How Do You Like It So Far Podcast: Emily Andras, Maureen Ryan, and Louisa Stein Discuss Fans, Producers, and Queer Baiting

Our final episode of the season -- episode 16!!!-- started when a Sherlock fan who goes by the handle, We Love the Beekeeper, sent a letter to my USC colleague Alison Trope from the Critical Media Project, describing her outrage over the ways that the series production and promotion team had mistreated its fans, especially LGBTQ fans and others who were invested in the idea that Holmes and Watson might, at least, be depicted on screen in a romantic relationship. As I read the letter, I felt that much of what was being described could just as well be referring to a range of other recent clashes between show runners and fans around the representation of characters who may or may not (will they or won't they be queer).

So, we invited three guests who we felt could shed light on the persistence of these patterns: Emily Andras, the very fan friendly producer of Wynonna Earp; Maureen Ryan, the television critic who was fearless in her support for fans throughout a similar controversy surrounding The 100; and Louisa Stein, a key figure in Fandom Studies and co-editor with Kristina Busse of Sherlock and Transmedia Fandom.

These three amazing women share their thoughts on the "Bury Your Gays" trope and why bad things happen to good fandoms in an age when show runners theoretically understand the value of audience engagement. The episode digs deep but we also try to explain key terms of the debate as we move forward, so it is not a bad jumping on point for those who would like to understand what fans expect from producers and vice-versa.

We will be back in the fall with more cool episodes. In the meantime, let us know how you like it so far? I would love to base more episodes on getting answers to our listeners' questions (assuming we have any) so let us know what you would like to know more about. You can write me at hjenkins@usc.edu. 

Alas, this will be the last episode to benefit from the incredible work of our student producer, Sean Myers, and boy, will we miss him. 

 

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast: Erika Andiola and Yosimar Reyes from the Define American Film Festival

This week, Colin and I turned the microphones over to two of my PhD students Andrea Alarcon and Rogelio Lopez, both members of our Civic Paths research group. The Civic Imagination Project was invited to run a workshop at the Define American Film Festival in Chicago. You can read Lopez's report of that workshop here. And we asked them to see if they could collect some of the perspectives from key players in the movement for the rights of Undocumented people while they were at the event, leaving it up to them to decide who to interview and what questions to explore. We hit the jackpot! This week's episode features two interviews -- with spoken word poet  Yosimar Reyes and organizer Erika Andiola. Both shared perspectives from the trenches about the struggles they face in Trump's America, the anti-immigrant narratives they confront, the ways they use any media necessary to confront those stereotypes and myths, and their sense of what tactics work and what fail in their struggles for social justice. 

Let me provide a bit more background on the key participants in this week's episode:

 Erika Andiola is the former Press Secretary for Latino Outreach for Bernie 2016 and a former Congressional Staffer for Arizona Congresswoman, Kyrsten Sinema. She co-founder of the Dream Action Coalition and started her community organizing experience when she co-founded the Arizona Dream Act Coalition. She then served in the National Coordinating Committee and the Board of Directors for the United We Dream Network.  You can get a sense of her public voice from this speech that she gave at the 2017 Women's March on Washington about her mother and her family's experiences of immigration and their fears for the future of the country.

Yosimar Reyes is a nationally-acclaimed poet, educator, performance artist, and speaker. Born in Guerreo, Mexico, and raised in Eastside San Jose, Reyes explores the themes of migration and sexuality in his work. The Advocate named Reyes one of "13 LGBT Latinos Changing the World" and Remezcla included Reyes on their list of "10 Up And Coming Latinx Poets You Need To Know." His first collection of poetry, For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly… was self published after a collaboration with the legendary Carlos Santana. His work has also been published in various online journals and books including Mariposas: An Anthology of Queer Modern Latino Poetry (Floricanto Press), Queer in Aztlán: Chicano Male Recollections of Consciousness and Coming Out (Cognella Press), and the forthcoming Joto: An Anthology of Queer Xicano & Chicano Poetry (Kórima Press). Reyes was featured in the Documentary, "2nd Verse: The Rebirth of Poetry." Reyes currently serves as Artist-in-Residence at the media and culture organization, Define American, the non-profit organization founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas that is dedicated to shifting the conversation surrounding immigration and identity in a changing America.

You can watch the videos below for some examples of his powerful spoken word performances, which explore his intersectional identity as a queer Latinix man. 

Adrea Alarcon's interests lie in the intersection of ICTD and cultural internet studies, as well as transculturalism and multilingualism on the web. She is particularly interested in the appropriation of social media in developing countries, especially as gateways to the web, and the influence of socioeconomic background and entrenched inequalities on the online experience. She received her MSc degree from the Oxford Internet Institute, and her BSc in online journalism from the University of Florida. She also worked as a Research Assistant with Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective. Before academia, she worked as a web producer and editor for the World Bank, and in social media for Discovery Channel in Latin America. She currently writes about digital culture for Colombian mainstream media. She is a research assistant on the Civic Imagination Project and a producer for How Do You Like It So Far?

Rogelio Lopez’s work focuses on the role of emerging media and tech in social movements, activism, civic engagement, and youth culture. He completed his M.S. in Comparative Media Studies & Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013. His M.S. thesis compared the media strategies of the United Farm Workers (UFW) in the 1960s and Undocumented Immigrant Youth Movements in the 2000s. Prior to USC, Rogelio worked with MIT’s Center for Civic Media, Youth and Media at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and the Engagement Lab at Emerson College. Current projects include a mixed methods analysis of social media use in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement and a computational analysis of Net Neutrality activism online. He serves as a research assistant for the Civic Imagination Project. Rogelio and I are currently co-authoring an essay about Emma Gonzalez's jacket and the March for Our Lives. 

 

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast: Hye Jin Lee and Cristina Visperas on the Global Fandom for K-Pop

This week, my USC colleagues Hye Jin Lee and Cristina Visperas dropped by the Julie Chin, Leslie Moonves, and CBS Studio to talk with us about the global circulation and transnational fandom around K-Pop, popular music from Korea which offers a unique fusion of hip hop influences from the United States, the Idol system from Japan, and its own spectacular performance style. Colin had overheard a hallway conversation and learned of our colleagues interests in this area, and we had to capture some of their fascinating insights for the podcast. Through K-Pop, we get some remarkable insights into gender, sexuality, race, and politics in Korea, but we also learn about differences in the media industries and fan cultures of Korea and the United States, differences which surface, in part, when fans between the two countries interact online.

 Hye Jin Lee is a clinical professor of Communication at the University of Southern California, where she teaches classes on Visual Culture and Communication and Gender in Media Industries and Products, among other topics. Recently hired as an assistant professor in the USC Communications Program, Cristina Visperas is currently writing a book manuscript examining the wide-spread use of prisoners for human experimentation research in the decades following WWII.

One of our goals for How Do You Like It So Far? is to call attention to the global production and circulation of popular culture. Too often,. American media acts as if U.S. popular culture was the only popular media in the world, where-as we are seeing more transnational circulation of popular culture now than ever before. Some of the spread of transnational popular culture is shaped by diaspora communities and others by what I call Pop Cosmopolitans, people seeking cultural difference as a means of escaping the parochialism of their own cultures. I am interested in the tension points that emerge at the intersection of the two forces -- one seeking a return to a mother culture and the other seeking to escape their own for some place of imagined difference. K-pop offers us a great opportunity to explore what happens when these two forces intersect -- part collision and part collaboration.

How Do You Like It So Far Podcast: Episode 13, Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Kurt Squire on Ready Player One and Game Based Learning

This week, we wrap up our series of conversations inspired by Ready Player One with a consideration of the current state of research on games-based learning. I can think of no better thinking partners for exploring the past, present, and future of games in education than Kurt Squire and Katie Salen Tekinbas, two old friends, both there at the start of a movement to harness games technologies and design practices for learning, both now on  the faculty of the University of California-Irvine.

 

Kurt and I worked together years ago on the Games to Teach Project (Later the Education Arcade) at MIT. We were initially funded by Microsoft to do a series of thought experiments into what genres and what content might represent sweet spots for the use of games-based learning in higher education. Soon, we ended up prototyping a range of games and games-related practices which were tested through school-based and after-school programs. Kurt went on to join the education faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and now at the Informatics program at Irvine, where he has become part of the Connected Learning Network. He has remained a leader in this space as the former director of the Games, Learning and Society initiative and as the author of Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age (2011) and Games, Learning and Society: Learning and Meaning in the Digital Age (With Constance Steinkuhler, 2012).

Katie Salen Tekinbas was also there when it all began, an important early scholar who co-authored Rules of Play (2003) with Eric Zimmerman, which became THE textbook for games studies classes around the world, and co-edited The Game Design Reader (2005). She was the Executive Director of Institute of Play, a nonprofit organization which uses principles of games and play for social good. An early recruit for the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning initiative, she helped to design and launch Quest to Learn schools in New York City and Chicago which made game design principles central to their curricular design.

Colin and I sat down with them on the UC-Irvine campus for a free-wheeling conversation, which touched on everything from simulations games for teaching history to the rise of e-sports as a high school activity, and along the way, they shared what Ready Player One gets right -- and where it misses the boat -- in terms of our current understanding of how games and play may become learning opportunities.,

The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Liz Ellcessor & Tom Phillips (Pt. 2)

Liz Ellcessor

You raise some of what I find to be the stickiest, and most interesting, issues in studying fans and their relationships to celebrity. What kind of engagement is valued, by which participants? What is real, what is fake, and how does social media alter these descriptors?

“Authenticity” is a useful, but limited, heuristic for describing these (and related) circumstances. Much scholarship on social media and celebrity, which often bleeds into fan studies, attempts to trace the negotiation of seemingly “authentic” forms of self-presentation and communication. Limited disclosures, performances of friendship or affinity, and specific fan interactions are usually considered part of this authentic display by a celebrity. However, there’s been less attention to how being “authentic” is relevant to being a part of or participating in fan spaces.

Dyer’s notion of the star as both ordinary and extraordinary could be equally applied to the figure of the fan--and potentially the scholar--in these interactions. The fan is both engaged in normative, mainstreamed behaviors and doing something unusual; the scholar is both a fan and something more. We’re all negotiating these dynamics within the boundaries of given possibilities.

This is one reason I’ve come to enjoy fan and academic communities that center disability--they often have a much more open range of practices considered acceptable and authentic means of participation. The host of accessibility options at WisCo, and the annual dance at the Society for Disability Studies both indicate a devaluation of a performed authenticity in favor something more variable, and potentially intimate.

Tom Phillips

Fan culture and fan studies alike have been so reliant on creating or reporting on hierachies. I begin to wonder whether scholars can actually reconcile the various hierarchal relations within and between different fan culture - what may be “authentic” to one set of fans is not necessarily going to apply to another. For wrestling fans, for example, part of the appeal is the blurring of lines between real/fake, authenticity/inauthenticity. The pleasure of asking questions regarding authenticity for wrestling fans is not necessarily a pleasure that would be shared by fans of other texts. Without a clear overarching theory of how fan communities function, is fan scholarship doomed to simply present different case studies over and over?

You mention communities around disability and how they frame authenticity and performance. Your thinking around this is evocative of positive research trends we’re seeing at our annual FSN conference. In the past couple of years there has been a move away from papers which present a fandom with a framing of “that’s interesting, isn’t it?”, to a framing of “this is important.” Lori Morimoto, Rukmini Pande, and Lori Kido Lopez are among those who have, already in this blogging process, spoken about such important and worthy topics of study with a real drive to get at the heart of their value to contemporary culture. The work of these scholars is influencing my own research - I’m now trying to study that which is valuable and useful. This for me, is the future of fan studies.

Liz Ellcessor

The dilemma about case studies - and what can be difficulties in identifying “importance” within or between case studies - seems to me to be a challenge for media studies more broadly. The shifts you identify in the framing of fan studies respond to this with a commitment to choosing case studies that speak to importance, value, or utility. This is perhaps particularly helpful when speaking to people outside of fan or media studies, for whom ideas that we take for granted as both interesting and important may be novel.

Regarding my work about disability and fandom, I have actually bristled at the notion that this is (more) important than other case studies. There can be a paternalistic framing in which the study of marginalized groups is both hailed and dismissed as “important”; much as cultural ideas about disability both valorize and minimize disability through the language of “special needs” or “differently abled,” asserting that something is academically important because of its connection to a marginalized group can further distance that field of study from the mainstream.

Thus, my hope is that fan and media studies can do the hard work of taking on insights from nonwhite, disabled, non-Western, and other case studies in order to reevaluate the norms, theories, and subjects that are mainstream.

Tom Phillips

I definitely agree with you on the presence of that paternalistic framing. Here in the UK with our Research Excellence Framework - the system for assessing the excellence of research in higher education - there is an emphasis placed on the originality, rigour, and significance of the work. This latter category is that which the notion of “importance” would fall under, which perhaps explains trends I’ve seen towards more “valid” topics of study. As a result, it seems like fan studies is still having to fight for legitimacy on some fronts. On Henry’s podcast series How Do You Like it So Far? I heard William Proctor talk about the lack of fan studies expertise used in mainstream discourse for The Last Jedi. He makes an excellent point - it does seem as if the reporting of fandom and popular culture relies less on scholarly voices than other topics.

The challenge for fan studies scholars, then, is to differentiate ourselves from the swathes of pop culture commentators who exist. And we can do this in precisely the manner you suggest  - taking on insights from marginalised communities and applying elsewhere. It’s our job as researchers to challenge (often inaccurate) representations of groups both marginalised and mainstream alike.  

Liz Ellcessor

Yes, there is a challenge in participating in larger cultural conversations; the expertise of fan (and/or media) studies is easily misunderstood as analogous to any well-informed fan or audience discussion. And, really, many of the popular culture commentators do an excellent job! I regularly assign Anna Hamilton’s work to my students, for instance.

In part, I see this as a success of our field and related fields; people with undergraduate degrees in media, gender, or other forms of critical study are applying that training and producing interesting observations and analyses. This is exactly what we want our students to do in class, and afterwards!

The other side of that, however, is that I wonder to what degree we need to be explicit about the kinds of research methods and practices that are part of fan studies and related scholarship. What we teach, and see replicated in popular discourse, is not necessarily the same as the work that we do. Whether it’s copious interviews, in-depth industry or archival research, or the hard work of contextualization, scholarly expertise comes out of processes that most commentators don’t have the time (or support, or funding) to undertake.

Tom Phillips

I really love your positivity, Liz! I think sometimes scholars (and I’m speaking from experience here) may get too bogged down in their own research agendas. But you’re right - the next generation of scholars (and/or commentators) will always need that guidance to be more media literate particularly in relation to theory. One of my proudest moments as part of the FSN is seeing, year after year, new scholars and new communities grow and develop.

I think that explicitness about methods and practices is precisely the way forward. Not that journalistic approaches are not rigorous, but as a scholarly community we can demonstrate the thoroughness required of good research practice. On large scale research projects I’ve been involved with - concerning Alien, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones - a recurring motivation is to counter popular assumptions. Through thousands of survey responses we’re able to corroborate or dispel existing discourse, precisely because we have the time and resources to do so (as you mention).

So perhaps the gap for fan studies scholars will always be there. It may just be a case of our scholarly community having to be more proactive in adding to the number of voices out there. Part of me wonders whether this all comes back to the tensions of aca-fandom, but I think that’s a whole other conversation to be had!

———

 

 

The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Liz Ellcessor & Tom Phillips (Pt. 1)

Liz Ellcessor

As someone who does not primarily identify as a scholar in fan studies, I am very happy and a little nervous to participate in this conversation. I am, however, thrilled to be speaking virtually with Tom Phillips, as both of us have worked on what might be called “geek” subcultural fandoms and celebrities (Kevin Smith and Felicia Day). While there are a number of thematic similarities - and we each have photographic evidence of meeting our celebrity subjects! - I’m particularly interested in the different trajectories that have shaped our work.

I came to fan studies without the kinds of deep personal investments and experiences with fan practices and communities that many “aca-fans” have. I was a casual fan of The Office and Battlestar Galactica, I’d never heard of fan fiction, and I was absolutely a lurker and not a content creator or community participant. Fan studies, however, was simply in the water at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I did my graduate degrees. The legacy of John Fiske, the work of alumnus Henry Jenkins, the arrival of (my advisor) Jonathan Gray, and coursework with Derek Johnson all ensured that I learned about fan communities, practices, and values, as well as the methods and concerns of fan studies.

My research has focused predominantly on the industrial and infrastructural dimensions of fandom. My interests in digital media interfaces, access, and disability are all relevant to better understanding the online spaces in which fan practices may occur. Fundamentally, I am most curious about how particular interfaces enable particular forms of fan practice, discourage others, welcome particular bodies, and exclude others. In short, how is participation in fandom contingent upon the technological offerings that we often take for granted? Twitter, Tumblr, LiveJournal, WordPress, Usenet, Reddit, and other platforms offer different affordances that enable (or prevent) specific forms of participation and inclusion.

Mel Stanfill’s work on discursive interface analysis is engaged in a similar project, applying this method to commercial and independent fan spaces reveals important differences. In my chapter for the Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, I used this as a starting point for a specific kind of analysis - asking how online fan sites differed in terms of their accessibility for people with disabilities, and how these technological platforms shaped the ability of fandoms to be inclusive of disability.

By studying platforms or formats, and technical details such as accessibility, I think we can better understand how specific technologies, infrastructures, and industries shape fandoms. While fan practices obviously have historical and material continuities, attending to the details in the supporting structures can reveal possible influences, limits, and assumptions that characterize fan spaces.

This is, for me, part of a larger argument about the need for media studies to consider access as a variable phenomenon. How do people gain access to content, to communication, to media services, to production opportunities? What constitutes access, or how much access is “enough?” How is access tied into various forms of privilege, particularly around race, gender, ability, and age? Fans are a fascinating point of entry for these questions, as fandoms are often engaged in explicit negotiations about access to texts, to producers, to paratextual material (like spoilers), and to communities that share their fannish investments.

Tom Phillips

Some of your comments here, Liz, echo thoughts I’ve had for a while now. You talk about not necessarily identifying primarily as a fan studies scholar, and from my position as part of the Fan Studies Network, I’ve noticed a larger trend towards interdisciplinarity in the field each year at our annual conference. As concepts of fandom and fan culture become more mainstreamed, the number of scholars finding interesting material to examine increases. Indeed, during the 2017 FSN conference held at the University of Huddersfield, UK, I posited on Twitter (with tongue firmly in cheek) that with the increasing mainstreaming of fandom, perhaps fan studies as a separate discipline doesn’t need to exist anymore!

One of the interesting thing about this blog series Henry has set up is finding out the scholarly journeys of my fan studies peers. It’s curious to note how people were drawn to the field; was it a case that they happened to be so invested in their fan object that they wanted to study it? Or was it the influential writing of the “1992 moment” that captured some kind of imaginative spark? My own journey is somewhere between the two – as a Kevin Smith fan invested and participating in an active fan community, I witnessed first-hand some noteworthy behaviour. Reading around these communal practices via scholarly theory, I was drawn to study Smith and his fans in greater detail.

One of the recurrent themes throughout my work is the relationship between online and offline fan communities, and how digital and analogue practices inform different fan cultures. Liz, you talk about the degree to which participation in fandom is contingent on various web platforms; I would build on this and ask to what extent do such fandoms also engage with offline practices? Are these fan communities the same, or are on- and offline wholly distinct spheres? How do fan performances in these different spaces intersect, if at all?

My research into this area has been more recently concerned with the world of professional wrestling. I’ve long been fascinated in the relationship between performer and fan within this world – particularly the extent to which a fan becomes a part of the diegesis of sports entertainment, actively negotiating the real and the fake. While social media are allowing more opportunities for wrestlers and fans to engage, live performance is where the majority of contact occurs. Yet attending live events can be a costly endeavour and in addition, my privilege as a white heterosexual cis man means I am less likely to be affected by issues of harassment or discomfort that may make some marginal fans disinclined to attend some venues. As you note, Liz, fandom can be a restrictive and exclusionary process, where fan capital cannot be accumulated simply because of barriers to accessibility. We have a responsibility as fan studies scholars to try and reach these marginalised people, so that scholarship doesn’t cycle through these same kinds of privileged audiences.

———

 

 

The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Jessica Seymour & Mélanie Bourdaa (Pt. 2)

Jessica

Consider, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), which introduced a lesbian couple only to kill one of the pair to trigger the emotional breakdown of the other. Or The 100 (2014-present), in which an eagerly-anticipated lesbian pairing became canon, only to have one of the women die within ten episodes of showrunners making the relationship official. Or Brokeback Mountain (2005), a film about gay men in which one of the pair is murdered in a hate crime. Even though the number of LGBTQ+ representative characters has improved, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that, overall, mainstream media is not in favour of long, happy lives for LGBTQ+ characters.

It is arguable that the genre of these texts makes death or harm likely – if there was no danger for the characters, then there may be no suspense for the audience. But LGBTQ+ character are less well-represented and therefore disproportionately killed in these texts, which is perhaps why audiences resist this narrative technique even when it is genre appropriate.


In cases like these, fans may react negatively to the content or the creator. Sometimes these reactions are meant to be educational and stimulate a dialogue, sometimes they can come across as aggressive towards the creators behind the content. Some creators tend to get a bit defensive when they perceive fandom reactions as an attempt to police content rather than open a dialogue.

There was a very interesting example of a course-corrected Bury Your Gays storyline from The Adventure Zone (2014-present), which is a fairly well-known actual play Dungeons and Dragons podcast.  The Adventure Zone (TAZ) is performed by brothers Griffin, Justin, and Travis, and their father Clint, recording remotely from their homes in various cities in the USA. Griffin acts as the Dungeon Master (DM) and is responsible for guiding the narrative and playing non-player characters (NPCs), while the others perform player characters (PCs) who react to Griffin’s storytelling prompts. In one of the mini-arcs of the series, Griffin included a storyline where two queer women, Hurley and Sloane, enter a relationship and die by the conclusion of the arc.
Fans were initially quite vocal about this representation. They took to twitter (the preferred platform for engagement with the McElroys) and explained that they considered this an extension of the Bury Your Gays trope. Griffin actually took the time to educate himself about the trope and talked about it in a meta-episode later in the year:


“… when I was writing that, I was like, “Oh, it’s the first, like, romance in the show, and I’ll give it a tragic ending,” without knowing that there was whole fucking like— that’s how most, uh, like, gay and lesbian relationships in media end, is with tragic endings, which I didn’t realize. And so I’ve stepped in that a lot” (The The Adventure Zone Zone 2017).

During the second-last episode of the first season, Griffin used his power as the Dungeon Master to revive the pairing by turning them into dryads. They went on to lead the armies of Earth against an alien invasion. In this case, once the Bury Your Gays trope was pointed out to the creator, not only did he learn from the experience but he took steps to fix his error in-fiction by creating what has affectionately been styled in the TAZ fandom as the ‘Unbury Your Gays’ trope. I have not come across another situation like this in fandom, but I would be very interested to hear about it.

Mélanie

One now infamous example of a use of the BYG trope in fiction which led to a huge fan backlash was how The 100 handled the death of fan-favorite Lexa, a lesbian character. The industrial and PR context, along with the narrative one, played a huge part in this. Actually, Jason Rothenberg, the showrunner of The 100, and his team, with the help of The CW, queerbaited a part of the audience by promoting the character and the couple she formed with Clarke. For example, Jason Rothenberg tweeted directly to the fans, using their own language (the hashtag #Clexa) that the “couple was seaworthy”. He also posted a picture taken during the filming of the last episode of the season showing the actresses playing Clarke and Lexa together, leading fans to believe Lexa would survive the season. Members of his team infiltrated message boards with aliases and started dialogues with fans, orienting the conversations towards the character of Lexa and the couple. Finally, The CW used Lexa as the poster girl for season 3, implying she was one of the lead character in the show.

When Lexa died in episode 7 of Season 3 hit by a stray bullet shot by her father figure that was meant for Clarke, just after having sex with her girlfriend for the first time, fans felt betrayed and angered by the issues of negative LGBTQ representations. Fans gather in their online community to seek or give support, to tell their own stories and how Lexa helped them accept who they are. The community was a safe heaven where fans could find the help they needed after the episode. But what is interesting in this example is how fans turn their rage into something positive for the fandom and for bringing awareness around good LGBTQ representation in fictions. Fans decided to create an online movement called LGBT fans Deserved  Better, to raise funds for The Trevor Project and help fight against suicide among LGBTQIA teenagers. To do so, they brought visibility to their actions using the hashtag #WeDerservedBetter on social media. They also paid for giant rainbow billboards displaying the same hashtags which were located near the Hollywood offices of The CW network. Then, they created a website explaining their purpose and what they wanted from the entertainment industry. They collected all the evidence (tweets from Jason Rothenberg and The CW network) as a database to explain why they felt abused. They also collectively wrote the Lexa Pledge, a document directed at industry’s leaders (producers, showrunners, network executives) listing reasons why a positive representation of LGBTQIA characters is now fundamental on television and network channels, such as The CW. Finally, they created ClexaCon, a convention which gather actresses, showrunners and fans to discuss better representations of LGBTQ characters on TV.

This example is emblematic of PR gone wrong and a misunderstanding of the effects of the BYG trope on audiences and fans. But it was a lever for fan activism that emerged within the community. But there are also example of good representations which lead fans to talk about their own identity or issued they might face.

Sense 8 is one of the recent series that crystallizes the most conversations and interactions around its LGBTQ characters. Indeed, the couple formed by Nomi Marks, a transgender character and Amanita Caplan, her girlfriend, symbolize a positive LGBTQ representation in the contemporary serial landscape. On Tumblr, using the hashtags #Nomanita, fans talk about the importance of the couple in the fiction and beyond, in terms of gender representation. For example, a fan wrote following the announcement of the cancellation of the series: "I have never seen another lesbian couple described as precisely and as beautifully as Amanita and Nomi, and I have never seen another trans woman shown so positively and with so much life. " For this fan, the series marks a turning point in terms of positive representation of trans characters, and she points out that there is a before and after Sense 8. This assertion is reinforced by other comments on websites, such as The MarySue. For example, Renata Riveri posted this message three years ago, at the beginning of the series: "The first thing I liked about Nomi and Aminata is the fact that they are not just there for comedy or queerbaiting. They are a real couple, with real dramas, real problems (some maybe not so real), and yes, with funny moments. They are two characters very well written, they both have desires, joys, disappointments. I had never seen it on TV. " The novelty of the representation, both positive and almost banal, of a lesbian couple, one of whose two characters is transgender, denotes both audacious scriptwriting but also a concern for equity in terms of the representation of sexual minorities at the same time. Television.Moreover, character identification is of paramount importance to transgender fans who can finally see their lives and issues on screen, the character functioning as a mirror of their own life. That's what Kelly Taylor explains, again in The MarySue's comments: "I thought I was the only one thinking about looking at your own relationship on the screen. I am also a cis woman, who has mostly identified herself as a heterosexual a large part of her life until I go out with my girlfriend who is a gorgeous transgender Jewish woman. We decided to watch Sense 8 together, and seeing them was like seeing our own couple project on the screen. And that made me realize the importance of representation in modern media. ".

Representation Matters and has an impact, positive or negative, on fans, who then will gather in their fandoms to talk about issues with other fans, tell their own stories paralleling the ones of their favorites characters, and take actions to bring awareness and fan activism in the public sphere.

What I feel like is that there is also a new dynamic with production teams and actors and actresses, who are very vocals about their characters, defending them and thus the fandoms (I am thinking of Chyler Leigh from Supergirl, or Caity Lotz from Legends of Tomorrow or Dominique Provost Chalken and Kat Barell from Wynonna Earp) and become advocates for the community.

What do you think that all of this means for the future of fandom and fandom studies? Should we be focusing on creator/fan relationships, or should we be looking more to the textual evidence of creators’ intentions?

Mélanie

In terms of narrative works, we are witnessing the building of commun storyworld, what we coind Transtext with Benjamin Derhy Kurtz, when both fans and production create Transmedia tie-ins, mixing canon stories with fan-created one. Showrunners appeal to fans to save their shows when they are threatened of cancellation. For example, Eric Kripke asked fans of Timeless to support the show and be vocal to save it from cancellation. For the first time ever, the show was de-cancel by NBC. Fans of Sense 8, after the cancellation by Netflix, went online, on social media, and on changes.org to ask for a renewal of the show. They got a 2-hour film to get closure.

With social media and showrunners, and actors of TV series being social media savvy, a new form of dialogue is forming with fans, around TV series and characters and representations.

The dialogue between fans and showrunners and actors/actresses strengthen the way representations are dealt with in fictions. For example, at ClexaCon, issues of representations of LGBTQ characters and oh the harms of the BYG trope are discussed between fans and people from the industry in a constructive ways. This year for example, fans created a tool to measure representations in fictions, being positive or negative, and on their website (https://lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/tv/) they compile databases of lesbian characters and their fate on TV. On the other hand, people from the industry are more and more aware of the trope and listen to advice from the community (Emily Andras from Wynonna Earp, Greg Berlanti for Legends of Tomorrow or for Supergirl when he said they didn’t want to kill off Maggie). So for me, these interactions, being on social media or at special conventions, between activist and vocal fans and people of the industry is one of the future path to bring awareness to the representation of minorities (sexual or racial) on TV and to build characters that could reflect those minorities.

Jessica

I think that, when it comes to future of fan studies, watching the media to see whether there is a measurable difference between portrayals of the BYG trope and other LGBTQ+ issues will be the best way to tell if creators are listening to their audiences.

If there is a clear course correction - as was the case in the Adventure Zone - then that would be fairly telling about what kind of relationship the fans have with their creators. At the same time, I’m not sure that it would be wise to judge a creator’s decision not to go with what their fans want to be an indication that the creator doesn’t care about them. I have seen a lot of creators get accused of not caring about their fans because they won’t change their stories to accommodate fans’ desires, and I’m not sure that I entirely agree with that. Especially since some of the fan reactions to certain narratives could be considered on par with harassment. The idea that fans should be rewarded for filling their favourite shows’ creators’ newsfeeds with demands isn’t one that I endorse. But if there is a dialogue - one that shows respect on all sides - then that seems to me to be the healthiest way for fans and creators to interact; a way for fans to be able to voice concerns without making creators feel as though they must sacrifice their artistic vision to avoid potential backlash.

In the case of the McElroys and The Adventure Zone, I think the dialogue between fans and creators has been quite positive; the McElroys actually reached out to LGBTQ+ activists when they were considering adding a trans character to the series because they wanted to present the character in a way that would be respectful to the community, while the fans are less likely to be provoked because they recognise that the creators are coming to the series in good faith. This course correction demonstrates that the creators of the show cared enough about their fans to make the change but it does not seem to be something that they were pressured into - if it were, then I do not think that the narrative itself would have supported it. That is, if they had gone into the change without really caring about it, then I imagine this would have been clear in the way that the trans character was presented. Instead, she was approached with thoughtfulness and a clear desire to get it right. This level of attention, to my mind, demonstrates the relationship between the creators and the fans quite clearly.

———



 

 

The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Jessica Seymour & Mélanie Bourdaa (Pt. 1)

 

Jessica Seymour

Harry Potter was my first fandom. It was a Christmas present from my parents; something to while away the hours at the Ballina Beachside Caravan Park while my more able-bodied cousins and brother went kayaking and body boarding. I was welcome to join them, of course, but past experience had taught me that kayaking and body boarding would not end well for me. It would usually end with me crumpled on the beach with a mouthful of sand. I was happier (and safer) sitting in the shade beside Grandma with a towel wrapped around my middle and Harry Potter open in my lap.

In High School, Harry Potter became a way for me to make friends. I would approach the students who were reading the books and introduce myself, hoping that we would have something in common besides the same fandom. Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. I made friends who introduced me to fan fiction, LiveJournal communities, and Wizard Rock. My world got infinitely bigger. When I went to university, Harry Potter became the core of my honours thesis, my PhD, and my academic career.

It’s not just Harry Potter. I have based most of my articles, book chapters, and conference papers on fandoms that I am a part of. I’ve written about the mining philosophies of dwarves in The Lord of the Rings, the nature of memory in Doctor Who, and representations of toxic masculinity in YA dystopian fiction. I came to fan studies as a discipline after I watched The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and fell into a blackhole of obsession watching the way that creators and fans interacted. I went to the 2013 Interdisciplinary.net’s ‘Fan Studies: Researching Popular Audiences’ conference in Oxford, met some of the most interesting scholars in the world, and have been exploring fandom and fan/creator experience ever since.

Lately, I’ve gotten interested in the way that creators react to fans’ expectations of representation. There have been many portrayals of LGBTQ characters in mainstream fiction that have erred on the side of negative and problematic. There is a tendency, for example, to kill off LGBTQ+ characters in mainstream media. This ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope has done much to discredit and delegitimise representation that the media tries to develop. As Emma Dibdin (2017) writes in an article for Marie Claire (itself not necessarily an LGBTQ+ space, which indicates how prevalent the problem has become) “Just since the beginning of 2015, we’ve lost more than 50 queer women on television—often in violent ways that benefit somebody else’s story rather than anything contributing to that character's own arc”. Similarly, TV Tropes (2017) writes that: “Often... gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple... has to die at the end”.

Mélanie Bourdaa

For as long as I remember I have been a fan, and my fandoms have been diverse and multiple. When I was young I used to play tennis and followed closely the carrier of Steffi Graf. My bedroom was full of posters of her shots, I recorded her matches (I still have them on DVDs and cassettes) and bought her championship outfits because I wanted “to play like her”. But like others in this series of posts, I was living in an isolated place in France, I didn’t have the Internet and felt kind of alone in my fannishness. My bedroom was the place of my fandoms, from tennis, to movies (Jodie Foster, Science-Fiction) to TV shows.

Then The X-Files was a turning point, my very first fandom in the sense of a community. I was a member of the French fanclub, I received the fanzines which I read carefully and was doing some collages of Mulder and Scully together (yes I was on the shipping side). With The X-Files, I discovered that they were other fans like me, that I was not the only one caring for the characters. When I got a computer and the Internet, quite late in my life (I was 20) after a year spent studying at Oxford in England, I discovered new ways to dive into fandoms, to read fan written materials, search for information and share them in virtual communities.

When I went to College I studied languages (English and Spanish) because I didn’t know that it was possible, in France, to study fans and their activities and practices. I academically fell into fan studies during my dissertation. I was then a fan of Battlestar Galactica and I took part in the debates in the community to know who the Final Five were, if the Battlestar was going to finally reach and inhabitable planet, and so on. At that time, I discovered Henry’s work, which was not translated in French and was only used by a few colleagues. Textual Poachers was a revelation for me. I could be a fan and studied my own fandom, giving me a justification for what I was working on at the time. My official field in France is Sciences of Communication and Information, and fan studies were non-existent 10 years ago, except in some researched in sociology.

in my field, it is now an emerging field with young scholars engaging in discussions and researches around fan practices, fan fictions and fan activism.

Since my dissertation, I divided my researches into two main areas that are linked : Transmedia Storytelling (production side) and fan studies (reception side). I have been advocating to bring fan studies to the spotlight in France, proposing special issues and books on the subject (for example the first book anthology on Fan and Gender Studies in France, co-edited with Arnaud Alessandrin). I am preparing the dissertation for my professorship in this very subject. But there are still grounds to cover. For example, students are quite ashamed to define themselves as fans, because they see the practices as non-legitimate and especially in academia. Three weeks ago, I was giving a lecture on fan studies (an introduction mainly to the field) and askes, as I always do, if they were fans in the class and in which fandoms they are involved. Nobody answered and one of the student explained that they are definitely not fans because “they are not crazy and psychologically marginalized”. Part of my day to day work, is really a pedagogical one, in order to explain why fans are a special audience, and why it is important to study their practices and communities.

My most recent work focus on fan activism and issues of representation in TV series. More specifically, I deal with how the Bury Your Gays trope can have an impact on fan communities, and how fan communities organize themselves and engage in forms of activism to bring awareness on positive representations. I found it fascinating how fans can advocate both for their shows and characters and for their communities and values and be vocal on these issues in the public sphere. Of course, social networks and new technologies facilitate this activism and the organization of the fandoms. But we need to address these issues from a historical point of view and see how fans did before the Internet to be socially and politically active.

As far as my own fan attitude, I am still a fan of various texts and have different activities and practices depending on the fandoms : collecting action figures and memorabilia and collector texts (Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Film Noir), participating in social activities (like tweeting for example for Wynonna Earp, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl), going to conventions and sharing off line with other fans. 

How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast, Ann Pendleton-Jullian on World Building, Architecture, and Wicked Problems

 

Ann Pendleton-Jullian is an architect by training but increasingly she is being hired as a world-builder, someone who can put into process a collaborative, multidisciplinary mode of thinking which approaches complex problems in a systemic way. Her professional and civic practice has been informed by ideas from speculative fiction and production design, including by Alex McDowell who we featured on our program last week. As we explore some of the implications of Ready Player One, we decided to dedicate these two programs to the ways world building has evolved from as a way of developing on-screen fictional worlds to a way of confronting challenging problems in our own world.

Alex and Ann teamed up for the RiLAo project, where students and experts around the world collaborated to imagine and document an imaginary floating city which contained aspects of Los Angeles and Rio De Janeiro. Ann has also developed a forthcoming book, Design Unbound, with John Seely Brown (formerly of Xerox PARC) which releases this fall. I had previously conducted an expansive interview with Ann for this blog about one segment from the book which introduced their concept of the Pragmatic Imagination.  

For more on her thinking and design practice, check out this TED x video.

 

 

This discussion is high flying and rapid-fire: she was racing to the airport and we were happy to grab a few minutes with her. Afterwards, Colin and I discuss world-building more generally and explore some of our own thoughts on Ready Player One.

Next week, our exploration of this movie concludes with an interview about games-based education with Kurt Squire and Katie Salens, two old friends, educational researchers, and game designers who are both now based at University of California-Irvine.

The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Matthew A. Cicci & Alexandra Edwards (Pt. 2).

Matt

You’re spot on — it is ahistorical to see the diversification of fandoms as solely a contemporary trend. In my most recent work, a chapter in The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, I contend superhero comic publishers’ recent awareness of female readers is a historical rewrite...female fans of Marvel Comics have been practicing since Stan Lee wrote and published Fantastic Four #1. And they’ve been vocal. But, due to gatekeeping and the entrenched  concept of the male fan, they’ve been, according to Suzanne Scott, made invisible (in her excellent piece “Fangirls in Refrigerators: The Politics of (in)Visibility in Comic Book Culture”).

Your own fan interests introduced you to an “immensely creative community of women,” and mine did too...but it also introduced me to a community that often devalued women as fans. What initially started as a project regarding superhero adaptations quickly became one rooted in exploring the repeated disenfranchisement of female fans by the comic industry and other fans. This tension between meaningful fan production AND vitriolic online diatribes meant to exclude fans from engaging their interests compelled me to think about intrafandom dynamics as a model for approaching digital communication. Essentially, I saw all these people engaging in consistent, smart analysis of texts who themselves begged to be analyzed.

Thinking through fandoms to approach rhetorical strategies across digital spaces is one of many avenues of inquiry that sit under the broad umbrella of fan studies. As the opening to Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandoval, and C. Lee Harrington’s Fandom: Identities and and Communities in a Mediated World reminds us, fan studies furthers “our understanding of how we form emotional bonds with ourselves and others in a modern, mediated world.” Exploring fan audiences means exploring people’s engagement with multiple texts, in multiple forms, across multiple communities, made up of multiple constituents. No fandom is a monolith; it is a complex web of interests, productions, language, and so on. Understanding these layered dynamics is what makes fan scholarship so vital and vibrant. I’m struck just thinking about your focus on the historical ‘absence’ of female fans. How complex! It seems invested not just in securing female fans’ relationship to given objects, but it is also a study of power and the social dynamics which left their contributions unrecorded. And, likely, a lot more.

Orienting fannish activity as a model of digital expression speaks to the questions you raised regarding the right to produce or remember. I tend to see fan subcultures gaining more capacity to etch their own story (and history). The female fans who spearheaded meaningful fan-driven events like The Hawkeye Initiative (a Tumblr using genderbent images to call out the blatantly sexist art of superhero comics) cannot easily be overlooked. They circulate. Gain traction. And, they move across communities in which official producers often see them. They are ignored at the ignorer’s peril, and they can no longer be deemed invisible. The exclusion of certain fans, in this case of my work--female comic readers, has positioned them as resistors to the very fan subcultures they sometimes engage in. Moreover, if they cannot be overlooked, can they be forgotten? These fans leave a permanent mark--a tattoo. The internet is a tool of accretion...every fan fiction, every tumblr blog, every meme is a potential building block to be used by the next fan.

I see in my own, and many of my students’, consumer practices an increased intake of fan-created/curated content. But, what does this suggest? While I am hesitant to go back to the early framing of fans as evasive or resistant to dominant ideologies, I’m also eager to think of how we might position fan studies as being deeply political. I reference superhero fan cultures, but I see it in more obviously meaningful venues. The modes and practices of fan communities are evident in other social movements. The way fans organize members, facilitate discourse, seek better representation, and circulate content isn’t dissimilar from how many other online organizations operate. The tactics of fans are often the tactics of significant cultural trends and messages. I sincerely hope this doesn’t come across as flippant, but, for example, I’m becoming deeply intrigued to see if examining fan rhetoric might open up avenues of exploring social movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo.

Even setting aside my desire to lay models of fandom communication over other digital activities, what do you make of this? How might we synthesize the seemingly powerful presence of the fan in this era of spreadable media with the issue of power? We cannot argue that fans aren’t creating, producing, and circulating...but is their work meaningful?

Alex

You seem very optimistic about contemporary female (and I want to add non-binary and gender non-conforming) fans becoming un-ignorable! I could probably use a little more optimism, tbh, but my work on the "deep history" of fandom makes that difficult. And maybe this also has to do with me being trained in English departments, which tend to be very conservative with regards to issues of canonicity and the value of marginalized texts.

For example, I think there's a fascinating antecedent to fannish endeavors like The Hawkeye Initiative (and female fandom more broadly) in the women's club movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, where women were getting together in their houses to read and critique literature and art, dress up as characters, perform skits and plays, write and evaluate each other's writing. And this wasn't just middle class white women--there were African American women's clubs, indigenous women's clubs, and clubs for working class women, and they would host mixed events where women from different communities could meet each other. Anne Ruggles Gere has written a terrific book on these clubs, and I'm indebted to her research, but again--this is a place where I think fan studies scholars and literature scholars should be looking more closely, and no one really is! These clubs sound exactly like pre-digital fan communities--and they were a huge cultural influence on their time and place, even directly on some of the most famous American writers--but they have been rendered invisible over the past hundred years. I've found artifacts from these clubs in basically every special collections library I've ever been in, so the evidence of their widespread existence is available. But the "gatekeeping" you rightly refer to has so powerfully shaped literary culture that it's as if these millions of women never so much as read a book. So it's hard for me not to worry that, even if The Hawkeye Initiative has made substantive changes to superhero comics culture (and I absolutely agree that it has), these women and their work won't be all but forgotten by 2118.

Then again, there are so many other fandom events and issues that are likewise forgotten, often involving bad behavior and toxic fandom. Here I think of something like The Shaver Mystery, which was this wild proto-ARG (alternate reality game) that played out in the letter columns of Amazing Stories in the 1940s, about a race of subhuman men called "deroes" who lived underground and secretly controlled the world. It tapped into some really nasty anti-Semitic and white supremacist tendencies in readers/participants, who wrote letters about slaughtering deroes with submachine guns--again, my pattern-recognition brain can't help but notice that this sounds a lot like contemporary conspiracy theories about "globalists" like George Soros, but there's not a lot of analysis available on how current digitally-networked conspiracy theory rings might be doing the same thing as these 1940s scifi fans, just with updated communications technology.

The above example seems like a fascinating counterpoint to #MeToo and BLM, which are movements that I actually don't see as having much to do with fandom, other than that we're all sharing the same tools and platforms. But maybe this is where the potential for fan studies to be deeply political comes in--with our responsibility to do the historical remembrance and recovery work, both in celebration of the fans who work to dismantle the cishet capitalist white supremacist patriarchy, and in critique of the fans who uphold it?

And if that's the case (and this responsibility certainly shapes my own work), then I have to wonder how the politics of fan studies fits into the university as we know it today and/or as it will exist in the future?

Matt

Admittedly, my optimism stems from very recent changes in particular media I’ve focused on. While I do believe we are seeing fans help redefine particular, problematic fannish subcultures, I’m not sure those efforts are mappable on any historic scale. In 5-10 years the credit for changes in comic book representation will likely be given to Marvel instead of the fans. My optimism only focuses on some of the changes being wrought, not the recognition.

But, those changes tie directly to fan studies’ ‘responsibility,’ as you put it. Fan studies does, and should, celebrate the fan communities oppositional to the systems of a white capitalist patriarchy. In a sense, fan studies has always been examining modes of resistance. De Certeau’s “tactics and strategies”, a clear forebearer of fan studies, was concerned with how power manifests in the hands of consumers instead of the systems they navigate. Joli Jensen’s “Fandom as Pathology” opposed stereotypical representation of fans by the media. Etc. Many contemporary fan works, including, it seems, your own forthcoming book, are examining fan practices that are often mired in forms of resistance.

When I suggest the study of fandoms might help us consider other social movements, it is not just this legacy I’m tapping, however. I suppose I’m thinking broadly. Our content is mediated--our entertainment, our news, our discourse. Fan studies is very engaged in understanding how humans negotiate relationships to mediated cultural content. It doesn’t matter if it is My Little Pony or Fox News. So too, the social changes of the world are not purely dictated by logic and empiricism. Political races, the rise and spread of the Alt-Right or the Women’s March, etc. are comprised of multi-faceted digital fronts that seek to form connections between people and ideas. Is the internal attachment one fosters for a candidate or social campaign of a markedly different structure than the one they form with an author, television show, or hobby? Especially, considering everyone’s reliance, and thus initial encountering of said ideas, on shared platforms?

For me, the study of fans looks at how people willfully subscribe to content, how they circulate it, build on it, use it, and how they engage with their community. This not only makes it inherently political, it makes it inherently interdisciplinary. It shares with English Departments a focus on readers, reading, and texts. It shares with Media Studies an emphasis on curation, circulation, and creation of media objects. It shares with Anthropology a focus on ethnographies of cultural practices. It shares with Sociology an attempt to articulate how humans interact and form communities...

Considering its politics and interdisciplinary form, I’m not convinced it will ever be codified or comfortable in most universities. But, at the risk of punting, could I turn this back around on you. Where as I’m tracing a historic agreement with this responsibility, you seem to be really manifesting it. Could you speak more to this sense of responsibility and its place in the university? I’m energized by this conceptualization of fan studies, and I am wondering if it might help us address the purpose of studying fans going forward.

Alex

I hadn’t really thought about the tracing versus manifesting dynamic before, so thank you for that! What’s becoming clear to me from this conversation is that—for some of us, myself included—the experience of being in the university is functionally identical to being “in” any Western media fandom. We’re given a set of parameters which simultaneously excite and disappoint us, dictated by a large, complicated, and risk-averse organizational structure, and our love and frustration prompt us to forage amongst all of that and build something better, more meaningful, and definitely weirder than we were meant to. For me, that means working to open up the early 20th century literary landscape to include not only more women writers and writers of color but also the non-professional, unsanctioned, teenaged, and/or queer writers who were doing stuff with literature and who have been, as I said at length above, erased from our literary history. And it means supporting my students, especially those from at-risk and marginalized communities, and trying to make space in the university for them where they can not just fit but thrive. And I’ll probably fail at these tasks, in the long run, and I’m trying to find value in that failure (Jack Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure is hugely important to my thinking here, as is Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life).

So if politically-engaged fan studies scholars are to the university as fans are to, say, Marvel Studios/Disney, then I have to agree with your suggestion above, that we won’t ever truly fit comfortably into “the university” (by which I mean the generalized monolithic structure of higher education as we currently know it).

To reverse your reversal above, then, as we get to the end of this conversation, can you say more about what you see as the purpose of studying fans as we move (inexorably) into the future?

Matt

First off, your comparison of being in the university to being in any Western media fandom is so wonderful and apt. Horrible pun fully intended — I’m a fan of that statement.

Moving on to the future of fan studies...

Last week, I was fortunate enough to watch three of my students present their senior theses. Each student carefully examined issues in very different media, but, in each, a certain throughline manifested: Change in Western media seems to start bottom-up. Where else would the impetus for media properties to change come from besides the audience actively engaged with it?

For this reason, I think fan studies will become increasingly vital. If you survey fans’ demands of producers,  a great many emphasize an argument centered on inclusion. Across social media platforms, there is a sustained insistence that today’s media establish more diverse protagonists and themes — protagonists and themes that acknowledge, represent, and give voice to the diverse array of media consumers. When I linked online fan movements with other social movements, this is the reason. We are using the same communication tools to demand change in certain systems. Are we all on the same page or are all fans seeking some form of progress? No, of course not. Yet, while the level of immediate impact might be on a different scale, the impetus and, in some sense, the demands are not.

I hope that the future of fan studies continues the work we’ve discussed here. Reclaiming marginalized groups place in the history of fan communities serves as a reminder for how long said groups have engaged with, and likely been resistant to, a problematic media hegemony. Acknowledging this past should invigorate fan scholars examining how contemporary communities seek progress, change, or inclusion.

At least I hope so.

I too came into Fan Studies via an English Department grad program, too. I found myself, a self-identified geek, sort of revolted by how comic fans at San Diego Comic Con, circa 2008, were bashing and harassing female fans of the Twilight series. I had to know why, and that analysis became my first foray into fan studies. It was driven by a question of exclusion. But, I was naive because I thought that and my later work was exploring the interplay of fan rhetoric and producers’ strategies. While true, almost all of writing examines some element of inclusion/exclusion — female fans in the comic shop, issues of gender and race-bent cosplay, traditional comic fans relation with fans of comic book film adaptations, etc.

Fan studies should continuing exploring these elements because they are products of our consumer culture. We’ve created media hegemonies and fan hierarchies, and groups that resist these structures, however subtly, deserve to be examined.

Hmm. Am I getting too optimistic again? Let me cede the floor to you, Alex, for a closing statement. You thoughtfully acknowledged the potential for failure while passionately arguing what fan studies is for you? Is it vital, though? Can it validate its practice?

Alex

Your students' presentations sound really fruitful and interesting! And I think they point to how vital fan studies is and will continue to be. While I'm not such an English department heretic that I think we should throw out courses on "the classics," I do think we have a responsibility to meet our students where they are, and to try to engage them via the cultural products they interact with on a daily basis. Not all of our students are fans, but they all exist in our heavily mediated cultural landscape, and it's crucial to help them understand and build the skills they (and we) need to navigate it.

At the end of the day (and the end of our conversation, which I have really enjoyed!), I'm okay with positing that this project--fan studies; corrective history-telling; making space in our cultural products and our universities for the marginal, the invisible, the neglected — will forever be a work in progress.

So, with the power vested in me as a lifelong fangirl, I hereby declare WIP amnesty for fan studies. Though we may never finish, what we do is worth sharing.

————

 

 

The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Matthew A. Cicci & Alexandra Edwards (Pt. 1).

Matthew A. Cicci

Hello Alexandra, I’m eager to have this discussion with you, as I see that you have a vested interest in both literary fans and transmedia issues. This works for me; I’m particularly engaged in understanding how fandoms evolve in the face of their fan objects’ proliferation across multiple media spaces.

My work, to date, has primarily examined superheroes, their fans, and the proliferation of these icons across multiple media spaces. While some might quibble with thinking of superhero comic fans as literary, there is a storied history of fan production and engagement. And, although superheroes have been objects of adaptation since their origin, the past 20 or so years has seen a marked rise in and sustained success of superhero stories in non-comic book media (primarily film). I am fascinated by the nature of adaptation, and therefore I’m always tracing the evolution of superheroes across media. However, I’m particularly keen on watching the fandom continually reconstitute itself in the wake of the ever-progressing, ever-widening audience for this once-niche genre.

Today, the notion of superheroes is largely divorced from comic books. Critically, commercially, and culturally, the populace has begun to equate superheroes not with comic books but the the summer blockbuster film. Contemporary superhero stories are primarily multimodal, as opposed to transmedia stories — that is to say, what happens in the Black Panther movie is not followed up directly in the comic book canon; each medium tells its own story. This convoluted flux of characters, plots, and themes has muddied the waters of the fandom in many ways. Traditional comic sites cover the films and television as much as they do the comic books. New fans enter the world of superhero fandom through non-comic book gateways in greater numbers than before AND maintain fandom not by reading books, but by engaging in other, more accessible offerings. In a sense, there have never been more superhero fans! Yet, the comic book, the comic shop, and that traditional fan space is, in a fashion, receding.

I’ve charted the teeth-gnashing and intra-fandom squabbles this can lead to. The mastery of superhero or publishing knowledge inherent to recognizing oneself as a traditional comic book fan, doesn’t fly in the face of the new paradigm. The success of the films gives everyone a new, shared, and easily accessed origin point thus mitigating knowledge of the comic’s canon.. My work often explores this evolution (or, more specifically, hybridizing) of the pre-existing comic reading fandom in the face of the larger multimodal one.

However, I suppose I am an optimist, too.

Over the past few years, comic publishers have made a concerted (and obvious and, occasionally, awkward) push towards becoming more diverse. In Marvel Comics nearly 70 years of publishing, they’ve never offered as many books headlining characters who are not straight, white males as they do today. It is hard not to equate some of that to the thrill around movies like Black Panther or DC’s Wonder Woman. And, while those movies are impactful, this trend precedes them. It seems the greater availability to superheroes in this era of blockbuster comic book adaptations (and digital reading) has made more pronounced how meaningful representation is in narratives so laser-focused on heroism and empowerment. These stories resonate with wide audiences, who in turn, thanks to the tools of social media, can discuss, produce, and voice their opinions on the genre.

To open this up a bit, I’m reminded of our esteemed host’s take on the role of theory in fan studies — that fan scholars should seek new theoretical lenses to keep the work fresh. I agree; yet, I cannot leave the foundational thinkers of Michel De Certeau  and John Fiske, who I see as more relevant now than ever. De Certeau’s strategies and tactics (the hegemony’s structures and the individual workarounds to said structures, respectively) and Fiske’s conceptualizations on power via popular consumption have a lot to say about how today’s fandoms evolve. While I’m hesitant to suggest that fans are successfully challenging an external power system, I cannot help but see the ability to alter our surroundings based on what we consume and use as a way to frame emerging fans as resistant to media production and consumption systems. My most recent work, for example, documents how female readers of superhero comics have been shifting the comic publishers’ plans and challenging the perceived ‘maleness’ of superhero fandom, but it is more widespread than that.

And this leads to where I think fan studies needs to focus.

Look how casually resistant we are to official (or traditional) channels of production.  What would De Certeau say about the Twitch or Patreon economy? What does Fiske have to offer the concept of Kickstarter and Let’s Play Channels on YouTube? How might they grapple with the fact that many today get more entertainment mileage out of Instagram than watching sports or sitcoms? In an effort to grapple with this modern day economy of fandoms and participation, I find myself returning to these two foundational thinkers more and more emphatically. If my work divides the fans of superheroes by the medium with which they entered the fandom, it is only because I see in that a model by which we might look at fandoms large scale. There is this flux of temporality and proximity in everything we do on the digital scale. I got into Spider-Man in 1986...but I’m dealing with fans who got into the character in 2016 AND 1963 when I’m engaging online. Moreover, I’m finding myself increasingly consuming more fan-produced content around my fan objects than the objects themselves itself. Sure, I engage with my hobbies, but I am increasingly a fan of other fans...I’m amazed at how much of my own media consumption is actually consumption of other fan work - podcasts, blogs, twitter, Patreons, etc. It is not news that fans are becoming the producers, but is it that fans are becoming fans of fans?

All of this seems bundled in a way that fan studies is poised to unpack. Help me Alexandra...what is going on here?

Alexandra Edwards

I want to jump into my introduction by talking a bit about my personal history in fandom and how that has shaped my forthcoming book project, Fanaticism, Yes! Literary Fan Cultures in the Early Twentieth Century. The book examines the work of popular American women writing in “middlebrow” and regional forms, and the fan responses to such work, in order to present a counter-history of fan cultures—one that returns women to center stage, while arguing for a more complex, less hierarchical understanding of authorship, genre, and the American literary marketplace in the modernist era.

And it was inspired, as so many fanworks are, by obstinacy.

I found Western media fandom when I was 13 years old, searching the internet for information about my favorite television show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (BtVS). It was 1998; the show was in its second season and gaining popularity. I stumbled onto The Bronze, a BtVS fan message board hosted by the show’s network. (The Bronze message boards were named after the location where characters in BtVS hung out, a local all-ages club with live music. Posters to the boards maintained this interactive transmedia fiction by textually performing as though the Bronze (forum) were the Bronze (club). They described the outfits they were (fictionally) wearing for a night out, and wrote about threads (messages and their responses) as if they were real locations, using spatial metaphors to describe their virtual participation. For example, if an interesting conversation were going on in another thread lower down the list, a poster might write that they were “running downstairs to join the party.”) Here, I was quickly initiated into a sprawling, exciting, immensely creative community of women who gathered via the internet—at the Bronze but also at their own websites and online archives—to analyze, critique, and imaginatively expand the media we loved. These women wrote fic, beta’d each other’s stories, drew fan art, created fanmixes, made manipulated images (manips), wrote meta, made fanvids, did cosplay, crafted replica props, coded and maintained fan fiction archives, recorded podfic, campaigned against misogyny and rape culture on television (fan activism), and much else besides. They were passionate and productive, and above all they refused to let any possibility pass them by, relentlessly rewriting every single given fact of the show.

Fandom became a way of life for me. It was—and still is—both my community and a collection of practices that taught me how to engage with texts, how to analyze them, and how to marry that analysis with my own deep emotions about them in order to creatively expand, alter, or entirely rewrite them. Fandom prepared me for my career as a literature scholar—but when I began my graduate studies, I was surprised and dismayed to learn that fans and literature scholars rarely realized that they spoke the same language. English as a discipline seemed largely unaware of fandom and its creations. Fans, even acafans, stressed the primacy of television as the fannish medium of choice. Media studies scholars maintained what I call fandom’s “creation myth”: the overly-simplified and historically inaccurate story that fandom was created by a small group of white male science fiction fans who somehow spontaneously invented fan conventions, fan magazines, and fan fiction in the 1930s.

But I saw fan practices everywhere in literature! I saw the ancestors of my BtVS posting board friends in Jane Austen, who practiced “face-casting” the characters in her books; in the Brontë sisters, who as children filled small handmade “zines” with elaborate, interconnected stories; in Louisa May Alcott, who refused to unite the couple her fans “shipped” in her work-in-progress (“WIP”); in Anita Loos, whose books and films included intertextual references to her other films and books; in H.D., who transported the poetry of Sappho to Pennsylvania; in Nella Larsen, who rewrote a Sheila Kaye-Smith story to “racebend” the characters. These women, writing before, during, and after the supposed “invention” of fandom, prefigured both the spirit and the specific textual practices of the fan communities in which I grew up.

So I set out in the book to unearth the literary history of “fandom,” that loose network of communities of interest and practice. I could have told the story in any number of ways, but I made three choices that fundamentally shape my project. First, like many fan fiction writers, I let my obstinacy guide me. I chose the three interrelated claims that most rankled—that we owe fan clubs and conventions, fan magazines, and fan fiction to white male science fiction fans of the 1930s—and shaped my work around refuting them. Second, I restricted my research to the United States (in part because of how academic publishing works). Third, I sought out authors, fans, and communities who were either not white, not male, or not writing or reading science fiction. This led me to the work of women regionalists, a Black Arts poet, and the girls who read love pulps and “middlebrow” magazines.

A big part of this work has been dedicated to demonstrating that our current ideas about transmedia are fundamentally built on a system of cultural production that has been turning its gears since at least the 1880s. (I think it was absolutely possible to be a fan of other fans in the heyday of, say, Hollywood fan magazines.) And at the same time, of course, I’m hugely invested in contemporary transmedia—both in my own work on transmedia webseries like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and in my own daily experiences as a fangirl on the internet (especially as I’ve very, very recently fallen in love with Japanese pro-wrestling, a fandom with a huge and hugely organic transmedia apparatus).

I’d be interested to talk through some more of the gender issues in particular as we get the conversational ball rolling. From my own research, I’d say it’s ahistorical to see fandom as a subculture that is only recently diversifying. I wonder, as well, how much of the diversification of the media products themselves is actually a kind of cyclical process attended by some very deep historical forgetting. And of course, there are issues of power to be unpacked as well—not only who has the power to tell stories, but who has the power to remember stories?

————

 

Memories of Senior House: Life as MIT Housemasters (Part Three)

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EXPERIMENTS IN DEMOCRACY

An anti-authoritarian dorm needed a strong sense of self-governance, but things had often been rocky on these fronts. The dorm had famously burned its house constitution in the 1980s and never bothered to write another one. We could imagine a dorm run with a strong social contract and a high degree of trust or perhaps with a townhall tradition. But, there were house officers and our first few years as housemasters, there was no ended of disputes about the integrity of the election process, including voting boxes which disappeared and re-emerged seemingly stuffed with uncast ballots. Many students complained to us about various abuses of authority or systemic privileges (“grease”) associated with this system; many of our struggles in our early years in the dorm centered on such conflicts.  Many of the student leaders lived in Runkle Tower, the highest point in the dorm, and Runkle was sometimes characterized as an old school party machine.

To insure trust, the housemasters and graduate student tutors took over the running of the election, and as we did so, there was a dramatic increase in civic participation. One year, the election was hotly contested. On the first ballot, we had a tie with 80 percent of the students casting votes. We ran the election again and reached 90 percent participation and still it was a tie. With no rules to guide us, we decided to extend the election for one day and personally reach out to the 12 students who had not voted, feeling that any other process would result in less democratic input not more. But, this proved controversial, and one night, when I was sick as a dog with the flu, we were up most of the night with one delegation after another of angry students coming from different parts of the dorm demanding that we reconsider our approach. And my inbox the next morning was full of fiery emails. It was a painful moment, but I was so excited that it got the whole dorm debating mechanisms of democratic decision-making.  Later, students suggested that we should have called a town hall meeting and let everyone haggle it out. After that, we never went into an election before the students had worked out together a clear mechanism for resolving any ties that might have emerged.

We hosted a candidate forum in our living room each year and we were always a bit bemused by the practiced inarticulateness of the candidates: none of them wanted to seem too smooth, most of them ran on their willingness to tell off the admins if it came down to it, but in the end, most years, the house officers represented a cross-section of the house’s different cultural communities. We mentored the house officers and often heard that they found the experiences of self-governance, especially managing a large scale event like Roast, were more valuable to them than any class they took while attending MIT. Having fought so hard to help students develop a stronger sense of civic agency, you can imagine our frustration when student life administrators sought to route around the students, refusing to meet with them about issues that impacted their lives and insisted on dealing with only us, or when students were encouraged to turn over their responsibilities to live-in admins who sought “only to make their lives better.

TRANSFORMING A DORM

Above all, the dorm was constantly changing -- and that’s why the students held onto certain traditions and rituals as steadfastly as they did. When we first arrived, the dorm was undergoing a transition as a process of remodeling and refurbishing was taking place.  (This after students had rallied to prevent their dorm from being shut down altogether). The rennovation process required some interventions on our part, chewing out the construction crew more than once for starting too early in the morning, a cardinal sin in a culture where studying into the wee hours was the norm. On the other hand, we also had to reign in some of the students. One night, we heard noise in the courtyard and came out to see one of the students riding construction equipment around the building. He had hot-wired the key. He grinned at us and said, “they know we are MIT students. If they didn’t want us to play with these things, they shouldn’t leave them lying around.”  But, for each such incident, there were moments where the students and administration worked together, through a planning process which solicited student feedback and received thoughtful responses.

The dorm was moving from a vertical organization, with separate entries into six different parts of the building to a more horizontal structure, where most students entered through the same lobby. We were surprised by how disruptive this cultural shift turned out to be: different cultures could coexist easily without interfacing with each other in the old structure, now they had to become part of a larger community. Part of our role was to help with that transition. A strong argument could be made, and we would agree with it, that taking down the walls created more conversations amongst students house-wide. But the students who had lived there before the change had strongly identified with the different entrances and they wanted some way to symbolically mark those turfs: we ended up repainting the hallways to mark off where the other divisions had been with different colors, chosen by the students at a house meeting, acknowledging the historic boundaries even as the dorm culture was becoming more integrated and developing a stronger collective identity. The old physical walls had been rendered symbolically  but were now permeable. Once again, rituals provided a way of working through conflicts and contradictions within the dorm culture.

The emphasis on color coding reflected a culture with a strong tradition of murals. Students were free to paint their own rooms however they wanted as long as they signed a contract to paint them back when they left or find a new resident who liked their decoration choices. Many painted murals on the hallway walls, and we helped to implement a policy where residents would work out their consent to the chosen motifs, which might range for op art to Russian constructivism, underground comics to science fiction book covers, some original, many appropriated. Taken as a whole, they gave a snapshot of the dorm’s varied cultures to anyone who knew how to read it. When we moved in, the walls were encrusted with several decades worth of murals, which then were painted over during the renovations. A team had scanned all of the murals before they were destroyed and built a Quake mod which modeled the old dorm.

By the time we left, a whole new set of murals had gone up and they were painted over when the administration redefined the dorm for graduate student housing. Currently, there is an art exhibition in the MIT Student Center celebrating this tradition of murals, including many images hastily and lovingly captured, as students were moving out of the dorm for the last time. This video brought back a rush of fond memories when one of the alums shared it with me as I was pulling together these posts.

 

END OF DAYS?

 

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When we announced we were leaving MIT and thus the dorm, we received so many nice emails (and this being Senior House, a few pissy ones) about our time as their housemasters. Every year at Roast, there was a new t-shirt design, warping and reconfiguring the Sport Death symbol. One year it might be Spork Death, another Sport Cthulhu or a Japanese manga version. This particular year, the shirt said Sport Jenkins and had an image of the skull, with beard and glasses, in my honor.  Appropriately, the slogan was "Only Admins Can Kill You." If this was a series like To Serve Them All My Days, this would have been the money scene -- the scene where it all came together. And that was certainly what we felt at that moment as a courtyard full of current and former students applauded. The students also gave us Lamda Sigma Delta t-shirts with the phrases, “Mom” and “Dad,” another sign that we had been incorporated into the dorm culture through the years. And they put a plaque in our honor next to the desk, paying tribute to our long tenure in the house.

We certainly made our share of mistakes through the years -- students we misjudged for better or for worse, choices we might have made differently with 20-20 hindsight, situations we tolerated that perhaps we should not have, but in the end, we came to appreciate that our work mattered to the students whose lives we had touched. We had served. We had observed so much change in the dorm and its culture across those years, despite its reputation for having a strong sense of tradition. Some of the changes came from within as different generations of students passed through its doors. Some of the changes came from outside as the dorm was renovated, as new rules and structures were imposed. But however much changed, the dorm was never allowed to escape its reputation, with negative impressions about Senior House culture passed on to newly hired administrators almost the moment they arrived on campus (in no small part because Keyser’s book has become a handbook for life at MIT) and those impressions were hard to shift once they took shape. We fought many battles through the years to try to preserve what we valued in the dorm culture but we knew all along that sooner or later, Senior House would lose the war.

So, given all of this history, it was painful to watch the dorm’s demise. The reasons why MIT chose to close the door have not been made public so I can not address them here. I wasn’t there. I do not have any insights about what did or did not happen. But I mourn the loss. This was a culture we had come to value -- a vital space for MIT students who did not fit the mold. We had watched the dorm struggle with both internal divisions and external pressures. It was not a perfect place by a long shot, but we have heard from many former residents that they would have had trouble completing their MIT degrees without the specific support this community offered. Senior House  was an authentic community with rich traditions and rituals and a strong sense of continuity. I am crushed that the dorm as we knew it is no more. But we were happy to learn that when the decision came down to close the dorm, every other dorm on campus flew a Sport Death banner in solidarity and defiance. We were proud to watch students we had taught how to pursue their goals through the system  organize rallies, petitions, sit-ins, to protest the administration’s decisions. We had always told them to pick their battles -- this was the one they had to win, but even though in the end, the administration refused to reverse its decision, they fought that final battle well. And we are proud to have shared some of our life with them.

 

 

 

 

 

Memories of Senior House: Life as MIT Housemasters (Part Two)

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SPORT DEATH?

The term, “safe space,” has been abused by all sides in recent years, but Senior House was a safe space for these students. This makes it ironic that in closing the dorm community, the administration used “safety” concerns as part of its rationale, because this was a dorm that took care of its members. MIT has a lethal reputation as a “soul crushing” institution.. We were proud that during almost a decade and a half in the dorm, we had only one student death -- not from suicide or from a drug overdose but rather from a motorcycle accident (which did not involve impairment by any of the parties involved). One of the more poignant memories of our time there was the memorial service for this resident of Little Bulgaria and the way students from all parts of the dorm spoke about what his life had meant to them. This was during a period in MIT history where almost every semester saw student deaths from alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, and suicide, all a reflection of the stress level on campus. We were working with many at risk students, but the community as a whole looked after them.

 

It should not be surprising given what I have said so far that these students confronted stigma -- from their fellow students, from other faculty, and especially from administrators that did not know how to read the subcultural signs and did not really understand how to deal with students so far outside of MIT’s self-perceptions. The dorm had a reputation for being a “wild” and “untamed” place. There was a tragedy in the early 1990s -- prior to our arrival --  which had colored perceptions ever since. Anything and everything that happened in the dorm was read by the MIT administration as conforming rather than challenging those perceptions. A student in a drug incident at another dorm would be read as an individual case; a student caught with drugs at Senior House would be perceived as part of a problematic culture. Every so often students who wanted to be housed in another dorm would be assigned to Senior House and they quickly learned that the best way to get relocate was to come with a complaint that reaffirmed the admin’s negative perceptions, knowledge which was passed down from upperclassmen almost from the time that new students arrived on campus. We were warned about the dorm by countless faculty, most of whom had never set foot there, as soon as it was announced we were accepting our posts as housemaster.  I can imagine how disheartening this would have been for someone who did not have my cultural studies background, which teaches us to be aware of the mechanisms of cultural stigmatization and marginalization.

 

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The administration’s  negative perceptions seemed to coalesce around a particular symbol -- the “Sports Death Banner,” which students proudly hung from the side of the building. The graphic of a red and white skull came from the cover of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72 and was part of what this group of students inherited from those who had lived there before them and had been passed along across multiple generations by this point. (The students celebrated Thompson for his fearlessness as a truth-teller who challenged authority and questioned orthodoxy and they admired his experimentation as a writer who broke the rules.) The deathly imagery spooked admins, who could not understand why students would want to associate themselves with such symbols. (We will ignore the fact that several Ivy League schools have highly prestigious Skull and Bones clubs.)  In reality, the “sport death” motto might be loosely translated as Carpe Diem -- seize the day, live life to the fullest, take risks, move out of your comfort zone, etc. As the slogan says, "only life can kill you."

There was a time when risk-taking would have been associated with experimentation and innovation: indeed, many of the Senior House alums would go on to be innovators of all kinds as both academics and business leaders. And risk-taking is often valued within the start up company ethos where many of these students would work after they graduated. But, university culture is increasingly liability driven and so risks are to be avoided at all costs, and a flag that celebrated “risky” behavior (as the admins saw it) was too apt to come back and bite them in the butt should “something bad happen”. One of the many reasons I left MIT in the end was that the administration at the highest levels had become risk-adverse, no one wanted to fail at anything, and as a results, faculty and students alike were being encouraged to make "safe" choices. So, coming home to the Sports Death banner every day was a breath of fresh air.

Often hurt and frustrated by the negative stereotypes about them, the Senior House residents leaned into those perceptions comically rather than try to negate them. So, because of the perception that these were the “druggie” students, they had a sampler made, “Senior Haus is not a crack house; it’s a crack home.” They distributed  t-shirts made for an imaginary Lamda Sigma Delta (LSD) fraternity, which they wore with pride; they gave each other “purity tests” and loved to brag about whoever had the lowest score (the most transgressions of cultural norms.) These various jokes were often read literally by the tone deaf, who could not imagine why anyone would joke about such serious matters.

Sometimes, even we would forget that the students were not nearly as “far out there” as the identities some projected onto them. When the administration was cracking down on some bondage related stuff at the dorm, I found myself engaged in a spirited, principled defense of the rights of sexual minorities trying to educate the campus police about the rise of S&M practices on college campuses. When I finished, the house president looked at me with honest shock and said, “we never do that. That would be gross.”

For them, the pleasure was playing with transgressive images and such images helped them to identify others who shared their tolerance for people of diverse tastes and interests. This is after all the classic function of subcultural signs -- they keep away those who would not understand the community’s core values and attract those who share them. In fandom, we call it “shocking the mundanes.” Sometimes, these shock tactics went too far and frightened some students temporarily assigned to the dorm, a matter we took very seriously.

But underneath those signs, there was a culture which placed a very strong value on tradition and which had built a solid alumni network. We were introducing this concept to a group of new residents once and someone wondered into the lobby who came from the MIT Class of 1942 and wanted to return to visit the dorm which had meant so much to him in his college years. The Steer Roast (about which more shortly) was said to be the largest MIT alumni event each year, and there were always several residents  (and sometimes a former housemaster) there each year who had been coming back for Roast since the 1960s when it was first held. The police expressed concern about a van parked outside the dorm during Roast, since they saw a steady stream of students coming in and out all day. When we dropped by unannounced, we found some alum inside with big scapbooks, sharing “back in the day” stories with students who wanted to know more about the dorm’s history. Our alums functioned as mentors for the residents and sometimes as pipelines into jobs when they graduated. They also were strong advocates whenever the dorm hit a periodic cycle of active conflict with the administration, who had threatened to close the dorm several times before they finally did. Thousands of them signed petitions when the dorm was under threat this time and when Steer Roast was shut down last year, they organized the event off campus largely thanks to the alumni pooling resources to insure that this tradition would not be stopped.  

    Let me speak to the dorm’s reputation for drug use. We certainly encountered some signs of pot being smoked during our years of wandering the halls at odd hours; we certainly heard of some rumors of current students using harder substances and some larger-than-life tales about conspicuous consumption in years past, but rarely did we get any information one could act upon. My own sense is that drugs are used in every dorm on every American college campus and the use here was not higher than average. That’s not a comfort to those who imagine a drug-free culture, but it is the reality with which we had to work.  

The largest and most intense drug-related problems we confronted were caused by prescription drugs, especially shifting doses and combinations of antidepressants. The good news is that such drugs enable some students to complete their educations who would never be able to do otherwise, but the bad news is that the ways they are used can produce unpredictable effects. The second largest number of incidents came from non-residents who came to the dorm to do things at parties they would not have done in their own homes. This is where the dorm’s bad reputation fed upon itself, with non-residents acting the way they imagined Senior house residents acting and oir dorm left cleaning up the mess. But, without being complacent, the number of drug-related incidents involving Senior House residents tended to be low -- especially when read against the sometimes hysterical accounts that circulated elsewhere on campus.

The dorm was across the street from the MIT Medical Center. Students were encouraged to seek help for anyone who seemed to be at risk. The dorm culture was more open than many so people knew who to look out for and were there to insure that they did not hurt themselves with self-destructive behavior. There were always a few students who wanted to push things beyond the community’s limits, a few each year that we knew needed close attention, and there were certain times of the year, either when students were away from home for the first time or stress level was particularly high, that we knew to keep a closer watch than usual.

 There were some great campus police and members of night watch who embraced a value of community policing and saw the importance of building solid relations with the students, and we worked closely with them. One of the most beloved figures in the history of the dorm was Big Jimmy, a member of Night Watch, who got to know and often mentored the students on his watch, and after he passed, the students had a portrait of Big Jimmy painted which they could bring out for student events as a reminder of his legacy. But there was also  a shift during our time there from community-based policing towards a urban or paramilitary police force mentality stressing the dangers of living on the MIT campus.

 

THE ROASTING OF STEERS

Senior House culture all came together around Steer Roast, a weekend long BBQ party held each spring shortly before the final study and exam periods. All segments of the dorm collaborated to produce this event which was deeply couched in tradition and rituals. First there was a gathering of the tribes, with students dressed in all kinds of attire, from cosplay to formal dress. One guy came every year wearing stilts, another girl dressed in a bikini made from duct tape, some looked straight out of a 1960s protest and others for some future alien society. Each of these outfits were personally meaningful and many of them were affectionately recognized from years past. Alumni from multiple decades showed up and  in many cases brought back their children who they hoped would become the next generation of dorm residents. (One of our house presidents was the son of two former senior House residents and purposely chose to live in his father's old dorm room.)

At some point, breaking through the chatter of old friends comes a recording of the gravel voice of William Burroughs delivering his Thanksgiving address,  followed by Wagner's “Flight of the Valkyries.” By this point all eyes are on the roof of the building, because the pit lighting ceremony has begun. As the music hit its crescendo, a toilet paper roll was lit and slid down a wire running from the roof of the building to the pit. As it hit the the lighter fluid saturated coals, there was a loud whoosh and flames leapt high. But immediately a brigade of students holding extinguishers dampened the fire, bringing it back under control again. I sometimes think of those students as reflecting the logics of self-governance within the dorm: a self-policing mechanism which understands the need for release but also the importance of keeping things within limits.

 

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Large slabs of meat were roasted overnight as the “master baster” and his crew sat up to oversee all phases of the preparation. The pit lighting was followed by mud wrestling. When the administration threatened to shut down mud wrestling one year, my wife and I proclaimed that it was safe and family-friendly and that we did it ourselves. Not to be a liar, that year and most years thereafter  we opened the mud wrestling as the housemaster couple. Cynthia almost always won, given my poor eyesight and general lack of coordination. But hundreds of students cheered and laughed as we wallowed in the mud together. From that point forward, students identified with us and were apt to be more responsive when we needed to shut something down, because we were literally not sticks in the mud.

Keyser added a passage to more recent editions of his book, acknowledging our different style of leadership: “The most recent housemasters -- they have since left MIT for the other coast -- appear on the Web in Steer Roast photographs, mud-wrestling in the courtyard while the house looks on approvingly. Perhaps that’s what it takes to be a successful housemaster at Senior House. You have to get down and dirty with the students -- literally.” No, you do not need to get “dirty” -- literally or figuratively -- whatever that is meant to imply. You do need to recognize and support what is valuable within cultural traditions and test your preconceptions and you do need to earn respect rather than demand it.  Over time, our participation became so iconic that the Chronicle of Higher Education called me “the mud-wrestling media maven from MIT.”  Of course, I was raised by a mother who dressed like a clown for charity performances and watched church youth ministers participate in greased watermelon competitions. Sometimes the best way to earn respect is to not take yourself too seriously.

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Other wrestling teams would follow, some settling old grudges,  others just horsing around. Some clothing might be shed along the way with the wrestling an excuse for certain exhibitionist tendencies. But even when the wrestling was coed, it wasn't especially eroticized. We just had a bunch of kick ass women who could hold their own in the boys club culture that MIT often was.

Nevertheless Steer Roast was a festival about bodies and appetites. For most of the year, many MIT students think of themselves almost entirely in terms of their minds, denying physical limitations on their capacities in a performance of geek masculinity. This was as true for the girls as for the boys – – since the girls wanted very much to be seen as one of the guys and the guys being geeks rarely fit anyone's model of hegemonic masculinity. But for this one weekend, just before they buckle down for the final haul of the semester, they felt sexy – – they had bodies. They might be dancing to the music of any number of alternative rock bands performed at Steer Roast through the years.  Shortly before we arrived, Nirvana played Steer Roast. Student might have gone to the porn room, where old porn videos were shown with the sound off, replaced by the soundtrack to old Disney movies. (Pick your favorite Disney song and it gains a whole new meaning in this context! Just a Spoonful of Sugar….) Talk about deconstruction. They might watch the strippers, sometimes male, sometimes female, and often a mix, played for an audience of men and women, straight and queer, which gave the experience a very different air from a stag club, with everyone celebrating everyone else's sexual desires. One year when we came back to the event, no longer housemasters, we were sitting up late in one of the graduate tutors apartments, and they had hired of dominatrix to tie students into harnesses and hoist them to the ceiling. But many of the students were more interested in grilling the dominatrix about knot theory and she was totally geeking out along with them. Individual rooms might have their own art exhibitions or performances throughout the night, given the dorm’s reputation for its contributions to the arts and creative expression.

Through the years, the event became increasingly regulated and more burden was put on the house masters to ensure safety and compliance. When we were first hired as house masters, we were told that we would be given a hotel off campus for the weekend if we didn't wish to attend the festivities, suggesting that earlier house masters had literally checked out during the party. We felt a part of the dorm culture and actively looked forward to the event and we've been back since leaving MIT, in effect becoming a returning alumni at this homecoming gathering. But through the years, more campus police, more administrators were assigned to monitor the party, and more rules were placed around its activities. Every year there was a fight just to be able to come up with mechanisms for lighting the fire -- with one year, my wife negotiating with all parties involved up to the very last second as the eager throngs filled the courtyard. The admins constantly threatened to cancel the party altogether. And by the end, the party organizers passed down huge binders of information about how to comply with each and every one of the university policies.

 Early on, the students ran a casino in the basement but when the City of Cambridge discovered this was taking place, they insisted on compliance with anti-gambling rules. This gave me a chance to stand in the middle of a casino, chips still in my pocket, and announce that I was shocked, shocked to discover that there was gambling at Senior House, a scene straight out of Casablanca. You have no idea how sad I was to shut down this activity.

The Porn Room was the next activity to come under fire and we had to research both Cambridge law and University policy, trying to separate out moral “offenses” from legal violations. We followed university guidelines by blocking off the windows and putting up warnings at the entrance of the pornroom so that no one would be caught unaware by sexually explicit material. We established a tradition of permission slips for the strip show  where students acknowledged that they were about to enter a space where there were erotic performances. The administration became concerned about the strippers so we reviewed Cambridge law and agreed to abide by it. An anxious Dean of Students told me to “keep your eyes on the strippers at all times", a request I was happy to oblige. Many years the art show proved offensive to some guests and we ended up interceding on behalf of free expression. Pushed to regulate the event more and more, student officers responded by calling themselves fascists and wearing red and black armbands to signify their authority to create to police the area. And the last I heard, there were complaints about the red and black arm bands that set the Fascists off from the other residents.

Working with the Fascists, we would help sweep the dorm when it became time to shut things down and make sure no new noises erupted that might disturb our neighbors, including the President and his/her family who lived next door. One year, we had shut everything down for the night, changed into our pajamas, and were going to sleep when we heard loud noises from the courtyard -- drumming, whoops. We threw on our clothes and raced out to see what the racket was all about, and we found ourselves watching a troop of students in the dorm engaged in an after-hours performance of Polynesian dancing. The next day, students arose early to prepare the feast -- making vast supplies of favorite BBQ foods and lining up around the block to buy tickets for this grand family picnic. That evening would usually be quieter -- an after party for the dorm’s residents and closest friends.

OTHER RITUALS

I tended to think of Steer Roast as the “fire” element in a year long series of rituals which almost seemed classically structured around the four elements. (A fair number of former residents are “burners” who regularly attend the Burning Man event here in California, which has a similar spirit and iconography). A few weeks later, on the last day of classes, there would be a water-themed event. A few students would be on the roof with jugs of colored water, and students would shout the names of the classes which had given them the most problems that year. (Some years, I was tempted to shout out the names of my own classes, the ones where I had felt most frustrated with the students.) The course numbers (this being MIT) were written in sharpie on the jugs and then, at 5 pm, when the final classes were over across campus, they would be hurled to the ground below. The climax would come as a full waterbed was heaved over the balcony and would send a huge wave cascading onto the students below.

The following year, during the orientation for new residents, thousands of bouncy balls would be dropped to earth from that same roof, as strobe lights flashed, a strangely hypnotic experience. We would collect balls from odd nooks and corners throughout the rest of the year and Cynthia had vases full of them decorating the apartment.  And throughout the year, students would soar in the air, doing tricks on a tire swing tied to the branch of a large tree in the courtyard. These are just a few of the traditions that gave structure and continuity to the dorm culture, building strong ties amongst generations of residents.

For our part, we added a few of our own. During the final days of the fall term, Cynthia and I would create a home cooked feast for 140 or so students, preparing food  all day, and watching the food disappear in seemingly one big gulp, as hungry undergraduates sucked in whatever was put in front of them. We also cooked the turkey and some fixings on Thanksgiving, while others brought their favorite dishes to the basement for a community celebration. The students who were around for Thanksgiving tended to be those who had nowhere else to go, including many of our international students who could not fly home for a few days with their families. For many of them, this was their first experience of an American tradition. One year, I was bringing dishes down to the basement and roped two students who were hanging around to start sorting things onto tables -- the veggies over here, deserts over there. When I returned with another load, a young woman was standing with a pumpkin pie in one hand and a marshmallow covered dish of sweet potatoes in another, reminding me how culturally specific such classification systems could be.

 

END OF PART TWO

 

 

 

 

 

MEMORIES OF SENIOR HOUSE: LIFE AS MIT HOUSEMASTERS (PART ONE)

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Not long after we were married, Cynthia and I fell under the spell of a PBS Masterpiece Theater adaptation of R. F. Delderfield’s novel, To Serve Them All My Days, which dealt with a coal miner’s son from Wales who became the headmaster of an elite public school. The series’s representation of living on campus, having prolonged and intensive interactions with students beyond the classroom, and growing old together in a community with a strong tradition captured our imagination. So, when the chance came to apply for a housemaster position at MIT, I jumped at the opportunity. I would be the housemaster at Senior House, the oldest MIT undergraduate dorm, for 14 years. More accurately, I should say that we were housemasters, since in the MIT system, both parts of the couple carry this title. Anyone who knows MIT, and especially anyone who is aware of the dorm’s reputation, is probably chuckling about the comparison: yes, what we got was a very different experience than we might have imagined watching a British school master drama,and yes, we were clever enough to understand that before we even sought the job.  But We did, in the end, have the experience of forming an intense bond with a group of students who we had a chance to watch grow into adulthood and take their place in society, and after a bumpy start, we felt they came to value our contributions to their lives. And tradition -- we had plenty of that, too.

Though I have now been away from MIT for nine years, our experiences as housemasters came rushing back last summer, when I received news that the MIT Administration was closing Senior House as an undergraduate dorm and reopening it as graduate housing, a shift which has been explicitly framed as an attempt to shut down what the administration has always perceived as a toxic culture. What made this news hard was the sense that this was no longer our battle to fight, though so many students who were alums of the dorm wrote to us seeking our advice, insight, and in many cases, interventions on the dorm’s behalf.  We had been such strong student advocates during our years in the dorm that it felt strange to sit this one out.

 

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The administration’s perceptions of Senior House, its students, and its cultures was strongly shaped by an account Samuel Jay Keyser, a long time administrator, wrote about his years as a Senior House housemaster in the 1980s, a relationship all sides have agreed was a poor match. Here’s part of his negative representation of the dorm: “When I became housemaster, the dormitory was functioning as a storm drain for the other MIT living group. All the difficult students were funneled there. These were the students who were incapable of living harmoniously in the more normal dorms. They were the students who snatched fire extinguishers off the walls and ran down the corridors spraying their housemates’ doors.”

I am not going to try to systematically rebut Keyser’s account: he is describing his own perceptions and experiences. He was a housemaster there at a different time and had a different relationship with the students. But, I do not want his account of mostly negative experiences to stand as the only depiction of what it was like to be a housemaster at this remarkable dorm.

 

WHAT HOUSEMASTERS DO

 

Let me begin by saying a word about the Housemaster role, since the MIT housing culture differs from most other campuses. Each MIT dorm has its own culture, its own community, based in part on long-standing traditions, in part on the unique and emerging identities of the current crop of students, and in part based on the living conditions the dorm represents. Dorms may be large and somewhat anonymous, advertising themselves based on their facilities or location, like a hotel. Here, some individual floors or suites -- for example, the Burton Bombers -- develop their own distinctive personalities that are passed across generations. Dorms may be much smaller, more intimate, and stress notions of community and belonging. Students select where they want to live and who they want to live with -- historically, after spending a few days on campus and visiting the various communities. As a consequence, the different dorm communities attract different kinds of personalities.  Senior Haus was, along with East Campus, Random, and Bexley at the time, one of the so-called east campus dorms, which were known for having a more flamboyant personality than their west campus counterparts.

Keep in mind -- these students were confronting many of the same issues faced by any student at any other university. Many were living away from home for the first time; they were sometimes anxious about their classes, homesick for their families and friends, uncertain how to cope with roommates or fit in with their peers, hurt by breakups, confused by the expectations of their instructors, and otherwise, dealing with the transition from adolescence to adulthood. They wanted to make their own decisions and learn from their own mistakes, but they also could use older classmates or sometimes adults for guidance now and again.

The Housemasters are faculty who live in the dorms -- that sounds like we sleep in bunk beds. The reality is that we had a large townhouse apartment overlooking the Charles River, designed and furnished for entertaining groups of students, for free rent and a modest stipend. It was a much better apartment than we could have afforded in Cambridge on my Associate Professor pay. Historically, these positions were held by MIT tenured faculty members in an university with a strong tradition of faculty governance, because it was expected that these faculty could speak up as needed to protect these communities and their interests and be strong advocates at all levels of the administration.

Over time, more and more student life administrators have ended up in positions of authority within the dorms, blurring the boundaries between faculty and administration. When we started, some key administrators had been MIT students who cared enough about the school to want to remain and make a difference. Increasingly, they were replaced by administrators whose own undergraduate years were spent at other schools and who, having been formally trained at administration, plan to move from one university to the next, working their way up the promotional ladder. Such administrators are often deeply suspicious of the cultural specificity of the MIT dorm system and the top administration resents the fact that many MIT students feel more strongly identified with their dorms than with MIT as a whole. Here, as with many other universities, the numbers of student life administrators have increased over time and with these increases, there has been a tendency to want to exert a greater control over campus life.

At MIT, this has led to a desire to embed administrators in the dorms, a move which Senior House students in particular, resisted, because the dorm valued its self-determination. And we found ourselves also feeling uncomfortable, since these administrators wanted to assume responsibilities that we felt offered students a chance to develop their own leadership skills and accountability for their choices. From our position it also mattered that they were absorbing (usurping?) many of  the functions of the housemaster position that allowed us to get to know the students living in the dorm. We believe that relationship was crucial to our ability to do our job as housemasters.  We also believe that on those occasions when students had frustrations with "the way things are done" or "the rules" that we, as tenured faculty, were freer to help them think about how to work within the system to achieve their goals than someone whose primary responsibility is serving the needs of the administration. While in an ideal world the goals of the administration and the goals of the students would always be in alignment, in our not always ideal reality, sometimes the scales have to tip one way or the other for those giving advice.

The quality of our encounters with the students kept us in the housemaster position for 14 years. My wife often said that living with these students left her optimistic about the future. But what wore us down were our encounters with generation after generation of new campus life administrators. Each time we would build a relationship, overcome the stigmas, earn mutual respect and trust, they were transfered away and we would have to begin that process from scratch. I have plenty of harsh words here about the administrative perceptions of this dorm: we formed many strong bonds with administrators through the years, but few of them lasted, because of the tendency to transfer to other schools after a few years.

Each housemaster enjoyed some autonomy over how they chose to define and perform their duties. Cynthia and I did not see ourselves as parents (these students had their own families and needed to make their own choices as they found their way to adulthood.) We also were not police (we would not be able to play the other important roles of housemaster if we did not have the trust of the students and becoming law enforcement was the surest way to see doors start to slam in our faces.) We saw ourselves, first and foremost, as community organizers, who worked closely with student leaders, to help shape the culture of the dorm, to help students “pick their battles” and decide what their priorities were, and to help students to work -- through the system -- to achieve their goals. But also we worked to insure that the dorm community lived up to its own ideals, to arbitrate disputes, to guarantee  the integrity of its government and elections, to encourage social interactions.

Our reputations as advocates for students led students at other dorms to seek out our advice when dealing with disciplinary issues, especially Cynthia, who has a law degree and ended up advising many students who were facing charges for violating campus rules. And from time to time, as a faculty member, I would sit down for a heart to heart talk with students who were struggling with their classes. We were often asked about students waking us up at all hours with their problems. For the most part, students remained timid about knocking on our doors, but when they did, we knew that they were facing some serious issues. About once a term, we would get pulled out of bed, because they needed us, and on those nights, we earned out keep.

We were supported in these various tasks by graduate resident tutors: students who, like us, lived in the dorms and were on the front lines in dealing with student issues. We were lucky to have, for the most part, a team of tutors who took their roles seriously, got to know the students, and embraced what was most valuable in the dorm’s traditions. Many of them have continued to work tirelessly on behalf of Senior House years after their terms were over. The undergraduates played an active role in selecting these graduate residents, a role they took seriously. They worked together to insure that students with diverse interest had tutors they felt would serve their needs and often they expressed discomfort with candidates they feared would be too timid about stepping in when some student went too far or made choices that were dangerous for themselves and the dorm.

Our understanding of the housemaster’s position as that of a community organizer  reflected the particular character of this dorm culture. Senior House had very few rules but a very strong social contract: it is a community whose members expected the freedom to be themselves, however strange that might be, but they also learned to respect each other’s boundaries and to take action which strengthened the collective bonds between them. I had a speech I used to give about the difference between “characters,” who had strong and distinctive personalities, and “assholes,” who could not respect the rights of others. And for the most part, I was simply feeding back to Senior House its own creed.

A DIVERSE CULTURE

Senior House had a reputation for anti-authoritarianism and throughout its history, some of the housemasters lasted only a few years because they tended to butt heads with the students and try to break their will or isolated themselves in their quarters. We were among the housemasters who spent the most years there. We liked most of the people who lived there. We became a part of this community, came to understand its unstated norms. I would never have been accepted at MIT given my middling math skills, but if I had been, this is where I would have wanted to live. Senior Haus students were nonconformists, rebels, free thinkers. They did not want anyone else telling them how to live their lives. Some were anarchists, some libertarian, many would have been misfits many other places on campus but they felt a shared outcast status within Senior House culture.  

Many have told us through the years that they would have dropped out of MIT  if they had not found Senior House. The rent was cheaper than at the nicer and newer dorms, and so it attracted students who came from low income backgrounds, who were often the first in their families to go to college. The dorm had a subcultural vibe -- there were goths and students with brightly dyed hair and mohawks. The subcultural markers shifted through the years, but this was always a place which saw being “weird” as a compliment and not an insult. We enjoyed living with students who thought outside the box but at times, needed to help them do a cost-benefit analysis about punching other people’s buttons.

During Housemaster’s training one year, one speaker shared a video about drug prevention -- actually, a segment from Fox News which treated being Goth or participating in a Rave culture as signaling students with drug issues and which warned us to be “aware” of students who purchased water, tampons, candy, candles, and other fairly normative materials on campuses. When I joked with a group of GRTs about  the video’s sensationalistic advice, I felt stung when I received a reprimand in my official file. This said a lot about the different perceptions of the students and the administration. The formal training could be surprisingly tone deaf: one year, a campus psychologist told male tutors that when a female student came to them to report rape or sexual assault, what they really needed at that moment was a great big hug, a singularly bad piece of advice.

In this context, housemasters leaned on each other for informal advice about how to navigate the contradictions in our positions, an exchange that was harder to come by once administrators started taking over housemaster positions and thus monitoring what got said at the housemaster meetings. They felt housemasters should be working for the administration; we saw the two as playing different functions and thus perceived fundamental contradictions between the two roles. The administrators would give us a speech about wearing “two hats” suggesting that what they heard when they were wearing their housemaster “hat” would not  be remembered when they got to the office the next day. Yup!

Many GLBT students had reported encountering homophobic incidents  in other dorms and in response, Senior House as a whole more proactively embraced sexual diversity, openly inviting students who were GLBTQ to come and live with us. We were asked to write a housemaster’s statement for prospective students and got more than a few complaints from parents when we mentioned the dorm’s openness to all sexual orientations alongside a range of other kinds of cultural differences we embraced.  

There was a strong international mix in the dorm, but for historical reasons no one quite recalled any more, it attracted many of the Eastern European students who came to MIT. One area of the dorm was known as Little Bulgaria and it functioned not unlike a lower East Side community of the early 20th century, providing a support system as these students worked through culture shock and found their own footing in America. Many of these students -- who came from countries with historic antagonisms beyond MIT -- knew each other growing up because they had all participated in Eastern European math competitions.  The older students acted as translators and guides; we could work with them whenever there were problems of adjustment and they would smooth out any difficulties their residents might be facing.

I had noticed even before we moved to the dorm that a high percentage of my recurring undergraduate students in my film and media studies classes were Senior House residents, and it soon became clear that this community attracted many of the more arts and humanities inclined students who came to MIT. My time as a housemaster definitely made me a better teacher, because I developed a much deeper grasp of undergraduate culture at MIT.

The dorm was also racially diverse, with many students of color.  And there were generally more women living in this coed dorm than men, but the dorm was not gender segregated, not even on the level of the bathrooms, which were knock and enter, like many were used to in their own homes. This last policy shocked some, but in reality, we had few complaints or incidents arising over this policy.  Room assignments were gender segregated, though, by the Institute’s policies, which raised an issue when a transgender student moved into the dorm, wanting rooming to be based on her preferred gender. She had a willing female roommate and we helped to negotiate such an arrangement with the administration, possibly MIT’s first.

One of the best things, among many, about MIT dorm culture was that we had students at all levels from frosh to seniors living together. Mature students would often take the more rambunctious  younger ones aside and teach them, like an older sibling, that risks have consequences. There were none of the Lord of the Flies pathologies that take root on campuses with freshman-only or male-only dorms. More often than not, when some damage was done in the dorm -- a busted lamp, say, students would step forward and fess up, compensating the dorm for damage done to their shared accommodations.

I keep stressing the diversity of this culture because often when we would argue for the particularity of MIT dorm cultures, administrators from elsewhere would suggest we were defending segregation or homogeneity. We saw a greater threat from the random assignments of students, since we felt it important for students to feel a sense of ownership over their dorm communities, not to mention, for those groups who were most vulnerable, having a critical mass to provide a support network within their living community.  There certainly were pockets within the dorm where students with similar tastes and backgrounds might live together -- an area called Doomcom was focused around all forms of games and gaming, for example -- but there would be ethnic and cultural diversity even in those spaces, and at the level of the dorm itself, Senior House was diverse by pretty much any criteria you wanted to apply. If many of my stories here center around its counter-cultural and subcultural aspects, there were also Bible Study groups that met there. When debates about the presence of ROTC on campus heated up as a result of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue,” we hosted a discussion between GLBTQ and ROTC students, both living in Senior House  as they helped each other understand the stakes in this argument.

And it goes without saying that these students were off the charts intelligent, even if, in some cases, they had priorities other than how well they were going to do on this week’s problem sets. Many of them were polymaths -- that is, their interests sent them racing off in all directions. They had to have high math scores to be admitted, but they loved to read books and debate ideas and they valued creativity and the imagination over following the rules.  This did not mean they always thought through their actions. One year, around Christmas time, I went walking past the courtyard and saw a group of students warming themselves around an open fire, roasting marshmallows, and singing carols as snowflakes gently fell around them. I was torn between the beauty of the scene and a sense of responsibility to shut down the unauthorized fire. What tipped the scales for me was when I realized where they had built the fire -- a thin layer of ice was on top of a wooden platform which was used as the bandstand at various concerts and dances throughout the year. When I reminded them of this, shock went across their faces and they quickly put out the fire with no pressure from me. Out of sight, out of mind. Most of them were Night Owls -- we found the best time to schedule meetings with students, including large house-wide meetings, was after they got home from classes or labs, which meant they started at 10, 11, or even midnight. We both have memories of occasions sitting up all night with students -- Cynthia playing board games and me taking turns reading A Christmas Carol aloud on one snowy night.

But, they were not the stereotypical students who come to mind when you think of MIT and not the students that the university liked to put forth as their exemplars. These students had often had bruising experiences in high schools, some of them had come from homes where their intelligence was not valued and their differences not embraced, and they were looking for a place where they would be accepted on their own terms. One long night, I sat at the hospital bedside of a student who had had way too much to drink and was feverishly walking through all of the factors that had led him to this situation, including his parent’s opposition to science and the hostility he faced in high school, as a unresolvable equation.  Some of my greatest pleasure was watching two such geeks fall in love, the slow unfolding of the arms, the shifting of the legs, as they began to feel more comfortable in their own bodies and more comfortable being intimate with each other. Sometimes, they got lucky. I will never forget a memorable encounter with a frantic frosh, who had set across campus in pajama bottoms and no shirt, and asked me with some despiration where he might find some condoms. And Cynthia stresses that more generally, there was the pleasure of watching these students mature over the years, finding their own voice, identifying their own strengths, taking greater responsibility for their own actions. And sometimes they would come back, spouses and offspring along, to introduce them to this place that had mattered so much in their lives -- not unlike taking your partner home to meet your parents.

END OF PART ONE

How Do You Like It So Far Podcast: Alex McDowell on World-Building, Production Design, and Ready Player One

Alex McDowell ranks among America's most accomplished production designers. His contributions extend from Madonna's "Express Yourself" to Fight Club, from The Crow to Minority Report, from Watchman to Man of Steel. Moreover, he thinks deeply about his craft and the ways that the kinds of systematic approaches to the design of fictional and historical worlds for the screen might offer a mode of analysis that can be applied to real world problems. This focus on the real world applications of his craft and expertise has driven him since he has become a faculty member at USC Cinematic Arts School and has created his own world-building lab,  He is one of my most articulate and intelligent thinking partners, so it was a blast to sit down together one on one r for this podcast.

In this interview, we use Ready Player One as an entry point into a larger discussion of world-building on screen and within the production process, but we don't stop there, extending into arguments for why world-building may be a core social literacy for our times. Ready Player One reflects its director Steven Spielberg's personal discomfort with the escapist blockbuster cinema he helped to foster during the early stages of his career, but our series of podcasts around the film are looking at virtual and augment reality, world building, and games-based learning as tools that help us engage more critically with the world around us.

What struck me listening back through this recording is McDowell's sense that everything is connected to everything else and his commitment to a new model of authorship grounded in collaborative world building rather than personal expression. There are sentences here which seem to go on for five minutes, with each interdependent and subordinate clause making another meaningful connection for the listener. I have done interviews with McDowell in the past, but this is perhaps the richest and most layered one yet.

 

The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Casey McCormick & Alisa Perren (Pt. 2).

CASEY

Thanks for your opening statement, Alisa. I agree that our pairing up for this conversation is interesting not only because of our history, but also because of the fact that neither of us identify specifically as “fan studies” scholars. I would love to hear a bit more from you on some of the questions of disciplinarity that I brought up in my opening statement. In particular, I’m curious about your perspective on the kinds of fragmentation that happen within media studies and the pressure on scholars (especially graduate students and junior faculty) to “brand” themselves in a particular sub-field. This issue comes up frequently in the Fan and Audience Studies SIG meetings, often in the context of needing to demonstrate the value of fan-focused work to more “traditional” university departments. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the role of SCMS SIGs, and potential strategies for mobilizing these groups in a more collaborative way that might push back on some of the fragmentation that I find so frustrating.

ALISA

Ah yes, the issue of disciplinarity. Just a small topic to get us started! I have been part of SCMS now for roughly (gulp) twenty years, so it has been fascinating to see how that particular professional organization has evolved, and by extension, how film and media studies has evolved. When I joined SCMS, in fact, it was SCS (the Society for Cinema Studies) and the struggle was over including the “M” of Media within it. At that point, the organization — and the number of humanistically oriented scholars focused on film and media, more generally — was much smaller. And the big battle then was to legitimize TV Studies, in particular, within the organization (not to mention within the academy more generally). This struggle for legitimacy was a lengthy one that was fueled by a number of factors that many scholars have recounted elsewhere (for example, see Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz’s Television Studies and Elana Levine and Michael Newman’s Legitimating Television).

A tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm accompanied the appearance of the TV Studies SIG at SCMS in 2000. Early meetings for that SIG were packed — the room was often overflowing — and the same was true in terms of attendance at many of the TV Studies panels. But then, once TV Studies scholars began to be more welcomed by SCMS — and began to occupy more positions within the academy, appear with greater frequency within publications such as Cinema Journal, etc. — that energy slowly dissipated. It was most noticeable for me because it seemed that some of that energy (and many of those scholars) shifted their focus to media industries scholarship. But I can see the same pattern more recently taking place with the movement of scholars toward fan studies, among other areas of study. Of course, many of those scholars engaged in TV Studies also engage in fan studies — the historical relationship between the two is close. But then, fan studies scholars can also identify as media industry scholars, cultural studies scholars, media historians, etc. So as you suggest in your remarks, one might perceive such labeling as cynical to the extent that it is a means of branding oneself, for communicating who one is for the purposes of job applications, for keywords on journal submissions, etc.

That said, the complicated relationship of fan studies to the academy, and its struggles for legitimacy as an area of study, arguably make the the move toward branding oneself as a fan studies scholar somewhat trickier than branding oneself an industry scholar. My sense is that the “industry scholar” label has a certain cachet institutionally to the extent that it communicates to colleges, departments, and hiring committees (along with concerned parents who worry about the employability of their kids) a certain orientation toward professionalization. (Please note that this is a much more complicated issue than I can address here, but I don’t want to go TOO far afield topically!) Fan studies scholarship clearly is burgeoning now, as is the industrial targeting of fans and the formation of myriad new fan communities. That said, I’m not sure that most departments seek to hire scholars in the area of fan studies, per se. I certainly have not seen such job calls nor written letters for students applying for such positions. Rather, from what I have seen, at least, fan studies scholars typically pitch themselves as other types of scholars as well — as digital media scholars, television studies scholars, feminist media scholars, etc. So fan studies as an area and as a label carries a particular community building power and (potential) political potency that is somewhat distinct from, for example, media industry studies.  

Nonetheless, I can see a number of benefits to this recent “disciplining” of fan studies, media industry studies, and [insert the many other interest groups and subareas burgeoning at SCMS and elsewhere]. The benefit to “disciplining” (if we must use that term) comes from the possible productivity of connecting a (loose) organization of people in a variety of settings and contexts. Being organized under the mantle of “fan studies” potentially helps one better define who they are and who they are not — in terms of theories, methods, politics, pedagogies, etc. As the field of film and media studies (not to mention communication) gets larger and larger, such subareas or subfields (as I prefer to see fan studies and industry studies) provide a way to make our worlds more intimate, to focus our conversations, to forge connections more easily, and to build “mini-conferences” within larger conferences. The trick then becomes recognizing the porousness of such identities and groups of which we are a part, and finding ways to build or sustain relationships beyond them.

OK, that was quite an answer on my part...but when you ask a question about defining fields and developing disciplines, that is to be expected, I suppose! I’m going to build on the questions you have posed to me to ask how you see yourself connecting to fan studies moving forward, with your own work? And, related to the topic of defining areas of study, how do you include fan studies in your courses? For example, in which of your courses does work in fan studies appear, and how do you situate it?

CASEY

Thanks for that perspective—as always, you explain complicated disciplinary dynamics in incredibly clear and useful terms (full disclosure: I kind of set you up for that lengthy response, since I think your take on these issues is really valuable). I like that you point out similarities between the struggles to legitimize television studies and fan studies, especially, since, as you note, there is so much crossover in terms of scholars who do both. Based on conversations with some folks on the job market, it does seem that fan studies usually needs to get folded in under some other disciplinary umbrella, but it will be interesting to see if that fact changes in coming years. I really like your idea of “porousness”—in terms of scholarly identity, but also seeing disciplines themselves as porous. I feel like that’s something I’ve been able to embrace more during post-PhD life, but it can be overwhelming as a graduate student to learn how to wear so many different hats. To answer your question about my future with fan studies, I see myself continuing to think about fandom as part of a spectrum of viewer experience, but not necessarily working with fan studies methods. I’ve been experimenting with creative dh strategies, such as videographic and deformative criticism. One of the advantages of multimedia scholarship is the ability to recreate and build on aspects of the viewing experience, and so I think that fans and audiences will remain at the heart of my work in many ways.

I also think that continuing to teach about fan practices will help keep me engaged with fan studies. Fandom offers an accessible and dynamic lens for introducing students to key ideas in media and cultural studies. And as with my own research, I teach fandom through a combination of fan studies and other critical frameworks. I’ve also found effective ways to teach fandom as critical method; my assignments often ask students to engage in fannish practices in order to analyze texts. Last semester, for instance, I ran a collaborative fan fiction exercise, in which groups of students wrote a few sentences of a story (based on various pre-designated genres of fanfic), then passed it along to the next group, who would extend the story. This activity helped students better understand some of the motivations for writing fan fiction and think critically about storytelling, world-building, and authorship. I regularly incorporate Twitter, blogging, meme-making, podcasting, and GIF-ing into my courses—getting students to use social media tools for cultural analysis gets them to reflect on their personal media consumption habits (including, but not limited to, fandom). There is no real valuing of fan studies in my department, so I’ve sort of had to sneak fandom into various courses. This semester, in Poetics of the Image, my students made memes about Wonder Woman, and then brought each others’ memes to life in short videos. Students respond really well to these activities, and discussions about texts become richer when they engage and collaborate in creative ways. What about you, how have you been incorporating fan studies into your teaching?

ALISA

It’s exciting to hear about some of the activities you use in the classroom to encourage your students to think critically, in a hands-on way, about their own fannish identities and media consumption practices. As far as how I incorporate fan studies into my teaching, it figures differently depending on the course. For my Contemporary TV Criticism course (which in effect is an introduction to TV Studies), for example, I have expanded on an activity developed by Erin Copple Smith. The assignment asks students to take on different roles in producing a specific reality TV show episode (e.g., advertiser, producer, etc.). Then, asking them to work from their particular role, they have to come up with strategies for encouraging an active, engaged fandom with the episode. As part of our debrief after the assignment, we discuss the different types of viewers they are most likely to attract through their strategies (building on Jenkins’ discussion of loyals, casuals, and zappers) as well as the industrial challenges involved in building and sustaining fans.

For my Business of Hollywood course, I am fortunate to be able to bring in a series of speakers from the media industries. I try to use that opportunity, when pertinent, to ask the speakers how they conceptualize fans, and the ways in which they try to engage with them. Throughout the semester, the students and I compare the answers that the speakers provide to this topic. In the process, we address the wide range of attitudes and practices that industry practitioners have toward audiences in general and toward fan communities in particular. This helps the students think through their own identities as fans as well as how they might choose to connect with fans if they become media professionals. Casey, this has been an enjoyable conversation for me, both because it has let me catch up with you and because it has enabled me to share some of my thoughts about collaboration, disciplinary formations, and pedagogical practices. As we wrap this discussion up, I’m wondering what about fan studies is most inspiring to you right now, and where you would like to see the field go moving forward?

CASEY

I’ve heard about that TV production role-playing assignment, what a useful model! Getting students to think about different aspects of the production/consumption circuit is so important. Indeed, I think fan studies pedagogy is one of the most exciting aspects of the field. I’m especially compelled by efforts to bring fan studies to new audiences, such as Lori Morimoto’s “Fan Studies for Fans” course, and would love to undertake something similar in the future. In terms of research, it’s inspiring to see new waves of fan studies work that pay more attention to race and representation, non-US fandoms, and the complexities of industry-fan relationships. Fan studies work is increasingly visible—in addition to these new Routledge and Wiley companions, the number of online, open-access platforms and publications that support fan studies work seems to be growing all the time. Derek Kompare, Paul Booth, and I are planning a fan studies podcast series that would bring scholars into conversations around current topics, review recent work in the field, and revisit earlier canonical texts. I think these kinds of collaborative, public-facing projects are an essential part of fan studies.

I definitely appreciate the call in your opening statement for more granular analysis, and I agree that such work is critical for fan studies moving forward. I would add that detailed approaches to specific industry-fan relationships might be enlivened by attention to formal aspects of texts and paratexts. One potential drawback of granular analysis is that the highly-focused research process might mean we miss out on interesting connections across case studies—but that’s just one more reason to engage in collaborative scholarship!
 

ALISA

Indeed! For my next book project, The American Comic Book Industry and Hollywood, I’m continuing to examine industry-fan dynamics in a collaborative mode — this time by partnering with colleague Greg Steirer. One of the ways that we have sought to extend prior discussions of industry-fan relations is through an exploration of how professionals in the comic book industry have positioned themselves in relation to fandom. For example, many comics professionals — whether creatives or executives — became interested in working in that industry in part due to their own fannish identities and affiliations. Yet upon launching their own careers, such professionals have maintained a complicated, frequently fraught, relationship both with their own fannish desires and with various fan communities. For some professionals, having gained a degree of creative control over the properties and characters they loved growing up provides them with an immense amount of satisfaction and fulfillment. But often their excitement in having such control is tempered by corporate dictates on one side and the strong expectations and demands of fans on the other side. (Certainly the parallels between aca-fandom and professionals-as-fans are worth noting here.) How professionals navigate these tensions is incredibly varied, of course. Indeed, there are many professionals who deny any fannish identification or engagement with comics at all, which is another matter worth probing.  

While this topic is but one component of the larger book project, hopefully it will direct other scholars to thinking about fan-industry relations in fresh ways moving forward!

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The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Casey McCormick & Alisa Perren (Pt. 1).

Casey McCormick

My relationship to fan studies, as with other disciplinary descriptors, is complicated. From an MA in Literature and Theory (with a quick pit stop in Communication Studies), to a PhD in Cultural Studies (in a relatively traditional English department), I feel like I’ve been floating between disciplines for years—something that used to terrify me, but that I now find quite liberating. When you lack a clear disciplinary home, it opens up opportunities for collaboration that might have otherwise remained off the radar, and it makes it easier to identify—and work against—the limitations of any given disciplinary approach.

During my MA at Georgia State University, I met some graduate students who, like myself, were longtime fans of Joss Whedon. They introduced me to the interdisciplinary mix of scholars who make up the Whedon Studies Association (imagine my shock and delight at learning such a thing existed!). The 2010 Slayage conference was the first time I’d seen people talking about TV in an academic context, and it encouraged me to include televisual case studies in my thesis project. There was certainly fan studies work happening at Slayage, but I was not aware of it as a distinct field—and, while I found the fan-based work fascinating, my own approaches remained mostly “literary,” looking at genre, themes, and storytelling forms. In the last semester of my MA, I ventured over the the Communication Studies department and took Alisa Perren’s “Media Industries” course. This experience was no doubt the turning point in my academic career; Alisa introduced me to media studies methods and theories, setting me on a track that would veer away from literary studies in favour of studying television and digital media, considering modes of TV production and consumption alongside textual analysis.

In Fall 2011, I began my PhD in Cultural Studies at McGill University in a department that was not quite the right fit for my new research interests. Before I left Georgia State, Alisa had helped me strategize ways to stay connected to the media studies world, even if my new department wasn’t. At her advice, I attended my first SCMS conference in 2012, where I began to get a better sense of the dynamics of disciplinarity across media studies, especially at the Television Studies and Media Industries SIG meetings. I saw the value of these groups as counterforces to the alienating nature of a large conference, as networks for mentorship, and as platforms for defining your scholarly “brand.” I still wasn’t sure how to describe my own disciplinary situation, but I found myself gravitating towards panels about fans and getting to know the very generous and approachable scholars from that sector the conference.

In Chicago in 2013, several conversations over beers and Twitter brought up the underrepresentation of fan studies work at SCMS—some folks even suggested that fan-focused work was being systematically rejected from the conference due to perceptions of the field as less important and/or rigourous than other forms of media scholarship. At the airport, waiting for my flight back to Montreal, I created a Facebook group for people who supported the formation of a “Fan Studies” SIG. The group quickly gained momentum, but a debate arose: what to name the SIG. While many potential members were dedicated to the title “Fan Studies,” several others argued that “Audience Studies” was a more inclusive and appropriate title. Champions of “Fan Studies” argued back that naming the SIG “Audience Studies” would participate in the same devaluing of fan-focused work that we were fighting against in the first place. I learned a lot from that debate, and looking back on those Facebook conversations, I see my own views on disciplinarity taking shape:

"First of all, I agree that the most important thing about this SIG will be what we do, not what we call it. Matt [Hills], when we were initially having this debate, I backed you up on the argument that Fan Studies is still in need of legitimation in the eyes of institutions such as SCMS. But, I think that going the "Fan and Audience Studies" route does not detract from the legitimation that this SIG will help to create for Fan Studies. I also think I disagree that the two fields are "significantly" distinct. Yes, they are different, but as Louisa [Stein] pointed out, Fan Studies (and I would add Audience Studies) are both inherently interdisciplinary fields. I don't really see how including "and Audience" into the SIG title could really hinder anything that we're trying to do in the name of Fan Studies, but it could allow for more interesting, diverse, and interdisciplinary conversations. Those who study audiences have to think about fans, and those who study fans have to think about other kinds of audiences. So, to conclude, while I was initially on board with sticking to "Fan Studies," I think I am now a proponent of "Fan and Audience Studies." Also #FAAS has a nice aural and visual ring to it."

The Fan and Audience Studies SIG held its inaugural meeting at the 2016 SCMS conference in Atlanta. I was deep into my dissertation at that point, and while I was excited to celebrate the establishment of this SIG, it felt clear to me that I was not, after all, a “fan studies” scholar. Out of five dissertation chapters, only one focused specifically on fans (a version of which, thanks to my fan studies mentor, Paul Booth, eventually became my contribution to the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies). Overall, my work is more focused on intimate moments of viewing, different modes of viewership, and how these experiences relate to the forms of TV storytelling. Formal analysis is quite often absent from both fan and audience studies, so one of the things my work does is model how attention to textual form can draw out some of the affective stakes of viewing practices. I’ve also extended formal analysis to fan-authored paratexts to reveal a feedback loop of poetic strategies—it’s important to think about how fans make meaning, not only the meanings themselves or the motivations behind them.

Although my interests have pulled me away from a strictly fan studies approach, I remain linked to that community of scholars who welcomed me to the SCMS fold years ago—and co-founding (with Paul Booth) the Fan and Audience Studies SIG is one of my proudest academic accomplishments. Fandom is my favourite subject to teach, and the pace of growth in discipline is exciting. I think that fan and audience studies foster collaboration in ways that rarely exist in other branches of media studies, and this blog series is a perfect example. Here I am, seven years after walking into Alisa Perren’s classroom, engaging in a dialogue with her about the state of a field that I hardly knew existed in 2011.
 

Alisa Perren

 

As Casey indicates, it is serendipitous that she and I were matched up for this conversation about our relationship to fan studies. This serendipity comes not only through our prior relationship to each other, but also through our own distinctive relationships to fan studies. Much as Casey came to fan studies through literary studies, my arrival at fan studies came primarily through studying the media industries. I am particularly interested in understanding the evolving ways in which different industry sectors – and different industry professionals – have imagined, cultivated, and interacted with fans.

Although I contributed to Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott’s Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, I typically have not identified myself as a fan studies scholar. (Indeed, I was surprised and flattered to be asked to participate in their collection.) However, my interest in fan studies has expanded both as the media industry’s engagement with fans has increased, and as I have engaged with colleagues such as Casey who have exposed me to new ways of thinking about the field. About ten years ago, I was fortunate enough to have Henry Jenkins (along with Joshua Green) contribute an article to my co-edited collection (with Jennifer Holt), Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method. In their contribution, Jenkins and Green addressed the growing tensions between industrial desires to exploit fan activities and fans’ desires to be heard (but not exploited) by the media industries. Jenkins and Green’s contributions there and elsewhere spurred much of my own preliminary thinking about the increasingly complex relationship between industry and fans, and between industry studies and fan studies. While certain (e.g., white, male) fan communities obviously have been highly valued by the media industries for some time, the economic value of diverse fan constituencies has continued to grow. Of course, the very meaning of fandom has become more elusive (and fraught) at the same time.

Through my contribution to Click and Scott’s collection, I was finally able to delve into exploring industry-fan dynamics more fully. I did so by collaborating with one of the doctoral students in my current department (Radio-TV-Film) at UT-Austin, Laura Felschow. Together, Laura and I were able to survey the (relatively limited) ways that fan studies, industry studies – and another area in which fan-oriented scholarship is thriving, comics studies – had been placed in dialogue in the past. We argued for the importance of more granular examinations of industry-fan relationships – examinations that moved away from constructions of “industry” as a monolithic entity that primarily sought to exploit from/benefit from/harness fan communities. Through case studies of comics publishers DC Comics and Image Comics – and interviews with creatives and executives who worked at each company – we showed how conceptions of and interactions with fans varied based on differences in corporate structures, professional identities, and business models (among other factors). Our hope was that this article helped to push scholars to think beyond the simplistic industry-fan binaries that often dominate both media studies scholarship and popular culture.

My co-authored essay with Laura is but one of many examples of how my thinking on fan studies has developed through collaborations and interactions with colleagues, and in particular, graduate students. As yet one more example, my thinking regarding fans-as-laborers has been aided by current UT-RTF graduate student Lesley Willard’s analysis of how fan work has been incorporated into promotional campaigns for television programs such as MTV’s Teen Wolf. It is humbling to read Casey’s opening statement and see how her exposure to media industries scholarship through my graduate course altered her academic trajectory. Obviously this relationship has gone both ways.

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The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Ruth Deller & Lucy Bennett (Pt. 2).

Ruth Deller

Interesting that we have both mentioned representation of sports fans. I can't wait to read your chapter on this-I am guessing a lot of this representation would be of male fans? You may or may not be familiar with Carrie Dunn's work on female football fans but she makes interesting points about not only gender and sexism in sport, but the relationship between sports fandom and family, community etc. It's good that there are some more connections being made between sports fandom and other areas of fan studies (I know Richard McCulloch has a lot of interest in this area too), and I think it is an interesting area to think about from the perspective of gender. It seems to me that there are certain types of masculinity bound up in cultural imaginings of sports fans-which are also tied in with notions of race, class, nationality, local identity etc. It's such a potentially fruitful area that offers a lot of interdisciplinarity. That said, my sporting knowledge is incredibly limited - and mainly relates to the 80s and 90s when I grew up alongside a sports-loving brother and I got into football myself for a little while (Up the Mariners!), albeit in a very limited way.

You mentioned my chapter on older female fans in Seeing Fans. I really enjoyed working on that paper and on previous research projects with Cliff Richard fans, almost all of whom were over 60. I was very inspired by the work of people like C Lee Harrington, Denise Bielby and Andy Bennett on fandom in life course. I think we are at a potentially interesting time in terms of thinking about age and fandom. We have those who became fans in the 50s and 60s continuing their fandoms into older age, as well as young fans whose experiences of fandom are almost entirely defined by social media, streaming and other new technologies. Whilst there is now an increasing amount of work on long-standing fandoms and on fandom and the life course, I think there's still a lot of opportunity here in thinking about these issues.

And to bring this back to where I started this section - sport is one of those areas that's heavily tied into life course, with people often developing fandoms as children, or at pivotal points in life journeys (e.g. joining university sports teams)...

Lucy Bennett

Yes, you’ve guessed it! My work on media representations of fans, which ended up primarily focusing on sports fandom, showed that they were very much male dominated. Females were mainly only visible in terms of media, or other forms of fandom. Most of my life, I had no interest in sports, but in recent years really became interested in athletics, football, and rugby (and this stemmed from a very vibrant experience watching a game in a pub in Cardiff one day!). These interests made me think about how much of this ties into nationality, identity, gender, and so on.. and not only within the self, but, as you point out, within media representations as well. Depictions of emotion and gender is something in particular I would like to explore more fully, since very often it is accepted more in terms of men at sports games (through the notion of it being passion), whereas females at music concerts expressing emotion is more frequently depicted as out of control irrationality. This polarity is something I would like to explore in more depth.

I also find it particularly interesting how sports was the predominant genre of fandom portrayed in the media in the ten year sample I studied, yet it remains at the margins of what I know as the fan studies field, which has focused more on media/popular culture fandom and been markedly divided from sports studies. I hope each year that at the Fan Studies Network conference that we will receive more (or even just some) abstracts on sports fandom, but we don’t receive many. I’m really interested in these different spheres of fan studies converging with media fan studies. To me, it makes the field so much richer.

Work on lifelong fandom, and the course that people take during their lives with their fan objects, is something that also draws me. I’m particularly in interested in how this manifests and develops surrounding music fandom. As I mentioned in Part One, music is a huge passion to me, and there were two pivotal points in my life where I discovered music that had a profound impact on me: when I was 6, and when I was 14. It is fascinating to me how my relationship changes with the music I discovered at these points in my life as I grow older, but also through technology, and, more recently, returning to the material object. I recently purchased a vinyl player, and have been reliving moments and memories from revisiting some of the albums I originally owned on vinyl in the 80s and 90s (luckily I kept them all!). So what compels me at the moment is not only our relations with these fan objects through our lives, but also how medium and/or technology may enhance, guide, or provoke this. 

This leads me to something that I specifically also wanted to discuss with you: what are your impressions of music fandom and related scholarship at the moment? I’ve really enjoyed your projects on mature female music fans in the media, and the work on Cliff Richards fans. Do you have any plans to continue your work in this area?

Ruth

How do I feel about the state of pop music fandom research? That’s a very interesting question. I think what I notice most is how disparate it is. By that, I mean that research into pop music fans, audiences and subcultures has always been somewhat interdisciplinary. There is a tradition in media and cultural studies, which is often where fan studies sits most comfortably, but there is also work in music studies, youth studies, sociology etc. This means that the scholarship is spread out in terms of its visibility in journals, at conferences and so on. Whilst obviously there are advantages to this and there are historical, discipline-related reasons why this is so, it can be quite frustrating because it feels as though the conversations could be more joined up.

If I go to a fan studies conference or panel, there is a very good chance I will encounter work on sci-fi or fantasy fan cultures. However, I suspect there is a slim chance there will be papers covering grime fans or reggae fans. That research is out there-but it is not necessarily joining up to work that more clearly identifies as ‘fan studies’. I think, to some extent, this possibly touches on issues we’ve already been raising of race, nationality and class, as well as disciplinary backgrounds.

Of course, there are some areas of pop music fandom that are highly visible within spaces clearly marked out as ‘fan studies’ (by this I’m mainly referring to edited collections, conferences and journals that are specifically focused on fandom). One Direction fans, for example, received a huge amount of attention-I see similar occurring with K-pop and, from time to time, work on other popstars (Bowie, Gaga, Beyoncé) or rock music.

I would love to see more interdisciplinary conversations about fandom in general, actually. There is so much history in, for example, subcultural research, yet work on subcultures now seems to have be less visible within fan studies, although it still thrives in other disciplines.  Many subcultures – including sport, to bring it back to our earlier conversation - clearly still have fandom as a core component.

In terms of if I want to work more with older female fans- I’d love to do more in that area. 2020 is the 20th anniversary of my first work with the Cliff Richard fans, for example, so I’m hoping to do a follow-up project with them.  The 10-year study threw up some really interesting results, particularly about the influence of social media, and since then, streaming services have become huge, so I am interested to see if that’s impacted them (as well as the recent controversy involving Cliff, of course). This connects in to your points about technology, I think.  The relationship between age, technology and fandom is fascinating in itself.  Oh, and I just filmed an interview with some Duran Duran fans who are making a documentary about their fandom.  It was fun working with them – they asked more complex questions than I get even from academics!

There seems to be a bit of a media appetite for looking at older fandoms and subcultures. In the UK, the channel BBC Four has made dozens of documentaries on music cultures.  (In fact, there was one on the Bay City Rollers just last week). I suspect there are a lot of audience members and a lot of people working in the media who were part of music scenes in the 60s and 70s, so it’s not necessarily a surprise that there is a huge fascination with the music scenes of that era. Whilst there is some work in fan studies on Baby Boomer fans as well as Gen X/Millennial/'Gen Z' fans, what I would love to see is something that brings together research on fans from various generations, so everything from children to the elderly.

And here I pass back to you for your thoughts before I talk myself into putting an edited collection together on this! (Would people be interested in getting involved in that?)

 Lucy

Yes, the disparateness of music fandom scholarship is quite striking. At times, this can be so beneficial in that it allows many different perspectives, but it also does feel fractured at times. I’ve really enjoyed Mark Duffett’s work on music fandom – his special issues of Popular Music & Society, and the conferences he has organised really pull together some of the corners where music fandom is sometimes dispersed and situated.

I would be absolutely fascinated in seeing your Cliff Richard fan study updated! I think it would make such a valuable contribution to scholarship. There is so much within this fandom that would be compelling – from lifelong fan courses, to adoption of technology, to fan support during acts of controversy. I’ll be eagerly awaiting the 20th anniversary of that! I also hope to one day revisit and update my work on R.E.M. The forum that I studied has now been closed, but I recently did a chapter for Rebecca William’s forthcoming collection on fandom and endings, exploring how R.E.M. fans and their official news channel use social media now that the band have split, especially to piece their collective memories together. It is very interesting as, at times, their news platform is equally, or even more, active than when they were still together! But, returning to a field of study at a much later time period, is something that draws me. We have so many new technical advances, but it’s not clear cut surrounding how fans negotiate these, and so comparative studies across a long period, I think, could be quite a revealing way of unravelling their practices.

Sorry to add to your workload, but I for one would love to see an edited collection on the areas that you mentioned – generational fandom and music would be so compelling! You’re right, there is quite a trend on BBC Four (which I love) on documentaries and programmes that focus much on 60s and 70s music. While I do enjoy these, there is a gap there for explorations of other generations. Being a fan of music when I was so young myself, I would love to see more studies on children and music fandom. I feel that the music I was engaged with then, and the music magazine that I loved (Smash Hits) really worked to forge my identity as I grew older. In a way, the lyrics and sounds I was exposed to, and the interviews I was reading, strongly boosted my internal ideas and senses of what was possible in life. I would like to see work that examines fans at this early age, and others that speak to more mature fans at later stages in life, to explore how looking back on a life may be intertwined with music, fandom, and memory. It’s all such an interesting avenue, and one which offers quite a few areas that have not been interrogated much before in fan studies.

For me, I’m also quite drawn to technology and how this may (nor may not) impact on experiences and behaviours of music fans. I find two polarities quite fascinating: in our contemporary landscape we have a multitude of streaming services, but also a turn now back to the material object, such as vinyl and cassettes, both of which can be steeped in nostalgia. Secondly, we have Twitter and other social media platforms, that offers what has been described as a “direct connection” between musicians (and, obviously, other public figures) and fans, yet often a negotiation has to occur surrounding how can these connections can be maintained and realised, when some individuals have potentially millions of people following them. So I think there is so much within music fandom to explore!

Lastly then, what are you next plans within fan studies research (and even perhaps teaching)? We’ve discussed some of pressing areas that we feel need more attention within the field, but are there any other significant things that you hope are worked towards within fan studies in 2018?

Ruth

Ha, I was actually thinking about Mark Duffett’s work after sending my last message to you!  I suspect the thing with documentaries will inevitably lead to more on the 80s and 90s as time progresses, though you’re right that it’d be good to see multiple generations’ interests served at the same time. Side note, but I am LOVING the 1980s Top of the Pops repeats we get on BBC Four – that was weekly viewing in my house growing up, and I was also obsessed with Smash Hits!  Kind of a shame today’s kids/teens don’t have those – I would love to see more work with children on how they come to music fandom now, in fact.  I remember being utterly mesmerised seeing Boy George on TOTP in the early 80s and he was probably the first pop star I had any kind of fan attachment to, albeit in a very loose pre-school kind of way!

I would love to see you revisit your work on R.E.M. (and Lady Gaga too, for that matter).  We’re coming up to 30 years of the web (and longer still for things like usenet) so there’s a lot of potential for histories of online fandoms – and technology is really intriguing for me as it relates to fandoms like R.E.M. and Cliff Richard that were forged before the web and thus have been online for a very long time now, across many changes and developments. 

The physical pull to vinyl and cassettes is super interesting, both in terms of nostalgia for those of us that owned them before, and in terms of them being discovered by younger audiences.  Personally I prefer the convenience of having everything available to me digitally – but I still purchase on CD and own most of my old vinyl and cassettes still (save a handful of tapes lost when I had a car stolen) – like many fans, I feel a connection to the artefact as much as to the music itself.  Are you thinking of writing something on this area? 

In terms of my own work in regards to fan studies, I have a couple of things about to come out, a piece (with Stuart Bell) on EastEnders fans in Rebecca Williams’ Everybody Hurts book, and a chapter on ethics in fan studies in Paul Booth’s new edited collection.  I’m also working on trying to bring together some threads from various research I’ve been involved in on gaming fans, beauty fans and soap opera fans around what happens at the intersections between fans, producers and texts.  There are some interesting tensions and challenges around things like fan labour, fan servicing, fan expectations and inter-fan rivalries as well as issues such as customer service, PR and marketing.  I’m still playing around with my data and with the literature to see what I can pull out… but what that will all become is as yet unknown!  I have a few (non-fan studies) projects to put to bed first.  Oh, and now perhaps an edited collection or special issue on music fandom and generations.  You’d have to write something for it though!

It’s been really interesting thinking about these different areas within fan studies with you.  There are still lots of opportunities to explore ground that hasn’t yet been covered enough within fan studies.  For me one thing that comes through from our exchanges has been a sense of wanting more interdisciplinary conversations - e.g. in areas like sport, music and art.  I can see real potential for the discipline to grow more diverse in its ‘figureheads’ (and in the fandoms it covers) in areas such as race, nationality and age.  I think there’s still so much more that can be said about gender and class as well. 

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m down on fan studies though – there’s an amazing variety of work out there now – we see so many nuanced studies and so much methodological richness.  I think fan studies has also been an area where a lot of younger scholars have been finding a space, and long may that continue.  Organisations like the Fan Studies Network and the Organisation for Transformative Works are doing a fantastic job in terms of bringing people together and trying to broaden conversations, and that’s so exciting.  In the 20 years since I began my undergrad studies, I’ve seen the discipline make huge leaps and I think that’s partly because it attracts people who are so passionate about what they do (unsurprisingly!).

Lucy

Yes, it feels so prominent to me too that from our discussions what has stood out quite sharply is the need for more connective work between certain areas, such as sports, and music, with media fandom. The need for more diverse ‘figureheads’ and more conversations and studies on race, nationality, and age is also crucial. Plus I agree – more interrogation of gender and class and their convergence with fandom should also occur. At least, on the whole, more discussions are occurring, which can often be the first steps towards change.

I’m also absolutely loving the BBC Four Top of the Pops repeats, too! It really takes me back, as many of these, from 1985, I can remember watching at the time. In tandem with the resurgence of material music formats, I find these nostalgic notions (and also, how they may proceed in years to come) really compelling. I also stream a lot of music, but lately I’ve also been buying a hard copy of anything I enjoy that I have found whilst streaming, which I then place onto my iPod! So quite a mixture of formats. Cassettes will also have a huge place in my heart, and it’s wonderful to see so many newer albums being released in this format, too.

With regards to my future work, looking at materiality, fandom, and music is something that stands out to me. I’m launching a new undergraduate module this autumn semester at Cardiff University on Popular Music, Media, and Culture, which is a dream come true for me! I’ve also recently become more immersed in the Cardiff music scene. So I’m hoping all of this will give me further impetus to do more research surrounding music fandom. Aside from the chapter on R.E.M. fandom, social media, and memory that I have forthcoming in Rebecca William’s Endings collection, I have a chapter in Paul Booth’s Wiley Blackwell companion (which takes the form of the media representation of fans study that I mentioned earlier), and an auto-ethnography on never having watched Star Wars, for Billy Proctor and Richard McCulloch’s forthcoming collection.  Otherwise, I plan to do more work on politics and fandom, extending the Lady Gaga work I did a few years ago, in tandem with my non-fan studies work looking at citizens and media. Plus something for your new music fandom and generations collection, of course J!

I’ve really enjoyed our exchanges, and it’s interesting that it’s also been roughly 20 years since I started my undergrad studies too… it’s been fascinating reflecting on together, not only how the fan studies field has developed, but how we have both forged our path and found our way and interests through these 20 years. Although there is some way to go with regards to some areas that crucially demand more conversations and development, I think fan studies is such a vibrant area that I’m so proud and thrilled to be a part of. There is some amazing and inspiring work being done at present. I’m now very excited for the next 20 years – bring it on!

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The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Mel Stanfill & Anne Jamison (Pt. 2).

Mel

So now I find myself wanting to talk about academic labor and publishing in fan studies. Maybe that’s idiosyncratic, but that was what stood out to me as I read your opening statement. It feels like a place to talk about what fandom can teach us as well.

My first response at 7 discussion sections was horror, but it also points to the ways that, even at elite institutions like Princeton, humanities are undervalued and under-resourced. So then, when you add on top of that studying something that’s not always taken seriously--you mentioned that professional studiers of literature don’t often, and I have heard from academic jobs that they wouldn’t have even considered a fan studies person except for something particular about me (which is flattering and also not)--it can be quite difficult to do the work that we do. There’s a reason that so many of the most vibrant voices in this field are in contingent positions and so few are at the traditionally elite institutions.

It’s also, to your point about academic vs. trade presses, not that easy to get fan studies work published. There are absolutely venues that value fan studies--Transformative Works and Cultures and University of Iowa Press to name a couple--but many of the “mainstream” venues are more skeptical. That can, for those of us in the early stages of building a scholarly reputation, result either in having publications that carry less cachet or or being nudged away from studying fans at all. I don’t think we’re going to solve this in one conversation, but I do want to poke at it a little bit.

So then, what can fandom potentially teach academia? I’m not one of those people who thinks fandom is this awesome egalitarian place without hierarchies, but there is a way that in the absence of formations like the Big Name Fan (and accounting for broader social inequalities from which fandom is not immune), anyone’s contribution to a conversation has the potential to be seen as valuable. I would think it was great if academia could be more like that.

Anne

I *wish* fandom would teach academia that interest and intelligence does not necessarily follow rank or prestige. One of the elements I loathe most about my corner of the profession--and now here I’m speaking to literary and cultural studies, not fan studies--is the stratification of conversation even at those big conventions that are designed in part to be “mixers.” Too often the Ivy Leaguers are on their own panels, and East State Teaching University Satellite Campusers are on their panels, and the flow of interest only works in one direction. It’s wrong, anti-intellectual, elitist, and doesn’t begin to take into account the reality of academic labor and hiring right now. There are great, smart scholars at every level, including outside the university structure entirely--this is especially true of fan studies which is both emerging and studying a historically stigmatized culture. One of the things I really value in fan studies is that I feel less of that kind of hierarchical stratification.

That said, part of the reason that my own voice has been amplified on the topic of fanfiction is, ironically, because it wasn’t my training. I have a lit degree from an Ivy and my tenure book was on nineteenth-century poetry. I just finished another one on Kafka. That background makes snobs credit what I say about fanfic because I also write on “real” books. This bothers me, but then I remember that what *really* drove media interest in my direction a few years back was that I had once taught the fanfic that became Fifty Shades of Grey, and that is really what established my reputation-- arguably along with my expertise on My Immortal. So that… acts as an important counter-weight.

Still, I think it’s important for emerging scholars to know that many of us got trained and hired and in my case tenured in established fields and departments. There’s not a Department of Fan Studies. I do think there will only be an increasing demand from students to study what we study because it has been important in shaping their lives and culture. As this happens, I hope and believe that we--whoever we are--who have some institutional clout will work to make sure those future positions are funded, humane, and, if ever and if at all possible, tenure-track. We also need to keep in mind that in a marginalized field like fan studies, scholars from traditionally marginalized backgrounds are even more at-risk from a kind of compounded stigmatizing effect. For a variety of reasons, fan studies scholars are particularly vulnerable to adjunctification. So when we make up panels or invite speakers or review books for publication or in book reviews, we should try our utmost to correct for that.

Power and influence can kind of creep up on you, and it can be startling for a lot of us to recognize that we have any of it at all. I know that was the case for me with teaching, particularly adjunct teaching where I had less economic and institutional power than a Hooters waitress (I checked) but often a really outsized influence on the lives and careers of my students. It is certainly an issue that comes up a lot around teaching and researching fandom and fanworks. But academia has a weird way of producing simultaneous and contradicting interstices of power and disempowerment.

Have you had a learning curve where it comes to navigating the politics, power differentials, and ethics of teaching and studying fandom?

Mel

Oh absolutely. I’m kind of a weirdo in fan studies because in my individual research I don’t study fans as people (sometimes I do with coauthors). I don’t do interviews, I don’t analyze fic, nothing of that sort. At least, not anymore. My 2013 article came out of my MA thesis, for which I interviewed fans. And as I sat down to analyze that data and theorize what I saw happening I was so acutely aware of the power I had over these people, even as a master’s student. That feeling never left me, and I do my best only to research laterally to other professionals or “up” to people more powerful than me now. I’m actually tremendously distressed when I see some of our colleagues name and shame fans--even when they’re sexist or homophobic or racist--because we have power over them as the people who are educationally authorized to tell the story.

Though research is the big one for me, I do run into some of these tensions with teaching too. I don’t know if it’s generational or what (I do see it more with just-out-of-undergrad folks), but students often feel that everything on the internet is public and fair game for research. So one thing I have to talk about a lot (and will be focusing specifically on in the social media research class I’m teaching this fall) is the ethics of semi-public data, and the fact that a researcher is not the target audience, and you should not just go around exposing people to unexpected audiences lightly, etc (which all became more urgent after the latest Facebook/Cambridge Analytica news). I have had to have those conversations more than I would have expected.

So then, what does this conversation about power and ethics and inclusion tell us about the future of fan studies?

Anne

I think we have a lot of thinking to do, some of it practical, some of it ethical, and most of it a little bit of each. Like...how to teach tumblr? There’s so much personal information from kids, it feels weird to me to put it in a classroom, but it’s so important! And where are we fan studies folks on Wattpad? Right now, it is much more diverse, more global, than AO3, but it’s commercial and proprietary and hard for olds to navigate.

I too worry about academics coming down on individual fans, and I almost never say anything negative about a fanwork in my capacity as a professor. But there is a down side to that. It might mean I am tacitly acquiescing to elements I would really want to resist or critique (and I don’t mean grammar). It means I’m saying, take this stuff seriously! But don’t say anything negative about it. I think it’s better than the alternative which as you point out seems very mismatched and unfair, but it’s still a bit off. I agree about not *lightly* exposing people to unintended audiences, but the fact is that without meaning to, today an individual can suddenly reach and influence a lot of people they never imagined they were talking to, and that can be extremely uncomfortable. If it happens, though, it can’t really be taken back and you can’t expect people not to think critically about the forces shaping their world.

As you can see, as soon as I start thinking about digital ethics--which I do so very much of the time--I start channeling Chidi, the indecisive, tortured moral philosopher from The Good Place, and so maybe my personal future of fan studies is writing the fic of that. I hope we get some good fan studies philosophers in the future.

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The State of Fandom Studies 2018: Ruth Deller and Lucy Bennett (Pt. 1)

Ruth Deller

I'm a Reader in Media and Communication at Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I initially became involved in fan studies doing my undergraduate degree. I was studying a module on popular music with Josie Robson (whose PhD on female fans in the local music scene is well worth a read) and we were able to develop a project of our own choosing for coursework. As a fan on various mailing lists for TV shows and pop bands, I was interested in these online communities.  I analysed and compared 6 e-mailing lists for different pop acts (this was back in 1999-2000) - some artists I was fans of, some not. I forget exactly who they all were, but the two most interesting fan lists were around singer Cliff Richard and group Belle and Sebastian.

I expanded this study in my undergraduate dissertation, looking at these two communities in more detail, as they operated across various sites: email lists, official and unofficial fan forums, newsgroups, fan websites and chat rooms - and offline. I was fascinated by how the populations and community norms altered depending on the platform, the object of fandom and the age of the fans. It was through this that I came across the work of people like Nancy Baym, Lisa Lewis (and everyone in that Adoring Audience collection), John Tulloch, Henry and so on.  When I returned to academia in 2006 to do my MA and PhD (not in fan studies, though they both had audience studies elements), the field had grown substantially!

When finishing my PhD, I wanted to research other areas and was drawn back to fan studies.  It was a decade since my undergraduate dissertation, so I revisited the two fan communities to see how they had changed in the era of social media and streaming. From that, I began to look at fans from a range of different areas - primarily soap opera, games and pop music.  I've also written and presented on more general topics, such as ethics in fan studies (I am a member of the ethics committee at SHU) and the way internet fandoms have changed as social media has developed. I've also taken part as a 'talking head' in a few documentaries about fans, which is quite fun.

My research in general is very broad and I would consider myself a media scholar more than a fan studies scholar.  However, fan studies is something I get asked to write or comment on quite a lot and I love working in this area.  Coming from a British Cultural Studies background, my research and teaching have always been infused with issues of identity, representation, social justice and equality, and that's a big part of what I find interesting about fan studies, particularly as a lot of its ethos has been about de-stigmatisation.   I'm also endlessly fascinated by the ever-shifting dynamics in the relationships between fans/audiences, producers, texts, celebrities and technologies. 

I really enjoyed contributing to your recent edited collection on fan representations, Lucy.  There is still so much to be said about this area, especially as it's so often connected to wider social issues and to identity politics.  It's something I find comes up so much in my teaching - not only on explicitly 'fan' related topics, but when we consider issues such as moral panics and all of the fantastic work in the late 20th century on how panics around things like music subcultures or football violence not only stigmatised fans, but had legal, political and cultural consequences.

As has been a running theme across many of these conversations, I am glad fan studies is acknowledging its history as being incredibly white and largely restricted to a small number of nations. It's good to see more international approaches and work from, and about, people of colour, though I think there is still some way to go here. In particular, I think there's still a lack of visibility of scholars of colour as 'figureheads' in the discipline. Lucy - I'd be interested to hear how you have found handling that issue in terms of the Fan Studies Network and arranging keynotes etc.

Currently, I am thinking a lot about masculinities in fandom. I noticed with my students that, whilst they have become much more accepting of things like female fans shipping male celebrities or characters than they were even five or six years ago, they still have strongly negative reactions to phenomena such as 'Bronies', as well as to the reported male fan outrage over things like the Ghostbusters reboot or Jodie Whittaker's casting in Doctor Who. I was struck by the conversations on this blog about Star Wars recently and Billy Proctor's thoughts on some of the stereotypes of the 'butt hurt' fan boy. And then there are phenomena such as 'GamerGate' and the 'Sad Puppies' that others have mentioned in these conversations.

As has been noted many times, there have been aspects of fandom that have felt very exclusionary towards women (as well as many that have been female centric) and it's brilliant that some of this toxic behaviour is being called out and challenged. I think the wider debate around areas such as #metoo is long, long overdue, as well as there finally being at least a minimal acknowledgement of the way male characters, creatives and performers have often dominated many genres and fields. I am loving the impetus towards more women, people of colour, queer people and people with disabilities being heard and seen.

However, it seems to me that there is a moment of confusion in the media imagining of male fans that I think fan studies could probably speak to.  There are many long-standing stereotypes around male fans: as violent (living in Sheffield, the Hillsborough disaster is never far from my thoughts); as pasty 'sad' bespectacled trainspotters; as weirdos with presumed bizarre sexual fetishes - and now this very familiar idea of the 'butt-hurt fanboy' as these basement-dwelling, ugly and overweight dorks who can't get a girl, have failed at life and want to ruin things for everyone else.

I don't really know what the 'answer' is here, or even if there is one - but I keep thinking about it as I teach and research.  I've been working on a few things recently about social justice and the ways women and LGBTQ+ people have been represented in particular in these areas - but challenging patriarchy and heteronormativity has to be about dismantling and reformulating masculinities as much as making different forms of womanhood or queerness visible.

I'm certainly not suggesting that male fans have it harder than women (look at the number of self-confessed fan boys who are major film directors, screenwriters and show runners, for example), nor that sexist, racist and other forms of toxic behaviour within fandoms should not be called out - it's essential to repeatedly raise these issues until we see systemic change.  However, I think there is also work to be done on really interrogating existing notions of male fandom. And, with no disrespect to my straight, white, male (and often bespectacled!) acafan colleagues, I suspect the voices of gay/queer men and men of colour are vital here in broadening these horizons. 

Oh, and I'm aware I'm raising race, nationality and masculinity in a discussion between two white British women, but this is where my thoughts are taking me lately!

Lucy Bennett

Like you, Ruth, I also had my interest in fan studies sparked when I was an undergraduate student. I was lucky enough to have been taught by Will Brooker, who was then a PhD student, writing his thesis on Batman. Having that exposure to a popular culture text being examined in such a way really set the course for me, and my understandings of what was possible. Initially, my ambition was to become a music journalist. I had become a big fan of music when I was six years old (Madonna and Wham! were my clear favourites), and even back then I was an avid reader of music magazines, such as Smash Hits.  However, through studying my BA and Masters degrees, I realised that academic writing was the path that resonated most strongly with me. It also helped that for my Masters I was supervised by Matt Hills, who was then about to publish his book, Fan Cultures. This also led me to Henry’s Textual Poachers, which also opened up a wonderful whole new world for me. I haven’t looked back since!

It was during my Masters in Journalism Studies (and doing my dissertation on R.E.M.) in the early 00’s, that I realised that I could still write about music, my biggest passion, but from an academic angle. And the convergence between music fandom and digital culture in particular was something that really captivated me. There was such an exciting feeling that the new technology, and the Internet in particular, was having quite a curious and largely unknown impact upon both musicians and fans. Undertaking my PhD a few years later, I chose to expand some of the areas that I had explored during my Masters dissertation, and focus my thesis on the band R.E.M. and their digital fandom. They were (and still are) my favourite band, and I was already a crew member/moderator of their unofficial forum, Murmurs. I wanted to examine in particular how the community maintained normative standards online, and how members who did not fit these standards (in other words, the “right” way to be a fan in the community) were approached and regarded. I really enjoyed doing this, and was hugely inspired by work from Nancy Baym, Mark Duffett, and Daniel Cavicchi. All three writers still impress and excited me with their scholarship on music fans.

After my PhD I consciously made the decision to study a fan subject and culture that I was not a fan of. Although it was beneficial in many respects studying a band I had an emotional connection to and deep knowledge of (and also had met many occasions personally), I wanted to be free from this affective pull, which had arose for me in particular during the publication process. In 2012 I decided to undertake a study on Lady Gaga fans and political and activist engagement, which I found extremely interesting. Entering a fan culture as an outsider was not without its difficulties and limitations, but was still a refreshing change! Since then, I have furthered my music fandom studies, focusing on the use (and rejection) of digital technology during live concerts, the use of Twitter by musicians and fans, and collective remembering via social media. My next steps within fan studies will aim to continue the focus on music fandom, and also political engagement and fandom.

In 2012 I started the Fan Studies Network, together with my co-chair, Tom Phillips, and receive support from board members Bertha Chin, Bethan Jones, Richard McCulloch, and Rebecca Williams. I really like to help people as much as I can, and I had had a dream for many years to start a network that would forge connections between people around the world, and somehow make people feel less alone.  We’re having our sixth annual conference this summer in Cardiff, and it’s an academic environment I’m so happy and fortunate to be a part of.

I’m currently working as a lecturer at the school of Journalism, Media, and Culture at Cardiff University, Wales, UK. I started in this permanent position October last year, after seven years of being hourly paid and on very short-term contracts. It was very difficult at times, but focusing on something like the Fan Studies Network, and being inspired by so much fantastic work being produced in the field, really helped keep my spirits up.

Like you, Ruth, I also view myself as a media scholar, rather than just fan studies. Fan studies will always remain hugely important to me, but In the last couple of years, my work has expanded to focus not just on fans, but also citizens and the media, and how they engage with public opinion, and are represented – for example, through letters to the editor pages in newspapers. To me, it is not such a huge leap from fans to citizens, since very often there is a key issue or person there being discussed (for example, in letters – which could be about issues such as elections or politics) that can provoke affective responses.  Thinking more squarely about fans and the media, there have not been many studies that explore how fans are represented, especially in the newspaper media. This is what sparked the interest of myself and Paul Booth to edit Seeing Fans. I found your chapter in the collection so compelling, Ruth. I’d not read a study like this before, which not only documented media coverage of fans, but of older female fans. It really interests to me to see how certain discourses and images become circulated in the media, as they can often give some compelling insights into society. I recently did a study for Paul Booth’s forthcoming Wiley Blackwell companion, examining ten years of coverage of fans in the British newspapers. Sports fandom dominated and it fascinated me to see how this form of fandom was covered, as the fans in those instances were portrayed as quite powerful individuals – being able to express their anger physically at events, and often discussed by managers and players as individuals they did not want to let down. It definitely opened up a new area of fandom that I had not considered so strongly before, and I do wish there was more dialogue between sports and media forms of fandom. 

Moving on from, but still connect to my above point, the insular aspects of fan studies has been something that has been on my mind very much. I agree that it is critically important, and much needed, to see more work from and about people of colour, and I’m utterly with you on the factor that much more needs to be done here. We do need more scholars of colour, and more diverse voices, as figureheads. To me, it is concerning that many of the fan studies figureheads are white males (however brilliant they are!), when that does not accurately reflect the overall, and growing, dynamics of the field.

It is something that the Fan Studies Network is conscious of, as we want to give opportunities to those that would really benefit from it, especially in a keynote slot, and try to help broaden who is seen as a figurehead. Most years we have had two keynotes, with one always being female. For us, the main issue is funding, since we have none! The event each year funds itself and covering international travel is not possible. However, it is something that we seek to address. That is one of the beauties of running a yearly conference -  a new crop of voices and keynotes each year.

Finally, your thoughts about masculinities and fandom I found very interesting. This is something that has been on my mind lately also. Last semester I taught a module called Media and Gender, that touched upon these issues, mainly from a feminism and media standpoint. I was lucky to have really excellent students who engaged with the material well, and we had some fascinating discussions about the convergence of gender and the media. Although there is much obviously to be said about femininity and the media, I do agree that masculinity is also compelling and needs more unravelling, especially in the current landscape we are in. Just as female fans are placed into their rigid confines, we can often view similarly restrictive representations of male fans. I find it fascinating. In the media content analysis that I mentioned above that I undertook, male fans were portrayed with a stronger negative slant that female fans, who were presented as more dimensional. However, the female fans were simultaneously more invisible and absent. So we have an interesting landscape where gender is quite restrictive across a breadth of areas. Whether it’s invisibility, or a one-dimensional voice. I think either factor does not help. Consequently, I would like to see more research in this area. More interrogation of our restricted understandings or notions of gender, race, and perhaps even what are constituted as fan objects worthy of analysis (I think it could be much broader). Overall, I think fan studies is producing some amazing work, and has come so far, but there is still so much yet that demands exploring. And this makes me very excited.

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