Graduate students organizers of communication and cultural studies conference titled "Critical Mediations." (L) to (R): Clare O'Connor, Courtney Cox, Paulina Lanz, Sulafa Zidani, Andrea Alarcon, Soledad Altrudi, Perry Johnson, Tyler Quick, Frances Corry. Not pictured: MC Forelle and Philana Payton.
Photo by: Olivia Mowry

A graduate conference committed to action

Early next month, a group of 11 USC graduate students will host the first USC Annenberg graduate student conference. Called “Critical Mediations,” the two-day event, set for Oct. 4-5, is designed to advance cultural studies scholarship in the field of communication.

Organized around the theme “The Fire This Time: Afterlives of 1968,” this year’s conference will revisit influential moments from that landmark year in the interest of drawing out lessons for contemporary scholarship and social movements.

Panelists will include media scholars and cultural theorists from USC Annenberg, other schools on campus and neighboring Los Angeles universities, and a handful of out-of-town special guests.

Fourth-year USC Annenberg doctoral student Clare O’Connor and fifth-year doctoral candidate Perry Johnson, who helped organize the conference, talked with us about their goals, mission and agenda.

Q: What brought this group together to create this conference?

Clare O’Connor: We wanted to cultivate networks that can help us become better thinkers. Our committee formed partly in response to current social and political crises — which have implications not only for our scholarship, but also for our personal lives, our art, our activism — and we wanted a forum to connect with one another and discuss these shared conditions. Cultural Studies bridges the domains of scholarship, politics and personal life, and this group aspires to build on this intellectual tradition. We thought a conference would be the best way to organize those energies and contribute to intellectual leadership here on campus.

Q: Why did you choose 1968 as the theme?

Perry Johnson: At the 50th anniversary of 1968, we saw value in using this occasion to reflect on events that transpired then, to consider how iconic moments have been historicized over the past five decades, and, most importantly, to engage “1968” as an entry point for asking larger questions about historical memory and the role of media, technology and the creative industries in shaping our notion of history. It was a year of momentous change around the world and across industries and institutions — politics, entertainment, technology and education. In this way, revisiting and re-energizing different flashpoints from 1968 allows us to assess the strategic lessons of this year and to think more broadly about their implications and consequences for our contemporary moment.

O’Connor: We chose to talk about 1968, the climax of the 20th-century social movements, because it’s a topic that prompts us to work at the intersection of both analysis and strategy, of theory and practice. Simply uttering “1968” invokes the idea of turbulent change and struggle, in the U.S. and globally. We knew it would be rich to examine our own assumptions about that year, and that this work would organically inspire discussion about our current political dilemmas and responsibilities.

Q: Why is USC Annenberg the home for this conference? 

Johnson: The field of communication is broad, with scholars who study a range of areas — sports, popular music, news media, technology, health, social movements, and so on. As a result, we often find ourselves siloed in our subfields. The organizers of this conference came together out of a shared desire for a collaborative, interdisciplinary space within Annenberg where we could workshop ideas, engage with the surrounding community, and develop our own critical and creative practices. Annenberg has never had a graduate student conference, so this seemed like a great strategy for showcasing our work and thinking publicly and collectively about our respective interests. The conference, which will be an annual event, provides an opportunity for graduate students to introduce and present a diverse array of work, and to get feedback from other cultural studies-minded students and faculty who may be working in very different areas.

Throughout this process, we have been fortunate to have great support from the USC Annenberg faculty, most of all Professor Josh Kun, who served as our faculty advisor.

Q: Who will we be hearing from?

O’Connor: Our keynote speaker, Dilip Gaonkar, is the professor in rhetoric and public culture and the director of the Center for Global Culture and Communication at Northwestern University. He will discuss the social formation of crowds and riots and how they are parallel, but not identical, in how they are perceived, studied and documented within cultural studies. 

There will also be presentations by graduate students, activists, educators and artists who will interrogate the legacies of a range of important historic events from 1968: the Summer Olympics in Mexico City and the Tlatelolco Massacre; the East Los Angeles Chicana/o student walkouts; Cesar Chavez’s hunger strike for the United Farm Workers; the Memphis Sanitation Strike and transformations within the civil rights movement; the first photograph of Earth taken from space; feminist uprisings from apartheid South Africa to South Central Los Angeles; and much more. Presenters will help us understand how events like these have been recorded and translated, how our memories of them have changed over the last 50 years, and how these distorted memories inform our habits of thinking today. 

Q: What types of post-conference events will you be holding?

Johnson: There will be a conference closing party and fundraiser for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON) on the evening of Friday, October 5, after the keynote address. NDLON mobilizes day laborers across the country to protect their civil, labor and human rights. The work of this organization aligns with the politics, movements and activism associated with 1968 and with the conversations we will be having at the conference about the role of cultural studies scholarship. The event, which will take place at Echoes on Pico, will feature the fantastic DJ Francesca Harding, and a fundraising draw with great prizes.

Q: Final thoughts?

O’Connor: Being a graduate student can be a very isolating and intimidating experience, so I think everybody on the committee has enjoyed and benefited from being responsible for the intellectual and organizational work of putting this together. Now, we really want to share the resource we’ve created. To this end, we have made sure the conference is free and open to the public. 

Graduate and undergraduate students, faculty, artists and community organizers should join us as we tackle urgent questions that are relevant both within and beyond the walls of academia.