MONA LISA SMILE
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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!”
“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”
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.
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.