A Few Thoughts on Improving the SCMS Conference

14Jan14

Recently, I looked over the preliminary program for the Society for Cinema & Media Studies conference in March, so I could book travel arrangements for Seattle. Normally this would create excitement—I’ve been to most SCMS conferences since 1996, and it’s usually a great event to see old friends, meet new people, and hopefully hear some interesting research. But looking over this program caused flashbacks to last year’s conference, which was probably my least favorite ever. I left Chicago last March thinking that the status quo of SCMS conferences needed some major changes, and this year’s program seems to be more of the same, making me wonder if the current model is stuck in stone, or able to be improved with a few reforms (that I brainstorm below). Note that my perspective might be an outlier, as the survey following the last conference seems to suggest more broad satisfaction than I felt, so take my critiques as no more than one person’s opinion, but perhaps others can weigh in via the comments.

I have a personal policy of not griping about something within an organization that I wouldn’t be willing to help try to fix. So I’m not trying to suggest that other people should do their jobs better. Rather, I think we need to have a deeper discussion as an organization as to what the conference is for, who it’s meant to serve, and how to best accomplish those goals in an era where anyone can post a lecture, a paper, or a discussion online (while travel costs rise and funding dries up). I also know that I write from a position of extreme privilege: I am an SCMS “insider” who feels pretty confident that my proposals will be accepted, and I have ample funding and the familial support to be able to travel without scrambling for childcare or going into debt to attend. The hardships that the current conference model creates impact me far less than most members, so hopefully it’s clear that I’m not proposing changes primarily out of self-interest, but rather sustaining broad interest in the organization.

For me, the goal of a conference is to host engaging conversations about research, teaching, and related academic issues. Last year’s Chicago conference seemed broken to me because it generally failed to generate such conversations (at least in my presence). Many of its flaws stood out in contrast to the MLA Convention I attended (for the first time) two months previously. Even though MLA has a reputation for being a massively overwhelming experience, it actually struck me as more efficient, more streamlined, and more engaging than SCMS (with the caveat that I was not involved in any job searches, so I didn’t have to endure that anxiety). Much of that efficiency stems from MLA being a larger and richer organization (thank you, style guides!), so they can afford to invest more in conference planning and can use their muscle to negotiate better hotel & facility deals. A big problem with the Chicago SCMS was the inadequate facilities at The Drake Hotel, as most of the rooms I saw sessions in were completely inappropriate to the size of the audience or poorly laid out for a panel. Maybe addressing those issues are insurmountable due to our size and resources, but there are other changes that seem more feasible, as I detail below.

The SCMS schedule has ballooned to five full days, Wednesday morning to Sunday afternoon. I don’t know anyone who wants to and is able to attend for the full schedule, as limited budgets, teaching schedules, family commitments, and mental stamina all interfere. Additionally, all 20 schedule blocks have between 20-26 concurrent sessions, meaning that there are more than 440 sessions. So even if you did marathon through the whole five days and attend a session every block (probably an unprecedented feat), you would still have seen fewer than 5% of the conference presentations. A more realistic number for people taking breaks and not staying five days is around 2%, or 8-10 sessions, which seems like a really unfortunate fraction of your field’s major event to experience, and all but guarantees that everyone’s conference experiences will be vastly different.

So the first change I would make is to limit the formal conference to four days. That would increase the number of people who can attend most of the conference, and improve the weak and erratic attendance on Wednesday and Sunday. It would also reduce the frustration that I (and presumably others) feel when seeing all of the sessions I must miss on the days I can’t manage to be at the conference. By cutting out Wednesday, it would would also minimize disruptions attendees have to deal with when their papers are scheduled for midweek, and must make arrangements to miss multiple days of teaching, parenting, etc.

The other big advantage of four days is that it would better allow for pre- or post-conference events. This was a highlight of MLA for me, as I attended a THATCamp on the Wednesday before the conference started, and participated in a Thursday morning workshop on evaluating digital projects for tenure & promotion. These were small, longform participatory events, which provided a great contrast to the more passive reception of papers typical at conferences. I also participated in a day long pre-conference workshop on media aesthetics at ICA a few years ago, which functioned as a mini-conference with more conversation and interaction (and I didn’t even stick around for the main ICA conference). Since such events are optional, attendees couldn’t get stuck with a bad schedule slot or forced to pay for many days if they cannot afford it.

Cutting a day from the conference would obviously reduce the number of presentations, which would mean that fewer people attend the conference (as most people only can get funding to attend if they are presenting). While not ideal, the conference has grown so much over the past decade that reducing attendance is not a catastrophe, and might actually yield benefits in terms of space and hotel options. My suggestion for how to be more selective while increasing the goal of engaged conversation is to eliminate the open call for papers, accepting only prepared panels and workshops, which is how MLA and many other conferences do it. This would eliminate panels that are hodgepodge of unrelated papers—like the Seattle panel called “Current Topics in Film and Media Studies” for one of many ridiculously broad examples—and hopefully inspire more cross-paper connections and conversations, as well as drawing a more engaged audience. The downside of this shift is that it might exclude more junior presenters, as they might not have the network to get involved in panels. Certainly the online bulletin board of panel ideas would be central to such assembly, and I have no doubt that the age of social media can make the panel assembly process efficient and effective (that’s how I assembled my panel on Breaking Bad for Seattle). Additionally, SCMS could stipulate that every panel or workshop must contain at least one participant not in a tenure-track position (unless there is a compelling rationale not to, like a workshop about the tenure process), ensuring that grad students, contingent faculty, and independent scholars are well represented in the conference.

As an example of how the 5-day schedule and open call paper system leads to problems, last year I was the only audience member for a panel scheduled in the first slot on Sunday morning. The panel was vaguely called “[Re]presentations,” and was clearly an open call assembly of three papers that had nothing to do with each other. I was only there to hear a (very good) paper on The Wire that led off the panel, and had to awkwardly leave to catch a plane after that presentation, officially emptying the audience. I guarantee that all three papers could have fit much more effectively into thematically-linked panels that would have likely increased attendance, not to mention that if Sunday were the fourth day of the conference, it would be more accessible to attendees.

Regardless of how many days the conference runs, it seems like another universal gripe is how similar panels are scheduled against each other. The most egregious example was last year there were two different workshops about professional use of social media focused on different subtopics, but scheduled at the same time so the only cross-session conversation was, appropriately if unfortunately, on Twitter. This problem is very complex, and I would never want the job of scheduling a conference. But one solution I’ve seen at other conferences that would help is tracking topics by room. While many panels cross topical areas, it would not be difficult to identify a dozen or so topics, and designate one room for each topic to host relevant panels throughout the whole schedule. That way an attendee mostly interested in industrial history, gender representation, or American television would be guaranteed at least one relevant panel per session, and it would reduce topical conflicts. This would not cure all conflicts, but it seems at least one step toward more clear tracking of subfields and helping to foster more sustained conference-long conversations around a designated topic. Such tracking could also mean a more prominent role for Scholarly Interest Groups, with each sponsoring a line-up of panels/workshops scheduled in succession in the same room, rather than randomly scattered about the program. (Be sure to listen to the latest episode of Aca-Media for a piece on SIGs in SCMS.)

The best sessions I saw in Chicago were workshops, where actual conversation and engaged participation were the norm. I was disappointed that the Seattle program features the same proportion of workshops as previous years, with approximately two per schedule block; when compared to 20+ panels per block, workshops are less than 10% of the conference. Increasing the number of workshops seems like a simple and effective way to encourage more dialogue and engagement, especially since the model of paper presentation seems less and less relevant in an era when people self-publish works in progress online. Workshops also allow for more participants, so they could absorb many of the presenters who might find it harder to get a paper accepted without the open-call option, and can satisfy institutional funding requirements that attendees be presenting at a conference.

My final recommendations involve the use of digital media, which has been an ironic weakness of SCMS for years. One bit of progress is already happening—after a successful test drive of live-streaming two workshops in Chicago, SCMS is attempting to live-stream as many workshops as technologically feasible in Seattle, which also includes archiving the videos for later access. I understand why many people are not comfortable live-streaming or videoing research presentations, but I would love to see that option as well (while noting that doing such videoing requires costly equipment and labor, so it’s not a simple plan by any means).

But an easier technological shift seems most transformative: publish paper, panel and workshop abstracts online. Right now, all that we have to navigate the crowded, overscheduled conference are one-line paper titles in the context of panel titles. In my own panel on Breaking Bad, Sean O’Sullivan is giving a paper called “The Inevitable and the Surprise”—do you have any idea what it is about? I do, because I read his abstract, but if I hadn’t, I would choose to attend his paper solely on Sean’s reputation (which is quite strong, as he usually delivers great presentations), not because of my interest in his vague title. Going to panels based on presenter reputation makes the field more hierarchical, and does little to disseminate ideas or provoke conversation. We all write expanded abstracts for our papers, as well as contextual material for panels and workshops—why should this writing be visible only to the program committee? Conferences I’ve been to that include abstracts (or even full papers) on the conference website increase the likelihood that I will see work that I am interested in, and avoid work that I am not (but whose title confounds my judgment). I know that this idea has been floated to SCMS leadership before, but has been rejected; the reason I heard for this (second-hand, so it very well could be misconstrued) is that not everyone would feel comfortable putting their more detailed ideas out in public via the website. As anyone reading this site knows, that reluctance to share research in-progress is completely foreign to me, so if that really is the rationale for keeping these abstracts in a lockbox, I’d argue strongly against it. But maybe there are other good reasons not to share abstracts? (Please share them and other objections in the comments.)

Anyway, I offer these thoughts to provoke conversation, not (just) to gripe and complain about the status quo. I care enough about SCMS as to want it to be better, and maybe some of these ideas could help. Or maybe I’ll have such a great experience in Seattle that I’ll recant these objections. I’ll be there from Wednesday night until my Sunday morning workshop, effectively spending around $1,400 to miss at least 30% of the conference. Hope to see many of you there!



8 Responses to “A Few Thoughts on Improving the SCMS Conference”

  1. Hi Jason,

    I very much enjoyed your post, and I’d second all of your suggestions save one: the end of the open call. You rightly note one potential hurdle for greener scholars (smaller networks), but there is a second one that worries me. If presenting at SCMS were limited to pre-constituted panels, I fear this might serve to narrow rather than broaden the objects and methods at the conference. For instance, I’ve attempted to assemble two panels through the SCMS website, and each time I circulated the calls through various listservs as well. On both occasions, I received a handful of submissions that, frankly, weren’t very good, and each time I abandoned the panel and submitted to the open call. I worry, if SCMS were to follow your suggestions, that young scholars might tailor their submissions to fit ‘popular’ or ‘du jour’ topics rather than presenting what might be their best and/or most provocative work.

    Trust me, I’ve been to a more than a few dull panels where none of the papers had anything to do with one another. But I’ve also attended—and been on—open call panels that were remarkable in the way that the papers resonated with one another. An open call proposal of my own was accepted to SCMS 2010, and because it discussed a queer filmmaker, it was lazily placed on a queer film panel, for my approach had nothing to do with queer theory per se. Nevertheless, the dialogue that was resulted was surprisingly productive. Indeed, two of the papers from this pellmell panel have since been published in Cinema Journal. Perhaps this example is the exception and not the rule, but I would hate to think that that, in absence of enough people working on the same material, these terrific papers would’ve gone unheard. I wanted to share my anecdotal experiences with the open call process that has served me, and in many instances, I think, the organization, quite well. Cheers!

  2. Things I like that ICA does that SCMS doesn’t:
    (1) As you note, having precons. Not only do these allow focus, a different, more intimate experience, and often a more discussion-based format, but they can be great for social bonding before the conference proper begins.
    (2) Divisions. As you said, the problem of two or three panels that seem similar scheduled against each other could be mitigated by this. It also places planning in the hands of people who know the specialty area. ICA tends to give a division a room too, which means that if you can’t be arsed to look at the schedule, you can just sit in the same room all day🙂
    (3) Works out future conference sites in advance. This means that people know where the next few conferences will be, and can decide which they’ll miss if they need to do so. And it leads to cheaper room rates, since SCMS gets really bad room rates (e.g: ICA and SCMS are both in the Sheraton in Seattle this year, allowing head-to-head comparison. SCMS’ rate is $179/night in March, whereas ICA’s is $129 at the end of May).
    (4) Realizes that the world is larger than the US, Canada, and the UK. ICA needs to do more to internationalize, granted, but it knows this, whereas SCMS seems too proud of its parochialism, which is sad. When Japan fell through, I was disgusted at how many folk were publicly seeing this as evidence of why SCMS shoudn’t have tried to go overseas in the first place.

    From my experience program planning for ICA, though, Jason, I’m less keen to get rid of the open call, since this would really hurt access for junior scholars. For the Popular Communication Division, for instance, almost all panel submissions are from senior academics, and the vast majority of paper submissions are from students. List-servs and such sound nice, and do some work, but a lot of students are scared to put themselves out there to people they don’t know, and this tends to reward those connected to better networks. However, moving towards a divisional structure could help reduce the super-broad panels, since this would again put experts in charge of forming the panels. I think junior scholars’ panels will always be less-well attended — regardless of how well the papers hang together — due to a star system, so my solution for that would be for senior folk to be kind and always try to involve someone more junior in any panel they assemble.

    • Jonathan,

      I addressed the open call question below. As to the international issue, I’m quite mixed on this. On the one hand, there are huge benefits to having an organization with a global membership and scope. But should that be the American organization “expanding” to include the rest of the world? That makes me quite uncomfortable, as it puts the onus on non-Americans to assimilate & foot the bill to travel to North America most years, not to mention asserting that the USA is the intellectual center of the field.

      What I would rather see is that SCMS remain a primarily American organization (or perhaps Anglo-American, as there are already strong ties with the UK), but join into a consortium with film & media societies from around the world, like NECS and ASEAC, to organize a global mega-conference every few years. ICA is able to work because it is not the sole communication society for American scholars, as I’d guess most American grad students & contingent faculty rarely attend ICA outside of the U.S.

  3. 4 Cathy Johnson

    This is a really interesting discussion. Thanks, Jason, for your very cogent thoughts, many of which I would second. I would also support Jonathan’s point about internationalisation and think that SCMS could do more to facilitate participation from international colleagues. It’s a pretty over-whelming experience if you are an overseas scholar with few US contacts and I think the move towards more workshops and smaller pre-conference events could have the added bonus of helping particularly younger international scholars to connect with and network with US scholars in meaningful ways that are often not possible with tightly scheduled panels that can limit time for free and open discussion.

  4. Thanks for the comments. On the open call issue: I agree that there would be a cost, and it would hit junior scholars more (although I know plenty of senior faculty who submit to open call too). But if there were not an open call option, it would incentivize networking & organizing in a way that would yield more long-term benefits to junior scholars. And if there were a “quota” per panel, it would help diversify everyone’s conference experiences. I do think the status quo of so many random assemblage panels makes the presenting experience less than positive, as a small audience disinterested in 3/4 of the papers doesn’t really yield a useful conversation – did the two presenters in Seattle who had no audience (after I left that Sunday morning panel) really benefit from presenting at the conference?

    There is a middle ground: allow open calls only through SIGs and caucuses. Each one would be granted a number of panels to assemble through open call (proportional to how many members they have), which would make open call panels more coherent & connected to an established area of interest. This would strengthen these groups even more, and hopefully increase attendance.

    As to Justin’s question about emphasizing “topics du jour,” I’m doubtful that work not fitting into trends or established areas get accepted that much anyway (and again, do they get an audience?). But the SIGs might be able to better judge a specific paper offering something original within the sub-area, rather than the general program committee trying to judge a wide range of papers.

  5. Like Justin and Jonathan, I second much of what you say. This is a very clear and fair representation of what is problematic about the SCMS conference. To get rid of a day and thereby eliminate some presentation slots may indeed be beneficial. I have squeezed in a last panel or two before a Sunday plane and I cannot say the rooms were well visited. Losing the open call, I have to agree with Justine nd Jonathan, could be really devastating to junior scholars, but, if the mentoring functions already in place could be enhanced, social networking possibilities via SIGs pushed, I believe young scholars would find a way and such need-based contact seeking could be the great start of creating a network.
    SCMS, while not pushing for conference internationalization (besides a few and upcoming exceptions), is recognized as a US academic force by European scholars to the point where an NECS panel call was cancelled, because that subject: is well covered by SCMS’ Media Industries SIG. This, I fear, is a real problem. It divides much of our work and conversations and that in an age where we so often acknowledge the possibilities of overcoming regional borders. This, however, would lead me to go into a discussion of what is wrong with the academic system (including this IMHO irrational fear of sharing one’s work)… better left for another day.

  6. 7 dleopard

    As a SCMS insider, do you have the ear of someone with the power to propose, or better yet implement, any of the changes you suggest?

    I support you on the call for tracking panels based on themes or SIG affiliation, but I have to say that ending open call would not make the conference more manageable only even less inclusive than it already is (and I realize that most folks who attend are angling for a job, or a book sale, or a friend, but that shouldn’t negate larger ideals around scholarship and the conversations that could be generated from solid research presentations).

    I also strongly support your idea regarding the publication of abstracts (most easily online) as it now seems that panels are often attended based on the session title announcing one’s favorite film or television program or the celebrity status of the presenter (such as that is and also accounting for the attending of panels presented by friends and loved ones). Abstracts could give potential audience members a better method for finding panels of interest – along with the tracks and SIG connections.

    Although I would also disagree with you about the value of workshops. I have attended many where it seemed as if the presenters were simply winging it (perhaps I’ve been guilty of this as well) and wasting everyone’s time. For folks who like to chat, that may be fine but for someone who wants to hear something with some thought and time put into it… Not so good.

    But these ideas address problems associated with most large conferences. What I found unique and extremely annoying about last year’s conference was the logistics of the presentation rooms (which you rightly mention) and the Tokyo subway packed elevators (which you skipped). I missed several panels waiting for a cramped spot on one of those old timey Drake-vators.

    Anyway, thank you Jason for bringing this up in a semi-public forum – I tracked this down via twitter on Flipboard.

  7. SCMS is an organization that is, in many ways, a natural fit for me and my work, even though my primary intellectual/professional/institutional homes are in Performance Studies and American Studies. I very much enjoyed the conference some years back in Philadelphia, when I organized a panel. I had long wanted to get myself back into the SCMS loop but didn’t always have the financial resources for a 4th major conference in a year (especially when it was to be in Japan). So, last year, when I switched jobs (and had new access to funding support), I was at first very pleased to have a paper selected from the open call last year.

    But when I saw that my panel was in the first slot on Wednesday morning, I was chagrined. Even with access to generous institutional funding and other support, I worried immediately whether I could justify the trip. I was mildly offended that SCMS presumed I could/would/should cancel, reschedule or find coverage for nearly a full week of classes during midterms. I also recognized that my panel of open-call papers (which had no clear “stars”) would likely yield a modest audience, if it yielded any audience at all. Facebook threads confirmed that most of my friends/colleagues would not be arriving until late Thursday, which meant I’d be footing the bill and wandering the panels on my own for two overnights before I could connect with the very people inspiring me to go. After looking into the prospect of flying in early in the morning and flying out the same day, I decided that it would make most sense for me to just withdraw from the conference altogether.

    I made this decision only after studying the program with some intensity. I, too, noted that most of the panels I wanted to go to were scheduled against one or more of each other. Which is one of those hazardous idiosyncrasies of interdisciplinarity, I guess. (And which routinely happens at ASA, ATHE and MLA, so I don’t know that even tracking offers a fix.) But then I looked at the publishers scheduled to attend. I had hoped to use the conference to begin pitching my next book project, or at least assessing which publisher might be best poised to market my book to teachers of cinema/media studies, as well as American, performance and latina/o studies. But I was perplexed that a conference of this apparent size boasted such a modest list of attending publishers equipped to market to multiple audiences, especially in comparison to ASA. At that point, I did an inventory: no guaranteed interlocutors for my work; the logistical and ethical hassle being away from campus for a full week at the height of midterms; friends not there until the weekend; and very few publishers to peruse/pitch/stalk? My decision seemed clear. Thus, with some measure of disappointment, I chose to withdraw and was quickly glad to have done so. I remember thinking, “I guess me and SCMS are just not meant to be.”

    Because I’ve served in leadership positions for other organizations, I also wondered what SCMS gained as an organization by being so big. Clearly not negotiating clout with hotels. Clearly not publisher investment. What is gained by the conference’s sprawl?


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