University Shines at Society for Cinema & Media Studies Conference
Professor Emeritus Steven Cohan to assume SCMS presidency
The Department of English in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences was the bona fide star of the 56th annual conference of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies (SCMS), recently held in Montreal, Canada.
More than 15 people affiliated with the University, including seven Ph.D. students and eight alumni (i.e., two former undergraduates and six former graduate students), presented papers at the five-day conference, dedicated to the critical study of film, television, video, and new media. They were joined by more than 2,000 other registered attendees from over 40 countries.
The Syracuse delegation was led by Steven Cohan, Dean’s Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English and SCMS president elect, and Roger Hallas, associate professor of English and director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) Studies Program.
“Syracuse was all over the program,” says Cohan, a University faculty member since 1975. “For some of our presenters, the conference was old hat; for others, it was their first time. Regardless, everybody was well received. There was a buzz about the University.”
Hallas agrees, adding that the English department, despite its relatively small size, made itself known. “SCMS covers a lot of ground,” he says. “In addition to film, TV, and popular culture, the conference examines gaming, social media, and fan and audience studies. This is the kind of work for which Syracuse is known.”
The University’s success at SCMS was indicative of its upwardly mobile English department—specifically, its graduate curriculum in film and screen studies and the Film and Screen Studies Track for undergraduates. That the department offers specialized training in criticism, theory, research, and teaching presumably makes it a good fit for SCMS and vice versa—creating a kind of "pipeline of talent," as Hallas puts it.
Held at the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth in downtown Montreal, the SCMS conference featured more than 480 panels, workshops, and screenings. Topics ranged from the geopolitics of film circulation, to film criticism and scholarship, to the growing impact of LGBT film festivals.
One of the participants was Staci Stutsman, a Ph.D. candidate and teaching associate. She says the conference was “immensely rewarding” because it provided opportunities for information-gathering and networking, relative to her dissertation topic. It also marked her first time presenting at SCMS.
“I was able to have rich conversations with top scholars in my field, which, in turn, deepened professional and personal relationships with my own faculty and peers,” says Stutsman, who presented a paper and led a panel discussion on “Femininity in Contemporary TV Dramas.”
Stutsman has nothing but praise for Cohan and Hallas, saying they have fostered a “supportive” environment at Syracuse, where academic mentoring and modeling go hand in hand. “Having all of us there [in Montreal] … made visible the dense network of connections within our community,” she adds. “Almost every night, we had dinner together and talked about the papers we had heard, the ideas we had learned, and how they were beginning to impact our research.”
Another presenter was Laurel Ahnert G’10, a Ph.D. student in communication at Georgia State University. She, too, was struck by the sense of community among the Syracuse delegates.
“Our numbers seem to be growing [in SCMS], as more of us graduate from Syracuse but stay in touch with one another and with those who come after us,” says Ahnert, whose presentation was titled “Planet of Snail: Jean-Luc Nancy, Touch, and the Subjective Aesthetics of Documentary.” “I was reminded of how important it is to maintain ties with one another because all of us, at some point in our careers, have worked with Roger and Steve. These connections may lead to reading groups, conference panels, and collaborations in the form of co-authored papers and edited collections in the future.”
An expert in Hollywood cinema and popular culture, Cohan takes the praise in stride. He says that, in addition to having the only English department that is an SCMS institutional member, Syracuse prides itself on gilt-edged scholarship.
“The University was an early member of SCMS, back when it was called the Society for Cinema Studies [SCS],” he says, pointing out that Owen Shapiro, a film professor in the College of Visual and Performing Arts (VPA) and co-founder of the Syracuse International Film Festival, helped organize an SCS conference on campus in 1994. “Today, much of what we do in the English department—and at SCMS—is grounded in theory, history, archival work, and interpretation. Our approach is humanistic, as opposed to VPA’s or the Newhouse [School]’s, which is based primarily in art practice or the qualitative and quantitative methods of the social sciences."
Adds Hallas: “Syracuse is a great place for a humanities-based film scholar, because of the collaborative opportunities it offers with colleagues in VPA and Newhouse.”
One such colleague is Kendall Phillips, professor of communication and rhetorical studies, as well as associate dean of research and graduate studies in VPA. In Montreal, he served as a respondent on a panel organized by Lindsey Decker, one of Hallas’ doctoral advisees. Early on in her doctoral research on contemporary British horror films, she sought out Phillips for his expertise on horror cinema. Today, he continues to mentor her.
“SCMS is a crucial association for scholars across our campus, including those who study media and those who make it,” says Phillips, adding that he is excited about Cohan’s presidential appointment. “Steve’s exceptional leadership has shed a positive light on the University. He has a strong commitment to interdisciplinarity and inclusion.”
This ethic is readily apparent in Decker’s research, which is ostensibly interdisciplinary. “My work is situated at the intersection of three somewhat disparate sub-fields: horror studies, British cinema studies, and transnational approaches to cinema studies,” says the fifth-year Ph.D. student, who, like Stutsman, is a teaching associate. “The conference enabled me to meet another scholar with a similar set of intersecting interests. It turns out that he knew many other scholars of our subspecialty.”
In addition to presenting a paper, Decker, at Hallas’ behest, chaired a panel on "Transnational Hybridity and the Contemporary European Horror Film." “It allowed me begin thinking about my next research project, which I will start, in earnest, after I finish my dissertation,” she adds.
Miranda Larsen ’11, a master’s student in cinema and media studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, says her work has also benefitted from SCMS. “It was incredibly beneficial for me, as a young scholar, to network with so many different people, to attend numerous panels, and to speak with publishing representatives,” says Larsen, whose presentation, “’Something Reached Out of This Case, from These Bones, and Grabbed My Heart’: Ghost Adventures as Paranormal Gender Playground.”
Drawing on the Travel Channel’s hit series, Larsen says her research has been inspired, in part, by Cohan’s “Reading Popular Culture” (ETS 145), which is a theoretical look at media fans and fan cultures. “As I move on to The University of Tokyo next fall to begin my Ph.D. work, I will remain incredibly grateful to Syracuse for my solid undergraduate education.”
On July 1, SCMS President Barbara Klinger will hand over the reins over to Cohan, who chaired the conference’s programming committee. “Steve did a stellar job of leading the 20-plus-person committee, which selects and helps organize the many panels and workshops,” says Klinger, who also is provost professor of communication and culture at Indiana University Bloomington. “As president elect, he brings to SCMS a wealth of academic and administrative experience. His energy and sense of vision will benefit us for years to come.”
Founded in 1959, SCMS has gone through a variety of iterations and names (including SCS from 1969 to 2002) to become the world’s largest professional association of its kind, comprising some 3,000 scholars from over 500 institutions. SCMS supports and encourages humanities-based study of film, television, and related media through its annual conference, scholarly journal, and year-round working groups.