Academia

Erasing the Pop Culture Scholar, One Click at a Time

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Hello darlings.

I am super pleased to have this piece published over at The Chronicle of Higher Education on the need for well-researched pop culture writing. Yes, even in thinkpieces. Also pleased to have co-authored this with my dear pal, Kristen Warner, who is a big smartypants.

Read, enjoy, make snarky comments about how this article means we are elitists [shrugs]:

Click here to read.

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Starving the Beast: The UNC System in 2015

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I’m writing this post from inside a bunker. Outside the storm is raging but I’m hunkered down, amongst my canned goods and bottled water, waiting for the end of the UNC system to arrive. Many of my fellow professors may be looking out their windows right now, and the sun is shining and the birds are singing. But I assure you, in North Carolina, the sky is falling. Fast.

I have been a professor at a state university in North Carolina for the last 8 years. This is the longest I’ve ever held the same job—or any job for that matter. This was my first job out of graduate school, the golden ticket. I was finally on the tenure track!

At the time of my job offer, I was especially excited to join the UNC system, widely considered the “jewel” of North Carolina:

“The [UNC] university system has not only educated thousands, it has been an economic engine, helping spawn entrepreneurs such as Jim Goodnight and Dennis Gillings, attracting huge research grants and making the Research Triangle Park possible.

It was not a given that a largely poor, rural state such as North Carolina would create a great university system. It took a sustained effort by generations of business and civic leaders to make it so.”

There are 17 universities that exist under the UNC umbrella, a move deemed, in 1971, to be a “political miracle” and which ultimately “turned the state of North Carolina into a national leader in higher education, and in the process, transformed the state into one of the most prosperous in the South.” And yes, I felt a true sense of pride when I accepted a job here in 2007. In fact, I had two job offers in 2007 (oh 2007, you were great!): one from Greenville, North Carolina and one from outside Detroit, Michigan. In 2007, North Carolina seemed like an infinitely more attractive choice based solely on the local economy, the amount of higher education funding it appeared to be receiving (at least at my hiring institution), and the overall prestige of the UNC system.

In 2007, pre-Recession academia was failing, but no faster than many other long-standing institutions. And even during the 2008 Recession, when all North Carolina state employees took a paycut and travel money was slashed and low-enrollment classes were cut, the waist cinching felt reasonable and necessary and collegial, like we were all doing our part to muddle through the Recession together. Truly, this was the attitude in 2008. The budget cuts were temporary, we were told. Things will get better, we were told. We just needed to sit tight and be patient and wait for the economy to improve, we were told. Then? Everything would go back to normal.

I’ll admit that I watched these heavy cuts tear through my university from the frazzled standpoint of a pre-tenure mother of two young children. I knew that things were bad, but my biggest concern wasn’t salary compression or gendered wage inequality or the exploitation of fixed term faculty (all major problems at my university). No, to be honest, my biggest concerns during those years were purely selfish: finishing my book and getting more than 3 consecutive hours of sleep at a time. I was exhausted and detached, like so many of my colleagues. We all knew that the cuts seemed unfair but we also knew that things would likely get better soon.

Well, they didn’t. In fact, things got much worse. In 2011, former UNC System President Erskine Bowles warned of the dangers inherent in the radical cuts that were being made to the state’s university system: 

“We not only have to provide an education that is as free from expense as practicable, but we’ve also got to provide a high-quality education…I’ve always believed that low tuition without high quality is no bargain for anyone. It is not a bargain for the student, and it is not a bargain for the taxpayer

Bowles’ words have turned prophetic. The North Carolina legislature’s short term money-saving cuts have had longterm negative impacts on public education in this state. Here are just a few (and trust me, there are far too many to list here):

  • North Carolina has more Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) than any other state in the country (11)  but cuts to higher ed funding in the state are preventing many students from being able to attend these schools. As a result, HBCUs like North Carolina Central University and Elizabeth City College are seeing significant drops in enrollments. Johnny Taylor, president of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, argues that enrollment declines are particularly devastating for HBCUs. He explains:“If you take a school like N.C. A&T, where 50 percent of the country’s undergraduate black engineers come to one school, it would seriously impact our workforce diversity initiative if that school didn’t exist.” Indeed, Elizabeth City College, which lost 10% of its funding in 2013-2014, has been teetering on the edge of being shut down all together.
  • Faculty who can leave, do leave. For example, one of my colleagues, a dear friend and a brilliant scholar, left our department in 2011 in order to chair another English department. He simply could not support his family on the salaries paid to English faculty. Shortly after leaving our department this colleague made an historic discovery, was profiled in The New York Times, and was awarded a research fellowship at Harvard. When you don’t compensate your best faculty, they leave. End of story.
  • Faculty, like me, who have thus far been unable to secure employment outside of North Carolina, have only had a 1.2% pay increase since 2008. That means that tenured faculty like me, who have 8 years of experience teaching the university’s student body and who have won teaching and research awards, are actually earning less today than we did when we were first hired 8 years ago. We are being penalized for our experience and our dedication to the university. I have been explicitly told that the only way I will see a raise is if I snag a competing job offer. Of course, a female colleague of mine did get a competing job offer, in an effort to raise her salary, and my university basically told her to have a nice life. So she’s still in NC, making what I make.
  • Funding for travel has been scaled back or eliminated all together. For example, I have been planning to attend a prestigious academic conference in Ireland this summer, during which I present research from my next book project. Attending conferences like these are essential for scholars to gain feedback and share their research with others. But, there are no more international travel grants, as I just learned recently when I tried to apply for one:travel grant
  • Fixed term instructors are losing contracts at an alarming rate.

The list goes on and on.

But, here are some things the North Carolina General Assembly did vote for recently:

  • allowing guns on school grounds
  • tax breaks on yacht sales
  • $41,000 tax breaks for those making $1 million or more per year
  • restrictive voter registration rules
  • requiring middle school teachers to discuss “sensitive and scientifically discredited abortion issues with students.”

But perhaps what is most offensive in this climate of austerity and sacrifice is when the UNC Board of Governors recently recommended salary increases for the UNC system’s highest paid employees, including presidents and chancellors:

“Under the new parameters, the salary for a UNC president would match that for chancellors at the two flagship research campuses – UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University. The levels could range from a minimum of $435,000 to a maximum of $1 million, with the more likely market range of $647,000 to $876,000”

Maybe I’m biased, but I was always under the impression that the most important commodity at a university is the quality of its teaching staff, not the quality of its administrators. When I graduated from college in 1999 I didn’t think back fondly on all the administrators I had encountered along the way. So what explanation could possibly be given for proposing that university administrators deserve “competitive salaries” but the university’s teachers don’t? Why is the Board of Governors only concerned with attracting and retaining top administrative talent, not top teaching or research talent?

What, exactly, is going on? My university, you see, is very slowly being converted from an institution of education into a business. “Can’t it be both?” some of you might be thinking? “Wouldn’t academia, that dying giant, benefit from trimming the fat and keeping an eye towards pleasing the customer?” The answer, as someone who has slowly watched her university transition from a university into a Wal Mart over the last 8 years, is a resounding no.

Now, I can’t speak for every professor in the UNC system but I can tell you that I’ve witnessed these practices firsthand and they are destroying this university by slowly sucking the lifeblood out of its faculty. That metaphor may feel hyperbolic but trust me, it’s accurate. Indeed, it is the very metaphor employed by North Carolina’s own policy makers.

Back in February 2011, Jay Schalin of the Art Pope Center (which is essentially North Carolina’s own personal Koch Brothers), wrote an article entitled “Starving the Academic Beast,” which details the ways NC can “restore the 17 campus University of North Carolina system to its proper size and role.”

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So the stated goal of the Art Pope Center is, indeed, to “starve the beast.” But one has to wonder: since the North Carolina State constitution states that “The General Assembly shall provide that the benefits of The University of North Carolina and other public institutions of higher education, as far as practicable, be extended to the people of the State free of expense” AND  since public education has consistently proven to be the one enterprise that consistently provides a significant return on investment, then what THE HELL are these people doing and WHY are they doing it? Do they simply wish to starve the “beast” down into a nice, lean fighting weight? No, my friends, they want us to starve to death. And they are succeeding.

It’s also worth pointing our that  3 of the 10 most gerrymandered districts in the country are right here in North Carolina:

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That means we will likely have to accept the current policies (which only seem to be getting worse and worse) until at least 2016. This sad state of affairs has been incredibly demoralizing for me and for my colleagues. Many folks are resigned to the way things are, shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Why fight? There’s nothing to be done.” Fixed term faculty, whose precarity renders them most vulnerable to the whims of our legislature and, ironically, makes them least able to speak up about it, are worried about paying their bills. As my former colleague, John Steen, a visiting professor in my department who, despite being a brilliant scholar and talented teacher, must now pursue a different line of work, writes:

“Currently, over 52 percent of ECU faculty are fixed-term, and that number’s rising. This means that over half of the ECU faculty can leave the classroom after final exams uncertain of whether they’ll return for the next semester. Nationwide, 31 percent of part-time faculty earn near or below the federal poverty level. For raising a family, paying rent, and for supporting students throughout their ECU careers, that’s not nearly enough.”

Tenure track faculty, who have yet to submit their tenure materials, are worried about jeopardizing their one chance at academic job security (most of us on the tenure track are aware that we are lucky to have any job at all). We’re too scared to speak and too scared to be silent.

Well, that’s not exactly true.

As a result of these draconian policies, which both implicitly and explicitly seek to “starve” the great beast that is public education in North Carolina, some of us have started to get mad. And we’re trying to make some noise. And a lot of us have tenure,  the one thing, so far, that the General Assembly hasn’t taken away.

So this post is for you, my tenured friends. We are small in number—indeed, we are an endangered species. But I am calling on you now to speak up and get involved. Talk to your colleagues, your department chairs and your deans. Write letters to the editor of your local paper and to your student paper. Write to your legislators. Talk to your students about this–if anyone should be outraged about having to pay more tuition for less and less instruction it should be them.

But really, shouldn’t this outrage all of us? An affordable public education is the promise we made, collectively, as a state, many decades ago. We pay taxes for this education. This university system belongs to US, the people of North Carolina. So why are we allowing this wonderful, economy-boosting, prestige-raising, research-generating “beast” to starve? Are we really helpless? Have we really been stripped of all options? No. Because as long as we can speak and type and scream, we can fight. Won’t you join us?

No End in Sight: Academic Research and “Time Off”

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Wheedle

“Can you read these words to me, Amanda?” my first grade teacher asked, pointing at the cover of The Wheedle on the Needle. I shook my head and smiled, thinking this was some kind of trick. How the hell would I know how to read those letters? Later, I asked my friends if they had been able to decipher the book cover, assuming they were as lost as I had been. “The Wheedle on the Needle,” my friend replied, almost casually. The others nodded and I felt betrayed: when did everyone learn to read? This was 1983, when it was not assumed that children would enter kindergarten knowing how to read. But still, somehow, between kindergarten and first grade, I had fallen behind my peers.

Soon after my fateful reading test our teacher sorted us into reading groups. I was, of course, placed in the “remedial” reading group while all of my friends were in the “advanced” group. Though I had no way of knowing this earlier — this was the first time any kind of judgment had been made, implicitly or explicitly, about our intelligence — I now had confirmation: I was stupid.

I decided then and there that I would learn to read, as quickly as possible, and I would get the hell out of the remedial group. After several months of intense concentration and effort — it was the first time I can recall applying myself fully to academics — I was in the advanced reading group.  It felt good to be back with my friends and sure, it felt good to learn how to read. But the biggest lesson I learned that day was that I was built for studying: a natural born student.

Fast forward to 1999, my first year of graduate school. I had just graduated  magna cum laude from an Ivy League institution and I was pretty confident in my intellectual capabilities. As an undergrad I had stuffed my brain with the likes of Doris Lessing, Tom Stoppard, Toni Morrison, Euripides, and T.S. Eliot, but I quickly learned that these names meant nothing to my new classmates. They had abandoned the text, that frivolous playground of undergraduate English majors, and moved on to more challenging writers with unfamiliar names like “Foucault” and “Deleuze” and “Baudrillard.” When did this happen? Why did I not get the memo? I was behind everyone else and grad school had barely started. It was first grade all over again.

To cope with this brand new bout of imposter syndrome, I set to work “catching up” with my peers. I made lists of “essential” books and essays — the stuff I thought I should have already read, before coming to graduate school — and tried to fit them in after completing all of my assigned coursework (which was impossible since my coursework took up almost all of my time). How does one cope with such an impossible work load? Easy: you never stop working. And when you do stop working, you must berate yourself about your decision to not-work because, in the world of the scholar, you can always be working. That’s why alcohol is so useful for graduate students. No one feels bad about not reading Foucault while intoxicated.

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Sometimes I would be in my apartment, rereading an incomprehensible passage in The Acoustic Mirror for the fourth time, and I would be seized with a bottomless sense of doom, like I was free falling down a long dark well, only it was the inside of me that was falling. The only way I knew how to keep my body from collapsing in on itself, like a black hole of dread, was to get into bed, squeeze my eyes tight, and breathe deeply until my internal gravitational pull slowed to a stop. Sometimes this took minutes, other days it took hours. Then I would get out of bed, pick up The Acoustic Mirror and my yellow highlighter, take a deep breath, and begin again.

At the time I had no idea that there was a name for these episodes: panic attacks. I just thought I was too dumb for graduate school and had a bad time coping with that reality. But after some consultations with my doctor and my parents I realized that the best thing for me to do was to take a leave of absence after completing my Masters. I hoped that a year off might help me to decide whether I should continue on to do a PhD or move into some profession that would not cause my body to regularly seize up  with dread or cause the skin on my face to erupt in angry pulsing nodules of adolescent acne.

The year off was good for me. I worked for AmeriCorps, watched a lot of movies, read all of the Harry Potters, got a puppy, and learned how to share a home with the man who would eventually become my husband and the father of our two kids. At the end of the year I felt refreshed and returned to the University of Pittsburgh, fully ready to begin a PhD in film studies. I still had the occasional panic attacks, suffered from imposter syndrome, and regularly believed that there would never be enough hours in the day to complete all of the reading, viewing and writing that  I thought I needed to complete. But I also knew that being a scholar was what I liked best and so the constant anxiety, a kind of low-level hum –my body’s own white noise — was the penalty I had to pay to do what I loved.

During those 5 years I was always wondering if I was doing “enough” to succeed. I distinctly remember sitting around with my fellow PhDs, comparing the amount of hours we spent on our coursework each week — not to brag or one-up each other — but out of a genuine desire to determine whether what we were doing was truly “enough.” Because there was no other way to measure the knowledge we were slowly and painfully accumulating. Was 50 hours enough? 60?  70? (Answer: it is never enough).

Of course anyone who pursues a post-graduate degree  — doctors, lawyers, nurses, veterinarians — finds themselves devoting all of their free hours to their studies. But the difference for professors is that this frantic need to always be reading or writing, to always be a student, never really “ends.” In this profession we are made to feel as if teaching and committee work and the occasional article or book are not enough. If we’re not publishing books with the top presses or publishing articles in the top journals or being offered jobs at R1 schools, then we don’t really matter in the field. If we’re not always working (and I mean always working) then we don’t exist.

William Pannapacker addressed this issue quite well in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is worth quoting at length, because it is fantastic:

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…

Surely, the Catholic tradition of monastics and mendicants lies behind this tendency that I share with my profession, but there are other traditions at work here. As H. L. Mencken said, Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Happiness is worldliness, and idleness is sin: Work is an end in itself, as Max Weber observed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Likewise, there’s an old, unspoken commandment, “A professor shall not be seen mowing the lawn on weekdays.”

This “turtlenecked hairshirt” doesn’t go away when you finish your dissertation, or (if you’re lucky) snag your first tenure track job. It doesn’t even end when you get tenure. I know professors who have climbed as far as they can up the academic hierarchy (and it is a woefully stubby ladder to begin with), but who still regularly churn out monographs and anthologies as if they are getting paid by the word. But here’s the thing: they’re not getting paid by the word. Or the chapter. They’re barely clearing a few hundred dollars for what is often years of tireless research and writing. No, academics are “paid” in positive reviews, citations, and ego stroking.We’re paid with tenure or new job opportunities. Those of us on the tenure track are “paid” in new titles: Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Full Professor.

***

I am a tenured professor working at a state university that has ceased to offer raises (including cost of living raises) to its faculty. When I started my job in 2007 I was making approximately $53,000, a solid starting salary for an Assistant Professor circa 2007. Today, after 7 years at the same institution, I’m proud of my research profile, the classes I’ve taught, the students I’ve mentored and the film studies program I’ve helped build, but my salary is a mere $2,000 more than it was when I started 7 years ago. I have been told by numerous administrators that I should not get my hopes up for a raise, that money is tight (even though newbie professors fresh out of graduate school are hired every year at much higher salaries). The $2,000 I received for getting tenure is likely going to be “it” for a very long time. Yes that’s correct, the only raise I’ve received in 7 years is $2,000 for getting tenure. Oh, you can also call me “Associate Professor” now. I know academic titles carry a lot of weight so I wanted to make sure y’all knew about that, too.

I had planned to spend my summer — as most academics do — working on a major research project, in this case, my next book project. I would find a way, as I always do, to fit research and writing into the pieces of time leftover after teaching a summer class, driving my kids to their various activities, and visiting the family and friends who live too far away to visit during the school year. My summer research projects always drain away the time I spent with family and friends, but I have done this every summer since I can remember: to get a job, to get tenure, and because I was always advised to work for the job I want, not the job I have.

“Why are you always working in the summer, aren’t you a teacher?” my non-academic friends often ask me, while my academic friends usually ask “What are you working on this summer?”

***

A few months ago, after a failed attempt to get a job at a university that might actually pay me a salary commensurate with my rank and experience, I came to the realization that the stress and late nights, the self doubt and loathing, were now unnecessary. I am not going to get a better-paying job and my current employers, no matter how many books I publish, how many students I mentor, or how many committees I serve on, are not going to give me any more money. Or at least not much money. Initially this realization made me despondent: if no one is paying me more money to produce more work, and very few people read the peer-reviewed articles or monographs I’m trying to crank out, then what happens? What happens when a professor no longer has any incentive to work at the breakneck pace at which she has been encouraged to work since she first embarked upon that great and arduous journey towards a career in academia?

Nothing. Nothing happens. And, dear reader, it is glorious.

Yes, this summer I decided to stop: panicking, working at 9pm after the kids go to bed, working on Saturday afternoons, bringing “work” with me on vacation, making myself feel guilty for not working on vacation, complaining about how “busy” and “stressed” I am all the time in real life and online, writing articles or presenting at conferences just to add a line to my CV, writing shit that no one will be able to read because it’s locked behind a paywall, viewing the success of my friends and colleagues as a indictment of my own (non)success, and staring at my computer screen while my kids ask when I will be done working so I can play with them. Plus, most people believe that professors are lazy layabouts in the summer anyway, so I decided to start living up to the stereotype.

So this summer I’ve been on vacation — a real, honest-to-goodness vacation. Sure, I taught a 5-week class and I’ve answered urgent emails. I’ve spoken with colleagues about conference panels and workshops. And right now I’m writing this blog post. But I’ve stopped with the “musts” and the “shoulds.” I’m only working on what I want to work on. And sometimes, even when I really do feel like I’d like to say, brush up on the history of broadcast television, I decide to go out to lunch with my kids instead. Just because. I’m saying “no” to “Would you like to chair this blah blah blah…” and “yes” to “Would you like to sit in this chair and drink a cocktail?” And I’m enjoying my family and my life in a way that I haven’t been able to since…well, since I started graduate school back in 1999.

I want to be clear: I love writing and researching. I love the feeling of finishing a sentence and knowing that it says exactly what I want it to say. I love following an idea through all the way and producing scholarship that is readable and functional. I’m incredibly proud of my first book and I think it’s doing something useful in the subfield of genre studies. But my scholarship won’t cure cancer. It doesn’t provide fresh drinking water to drought-stricken regions. It’s not even the kind of writing people stay up all night reading and then eagerly discuss with their book club the next day, like Twilight. That’s just not how humanities scholarship works. So I’m in no big rush to publish my next piece of scholarship. While I love doing good scholarship I don’t love feeling like a hamster on a wheel: working, working, working for no tangible reward and with no end in sight. At least the hamster is getting exercise.

***

Last week my children and I drove up to Connecticut to spend a few days with a dear friend and her family. They swam and dug holes and her kids taught my kids how to catch (and release) frogs. They were having the kind of summer I remember having when I was young — days that unspool in no particular hurry, with no clear agenda. As we walked home in the twilight, holding hands, my daughter said to me “This is the best vacation ever!” And she’s right, it is.

Frog catching
Frog catching

 

You Always Remember Your First Time

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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.