Alison Hoffman-Han, Adjunct Professor of Film and Media Arts
What was the biggest mistake you ever made when first trying to get published?
As an undergraduate, I really tried to use that time to focus on researching, reading, and honing my writing and critical abilities. I am grateful there wasn’t any sort of pressure to be publishing when I was an undergrad.
I didn’t start publishing until I was in graduate school, so I guess the question doesn’t really apply to when I was an undergraduate. I would say that a reading process informs my writing process, since I’m an academic scholar who studies film history and film theory. There is so much research involved, whether it’s archival research, or theoretical research engaging with other theoreticians and film historians. When I was an undergraduate, and especially in graduate school, I always felt as though I was engaging in a dialogue with other writers. I think that when one is an undergraduate, ideally, it’s a time of discovery—a place to find the writers you just absolutely love, and to really study their writing, not just for its content but also to focus on their style, because even academic writing can have such a beauty to it. Those are the writers who I like the most—people like Linda Williams, Richard Dyer, Rebecca Solnit, Bell Hooks, Giuliana Bruno, and Laura Marks. These are people I discovered when I was an undergraduate, so it was really important for me to look closely at their work, to see what they were doing rhetorically (and even just in the mechanics), and to use that as inspiration and as a discursive model.
The downside to this was that because I was so obsessed with these great writers and senior scholars in the field, I always felt, and still to a certain extent feel, disappointed in my own writing. It’s ridiculous to hold yourself to that sort of standard. Even as a junior scholar at this point in my career, I’m still really growing as a researcher, a writer, and a scholar, so while I have these models, and I relish reading that work, it’s probably not the most productive thing to compare the work and the publishing I’m doing to these particular scholars. It’s great to be doing that, but it can and sometimes does lead to disappointment and lack of satisfaction in one’s own work. Also, generally speaking, I’d warn against being fearful of putting your ideas out there. One of the things that I didn’t like about graduate school, even though I loved it overall, is that you have this academic posturing going on—it takes place personally and with other graduate students especially in the seminar room and at conferences. There’s a lot of competition and intimidation there, so I while I love those spaces, and they are such a productive place to be learning, forging new kinds of ideas, thinking, and taking risks, they can also instigate a certain amount of fear and self-consciousness. So I would recommend just accepting that, and then trying to let go of it: to unburden yourself of writing the perfect essay, or the perfect novel, or the perfect short story. It’s never going to be perfect, there’s always going to be this dissatisfaction, so accepting that and moving forward nonetheless. Even writers that I really admire, like Vivian Sobchack, say the same thing—she’s this huge academic superstar in Film Studies, but I remember when she shared with students—in a public, conference-style forum no less—that she’s never fully satisfied with her work. But that shouldn’t keep you from publishing.
What is the worst possible way to try to get published?
I think the worst possible way to try to get published, at least in critical studies and Film Studies (and even for creative writers), is to self-publish through a “no name” press that is seeking to profit from you. There are certain “presses” out there that are, in face, non-presses or fake presses, where you pay them to publish your work, and they can sell it on Amazon or whatever. But it’s not legitimate. It’s better, even if you keep getting rejected, just to hold off, revise, make some changes, and resubmit something to a legitimate press later on.
What should students be looking at in your field in terms of conferences, festivals, journals and other forms of publication and exposure?
When I was an undergraduate, I participated in some conferences and research competitions specifically designed for undergraduate research. I won one of these research competitions through the CSU system, and that was great because they published this piece on the paper I had written and interviewed me, so that was something I could put in my Curriculum Vitae, which is an academic resume. I didn’t start actively publishing until my third year of graduate school.
I think that undergraduate forums, like undergraduate conferences held at different universities, are definitely the place to try your hand at the academic performance of giving a conference paper. Also, I started writing for www.popmatters.com my first year of graduate school, when I was fresh out of undergrad. If you’re a really motivated undergraduate student, this is a place that you should explore—you’re writing reviews, but they’re a more academic type of review, more intellectually rigorous. There are cultural reviews of movies, television shows, music, and video games. You have to submit a portfolio of your work to the editor of the website, but it’s a prestigious website that’s well respected and recognized, so I think it’s a great place to begin. Also, student journals, and undergraduate literary journals are great places to start publishing. I know at Cal State Long Beach there’s one called Genre. That’s always a venue for undergraduates to submit their work.
I think as an undergraduate it’s even a good idea to start blogging—maybe you could start a film club with fellow students in your class and get some kind of blog going doing critical responses to films and readings. I like the idea of viewing your undergraduate experience as one of exploration—a time of discovery, and not the time where one should feel pressured into publishing. Student newspapers or cultural forums are also options. A great place to consider beginning professional research, and also maybe to begin to publish, is by working at a research center on campus. When I was a grad student, I worked at the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA. I was a graduate research assistant for the director, so I actually published a few pieces on Latinos and television representation from 2004-2006. Every year I was putting out a research report, and that was a great opportunity, but that opportunity came because I was being mentored by the director of the center. He was really excited about this research and encouraged it, so I was quite lucky in that regard.
I also know some students at Cal State Long Beach who started their own zine—it’s called JAGed, it stands for Justice and Gender Education. I’m very impressed by their work—they’re consistently writing really great articles, doing research, and also creative work. That’s a possibility, too.
What is your inspiration for publishing and writing in your field and how do you balance your time?
I really recommend reading publications like Film Quarterly, Screen, and Camera Obscura for inspiration.
I always have projects in the works, so I’m constantly responding to calls for papers, either in film studies journals or for anthologies. There is a really good website called www.h-net.org. It’s a list serve that you can subscribe to, and then you start getting all these calls for papers for conferences, books, and journals. I usually always have at least two things I’m continually working on, either a journal or book article, or a conference paper. I’m researching on my off days when I’m not teaching, trying to read and brainstorm. It’s the time during my breaks when I really focus on my writing, and during that time, I try to be as disciplined as possible.
Cal State Long Beach has this thing called the Scholarly Writing Institute, and this has been massively helpful for me. They have it during the winter and then during the summer; it’s forty faculty members who arrive in the morning into this big space with a bunch of long tables, chairs, and power strips. You arrive at 8 AM, you have your coffee and pastries, and then you have to sit down and just write. Everyone in the room has already done their research; they’re just in the process of writing or revising. Then after several hours you take a break for lunch and then you go back to work and write until 5 PM. This is a four-day process. What is so great about it is that it’s so focused, and there is this collective energy in the room. You can’t leave, so there can be no real distractions. You really get so much done. In each of those Scholarly Writing Institutes, I have been able to produce an entire book chapter or journal article. They will also have editors on hand who will look at your work and provide feedback. I would encourage students to make a student version of this, as long as you stay disciplined and structured.