the reasons why I don’t date men.” To call Girls a show “for us, by us” implies that all of those other “us-es” don’t count.

White.

My reactions to the Girls pilot probably seems nitpicky. “Okay fine,” you might be thinking,”so you’re mad about the way the show was promoted. But what about the show itself? Isn’t it important to judge it on its own merits?” Yes, hypothetical, puzzled reader, you are right. Let’s talk about the show itself: in my original post about the pilot, I was critical of the show’s tone. I felt that Girls was playing coy with its politics. It felt like Dunham was adding a “first world problems” hashtag (complete with air quotes) to the pilot, rather than actually grappling with these issues head on. I wrote:

…the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it.

I was honestly confused about what, exactly, Lena Dunham was trying to tell us about her character, Hannah Horvath. Are we supposed to genuinely sympathize with her “plight” or are we supposed to view her existential struggle to become the “voice of her generation” (or “a voice of a generation”) as the whiny complaints of a young woman whose biggest dilemma is that her ex-boyfriend from college has finally come out of the closet? Or that her shirtless, douchebag lover doesn’t text her enough? Or that her best friend is dating a man with, to quote Hannah’s diary, “a vagina”? If, according to Jason Mittell, the goal of a pilot is “to educate viewers on what the show is, and inspire us to keep watching,” then I do think Girls failed in one of its primary jobs — to let us know what the series’ tone will be. Is it a serious drama with sympathetic characters (Parenthood) ? A broad comedy in which characters are built for punchlines (Big Bang Theory)? A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it’s funny (Curb Your Enthusiasm)?  A world filled with unlikable characters who do awful things and it FREAKS YOU OUT (Sopranos)?

The Girls pilot did not make its tone clear. If you take that ambiguous tone, couple it with the show’s overblown hype and claims to authenticity, and then look at the blinding whiteness of its cast, then that is the best way to explain why I (and so many others) did not react favorably to the pilot. But I feel differently now, which is why I am writing this follow up post. I think the tone of the series became crystal clear partway through episode 2, “Vagina Panic,” when Hannah decides to get tested for STDs. The scene opens with Hannah wearing one of those flimsy hospital gowns that open in the back, a piece of clothing that is engineered to make patients feel humiliated and therefore, pliant. As Hannah lays back on the examination table, feet in stirrups, she begins to ramble. I want to pause for a moment and point out that generally I hate the way movies and television depict the “foot in the stirrups” scenario because it is usually played for drama — “My God, Mrs. Smith, you’re seven months pregnant!” — or for comedy — “My God, Mrs. Smith, I’ve found your car keys!”

THE WORST

Instead, this scene reveals the pelvic exam, that necessary female rite of passage, for what it is — very, very, very uncomfortable. I don’t care how old I get, I will never be comfortable having a doctor  slide her gloved hand into an area which is normally pretty selective about who may enter it, insert a cold metal instrument inside of me so as to make that personal opening wider, and then have a perfectly casual conversation about my summer travel plans as she examines my holy of holies like a miner digging for diamonds. The pelvic exam is one of the few scenarios in which a woman must act like she is totally cool with a stranger rummaging around in her  vagina, not for the purposes of generating an orgasm, but to figure out if there is anything “wrong with it.” So I found Hannah’s verbal diarrhea in this scene to be completely appropriate (even if the content of her ramblings was not). This was my “universal moment,” in which I saw a genuinely frustrating experience from my own life recreated accurately on screen.

Do NOT Google the words “pelvic exam.”

The tone of the series also became clear to me here because Hannah, in her attempt to fill the air with conversation, launches into a ludicrous monologue about AIDS. I will quote it at length because it must be read to be believed:

The thing is that, these days if you are diagnosed with AIDS, it’s actually not a death sentence. There are so many good drugs and people live a long time. Also, if you have AIDS, there’s a lot of stuff people aren’t going to bother you about. Like, for example, no one is going to call you on the phone and say ‘Did you get a job?’ or ‘Did you paid your rent?,’ or ‘Are you taking an HMTL course yet?’ because all they’re going to say is ‘Congratulations on not being dead.’ You know, it’s also a really good excuse to be mad at a guy. It’s not just something dumb like, ‘You didn’t text me back,’ it’s like ‘You gave me AIDS. So deal with that. Forever.’ Maybe I’m actually not scared of AIDS. Maybe I thought I was scared of AIDS, but really what I am is… wanting AIDS.

What the hell, Hannah?

A nice recap of the episode over at Press Play compares this scene to a scene in the pilot episode of My So Called Life (1994) in which Angela Chase (Claire Danes) tells her English teacher, during a discussion of The Diary of Anne Frank, that Anne Frank was “lucky.” Angela’s teacher is horrified by her response: “Is that suppsosed to be funny? How on earth could you make a statement like that?” she asks. Angela, who has been mooning over her first real crush, Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto), suddenly snaps out of her reverie. After her teacher prods her again, Angela begrudgingly clarifies her response: “I don’t know. Because she was trapped for three years in an attic with this guy she really liked?” If you’d like to watch this scene, start at the 3.30 minute mark on the video below:

This scene is the epitome of that oft-used term “First World Problems.” Only a young woman who is well fed, well loved, and generally provided for would look at the plight of a little Jewish girl forced into hiding during the Holocaust and be jealous of her. Angela is so caught in the throes of her own teenage crush that she is only capable of viewing the world in terms of young women who get to be with their crushes and young women who are kept apart from them. Even something as large as the Holocaust becomes invisible in this world view. If my daughter said something like that I would be forced to give her a lengthy lecture on the nature of “real problems” even as I know that I possibly said something similarly awful at age 15. Indeed, this moment appears in the My So Called Life to tell us almost everything we need to know about the series’ protagonist, Angela: she is privileged; she is uncomfortable in her own skin; she misunderstands and is misunderstood by the adults in her life; and most importantly, she is desperately in love (or what she believes to be love) with Jordan Catalano. This is all that matters to Angela Chase and so her skewed (and horrifying) analysis of The Diary of Anne Frank makes perfect sense in this context. The audience is not expected to identify with Angela here (unless she is also a privileged 15-year-old in love, in which case, she might) but to understand that this scene is telling us what we need to know about Angela as we move forward through this series.

Angela tells us: “I’m in love. His name is Jordan Catalano. He was let back, twice. Once I almost touched his shoulder in the middle of a pop quiz. He’s always closing his eyes like it hurts to look at things.”

In the same way, Hannah’s infuriating rant about AIDS is a wonderful crystallization of her character. Only a young woman with no “real problems” would fantasize about having a really real problem. Hannah feels that having AIDS would somehow be simpler and more desirable than having to find a job or a boyfriend just as Angela can only see the benefits of being hunted down by blood-thirsty Nazis.  As I listened to Hannah blather on I wanted to chastise her for saying such obnoxious things. But then her gynecologist did it for me. She looked at Hannah and said, with the utmost sympathy, “You couldn’t pay me to be 24 again.” This moment acknowledged Hannah’s self centeredness, her privilege and her ignorance about her own privilege, and then, very carefully, cut her some slack. Hannah is, after all, 23. And if I learned anything from Blink-182, it is that “nobody likes you when you’re 23″:

In fact, people in their early twenties are really no better than people in their early teens. In many ways they are worse because they are now equipped with college degrees that lead them to believe that they “understand” things about “the world.” A recent roundtable discussion in Slate, called “Girls on Girls,” offered this perspective on Hannah’s age:

 Isn’t that funny arrogance and vulnerability the special purview of the 22, 23, and 24 year old? You are confused, on the low end of the work totem pole or still trying to prove yourself (unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg), and yet you also are young. You’re the next thing. You’ve left your parents’ home and are free to reject all the posters and accoutrements and funny habits and small town-ness of their lives.

A 23-year-old is like a very independent, very entitled toddler who can drive a car and is legally allowed to drink. We say and do very, very dumb things when we are in our early twenties, and that seems to be what Girls is about.

So as this season of Girls draws to a close, I find myself in an uncomfortable situation. On the one hand, I am really enjoying this series. Not every scene or character works (I could completely do without Shoshannah [Zosia Mamet]), but every episode contains at least one scene that I would characterize as “sublime.” And yes, I am using sublime in the Kantian sense of the word, meaning an overwhelming experience that generates awe and respect. I felt this way when Charlie (Christopher Abbott) serenaded his girlfriend, Marnie (Allison Williams), with excerpts from Hannah’s stolen diary that document their relationship from her cynical and judgmental perspective.

Charlie humiliates himself in order to prove a point

When Charlie gets on stage and announces that his next song was wrriten for his girlfriend, Marnie looks pleased (even though we know she does not truly love Charlie). Then, looking Marnie right in the eye, Charlie sings:

What is Marnie thinking

she needs to know what’s out there

how does it feel to date a man with a vagina.

As I watched this slow-moving car crash I was overwhelmed with a confusing mixture of sadness, humiliation, and awkward triumph.  To watch Charlie completely abase himself — to throw himself onto his own sensitive-boyfriend-sword — in order to drive home the point that he deserves to be treated with respect, was truly beautiful. Sublime. As Charlie tells Marnie in a follow up episode, he just wants to be treated “like my life is real.” His song did that. This is the kind of scene that makes me happy that I study film and television for a living.

Marnie realizes that this isn’t a love song

But still, I keep coming back to my original problem with this show – it makes whiteness and it attendant privilege the default setting (and as John Scalzi recently pointed out, “white” is the lowest difficulty setting in the game of life). Why am I picking on Girls for doing what just about every single TV show currently on the air does? Because Girls is written and produced by an extremely smart and talented young woman and if she can’t find a way to make non-white characters, non-straight characters, or non-wealthy characters the default setting, then who is going to do this? Cord Jefferson’s piece in Gawker really nails this issue:

One of the reasons Girls seems to be so adored is that its depiction of upper-middle class, Urban Outfitters ennui reads as more true than most everything before it, as if, at long last, there is finally a team of young people that “gets it.” Many sub-30, post-college men and women look at the show and nod their heads in agreement with every abortion joke, drug reference, and unfortunate sex scene. This stuff is indeed happening in Ivy League pockets throughout the United States, the only difference is it’s happening to black, Latino, and Asian people as well, not just Dunham and her trio of white friends.

There is currently not a single leading character on Girls that couldn’t be played honestly and convincingly by a black actor or a Pakistani actor or a Taiwanese actor. It may come as a surprise to some Americans, but there are women of all races who freeload off their wealthy parents and work in tony art galleries.

Jefferson concludes his piece with this heart-breaking statement:

The guys begging for money look like us. The mad black chicks telling white ladies to stay away from their families look like us. Always a gangster, never a rich kid whose parents are both college professors. After a while, the disparity between our affinity for these shows and their lack of affinity towards us puts reality into stark relief: When we look at Lena Dunham and Jerry Seinfeld, we see people with whom we have a lot in common. When they look at us, they see strangers.

Like the fictional Charlie, the very real Jefferson wants for television to acknowledge that his life is “real.” Like Charlie, he is tired of sleeping over at the white folks’ apartments all the time and hanging out with their friends. He likes them and all, but he wants them to meet some of his other friends. Like Charlie, Jefferson (and every audience member whose world view is routinely hidden from mainstream television) has his own apartment, filled with cleverly constructed shelving units and lofted beds. But like Marnie, white audiences won’t ever know this until we take the time to visit this apartment and look around. So no, Girls is not unique in its erasure of all that is not white, straight and middle to upper-class. But I wish that it were.

For another reconsideration of the series by one of my fellow blogathoners, check out Jennifer Jones’ “GIRLS at the Half.”

Blogging GIRLS: Reactions to the Pilot

Full disclosure: I am an upper-middle class, highly educated (I have a PhD!), white woman. So when the protagonist of Girls, Hannah (played by the show’s writer/producer/director Lena Dunham), admits to her emotionally distant, sometime-lover Adam (Adam Driver), that her parents have cut her off financially at age 24, and then adds, sheepishly, “Do you hate me?” her mixture of white privilege and liberal guilt reverberated with me. It was a moment of resonance, a particular feeling generated by a particular situation, and I experienced it as a “real” moment.

My guess is that Girls will create lots of resonant moments for many viewers for a variety of reasons.  I imagine that some will relate to Marnie (Allison Williams) and her mixed feelings about her too-nice boyfriend or Jessa (Jemima Kirk) and her desire to travel in order to avoid impending adulthood. These are interesting characters. They are messy and imperfect, which is almost always preferable to neat and perfect characters. And I like that Hannah is slightly overweight, or as her fuck buddy assures her “You’re not that fat anymore.” I daresay that this is one of the most radical aspects of Girls: the very ordinariness of its protagonist.  As I watched Hannah move across the screen, examining her for an inkling of physical charisma, I was both frustrated and elated. I was frustrated because I am so accustomed to looking at perfectly formed women on TV, with tiny waistlines and flat-ironed hair, that looking at a normal one was a little bit of a let down. But I was also elated by Hannah’s ordinariness and the radicalness of placing a slightly frumpy, slightly average-looking female character at the center of a television series about young women. Jenny Jones offers up a lovely analysis of Hannah’s appetites in her own response to the pilot:

The shot opens with Hannah in close-up but off-center, shoved into the bottom right corner of the shot, breathlessly stuffing spaghetti into her mouth. As the scene continues, she and her father voraciously shovel down food while Hannah’s mother encourages them to slow down. From the start this positions Hannah against her mother and toward her father, an issue which springs up later when her mother is also the instigator for stopping Hannah’s money flow. Hannah is portrayed as consuming carelessly–including sex, drugs, and money–and food does seem to be a primary way that’s characterized. Eating a cupcake in the shower seems to be the ultimate example of this.

I, too, loved seeing Hannah shoveling food into her mouth because I also eat this way and I know it is disgusting. It’s also unusual for a not-stick-thin actress to eat heartily on camera and not make it into a schtick (as Bridesmaids did with Melissa McCarthy’s character). As I watched I asked myself: what if every model and every actress was as average-looking as Lena Dunham? Note that I did not say “ugly” or “fat” (she is neither of these things). She’s just…plain. If film and television were populated with ordinary women would I feel less critical of my own aging body? Would my 5-year-old daughter be less likely to tell me, as she examines her perfectly perfect little body in the mirror,”This shirt makes me look fat”? (True story).

We got lots of these.

Why is it so rare and exceptional to have an ordinary-looking female protagonist? Ordinary male protagonists are ubiquitous, of course, but for some reason a female character can’t just be smart or powerful or deadly with a broadsword. She has to be fuckable. I don’t want to my 5-year-old to think she has to be fuckable. And the media are working against me and my attempts to bolster her self esteem. And that sucks.

But even as I praise Girls for these praiseworthy elements,  it must be acknowledged that there is a wide swath of audience who will have difficulty finding an entryway into this show. As Francie Latour wrote in a recent editorial for the Boston Globe: 

It’s a zeitgeist so glaring and grounded in statistical reality that Hollywood has to will itself not to see it: America is transforming into a majority-minority nation faster than experts could have predicted, yet the most racially and ethnically diverse metropolis in America is delivered to us again and again on the small screen as a virtual sea of white. The census may tell us that blacks, Latinos and Asians together make up 64.4 percent of New York City’s population.

Latour’s observations are not in any way surprising. Films and television series are usually not made with a non-white, non-middle class viewer in mind. And when television shows do feature, for example, an all African American cast, it is rare that these shows are allowed to explore the subtle realities of their character’s lives. These shows tend instead to be broad comedies or exploitative reality shows. So no, I’m not surprised that there were no brown faces (no poor faces, no queer faces) in the pilot episode of Girls. But I am disappointed.

Everyone is white and straight in GIRLS

No show can (or should) offer to represent all possible identities since this is both impossible and by nature unsatisfactory. But Girls is a specific kind of show. It is a show that aims for verisimilitude – with its focus on the plastic retainer Marnie sleeps in,  the scene in which Jessa talks to Marnie while taking a dump and wiping herself (gross, but okay, there was some realism there) and the spartan decor in struggling actor Adam’s apartment. If this show takes the time and care to present the realities of life in New York City for this group of young women in their early twenties, then I do expect to see some homosexuals and some African Americans and definitely some Spanish-speaking characters. It’s New York City for crying out loud! It’s telling that the only person of color to speak a line of dialogue in the entire pilot is a crazy, homeless, African American man who makes a pass at Hannah as she leaves her parent’s hotel room. I mean, seriously, HBO? That’s the role you decided to give to the black guy? [note: I forgot about Hannah's Asian coworker who asked for the Luna bar and the Smart Water and the Vitamin water. So that's two POC]. They found  a way to bring a British woman onto the show (she’s that Mamet girl’s “British cousin” of course!) so couldn’t an Indian girl be Hannah’s old friend from the weight loss camp her parents made her go to as a tween (I just made up that backstory, by the way)? Couldn’t an African American guy be an actor friend of Hannah’s fuck buddy? There are ways to do this that do not stretch the credibility of this program. And that would make the show more real because I just don’t buy that a girl like Hannah would only interact with straight white people when living in Brooklyn. I do not buy it. And by the way, saying that you wish you could have done this doesn’t count. Consider the following exchange from an interview with Dunham in The Huffington Post:

Are you concerned that people might just think “Girls” is another example of white people problems?
Definitely. We really tried to be aware and bring in characters whose job it was to go “Hashtag white people problems, guys.” I think that’s really important to be aware of. Because it can seem really rarified. When I get a tweet from a girl who’s like, “I’d love to watch the show, but I wish there were more women of color.” You know what? I do, too, and if we have the opportunity to do a second season, I’ll address that.

What? Why could you not do that this season? As the show’s closing credits inform us, you run this show, Ms. Dunham. If your hands are tied, you’re the one who’s tied them.

Boy apartment

So is identification necessary to the pleasures offered by Girls? I would argue yes. It is a program that aims to create “real” moments, such as Hannah awkwardly trying to maintain a sexy bondage position while her doltish lover looks for lube and condoms. We are meant to watch this scene and think “Ah yes, I remember having an awkward sexual encounter like that!” And this is not to say that a gay man or a black woman cannot identify with a straight white woman and her awkward, somewhat humiliating sexual experiences. Of course they can. But I don’t think the show is cultivating that identification. I believe this show is zeroed in on a particular kind of viewer, a viewer who is like Dunham: white, middle- to upper-middle class, educated, and liberal. A viewer like me.

Why do I think this? Because the show is awash in its own privilege. It winks and nods, but then dismisses it as if to say “I acknowledged this okay? Can we move on to what I want to talk about now?” If you have the critical fortitude to acknowledge privilege, like when Hannah’s friend scoffs at her for whining about having to pay her own bills (reminding her that he has $50,000 in student loans), then you better well deal with it. Kristen Warner addresses this nicely in her post on the pilot:

White womanhood holds in its grasp innocence. They are the only ones who can truly be innocent. The only ones who can truly and sincerely have a conversation about why working at McDonalds is not an option while waiting on a cup of opium with Jay-Z playing in the background without remotely considering the juxtaposition of all these um…ideas. And the way that the main character, Hannah, and her girlfriends deploy that innocence (in sometimes successful but mostly unsuccessful ways) reveals the invisibility and instability of whiteness.

To offer up a counterexample, the current season of Mad Men is finally starting to do a respectable job of acknowledging its insulated whiteness. In the past Roger Sterling (John Slattery) has been a likable cad, making skirt-chasing, cheating on your wife, and getting drunk at lunch almost (almost) seem charming. But this season Roger has become a dinosaur, an artifact of the white male patriarchy. He is no longer charming. He can’t bring in new clients because he can’t understand that the world is changing. Instead he sits in his office and stews, getting drunker and hazier as the days goes by. In the meantime, Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) puts her feet up on her desk, wears ties, and extorts money from her desperate boss. She is going to replace Roger because she at least understands, in a limited way, that the culture around her is changing. Roger just puts his head in the sand and this will be his downfall.

Poor Roger

But Girls does not really address its privilege in a satisfactory way (meaning, I was not satisfied). When Hannah steals the housekeeper’s money we cut to her walking on the street (being harassed by the craaaazy black man) and smirking a small smirk of triumph. What did I need after that scene? I needed a 30 second scene depicting the housekeeper walking into the hotel room, instinctively looking around for her tip, and then muttering something about “cheap motherfuckers” before stripping the bed. That’s all I needed. Just a moment of consequence. Instead, Hannah gets to commit her selfish act in a vacuum and whoosh, it’s gone. Invisible. Quirky.

Am I being picky? A little. Can you judge an entire series based on its pilot? No. But let me explain myself through a teaching analogy: when I am grading essays I tend to be harder on my best writers. I challenge them more on their ideas, get more annoyed at their grammatical errors, and more outraged at their lazy arguments. “I know you are capable of better work than this” I might write at the end of a perfectly respectable essay. If you have the ability and the intelligence, then why create something subpar? I’m taking the same critical eye to my study of Girls. Dunham is a great writer and a pretty good actress with an ear for smart dialogue, and I know she can do better. Do better, Dunham, you are capable of better work than this. I give you a B. I know you can get an A.

For more reactions to Girls, I encourage you to check out our Facebook group, which is the hub of our Girls blogathon.

You Always Remember Your First Time

Melissa Lenos and me at our first SCMS in 2004. Yes, those *are* SCMS tattoos. Jealous?

Last weekend I attended the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ conference in Boston.* SCMS is certainly the largest conference in my field (this year’s conference featured 420 individual sessions across 5 days!) and while quantity rarely implies quality, I do think that some of the most vibrant and interesting work in the field of cinema and media studies can be found at this conference. It is certainly challenging for me to go out of town for almost 5 days in the middle of a busy semester. It is also expensive, tiring, and stressful. I’ve been home a full week and I’m still not caught up (good thing I’m making good use of my time by writing this blog post).

So why bother attending SCMS if it wipes me out for a week? The opportunity to present my work to professionals in my field and to hear them present their work is a major draw. But truthfully, the 4-paper panel format + 20 minute Q & A session is not my favorite way to engage with scholarship. As a visual learner I prefer to consume academic work as a reader rather than as a listener (in order to pay attention at a panel I need for all presenters to use clips, still images, or at the very least jazz hands, in their talks). For me, what is just as valuable as attending panels and taking notes, professionally speaking, is putting faces to names, shaking hands, and breaking bread with new friends. Some of the best ideas for current and future work and collaborations happens during the hastily constructed group dinner or the chance meeting in the hallway. Also, martinis.

I also enjoy attending SCMS because it serves as a makeshift reunion for my graduate school friends. That is reason enough to attend. In fact, last year my proposal was rejected (grumble grumble) and I still decided to attend SCMS 2011 because it was in New Orleans I wanted to see my University of Pittsburgh friends.

“Shut yo mouth.”
“But I’m talking about the Cathedral of Learning.”
“Then I can dig it.”

Of course, I also spent a lot of my time at SCMS talking with people who did not graduate from my alma mater. Where did I meet these people, who live on opposite coasts and even in other countries? Some of them I met through reading and commenting on their work in online journals/group blogs like Flow TV and Antenna. Some I met by way of their personal blogs. But I met most of them through Twitter. In fact, over the last two years I have enjoyed SCMS more than ever due to social media.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me first demonstrate the difference between my most recent SCMS experience — where I spent time with graduate students and tenured professors, American and international scholars, and folks representing numerous facets of my field (TV studies, Film Studies, Media Industries, etc) — and my very first SCMS, in Atlanta (2004), where I spent my time with 4 people (all from Pittsburgh).

As I was preparing for my first conference I was advised by well-meaning professors and more experienced graduate students to “network” with people in “my field.” This was a terrifying suggestion because I was so new to “the field” that it really didn’t feel like “my field.” I was just peeking in through the windows. The only people I knew in were my classmates and professors. Everyone else existed on the spines of the books I puzzled over or as bylines in the lengthy journal articles I photocopied weekly at Hillman Library.

Makin’ copies!

How can I “network” with people like Professor You-Have-Influenced-Everything-I-Ever-Wrote and Professor I’m-Cited-By-Everyone? To me they weren’t people, they were voices. You don’t talk to voices — you listen to them. So my first conference experience went something like this: attend panels, nod during the Q & A sessions but never (never ever) raise my hand to contribute, and, when the panels are done for the day, return to my Super 8 Motel room (which smelled of stale cigarette smoke and despair) and think about all of the cool stuff everyone else was probably doing at that very moment.

“This reception sucks.”

Don’t cry for me. I wasn’t alone. That year I attended SCMS with two graduate students from my program. We clung together like Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, only without the death and hypothermia. One glorious night we sat in our motel room, on a dirty comforter that had actual cigarette burns in it, and watched Mona Lisa Smile (2003, Mike Newell). We ate chocolate cake and inserted our own dialogue. This is more fun than it sounds. We also booked our plane tickets back to Pittsburgh for a Sunday evening departure (what fools we were!) so we spent the last few hours of our trip wandering through downtown Atlanta, which was weirdly empty. At one point we wondered if we were the only survivors of a deadly virus that had decimated the city. Here are some of the actual pictures I took that day:

“Where is the ocean?!”

Let me clarify that my first SCMS was a positive conference experience. I delivered my paper without passing out, I attended some great panels, and my friends and I enjoyed making fun of “feminist” Julia Roberts. But fear of rejection prevented me from meeting anyone new.

“Make way! Liberated women on bikes coming through!”

Keep in mind that I am hardly a shrinking violet. In fact, I can be quite obnoxious outgoing when the mood strikes. But this exhibitionism is coupled with a crushing fear of rejection and anxiety about my own worth. In other words, I am a human. So the idea of approaching Professor You-Have-Influenced-Everything-I-Ever-Wrote after a panel was not a possibility. What was  I supposed to say to her? Better to grin through her paper, ask her no questions, and then watch her exit the room with a group of equally imposing scholars and imagine the  conversations they will soon be having at the hotel bar:

Professor You-Have-Influenced-Everything-I-Ever-Wrote: “Did you see that silly graduate student grining during my paper?”

Professor I’m-Cited-By-Everyone: “I did! I can tell she’s never read Deleuze.”

Together: [clinking martini glasses] “Isn’t it grand not being a graduate student!”

Note: Now that I am a professor, I know that professors do not get together and make fun of graduate students while drinking martinis. They drink gin & tonics.

While writing this post I asked fellow scholars in my field to share stories of their first SCMS. I learned that my confusing/ overwhelming/ anxiety-generating experience was not unique. Below is a sampling of their responses (names have been omitted to protect the innocent):

From a Visiting Lecturer:

“First SCMS, Philly, 2 years post defense. Wore make-up trying to be ‘professional’ — only remember washing the make-up off my face like an ashamed teenager hoping to not break out in hives. Shit, that story depresses me. I seriously remember nothing about that SCMS other than the miserable Greyhound experience and make-up.”

From an Assistant Professor:

“I don’t remember the year but it was in Chicago, maybe 2000, and it was easy enough to go there from Madison without giving a paper, just to check the conference out. I was a PhD student. I think the difference between then and now is mostly a matter of knowing lots of people, many of them old friends. The conference is more familiar, much more social, and less lonely now. But I also find it frustrating to see some friends for 10 seconds total and have no time to talk to them…To be honest I don’t remember my first SCMS that well, and they all blend together in my memory.”

From an Associate Professor:

“1996, my 2nd year of grad school (about to get MA), in Dallas, when it was resolutely SCS – no M. If you ask any fellow old-timer, they may remember it as the ‘Bio-Dome’ conference, as the hotel was on a highway intersection, where the only way out was via expensive taxi, and only walkable restaurants were overpriced hotel food, Dennys, or Quiznos…I mostly stuck to my tribe of grad students to drink & play poker in our rooms, couldn’t manage any sort of small talk with faculty whose work I knew, and pretty much was a quiet wallflower. (I guess that didn’t last!) I was mostly unimpressed with the presentations, which used almost no media (a few VHS tapes?), were almost all read papers, and generally felt very old-school film studies for us media & cultural studies folks.”

From an Assistant Professor:

“2006, Vancouver, ABD. I visited friends who had recently moved there (and had another friend from Washington state drive up), so I may have only gone to a couple other panels, if any. I totally stalked one of my favorite inspirational scholars and was floored when she gave me her card and said she’d be happy to talk with me. I remember being in awe just to be there and so impressed with my panel chair. I got to have dinner with my former graduate school director [and his wife], which was great. I really missed them when they left.”

From an Assistant Professor:

“My first SCMS was 1999 (West Palm Beach). I was in my second year of my Ph.D. program…I was struck by how little my panel-mates’ papers had in common with mine (the basic overlap was that we were all talking about the internet but one of the other presenters was talking about online activism…absolutely nothing to do with what I was talking about). I don’t remember anyone close from my cohort being there, so I was limited to my hotel roommate and his connections — so a couple of evenings of uncomfortable non-conversations. I remember also seeking out my professors at times and being very treated very generously by their willingness to introduce me around and take me to good panels. Mostly, I felt unworthy of being there.”

These testimonials are linked by similar emotions: fear, anxiety, confusion, the desire to do what is comfortable (stick with your friends), and lots of downtime in the hotel room. Is this arduous first-timer experience a problem that needs to be fixed? Not necessarily. Everyone feels anxious and uncomfortable when they start working in a new profession. The longer you work, the more people you meet, and the more comfortable you feel. In fact, this is what several people who responded to my request for first-time conference stories told me. For example, one Assistant Professor said: “The only thing that’s different for me [since my first SCMS in 2004] is the number of people I know at the event each year, and that’s simply a function of being older and having left grad school.” She’s right. Things do get better. And as Max Dawson pointed out in a blog post after last year‘s SCMS, this trial by fire might actually be beneficial in the long run: “I wonder what our field would look like if young scholars didn’t have to build their own support networks early on in their careers. Would bonds formed through sponsored networking events be as resilient and meaningful as the connections formed when you eat eight meals in three days with the same group of four people? Would I feel as comfortable asking a mentor assigned to me by SCMS for feedback on a project as I do asking the same favor of the friends I made while hiding out behind the potted plants during the SCMS Vancouver opening reception?” Is the crippling anxiety of the first conference a necessary evil along the path to success in academia? Possibly.

Standard hazing rituals at SCMS

One dissatisfied PhD student explained to me: “Sososo [sic] many people said ‘it gets better,’ but a. what if it doesn’t? and b. so what if it gets better? Are we really buying into the idea that because it got better for you we shouldn’t try to change the way it continues to be for everyone else or at least newcomers?” She has a point: does she need to wait another 7 or 8 years to get the most out of this conference? Why even bother attending as a graduate student?

This same graduate student also said: “Sometimes [at conferences] I meet more new people to socialize with along with old friends, most often the people I meet are fellow grad students so the payoffs for developing these networks won’t become clear until years (perhaps many years) down the road. These people are all great, spending time with them is great! But… it doesn’t make me feel energized to be part of a community of scholars. It doesn’t make me feel mentored. It may encourage my work in some ways, but nothing immediate or dramatic. It’s all fine.” I, too, think it’s “fine” that this graduate student socializes primarily with other graduate students since these are the scholars she will collaborate with most often as she moves through her career. What is not fine is that she doesn’t feel like she is part of a community scholars and that she doesn’t feel mentored. I think that large field-specific conferences, like SCMS, should be able to provide both of these services to graduate students, either formally or informally.

There are ways to make a large, often terrifying social/professional event like SCMS (and make no mistake, events which combine the social and professional are the most confusing to maneuver) less intimidating, more useful, and more fun for junior scholars. Here are some (simple) things to do:

1. Get a Twitter Account

Word cloud of Tweets from SCMS 2012 (courtesy of @samplereality)

I know. Many of you want nothing to do with Twitter. You think it’s banal, narcissistic, and an excuse to disconnect from “real life.” So what are your criticisms?  Seriously, Twitter is an amazing way to get to know (and like) a diverse pool of scholars in the field. Every day I chat with friends (yep, using the word friend here) about their classes, their scholarship, the TV and films they’re watching, their children/cats/pups, their dental surgery, and what they’ve having for dinner. Why are these “virtual colleagues” so crucial to a positive conference experience? Because an event like SCMS, with over 1300 participants (maybe more?), feels so much smaller when you can view so many other people as colleagues rather than as faces in the crowd. Many others share my view on this:

From an Assistant Professor:

“Member of SCMS since 2004; 2008 Philadelphia first conference, four years post-Ph.D. Didn’t submit proposal (weirdly self-conscious), but attended only a few panels and didn’t network beyond people I was already friends with. 2010 New Orleans (my first conference post-Twitter) was entirely different, since I felt more confident about networking w/ relative strangers. I really do credit Twitter with breaking me out of my academic shell. For all its faults, it’s now indispensable in my academic life. Quote this (awful drivel/dribble) if you want.”

From a first year PhD student:

“[I]t was great to meet you [she means me!] and other scholars I feel like I know very well online but hadn’t actually met ‘in person’… Being a UW student opens a lot of doors, as does having a fairly visible Twitter profile and online presence.”

From a Visiting Lecturer:

“…the conference was enjoyable because I knew people beforehand (via social media, of course). And it’s not just that I knew their names, academic affiliations, and fields of interest, but that I KNEW them — as people and friends. I know about their precious (but often pukey) children, un-housetrained doggies, frustrations with family members, favorite and least favorite TV shows, challenges in the classroom, etc. Because of this, we’ve a history and can (happily) skip all the formal introductions and (sometimes) forced pleasantries that often come with attending a conference. In brief, Twitter FTW!”

From an MA student:

“I was fairly nervous about attending SCMS. While much of this nervousness was eased by having a built-in community through Twitter, I still felt occasionally out of place as a Master’s student at the conference.”

Don’t know where to start on Twitter? Follow me! No really, FOLLOW ME. My Twitter handle is @AmandaAnnKlein. Want more people to follow? Check out the the super “interactive web of Tweeters” on the SCMS website and follow the people whose handles are listed there — they are all active Tweeters, or at least they were during SCMS. For a more detailed account of my Twitter love, read my previous post on the subject.

2. Introduce People

You’re standing in the hallway chatting with a scholar, and another person waves and dashes over to say hello before dashing off somewhere else. But wait, before she dashes, introduce these two people! They may immediately forget each other but there is a chance that they will see each other again and, remembering that brief hallway introduction, say “hello again!” I became so accustomed to introducing people over the course of my 4-day stay at the conference that I found I was introducing people who already knew each other quite well. So yeah, I sometimes felt like a douchebag, but overall, I felt like I was connecting people. A PhD student I quoted above had praise for her professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who took the time to introduce her to other scholars: “In general, the Madison folks take care of their own. I was introduced to several people by senior graduate students in my program and got better acquainted with junior faculty and graduate students I met at previous conferences.” These encounters had a positive impact on her conference experience.

3. Never Say “No”

Group photo from this year’s Grrrl’s Night Out! dinner

This year there were a lot of opportunities to meet people outside of panel presentations and workshops. Go to the annual Grrrl’s Night Out! dinner. Join a special interest group (there are a lot) or caucus and attend their annual meeting at SCMS. Go to the new member orientation meeting (for an account of how this year’s meeting went, you can read about Myles McNutt’s experiences here). Or go to some of the more informal events, like SCMS karaoke (we had a great time).

Along the same lines: try not to decline invitations for meals or drinks with new people. Your brain might be telling you: “But you were going to take a naaaaaaap!” Tell your brain to shut up and go anyway. Informal conversations can lead to future conversations, collaborations, opportunities, and yes, even friendships. Just go.

4. Know When to Say “No”

I know I just said that you should go to as many events as possible and that you should say yes to every invitation extended to you. But, it’s also important to know your limits. Do you get anxious in social situations? Do you find it mentally taxing to meet new people? If so, make sure to schedule some alone time so you can decompress: take a nap, exercise, stare at the wall. But give yourself that time.

5. Senior Members: Be Generous

I’ll illustrate this point with an experience I had this year. I was heading out to lunch with a senior scholar I know and some of his colleagues. I was nervous because I didn’t know of these people and they all knew each other. As Senior Scholar introduced me to each new person he did not simply say my name and rank. Instead he said “This is Amanda. She just published a fabulous book on film cycles!” I was bowled over by this praise (we are so seldom praised in this field) and not only did it make me feel more comfortable around this new group of people, it made me feel like a valued member of the field (even if I’m not quite there yet). So when you’re introducing people: BE GENEROUS. It is always, always appreciated.

6. Make suggestions

Over the past few years it’s been clear that the SCMS board has been listening to feedback from its members regarding the format of the annual conference. The new member orientation, graduate student lounge, and the addition of conference-oriented blogs on the SCMS website are all responses to member feedback. If there’s something that isn’t working at the conference, offer some solutions.  As for me, I would like to see more workshops offered at SCMS and more lunch breaks. It would also be great to have a few more on-site coffee/tea/muffin kiosks, which I think would encourage people to attend more back-to-back panels. Caffeine and refined sugar = engagement.

“Harry, your cover letter needs work.”

Lots of folks would also like SCMS to help facilitate a formalized form of mentoring. I have been told that some of the caucuses currently have or are working on getting a mentoring system in place. But it would be nice to have a mentoring system available to all graduate student members of SCMS. I’m not sure how this would work but I’m envisioning something along the lines of this: professors who are willing to mentor submit their names, areas of study, and the days they plan to be at the conference to a designated coordinator. People who want to be mentored do the same. The mentee then gets matched with a mentor in the same area of study who will be at the conference on similar days. They must commit to one face-to-face meeting at SCMS and the mentor must also be willing to answer follow up questions (within reason) from the mentee over e-mail once the conference is over. This system would be especially helpful for students who attend SCMS as the sole representative of his/her graduate program — students who are basically at SCMS on their own. These are the students who are most in need of good mentors. Finally, I would like champagne fountains to be placed in all the women’s rest rooms. Make it happen, board of directors.

So why did I just devote almost 4000 words to the subject of socializing at an academic conference? Because I like martinis? Sure. But I also believe that we are more than a “field.” We’re a community. And when we are gathered as a community at a major conference (whether it is SCMS, MLA, NCA, CSA, etc) I think we have a duty to make these gatherings as welcoming and productive as possible. Am I saying that we need to hold everyone’s hand and pat their heads? No, though I enjoy a good pat on the head. But I think we can all do better.

If you have any other suggestions for ways to make large conferences like SCMS more friendly, useful, mentorly (is that a word?), and enjoyable for newcomers, please list them below. I’d also love to hear about your “first time,” particularly from graduate students (since I was only able to get 3 graduate student responses for this post).

* For those who are unfamiliar with the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, let me be lazy (but accurate!) and cut and paste their mission statement below:

The Society for Cinema and Media Studies is the leading scholarly organization in the United States dedicated to promoting a broad understanding of film, television, and related media through research and teaching grounded in the contemporary humanities tradition.SCMS encourages excellence in scholarship and pedagogy and fosters critical inquiry into the global, national, and local circulation of cinema, television, and other related media. SCMS scholars situate these media in various contexts, including historical, theoretical, cultural, industrial, social, artistic, and psychological.

SCMS seeks to further media study within higher education and the wider cultural sphere, and to serve as a resource for scholars, teachers, administrators, and the public. SCMS works to maintain productive relationships with organizations in other nations, disciplines, and areas of media study; to foster dialogue between media industries and scholars; and to promote the preservation of our film, television, and media heritage. We encourage membership and participation of scholars and those in related positions not only in the US but around the world.