SCMS Conference at Crossroads?

I'm usually not one for crisis-talk, as I think the rhetoric has a way of ignoring the fact that institutions can and do continue on, often with underlying functionality. And when it comes to the SCMS conference, I've always enjoyed the conference so in that sense don't feel anything is urgently wrong with it.

That said, the conference is seeing some growing pains. The discipline grows and so does the conference, now sprawling across five days. I've heard from many people that they find the number of attendees overwhelming (to me less of a problem) and what's worse very little attendance at panels. Some of this may be the law of large conferences, whereby the more people there are the less academic conversation and networking actually occurs. But there seems to be something specific, as SCMS is caught between two stools, no longer the small community it once was but not yet coming to terms with being a large MLA- or CAA-sized convention.

Jason Mittel has been even more frustrated than I have and has written up some suggestions on how to make SCMS a better conference. His whole post is worth reading (as are the comments), but I'll give the bullet point suggestions:
  • Limit the formal conference to four days
  • Allow for pre- or post-conference events
  • Eliminate open-call for papers
  • Tracking topics by room/programming via scholarly interest group (SIG)
  • Increasing the number of workshops vis a vis traditional panels
  • Publish paper, panel, and workshop abstracts online
  • (and from the comments) Form networks with overseas academic networks like NECS and ASEAC
I wholeheartedly endorse some of these: posting abstracts online, for instance, would improve both the substance of the papers and the conference-going experience. I also support restricting the conference to 4 days, acknowledging there are some tradeoffs there, either fewer papers accepted or more concurrent panels. Either way, there's an economic price to pay, and fees or dues would have to rise.

I don't feel an especial need to increase the proportion of workshops - I have fewer complaints about traditional papers than Jason and have seen too many workshops where each speaker talks on for 20 minutes anyway. And I would argue for the value of open-call. It's not only junior scholars I'm thinking about but also the ability to forge connections across existing networks. I could get behind Jason's compromise of open-call submitted through SIGs.

So there are some points I'm enthusiastic about and some I decidedly don't support. But the trickiest issue for me is the role of official tracks or SIGs. Increasing their role in programming would give clarity about the selection process (where submitters can feel their proposals are discounted on the basis of subject matter or methodology alone) and give a sense of a smaller-conference-within-a-big-conference, which actually is what most of Jason's proposals seem to be about. In all, I think SIG programming/tracking would be beneficial. However, this raises a sticky question: just what would these tracks be? What about the areas that are not currently constituted as SIGs? Let's say we have 20-25 rooms, how do we apportion the SIGs/tracks? That apportionment has great implications.

If we're using MLA as a touchstone here, film studies (I can't speak for TV studies) simply does not have the clearly defined subfields that literary studies has. Maybe we can't continue on as a generalist field and maybe it's time to impose some structure now that the discipline is better established and the medium is over a century old. But I suspect I'm not the only one apprehensive about moving into a more silo-ed conference and discipline.

The proposal for international cooperation is a terrific one. I'm not sure about the logistics, time, or labor that would be required to make that happen.


Lena said…
Great post! However, one complaint I often hear about SCMS is that it does not accept as many papers as similar conferences such as ACLA. I think this is a real problem - it prevents graduate students (and sometimes even tenured, established faculty) from joining the film studies community, perpetuating that is closed.
Chris Cagle said…
Lena, thanks for the comment. Wow, ACLA has an 85% acceptance rate! (70% for SCMS). I think some exclusivity is good, since peer-reviewed conferences carry more weight on one's CV. But it's a tough trade-off, and any change would make a lot of people unhappy. If the conference were shortened to 4 days, that would likely mean a lower acceptance rate.

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