I returned last night from the Flow Conference, which exceeded my high expectations, and, of course, left me with an overwhelming list of book and article recommendations to sift through now that I’m back at home and within walking distance of my university library. The great thing about media studies is that much of this material is available online, and without any particular subscriptions or memberships. For example, just on the online schedule for the conference, you can read over 150 position papers by conference participants on such a wide variety of topics as Twilight anti-fandom, NASA technology and video games, and public television in New Zealand. I made it to five panels throughout the conference, and, at every single one, I learned something memorable from every single panel participant, as well as an audience member or three. It was the most genuinely interactive academic conference I’ve ever attended, and I was delighted to be a part of it.
It’s something I wouldn’t have thought possible ten years ago, and one particular experience from this weekend brought that fact home to me. (It’s also worth noting that the conference did not begin until 2008, so it would not in fact have been possible for me to attend ten years ago.) While preparing for my panel, on the future of queer media studies, I ran into someone I knew from the past, and who I didn’t quite recognize at first. I knew that I knew him, which was confirmed by his personal greeting to me, but I couldn’t quite put together from where. It turned out to have been my very first film professor, Jim Roberts, who was at the conference with his colleagues. I took his evening film history and theory class in the winter of 2001, when I was a junior in high school, and he was teaching at Penn State. He reminded me during our conversation at Flow that I had written a memorable evaluation for him in that class, which made me laugh nervously. I wondered what my sixteen-year-old self could possibly have had to say on a teaching evaluation, and hoped I had not embarrassed myself too much. I remembered the first comment he raised, which was that I had learned from the instructor that you should not begin a sentence with the word “this” when it does not appear to modify any particular noun. Secondly, and I have no recollection of having left this comment, I said that I liked that the instructor “didn’t take the films too seriously,” and that he would fast forward through scenes that didn’t seem to matter, even making funny comments about the extended depictions of people walking down hallways. “I was so happy to be in college,” I exclaimed on hearing this story, marveling at the extent to which I’ve been desensitized to the pleasures of the media studies classroom.
I learned so much in that first film class I took. I learned that there were a lot of different versions of Dracula, for example. I learned that Hal Hartley was a person who existed in the world, and who said smart things that were worth quoting in my LiveJournal. I remember those. What’s harder to remember is a moment as simple as the fast forward revelation — what I must have seen in that moment was that academic analysis did not have to entail a comprehensive interpretation of every second of a film. Instead, it was a process that necessitated making choices about what seemed really important, and gleefully discounting the parts that didn’t help to build an interesting argument. I had never really gotten that experience from my English classes in high school. I had always assumed that everyone else in the room fully understood, and even cared about, what was going on at all times in the books we read, and that strategic reading, as I would come to know it later, was flawed and lazy.
Looking back to that realization helps me to contextualize the many other realizations that led to my ability to appreciate the Flow conference as deeply as I did. I first had to learn that you could pause and fast forward. I then learned that, if you wrote a compelling enough paper proposal (or were in your instructor’s good graces by virtue of being a high school student), you could write your final paper about the movie Heathers. The next year, when I started college full time, I learned that you could read graphic novels as literature. The next summer, I learned that you could quote Ani DiFranco in your final exam. (On Felicity, the titular character’s best friend Julie experiences a similar thrill when her stodgy-seeming freshman English professor “[gets] her Liz Phair reference.”) In my senior year, I learned that television could constitute a section of an English class at the college level. In my final year of coursework during my PhD program, I learned that you could take an entire seminar on HBO series (okay, and Victorian novels). It’s worth remembering this series of developments, because I still get frustrated when I meet people who simply laugh at the idea of working on television in an academic capacity. It makes us laugh because it is a delight. Reading media texts strategically in order to form academic delights is, in the best of circumstances, a genuine delight. The Flow Conference reminded me of that, and I’m deeply grateful for it.
As fans know, one doesn’t need a university classroom or official institutional approval to read strategically and experience pleasure from it. However, the university is an important space where many people do get access to that kind of reading for the first time, and it’s nice that scholars who continue to work in fields of textual analysis are making more and more of their texts accessible to everyone. There is much more to be done, but I think that the Flow schedule site offers an exemplary model for sharing the most current work in media studies. Check it out!