Collaboration, Community, and Interdisciplinarity

by: Michael Kackman / University of Texas-Austin

Like most interesting things, the Flow Conference was an experiment. And like most experiments, it generated some unexpected results. What I find most encouraging about the conference is that it, like Flow itself, took some important steps toward establishing a new metaphor for thoughtful collaboration and discussion. We had hoped to create a conference that built upon the journal's unique strengths: short, succinct presentations of positions; immediate dialogue and feedback; and interdisciplinary conversation.

As an experiment in form, I believe the roundtable model works – in some ways better than the current implementation of the journal itself, since the feedback mechanisms are immediate (spam control seemed to work better for the most part, too!). But while they were immediate, the conversations in the seminar rooms were still hierarchical, with much potential for improvement. In particular, I'd like to see us develop better mechanisms to share the floor through better audience/panel dialogue, as well as better use of technology to serve remote participants, both synchronously and asynchronously.

Overall, I think we're doing a better job of learning how to speak to one another across our different methodologies and perspectives; it's the listening that needs improvement.

Flow, at its best, represents a commitment to a different kind of critical community, one that privileges collective dialogue over individual expression. That's not a natural or easy thing to create. As academics, we're by nature and training very self-centered beasts; authorship (over a phrase, an insight, a theory, a manifesto) is at the core of our identities. And while much of our work is intensely motivated by a community ethic of one sort or another, by habit and personality, we're required, ultimately, to speak. Some scholars are just fine with that, and others struggle to negotiate their cultural values of community with the systems of authorship and authority that are so central to academia. Feminist scholars, in particular, have explored this tension; we'd all do well to consider it as we think through what Flow is, and might be.

Doing so will be especially important if we are to expand Flow's reach into communities outside academia. I was delighted to have participants from fan communities, from activist groups, from the media industries, from journalism. We're only partway there, though, and I'd like to brainstorm about how to restructure the conversation so that conventional modes of academic authority don't dominate.

One aspect of Flow's meandering conversations is that it's wrapped up in an unmistakable transformation of the field of television studies. This is something I have to admit I'm sometimes ambivalent about. I'm certainly excited about Flow's breadth; the scholars in attendance included those doing technology and policy studies, industrial and political economic analyses, studies of production cultures, textual/formal analysis, representational/ideological criticism and cultural studies, media globalization, and audience research (or, more likely, some combination of those and more). Other conferences they regularly attend include SCMS, NCA, ICA, and ASA, as well as Console-ing Passions and MIT's Media in Transition.

Still, I sometimes found myself missing the clarity of intellectual and political investment that comes from a unified approach. But since clarity often comes as much from ignorance as purity of vision, this muddle is probably a net good. I also suspect that everyone in attendance felt occasional dismay that their particular concerns and perspectives were marginal to the central conversation. This, too, is probably a net good, since one of the main goals of the conversation was to get people together who don't always think, write, or engage television in the same ways.

Mostly, I think, this is due to the shifting nature of television studies. A field that was once (in my own imagination, if not exactly in reality) unshakably intertwined with the political project of British cultural studies is now a more diffuse amalgam. Television itself is no longer the universal bad object, which has opened new possibilities for scholars to explore its formal attributes unapologetically; convergence, both theoretically and that of the technologies themselves, has brought new attention to technological and cultural mobility; this, in turn, has challenged the deep embedment of both television and television studies within the domestic sphere; and shifting political and regulatory climates have prompted new scholarly efforts to engage TV's publics. TV studies is all of these things, and much more.

Finally, the breadth of the Flow conference is, I believe, importantly connected to the diversity of the graduate editorial and conference staff that are Flow's lifeblood. Though their work is often invisible, neither the conference nor the journal could have been realized without the efforts of dozens of graduate students. For many of them, their research interests continually cross methodological and theoretical boundaries that seemed insurmountable a half-generation ago; we owe them our thanks, not just for their labors, but for the interdisciplinary curiosity that drags us all to the same table.

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