Tuesday, March 25, 2014

SCMS2014 Reflections

Since yesterday I talked about my live-tweeting experience, I thought I'd focus on the substantive issues of the conference.

Specialist communities: My favorite event of the conference was the Paramount theater reception, hosted by Indiana University Press and the Silent Film SIG. Not only was the venue terrific, there was a palpable sense of scholarly community united around substantive issues in addition to social ties. It made me wish I worked on silent cinema, even. I do think SIGs will take on an increased role in the conference. I wonder how scholars of sound-era classical Hollywood will fit in, since the SIGs are often implicitly defined in reaction against US/classical cinema, which serves as the center in the core-perphery model.

The generalist dilemma: Each year, the conference grows and by now it's just a given that my experience of the conference is just a tiny fraction of the possible panels and papers. I decided this year not to focus narrowly on topics I research; I did go to a couple of documentary panels specifically to match my research interests but otherwise attended a number of national cinema/transnational studies panels and film theory panels. It was invigorating to be exposed to research agendas outside my own particular specialization. At the same time, there are are real drawbacks to a diffuse selection, and part of me thinks I'd be better off taking James Wicks' strategy of choosing panels in a highly focus manner based on my research interests. This dilemma is just a microcosm of the growing pains the conference is experiencing. No one likes the idea of balkanization of SCMS, but in practice, it's near impossible to effectively transcend sub-disciplinary specialization.

Transnational Studies: The transnational panels were well attended and had a particular vitality to them. My initial impression is that the success of transnational film studies has to do not only with the theoretical excitement around transnationality as a concept, but also the fact that transnational studies allows area studies scholars to gain a critical mass. The community of those working on, say, Central European, Latin American, or East Asian cinemas may be limited in size at SCMS, but transnational studies allows these groups to see common areas of inquiry.

Programming: I'd highly recommend the recent Aca-Media podcast for the interviews with Angelo Restivo (Program Committee) and Bruce Brasell (scheduler). Some of the information about conference selection is on the SCMS website, but the interviewees go into fuller detail about submission and scheduling. And there's a good discussion of 4 v. 5 day conference issue the role of SIGs and other key issues.

Workshops/Panel format: I have seen a number of people, often on the media studies side, tout the workshop as a superior format and call for the demise of traditional panels. From my experience as this conference, there was absolutely no consistency in the amount or vitality of discussion based on format. Some panels had more dynamic conversation (though admittedly those with only 3 papers did better on this score) and some workshops had a very panel-y dynamic. And some of the highlights for me were papers read verbatim in that boring, old fashioned way. As Kathleen Newman's excellent talk (on nostalgia for collectivity in recent Chilean cinema) showed, reading a paper is not incompatible with good delivery.  At the same time, Eric Hoyt's dynamic presentation during my workshop was exciting and made me think I need to step my game up in presenting at conferences. (He was a hard act to follow.)

What I Wished I Saw: More panels on film theory; more classical Hollywood papers; a number of documentary papers I missed; about ten panels that were going on during my workshop time slot. I understand why the plenary panel and/or keynote went away, but it would be nice to have a scholarly experience that attendees could have in common. At least if SCMS is going to hold to the ideal that the field cannot be split into subconferences or tracks.

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