SCMS 08 Wrap-up

Well, another SCMS conference is over, and most everyone in town attending has gone home or is speedily on their way to the airport. Overall I enjoyed the conference. Having it in one's own town made it all the more enjoyable. My biggest regret was not being able to attend much of the panels, since I didn't cancel my classes last week and in addition had a number of other conference-related obligations. So I can't comment on the substance of the presentations as much as I would like, other than to do a content reading of the program or to forward along others' observations. That said, here are some general thoughts:

Trends: I was happy to see feminism make a strong return after its relative absence last year. The intersection between Installation and film seemed to be popular as a topic this time, as was experimental film in the underground cinema mold. As Oliver Gaycken noted at the special screening Friday night, nontheatrical cinema is a growth field for new work and new approaches. Exhibition microhistory carried across a number of panels. Ditto sound. Missing was the depth of range of historical work, especially on Western European cinemas. There were a number of panels on classical Hollywood but to my eye fewer than before. I'm not sure about this, but I believe there were fewer general film theory or cultural theory panels/papers advertised. Also, while newer documetary got its due, I didn't see as much on historical and canonical documentary.

Scheduling: I wish the program committee would not overpack the schedule. Panels ran from 8AM to 7PM and often did not stop for lunch. The thinking, obviously, is that attendees can pick and choose what they attend. True enough, but the result is a more disconnected, distracted conferencegoing experience for everyone, and more panels with 2 people in the audience. It's great that SCMS is growing as an organization and a conference, but the danger of the large-conference MLA model is that it becomes a sea of presenters without audience or community. That result is worth fighting, even it means a trade-off in fewer accepted papers or in higher costs.

Theme: Can we dispense with the thematic organization of the conference? I liked the architecture idea - one paper I saw even managed to talk about architecture with some sort of specificity - but mostly it led to papers where architecture was tacked on in the most metaphorical and superfluous way. If a theme is merely going to be an exercise in scholars retrofitting their research topics into a given rubric, it's not serving any useful function.

Workshops: I heard several complaints that some workshops weren't really workshops. Presenters ended up giving small (or long) papers and leaving little room for discussion. It's always easy to go over time as a presenter, but it's especially important to be brief in a workshop.

Ambition: The papers I managed to see were noticeably more consistent in quality than those I saw in Chicago last year. At several points, I craved more ambition from the papers. There's always a tension between the grand theoretical/methodological gesture and the modest, workmanlike contribution to an overall body of knowledge. It's not an easily tension to reconcile, but this time around, I felt the latter held sway. I go to panels to learn about new subjects, to be sure, and to gain historical depth on areas proximate to my research, but I also want papers to push me to think about our study in new ways.

Social life: There's a criticism to be made that SCMS is not enough about substance and too much about socializing, cliquishness and parties. I make that criticism myself sometimes. Nonetheless, I really enjoy the opportunity to reconnect with past colleagues, see acquaintances from past conferences, put faces to the names of scholars I admire, hang out with Philly-area folks and meet new scholars in the field. In fact, I don't fully know how valuable the social dimension of the conference is til it's over and the anticlimactic letdown sets in.


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