Conferencing, mentoring and professionalization: reflections on SCMS 2011

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.


About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

12 Responses to Conferencing, mentoring and professionalization: reflections on SCMS 2011

  1. Pingback: SCMS 2011: Panels, Tweets, and Challenges « Media Milieus

  2. Welcome to blogging! We’re expecting three posts a week…

    One quick thing to add – this year, SCMS added two Orientation Sessions for new members/attendees, an addition stemming from members suggestions. I’m curious if any of the rookies posting & reading about these issues attended one of these sessions, and if they were helpful. I do think that the SCMS board has become more responsive in recent years, so feedback on what would be helpful to newcomers is really important.

    • fymaxwell says:

      Thanks for the warm welcome. I will do my best to live up to the 3 x 2000 word posts a week that seems to be the norm amongst the tvitterati!

      Thanks also for bringing the SCMS Orientation Sessions to my and other’s attention. I myself wasn’t aware of their existence, and I probably would have recommended them to our grads had I been. I’m still wondering, though, if there is a place for a personal mentoring program at SCMS – something where a first timer would get paired with a repeat offender. My personal take is that this invariably ends up happening on its own. At least in my own case I know that even without a formal mentoring program more established scholars in the field (Jason included!) stepped up and offered me guidance when I needed it, for instance during the job search process. I’d imagine that other people have had similar experiences, but then again I don’t want to take it for granted. I’m curious to hear what others – from established scholars like Jason to up and comers like Mabel, Noel, Myles, and Justin – think about the possibility of a program like the one I’m describing.

  3. Nice post! Your experiences resonate with my own, for sure. But I must correct one piece of advice you offered above: dinner groups should definitely be allowed to get bigger than 6 people! Some of my best conference memories (including this most recent SCMS) are of wandering around with a pack of old and new friends, trying to find a restaurant that can seat us. A big table of hungry, slightly drunk conference-goers–what could be better?

    • fymaxwell says:

      Amanda – Thanks for your comments. I really enjoyed reading your own first conference testimony over at Antenna. Your night of eating cake and watching basic cable at the Super 8 is exactly the kind of experience grad students need to have, both for the sake of our professional development and for the sake of giving us opportunities to escape from our otherwise monkish existences.

      Regarding the dinner numbers issue, I’m going to side with @Chris and say that as groups get larger, the likelihood that someone is going to end up getting excluded from conversations gets higher. There’s always that one crappy seat in the corner that is the equivalent of social Siberia. Also, from a practical standpoint, dividing a dinner bill eleven ways can be such a nightmare, especially for broke grad students. There’s always someone who gets three mixed drinks and a steak and then wants to just split the bill evenly!

  4. dkompare says:

    Excellent reflections, and welcome to the blogosphere (or blogodome, on your antagonistic days)!

    The sorts of things you described were exactly my experiences attending this conference in grad school. Sticking with your cohort, attending each other’s panels, making some new connections. It was great meeting senior scholars at meals and receptions through my mentors; I met many “big(ger) names” that way in the 90s.

    At this point, as an increasingly “senior scholar,” my main conference objectives are to reaffirm relationships with my best friends in the field, make some new connections, and meet and talk with grad students. Granted, social media (especially Twitter, in my case at least) have extended much of this interaction throughout the year. But “face time” is still very important; even moreso these days. Conferences should be about connection and discussion. SCMS has been for years, and is getting ever better at it.

  5. Chris Cagle says:

    I second the 6 people-at-dinner rule. Beyond that, the conversation splinters off into groups of two, and everyone has the feeling of missing someone they thought they would meet up with.

  6. Erin Copple Smith says:

    So great to see you blogging, Max–and thanks for this excellent post on a tricky topic. I have to say–even on only my second SCMS, I have to agree with you. Yes, certainly, I think advisors/faculty/mentors/etc. can make early conference experiences easier by facilitating introductions and by being friendly faces in the crowd. But I don’t think that anything can be done to entirely combat the awkwardness of the first conference.

    And truly, this is the case with all social interactions, right? We have to be acquaintances before we can be friends, friends before we can be best friends, etc. Sometimes you just have to jump in with both feet and do your best and feel awkward, and know that the next time will be easier because you’ll have already done this part. I had to feel out of place in order to push myself out of my comfort zone and introduce myself to some other grad students I didn’t already know…and after that initial awkwardness, I had some really awesome pals I now reconnect with at virtually every conference I attend.

    All of this to say–you’re absolutely right–things can be done to make things smoother and more comfortable and whatever. But, ultimately, new social experiences are uncomfortable and awkward, and that’s just the way it goes. Over time, it DOES get better (provided you have basic social skills, anyway). Gritting your teeth and getting through it once can make a world of difference for the future.

    • fymaxwell says:

      Erin – Thanks for your post. As was the case with your comment on Myles’ conference report at Antenna, you’re raising a number of important points about how SCMS changes as we do. One thing that you got me thinking about is how each SCMS I attend is different, depending on where I am in my own career trajectory. My first SCMS in Vancouver was all about getting closer with my a couple of members of my cohort. Chicago was about making connections between my NU friends and some of the grad students we had met at other conferences in the intervening year. That year I also started to get to know my academic “cousins” (junior faculty members who had studied with my advisors when they had worked at another school), and through them other junior profs whose work I was interested in. My third SCMS in Philadelphia came right after I had accepted my first job, and was very much focused on personally thanking everyone who had helped me out during the process. Los Angeles was a chance to reunite with friends from grad school and from conferences past, most of whom were amongst that core group I had bonded with at my first few conferences. And New Orleans was about talking to other junior faculty people who, like me, are in the process of turning dissertations into books. In some of those years, I saw a lot of panels. In others, I was all about the workshops. In New Orleans, I was all about three-hour lunches. But what’s remained consistent across my five SCMSs is that the conference became what I needed it to be. SCMS is big, and it can be very impersonal and intimidating, but it also gives us a lot leeway to make what we will of it.

  7. Karen Petruska says:

    All of these conversations are making me think about mentorship–but more particularly, the limits of mentorship. Also, architecture.

    Mabel’s concerns about her academic work not “fitting in,” intrigue me because they bring up a host of issues. Does she have a cohort with whom she is close at her university? Does she have a faculty mentor there to whom she can express honestly her thoughts and fears (some mentor-mentee relationships, I imagine, are less friendly and more professional)? Does she read the work of scholars outside her department who excite her that may have connections to people inside her department? I keep going back to the host faculty because they are the easiest people (sometimes) to approach.

    Of course, I speak this as someone at a school with a wide-open door policy. I’ve never had a professor be too busy to chat. But even when these relationships are more complicated, Max’s question about who is responsible for mentorship keeps bringing me back to the home institution. Here are some ideas I have for how a home-school advisor can help a new SCMS attendee.

    1) don’t brag about all the great feedback the student will get at SCMS. Encourage a student to do good work, but be honest about the all-too-likely possibility that sitting on a panel with other grad students will result in a small audience consisting solely of those people the panelists have themselves recruited to attend. The low stakes of this type of presentation can actually be a comfort, but the expectation of “great feedback” can leave a person feeling let down.

    2) review the conference program before the conference so you can advise the mentee about which panels/workshops to attend. It is incredibly difficult during your first conference to know which panels are going to be worthwhile–but if you watch faculty move (Jason Mittell should teach a course on this), they know where “it’ is at.

    3) at minimum, make time to have coffee or just meet in the hallway with your mentee, just to touch base. See how its going, discuss any nerves about an upcoming presentation or review the experience of the presentation now completed

    4) in the middle range, arrange a departmental dinner between faculty and all the grad students. As Max rightly points out, conferences can build tremendous bonds between a cohort. But they can also provide a unique opportunity to socialize with your own faculty away from campus. I don’t know how many schools encourage socializing with grad students, but the conference setting allows a professional version of a less pressured, friendly opportunity to chat as a group, to build alliances, to recognize the value of collegiality.

    4) at most, find a way to introduce a grad student to a scholar outside the department that does work similar to the grad student. We all need connections, and faculty are in the best position to get grad students in front of an intimidating person. And don’t just introduce them quickly in the hallway–arrange a coffee, plan a lunch. Give the student and scholar(s) a chance to meet and really talk.

    I realize this is a tall order, which is why I describe it as a the “most” a mentor can do. I have seen my own (awesome) mentor run ragged at SCMS–meeting with publishers, catching up with friends, attending an endless series of meeting that seem to exist behind the scenes at SCMS. With all these responsibilities, asking a mentor to give up time to arrange a one-on-one (or small group) activity would indeed be “most” kind.

    5) related–discuss drinking, socializing, and meal sharing with your mentee. Sometimes dining with a senior scholar requires the grad student to spend too much money at the lovely restaurant the senior scholar can afford. Be sensitive to this sacrifice. Depending on the setting, drinking may be a pretty valid part of the “socializing” at SCMS. Know if your student drinks or abstains. Talk about how to drink casually but not to excess (remember, a nervous grad student with a drink could lead to a less sober grad student). Share your own stories about trying to remember a scholar’s name, book title, or whatever other kind of flub we all likely commit. If a grad student needs a hotel, ask a colleague at another school to ask his/her own students if they want to share. Super practical, but also, super helpful (and builds alliances across schools).

    I’m sure there is more, but that’s a start. Again, it isn’t that I don’t think SCMS has any responsibility to orient students, but the truth is that only an honest depiction of the “politics” inherent in any professionalization activity will prepare your students for the best and worst of SCMS.


    • fymaxwell says:

      JG – Thanks for joining the discussion. I think that a lot of people are going to find your comments really helpful. As a junior faculty member who is just now stepping into the role of mentor for the first time, I know I do. When I mentioned that there were some things I know now that I wish I knew when I was a grad student, this is what had in mind. Then again, your comments bring up another question for me: how does one learn to mentor? Of course we all have the examples of our own mentors to draw on, but it’s not always easy to gain a proper analytical perspective on that relationship. Maybe in addition to being more proactive about mentoring grad students, faculties and fields and professional associations could also invest more in helping junior faculty develop mentoring skills…

  8. Pingback: You Always Remember Your First Time « judgmental observer

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