The Most Objective “Best of 2012″ List Ever, Part III: Social Media

Earlier this week I posted “Part I: Television” and “Part II: Memes” of “The Most Objective ‘Best of 2012′ List Ever.” There doesn’t seem to be much enthusiasm for these highly idiosyncratic “Best Of” lists that I’ve been producing BUT I’m the kind of gal who likes to finish what she starts, so today I present Part III of my list:

Best of Social Media

You thought this post was going to be about Pinterest, didn’t you? Wasn’t 2012 the year of Pinterest? And really, I should be the target consumer for Pinterest since, according to MediaBistro, 97% of Pinterest users are female. And I’m a female. But after just a few weeks of heavy use back in March, I stopped using my Pinterest account all together. Simply put, I found it overwhelming. So many crafts to make, so many recipes to try, so many quick and easy ways to “do it yourself!” and “make your own.” I want someone else to “do it” and I want to “buy my own.” Pinterest just made me feel bad about myself — which is, apparently, a common complaint about Pinterest. So, no, this post is not about Pinterest. All of you crafty go-getters and DIY-ers need to pick up your homemade Christmas ornaments and old timey cold remedies and go elsewhere.

My favorite social media this year is Facebook Groups. Now, I know, I know, Facebook introduced its “Groups” feature  way back in October of 2010. But remember folks, this is my list. I do what I want. Facebook Groups qualifies for my “Best of 2012″ list because it was not until 2012 that I began to use Groups in earnest and realized the potential of this excellent social media feature. If you have not used this function, it’s very simple: Facebook Groups allows you to start a group (on say, “bird watching” or “rabble-rousing”) and then invite select individuals to join you there. You can make the group private or public and can give those you invite the option to invite others to join as well.  Prior to 2012 I was not involved in any Facebook groups. Now I belong to nine:

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All of these Groups address different needs in my life and contain different users. For example “Greenville” is a venue for members to post questions and announcements pertaining to the city of Greenville (aka, the town where I live). Here people ask for recommendations for house painters, doctors, and babysitters, or post about Greenville-related events. Sadly, this is the least active group to which I belong — mostly because it is small and many of the users are not active social media users (so they don’t see posts or think to respond to them) and because Greenville is the place where fun goes to die (so why should its FB Group be any different?). I also belong to a Group for my children’s school and for a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer and wanted a private space in which to update her friends and family about her treatments and prognoses. There are so many uses for this feature.

The most active Groups to which I belong were started by my fellow social media addicts — those who keep tabs on when fellow Group members make posts and engage them in conversation. For example, my all-time favorite FB Group experience from the past year was Skirthathon 2012. For those who do not reside in my small corner of the internet, Skirtathon is the brain child of Dr. Kristen Warner and its premise is simple: wear a skirt or dress every weekday for the entire month of April. For Skirtathon to work, the participants must announce what they are wearing each day to the group. That way, we can keep tabs on each other and shame one another for failures “to skirt” (sample excuses include: “Too tired” and “It’s raining.”). When I participated in Skirtathon 2011, we relied primarily on a Twitter hashtag (#Skirtathon2011) to track each other’s outfits. But I will admit that I often felt a little sheepish posting photos or outfit descriptions to my entire Twitter feed. Though it shouldn’t, it made me feel (like others would feel) that I was frivolous or shallow, a “silly girl.” That’s why this year’s Skirtathon was so much better — this time we had our own private FB Group where participants could not only post photos of their outfits, but the rest of us could comment on these outfits and even provide links to the stores where they were purchased. There was much ooo-ing and ahh-ing and skirt-envy in these comment threads.

Me, skirting in my office.

Me, skirting in my office.

As the month went on, the women participating in Skirthaton became increasingly creative and bold, not just in their outfit choices but also in the backdrops and poses used in photos. Suddenly, we were all living in our own personal Anthropologie editorial photo spreads. We also posed with our dogs, cats, babies and even our very large (and very beautiful) pregnant bellies. Even though many of the women using the Group had never met each other in real life (some had not even met via social media prior to joining the Group), everyone gamely commented on each other’s outfits, accessories, and artful use of lighting. I loved seeing a woman I know only because she is the friend of a woman I know through Twitter telling one of my childhood best friends how adorable her son is. It sounds forced but it wasn’t. This is going to sound incredibly cheesy but I’m going to go ahead and say it: this group made me feel beautiful and empowered. Go on and laugh, cynics. But I hold fast to this truth: Skirtathon reminded me that I can love a good sale, a well-placed belt, and a patterned stocking and still be an excellent and serious scholar. I’m every woman, it’s all in meeeeeee. Below are some of my favorite images from this past spring’s Skirtathon (used here with each lady’s permission):

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(For more on Skirtathon, check out Kelli Marshall’s post here)

Another FB Group I joined and loved this year was an online book club entitled “Fancy Ladies Book Club.” There was a little bit of secrecy surrounding this book club (for example, this In Media Res post discussing one woman’s participation in the book club was written anonymously for fear of tenure-related repercussions) since the club was formed in order to read E.L. James’ 50 Shades of Grey. But let me be perfectly clear: I was and still am a member of the Fancy Ladies Book Club. In fact, I gave the Fancy Ladies Book Club its “fancy” name as a subterfuge so folks wouldn’t know we were really reading mommy porn. Wasn’t that clever of me? A private group was perfect for such an endeavor since we all wanted to be able to speak as freely (and crassly) as the material warranted. Since completing 50 Shades of Grey (which culminated in a live, somewhat drunken reading at a bar this summer when a few of the Fancy Ladies found themselves at a conference together), we have also read Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. In all cases our conversations were alternately funny, smutty, smart, and enlightening. I am hoping we read Louise Erdich’s The Round House in January and that I can continue to read and learn from this community of brilliant women.

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Finally, the most recent addition to my FB Groups list is also the most useful (not that dishing about erotic fiction and skirts isn’t useful too. But those Groups don’t impact my job). Approximately 2 months ago, Erin Copple Smith, an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at Austin College, started a FB Group called “Teaching Media.” Unlike the previous groups I just mentioned, “Teaching Media” is an “open group.” This means that posts to this group will appear in the poster’s FB feed and that members can invite others to join. The group now boasts 251 members and has, at least for me, been an invaluable resource for answers to questions I have had about the ins and outs of teaching a media studies-based curriculum.

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While Twitter has also been a great resource for me in terms of crowdsourcing information on syllabus building as well as my own personal research (I have detailed why here), the 140 character limit can be, well, limiting when trying to get an answer to a question that is nuanced and requires a more than a single sentence to explain. Furthermore, the “Teaching Media” page serves as an archive of sorts that Group members can return to a few days, weeks, or months after the original discussion took place (this is much more difficult to do with Twitter). In the two months since the Group has been online I have asked about: how fellow instructors use Twitter in the classroom, what kinds of absence policies have worked (and not worked), and about how to handle the possibility of inappropriate audience commentary at a student-hosted screening of The Room. I have also snapped up innumerable tips for future assignments (yes, Tony Bleach, I will be playing the “genres game” you described on the first day of my spring class, “American Film Genres: Then & Now”). What is great about this Group is that people really do respond — and quickly at that — to queries. Furthermore, they respond in detail (i.e., more than 140 characters), often offering links and examples. As someone who works at a university where there is only one other film studies-trained faculty member (Hi Anna!), I often feel like I have only one person (albeit a great person) to turn to when I have pedagogical questions specific to my field. But the “Teaching Media” group has gifted me an entire 250-person (and counting) department of smart, creative, highly engaged teachers. At any hour of the day, any day of the week (except, I guess, for the day after tomorrow, which is “THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW” when the world ends), I can get an answer to my teaching-related questions. Even flesh and blood colleagues can’t offer that kind of support. When I read about the innovative assignments, in-class exercises, and curricula being used by professors all over the world, I am motivated to be a better teacher. I am, in fact, becoming a better teacher.

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By now you may have noticed that 2 out of my 3 favorite Facebook Groups are populated exclusively by women and primarily by women who work in academia. I don’t think this is accidental.  Although the demographics of the Ivory Tower have changed a lot in recent years, it is still, in many ways, an “old boys’ club.” By that I mean: female academics are less comfortable with traditional modes of networking and often have trouble with promoting themselves aggressively as someone worth knowing. As Zdenka Šadl explains:

The academic institutions of higher education, where men dominate (both in terms of number and hierarchy) and act to prevent women from fully participating in and integrating into formal and informal networks, are prime examples of homosocial institution [Etzkowitz, Kemelgor and Uzzi 2000; Fogelberg et al. 1999; Gupta et al. 2004; Hearn 2004; Husu 2004]. Academics generally establish informal connections on the basis of the principle of gender homophily. However, it is predominantly men who form social networks – male academics give support to their male colleagues. Husu [2001] reports that many senior women interviewed in her study observed that their male colleagues supported each other through ‘old boy’s networks’. These networks, also referred to as the ‘invisible college’, [O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990] involve informal power groups whose members are in a position to make (implicit) decisions about the academic rank, status, and position of an academic. Academic women are often excluded from academic networks, and this often puts them at a disadvantage [Kaufman 1978; O‘Leary and Mitchell 1990; Toren 1991; Vazquez-Cupeiro and Elston 2006].

(you can read the full article here)

These Facebook Groups have provided me with a welcoming intellectual community in which I feel free to discuss my love of clothing as easily as I discuss the weird blend of feminism and misogyny found in Junot Diaz’s novels. I feel like I have joined my own “invisible college” and it has improved my enjoyment of academic conferences and academic life immensely. I feel supported by these women in my field — I feel like they have my back. I know I have theirs.

On a side note, if you found this post interesting or would like to discuss it further in a [gasp!] face to face format, I am happy to say that a group of smart young female scholars will be discussing these various issues in a workshop entitled “Gender, Networking, Social Media, and Collegiality” at next year’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Chicago. I think it’s going to be fabulous.

In the meantime, though, I’d love to hear about your favorite social media site or tool that made your 2012 better. Please share below.

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.

Tweeting at you Live from Console-ing Passions!: The Politics of the Backchannel

Note: all tweets quoted in this post are mine, unless otherwise indicated.

I just returned from 4 days in Eugene, Oregon for Console-ing Passions 2010, a conference on television, audio, video, new media and feminism. Console-ing Passions (aka, CP) is consistently one of my favorite conferences and dfter 3 ½ months of maternity leave it was invigorating to have some personal and professional time (not to mention 3 great nights of sleep). The panels I attended—from discussions of “post-racial” television to vomiting in Mad Men—were smart and thought provoking. Also smart and thought provoking? The “backchannel” of tweets that documented, augmented and critiqued the various papers over the conference’s three days.

There was much grumbling (at least on Twitter) about SCMS’s lack of Wi-Fi this year and the consequent inability of attendees to tweet at the conference. So there was much rejoicing when CP’s gracious host, the University of Oregon, made sure that all conference participants were given access to the university’s Wi-Fi. The CP home page also provided a hashtag for the conference–#cpuo—which enabled the backchannel to open up as early as Wednesday, the day before the conference started. Various twitterati announced their arrival times and chronicled their (positive and negative) travel experiences.

My luggage arrived 5 hours later.

I live-tweeted through most of the panels I attended—first on my laptop and then, when that battery died, I moved to typing one handed on my old school I-Touch (hence, my many typos, and poor use of punctuation).

I meant “Joan” not “moan”

Through the first day of tweeting I was delighted to see so many folks who weren’t at CP joining in on in the online conversation. Despite this atmosphere of intellectual exchange, I discovered, over the course of the conference, that many folks at the conference were uncomfortable, and even annoyed, with the Twitter backchannel. Indeed, I believe that the presence of this back channel—and the various responses it provoked in conference attendees—is one of the most interesting discussions to come out of this year’s Console-ing Passions. Here is what people were saying—both for and against—this year’s very rich (and very controversial) backchannel:

The Uses of the Backchannel

1. For those who cannot attend

I was unable to attend this year’s SCMS in Los Angeles but was grateful for the few tweets that were broadcasted over the course of the 5-day conference (I was also an avid reader of Antenna Blog‘s informative daily recaps). I was pleased to see regular film/tv/media tweeters like  d_kompare and fymaxwell engaging in the discussions on the backchannel. Sometimes their comments were merely appreciative while others raised useful questions:

2. It enriches the dialogue by multiplying voices

In an ideal world, the comments from absent twitterers, such as the one displayed above, would then be posed to panelists by during the Q & A session. In this way, scholars who are unable to attend the conference can still be a part of the conference dialogue. In fact, some tweeters at CP were able to “virtually” attend more than one panel at a time–by reading the tweets being broadcasted from the various rooms.

One tweeter lamented not being able to be at two panels at once.

3. Extend and invigorate Q & A

Panel Q & A sessions are always rushed, even when panelists keep their papers within the proscribed time limits. What I enjoyed most about the CP backchannel was that the audience was able to have an on-going discussion of the papers, before, during and after the Q & A session.

I asked another tweeter a question about a point raised in a panel, during the panel…

…and she replied.

I also felt that in several instances the tweets helped the twitter community to formulate better questions for panelists. For example, during Thursday’s Mad Men panel there was a lot of talk on the back channel about the papers were not satisfactorially addressing depictions of race and class depictions on the show. These sentiments were bandied about by tweeters and this culminated in one person standing up to ask that very question during the Q & A. This question—and the intelligent responses it provoked from the panelists—ended  up being the most interesting (at least for me) part of the Q & A.

4. Digital Archive

Finally, the backchannel offers a flawed/funny/smart/critical archive of the entire conference—from the arrival of panelists in Eugene to the (tipsy) tweets coming out of Friday night’s reception.

My tweet about Friday’s tweet up

Think of it as the most detailed conference recap you can find.

The Misuses of the Backchannel

1. The Complex is Simplified

As all academics know, the less space you are given to make your point (as in a conference proposal), the more simplified your argument becomes. The 140 character limit of Twitter has the potential to transform a subtle, elegant argument into something that is too simple, too binary.

My simplified tweet about Marsha Cassidy’s smart, nuanced paper “Betty Vomits: Mad Men, History, and the 1950s Body.” I am sure that this is NOT what she meant.

And without the context of the rest of the paper, simplified, isolated tweets can lead to the complete misrepresentation of a speaker’s argument. For example, Tara McPherson’s plenary paper “Remaking the Scholarly Imagination” was subject to a series of engaged and enthusiastic tweets (I am disappointed that I missed this plenary). However, one of McPherson’s statements, made during the Q & A, was retweeted by numerous people:


Some tweeters championed this bold statement while others were troubled. Regardless, McPherson felt that her comment was taken out of context and that she was being somewhat misrepresented on Twitter:

McPherson responds.

This conversation culminated in a blog post by TV scholar Jason Mittell (who was not able to attend this year’s conference) in defense of  Lost studies. McPherson also commented on Mittell’s post, which lead to an interesting conversation about what happens when statements become part of the public discourse. You can read their very interesting exchange in the comments section of Mittell’s blog.

2. Negativity

Being misrepresented on Twitter is one thing—indeed, it is par for the course in academia. But being trashed is quite another. I have yet to read the entire #cpuo backchannel, but so far I have not encountered much negativity towards the various panels or panelists. I did encounter moments when a twitterer disagreed with a panelist or had some big questions to ask but I think this kind of tweeting is both healthy and necessary. It only becomes problematic when those disagreements and questions remain in the realm of the virtual, rather than the actual. Be critical and raise questions on the backchannel, but if you do, make sure you raise your hand when the Q & A begins. Otherwise, these comments can become the equivalent of the anonymous Amazon.com book review—difficult to trust because there is nothing at stake in the criticism.

Given how much people enjoy the twitter backchannel (myself included) I believe that it’s presence at conferences is only going to become stronger. Having said that, I do think the twitterverse and the academic community need to work together to come up with a series of protocols governing the use of the backchannel at conferences. Perhaps panelists can request that their work not be tweeted or maybe twitterers should identify themselves at the beginning of a panel so that speakers know when and if their work is being discussed online. But the issue must be addressed to ensure that everyone who presents their work at a conference feels comfortable with the arrangement.

But now I’d like to hear your thoughts. Please comment below.