Conferencing, mentoring and professionalization: reflections on SCMS 2011
March 17, 2011 12 Comments
Ever since the 2011 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference wrapped up on Sunday, attendees have been sharing their impressions of the conference via Twitter, personal blogs, and SCMS’s recently-relaunched website. Undoubtedly the most provocative of these reports have been the ones written by first-time SCMS attendees, including graduate students Mabel Rosenheck, Noel Kirkpatrick, Myles McNutt, and Justin Horton. Though Mabel, Noel, Myles, and Justin all have their own unique perspectives on the conference (and on conferencing more generally), I think it’s fair to say that their fresh eyes have picked up on aspects of SCMS that are perhaps a little less noticeable to me and other returning attendees.
Within only a matter of days these young scholars’ posts already have sparked or fueled productive discussions about topics ranging from the challenges posed by SCMS’s continued growth to the pros and cons of the twenty-minute read presentation to the still largely unrealized potential of the Twitter backchannel. Perhaps even more importantly, their posts and the resulting comment threads have served to remind many conference veterans of our own first trips to SCMS. An event of SCMS’s size and duration can be extremely intimidating and impersonal for the first-time attendee. Presenting your work to a new and unfamiliar audience can be stressful enough. Still, most grad students have given (or at least witnessed) a conference-style presentation before their first SCMS. By contrast, there’s little to prepare the SCMS rookie for the dozens of hours he’ll spend at the conference not presenting. I’m hard pressed to come up with relevant professional or personal experiences that a grad student at his first SCMS can draw on as he tries to figure out, for instance, how to strike up a conversation with an influential senior scholar without coming across as a sycophant, the difference between socializing and networking, the protocol surrounding Q&A sessions, or how to maintain a semblance of self-esteem after the hundredth person he encounters in the book exhibition scans his name badge before deciding whether or not he warrants eye contact.
As the conversation about some of the more alienating aspects of conferencing unfolded, a number of SCMS veterans (myself included) offered words of encouragement, assuring first-timers that everyone’s first SCMS is a fairly miserable experience, and that they could look forward to feeling more comfortable and connected at future conferences. This definitely was the case for me. Having come to Northwestern from an MA program in Australia, I knew next to no one outside of my own department when I attended my own first SCMS in Vancouver in 2006. My recollections of that weekend are dominated by memories of awkwardly lingering on the periphery of conversations between people who all seemed to know each other, and of standing on my toes scanning rooms full of strangers for fellow Northwestern grad students. Thank god for being tall. I also remember attending a lot of panels that year, probably more than at any other conference I’ve been to since. Given the choice between the prospect of wandering the hallways of the conference hotel alone and sitting through yet another presentation, I usually opted for the latter.
Fast forward a year, and things could not have been more different for me. Even with only one previous SCMS under my belt, I felt immensely more comfortable at the 2007 conference in Chicago. Certainly being a resident of the host city went a long way toward boosting my confidence (and comfort level). (There’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed on the night before you give an SCMS paper.) But beyond that, I also had the advantage of being able to draw on everything I had learned in Vancouver the year before. What exactly had I learned? Stuff like pack a snack and some water in your bag. Brush your teeth after lunch. Don’t attend a panel during every session, and don’t ask a question at every panel you attend. Make set times to meet up with friends, as opposed to leaving meetings to chance. Offer to take a professor from your MA or BA program out for coffee. Don’t let your dinner group grow to more than six people. Introduce the people on your panel to members of your cohort, and have them do the same. Tell your advisor who you’d most like to meet, and get them to arrange for an introduction. Finagle yourself an invitation to the U.S.C. party. Some of these lessons I learned from my program’s ABDs, faculty members, or alums. Most, however, I learned the hard way in Vancouver.
This past week a number of others have shared SCMS biographies that follow trajectories quite similar to my own. For me it was reassuring to hear that I had not been alone, and that some of the people I respect the most in our field also had terrible memories of their first conferences (SCMS or otherwise). But in the discussion that ensued on Twitter, Mabel raised the point that while these “it gets better” messages were appreciated, perhaps those of us who were writing them were missing the point. Instead of encouraging first-timers to feel comfortable in the knowledge that their uncomfortable SCMS experiences are in fact the norm, could veteran attendees engage grad students in a conversation about what could be done to make it so that future first-timers might be spared these kinds of experiences?
I’ve been mulling over this question in my head for the last few days, and not only because I was one of the more vocal members of the “it gets better” crowd. As someone who has only in the last few years made the transition from grad student to faculty member, questions about professionalization are at the forefront of my mind. On the one hand, I’m very much still grappling with these questions myself as I try to figure out how to balance writing, teaching, committee work, etc.. On the other hand, I’m eager to do anything I can to help my department’s grad students find their own footing within the field. In considering the role I might play in the professionalization of current or future grad students, one issue that constantly comes up for me is that of transparency. For many assistant professors, the wounds (both physical and psychic) of grad school and the job market remain fresh. We often remember things that our more senior colleagues have spent the last few decades trying to forget. With that in mind, I often ask myself what information that I have now do I wish someone had told me when I was in Mabel’s, Noel’s, Myles’, or Justin’s position? Beyond that, I also wonder who should be responsible for disseminating this information. Are PhD. programs or faculty members responsible for preparing their students for their first visits to SCMS? Or is it SCMS’s responsibility to integrate its newest members into the field, perhaps via workshops or even a formal mentorship program that would pair up first-time and veteran attendees?
Conversely, as each year I learn more about how the sausage gets made, I’ve begun to think more about the practical limits of transparency. I’ve seen transparency go horribly wrong, for instance when applied to the academic job search. I’ve developed a greater appreciation for the ways that my own mentors balanced telling me things about professional development with putting me in situations where I could figure things out for myself. I’ve also come to realize that there is some information I’m grateful that my mentors shielded me from. There are certain things grad students shouldn’t have to worry about.
I’ve likewise begun to see experiences like my first SCMS through slightly different eyes. Sure, that trip to Vancouver was a quote-unquote learning experience. Sure, it taught me a lot about the ins and outs of academic conferencing. But even more importantly, it was an experiences that produced the friendships and support networks that got me through grad school, a job search, and a job change. The closeness I feel toward members of my grad cohort I attribute largely to experiences like the ones we had together in Vancouver. During those four days, we shared hotel rooms, ate together, and travelled in a pack from session to session. We went to each other’s talks, and during the Q&A sessions asked each other questions that we knew would made our classmates look smart. (Amber, it’s still not too late for you to return the favor.) Above all, we learned that we could rely on each other.
Other connections made at the conferences I attended during my first and second year of grad school have proven equally meaningful and lasting. A group of American and British grad students that I met at the Screen conference have since become some of my closest friends in the field. Five years ago we were self-conscious grad students who, despite having divergent interests, gravitated toward each other at a reception because we were (incorrectly) convinced that no one else would ever want to talk to us. Three years later, we proofed each other’s job letters and commiserated about our job searches over Skype. Today, we’re all junior faculty members. SCMS and Screen are now our reunions, providing us with opportunities to catch up, hang out, and get started on new projects.
If my first conference experiences hadn’t been quite as unpleasant as they were, would my relationships with the members of my grad cohort and with the group of grads I met at Screen be as strong? Would I feel as comfortable relying on these friends today if I hadn’t had no choice but to rely on them in the past? By posing these questions, I’m not suggesting that a miserable first SCMS is a professional rite of passage that all film and media scholars should be required to go through. That said, as I look back my own time in grad school (which of course wasn’t that long ago), I’ve started to recognize that experiences that at the time seemed like painful ordeals were in fact been crucial to my development as a scholar and professional. And I’ve come to recognize that for all that is wrong with SCMS (and there is a lot), there’s quite a bit about it that works out quite well. In my own case, SCMS put me into a situation where I could begin to build the support networks that every academic eventually needs to survive.
I recognize that there’s a good chance that this post will come across as me telling the SCMS first timers that as they become more seasoned they’ll eventually come recognize that they were mistaken about SCMS. This couldn’t be further from my intentions. Rather, I merely wanted to explain to Mabel, Noel, Myles, Justin, and any other people who just attended SCMS for the first time that there is a personal narrative behind my assurance that “it will get better.” I agree that SCMS could do much more to create a welcoming environment for first-time attendees. So, too, could professors do a better job of preparing grad students for their first conferences. At the same time, though, 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? I really don’t have the answers to these questions. But at the very least I feel pretty certain that my own life as an academic would have turned out very differently had I not had a crappy first SCMS.