While there have been a number of diverse responses to this year’s SCMS, many of them coming from fellow graduate students, a substantial portion of the discussion boils down to this central question, one which I found myself asking as things were winding down on Sunday (after attending compelling panels on criticism and the disruption of media specificity). and as I followed the post-conference discussion on Twitter.
There are, of course, a number of possible answers: bolstering the C.V., networking, socializing, an excuse to visit New Orleans, and (lest we forget) a desire to workshop your research and engage with other academics doing much the same. For each of us, a conference like SCMS means something different, and thus its ability to meet our expectations very much depends on what those expectations might entail.
On a personal level, I hesitate to professionalize SCMS as a first-year PhD student. While many of the workshops I attended featured discussions centered around the deflated job market, and the challenge that those on the market face in terms of getting their names out there, I’ll be honest: I don’t want to think about it. Yes, my presentation on Thursday will become a line on my C.V., and I did my share of handshaking, but I consider neither the presentation nor the handshaking in terms of their future benefit to my academic career.
I am aware that this is naïve, and that to some degree I am delaying the inevitable. The reality of conferences like SCMS is that they bring together scholars from every rung of the academic ladder – there was even an undergrad or two, unless I’m mistaken – and offer the promise (and, arguably, illusion) that the ladder is horizontal rather than vertical: Professors present alongside graduate students, and associates present alongside assistants. And yet, the reality is that each of these groups sees conferences like SCMS as very different beasts, a reality that becomes expressly clear in workshops and even casual conversation as the conference unfolds. For every moment where it appears the ladder is lying on the ground, set aside for a weekend of collaboration, an off-hand comment or an awkward moment in a Q&A has the ladder propped up against the wall with grad students squarely on the bottom rung.
It is our natural inclination to want to climb a ladder – that is its function, after all – but there is often nothing natural about the most common strategy for doing so. The Oxford English Dictionary defines networking as “The action or process of making use of a network of people for the exchange of information, etc., or for professional or other advantage.” This seems to capture the struggle of SCMS: while the former seems like an ideal description of a collective group of scholars coming together to share ideas, the latter often seems like SCMS’ true raison d’etre. At times, it feels as though very little separates us from the publishers set up in the book room, and one wonders if any enterprising young scholar has ever inquired about taking out an ad in the back of the program.
I do not begrudge those who see SCMS as an opportunity to gain professional advantage. I just think that we need to acknowledge the fact that not everyone needs to see it that way. During Saturday’s panel on blogging and tweeting and their role in “scholarly promotion,” this kind of behavior was often framed in terms of branding, a term that flat out bothers me. It’s not that it doesn’t describe the potential use of this kind of online interaction: Twitter and professionally-oriented blogs can be invaluable tools for scholars on the market. My concern is that the term deemphasizes what we blog in favor of why we blog, and also risks framing these behaviors as promotional or performative when they are often personal and collaborative.
Yes, my experience on Twitter and through my own blog have been professionally valuable – heck, I would not be writing this post as a PhD student at UW-Madison were it not for connections made through these outlets. However, these tools are also about an exchange of ideas, the potential to push myself as a writer, and the opportunity to gain valuable feedback almost instantaneously. Using the term branding obfuscates this process of self-discovery – while a brand may be a by-product of this process, to suggest that it is its primary function reflects the pervasiveness of networking rhetoric within the field (and, as evidenced by some of the above concerns, within SCMS).
On a personal level, as noted, I find myself trying to tune it all out. What others call networking I call meeting new people, and what others consider self-promotion I simply consider asking questions during Q&As, being active in the Twitter backchannel, and generally engaging with the discussion at hand. For my first SCMS, my goal was simply to be a part of my first SCMS: I attended a panel or workshop in every session but two, and asked a question or offered a comment in all but a handful. And while SCMS 2011 had its ups and downs much like any conference, I ultimately felt it was a worthwhile and largely comfortable experience.
However, I am aware that I am in a somewhat privileged position: UW-Madison had a substantial presence at the event, offering a pre-existing network of scholars to engage with, while the strong community of television scholars on Twitter has managed to transition over from the virtual world. For those who come as part of a smaller department, and those who may be from smaller (or less Twitter-active) disciplines without the same sense of built-in camaraderie, the question shifts to what SCMS should (or can) do to better facilitate an exchange of ideas unencumbered by the rungs on which we stand.
I don’t entirely have an answer to this question, but I do want to emphasize that I think it’s a question we need to ask. There has been a common thread of “it gets better” within responses to the post-conference discourse among graduate students, but are there no ways we can try to make that a more immediate possibility? Should we move towards more pro-am panels and workshops that actively seek to bring scholars from different generations together? Should the first-time attendee orientation be more strongly encouraged, and made more useful through a social (or, if we must use the term, networking) form? The ladder might always exist, and graduate students may always be on the lowest rung, but there seem to be plenty of avenues which could at least assure everyone that it’s okay to look down every once in a while.
Advice that might help graduate students get a clearer sense of their position, and which might further encourage experienced scholars to reflect upon their time on those lower rungs.