Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Conversations About Digital Ethics (Part One)

Earlier this year, Common Sense Media, Global Kids, and the Good Play Project, three highly regarded groups, each working in different ways to promote the new media literacies, issued a report, Meeting of Minds: Cross-Generational Conversations About the Ethics of Digital Life, which summarized their collaborative efforts to get adults and youth discussing some core issues of online ethics. All three groups were active presences during the recent Diversifying Participation conference hosted last week by the MacArthur Foundation. I very much wanted to share the thinking behind the report with my readers and am happy today to offer you some insights from the three groups involved.

I have long believed in the importance of opening chains of communication across the generations around the uncertainities we face in the digital era. I modeled what such a conversation might look like between parent and child in an essay I wrote with my son on Buffy the Vampire Slayer for Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, and I published a study guide for adults and youth to conduct conversations in the wake of Columbine which appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Telemedium (now the Journal of Media Literacy).

In some ways, such conversations may be easiest to frame between adults and youth who are not directly related, since it gets us out of the raw emotions which often surround adolescence within the family space, but it is also very important for parents to have frank exchanges with their children about their values, their concerns, and their experiences with digital media. I’ve sometimes said in the past that young people do not need adults “snooping over their shoulders,” they need them “watching their backs.” By this, I mean that we often reduce such issues to questions of “monitoring’ youth activity (with or without their knowledge) and we really should be creating channels of communication. The news this week that a Pennsylvania school had installed spyware on their school-issued laptops and were watching what teens did outside of school is a demonstration of what happens when adults rely on surveillance rather than conversation to shape youth behavior. None of us know for sure the best course of action in confronting some of the new situations which emerge in this still evolving space. Young people deserve our best wisdom as adults, but they also deserve our respect and trust, as they try to develop their own ways in life.

I am really excited to see what these three groups have been able to accomplish using online forums as a tool for getting adults and youth to reflect more deeply about their relations to the digital realm.

Can you describe each of the three groups and some of your previous work in this area? Why did you decide to develop a collaborative project together and what did you each bring to the collaboration?

GLOBAL KIDS: Sure. For us at Global Kids, this project was in many ways a continuation of work we’ve been doing for almost ten years to promote youth voices about important social and global issues. We began youth projects that used online dialogues to do this as early as 2001, when we ran E.A. 911, short for “Everything After September 11th”, an online dialogue that took place six months after 9/11 where youth from around the world came together to talk about the impact of the attacks. We continued for years running youth dialogues on current events with a project called Newz Crew, a collaboration with PBS’s News Hour.

The Focus Dialogues, which formed the basis for the Meeting of Minds report, were born out of the desire to bring youth voice to the emerging conversation about how new media are changing kids’ lives. We held the first round of the dialogues, which were teen only, back in 2007, and we heard pretty forcefully from the participating teens that adults were checked out when it came to providing guidance in this area, which prompted us to take a cross-generational approach for the next round of dialogues. We were already familiar with GoodPlay’s work on ethics online as well as Common Sense Media’s work with parents, and it just seemed natural to reach out to them as collaborators.

GOODPLAY: For our part, we welcomed the opportunity to incorporate some of our research methods into this exciting initiative. Since 2006, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, the GoodPlay team has been studying young people’s understanding of the ethical dimensions of their online activities. In the first phase of our study, we conducted in-depth interviews with over 60 young people, ages 15-25, who were living in the Greater Boston area. In these interviews, we posed hypothetical ethical dilemmas involving digital media and asked participants how they would respond if confronted with a similar situation.

For the Focus Dialogues, we decided to adapt some of these hypothetical dilemmas and present them as points of discussion. We also identified several compelling quotes from our interviews in which youth participants expressed various opinions about the boundaries of acceptable behavior in online contexts. In total, we created 2-3 prompts for each of the five issues that we believe to be ethically charged in the new digital media:

  • identity (When does identity play cross over into deception?),
  • privacy (What are the boundaries of sharing information about oneself and others online?),
  • ownership/authorship (How has the act of creation been altered by digital media and with what effects on claims to ownership and authorship?),
  • credibility (How do people signal their trustworthiness online and judge the trustworthiness of others?),
  • participation (In a context of rapidly forming and disintegrating communities, how are norms of behavior established, maintained, and respected online?).

Each day, dialogue participants were presented with a prompt relating to one of these five ethical issues and asked to respond in a discussion thread. This approach generated some rich conversations between teens and adults.

COMMON SENSE MEDIA : As a non-profit, we were founded on the principle that dialogue among parents, teachers, and students is the way forward! One way we encourage discussion across the generations is by asking all parties to use our online ratings and reviews of movies, books, websites, and music, and to write reviews of their own. We have also conducted quantitative research about the attitudes towards media of adults and children, including a recent national poll examining hi-tech cheating with more than 2000 teens and parents. The dialogues were a creative, new way to conduct research and foster dialogue and we welcomed the chance to collaborate with Global Kids and GoodPlay on the project.

We knew the dialogues would inform our parent resources, policy work, and educational programs. We are in fact in the midst of creating a Digital Literacy and Citizenship curriculum for 5th-8th grade students that focuses on empowering kids to harness the power of digital technology responsibly. The curriculum, grounded in the research of the GoodPlay Project, is meant to be fun and engaging, and challenges kids to think critically about the perils and possibilities of life online. These dialogues and other focus groups and pilot research that we are conducting across the country all serve to inform this curriculum, which takes a whole community approach to engaging parents, teachers, and students in learning. As with GoodPlay, our work on digital citizenship is also supported in large part by the MacArthur Foundation.

Your key finding in the press release you’ve issued is that youth often lack access to valuable adult guidance in their online lives. Many have assumed that youth who are “digital natives” who do not necessarily need or appreciate adult interference. How do you respond to that argument?

GLOBAL KIDS: I think that there are a lot of ways that the digital natives argument has become more complicated and has shifted as the years have gone on. Just as people have realized that not all youth are equal in terms of technological access or the kinds of online participation they’re exposed to, there’s also been a growing awareness that there are many different aspects to what it means to be digitally fluent. For us, this doesn’t just mean having digital skills, but also engaging online as a digital citizen. A teen might be a technological whiz and seem completely at home within complex games, but if he or she is regularly cheating new players out of virtual cash while playing those games, that’s problematic. Digital skills and fluency can’t exist in a vacuum, there has to be a values component to this conversation.

COMMON SENSE MEDIA: In that respect, even adults who aren’t very technologically savvy can add a lot to their kids’ understanding of digital life. After all, kids may possess great technology know-how, but parents and teachers have a lot of wisdom and experience grappling with “life” issues like privacy and community. At the same time, there are some distinctly new ethical challenges (that the GoodPlay Project outlines so well in its white paper) that adults should understand, many of which we address in the report. Given that adults and teens bring different prior knowledge and life experience to the online space, we believe that the conversation and subsequent learning around these issues is a two-way street. Right now the online space is seen very much as a peer dominated space in which teens talk and interact mostly with one another. In most cases, it is even looked down upon for adults to have contact with teens online. We believe that the more dialogue and mentoring that adults and teens can have online – as long as it is monitored and safe – the better.

Describe for us the process of getting adults and young people engaged in an honest exchange about ethics and digital culture. Did you learn things here that would be helpful for other groups seeking to replicate this process at a local level?

COMMON SENSE MEDIA AND GLOBAL KIDS: In terms of activity in the dialogues, we were surprised that teens participated more readily than adults, on average, especially since we saw two adults sign up for every teen that did. We chalked up the participation differences to the fact that we had a lot of youth in the dialogues that were pretty involved in online communities and were used to sharing their views online from both a social as well as technological perspective. Adults overall were a little more hesitant and some had trouble navigating the technology, and we also got the sense that many were parents that had less experience with forum based discussions and didn’t realize that they actually had to build in time to participate fully.

There was a learning curve involved for some adults in terms of using an online environment, and that should certainly be taken into account for people looking to start similar exchanges in their communities. At the same time, the kind of youth engagement we saw was incredible, and we think there’s something to be said for that. So often it’s hard for adults to engage in dialogue about touchy issues with kids, but we found that online we saw very active sharing from the youth side.

Importantly, despite some of the differences that we observed between the two groups, it seemed that both generally saw the gray ethical areas for what they were. Adults overall did not seem too didactic or disrespectful of teens’ opinions and teens generally seemed to appreciate adults’ point of view. The interaction in many ways was characterized more by a kind of mutual exchange reminiscent of peers than the sort of stereotypical “parent yells at kid/kid storms off to their room” arguments that can come up when discussing difficult topics. We think that part of why this happened was that the whole interaction was framed from the beginning as a dialogue between groups, which is rare for adult/youth interactions. There’s probably some lesson there for those that want to run online dialogues themselves. Both sides need to be respected and valued from the outset for this kind of exchange to work.

You report that teens are more likely to engage in moral thinking than ethical thinking. Can you explain the distinction you are drawing and what your findings were?

GOODPLAY: The distinction we make between moral and ethical thinking has its roots in the different roles and relationships that individuals experience. Moral thinking arises in the context of interpersonal relationships, such as the relationship between close friends or between a parent and child. It is perhaps most simply conceived of as “Golden Rule thinking” – treat others how you would want them to treat you. In contrast, ethical thinking requires a more abstract, disinterested frame of mind. Specific forms of ethical thinking include reflection on roles and responsibilities in online spaces; perspective taking – or the ability to take the standpoints of multiple stakeholders in an online context; and consideration of community-level benefits or harms associated with different courses of action online.

In the Focus dialogues, we found relatively few instances of either moral or ethical thinking among teens, although there were some notable exceptions. For the most part, teen participants demonstrated what we call consequence-based thinking, since they tended to focus on how each scenario would affect them personally. For instance, when participants were considering the pros and cons of illegal music downloading, they were more likely to discuss such personally relevant factors as expense, convenience, and the risk of getting caught. Less frequent were references to the potential effects on other interested parties, such as artists and music companies.

Katie Davis is a Project Specialist on several research projects led by Dr. Howard Gardner at Project Zero, including the GoodPlay Project, the Developing Minds and Digital Media Project, and the Trust and Trustworthiness Project. She is also an advanced doctoral student in Human Development and Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. In recent work, she conducted a study investigating how girls in late adolescence and emerging adulthood use blogging as a way to express and explore their identities. For the Focus Dialogues, Katie and Carrie James, a Research Director and Principal Investigator at Project Zero, developed the framework that informed the dialogues, developed dialogue prompts, and synthesized findings.

Shira Lee Katz is the Digital Media Project Manager at Common Sense Media, where she manages the research and creation of a forthcoming Digital Citizenship curriculum for 5th-8th grade students. She is also a key point person for the Digital Media & Learning grantee network funded by The MacArthur Foundation. Shira holds a doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from Harvard Graduate School of Education. For the Focus Dialogues, Shira and Linda Burch, Common Sense Media’s Chief Education and Strategy Officer, co-conceptualized the project, developed dialogue prompts, recruited adult participants, and produced the final report.

Rafi Santo is a Senior Program Associate in the Online Leadership Program at Global Kids, Inc. Rafi specializes in the design and implementation of educational technology projects and has done work as varied as online youth dialogues, youth advisories focused around digital media, social media civic engagement programs and youth leadership development and peer education in virtual worlds. He has collaborated on projects with many organizations and with MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning grantees to strengthen their initiatives through youth voices and perspectives. Rafi has over 10 years of experience in youth development and education. For the Focus Dialogues, Rafi and Barry Joseph, Director of Global Kids’ Online Leadership Program, conceptualized the project, developed dialogue prompts, recruited teen participants, housed and monitored the dialogues on their website, a wrote the final report.

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Camille Bacon-Smith and Henry Jenkins at Gaylaxicon 1992 (Part Two)

Transcript of a panel discussion between Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith, moderated by Shoshanna, at Gaylaxicon 92, a science fiction convention by and for gay fandom and its friends, on 18 July 1992. At that time Henry was about to publish Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Routledge, 1992); Camille had published Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and Popular Culture (U. of Penn. Press, 1992). Shoshanna is a fan. All fans identified here are identified with the name/pseud they requested.

Shoshanna: I wanted to ask you guys to bring this back to media fandom a bit, and talk about the ways that you see media fans doing something different, and what–since the title of this is “The sociology of media fandom”–how do fans behave that’s not the way Lucasfilm behaves? If you find that interesting. And where do you think that comes from?

Camille: Well, first… I don’t do sociology, I do anthropology. It’s a little bit different. But that’s okay, because that’s what we called this panel anyway. So if there’s any sociologists out there who are sitting there saying, “That’s not sociology,” I know that.

NB: That’s another territorial battle in itself.

Camille: Yes, it is.

Henry: I’d say we poach right across that one and keep going…

Shoshanna: And we’re not going to fight that one.

Camille: It’s hard for me to say because one of the things that I really feel strongly about is that media fans are doing something, in a particular way, that is a folk process that goes on in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of things, everywhere all around the world. The problem we have is that we tend to think that what happens in straight white male America is the norm. In fact, it is the exception. And what women in media fandom, what the guys who come into media fandom, are doing is what everybody else all over the world is doing. They are taking the items of their culture, they are recombining them, remanufacturing them… The notion of originality has to do with how well you can represent the norm, what you can bring to the aesthetic conventions of what you already hold dear. The important thing is not to write a slash story that’s completely different from every other slash story. This would be a total waste of effort. No one would want to read it. The point is, you want to write the slash story that is the best slash story because it does what everybody else does, better. It does the same theme, but does it with a little more insight. Or even with the same amount of insight as this other story you liked. Or you’re recombining this element instead of that element. But this whole notion that you have to be different to be good is different from–it’s what we think of as high art, but it’s different from the way most of the world conducts its art.

Henry: If I could follow up on that… The other thing that I think is radically different is the economic relations involved in fandom. What excites me is the degree to which fandom is really based on the communal notion that you have something that you want to share with the community, not you have something you want to make a profit off of. And fandom at its best is when fans… The circuit is a good example of this. Things are distributed at cost. Ideally, zine publishing as it started was a matter of, I will charge you what it cost to produce the zine, with maybe enough more to let me start up the next zine. You’re not profiteering off of zine publishing. The fan filk clubs trade tapes back and forth. The fan video artists make, you know, “Send me a tape and I’ll give you a copy of my videos.” I see some danger of that changing, and I’m a little concerned at the advent of semi-pro filk organizations that publish conglomerate filk, or at some of the new conglomerates of zine publishing that are just sucking in zines and selling them, and there’s now a middleman between the writer and the reader. What I like about fandom is that, unlike in professional publishing, the writer and the reader actually have something to say to each other. I write a letter to a zine editor and say, “I’d like to read your zine.” She sends it back to me. I write back and say, “That was a great story. I really liked this, this, and this.” That creates a channel in which the reader can become a writer, the writer is always a reader, the roles are not as rigidly bound up apart from each other, and that sense of possessiveness and profiteering is absent, in favor of a sense of community, of sharing, of giving back. You write your stories to be read by your friends, you don’t write them to be read by your customers, and I think that that is something that’s really important about fandom, and very different from the notions of intellectual properties that we’ve been talking about, in corporate America.

Camille: And again, much like the rest of the world has conducted its art since time began.

Henry: Absolutely.

BT: [mostly unintelligible; then:] …having their [i.e. fans’] own community, partly because no one else wants to be in it [Laughter] and partly because it’s something that’s theirs and they don’t want other people in it. So fans become possessive about some of the academic interest in the community.


em>Shoshanna: I would suggest that it’s not just possessive, it’s defensive. Because we’ve seen so many Newsweek magazine articles that begin, “Hang on! You’re being beamed to one of those weirdo Trekkie cons!” And there’s a sense of being made fun of. It’s very exciting for me to be up here sitting on this panel between two academic authors who are not making fun of us. And that’s because they are us.

Camille: Oh, I saw the first review of my book. It was written by a literary scholar, and the funny thing was, several of the people who brought this to my attention laughed and said, it doesn’t look like he even quite knows what anthropology is. But his positive evaluation of the book, and he really thought this was a positive evaluation of the book, was that when he started reading this book he thought these people were really really weird. And I was sufficiently persuasive that by the end he didn’t think they were quite as weird as he had when he started. And it’s like, wait a minute. Wait a minute. Back up. Read it over again. Read my lips, you know? You’re weird.

Henry: I talk in the book some about this policing of boundaries. There are these stereotypes out there. And I’ve had the same sets of experiences, where in the academic community they read it and say, you took a subject that I thought was indefensible, you took a subject that… I thought I could not be made sympathetic with these people at all, and I started to understand where they were coming from. And that to me is powerful praise, because that’s the fight we’re fighting out here. The mundane world does not get it. It simply does not get what fandom’s about, and it needs to be explained to them. Once it’s explained, I think there’s not the hostility, maybe, as much. There’s a certain fear… slash provokes its own anxieties within the homophobia of the culture we live in, there’s a certain fear about women writing their own stories about men–that spooks the daylights out of a lot of men in our society–but the notion of, once you start thinking intelligently about what’s going on here, one can change. But fandom is defensive, for very good reasons.

Camille: But you don’t want those guys poking around in your dresser drawers.

NB: You can answer this question, or not answer this question, because this particular fan convention is a Gay-laxicon, and… I’ve read countless analyses of how the straight mundane community reacts to fandom, or media fandom or what have you, and I’ve gotten varied reactions from people in the–when I say “gay,” I mean gay, lesbian, bisexual, trisexual, whatever–I’ve gotten varied responses from people within the gay community. Depending on which parts… I mean, anything from politically correct lesbian feminists who say, why are you writing about all these men, to again, the breaking up of the notion that it’s all a bunch of heterosexual… I mean, I am a fanzine editor, and I thought I was the only lesbian who liked to read and write male slash stories, until I met a whole bunch of other lesbians, and bisexuals and what have you, and met a couple of gay men. And so you’ve got a significant part of the gay community in this. And then there are gay men, a few, a minority, that like to write slash stories, and then other gay men who sit there and say, this is not realistic, or a man I talked to was saying, “Slash writers aren’t writing about me,” was one reaction I talked to somebody about. So I’d like to see whether you have any comments about, or what you would think about sociological, anthropological, what have you, about how all this impacts on the gay community, and gay fandom.

Camille: What I did when I was working on my book, particularly when I hit slash, was, my field, folklore, is overwhelmingly gay. It’s overwhelmingly gay. So this may be one of the few fields in academia where heterosexual people are in the minority. And so it was very easy for me to just go to any number of my classmates and just, cold, slap a fanzine on their desk and say, tell me what you make of this. Generally speaking, the gay men thought it was hysterically funny, and there was this Professionals story called “Masquerade.” [It’s on the circuit.] When they hit “Masquerade,” they would come back to me and they would say, “I’ve seen it.” Not, “I’ve seen this story,” but “I’ve seen this in real life. I have seen this dance,” they would call it, this first-time dance. There were some stories that were totally ludicrous, and in fact one very dear friend, who is a gay man and who does write the stories, and in fact likes the most romantic, just to be authentically slash will deliberately put at least five impossible sexual acts into his stories. [Laughter.] And he called me up one day and he was devastated, because his library had just gotten in a copy of the Joy of Gay Sex and he discovered one of his impossible sexual acts was in fact possible. [Laughter.] So now he had to think up another one. I’m looking for a picture here, I can’t find it… Because one of the things that–yes, I found it. However, one day… [She is getting ready to hold her book up; laughter.] Now this is not a wildly filthy picture I’m going to open this book up to. However, this picture came in one day and I showed it to one of my friends, and first his mouth dropped open. Then a couple of hours later, we were in the archives, he came back with a friend of his, and said, show him the picture. And his mouth dropped open. Now the thing is, that’s the picture. [She holds it up. It’s on page 185, for all you folks reading along; it’s a TACS portrait of Doyle, shrouded in mist and gazing piercingly out at you, with his shirt and jacket open to show his chest and his trousers unzipped to show pubic hair but no genitalia. It originally appeared in Discovered in a Graveyard.] Now these are people who had no idea who this person was, but it sort of got them. The gay women that I showed it to had no interest in it at all; they thought that this was totally politically incorrectly stupid. And they basically said, you know, if I want to read men together, I’ll read The Deerslayer; I don’t have to read these, you know? And they would say to me, where are the stories about the two women? And I would say, I don’t have any. Or I only have these, and I’d give them copies of this one fanzine that I had, and it would be, like, this thick, and it maybe had two pages [of female slash]. And they would say, well, I’m not interested in this anyway, and they’d put it aside [? unclear].


Henry: I could address your question. Your question poses a number of possible responses to me, all of which, I think, are important to raise. One is that one of the problems I’ve had with Joanna Russ and other writers who have written about slash–is that the question is often posed as, why do straight women want to write sex about gay men? And it became immediately clear to me, as I was doing this, exactly what you’re saying: there are large numbers of lesbians and bisexual women in the slash community, and there needs to be a way to account for that pleasure. I’m not sure I fully address it, but at least I think it comes up in my book, with accounts that don’t hinge on heterosexual fantasies, which I think some of the earlier accounts did pose a very heterocentrist conception of what is going on when people read and write slash. The second point I’d make, and I’m going three different directions here, is that I’ve shared this with David Halperin, a colleague of mine and a noted gay historian, and he became very excited and has written an essay comparing the myths of Gilgamesh and the Iliad to slash. [Laughter.] Because his work is about Greek sexuality, and his point was, the ancient Greeks went back and reread Homer, and the Greeks had a sexuality which was based on a much broader range of sexual object choices than present-day society–he doesn’t like to use the word “homosexual,” or “gay,” because it’s inappropriate historically–but same-sex relationships were quite regular. When they reread the Iliad , they slashed it, in effect. And there are lots of Greek manuscripts about Achilles and his charioteer, that Homer probably didn’t read those relationships as lovers. But many of the Greeks did, and, in fact, began to rewrite it. So he sees slash as continuing with that, and there’s now a great deal of excitement in the gay and lesbian studies community about it. And the third point I would make is more personal, which grows out of my own experience reading slash, as someone who had thought of himself in primarily heterosexual terms; I’m married, I have a son. But in the process of reading slash, I discovered that I was bi. I discovered something that was very important to me, that I really did take pleasure in this, that this fantasy really appealed to me, it opened me up to a variety of other types of experiences to think about, [to think about] my sexuality in very different terms. And I think that that process is potentially going on more large scale in our society right now. If you look at Penthouse Letters right now, for example, they’ve moved gradually over the ten years of porn reading that I’ve gone through from having ménage à trois scenarios that involved two men and one woman and the two men don’t touch, to having the woman direct the men to suck each other off, to now there are now columns of gay scenarios, first-time stories, published for the predominantly straight readership of Penthouse, which are completely two gay men, or a gay man introducing a straight man to the experience of gay sex is what normally the scenario is. That’s just a broadening of acceptance of this in the straight male community. And I think slash is part of–could potentially be part of that process of changing the homophobia in our society, or at least opening straight men to admit their own bisexuality, and to admit desires that they’re not publicly allowed to express, the very desires that are repressed in the television narratives slash builds on.

Camille: I just wanted to add something that I thought was very interesting. I started my study in 1982. And what I found was that the representation of gay and bisexual women in particular increased dramatically in fandom after 1986, when Joanna Russ’s article came out. [This article was published in two versions. One, aimed at non-fans and entitled “Pornography By Women, For Women, With Love,” was in her collection of essays Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans, and Perverts (Crossing Press, 1985); the other, aimed at fans and entitled “Another Addict Raves About K/S,” was published in a K/S zine–I think it was Nome 8 but I’m not certain. It has been circulating informally in fandom since.] That article seemed to make– It was not really just a matter of that an audience became aware of this that didn’t know about it, but an audience also was told that it was for them. And I think that was a very important thing for many people, because many people said that that’s where they heard about it.

NB: [unclear; in Darkover fandom, lesbian slash is written] not only by lesbians, and bisexuals maybe, but by perfectly straight women who maybe are just exploring that tiny bit of bisexuality, and some of them… a couple of the best lesbian slash–I mean, they have that lesbian slash feel that’s been in the professionally published anthologies, have been written by women I know are straight, and some of them by straight men… [something unclear, suggesting that Darkover fandom/fan writing isn’t segregated by gender or orientation, unlike media fandom, which] is kind of segregated, you know… I am a writer of lesbian as well as male slash, and I can’t, you know… I just wrote a Thelma and Louise story, and it was published, and the editor called me up and said it’s getting a positive response, and I’d like to think that there are some straight women who are responding positively, as well as gay women and everybody else. One of the big problems with lesbian media slash is the lack of credible women; it probably is the main problem, that tv and movies don’t give us… They are terrified of women in pairs; look at the big brouhaha over Thelma and Louise.

Henry: But I think it’s possible to reclaim those characters in the margin. I’ve read Yar/Troi stories, for example–which are a stretch, and a big one–but there is a way in which you’re playing two different styles of femininity against each other that works on the printed page.

NB: I wrote an Uhura/Saavik story, which will be published in the fall–I mean, that’s a real stretch, but I was just fantasizing…

Henry: Blake’s 7 characters… The treatment of women on Blake’s 7 lends itself to some interesting slash pairings as well.

Male audience member: [unclear; he’d like to bring it back to] the question of appropriating cultural icons for dissemination. I don’t know–how large is the typical circulation for a fanzine? How many fanzines are there? What is the approximate composition of the people who write and read fanzines? [something unclear; then] Part of the question for the art is that people tend, in my knowledge of folk culture, people tend to appropriate, but they produce art for local consumption, a very small community rather than a mass community, which gets back to the difference between Lucasfilm, which is producing a mass amount of stuff [laughter], or now we have the technology for self-publishing large amounts of [unclear; of slash SW stories] for your family, for your friends, for your local club. My real question is, what is the population? I don’t know.

Henry: Maybe you can answer this better than I can, Camille; you have numbers in the book. I swore off counting things in my book.

Camille: Yeah, okay. There’s thousands and thousands and thousands of fanzines. There were over thirty thousand people who had written in them when I stopped counting in 1986. The fanzines that I know that have sold the most are pretty much mainstream genzines–well, not genzines; what that word means has changed its meaning in fandom, in the fan community. The ones that have sold the most are some of the oldest zines, and they’re still selling. Jean Lorrah’s Night of the Twin Moons has sold–each individual fanzine has sold over five thousand copies. DL regularly will sell out her Star Trek, basically PG-rated fanzines with no slash content, and she can sell out fifteen hundred copies regularly, and she comes out with two or three different ones a year. Slash… the most explosively distributed fanzine that I recall in slash was Courts of Honor. It sold six hundred–they printed six hundred copies. And I believe Nome, which is another very big, very well-respected Trek zine, does between six and seven hundred copies. So we’re talking very different numbers for slash. And once you leave Star Trek, the numbers drop dramatically, so that a print run for a minor… less… for what used to be called a “fringe” fandom, but fandom has changed, is between two hundred and a hundred copies. So the numbers really start to drop off pretty sharply when you get into slash, and that’s a major move up in slash. Now what was the other question?

Shoshanna: In terms of number of fans, it’s worth saying that there are fan communities on every English-speaking continent. There are very large ones in the States, obviously; there are very large ones in Great Britain; there’s a good-sized fan community in Australia; there are also smaller fan communities that I know of, because I’ve visited them, in France and in the Netherlands. The Netherlands is really small, the one I know of. But anywhere that these media products are available, there are fans.

Camille: It is also not true that the appropriation of materials is only done in very small communities for very small distribution. Because what often happens, and has happened since at least the fifteenth century, or actually the twelfth, I suppose, is stories may start in a small community, but they will travel very rapidly. So for example, the story of Cinderella originated in China in the fourth century, traveled all over, all over the world. So these kinds of folk articles have as much globe-trotting capacity as what we’re doing today. It takes a little bit longer; it may take a few hundred years instead of a few hundred milliseconds, but this stuff has always traveled.

Henry: One of the things that interests me is precisely the global circulation of zines. You read zines from England, Australia, Iceland. These zines are read, and people can build a national or even international reputation in fandom that nobody on the street would have even heard of. Artists at cons… I have JK’s artwork on the cover of the book, and that may mean something to media fans, and her name on a painting at MediaWest, say, will up its price six, seven hundred dollars fairly regularly. My publisher, of course, never heard of her. This is, so far as I know, the first commercial book cover that JK has ever done. But I chose it with the confidence that that name recognition would be there for media fans, and it would be a signal that this book, despite its kind of academic title, is addressed to them as well. The notion in our society that women, particularly, have so few outlets for gaining status, that women who are in low-paying jobs, who are in secretarial positions, who are, you know, in service sector jobs, can gain a national and international reputation as an artist, as a writer, as an editor, is a very important aspect of fandom, I think; precisely that it is a larger community that you can become important in. And I think that matters to people on a lot of levels; I think it’s really important that such a space exists.

Camille: It really matters if you travel, because you can travel from house to house all around the world; it’s really great fun.

Henry: And at the same time, the process, like the folk process… I ran into Leslie Fish’s filk songs in the southern cons, for example, where people sang the songs but had no idea that Leslie Fish had written them. They had become so much part of a community and had traveled, like your Cinderella story, across these spaces, often without people knowing, intermediate, where they had come from, and they really had been taken up as a folk text, in a very traditional sense, the same way, presumably, earlier folk songs lost their authors in the process.

Shoshanna: And, circularly enough, there is a filk song–filk music is science fiction folk music–there is a filk song entitled “Look What They’ve Done to My Song,” which is the filk singer who goes to a convention and hears other people singing his song, only they’ve changed it. [Laughter.]

Camille: Yes, and he probably stole the tune anyway.

Shoshanna: We have about three minutes left. Do you guys have wrap-up comments, or does any audience member want to get something in quick? [Pause.] All right, sum your books up in two minutes each.

Henry: Well, rather than summing my book up, I wanted to stress that we’re not unique in this. There are large numbers of graduate students and junior faculty people out there who, like me, came up through fandom, who are part of the fan community and who are now choosing, in whatever discipline they’re in, to write about it. I know of so many projects out there that I think are real important dialogue beginning to take place, at least in media studies and film studies, between fans and the academic way of approaching media. And I think fandom offers the academy new models for criticism, new models of engaging with texts that are going to be very productive. We’re learning from you, and I’m glad to be part of you at the same time.

Camille: Well, I suppose that it’s time to ‘fess up. All the while that I was doing my book, I was an academic, and that’s all I did. And I would actually write stories, and I would go around from group to group, and get them to finish the stories for me, and tell me what to write, so that I’d know what was going on, and what the process was. But when I finished the book and put it all away, I discovered there was this one little set of stories that I couldn’t put away. And so somehow I had gone native in this one little tiny section, and the problem is… It’s not the big section like, you know, Star Trek--If I ever saw Kirk and Spock again…well, you know, I’m here. One of the reasons we don’t have many people here [at the con] is they’re probably all over watching Bill and Len’s Excellent Adventure as we speak, because they’re at the Civic Center, Shatner and Nimoy [at a CreationCon the same weekend]. But there’s this little tiny group called Pros–The Professionals. And it’s a show that you’ve never seen, unless you’re from England, in which case you won’t admit to having seen it because it is total trash. Oh, it is, it is…if it wasn’t trash I wouldn’t like it. [Laughter.] But I couldn’t–some of the stories were really neat and I couldn’t stop. So, if anybody’s got anything that’s been written in the last two years about the Professionals, I want it. And I want it now! [Laughter.]

Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith at Gaylaxicon 1992 (Part One)

This week, I am continuing to share a second piece from the historic archives of the Aca-Fan world: an exchange between Camille Bacon-Smith and myself at Gaylaxicon 1992. You should know that both Enterprising Women and Textual Poachers were very new books at the time this exchange took place, having appeared just a few months apart, and that the fan world was still trying to process what it meant to be the object of academic study. I would later, in fact, write an essay on the Gaylaxians themselves which appeared in my book (written with John Tulloch), Science Fiction Audiences, and was reprinted in an edited form in Fans, Bloggers and Gamers. I am hoping that these documents may be a source of nostalgia for some and a historical resource for others. In this segment, the two authors introduce themselves, their relations to fandom, and the central arguments of their books, and then instantly get pulled into a discussion of copyright and authorial rights, issues never far from the surface when fandom is concerned.

Transcript of a panel discussion between Henry Jenkins and Camille Bacon-Smith, moderated by Shoshanna, at Gaylaxicon 92, a science fiction convention by and for gay fandom and its friends, on 18 July 1992. At that time Henry was about to publish Textual poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (Routledge, 1992); Camille had published Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and Popular Culture (U. of Penn. Press, 1992). Shoshanna is a fan. All fans identified here are identified with the name/pseud they requested.

Shoshanna: Welcome to the panel on Sociology of media fandom. My name is Shoshanna, and I’m moderating this panel because I’m not actually one of the experts on it. [Camille and Henry laugh.] I’m here to introduce people. On my left is Henry Jenkins, whose book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture is about to be released [it is, of course, now available]; and on my right is Camille Bacon-Smith, whose book Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and Popular Culture is already out. Camille and Henry have been studying, and have written books on, media fandom, which is a little different from science fiction fandom in that we’re talking about fans of television and movie characters, mostly, rather than of science fiction books. But it’s a similar kind of community. And they’ve written very interesting books from somewhat different perspectives. Camille came out of anthropology and ethnology, and she was a science fiction fan but she was not a media fan when she began the study–she went into the community because it looked like an interesting thing to study. Henry, on the other hand, comes from a different academic discipline–he’s coming out of popular culture and media studies–and he was a media fan already. That’s part of the reason he went into that academic field; he was a fan, and it looked like an interesting tool with which to look at what he was already doing. So we have two people with two interesting books coming at the same community with two different takes, looking at some of the interesting things that people in this community do. For instance, the community is largely female, as you can see if you look around the room–we welcome men [Henry laughs]–but heavily focused on male characters. When female characters are used by the fans who write stories about television characters, it can be problematic; that’s one of the things we’re going to talk about. And in particular one of the things that fans do–I am a media fan, and I do all the things I’m talking about, I am the community that they’re studying [Laughter; Camille sings “We are the world…”]… One of the things that we fans do frequently–not always, and not even most of us, but many of us–is write homoerotic, homosexual stories, where we take two characters, almost always male, like Kirk and Spock, or Starsky and Hutch, and create them as lovers. And we write pornography, or erotica, or whatever word you like, but definitely one of the reasons is because it turns us on, and one of the reasons is because we’re really interested in the characters. These range from PG-rated to triple-X-your-mother-would-die. And the question of why does this almost entirely female community write all this almost entirely gay male erotica is a really interesting question that I hope we can get into. I’m just laying out some introductory comments on these people; I’m going to now ask each of them to talk about takes they want to take and things they want to talk about on this panel. Camille, why don’t you start, since your book is already out, and some of these people may have read it?

Camille: Okay. What did you want me to say about it?

Shoshanna: Bring up some interesting questions, or particular things that surprised you about the community that you found, so we can talk about them.

Camille: Okay, well… The reason I studied this community at all was because I’d actually started to study the science fiction community; that’s my next book. But while I was studying science fiction fans, I kept bumping into these attitudes, or I’d talk to these guy fans and they’d say, “Well, gee, you should have been here before all these women came in with their Spock ears, and screaming teenybopper things.” And then I was, of course, talking to women, and they’d say, “I am in Star Trek fandom.” And I’d say, “How did you get into it?” and they’d say things like, “Well, I’d been reading science fiction since I was nine or ten…” and a funny thing about that–when I asked guys how they got interested in science fiction, they’d say, “Well, I started reading it when I was nine or ten.” And so it was like, hmm…something’s wrong here. You know? These women, who seemed to be in their twenties and thirties and forties and fifties, didn’t look like the teenyboppers with Spock ears who went screaming after stars, and passing out, and behaving like I did when I was thirteen and the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. They have master’s degrees, this woman is a chemist, this woman is a botanist, this woman is an English literature professor… So I had this real peculiar dichotomy, difference, between the perception of women in the science fiction community and what those women really turned out to be. So I decided that the more interesting question at that time was, well, if these women are not doing what everybody thinks they’re doing, what the hell is it that they’re doing? So that’s what I went to find out. What I found out was that they were writing. Just thousands and thousands of stories. Billions and billions of stories. And every one of them had sentient life. Well, most of them had sentient life; some of them just had mad rutting sex, and they’re the ones I collect the most. [Laughter.] Can you say “hatstand”? That is a very insider word for a story that is very very short and exists only for the purpose of presenting a sex scene.

Shoshanna: It originates from a British fan who looked at these stories once and said of the men in them, “They’re all bent as bloody hatstands!”

Camille: Yes. So I started studying this, and then I started studying what people were reading and writing, and then… why were they writing this? I mean, not just for slash but for just about everything I read, I sort of had this question: Why do all the women have to be so young, so smart, so god-awful perky, and in particular, at the end, why do they have to be so dead?

Shoshanna: In the stories that the women are writing?

Camille: Yes, in the stories that the women are writing. And with the slash stories, you know, gee…hmm… Where are the women? Where are the women in these stories? Why are there no women? And of course in the hurt/comfort story, “you only hurt the one you love”…and why? So I had all these “why” questions, and I spent years in school being told that “why” was a question you couldn’t answer, that it was an inappropriate question to ask, and that I had to restructure my question into something that was more askable. But unfortunately I never got past six years old. So “why” remained my question, and that’s what I’m trying to answer.

Henry: Well, as Shoshanna mentioned, I have been part of the fandom, I guess for fifteen years now. I discovered it when I was in high school. I’d always been attached to television shows like Batman when I was a kid, playacting in the back yard, reading Forrest Ackerman publications and so forth. Between high school and college I started going to cons, and met a number of people that I liked. At that time I was involved with the woman who is now my partner, and she really introduced me to the fanzine scene. And part of getting to know her was getting to know fanzines, and understanding them. Initially I thought, “This is not something I’m interested in.” The questions they were asking, trying to patch up holes in episodes, I said, “Well, it’s because the production crew screwed up.” My initial move as a male fan and male reader was to say, any problems I couldn’t account for within the text, I accounted for by appealing to outside forces, like authors and producers. And this [what the female fans were doing] is a very unusual way to read, to actually feel comfortable making up part of the story, to be involved enough with these characters to feel that I have the right to speak about them, and to move beyond my respect for the author. And that growth process really changed the way I thought about television, and the way in which I thought about the media, and really got me excited about media.

So I decided to go to graduate school and study media, so that I could teach and talk about television. And what I encountered there was a variant of “Get a life.” That is, the way in which academics talk about the audience, by and large, is not unlike the way mundane journalists talk about fandom: as mindless consumption, as stupid passive acceptance of whatever the text gives out; you just sort of suck it in, “yes, I’ve been programmed by the television show.” And I said, this doesn’t make any sense, given what I’m seeing going on out there in fandom; be it panel discussions of episodes, or zine writing, or other forms of fan creativity, it just doesn’t match up with the stereotypes. So I decided that it was important to me, as a fan, to write a book that addressed that set of stereotypes, and is addressed doubly to a fan readership, which I think needs to hear about itself and needs to be proud of itself, and to an academic readership, which I think needs to hear what’s going on out there, what fandom is about. And I wrote it in communication with the fan community; some of the people I worked with on the book are in this room. It was an ethnographic project in some senses; it was also text-based. I spend a fair amount of time talking about what goes on in letterzine criticism, what goes on in certain forms of fanzine writing. And it’s also aware of structures of television, the way in which the fanzine stories relate to the structures of the original episode.

I should explain the title, Textual Poachers. Camille, I think, has a much more reader-friendly title, Enterprising Women; you know more or less what she’s getting at, there. “Textual poachers” is a metaphor that runs through the book, and one that has a certain resonance in many academic communities, but I’ve found that fans don’t always know what to do with it. It comes out of the work of a French sociologist, Michel de Certeau, who argues that reading, essentially, is a matter of appropriation. As we read, we take up materials that someone else created for their reasons, and we make them our own. We take them over and reallocate them, to speak to alternative interests. And I think that’s certainly, dramatically, what takes place in Star Trek fandom or other fandoms. People don’t just literally reproduce the episode; they rewrite it. They restructure its orientation. I have a subsection in my book called “Ten Ways to Write a Television Show.” It identifies ten very different ways that fans restructure the television shows they’re given, to make them speak to the alternative interests of that particular community. And the term “poaching” refers to that.

And I think what’s important about it is that it also recognizes the power relations that are involved, and the political dimension of what it means to be a fan. Which is that there’s someone out there who controls the means of production and the networks, who controls what makes it on the airwaves, and controls the content. And we as viewers are in subordinate positions; but we have the power that the traditional poachers, the original peasant rebel groups, had to take up the resources belonging to the landowners and reroute them, and make them our own. You can think about Robin Hood as a classic poacher, who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. And, essentially, what I see taking place in fandom is that process, where we steal the cultural resources that belong to the networks and we remake them, to speak to what we as fans want them to be, be they concerns as women, or racial concerns, sexual politics questions or whatever. That’s what I think happens most of the time, when people are engaged in fan writing, in one way or another. And I’d like to talk some about intellectual property at some point in this, but I wanted to move on to other questions.

Camille: Could I address one other thing?

Henry: Sure.

Camille: One of the things that’s real interesting about Henry’s book is that, historically… I’m an anthropologist, but my specialty is folklore. And I study folk esthetic production, and I’ve studied it historically as well as contemporary folklore. And one of the interesting things is that the “folk” have done precisely the same thing, historically, as far back as you can imagine.

Henry: Absolutely.

Camille: In the forties, people would appropriate the tunes to pop songs so that they could write their own ballads, and even our national anthem is appropriated from a drinking song. So this concept of appropriating the artifacts of our culture is a long-standing tradition; it has been in practice far longer than copyright or trademark law have been.

Henry: Just to follow up on that…this is absolutely right. One reason we don’t see it as political–and fans often don’t talk about themselves as political, even though this tactic is one that most marginal groups and political groups have used, and certainly is part of folklore going way way back–is that we don’t have a politics of cultural preference that mirrors things like the politics of sexual preference. We don’t think of our cultural choices as political, or as part of our political life. But if the personal is political, in that aesthetic judgements have a great deal of political dimension as well, and even if we don’t talk about the political content of fan writing, simply the act of choosing a text that means something to you, and using it in a way that violates intellectual property, that violates copyright law, to make it your own, is, to my mind, a profoundly political act.

BT, in audience: [unclear; suggesting that women may understand texts differently than men do.]

Camille: Mm-hmm.

Henry: Absolutely.

Shoshanna: And what we’re looking at here is women–the fan community being largely women–understand Kirk and Spock differently from the way straight male culture does, and the way that Gene Roddenberry did, and reappropriate what they see, and recontextualize it for their own use.

    Henry: I had said I would say something about intellectual property… There’s a slogan that I’ve heard–I don’t even know the source of it–that says, “If creativity is a field, copyright is a fence.” And I like that as a statement of what I think fandom is about. That is, we as a culture have crushed the potential for cultural production, by creating fences around intellectual property. And I’m very much opposed– I think copyright is ultimately the death of culture. That the notion of individual authorship, individual possession, and corporate right to control characters ultimately prevents the kind of growth and cross-pollination of culture that we see in classic folktales, for example. The character of Coyote, and the character of Bre’r Rabbit, and the character of King Arthur have been rewritten countless times without regard to any boundaries separating authors and readers. What fandom does is precisely refuse to recognize those boundaries. It’s our perfect right– They beam into our living room every week, and we have the right to tell stories about them, because they are part of our culture.

Camille: I remember in–I think it was eighty-three, the Baltimore WorldCon–does anybody remember when Baltimore’s WorldCon was? [Pause.] You’re all too young to have been alive then, I know. There was a really interesting panel among the professional science fiction writers, the commercially published science fiction writers, because it was right about that time that the controversy over Marion Zimmer Bradley’s sponsored fanzines came up. Because writers were very much afraid of the precedent that Marion Zimmer Bradley’s allowing fans who did not ask her specific permission to write stories in her universe, what implications that would have as a precedent for their ownership of their own characters and universes. Because what they feared was that, if this terrible movement got out of hand, there was the potential for a change in the law, and they would by precedent have the right to control their own characters taken away from them. So this was right at the point where shared universes were coming into being; it was before Merovingian Nights, before Damnation Alley–I think that’s Roger Zelazny’s shared universe–and this whole concept of, if you share the universe, have you lost the rights to it? And if you share the universe today, and want it back tomorrow, do you have the right to take it back, or have you lost the right altogether? It was a huge controversy at the time, it was a major, major controversy in the Science Fiction Writers of America [a world-wide, not just US, professional organization], and the entire thing pretty much died down, not because it was even tested by law, but simply because people began to realize that there is a certain etiquette and courtesy that goes on. That material that is borrowed tends to remain at the folk level, and in material that moves out of the folk level, there is a very carefully maintained sense of etiquette. So that people ask people if they can use their characters; even fans ask other fans if they can use the characters they created. And this very interesting thing goes on in fan writing, that they will use the commercial characters with impunity, but ask permission for the character that the fan writer created. And I think that this has been a very interesting balancing force in this whole ownership of creativity kind of argument.

Shoshanna: I want to mention in this context the Lucasfilm flap, which happened at about the same time as what Camille is talking about. Fans were writing Star Wars fan stories, and some of these were slash stories, and that means stories that pair two characters and set them up as gay, so we’re talking Han and Luke as lovers, or whatever.

BT: Actually, the stories Lucasfilm saw and objected to were all straight stories.

Shoshanna: Oh, I didn’t know that. Okay. So Lucasfilm was objecting to explicit straight stories. And what they said was, “You may not do this. This is our property. We will let you use the characters for things that we approve of, but you are not currently following the family values of the Star Wars films, and so we will not let you do this. We will sue.” And what happened was, first of all, Lucasfilm’s lawyers were bigger than our lawyers, and so people stopped publishing this stuff, but it went underground, and it throve underground, and I’ve seen a number of stories that begin, “Lucasfilm says we can’t do this. Lucasfilm has no right to say we can’t do this. I am doing this partly to piss Lucasfilm off.” And there were other fans who said Lucasfilm did have the right. So the whole issue of intellectual property became crucial there, and it centered around sexuality, which I find interesting.

Henry: I actually in the book have a quote from the Lucasfilm lawyers, which says, [reading from the book] “Lucasfilm LTD does own all rights to the Star Wars characters, and we’re going to insist upon no pornography. This may mean no fanzines if this measure is what is necessary to stop the few from darkening the reputation our company is so proud of. Since all of the Star Wars saga is PG-rated, any story these publishers print should also be PG. Lucasfilm does not produce any X-rated Star Wars episodes, so why should we be placed in a light where people think we do? You don’t own these characters and can’t publish anything about them without permission.” And so that’s the language that Lucasfilm was using. And many fans, as Shoshanna was suggesting, turned that back and said, “no. You don’t have the right to determine what these characters mean, you don’t have the right to determine what our fantasies involving them are going to look like, and we will continue to do so,” but to protect themselves, pushed themselves further underground, toward a circuit structure rather than a fanzine structure. Because I’ve got in my files a number of circuit stories involving Star Wars characters that came out after that.

Camille: But I didn’t talk about them in my book, and I don’t recall your talking about those particular stories…

Henry: I just acknowledge the existence of them, but I don’t discuss them directly, because I didn’t want to–

Camille: –didn’t want to get sued, didn’t want the other person to get sued.

NB, in audience: That’s kind of died down, Lucasfilm, because I just recently read a Star Wars story that has been published in a zine.

Shoshanna: Oh, yeah. It’s died down. On the other hand, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro has just sicced her lawyers on a fanzine publisher and confiscated all unsold issues because they made unauthorized use of a character of hers. It still goes on. It’s still a fight.

NB: Oh, yeah. C. J. Cherryh, I heard her in a panel at Darkover Grand Council, where she said anyone–she has a trademark, not a copyright, it’s a trademark, and anyone who writes in her universe without her permission, she’s going to sue them. I’m a fanzine editor, and I had to reject a story because it was based in C. J. Cherryh’s universe, and I can not afford to be sued, and the story is now on the circuit. I haven’t read it, I understand it’s wonderful–I’ve read the author’s other stories–and I’m sorry I couldn’t use it.

Henry: The interesting thing about trademark is that trademark originated to protect the consumer against false advertising. The whole point of trademark law two hundred years ago, three hundred years ago, when it was set up in this country, was that you want to be able to tell that this is an authentic good by a producer, not a fake one. The legal precedent over the last how-many-umpteen years has rewritten it completely, so that it’s now to protect the producers against the consumers taking up, for their own use, those characters. And it’s even gotten to the point where academics have difficulty writing about trademarked characters. Camille and I were both involved in a book on Batman, in which no artwork was allowed to be reproduced, because DC had trademark control over everything, and had not authorized the project, with the result that the cover of The Many Faces of the Batman has to suggest “Batman-ness” without having anything on it that is literally Batman. And its potential for stifling, again, intellectual growth, cultural growth, communication of subcultures, is astonishing.

Male audience member: I think it goes beyond media fiction, and goes on into all fiction; and not just fiction, but even in things like software, there’s a movement to patent ideas for computer programs, and it’s really very disturbing. And I wonder what is behind it [? unclear] in our society, what is the sociological phenomenon that’s going on.

Camille: Property. It’s territory and property. It’s the sort of thing that you can say, “My wife, my husband, my child. My book.” We tend to perceive things in terms of property, and what we have, we hold, and we’ll fight to protect the fact that it’s ours. Even though we want desperately for everybody else to make use of it, we want to control that use as well, because it’s ours.


Escapade 1993: A Blast From the Past (Part Two)

Today I am running the second installment transcribing an exchange between Constance Penley, Meg G, Shoshana, myself, and a room full of slash fans at Escapade, a Southern California fan gathering, in 1993. Next week, Constance, Shoshana, and I will be reuniting at Escapade again to pick up where the conversation left off almost two decades ago. This transcript was widely circulated among fans at the time, but we wanted to republish it on the blog as a historical artifact of a key moment in the emergence of fan studies as a field of research. Thanks to Shoshana for her help in preparing this transcription originally and vetting it with the participants (recontacting everyone she could) so we can run it in my blog now.

By the way, I mention here my interest in same-sex relationships as depicted in Letters to Penthouse. I would eventually write an essay on this topic which can be found in Peter Lehman(ed.), Pornography: Film and Culture if anyone is interested.

I should have noted last time that this conversation takes place in a largely predigital fan culture, but you will hear one brief reference here to online discussion lists which had already emerged around slash. As noted, the slash list had an emphatic policy against academics or journalists participating.

Sandy Herrold: I’ve talked to a number of people who have now given Henry’s book, and one gave Camille’s book, to roommates or to friends to try and explain, this is why I do this thing. In one case, this person had been living with their roommate–it was actually their apartment, they had brought in this roommate–for five years. They’d had the house wallpapered with Avon–which is scary, but we won’t go into that [Laughter]–the roommate watched B7 [Blake’s 7] with her, and yet she had never mentioned this dark dirty secret pile of slash–which she writes–in the back corner of her bedroom. And finally I said, if I’m coming over to her house, and I’m talking Blake’s 7, I’m gonna mention this. Either make the roommate go away, or you’re out, girl. And she kind of came out to her roommate, and her roommate was disgusted, and she gave her the book… And I think it wasn’t even what you said; it was the mere fact that a real book, with, you know, a perfect bound spine [Laughter] said that it was, you know…shows that it was worthy of being looked at rationally and therefore it must be okay.

Shoshana: One of the uses of academic study, I think, is that because academics are coming from different perspectives they have different tools, and they think about different things, sometimes, than fans do, who aren’t trained that way, or working with that language, or whatever you want to say… There are a lot of dynamics in fandom that didn’t really occur to me in my first couple years in fandom, and partly as a result of just thinking more critically, and partly as a result of having it suggested to me by academics, I came to realize how important they are. One of them, that’s been brought up glancingly already, is a sexist dynamic in society’s condemnation of fandom, and of slash in particular. We are a bunch of women paying an improper amount of attention to stupid tv shows, and therefore that’s bad. If we were a bunch of men paying attention to football, it’s not bad. [General sounds of agreement.] I have a friend who, a few years ago, worked for several years in a souvenir store for the Boston Celtics. And she would come home–we were roommates at the time–she would come home going, these people are so weird! They come in, they spend, you know, tens and twenties of dollars for this shit made in Taiwan, just because it says ‘Celtics’ on it; I don’t get it!

?: We do! [Laughter]

Shoshanna: Yeah. Simultaneously, I was introducing her to Blake’s 7 and Professionals and slash, and she was getting really into it. And she came home one day and said, I figured it out. They’re fans. [Laughter] Once she had this dynamic to think about it, it made sense, once she had the structure of fandom to put into it. But because fandom is almost completely a female thing–apologies to the two or three persons of Y chromosome I can see [Laughter]–because fandom is almost completely female, and is almost completely females working about men–

?: Media fandom.

Shoshanna: Yeah, media fandom, sorry, that’s what I mean to say–it gets landed on by a male-dominated society that’s very afraid of women doing this.

?male: People have advanced the concept of penis envy. [Laughter]

Shoshanna: Yes; there’s the button that says, penis envy? Of that? [Laughter]

Meg: Also because, while we’re paying attention to all this, we’re not paying attention to them. [Laughter]

M. Fae Glasgow: I heard a comment made by a man about that, which was that if you women are all involved in all this, then what use do you have for us? [Laughter]

Shoshanna: You actually heard someone say that? Wow.

M. Fae: There’s that whole fear going on there, and I think there’s also the very simple fact of, here we are standing up, declaring[? unclear] ourselves. That is very unnerving to an awful lot of men. It’s as if we’re using them. [? unclear]

Shoshanna: Slash in particular is almost the only place I can think of–Constance reminded me of some of the radical women sex workers last night, when we were talking, but that aside, which I have no experience with, so I didn’t think of it–slash is the only place I can think of where women of all sizes are validated for our lust. Where in this society can women have fun with their own lust, and not get made fun of, not have the fact that they’re interested in sex automatically make everyone assume that they must be available to any man who wants them–

?: Or a pervert.

Shoshanna: –or just that they’re perverts; where can a woman who’s over nubile age, or above nubile weight, not be made fun of for feeling this way? Not in mass culture, not on television, not on the billboards and the liquor ads. Here, we can. That’s really important to me about this community.

?: It makes some of the husbands kind of interesting. The ones that’ll actually go to a flea market and find pro stuff for their wives.

Shoshanna: I know a couple husbands–or, I know a couple women whose husbands say they love it that their wives or lovers are into slash, because after she reads the zine, she’s in such a good mood! [Laughter]

Jane: I think that a lot fewer men would object to slash if they only knew what it did to their wives’ libidos. “Honey, do you want to sell cosmetics? You keep yelling Avon, Avon!” [Laughter]

?: My husband was considering writing and thanking GF… [Laughter]

Henry: Well, you know, speaking as a male and as a husband, one of the things I’ve noticed is that Letters To Penthouse now is regularly featuring first-time stories of gay encounters, or usually encounters between a straight man and a more experienced gay man, that parallel slash remarkably, except for the absence of character, social situation, all of the things that make slash–

Shoshanna: I want to point out that one reason that may be the case, Henry, is that–I don’t think I’m free to reveal her name, but I know for a fact that one woman who used to write really wonderful slash is now making pocket money selling those little stories to the professional smut magazines.

Henry: So it’s quite possible the husbands in these situations are also getting themselves revved up for the evening by reading these letters to Penthouse. [Laughter] And the fantasies are not that far apart anymore; the barriers of labelling sexuality within the erotic sphere are really broken down; it’s a tremendous step.

?: I was just sitting here wondering, if so many men have a problem with accepting slash, I wonder how much of it might not be slightly guilt-ridden, because of the years that they have used women as sex symbols, and now the tables are turning; they’re not quite sure how to handle this role reversal; and also the fact that for a long time one of the staples of male pornography has been female relationships that–

Shoshanna: Lesbianism, the great spectator sport.

?: How much of this is guilt over how they have treated women over the past centuries?

?male: Men aren’t bright enough to feel guilty. [Laughter]

Constance: I hope they’re progressing.

Sandy: Fear, yes, I can see fear. Guilt, no. [Laughter]


strong>Jane: That’s my usual last-ditch defense for slash. Don’t tell me you’ve never picked up a Penthouse and seen two women! “That’s different!” [Laughter]

Shoshanna: One of my favorite anecdotes is, another woman and I were once asked what we saw in slash, and she remarked that her husband didn’t get it either; he would just look up and say, I just don’t see what you see in it, and go back to his lesbian spread in Playboy. And I thought, now there’s a wonderful marriage. That is a really good marriage.

M. Fae: One of the things I’d like to comment on is you bringing up the subject of gay male bonding-type things. We’re all talking about the male-bonding aspect of our slash stories, but if you look at the Iron John movement, if you read all the things that these men are doing, all we have to do is say, okay now, this bit where you’re all dancing around naked? Go for it! It’s exactly the same thing that we set up as being, so you have the separate-bedded, “No, we’re real he-men together!” doing precisely what we have our men doing in our stories. Only they don’t go quite as far as we want them to.

Henry: Well, I think, though, apart from your own exploration of power relations and so forth, the man that’s being constituted by the Iron John movement wouldn’t look very much like the slash protagonist in practice. That book is full of images of domestic violence that originate, and are justified, by the remasculinization of people. They’re very frightening books. For someone who’s been involved with the men’s movement over a twenty-five year period, this is the most reactionary form of the men’s movement imaginable, and it frightens me that this has gotten the kind of publicity, promotion, and awareness, and today, when I speak as someone interested in changing men’s identity as a man, people say, oh, you’re into that Iron John stuff, and it’s discredited, in the same way that people are now discrediting feminist claims by saying, oh, political correctness stuff, and sort of swatting it aside. I worked through, in my gender and sexuality class, and we were all, of whatever persuasion, sexually- and gender-wise and so forth, very upset by the content of that book.

M. Fae: I need to clarify a point, then. I was saying the Iron John movement because of what I had read in popular, mainstream, basically gutter press.

Constance: That’s all you can read.

M. Fae: Exactly… [Drowned out by general laughter; “if you read anything else it’s slash.”]

Constance: No, that’s the only place where you can read about these issues. It all gets filtered, just like the feminist debates around pornography all get filtered through Catherine McKinnon and Andrea Dworkin and the Women Against Pornography movement; that’s all the media ever takes up. And the same way, all these issues of men’s sexuality get taken up too; they say, oh, the Iron John movement.

M. Fae: It does seem that men getting together, really letting down emotional barriers, learning to communicate with each other, forming tribes and all that kind of thing, we tend–because I haven’t read the book, because it doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest–so the press I had read was basically a long line-up of, isn’t it great that these men are getting in touch with their feelings? Which was my perception of how this was being presented to me.

Meg: We’ve all got a problem here with media presentation. We’re all familiar with how the media presents fandom–generic fandom, not slash fandom; “those weirdos who get together and put on ears,” you know, and you pick the inarticulate person covered with buttons, weighing six hundred pounds, who can’t make a complete sentence, to be on the eleven o’clock news as the typical fan. While there’s three people with Ph.D.s going, grr… [Laughter] And Constance and Henry have both had media look at what they do, and have published, and are teaching and being paid to teach, and [the media] reduce a body of work to two seconds on the news, a paragraph in the paper, that says, oh my god, what are they doing here, this is ridiculous. And this has happened to the men’s movement as well, you know; anybody that looks at anything presented in the news with a snap judgement, if you really see anything the least bit interesting you know you can’t trust what’s there. You’ve got to go someplace else, because you know what they’ve done. The more and more we move toward the view that it’s got to be real fast and it’s got to be real quick and it’s got to get an image across and move on to fifteen other things in the next second, the less you can trust what hard information you’re getting.

Shoshanna: Even when it’s long. I read Camille Bacon-Smith’s book the same semester I was taking a graduate course in anthropology. And reading her book and going, well, it’s sixty-five percent correct, and then reading the books I’m reading for this course and going, how correct are these? You know, I have first-hand experience where an anthropologist doesn’t get a lot of what’s going on; can I really trust any of these books? But I have no way to check them. I can check Camille’s book, or Henry’s book, or Constance’s writing, because I have some experience of what they’re talking about. I haven’t studied as widely as they have, but I can at least check from my own personal experience. I can’t check, you know, Bedouin tribespeople’s social functions, which was one of the books I was reading. But it makes you wary.

?: [unclear; fans do this too] because I mentioned to a couple of people a quote in one of our fan slash writers who has, in one of her novels, [a passage] about American Indians accepting homosexuality because–and she says “American Indians” like it’s one culture–but you can’t really go by them because after all, they also go for love with children and incest. That was the quote in her novel. And it was like, that’s as bad as any newspaper blurb you’re ever going to pick up, you know, in a slash novel.

Meg: She read one encyclopedia.

?: Yeah, one encyclopedia. [Laughter]

Shoshanna: Dated nineteen-twenty. [Laughter]

Constance: Can I just say one thing to follow up on that, because it isn’t exact, but… I think that I’ve been inspired by slash fandom’s aggressiveness toward television and the media to try to be aggressive myself. And I know Henry’s had experience with this too. I mean, I decided that I was going to try to engage with the media; I was going to try to get something of my own words, and fans’ own words, out there, you know, and it’s a struggle. Your best bet is with the radio, with radio interviews. You can get people who will read the work, will ask intelligent questions, and will let you go on for half an hour, where you can say things and put them in context, answer questions where they’re trying to get you to refine your answer, make it clearer to a radio audience. But I think that I decided that I was going to engage with these issues, and try to be more aggressive with the media, try to use it rather than just walk away from it and say forget it, it’s completely powerful and dominates us all and we can’t do anything about it. And my inspiration for that did come from slash fans.

Henry: It’s worth saying that when we’ve had some distorted article–Constance and I were talking about, yesterday, this Lingua Franca piece, that really made both of us look rather silly–or, that was the intent; in practice it made the writer look rather silly–we’ve gotten tremendous numbers of letters and phone calls, people who’ve said, I could tell it was a lousy article, but what you’re writing about seemed interesting and important. The message gets out, even imperfectly, when you deal with the press. And it’s very important to me that… There are certain spokespersons against television in our society–you know, Neil Postman is one, and is quoted everywhere–who have access to the media, and will be quoted extensively. If people like Constance and I don’t also go out there and aggressively engage with it, those are the only voices that are going to be heard, and we’re going to be told over and over television destroys literacy, we have no common cultural capital today, television produces passivity, there are no such things as television fans, I mean, I’ve heard a range of statements by people who have the authority to speak to the press, asserting things that are diametrically opposite of the experience that people in this room have had of the media.

Meg: I just gave some person a reference to a new book that’s a British study of how women deal with videotape machines. And the substance–I skimmed through–the people that they were dealing with were a cross-section but obviously middle and lower class, and it’s the complete opposite of how women in fandom control the VCR. It’s the old thing about, well, sometimes he lets me watch something, but he has to program it for me. You know, and I sort of look at this and think… [General sounds of disgust.] You’ll find this interesting, it’s completely the opposite [of fandom]! And this is a person studying how women use VCRs. That’s it, right? And just because one of us has an experience like that, that’s the book.

Shoshanna: As if all women use VCRs the same.

Meg: Yes, as if this study has some validity to the whole picture.

LF: After four years my husband still hasn’t found the off button, to turn the VCR off when we’re finished watching. He’s never had to learn where the on button is, because he never turns it on, ever. If we watch something on the VCR, I set it up. He’ll go over and search diligently to shut it off. [Laughter]

M: Nevertheless, the popular knowledge would be that the men control the VCR, and the idea that there are thousands of women out there who have two, three, four machines, can do the things that have to be done to create music videos, the fact that we all clone constantly, as the common currency of fandom…

?: [unclear; you know the situation where] you go in to buy a cable, and they go, the idiot, you know, the guy is immediately, oh, this is just a poor little woman, or you have an argument with the guy who comes in to hook up your cable, and you tell him it has to be hooked up this way, because I’m feeding the signal to three different machines? “Oh, no, lady,” and does it his way, and none of them work! And then you finally do it yourself. And he stands there and watches you so he can do it next time. [Laughter]

[A bit of conversation was lost as the tape was flipped; LF is talking about going to buy a VCR.]

LF: …and my husband was trotting around after me, you know, as a packhorse, to carry it out to the car when I finally found it, and Goodboys, or whatever the hell it’s called, lost themselves a sale, because their salesman refused to talk to me. He kept talking to my husband, who was parroting all these things he’d heard me say at all the other VCR shops, and I’m industriously searching, you know, I know I want this and that and the other thing…and he would pay no attention to me. I would ask a question, and he would turn to my husband as if, what’s she interrupting us for? And my husband kept saying, it’s not me. She’s buying it. It’s her money. It’s her VCR. It’s not mine. And he wouldn’t listen.

?: So what finally made you walk out? What was the final straw?

LF: Because he wasn’t paying any attention to me. So I said to my husband, come on, there’s nothing here I’m interested in, and he turns around and follows me out of the store, because there was nothing for him to carry out.

?: I had an experience like that, except that I kind of solved it. I went up to this guy, I was looking for a specific thing, and the first thing out of my mouth was, I am an amateur editor, I want this, this, this, and this, do you have it? And he said, er, yeah… [Laughter


Meg: Off technology and back to academia for a minute, I have one question for both of you which has interested me… You have classes where you bring slash up in the classroom. You’ve got classes that are undergraduate, college undergraduate. What kind of responses do you get from the students in your classes, where presumably maybe a few are fans, but not many, to the concept of slash, and to the concept of media fandom and the creative aspect of media fandom?

Shoshanna: And to the actual stories that they read. [Laughter]

Meg: Yeah.

?: You actually show stories in your classes?

Henry: I had some stories in the most recent class that I taught, which was a course on gender and sexuality, so I knew people going in knew that they were dealing with sexual questions. I’ve taught genzines in my science fiction class several times now, and have had wonderful response. MIT males passing them up and down the hallway of their dorms, going, you’ve got to read this stuff. The novel Demeter was the one that I used one time, and they were really excited. On the other hand, I had Hispanic students in that course who wrote in journals, “now there’s a Star Trek for cocksuckers too,” and very angry sort of responses. It tended to be the Hispanic students whose macho was really threatened. But in fact, students have been very excited and very interested to find out about underground literature, fan literature. I had male students who wanted to borrow all my Night of the Twin Moons zines and read them cover to cover, because this was a side of Star Trek they wouldn’t normally get to see. So I’ve had really good experience teaching it. I have not had complaints about teaching slash. In general, when I teach science fiction, I get complaints about too much feminism creeping into the course, but slash or fan writing has not been the major focus of that problem.

Constance: If it’s a course that’s about issues of sexual difference and sexuality, like I have a course, Women as Producers and Consumers of Culture, as my women’s studies course, and then the pornographic films course, which is my film studies course this year, they just take to it. You know, given the context of, on the one hand, women as producers and consumers of culture, it’s very much on women as incredibly active in their act of consumption, so it’s about women’s agency. And then in the pornographic film course, it makes a lot of sense, because the course is about all manners of ways in which people produce and consume pornography, and how it works for them. So it makes perfect sense there. In my science fiction film class, however, every time I teach this, if I cap the enrollment at a hundred, it’ll be ninety-five men and five women. So I make the course, in part, be about, why is science fiction such a boy thing?

?: Well, that’s how it started. If you went to the cons twenty years ago, there’d be ten percent women and all the rest would be guys. And most of the guys were okay, but you’d get this really hard-core trend that really were unfriendly, and wanted you to know that you were interrupting their club, you know, they really weren’t very nice.

Meg: Calvin and Hobbes: “No Girls.” [Laughter]

Shoshanna: That is, if you read Camille Bacon-Smith’s introduction to her book, she says that’s how she got involved in studying media fandom, because she was originally studying Star Trek fandom, and she would go to cons and talk to the fans, and she got a lot of men complaining about these women, doing these weird things to their fandom, and so she started going, well, this is interesting. What are these women doing? And wound up studying something that she had not meant to be studying, because it was interesting. But that’s what directed her to it, was all these men bitching about the women.

?: I have a question, since you brought it up. For those of us who can’t get our meathooks on Camille Bacon-Smith’s book, why, in your opinion, do you think it doesn’t work as an academic study? You had mentioned that before.

Shoshanna: Um… I think that… How nasty do you want me to be? It’s not a bad book. This is all my personal opinion here, you all got that. It’s not a bad book. It’s not nearly as good as Henry’s, it’s not as good as Constance’s shorter articles. Its whole style of anthropology is very outdated. She is very much doing what Henry was talking about at the beginning, of “I am an academic, and I am we. And I am studying fans, and they are they.” Very strong on that. She overgeneralizes her own experience, so that what hit her as important, she then assumes is important to everybody; and the way she went through fandom she assumes is the way everyone went through fandom and discovered fandom. That’s just–

?: She never gets it, that’s the problem.

Shoshanna: She never–yeah– [General sounds of agreement.]

?: But she’s convinced that she does.

Constance: She has an agenda. It’s very obvious when you read the book that she has an agenda, and it is the women as victim agenda. [General sounds of agreement.] And the only chapter, to me, that struck me as very real, was the one wherein she talks about hurt/comfort, because that portion she could get, because when you deal with the uses and things of that nature, it fit within her predefined scheme.

LF: And in that chapter where she says that women write about their own experiences in hurt/comfort, and I write hurt/comfort, and I think I have a very good life, and everything; I’m not writing out of my own hurt when I write hurt/comfort.

M. Fae: Oh, no; we know what your husband does to you. [Laughter]

Sandy: We create out of our pain… [Laughter]

Constance: I’d say that’s another reason why I’m such a fan of slash fandom, is because I’m so tired of the rhetoric of the victim. [General sounds of agreement.]

Meg: To give Camille some due, a lot of her observations are perfectly valid; it’s the conclusions and the overgeneralizations drawn from those examples that are the problem.

M. Fae: It’s also her prejudicial choice of language.

Shoshana: Yes.

M. Fae: It’s so alienating that it makes fandom unrecognizable. I read her description of us and I didn’t recognize us. So her agenda is one thing, but as you read Henry’s book, Henry’s agenda is much more user-friendly. It’s much more about showing us as being real people with brains, and strengths, and occasional quirks. [Laughter] But it’s a much better way of doing it. And when you read Constance’s things, again, you have a very different point of view. Again, you’re not trying to aggrandize yourself, and you’re not trying to portray women as being passive, manipulated, poor helpless little things, which has always been how I have seen academia stand back and look at women. Academia as a whole tends to stand back and look at women as being things there.

Meg: Well, there’s also been a view in a lot of the writing that the reason we do what we’re doing is because we can’t do something else that’s better. [General sounds of agreement.] It’s out of a lack. And I have always seen it as tremendously creative, extremely positive, extremely empowering, and extremely fun. Everybody gets together and has fun. And you read this Camille thing where we’re all dealing with this pain, this inner pain [General chimings-in of “oh, the pain”] of living in a male-dominated world where we’re all terrorized by men, and you’re sort of going, what? Excuse me? [Laughter]

?: They also blithely ignore the fact that these people that they say can’t do anything else, many many have turned pro.

Meg: Yes, exactly.

?: And are selling books like crazy, but they don’t mention them.

Meg: That there is choice involved. That this is a deliberate choice, not, oh god, I can’t write strong female characters so I have to write Captain Kirk, oh, poor me.

?: When you introduce… I mean, the thesis of Textual Poachers is sort of taking control of the media and doing with it what you want to do–I assume you’re teaching it in a class–do you come across people who object to this?

Henry: Always.

?: How do you… Because I tried a few months ago to persuade my oldest and best friend that there were reasons I could criticize the internal consistency of Next Generation. And she said, but you can’t do that; that wasn’t what the author intended. And could not–I don’t know how to get past that particular objection, because the viewer has just as much power, if not more. [Laughter]

Shoshanna: This is a very–you know, your high school English class, where the whole point is to unpick what the author meant.

?: That presumes you had a very bad high school English class. [Laughter]

Shoshanna: Well, I meant “high school English class” as a sort of generic derogatory term. One of the fundamental precepts of media fandom frequently is, we don’t give a fuck what the author meant!

?: But there are people who believe that is crucial, so how do you deal with this?

?: The answer to that is that the author’s intent doesn’t matter a scrap, because what counts is what the author has created. And the author may be totally unaware of what he has created.

Henry: Well, at a certain point it’s almost impossible to break it down, because the notion of authorial authority is bound up with the notion of intellectual property, and property is fundamental to the way in which our entire society is structured.

Shoshanna: Henry’s going to get out his copyright speech again. [Laughter]

Henry: No, I promise. [Laughter] So the reason there’s an anxiety is, just like we all envision ourselves becoming landowners someday, we all envision ourselves becoming authors someday, and we’re threatened by the thought that we won’t control what we have created, that someone else would have the ability to do it. And that’s a very– You can lay out the underpinnings of it to someone, but frequently that resistance holds. The way I’ve found to work with it is to talk about the way that appropriation has become generalized in our culture. The way rap, and sampling music, represents other modes of appropriation. The way generic quoting… I mean, we have a whole culture that’s based on appropriation. Fandom is simply one form of it. The difference is that it’s not a form that’s done by industry insiders. It’s outsiders, it’s people who are seizing these materials and using them, much the way rap and hip hop starts out, because it becomes commodified. But the parallels there are really important to think about.

?: Yes, I wonder what commercial slash would look like. [Some groans.]

M. Fae: Death’s Head. It’s not very good. [It’s a slash novel that was rewritten and professionally published.] I have a question for Constance. I was going to ask, because you started as an academic and then moved into the study [of fandom], did you find that academia lowered their view of you, not only because you were going into fandom, but here you were a woman going into fandom: “this is what we could expect of you.” Did you have that kind of reaction, or was that a completely different situation?

Constance: There’s always been nervousness about my work, but I think it probably helped that I started from a relatively powerful position. In other words, I had tenure. I mean, that’s another way that these ideas are being able to get into academia, because we’re tenured, and there’s academic freedom. And if I’m the authority in the field, and I say that this merits study and a great deal can be learned from it for theorists of mass culture, then who’s going to argue with me? [Laughter]

?: Also, could it possibly be the school itself, being at Santa Cruz as opposed to somewhere else?

Constance: At Santa Barbara. No, because I’ve taught undergraduates and graduate students in the midwest, in upstate New York. I find them to be pretty much the same.

Henry: If I could jump in… I would love to make myself an heroic martyr, fighting for my fandom. But the truth is that this book probably will make tenure for me, and has more or less made my reputation in the academy. I know of at least fifteen courses that are using the textbook this semester alone, and many more that are investigating it. The response from the academy has been tremendous, and frankly the net gain for me career-wise has been, really, well worth the effort that I put into it.

?: Do we get a percentage? [Laughter]

Henry: Well, if you read my introduction, I spell out the fact that a percentage of the proceeds from this book go to send my wife to cons and buy zines. [Laughter] That is my charitable contribution. Actually, virtually every penny that I’ve made off of it has gone back in fandom through our zine purchases [Laughter], so some of you already gain a percentage of the proceeds.

Jane: And please, be sure to send on the letters about, where can I get that story about Vila spanking Avon! [Laughter]

?: Can I ask a question of both of you? You’re both doing it–and even Camille Bacon-Smith was doing–whatever her reason for doing the book, it wasn’t to, as I’ve heard someone else say, “blow the lid off this” [the phrase is actually used by Camille in her book]; how can people… I mean, if someone is asking us questions about fandom, how can we discriminate between people like you, who’s trying to do something that’s really a serious study of it, as opposed to somebody who’s trying to sensationalize it so they can just make money?

Constance: We have to fight this all the time.

?: Yeah, but how can we tell? Can you give us a couple of pointers? I mean, I can go on instinct; I have not answered questions from a couple of people already.

Constance: Well, one of the things I’ve found out is that you certainly find out what the person’s done before. But also, I have found out that it’s possible to interview the interviewer. And I’ve found out, over and over again, that these interviewers are so much the same. They’re usually young men who’ve had Ivy League or private liberal arts degrees, whose parents are supporting them, and who have a wealthy relative in the business. So I just want to get this out, before the interview even starts, so that if I decide to continue it, the interviewer knows that we are speaking to each other across an abyss of class and gender, and that I know this, and that I am going to be scrutinizing his every question. And also, with journalists there are some good ones out there. And what you do is you just refuse to talk to them until they talk to you. Even then you can’t always completely control it. A lot of it does take practice. Many journalists, you don’t want to talk to them at all, because their agenda is so different from your agenda. They have to come up with something that is new, so it has to be sensationalized.

?: One of the things I won’t do is, I won’t do it on the phone. They get hold of On the Double, and then I get these phone calls, and they want to know about an editor in my zine, and I’m not telling them.

Constance: That’s right.

?: But it’s just real hard to screen out, because I might have screened you out, if you’d called me, you know? And I wouldn’t want to screen out somebody who’s really trying to do something.

Meg: Well, if they already have contacts they’ll know people who know you, rather than just having pulled it out of the air.

?: Yeah, that’s how I’ve been going by it.

?: And you want to know what they’ve read. [General sounds of agreement.]

Meg: What they’ve read, yes. Henry wrote me out of the blue about filking, and I wrote him back and we determined mutually that we were interested in Blake’s 7, and that was fine; now I knew him as a fan as well. But I’ve has the same experience recently, for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek. We always desperately scramble around going “I don’t want to do it” at the library [where she works], coming up with library displays, you know, those boring things that no one ever looks at. And I said, well, twenty-fifth anniversary of Star Trek, what the hey, you know? We’ll give it the academic twist. So one case is academic articles on Star Trek. Not on the fandom, mind you; on Star Trek. And one case is the commercial literature on Star Trek, the novelizations. So I put this thing in. I’ve been putting displays in for years; you know, “oh, god, it’s Agatha Christie’s birthday, the hundredth anniversary of her birth, let’s put this in; this’ll do for a month, it’ll keep the case from sitting there empty.” So I put this thing in, figuring it was like anything else, only maybe some of the fans on campus would get a giggle out of it, and we had newspaper people calling up out of nowhere, because it went into just the campus newsletter, and all of a sudden there’s people coming in to want to interview, because it’s Star Trek, the magical word. So I talked to them on the phone: “well, it’s just academic articles, we don’t have any live tribbles or pictures of Spock or anything like this. It’s the literature, the academic interest in it.” If they persisted, and wanted to come, then yeah, I made them talk first. Two of them turned out to be local newspaper reporters who were Star Trek fans–not “in fandom” fans, but who watched the show regularly, and were really interested, and they thought this would be a fun thing to do for the paper. Fine, great, take a picture of the case, put it in there, no problem. But there was another one that was just saying, well, these Trekkies. People with ears.

Henry: Could I jump in on this? More and more academics will probably be coming to fandom, to write about it, for better or for worse. No matter how you feel about it, it was already too late when either of us started writing this. So you need to think about how to deal with that. I feel that there’s an ethical standard that we as academics should expect of ourselves. When a reporter–as someone who worked as a reporter who was taught never to allow my subject to read the article before it comes out–I think, dealing with an academic, you have every right, if you’re cooperating with a study with an academic, to ask to read it before it comes out and have approval over how you’re quoted and how you’re used in the article. That’s a standard that I tried to set up. I didn’t succeed all the time. There are people quoted in Textual Poachers who I sent letters to, and the letters came back, and I tried to track down, and I couldn’t, and I had to make a judgement call at that point, and it depended. In the case of the fan video makers I just turned them all to initials, but in some cases I made hard calls on whether to include the material or not. But when I quote someone, with their cooperation, my expectation is that they get a copy of the article, they read it, they give me comments, and Meg and many of the people in this room can attest to how much I listened, and changed, and transformed the manuscript in the writing process, to try to accommodate those comments, so that it reflected some shared sense of the truth of fandom. Not just my authority, stamped down, and saying, well, I know the truth, and I can say whatever I want. And there are places in Textual Poachers where it says, personal correspondence, which are quotes from correspondence to me, and response to the manuscript; there’s a place in the Beauty and the Beast chapter where I spell out controversy in fandom in response to the reading of this chapter that I’d written, and even though I disagreed with my critics, I included them in there. And I think that is a responsible power dynamic. That is, if we are going, as academics, to represent your culture, you should have a say in how we represent it. None of this–the article that I started talking about, where you compare fans to Charles Manson’s followers, and you refuse to acknowledge that they are articulate. You should not give an interview without the expectation that you will see a copy of it from an academic before it comes out, and you will have some say in the final shape. And if people aren’t willing to do that, then I think you shouldn’t cooperate with us. Period.

M. Fae: Again, that’s because you come from a fan ethos as well as an academic one. So your fan etiquette is very much informing your academic one.

Henry: Yes.

M. Fae: And we may not always have that.

Henry: Well, so far most of the academics who are doing this stuff, or at least a lot of them, are writing to me for advice, and this is what I’m advising them, pointedly, you know, spelling out what I see as basic rules of expectation, and what you should anticipate dealing with. And hopefully my book and Connie’s writings and so forth will have an influence on the way people think ethically about the relation between the academy and fandom, that’ll shape it.

Meg: There’s also that when people, academics or fans, read this work, they’re going to see that fans are being portrayed as highly analytical, highly verbal, and there’s none of this “let’s watch what the zoo creatures do”; this is a dialogue. And anybody reading it with an interest is going to see that: that a lot of the material that’s being quoted is coming from the people who have been spending years analyzing this and talking amongst themselves. In a slightly different language, not the language of graduate school perhaps, but a critical analytical view. And I came down on Henry in a couple of chapter revisions where I said, you’ve got to make it clear that we’re doing this. That this is not just an external analysis, but that the fans do this themselves. And he corrected those places.

Sandy: I have to disagree. I know people who, again, are academics, who are fans, who read the book, who felt that Henry put fans down terribly. [Laughter]

Meg: What?

Henry: News to me…

Sandy: Do I have time to do this? They’re academics, they’re not in social sciences. They tend to have biases toward social scientists that– I don’t have the time it would take to have a rational conversation about this.

Meg: Biases against the artsy-fartsys? [Laughter]

Constance: These are academics? In what–

Sandy: These are people who are– I want to say hard science people, who are in biology or rocket-science types, who are on the Internet, who will flame at the idea of this. They think, of the two books, that Camille’s is better, that she doesn’t put down women like– See, I’m going, what? What? I belong to a slash fan mailing list, on email, and if you know anything about email or the Internet, you know that once something has been written and gets on there it can propagate anywhere. And so the survey requests… There’s one survey request a day, it seems, for something odd on the Internet. You know, VCR fans who also like football, I don’t know. You know, pick any three things, net them together, send them out to those three newsgroups, and ask for interviews. And popular culture of all sorts has lots of requests for this. There was one fairly recently, this woman who was talking about fandom, and wanting people to answer questions, and she said “fanzine,” and then down much later you realize that by “fanzine” she meant Starlog. And she was saying, I’ve done a lot of research on this, and now I feel like I’m ready to go and do interviews, and I’m like, hmm. With who? So in the slash fan mailing list, there was this, out of nowhere, whole discussion about, well, we have to make this very clear that academics cannot play. Or if they do play, they can write, but they’re just one of us and they can’t quote anything, and I was just, like, totally amazed! This came out of the ether, as far as I could tell. And it was very impassioned, and it hit almost everybody on the list immediately. Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah, we can’t let them in. [Laughter] I didn’t even know that they’d be in the pond [? unclear]; it was very scary!

Shoshanna: Sandy, M. Fae asked you, but I don’t think you heard… the hard-science people who thought that that Henry was really talking down to fans–

Sandy: Talking down to women.

Shoshanna: –and that Camille was much better; were they male or female?

Sandy: All female. All of them female.

M. Fae: That is fascinating.

Sandy: “Jenkins talks about gossiping, where she talks about women really doing things–“

?: This is the problem; there’s that word “Henry” on the page.

Sandy: True– “and it’s textual poaching, like we’re stealing, where Camille talks about us, you know, working with…” It’s hard for me, because I was gagging at a lot of this


Henry: Well, I’ve seen some of this. A friend of mine showed me this syllabus proposal that went through his department, where they wanted to teach a book on fanzines, and they decided, well, we’ll use Camille, because we want a feminist perspective. [Laughter and screams.] And it was clearly chosen on the basis of the names involved; that’s the sole criteria. So I can’t do much. But I’ve also had the experience of talking to academic audiences, and talking for an hour and a half about fandom in the way in which I do, and had people come up to me over cocktails and say, but isn’t it really pretty pathetic, that that’s all these people have going on in their lives? It’s not as if my book can totally blast all of that out of the way. There’s a limit to what it can do. But at least it opens a lot of minds.

Meg: Notice how they say “you,” to you, these people. They didn’t get your initial point. This is your culture.

Henry: Yes, that I’m part of these people. But I’ve also had the case when people say, you know, when I started reading your book I thought this topic was indefensible. That there was no way you could make me sympathetic to this group. And after I read it I understood much much better. And that effect has been, I think, one of the things that I see coming out of this. Now I talked some about the ethical expectations of researchers; I’m also talking to people who are teaching the book. When I hear that someone is teaching the book, and I lay out some principles of how I think they should do it, whether they listen to me or not, I’m encouraging them to teach zines along with it; I’m also saying that they should contact the zine editor and get copies for individual students, make sure the zine editor is comfortable having that material taught, and so forth, and I think most of them are listening to me. So if you get a class set order for your zines [Laughter], it’s because someone is actually probably being responsible, and listening to the advice. Because I’m not giving out the addresses. I didn’t publish addresses in the book, I’m not giving them out over computer networks; if people write to me individually I will give them an address and a limited number of zines that I think could be taught at an introductory level, and I think the people involved would be okay with the idea of having their stuff taught.

?: Have you gotten a lot of letters from fans who were not people that you had talked to during [the writing of] the book?

Henry: A growing number, as the book has been out longer. What got me the most–I did an interview on Canadian radio, a half-hour interview, and I got letters from Australia, from England; the tapes of the interview circulated globally, and I’m getting all kinds. This was on Beauty and the Beast, this interview was, but I got all kinds of letters out of that, from people who–just thank-you notes of one sort or another. But I’m still getting a couple of letters a week, many of them from fans that I don’t know, just saying that they read the book, they were excited about it in one way or another. I really love getting letters of comment, and hearing from you what you think, positive and negative.

M. Fae: [something unclear about slash; laughter.]

Shoshanna: It was good, Henry, but there wasn’t enough sex. [Laughter]

Henry: I’d like to get a few that say that. [Laughter] The one common theme in a lot of letters that I’ve been getting lately has been, I got bogged down in chapter six–which is the slash chapter–and I almost didn’t finish the book. Or, all of the anti-slash fans are coming out of the closet and attacking chapter six, is the only grounds of criticism that I’m consistently getting from fans.

BT: I had a letter from someone who read my name and a description of one of my stories, and somehow found my address–a fan already–and wrote to me and asked me for the whole story. [Laughter]

Jane: My sister wanted to know if she could borrow my copy of Conceptual raiders. [Laughter]

M. Fae: There’s the title for your next book, Henry.

Meg: I heard “Textile poachers.” [Laughter]

Henry: I’ve also seen “Textural poachers.”

Meg: Smuggling calico across the… [Laughter]

Sandy: The pictures that you have in the slash chapter: there’s a fully dressed Illya and Napoleon, hard to be offended by, I mean, come on–

Meg: Well, look where he’d got his head [i.e. on Illya’s lap].

Sandy: Oh, come on, he’s just tired. Anyway, and then there’s Pros pictures, which no one in this country is going to care about.

Meg: Naked, but only shoulders and up.

Sandy: But they’re English. I mean, no one’s even seen Pros. I was wondering if that was intentional.

Meg: This publisher is British as well as American; it’s–

Henry: –so it’s simultaneously being published–

Meg: –he’s being bicultural.

Henry: It was not a conscious choice; in fact, I had to fight my publisher to get all the extensive quotes that are in there.

Sandy: I’m not surprised.

Henry: It was a matter of just who I had access to to do art. I mean, GF was in Indonesia. When I wrote to some of the fan artists, they sent me some of their work, and they tended to self-censor, and gave me tamer selections. So as a result, Constance’s work has more vivid pictures than mine–

Constance: Because I tracked down GF. [Laughter]

Henry: –and I have more quotes and more concrete passages from slash than she does. And it’s partially a matter of the process, and just what happened in trying to collect the artwork. So it just happened. [Laughter; Meg is displaying Constance’s articles with GF’s K/S artwork.] And I really wished I’d had more– I would have published more explicit stuff if I’d had access to it, if artists had wanted.

Shoshana: Talking about academics having respect for fans, and talking about sharing the power over the article when an academic wants to interview us: Constance’s articles, that Meg was just flashing the pictures of, they were the first academic writing on fandom that I have ever seen that, below the reproduced picture it said, by permission of the artist. And right there, that alone told me, this writer respects us!

Constance: Absolutely.

Meg: As opposed to the bit in the LA Weekly [which used a highly explicit piece of GF’s work without permission].

M. Fae: Excuse me, I would like to make a comment about that article in the LA Weekly. It was not all bad. It got some of us started in fandom. That’s when I got started in fandom. I saw [a fan’s] letter [in response to the original article], I tracked back to the back issue, and then tracked everybody down.

Shoshana: I got hooked partly by Joanna Russ’s article, the version written for mundanes, and it drove me bananas, because this was when slash fandom, especially, was still quite closeted and afraid of lawsuits, and she has this little footnote that says, I really am talking about real people and real stories, but to protect their anonymity and safety, I’m not going to tell you who they are or how to get in touch. I’m like, argh! I want them!

Constance: But you know who helped me, was Pat Lamb, in her piece. A little note, right down at the bottom of the page, gave the address to Datazine and On the Double. In other words, she wasn’t really giving anything away, but if you were really grabbed by this, you could write and that could be, like, the beginning of the thread, you had a way in if you really wanted to pursue it.

?: I guess you had to protect your sources, too, because you could get the lunatic fringe.

Henry, Constance: Yes, right.

Meg: There’s a mention in a couple places that fans in slash fandom when Russ and Lamb and Veith were writing were upset because those articles brought people into slash that only wanted sex. That didn’t understand how it fit into the whole universe. [Laughter; some mocking cries of “aww.”] It’s yet another version of how these people are spoiling our fandom. Which of course has been the protest in all fandoms… The British have been blowing it all… [Laughter]

M. Fae: Blame it all on the Scots.

Meg: Yeah, the Scots.

M. Fae: I have a question for both of you, talking about sources and other things. Would you two, cross-pollinating, if you will, say that it’s either easier, being a woman, to become involved and be immediately trusted in slash fandom, or fandom in general, rather than you [i.e. Henry] coming in as a man?

Meg: Well, he’s got to wear his buttons.

Henry: Yes, these buttons are responses to actual questions that my wife or I have gotten about my work with slash. It says, “No, my wife didn’t tell me everything I know about slash”; and “Yes, I really am a slash fan. Yes, I really am a man.” [Laughter] I did, when I ordered slash, get people who wrote back very inquisitive letters, saying, do you know what you’re getting in to, which Cynthia didn’t get if she wrote the checks. This is the first slash con that I’ve ever gone to, because I had felt previously that I probably wouldn’t be very welcome at a pure slash con [chorus of “aww!”].

Meg: There’s always a few men. I’ve never been to one that didn’t have any.

Henry: So some of it is my suspicion. But the number of letters that I got back, when I would send out a chunk of the manuscript and I’d get a letter back, I’d say a third of them probably began, when I saw this was written by a man I was a little uncomfortable. But when I sat down and read the whole thing, then, you know, they go on. And there’s a kind of amazement that I had written this, as a male. So there was some difficulty getting in, but I also had fifteen years of fan involvement, and I can say that, and my wife could open doors for me, because she is a fan, so there are ways around that. But it was an issue from time to time, and continues to be an issue from time to time.

?: I do have some experience handling registrations for the three IdiCons, and occasionally I would write and say, do you know, do you understand, blah blah blah. And it turns out, sometimes it was a teenaged boy who happened upon whoever, got this number from wherever they got it from, and they had absolutely no idea what it was about. Other than Trek.

Jane: And then there’s the guy who goes to a panel on slash and thinks it’s about Freddy Krueger. [Laughter, agreement.]

Shoshanna: I have done slash panels at conventions where the people doing programming didn’t have brains, and they would just put “Panel topic: slash.” That’s it. And we would get the room filled with Nightmare on Elm Street fans.

Jane: “Men having sex? That’s sick!” [Laughter]

Constance: Yeah, I’m sure there is more automatic acceptance if you’re a woman, but I think that since I wasn’t a fan starting off, you know, I didn’t know the codes. There’s quite a bit of behavior that’s now very familiar to me, and ways that people talk, and, you know, I got to know just how raunchy you can be [Laughter]; you have to learn that stuff, you know. But the other thing was, this was interesting, this was my first con, was IdiCon IV, and I was using my university address to get all my mail through, because I was moving from different houses and I wanted one mailing address, and when I arrived in Houston to register and the person behind the desk said, oh yes, you’re one of our academic fans. So I kind of felt, oh, this is, like, some kind of special status [Laughter]. I’ve got to figure out what that means when she says that.

?male: You have to wear a big yellow star.

Constance: So yes and no. There’s a different way in.

M. Fae: I find it very interesting to hear academics talk in various sources, books and articles and everything else, about coming into fandom and the code, and everything else; and as I found it, I was not aware of anything. I just kind of said, Look! and took it. And I was not aware of there being codes, I was not aware of patterns of behavior; we just kind of went right in there. And I went from no fandom at all to bang smack into slashdom, writing zines. And I was not aware… so I was utterly fascinated to hear you and Camille and everyone else talk about “the code.”

?: Yes, but, M. Fae, we know you’re very shy and retiring. [Laughter; several discussions at once for a few minutes, converging on: How do you behave like a fan? How do you define the code?]

Constance: How do you define the code? “Code” is a word I actually use pretty informally. I’m not using it in any semiotic sense.

?: But what do you mean by a code? What are some of the rules that you think that you perceive?

Constance: [unclear; the tape was being flipped] …they’re so internalized that I don’t know exactly what they are any more.

BT: M. Fae, I think it’s obvious that you’re one of the swifter members of fandom [Laughter.]; you learn without effort, maybe without noticing the process. But people who come into fandom do have to learn something, something that can be described as a code. In some cases you learn it so quickly and automatically, you’re not aware of physically learning something. But there is something you learn from fandom. Even if you do have someone to “mentor” you, even if someone sits you down and talks to you, and tells you, this is what this means. No, you don’t have to go through that process, but yes, you learn something that makes fandom comprehensible where it might not have been without that knowledge.

Henry: I don’t think either of–

M. Fae: I don’t understand where [? unclear] the delineation is, because I was not aware of there being any change; I was not aware of learning anything. I simply found something. I already understood how it felt.

Constance: Well, here’s– I can give you one example. In other words, when I say, learning the codes, it was more like just kind of learning a culture too, because I didn’t know that there was this social space where women could talk so openly, and so humorously, and so raunchily about sex and the male body. You know. Okay? So just to get familiar with that, to see that there is a place where you’ve got total permission to do this.

Shoshanna: Well, it’s not quite total permission. I mean, you learn that it’s okay to talk about things like that, and how you do it; but you notice that we don’t sit around talking about our own personal lovers, generally. We talk about, oh god, Bodie’s dick in that picture, or whatever, and we talk very freely and raunchily about sex, but it is limited in certain ways. And if you came in, you know, just sat in a panel discussion in fandom or something, and you heard all these women talking about sex, and decided, wow, I can talk about sex, and started talking in equally gritty detail about your own personal sex life, people would get weirded out. You would have violated one of those unspoken codes of behavior.

Henry: Well, another one that I might pick up on is that it seems in fandom not to be okay to ask what you do in your mundane life. If it comes up in conversation, fine. One reason I don’t talk about the private lives of fans in Textual Poachers was, even though that’s something that as an ethnographer I’m trained to want to find out, and anchor this in social experience and so forth, was, it seemed to me rude, it violated the code of fandom, a sense of the way fandom conceived itself, and I was uncomfortable with a lot of the generalizations that Camille makes in her book about personal life, because I think she crosses that line. I think she talks about the mundane in relation to fandom in a way that fans generally do not do, and are generally uncomfortable talking about. And what is important about fandom is that in fact it doesn’t matter what you do outside. It’s what you do in this room that allows you to be–

Meg: It’s what you do in fandom. I write, I illustrate, I do this or that.

Henry: Yeah, what you do in fandom.

?: But doesn’t that communicate that stereotype that that’s all that those women do? They don’t have a life? And then we’re not ordinary people.

Henry: Potentially, but I don’t think anyone assumes that that’s the only thing–

?: It’s because we have really boring lives, most of us, just like anyone else.

Henry: Yeah, sure.

?:But they don’t think that.

?: Something else I’ve noticed, too, is a behavioral thing. Generally speaking, you know, we don’t invade each other’s space. Look how we’re all sitting.

?: Well, speaking of invading space, there is supposed to be a panel in here at three-thirty, and it is only half an hour long…

?: I know, I’m trying to get at that too… but in mundane life, generally speaking, if I sit down next to a guy, it’s immediately–you know? [Making a leering sort of gesture.] Something like that. But I don’t get that here.

?male: Could we have that visual again? [Laughter]

Sandy: I actually disagree. [Laughter; one cry of “you would!”] Pig piles in fandom are a very common thing. As a generalization, I don’t buy it.

?: I mean, in a threatening way.

Sandy: It’s possible that people respect the feeling that you give off, of wanting space, more here than normally. But I wouldn’t say it’s invariant that we leave space.

Meg: I’ve run into groups where this type of discussion can’t happen, because somebody has to be in control of it. Now it’s your turn to talk; okay, that was very interesting, and now you had your hand up… where a discussion like this [is impossible], you know, with a minimal amount of control–“hey, wait a minute, we can’t hear”–which anyone can put in.

?: It’s actually rather difficult, in some circle groups, to do, because it requires people voluntarily yielding both the floor and the train of thought to other people. And if you haven’t got the circle [something unclear], you cannot do this. It can be–it just doesn’t work. And then you do end up with… everyone’s been in academic situations where that occurs.

Shoshanna: And on the subject of yielding the floor and the train of thought, as has been so correctly pointed out–

Meg: Ooh, very beautifully done! [Laughter]

Shoshanna: Don’t argue, now!

?: And they say you have no social skills! [Laughter]

Shoshanna: Who says? [Laughter, applause.]

Escapade 1993: A Blast From the Past (Part One)

Next week, I will be joining Constance Penley and Shoshanna at Escapade, a long-running Southern California slash convention, for a discussion of fandom and academia. The event marks the 17th anniversary of a public conversation the three of us, along with Meg G. had held at the same convention shortly after my book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture was published. As we have been preparing for this reunion (I’m bummed that Meg is not going to be able to join us), Shoshanna pulled out of some long forgotten trunk the hard copy transcript of that original conversation, which was circulating in fandom for some years, but which has never been published. The conversation represents an interesting snap shot to how the slash fan world was responding to the growing academic attention being pointed in their direction.

The early 1990s had been a bumper period for fan studies since it also saw the publication of some of Penley’s ground-breaking essays on slash and of Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth. Some have described this moment as the birth of fan studies, though as this discussion makes clear there was a long history of academic writing about fandom and about slash before our work was published. Yet, it is fair to say that our three projects exerted a very strong influence on subsequent academic research on this topic and helped to pave the way for Aca-Fen who have followed us.

This transcript captures the raucous, free-floating character of that original conversation and helps us to situate this moment of fan research in a larger historical context. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I have been teaching my USC seminar on fan culture. In many ways, these books emerged at a key crossroads in American cultural politics — on the one hand, they came just as the Third Wave of American feminism was starting to emerge, defining itself as much around its cultural preferences as around specific policy differences with the previous generation. In some ways, Bacon-Smith’s focus in her book still reflects the Second Wave rhetoric and agenda, no doubt also a product of the fan women with whom she did much of her research, while Penley and I, in different ways, were grasping towards the concepts about gender and sexual politics which would be further articulated in the coming years.

At the same time, there are passing jokes here which remind us that the early Clinton years were a period of increased visibility for issues of sexual identity in American society: while the first generation of slash scholarship had wondered why straight women would read stories about gay men, there are many fans here who are out of the closset and eager to complicate such a framing of the issue. Shoshana, along with Cynthia Jenkins, was my collaborator on “Normal Female Interest in Men Bonking,” which was one fo the first academic essays to acknowledge the strong presence of queers in slash fandom.

And we can see here that fandom itself is still defining its language and practices — note the use here of “songtapes” throughout rather than the term, “vids,” which is apt to be how we would describe these fan-made music videos today.

Next week, I am going to share a second transcript from the archives of the history of fan research — this one a panel at Gaylaxicon which dealt more directly with issues of sexuality and fandom. If you enjoy these transcripts, please thank Shoshanna for her hard work compiling them and seeking permission from the fans quoted to share them with you. You will note some fans choose to remain nameless (or remained so because we were no longer able to identify them or reach them for permission). We have respected, as far as we know, fan’s own choices about how to be identified in this transcript.

Transcript of a panel discussion between Henry Jenkins, Constance Penley, Meg G, Shoshanna, and others, at Escapade III, 6 February 1993.

Escapade is an annual slash convention. At that time Henry had published Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Routledge, 1992. Constance had published, among other things, “Brownian Motion: Women, Tactics, and Technology,” in Penley and Ross, eds., Technoculture; and “Feminism, Psychoanalysis, and the Study of Popular Culture,” in Grossberg, Nelson, and Treichler, eds., Cultural studies, Routledge, 1992. Meg and Shoshanna were fans. Many other speakers could not be identified on tape, and are listed as “?”. All fans identified here are identified with the name/pseud they requested.

Shoshanna: This is the panel on academia and fandom, the way academia looks at fandom and the way we look back.

Meg: You have to first of all give the two alternative titles that we came up with for this panel.

Shoshanna: Oh, yeah. My alternative title that, for some reason, they would not accept, was The ivory tower meets the collapsible jade pagoda [Laughter]. They wouldn’t accept that.

Constance: Inflatable jade pagoda.

Shoshanna: I thought it was “collapsible,” but then, I don’t like K/S. What was the other one? If not Acamedia…

Meg: Oh, when we talked about fans among the academics, you know, wandering lonely in this alien land… [Laughter]

Shoshana: Um, if there’s anyone at this con who hasn’t noticed me yet–because I’m fairly pushy–I’m Shoshanna, I’m just a fan. [Laughter] Well, I’m not just a fan. This is Constance Penley, who has written several articles on fandom and the community and intellectual-type stuff; I really meant to reread them the week before I came [to the con], but I moved the week before I came, and that took priority, so I can’t say a lot specific about your work, but you will in a minute.

Constance: Yep.

Shoshanna: This is Henry Jenkins, who just wrote a book called Textual poachers, a study of fandom, particularly focussing on slash, on filk, on songtapes, on community, on reading strategies. Both these people are also fans; they’re not just academics who come in and go, “Oh, look at the weird ones!”

Meg: Insiders and outsiders at the same time.

Shoshanna: Yeah. Bicultural, sort of. [Laughter] Well, they are two different cultures. They really are. I mean, I straddle the line too. I’m a fan and an academic… This panel [in the program book] listed “Jenkins, Penley, et al.” [Pointing to Henry, to Constance, to herself, and to Meg,] Jenkins, Penley, “et,” and “al.”

Meg: You can call me Al. [Laughter]

?: But where’s Sam?

Shoshana: He’s leapt into, um…Henry? [Laughter; Henry says, “Oh, boy…”] Can you imagine Sam’s face if he leapt into this art show? [Laughter] Can you imagine Al’s face if Sam leapt into this art show? Meg, what do you want to say about yourself?

Meg: Well, let’s see. I guess I can say that I sort of straddle the line because I’m an academic librarian in my mundane, day-to-day life. I have had an interest for quite some time in how academics view fandom, and once academics started viewing slash fandom I got even more interested in it. I wouldn’t say that I’m really an academic, in that the only Master’s I have is a library one, and not a real one, as anyone else in these other fields would tell you, so I don’t count that way. I did however do some librarian-like things for this panel which include this. I run into some people still who say, well, slash should be private, and shouldn’t be studied, and I wanted to make the point with this that it’s too late. [Holds up a binder.] This is the bibliography, this is the academic and public media things discussing slash. Not fandom, slash. [Oohs and ahs; a cry of “where?”] This is a bibliography of all of that stuff, everything that I’ve found.

Shoshanna: [responding to an audience question on the side] It’s almost certainly not complete.

Henry: It’s not; I’ve got stuff that isn’t on her list.

Meg: Anybody that has anything I don’t have, send it to me so I can keep expanding it. If there’s anything on here you want to look at, hit me up to look at the notebook; the chapters from the books [i.e. Henry’s and Camille Bacon-Smith’s books on fandom] are in here but you should buy the full books if you’re interested in them. So this sort of validates the reality of the topic of the panel, in that it’s too late, and it’s been too late for years now; they found us. We have met the enemy and he is us.

Constance: I was happy that Jennifer and Christine [the convention chairs] wanted to put this panel together, because it made me go back and think about how I got into this. And I realized that one of the things I can say about my interest in slash fandom–I know Henry’s going to talk a bit about how he was a fan before he was an academic, but I wasn’t. And I came to slash fandom when I first started seeing stuff and started ordering it, and more of it, and more of it [Laughter] and for me it was the best–call it pornography, call it erotic writing, whatever–I had ever responded to, you know? I just thought it was great. But then just the idea that all of these women were getting together to–I do feminist film theory and television studies. And a lot of what I do is dealing with people who have these ideas about women consumers of mass culture.

?: Yes, but are they accurate ideas?

Constance: No, they are not; no, they are not.

Meg: There’s something to do with passivity…

Constance: Yes, there’s something about… You know, consumers are supposed to be bad enough, but you know, the most passive, degraded consumers are supposed to be women consumers of mass culture. So much of this just seemed wrong to me in every way. And interestingly, even some of the women, some of the feminists who are writing about women in mass culture who are quite sympathetic, still came up with what I thought were really very reductive descriptions of what went on when women were dealing with mass culture. So I got an invitation to IdiCon IV; I guess I’d just been ordering so much stuff that you know, somehow… And I went to that, and one of the things I realized was that I’m a fan of slash fandom. [Laughter] That’s what my fan activity is. I mean, of course I–you know, to read K/S I went back and completely made myself over as a Star Trek fan, because I couldn’t understand any of it, unless I understood the show.

Shoshanna: Are you a fan of slash, or a fan of slash fandom?

Constance: I’m a fan of–well, both! But if I really have to say where my biggest fannishness is, it’s slash fandom. The idea of it and the actuality of it. So in terms of how that intersected with my interests or how that influenced me, at this point it’s so difficult to say. But I do know that the three areas that I’ve been working in are so congruent with what goes on in slash fandom. I’ve been very interested in popular science or technoculture, so I wrote this one piece on how slash fans make decisions about technology in everyday life in the fan culture. So it was about making songtapes, and about fans and VCRs, and then the last half of this piece was on fantasies of technology in the stories themselves. I’m just interested in various parts of American culture where Americans are thinking through the human relation to technology, and how that might be a democratic relation to technology, with equal access to all. So this was like a perfect example, to be able to talk about this in a very positive way. So just to shamelessly hustle my own publication, that chapter is in this book that I co-edited called Technoculture, and it’s all original essays that we got people to write, about hackers, AIDS activists, radical office workers, slash fans, in other words all these people out there who are just, shall we say, appropriating high technology and mass media in ways that they were not supposed to be able to do. So that was the context [of her piece]; I wanted to put that in. The other areas of work that I do have been kind of responsible for helping to start the notorious field of masculinity studies in academia [Laughter], and just this week a book that I edited called Male Trouble came out. And Henry is in that. And all those essays deal with new configurations of masculinity that are found, you know, all over American film and television right now. Fraught versions of it, slashed versions of it–even when they don’t know they’re slashed [Laughter]–

Shoshanna: Lethal Weapon 3.

Constance: –utopian versions of masculinity. So that was an interest I already had, but certainly what was going on in slash fandom, with the attempt to try to come up with better versions of masculinity–I learned a lot from that. And then the third area I’ve been interested in is pornography. I just always felt that as a feminist, I was just so sick of the pornography debates, so sick of the Women Against Pornography movement, I was so sick of everybody assuming that every feminist was anti-pornography. And I also saw this as a major obstacle to feminism becoming more accepted and more popular in this country, largely because of the way the media have taken this up; so many people think that all feminists are anti-pornography, and of course anti-sex, and anti-men, and everything else. So anyway, I decided that I really had to go ahead and confront this head-on. So I’m now doing, as far as I know, about the only course in this country–I teach at U. C. Santa Barbara, and I’m doing a course on hard-core pornographic film. And if you read the Santa Barbara News Press tomorrow morning [Laughter] you can see a little comment on my course. The Santa Barbara County Citizens Against Pornography lodged a protest with my chancellor, so… This is, you know, kind of historical pornography, stag films, things like that, going all the way back to the teens and twenties; it’s right on up to the big high-production-value films of the seventies: Deep Throat, Inside Misty Beethoven, Behind the Green Door, and right up through lesbian sex videos, gay male hardcore; I’m showing a bunch of the safer-sex shorts from Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York, where you’ve got these really hot vignettes that are meant to demonstrate safer-sex techniques that are still really hot. And I introduce my students to the slash idea in this course, because the emphasis of the course is on people knowing what pornography actually is, rather than what they’re told it is, and also on how pornography figures into people’s lives. Because one of the things that I’ve really learned from slash fandom is that so few people have any description or any idea of what pornography means for people, what it can mean for people, what just being able to write your sexual ideas and desires can mean, for a sense of personal liberation, but other kinds of liberation as well. So by this time, I mean, to sum it up, my academic ideas are my fannish ideas, and my involvement is slash fandom is–they’re just so tied up together it’s impossible to tell. I never thought of myself as studying the fandom, maybe because I was too involved in it, but also because I was–I think of my work as trying to write, so that other people working on women in popular culture, women in consumer culture, women in pornography, so that they can learn from slash fandom what I’ve learned from slash fandom. So it seems like a kind of work of translation.

Henry: As Constance suggested, I came to academia via fandom to begin with. I have been a media fan for about fifteen years now, starting back in late high school/early undergraduate days, going to cons, meeting the woman who’s now my wife via fandom, and she started me reading zines, which were very alien to where I as a male fan was coming from. I can remember early conversations where we’d be discussing an error, or problem, in one of the Star Trek episodes, and I would keep saying well, that problem is there because continuity screwed up, and because the director didn’t do his research; I would always refer to the production process to explain the problem. And she would say, well, maybe this is going on in Kirk’s life… [Laughter] And it was very curious to me, as we were dating and getting to know each other, that there was such a profound difference in the way in which we read. And I learned, through her, to really appreciate that style of playing with the text, that openness, that flexibility, and started reading zines, and it really started me– At that time I was planning to be a political scientist. It was not at all what I had planned to do in my life, to go into media studies. But I got so excited about film, about television, by being a fan, by listening to people talk passionately about popular culture and their engagement with it, that I decided that the thing to do was to go to graduate school and study film and television, because that’s where my excitement was, that’s what did it for me; maybe I could become a professional fan in some fashion [Laughter]. And I arrived at the University of Iowa, and the very first course I took there, I got assigned an article called “Star Trek and the bubble-gum fallacy,” by Lawrence and Jewett, which I take on early on in Textual Poachers. But essentially it argued, well, this is an incredible cult religion that has grown up around Star Trek, and it’s very much like the Manson family [Laughter]. Like, the Manson family was really attached to the Beatles, and they read it [the Beatles’ music] oddly, and they went out and killed people, and these people have just devoted their entire lives to Star Trek. And it begins with an assertion that, well, when you ask these people why they like the show they really can’t tell you why they like the show; it’s just like bubble gum. And I thought, how incredibly odd, if these guys dealt with the cons that I’ve dealt with, that they think fans are inarticulate! And it was highly disingenuous, because it included cites to Star Trek Lives, and The World of Star Trek, and other early books that were in fact quoting fans very extensively, so he knew that these writers knew that fans were articulate, and had closed the door to them. So I, in my very first class as a graduate student, said to the instructor, look, I’m going to write an essay that responds to this. Because I was really irked. And so I wrote what was the earliest draft of my first essay on Star Trek, “Star Trek Reread, Rerun, Rewritten” was first coming into being as a graduate student, writing out of anger at the way in which fans had been written about. And it ended up getting published, one of my first publications, in a journal, and from that I got asked to write a book. [Laughter; Meg is holding up each piece he mentions as he mentions it.] She’s got it all right here, my entire oeuvre.

Meg: I don’t have the bubble-gum one, because it’s only about fandom, it’s not about slash. This is just slash.

Henry: Slash was something I discovered fairly late in this whole process. And I have to admit I was initially a little uneasy about the idea of plunging into slash. The first couple of pieces [that he read] were really painful pieces; they were hurt/comfort slash stories and they sort of threw me out. And part of it was, even when I read nice stories, there was a sense of, not with my body! [Laughter] Not that I was homophobic exactly, but that I was uncomfortable with the way in which women were writing about men’s bodies, and having them doing things that it didn’t seem to me would cause me a great deal of pleasure to have done to my body, and I had some trouble reading this fantasy and projecting it outward. As it’s gone along, though, slash has really changed how I think about my own sexuality, in a very direct way. I had for years fought an awareness of gay impulses in myself, had fled away from those with a great deal of fear. I now talk of myself as bisexual. I’m in a monogamous relationship more than a decade old that is heterosexual, but my sense of myself, and the label that I attach to myself, have changed through reading slash and recognizing the meaningfulness of those fantasies, and tapping them into thoughts and fantasies I had going very very far back.

So slash really changed me in that way, and has led me to be much more open about dealing with questions of sexuality in my work as a scholar. I just got through teaching a course called “Gender, sexuality, and popular culture,” that included some slash stories in it, some of M. Fae Glasgow’s stories, and that really was an attempt to engage more fully with the whole issue of sexual identity, and it started with writing about slash for Textual Poachers. So now I can honestly say, as my button [which he’s wearing on his shirt] suggests, yes, I am both a male and a slash fan, and have really become excited, because I think that slash really speaks to men, including straight men, in a way that a lot of popular culture doesn’t. The sorts of themes I talk about in terms of slash in the book, that breaking through of the barriers to intimacy between men, the creation of communication across the kind of walls that we as men put up around ourselves, is a very profound fantasy that a lot of men have. And I think back about the reality of my friendships with other men…

One of my best friends as an undergraduate just about died of cancer, and I didn’t know it. He just had disappeared for nine months. He couldn’t communicate to me this vulnerability, and he was seriously ill before I ever found out and went to his bedside and we talked about it for the first time. But that was the reality, that I didn’t notice, he wasn’t communicating, and we were both into our little walls to the point that none of the stuff that’s in slash was a possibility. The thought of crying, of communicating, of talking between men is so rare in our culture that slash really represents to me one of the few places where you can talk about those questions, where you can engage with it and fantasize about it. And I wish I had friendships with other men that were as good as the sorts of images that crop up in slash. But it’s something that politically is very important to me, that I, going back to an undergraduate, during the same time period, ironically enough, was doing male consciousness-raising sessions. And I had been talking about masculinity as an issue, and a lot of my own writing that isn’t about fandom deals with questions of gender or masculinity in one way or another. But it was slash, I think, that really opened me up fully to the implications at a most personal level of what I was actually talking about, and helped me understand that much better.

So this book has been both personally and professionally a really important one to me. It’s one that was intended to be written as a fan as well as an academic, to both academic and fan audiences. I’ve been gratified by the responses on both sides.

One last thing I want to say before we open it up was what had changed within the academy over the last ten years that allows this work to be done. That is–I’m thinking about film and media studies–we as a discipline had to define ourselves in opposition to fans and buffs in order to gain admission to the academy. That is, if you’re going to be taken seriously, and you’re writing about popular culture, the last thing you want to do is be accused of being a fan. Right? You want to say, I am an academic. I’m studying this just like you study art history and you study music history, and you study literature. And you push away those personal implications of this stuff in your own life, and you devalue them. And I think a lot of the attacks on fans by academics previous to us grew out of their desire and discomfort at the relationship or parallel between academic engagement with popular culture and fan engagement with popular culture. I began a conference paper recently by turning to the audience and saying, you know, we’ve been talking about television this entire weekend, many of you traveled all the way across the country to be here with us today, and I just wanted to say–get a life, will you? [Laughter] And sort of turn the table around and realize that the stereotype of the academic and the fan are virtually the same.

It’s only now that there is a secure base for film and media studies within the academy that it is possible for people like me to go through graduate school publicly as a fan, to assert, to out myself as a fan, which a number of people, academics and fans, have referred to in letters about Textual Poachers, that I outed myself as a fan within the academy. And I’ve in fact heard very negative things from some academics as a result of that. I was quoted in Lingua Franca as saying that I’m a fan first and an academic second, which is actually a misquote. It was a chronological statement; it wasn’t a statement of priority. But I said that the things I write about grow out of things that I care about as a fan, and that I choose to write about them and engage with them as an academic as well. But I got a lot of ribbing and uncomfortable remarks from other academics because of that statement.

But I think it is now possible to be a fan academic in the infrastructure of the academy as it’s now evolved. And now I get letters from all over the country from graduate students who are writing about their fandoms. Not just fandoms that are included in our world of media fandom, but Stevie Nicks fans, or soap opera fans, and any number of people are beginning to write as fan academics. I know of at least one anthology of fan academic stuff that’s in the pipeline right now, of academics writing about fandom, and almost all of the people in it are graduate students or junior faculty who came to the academy as fans of one sort or another, and are writing about things they passionately care about. And so that’s why this year Camille’s book came out, and my book came out, and Constance’s work has been coming out over the last couple of years on this stuff, that it suddenly seems like all of a sudden the academy has discovered fandom. It isn’t, in fact; academics have written about fans for a long time. But we discovered a way to talk to fandom about our work, and to talk as fans within the academy. And that’s what’s changed, is the ability for you to talk back to us, and for us to try to create some dialogue. And it’s something that as a student of popular culture I care about very much, is taking what’s going on in the academy about popular culture, and breaking down those barriers to talk to the popular communities about it, and it’s something I keep struggling in my own work to find more and more ways to do, to engage in discussions like we’re having today.

?: But the question we need to know is, should fans be allowed to serve in the military? [Laughter]

Henry: It’s probably too late for that…it’s a question of identity versus practice. You can have the identity of a fan and be in the military, just don’t practice it. [Laughter] I mean, I wouldn’t want to take a shower with one… [Laughter]

?: It’s too late; they’ve already got pictures of Spock and Kirk hanging in astronauts’ mess halls.

Shoshanna: As a fan, I’ve been really fascinated to read a lot of the academic work on fandom because it gives me a new language in which to think about what I’m doing. Sometimes it manages to put into words things that I had not been able to put into words before. Sometimes it tells me things I didn’t know before. Sometimes it tells me things I didn’t know, and I still don’t know after they’ve told me, because I don’t believe them for a minute. [Laughter] But even then, unless it’s just complete garbage, it forces me to sit down and think about what they’re saying, and why it’s wrong, and how it works. Camille Bacon-Smith’s book I have some real problems with–a lot of people are nodding–but the fact that she wrote it, in the language that she did, meant that I could then try to think about it in that language, and come up with, why doesn’t this work, and what’s going on…

Constance: What is she on?

Shoshanna: Yeah… um… I’m sorry, train of thought derailed.

Constance: The language it gives you.

Shoshanna: Yeah, um… We have a language we use as fans to talk, and I also speak academic–I have a Master’s in history, although I’m now grading classes for Henry in film and television–and I like being able to speak both languages. I gave a copy of Henry’s book to my parents–a copy to my father and a copy to my mother, because they’re divorced–partly as a way of saying, this is what I’ve been doing for the last ten years; here it is described in a language you can understand, a language that maybe won’t make it seem so stupid to you. It didn’t work for my mother; she was infuriated by the book, she was really angered by it. It made her very angry.

?: Why? The book or the subject?

Shoshana: Both. As far as I could tell–and you have to understand, I don’t get along with my mother, and I don’t share many values with her–as far as I could tell, she was angered that fans spend so much effort on this worthless pastime–

Constance: Oh, yes.

Shoshanna: –and that academics spend so much effort studying this worthless pastime. [Laughter] She thought both of these were a waste.

Meg: It’s okay to spend that much time and effort studying Shakespeare, but not Star Trek.

Shoshanna: There’s a line I heard somebody say yesterday–I don’t remember who said it, just in the middle of a panel or something, talking to someone, and talking about somebody who was particularly impassioned on a subject, and they turned to this person and said, get a hobby! [Laughter] I thought that was beautiful.

Jane: [unclear; what she always thinks of are] those guys that sneer at the big fat media girls, with their Trekkie stuff, who sit in their shows with their friends, and they watch them over and over, and talk about them; as they sit there with their beer guts and watch the Super Bowl, and talk about the plays over and over with all their buddies… [more, unclear; laughter]

?: It was it interesting that you said “Shakespeare,” or whoever it was who said “Shakespeare,” because that is exactly what was said in a discussion that I had with people who were studying Shakespeare, until I said, yes, but Shakespeare was the television of his time.

Meg: Shakespeare is popular culture. [General sounds of agreement.]

?: And we didn’t continue the dialogue, because I think they’re still thinking about it.

Meg: Well, the usual comeback to that is that now there’s been hundreds of years and it’s been proven to be more than popular culture, because it has staying power and it’s a classic.

Henry: But the point is that Shakespeare was still popular culture as of the turn of the century. We’re not talking hundreds of years ago. It was still a lively part [of popular culture]. And the academy robbed it from popular culture and killed it and stuffed it and put it in a museum. [Laughter] And then sits around and feels proud of itself, that it’s done something vital for the survival of mankind.

Meg: Getting it out of the hands of those horrible populists.


Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part Four)

This is the final part of my interview with Spanish educational researcher Pilar Lacasa for Cuadernos de Pedagogia, a Spanish language publication, about my research on the New Media Literacies. Here, we discuss learning games, mobile technologies, civic engagement, and my advice to parents and teachers.

Our challenge is then building bridges between culture and participatory democracy. Can you explain more?

The challenge is how we can help build the bridge between participatory culture and participatory democracy. I am starting to do research on what I see as proto-political behavior: the ways that these hobby or fan or game groups educate and mobilize their members around issues of collective concern. I believe that if we better understand these practices, we will be in a position to foster a new kind of civic education which starts where young people are already gathering but helps them to expand their understanding of their roles as citizens. A striking feature of these new social structures is that they are defined less through shared geography than through shared interests.

They may be better suited to support national or even global models of citizenship than those based on purely local levels of engagement. Yet, we need to be careful about making too many hasty assumptions about this. Jean Burgess tells the story of photographers in Queensland who connected through the photosharing site, Flickr. They began meeting up on weekends to visit local sites and photograph them together. As they began to share these photographs, they connected with former residents of the region who now lived elsewhere who shared older images and stories and remain linked to the local through the platform. As they began to take photographs, they began to look at their community through new eyes, starting to identify local problems and eventually working together to increase public awareness and lobby for solutions. So, a platform which is not particularly local in its organization never the less resulted in local political engagement.

You say that these on-line communities could be a new way for people practice being citizens. Could you explain these ideas a little further?

Robert Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, sees bowling leagues as a cornerstone of American civic life in the 1950s. He suggests that communities gathered regularly at bowling allies to spend time together, increasing the social connections within the community. When they were not bowling, they were engaged in conversations — some simply gossip, others dealing with local policies and concerns. The strong social ties which emerged in this context helped to strengthen their collective identities as citizens and thus increased voting and public service. Putnam fears that television pushed Americans out of the bowling allies and into their private homes, resulting in much greater social isolation and a breakdown of community life.

So, how do we understand the new social structures which are emerging around online gaming — the guilds in World of Warcraft, for example. Here, people form strong shared identifications, gather together regularly to play and socialized, develop leadership which can deploy the diverse skills of the guild membership to confront complex challenges and pursue long term and short term goals. Often players say they come back night after night out of a sense of obligation to each other as much as out of a pleasure in the game play. In short, there are many of the foundations here which Putnam argued allowed bowling to seed a robust civic culture in the mid-20th century.

And video games? What can children learn from them?

Will Wright, the designer behind Sim City, the Sims, and Spore, has suggested we think of games as problem sets which students pay to be able to solve. What he means is that a good game poses complex challenges which are just on the threshold of the player’s abilities, creates a set of scaffolded experiences through which they acquire the knowledge and skills needed to solve those problems, and offers them a chance to rehearse, make mistakes and learn through them. An even stronger game allows them to manipulate the simulation, shifting variables and learning what the consequences of their changes are. A great game creates a context where they are encouraged to share what they learned and what they produced with other players, enabling peer to peer learning to occur.

As James Paul Gee has suggested, games put into action many of the core principles being discussed by the best work in contemporary learning sciences. And they do so in ways that are highly motivating. Young people have clearly defined goals and compelling roles which motivate them to actively and intensely engage in the learning process. We’ve all seen kids who will quit early when they hit a problem with their homework and yet beg to stay up later if they hit a challenge in a game.

Could then video games have a place in classrooms?

Schools would do well to see what they can learn from games. Some are arguing that schools should build activities on and around existing commercial games which already have strong learning potentials; others that educators should be developing compelling new games which connect school content with good game design; and others are suggesting that we redesign school activities to include elements of play and game design. All of these models point to the need to incorporate a more playful mode of learning into our educational institutions and to harness the power of games for more formal kinds of education.

Right now, games are teaching young people skills — problem solving, design, simulation — but it is up to teachers to couple those experiences to specific domains of knowledge which get valued in the curriculum. My experiences in developing educational games suggest that the first step is trying to rethink why we want kids to learn what they are required to learn — that is, what it allows them to do in the world. Because information that is latent in a textbook has to be deployed actively in a game, otherwise there is no learning taking place.

Do you think video games can help break down barriers between what is learned inside and outside school?

Playing the game is only a small part of gaming culture and in the case of The Sims, Spore, or Little Big Planet, it may be the least significant part of the experience. These games encourage young people to remix and reprogram their contents. Sims players may develop their own avatars, design their own furniture, and exchange it online at the Mall of the Sims. The Sims players may use an ingame camera to collect images for their scrapbooks and then use the images to construct original fictional narratives. They may use the game engine as an animation platform to construct their own movies. In Little Big Planet, they may design and program their own levels and exchange them with other players. In many games, they form communities online to teach each other the skills they need. And in games like the Civilization series, which simulate historical societies, they include teaching about real world history as well as ingame strategies and tactics.

In each case, the game becomes the entry point for a broader range of cultural expressions and in the process, helps to create sites of learning. Young people are learning to program, design, tell stories, or become leaders through their social interactions through and around games. These accomplishments need to be recognized and valued through schools just as schools have historically supported the activities of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts or after school programs like yearbook, newspaper, drama club, and the like. These activities become a crucial part of how young people define their identities and form social affiliations.

But the principles that work there to support informal learning can also be carried over into more explicitly educational activities. For example, Mitchell Resnick at the MIT Media Lab has developed the Scratch program which uses these same participatory culture principles to enable young people to learn how to program; they’ve created a platform where young people develop their own projects, share them with each other, borrow and remix codes, building upon and improving each other’s work, through principles derived from the Creative Commons and Open Software movements. Young people around the world are using these platforms to acquire digital skills through the classroom, after school programs, and on their own.

I would like to ask you about the context of learning related to the new mobile media, for example a small NDSi or the iPhone. What implications could have this have for education?

In many parts of the world, these new social and cultural practices are developing around mobile media rather than networked computers. Cell phones are dramatically cheaper than laptops, say, and thus we are broadening who gets to engage with the new social networks. Twitter, for example, is designed to allow contributions from both mobile phones and computers, creating a system where information flows fluidly across media platforms.

A short term consequence of these developments is that young people will be able to access the information they need from anywhere and everywhere. These mobile phones will become a new kind of knowledge prosthesis which expands the capacity of their memory, allowing them to mobilize information in new ways on the fly. We call these practices distributed cognition because they involve off-loading parts of our thinking capacity onto a range of appliances and see it as a fundamental literacy.

Of course, we need to be concerned about an over-reliance on such devices if it decreases other kinds of learning, yet we also need to know multiple ways of solving a problem and the ability to off-load some tasks to our tools makes it possible for us to explore other questions at greater depth. Yet we are just starting to explore the implications of location-awareness for education. Eric Klopfer at MIT has developed a tool kit which allows educators to design augmented reality games. Augmented reality games are played in real spaces using digital handheld devices. In some cases, they allow students to access fictional information which is GPS enabled alongside their own observations of the real world.

Through the games developed for these platforms, young people learn to see the world through the eyes of urban planners or environmental scientists; they get to see their local communities as they might have been a hundred years ago. David Williamson Schaffer talks about these practices as “epistemic games,” that is, games which help us learn to think like a particular professional group, deploying their real tools and practices to confront authentic problems in the real world.

Young people may not simply play such games; they might also work to develop them, interviewing people in their neighborhoods as they build games around local history or civic problems, translating what they learned in their textbooks into resources which they can deploy on the ground to solve compelling problems.

What aspects do you consider to be essential in teacher education to help kids and young peopleto develop new literacies by using these new media?

Teachers, librarians, and other educators have a vital role to play in this new electronic culture. They will become research coaches who help young people set reasonable goals for themselves, develop strategies for tracking down the information they need, advise them on the ethical challenges they confront as they enter new social and cultural communities, and recommend safe ways of dealing with issues of publicity and privacy which necessarily shape their digital lives.

In order to perform that role, they have to become comfortable with the new technologies and their affiliated practices. It is not enough to know how to use the tool; they have to master the cultural logic and social norms which are emerging around these online communities. This is too much for any teacher to take upon themselves. So, they must each take responsibility for acquiring different skills and understandings and be prepared to draw upon each other as resources for themselves and for their students. In doing so, they will be applying the principles of collective intelligence and social networks to their own practices and thus will be immersing themselves more deeply in these new media literacy skills.

We’ve been experimenting with an ‘unconference’ model for developing curriculum which bridge between traditional school content and new media literacy skills as an alternative model for professional development. The unconference starts out fairly chaotically as participants dump onto the web or exchange in person ideas, resources, practices, and activities which they think might be valuable to this subject area. Gradually, you gather together these resources, start to construct categories, and refine the activities. In the process, participants get to know each other and what each member can contribute to the group.

Many families are afraid of new media, and may even prevent their children from using them in the same way as they use a book, or a comic, a novel and so on. What would you say to them?

In many ways, parential concerns about new media are understandable. As parents, we are facing new experiences which were not part of the world of our childhood. We don’t know how to protect our children as they enter these spaces and we may not know how to advise them when they encounter problems there. But those basic concerns can easily be turned into fear and even panic as they get manipulated by a sensationalistic press , political demagogues, and culture warriors. As adults, we owe it to our children not to foreclose important opportunities out of ignorance and fear. Instead, we have an obligation to learn more about the emerging cultural practices we’ve been talking about here. I certainly don’t think we want to turn our backs on our children nor do we want to be snooping over their shoulders all the day. We need to be informed allies who can help watch their backs as they enter into situations that none of us understand fully.

We need to be there to celebrate their accomplishments; we need to be there to advise them as they confront ethical challenges; we need to be there as they acquire skills at accessing and deploying information. We need to do this because it is important to our children, their development, and their well-being.

Maybe you can tell a little more by using some example

Here’s a few practical examples of things you can do: When my son was three, my wife and I began to help him develop some basic media literacy skills. Some nights, we read him a bedtime story. Other nights, we asked him to tell us a bedtime story. We recorded his stories on the computer; we could print them out and let him illustrate them, then we’d photocopy the whole and send it to his grandparents as a gift. They would read and respond to his stories. Many of his stories dealt with the media he consumed — games, television, comics, films, toys — and we would use this storytelling practice to talk through with him his fantasies and fears, sharing our own values about the issues he was exploring.

Telling the stories gave him a sense of being an author — a key experience as we think about the new participatory culture — and it paved the way for later creative experiences he would have as he moved on line.

Or imagine an older child — a teen or preteen — who is first becoming interested in social networking sites. Perhaps you could ask her advice in setting up your own Facebook page. This would allow you to learn more about how social networks work but also to create a context for talking about how people represent themselves on line. If she’s like most teens, she is going to be at least as concerned about being embarrassed by her parent’s public presentation as you are going to be about how much information she shares on line and it is through those conversations that you can exchange your values.

Teens still need adult involvement and parential advice as they move into this new world, but they also deserve to have that advice informed by direct experience and careful research into the nature of the world we are preparing them to enter. This is no different in its logic than what previous generations of parents have faced given the pace of technological change across the 20th century, even though the specifics are going to be different from anything your parents confronted in raising you.

In conclusion: How can we transform schools by using new media? Please, give us one or two suggestions for institutions, even governments, that are considering this challange, what would you say?

The first point I’d make is that we have to understand the new media literacies as a paradigm shift which impacts every school subject, not as an additional subject which somehow has to be plugged into the over-crowded school day. The push should be to have every teacher take responsibility for those skills, tools, and practices that are central to the way their disciplines are practiced in the real world rather than locking away the technologies in a special lab or a special class where it gets isolated from the real work of the school. The school needs to work together, as a community, to develop strategies for full integration across the curriculum, and to identify those skills which each member might contribute to the community as a whole.

Schools need to operate much more along principles of collective intelligence and social networking — to identify and deploy the expertise they have in their community and to reach beyond their community to other sources of experience and knowledge, whether parents, educators at other schools, or others within their larger community. They need to create ways of sharing best practices and failures, offering advice and feedback to each other as they make this challenging transition. They need to be as concerned with how they teach as they are with what they teach.

Where possible, schools need to introduce complex problems which require their students to track down information from multiple channels and to work together to pool knowledge and combine skills . They need to develop opportunities for young people to share what they have produced with the world, getting feedback and recognition from a larger community, and taking greater responsibility for the quality of information they circulate.

Schools need to lower existing barriers which make it difficult to deploy participatory platforms through education, stepping back from software that filters or blocks access to the internet. But in doing so, they also need to work with the students to develop norms of use that respect the particular character of the school community and its goals rather than adopting an “anything goes” attitude.

Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part Three)

This is the third part of my interview with Spanish educational researcher Pilar Lacasa for Cuadernos de Pedagogia, a Spanish language publication, about my research on the New Media Literacies. This time we talk about the relations between old and new media and explore how YouTube, fan fiction and Facebook can be deployed in meaningful ways through school.

So far, we have been talking about new media, but it is clear that they do not replace the old ones.

Almost never do schools think about the relationships between new and old media. Some people may have the idea that some of them will replace the old ones. A study of American college students preparing to enter ten different professions found that educators in training were the least likely to play videogames or participate in social networks. Teachers have defined themselves as defenders of book culture, often in what they perceive as opposition to the new digital culture. This protective stance no doubt reflects the rhetoric of the digital revolution which imagined that new media was going to displace if not destroy old media. And thus, for digital culture to thrive, book culture must die.

In fact, the opposite has happened. The new media has built upon and around existing modes of communication. The average person has access to a greater array of different books now than ever before thanks to online book dealers. The average teen writes more, thanks to e-mail and online discussion forums, than the previous generation. We will live in a world where books and printed matter still matters even as students get more information from computers than ever before. They are going to need to go where the information is, know how to assess the reliability of information which comes without comfortable gatekeepers, and be able to communicate their ideas through many different channels to many different publics.

Therefore we need to use multiple media.

This situation doesn’t allow us to make any easy choices between teaching print and digital literacy: students clearly need both and more importantly, they need to understand the relationship between the two. They need to understand the different structures through which traditional encyclopedias and Wikipedia produce and evaluate information, for example. They need to be able to read charts, maps, and graphs, but also to be able to produce and interpret information through simulations. They need to be able to express themselves orally, with pens and paper, and with video cameras and digital editing equipment.

Many of them are already acquiring such skills outside of the classroom through informal learning practices that thrive in this participatory culture but others are being left to be raised by wolves, not able to find their way into generative practices and supporting communities, and acquiring none of the ethical norms that might govern their future activities. Howard Gardner’s Good Play Project at Harvard found that many young people don’t apply ethical standards to their online conduct because they don’t believe that what they do online matters. We can see this as an ironic response to adults who have dismissed such activities as worthless or meaningless, rather than asking questions about how or what they are learning through their participation in this practices, recognizing their accomplishments, or advising them on their ethical conflicts.

Schools, libraries, and other educational institutions need to be both embracing the potentials and confronting the challenges of this emerging culture not as a replacement for existing print practices but as an expansion of them.

Can we think then that schools lose many of learning opportunities supported by new media?

New Media platforms, such as YouTube, have expanded our access to the rich archives of existing sounds and images from the past. We have access now to recordings that were once buried in the archives but which we now can summon up at a moments notice. We can navigate the entire media scape on the fly, at a second’s notice, in response to the flow of a classroom discussion.

We could, at least, if schools were not often blocking access to these very same tools and platforms out of fear of inappropriate content or risky forms of participation. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face! It is as though we were closing all the libraries out of concern that young people might track down the pictures of topless women in National Geographic!

Beyond that, the new media tools allow young people to edit and respond critically to those moving images in new ways, to create presentations which have the explanatory power of well crafted documentaries, though again, they are often blocked by schools who are uncertain about the legalities of copyright protection and thus unwilling to allow them to remix and recontextualize content. So, right now, at least in American schools, and in many other counries around the world, the opportunities afforded us by these new digital archives are being shut off through school policies that are born more from fear and uncertainty than from reasoned pedagogical goals.

Maybe your idea of transmedia phenomenon may be a way to explore opportunities offered by the media. For example, teaching students how to write narrative texts when using the Harry Potter books, movies or video games.

What I’m describing as transmedia storytelling has been a fundamental part of human expression since the dawn of time. Certainly we need young people to develop a critical understanding of how contemporary media franchises like Harry Potter operate, both recognizing the aesthetic opportunities for authors to construct worlds which are bigger than single texts or even single media, but also understanding the commercial imperatives which are marketing extensions of popular stories to them.

But this idea of transmedia might also help us to understand the world of the church in the middle ages, say. Unless you were literate and in the priesthood, you would not have experienced the stories of the Bible through a single text. Instead, those stories would surround you, conveyed through every available communications system. They would be performed on carts, expressed through stainglass windows and the structures of cathedrals, painted on the ceilings, proclaimed from the pulpet, and sung by the choir. Go back even further and think about the early cave paintings which historians believe were used as sites of performance: the live storyteller interacting with the painted image to convey the experience of the hunt. So, the earliest representations we have might have been part of a transmedia experience.

Many of the works we teach took elements of oral culture and translated them into printed prose, again suggesting that we need to understand how stories move across media if we are going to understand why and how humans tell stories. Too often, teachers have been indifferent about media, teaching the texts of plays without regard to the conditions of their performance, for example. But now, we want teachers to explore art and literature with a heightened awareness of the media through which they were produced, distributed, and consumed.

And what about social networks, a new widespread medium of communication among young people and also among many adults?

One way to understand the new power of social networks is to understand what roles these platforms and practices played in the recent Obama presidential campaign. A traditional political website works by linking individual voters to the campaign; a social network site works by linking voters to each other. At a certain point, Obama’s supporters were able to take over much greater control of the political campaign. They could organize local events quickly without having to go through the centralized campaigns. They could pool resources, each member contributing what skills they could, to the shared effort. Once he’s in office, they can continue to mobilize in response to public policy debates or rally around other candidates who share their vision of progressive change for the country.

These social network sites are transforming the nature of civic engagement and participation. Young people need to learn how to become a part of these powerful new kinds of communities, need to know how to navigate through social networks to connect with people who have skills and knowledge that they need, need to understand the ethics of social life within these networks, and need to understand the risks as well as the opportunities of interacting with people they do not know face to face. The Obama campaign worked at both the national and the local level, but these social networks now work on a global scale.

What is the role that these networks can play in schools?

Schools have long used pen pal programs to connect their students with children from other parts of the world. The deployment of social networks through education allows young people ongoing interactions with a global community of learners who share common interests and goals; it allows schools to dramatically expand the human resources they can draw upon in their ongoing pedagogical activities. As we think of social networks as sites of learning, we can see two levels of pedagogy — acquiring access to the broader range of expertise supported by the networks and acquiring the skills needed to deploy social networks for a variety of purposes in the future.

As with all of the new literacy practices we are discussing here, some youth will have extensive experience deploying social networks outside of school and deploying them in the classroom will allow them to direct that experience towards mastering new content, while other youth will not know how to work through social networks and schools can provide them with a safe, supervised context for mastering those skills.

Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part Two)

Last time, we ran part one of a four part interview I did with Spanish educational researcher Pilar Lacasa for Cuadernos de Pedagogia, a Spanish language publication, about my research on the New Media Literacies. This time, we dig deeper into the concepts of participatory culture and the participation gap and talk about how the new media literacies can impact how we teach literature.

Is there anything really new in the idea of new literacies? Is it different from other processes such as reading and writing much more related to the printed materials?

Yes and No. In many ways, they are expansions of skills we’ve always taught which is why many of them will feel familiar to teachers and will fit comfortably within existing disciplines. In some ways, they represent the expansion of research skills into the more diverse information environment or an extrapulation of what it means to read and write to cover a broader range of communication practices.

But they also reflect habits of mind that emerge in response to networked communications or a converged media landscape. So, there is a much greater emphasis on literacy as a social and collective rather than an individual practice — on learning to collaborate and exchange knowledge with others. There is a greater emphasis on the challenges of moving through a dispersed media landscape, interacting with groups who come from different backgrounds, shift attention between multiple channels of communication, or deploying different tools for processing information. These new skills do not so much emerge from new technologies as from new social, cultural, and educational opportunities that have emerged around those platforms.

Perhaps there is a generation gap when people use new media.

There are certainly generational differences in our experience and comfort with these new Technologies and their affiliated practices. Most adults encountered the computer first in the workplace, where-as many young people encountered it first in the home or the school. They approached it with different goals and expectations which means that they understand it in fundamentally different ways.

It isn’t just that young people have grown up with the technology while adults came to it later in life. They have a totally different attitude towards what a computer is and the place it holds in their lives. That said, we have to be careful about drawing too sharp a generational dividing line here. First, the most powerful forms of participatory culture are those where adults and young people interact together in more fluid ways than would be found at school, work, church, or home. They are motivated by shared interests; they actively seek to learn from each other; and they are valued less on their age than on what they can each contribute. When we assume adults are locked out of the digital realm, we close off those opportunities for transgenerational experiences.

Second, we need to be careful about assuming that all young people have had access to the full benefits of the digital age. There are many inequalities not simple in terms of access to the Technologies but also in terms of opportunities to participate. That’s what I call the participation gap. Some young people have been invited into the digital realm and feel free to express themselves there in as public a manner as is possible, while others feel excluded, cut off.. They don’t understand how participatory culture works; they haven’t been encouraged to participate; they don’t think anyone will care what they have to say.

What could do educators to overcome these participation gaps?

Educators have key roles to play here in terms of creating a space where those who have been previously excluded can be welcomed into the new knowledge communities and can find their voice through the emerging participatory culture. But to perform those roles, they need to overcome their own fears and uncertainties about the digital World. They have to learn about the online world the way many young people have learned about it — through active participation. They need to experiment with the various tools and platforms; they need to find a community which shares their interests and passions and plung into it deeply so they know what it is like to share knowledge through a social network and to create things through dispersed collaboration.

To do this, they may well need to sit down with a young person they know who is deeply immersed in this world and seek their advice and mentorship, reversing the normal role in the classroom, learning from their students or their children. In doing so, they will be trading different kinas of expertise — matching the exploratory spirit of youth with the experience and wisdom of adulthood. But they need to avoid closing off the communication and learning too quickly by assuming that they already know everything the young person is going to teach them.

In these new contexts of communication we not only speak about Participatory Culture but also about Convergence Culture.

When people in the media industry use the term convergence they are often talking about a technological process — the bringing together of multiple media functions, the uniting of multiple communication channels through a single device. Imagine say the iPhone as a tool which performs many different media functions — from playing games to taking photographs — and connects us to different networks — from telephone to the internet. That’s often what gets described as a convergence device.

I want to argue though that convergence is also a cultural process, one where stories, ideas, images, move across all media platforms, shaped both by the desire of companies to expand markets and by the desire of consumers to gain easier access to meaningful media. In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether or not our tools are talking to each other; we are forming an integrated information ecology in our heads. Storytellers are learning to disperse information and experiences across media platforms, encouraging their readers to explore and map the storyworld through a series of encounters. Educators are discovering that we learn or do research in a similar manner, putting together dispersed pieces from many different media platforms, to form a coherent picture of the world around us. So, teachers need to encourage students to develop a core competency in transmedia navigation.

Are any specific skills necessary to take part of this new Participatory and Convergent Culture?

Transmedia navigation is simply one of a range of new competencies which we think schools should be exploring. In a white paper I helped to write for the MacArthur Foundation, we identified a series of core skills and competencies which we think are needed for young people to be able to fully enter the new participatory culture. These skills include the ability to deal with simulations and visualizations, the ability to explore the environment through play and identity through performance, the ability to deploy information appliances and social networks in processing information, and the ability to negotiate around cultural differences encountered in diverse online communities. Project NML has been developing a range of resources to help educators acquire and promote these new skills.

Could you explain what are those resources developed in the project New Media Literacy?

Our Learning Library, for example, provides a range of pedagogical challenges (a cluster of activities which allow young people to encounter, explore, experiment with, and ethically evaluate some of the emerging media practices.) which illustrate and embody the 12 skills. The library’s resources are modular, so that they can be appropriated and used in a range of contexts from home schoolers to formal educators. They are multidisciplinary so that teachers can take ownership over those skills which are central to their own disciplines and thus we can integrate these skills across the curriculum.

The library is designed as an open platform which allows educators and students not simply to consume existing activities but also to contribute their own, sharing what works in their classrooms with other educators, appropriating and remixing each other’s content so that we can all learn from each other. In other words, the learning library takes seriously what I’ve already said here about participatory culture and collective intelligence.

Who can use this library?

We are encouraging different organizations to develop their own collections for this library and are especially excited at the prospect of educators from many different countries sharing something of their own media cultures and practices through the library, allowing us to explore and learn on a global scale. I’d like to personally invite Spanish educators to try their hand at developing challenges which reflect your local educational and cultural practices.

What could be role of the curriculum content in learning new literacies?

My philosophy has been to be conservative in content and innovative in method. That is to say, we believe that these skills have something to contribute to even the most traditional of curriculum and that they are relevant across the full range of school subjects. Every field of knowledge today has been reshaped through the changes that have impacted our information environment. Scientists and social scientists for example regularly work with digital simulations and new modes of visualization as they process their data, yet these practices have scarcely impacted the way science and social science get taught in schools. Contemporary artists and writers are deploying remix practices that transform how they think about authorship but these insights about creativity have scarcely made it into the language arts classroom.

Could you mention some examples of how the curriculum can be introduced by using methodologies emerging from these new environments?

Through our Teacher Strategy Guides on Reading in a Participatory Cultture and Mapping in a Participatory Culture, we’ve been modeling new ways for integrating these skills into the classroom. For example, our Reading project took the American novel, Moby-Dick, as its starting point, seeking to better understand how its author, Herman Melville, created through borrowing and recontexualizing stories found in Homer, the Bible, Shakespeare, and contemporary whaling lore, as the basis for his own creative expression.

We also explore how subsequent artists and authors have used Moby-Dick as a starting point for their own creation and thus how Melville has exerted a living presence in our contemporary culture. In doing so, we encourage students not simply to critically read but also to creatively rework elements from the novel to reflect their own perspectives on the issues Melville raises. And we encourage them to reflect on the ethics of appropriation — what artists can take freely, what obligations they owe to previous generations, and so forth.

I’d imagine that this same approach might be applied productively to Cervantes. Don Quixote is a novel which centers around the imaginative life at a moment of profound media change — not simply through the protagonist and his relationship to romantic fictions but also through the ongoing discussions of books and printing. There are so many ways that this novel can be taught in order to heighten our understanding of the personal and social consequences of changing the way a society receives and conveys information in a way that also opens students up to discuss the world they are entering at our present moment of profound and prolonged media change.

Learning in a Participatory Culture: A Conversation About New Media and Education (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I received a message in the mail from Ariel Glazer at University of Buenos Aires sharing this video, which remixed some footage from the interview I gave to the producers of Digital Nation. In many ways, it captures some of my core themes and concerns better than the PBS documentary and in the process, it helps us make connections with a range of other conversations taking place around the world about New Media Literacies.

When I taught my New Media Literacies class last semester at USC, I asked my students to interview a student or teacher about the ways that the issues in our class impacted their lives. Because these students came from many different countries, we ended up with glimpses of what was taking in classrooms from the Laplands to India, from Bulgaria to India. In almost every case, the young people interviewed described deeply meaningful forms of learning which were taking place through their engagement with affinity groups and social networks online, yet they each described school practices which shut off that learning once they entered the classroom. The teachers, on the other hand, talked about struggling to keep up with their students, about a lack of formal training to help them make the transitions being demanded, and about their fears of losing control over their classroom.

I wanted to stress the international nature of these exchanges because this week I am going to be sharing with you an extended interview which I did with Pillar Lacasa, a Spanish researcher, who has spent two blocks of time as a visiting scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program and whose work has been featured on this blog before. Lacasa is a close friend and she knows enough about my work to ask questions which help position it for readers back in Spain. Since this interview will appear later this week in Spanish in Cuadernos de Pedagogia, I asked her if I could share the original English language version here. I hope that this will be of interest especially to the many parents and educators who read this blog and may represent a response to some of the issues raised in the Digital Nation documentary.

Children and young people like to spend their free time in front of the screen. Could you give us some good reasons to that could persuade educators to introduce new media and screens in schools

At the end of the day, it isn’t about the technology. It certainly isn’t about the screen per se. It is about the informational affordances and cultural practices which have taken shape around the computer and other interactive technologies. It isn’t about the computer replacing the book. It is about a world where students learn with a book in one hand and a mouse in the other, rather than one where they are taught that book culture is so fragile it needs to be protected from the computer.

Jenna McWilliams, until recently, part of our Project NML staff, writes powerfully about reading with a mouse in your hand. She tells us that teachers often encourage students to read with a pencil in their hands — not simply letting the words pass over their eyeballs but critically engaging with them, taking notes, asking questions, critiquing as they go. When students read with a mouse in their hands, they take this one step further: they assume that they must actively respond to what’s been put in front of them; they are poised to participate; they take responsibility over the quality of information and correct it publically if it is wrong.

Yochai Benkler, author of The Wealth of Networks, tells us we respond to the culture differently when we see it through the eyes of a participant rather than a consumer. And it is this participatory culture which has been facilitated by the new digital media in a way that stretches far beyond the imagination of previous generations.

Reading your book I noticed that you establish an interesting distinction between mass media and technology. How do you understand both of these concepts?

For me, a medium is more than simply a technology. It also includes the social and cultural practices that have grown up around us. So, when we talk about television, we are not simply talking about an electronic appliance; we are talking about the programming strategies and conventions which have emerged to shape our experience of television and we are referencing the particular mind set that has evolved around watching television often in our homes with little chance of engaging with its contents directly or publically. When we are talking about the internet, we are talking about all of the activities we perform through this new information infrastructure and the mindset which emerges through our ongoing engagement and participation in the great public conversation that emerges through it.

Beyond the individual medium there is a media ecology — all of the different kinds of communications systems which surround us and through which we live our everyday lives. Right now, for example, we inhabit a world where mass media, top down systems of communications, co-exist with grassroots media, which enable much broader opportunities for our participation. We are just starting to understand what happens when these two systems collide.

You introduce the idea of a Participatory Culture in relation to new media. Can you explain the relation between the two concepts?

Participatory culture didn’t begin or end with the internet. Most of what I am describing as participatory culture can be found in any thriving folk culture. At its best, a folk culture is defined through the expanding opportunities for participation. Everyone who wants to join is accepted. Everyone who has something to contribute is embraced. Experienced members share what they know through informal mentorship with newcomers because it expands the expressive resources of the community. The exchange of folk artifacts is reciprocal, based on the ideals of a gift economy, rather than hierarchical or commercial.

This idea of dispersed expression broke down in the 20th century as most forms of cultural production became professionalized and commercialized. We moved into a world where we consumed but did not produce the resources of our culture — never totally but largely. Throughout that period, though, there were all kinds of underground and grassroots practices which held onto the idea of shared cultural expression and participation. These practices have re-emerged and gained greater public visibility in the era of Flickr and YouTube.

These technologies have brought cultural expression down to a human scale; they have placed the exchange of stories or songs in a social context; and they have opened up a space where all of us can be welcomed as potential participants. All of the research shows that the communities of practice which grow up around this participatory culture are powerful sites of pedagogy, fueled by passion and curiosity and by a desire to share what we learn and think with others. As with older folk cultures, informal pedagogies thrive as people get together to learn based on shared interests rather than fixed roles and responsibilities.

Participatory Culture could be relate with a Collective Intelligence as present in the media too?

In a networked society, literacy is a social skill not simply an individual competency. Understanding how information circulates becomes as important as knowing how to put your ideas into words, sounds, or images. Creation is iterative: we reshape what we’ve created in response to critical feedback from others in an ongoing process of innovation and refinement.

There are new forms of collective authorship which have emerged around principles of collective intelligence. Take Wikipedia for example, where any given entry may have multiple authors, each vetting and refining what was written before, each adding what they know to what others have already contributed. This is different from traditional forms of individual expertise and autonomous learning.

Pierre Levy tells us that in a networked society, nobody knows everything (Forget about the ideal of the Renaissance Man), everybody knows something (expand the range of possible expertises) and what any given member of the community knows is available to the group as a whole as needed. The result is an ethics of information — an obligation to share what you know with the group, a need to respect yet critically engage with multiple ways of knowing, an active push to embrace diversity because it expands the creative and knowledge capacity of your network.

We are evolving towards this much more robust information system where groups working together can solve problems that are far more complex than can be confronted by individuals. And schools can actively prepare students for such a world — by allowing them to develop and refine their individualized expertise, by providing complex problems which require collective effort to resolve, by teaching them the ethics involved in working in such a highly collaborative and open-ended context. Right now, schools are often using group work but not in ways which encourage real collaboration or shared expertise — in part because they still assume a world where every student knows everything rather than one where different kinds of knowledge come together towards shared ends.

The project New Media Literacy relates participation to new forms of literacy?

What we are proposing is an expanded conception of literacy which includes all of the ways which we communicate our ideas to each other. This concept moves beyond the idea of critical consumption which is often what people call media literacy. You wouldn’t consider someone literate if they could read but not write text and we shouldn’t consider someone literate if they can consume but not produce media. Over the past fifty years, we have expanded the resources through which humans can communicate with each other, in some cases making tools like video cameras more widely available, and in others creating an infrastructure which allows anyone who goes online a chance to communicate their thoughts to the world.

Schools need to prepare young people to use these new resources creatively, effectively, and responsibly if they are going to prepare them for the lives they will lead in the 21st century. Such power can be under-used if they are not taught to use it creatively or effectively; it can be abused if they are not taught to use it responsibly. Teachers need to recognize both the risks and the possibilities of these new opportunities for human expression.

How to Get Academic Credit While Attending San Diego Comic-Con: An Interview With Matthew J. Smith

Today, I wanted to share with you a fascinating experiment in media education which is conducted each year as part of the San Diego Comic-Con. I’ve written about the centrality of Comic-Con as a meeting point between fans and producers and as a site where academics interested in promoting the study of comics co-exist side by side with dealer’s rooms and discussions with comics creators.

This past year, I had a chance to consult with two students who were part of a program being offered by Matthew J. Smith, a comics scholar who teaches classes in media studies at Wittenberg University in Springfield, OH. Every year, he organizes a team of students who conduct individual and collective ethnographic projects trying to make sense of the complexity and diversity of Comic-Con. He’s now in the process of recruiting students for this year’s program so I told him I’d help him spread the word. What follows is an interview with Smith about his ethnographic instruction and about the culture of Comic-Con. At the end, I tell you where you can go to be considered as a recruit for this educational program.

Can you give me some sense of the approach you take to teaching ethnographic research on the ground at Comic-Con?

Students are responsible for several readings before they get to San Diego, so that we can have an informed discussion about ethnographic tools when we meet. But from our first night onward, students are thrown into the deep end of the pool, being asked to record observations and make modest interpretations starting with “Preview Night” on the floor of the convention hall floor. Thereafter, there’s a good deal of note taking, and of course talking through observations and constructing interpretations with peers in daily “Breakfast Briefings.” After the first few days, students are encouraged to compliment their observations by doing interviews with informants. Some students find their individual topics evolving as we progress through the week, which is just fine with me! However, they do have a week to process the experience and think through their material more before their final narratives are due.

What goals do you set for your participants?

My primary goal is to help students become more media literate for having had the experience. Popular culture is created and marketed with them in mind. If nothing else, I really want them to be aware of their role in this process and exercise greater agency in their future interactions with it.

In addition, I’d like students to realize that they can discover meaning through ethnographic methods. I don’t think that the tools of ethnography are taught as widely as they should be and this is an opportunity to expose students to them in what is essentially a laboratory setting.

Comic-Con has emerged as perhaps the most important interfaces between the entertainment industry and the public. What shifts have you and your students noticed in terms of the industry’s engagement with fans in recent years?

What stands out to me is the way in which Con is now a multi-media experience in and of itself. I’m not just talking about the multiple media industries that are represented on site, but the way that Con is experienced by both those who are physically there–supplemented by constant Twittering, for example–and also by those who are elsewhere around the country. I return from San Diego feeling like one of the fortunate few who get to attend the Super Bowl, as friends and colleagues come up to me and say, “I saw Con on TV (or read about it online or got the feed) and knew you were there.” For that moment, I am the coolest person in the room.

Within the more than 100,000 people gathered at Comic-Con, there are representatives of a broad range of different fan subcultures. How do you and your students deal with the diversity of different fan interests represented?

Some students find the scale overwhelming for the first few days. Given so much to process, I encourage students to focus their individual projects on areas of interest to their individual intellectual interests or pop culture tastes (e.g., Marvel Comics panels). With some filters in place, the stimuli become a bit more manageable. However, I love it when students start to look out for things for one another. Often at our “Breakfast Briefings” they begin to ask one another if they are aware of this event or that person’s signing appearance in the hall latter in the day. These moments of overlapping interest really make us a learning community within the 100,000 person crowd.

Many attending the con now beline to the major presentations in Hall H and Hall 20. Yet, this is only the tip of the iceberg of what goes on at Comic-Con. What aspects of Comic-Con culture have emerged through your collaborative research efforts that we would miss if the focus was only on the major events?

Where to start!? My students have found nooks and crannies of popular culture that I would not have thought to explore in twenty trips to Con. Let me share a small sample of some of the project titles to give you a sense of what they have focused on in the past:

• Twitter as a Means of Direct Dialogue between Creators & Fans

• Aggressive Marketing & its Impact on Consumers at San Diego Comic Con

• “State Your Name and Your Purpose”: The Talk of Marvel Comics Fans

• Fanbois at Comic-Con: Queer Consumer/Producer Interface & the Intransitive Writing of Comics

• Hollywood Comes to Comic-Con International: An Examination of Glamour & Glitz

• Video Games: On the Bottom Looking Up

Comic-Con is one of the most racially diverse fan gatherings I’ve ever attended. Has your research offered any insights into how and why this con attracts more minority participants than most other fan gatherings?

In three years my students have initiated eighteen different projects, and while a number have investigated demographics like gender and sexual orientation, none have addressed race explicitly. It’s a great topic that some student could investigate this summer! My own impression is that California’s diversity helps set up the climate for Con’s diversity. Beyond that, is it that popular culture fans judge you by your interests first and not the color of your skin?

There has been a dramatic increase of female attendees at Comic-Con in recent years, partially in response to Twilight and True Blood, and this has generated some tensions with long-time attendees. What insights has your team’s research yielded into these sources of friction?

I’m waiting for the student who wants to tackle this project! Over the last two years my students and I have certainly noted the outright hostility directed towards the Twilighters and found ourselves at a loss for how one minority (the comics fan) can turn on another. Is it anger at the encroachment of Hollywood on the Con finding an outlet at long last? Is it a matter of gender? Is it that the cross-over between interests doesn’t quite overlap as much as other groups present (e.g., a video gamer can also be a comics fan)? I hope we have a student or two who will want to tackle these kinds of questions this summer.

Your students give a public presentation of their findings every year as part of the Con. How has the Comic-Con community responded to their representations of their norms and practices? How does this public presentation impact the kinds of work your students do?

The reception for my students has been tremendous. Whereas most academic presentations are lucky to draw an audience larger than the number of presenters behind the dais, my students typically draw a crowd of 80+ curious minds. The best audience members are those who want to challenge or extend my students’ claims, weighing their own perceptions against those of my students. I love to see that kind of interaction as the students are challenged to either further defend their conclusions or engage in expanding/refocusing their thoughts. I think knowing that a public presentation is an integral part their task focuses their work for the week that we are there and makes them accountable to an audience of more than just me as the instructor.

Critics might argue that the duration of a con is not sufficient time to really immerse yourself into any kind of rich cultural community and that there are serious problems with performing “instant ethnography.” What do you see as the strengths and limits of the work your team does each year?

That’s entirely a fair critique. I try to keep the course from making the pretension that it is the only course in ethnography one would ever need. To the contrary, I explicitly state that this experience is a mere appetizer meant to whet one’s appetites for more and richer ethnographic projects in the future. In Communication Studies in particular, I see a lot of programs where students are typically trained as either survey administers or rhetorical critics, and I want to introduce them to another viable way of coming to know the world around them.

What qualifications are you looking for from prospective students in your program?

There are no academic prerequisite, per se, other than that one be currently enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program and in good academic standing at one’s home institution (which usually means minimally a 2.0 cumulative higher grade point average). The course is really designed to be introductory in its approach, although I’ve had graduate students participate each year who report learning something new. Beyond that, I’ve found that the most successful students are intellectual curious, open-minded, and willing to work hard. The experience is intensive: Students find themselves on the go for five consecutive days and that takes stamina. Even so, it is terrifically rewarding to come to the end of the experience and know that you discovered something new about culture and its exercise.

Matthew J. Smith teaches courses in media studies at Wittenberg University in Springfield, OH, including “Graphic Storytelling: Comic Books as Culture,” “The Graphic Novels of Alan Moore,” and a week-long field study at Comic-Con International each summer (details of the latter may be found at In 2009, Wittenberg University’s Alumni Association recognized him with its Distinguished Teaching Award. Along with Randy Duncan, he is co-author of The Power of Comics: History, Form & Culture (Continuum, 2009), a textbook for college-level comics arts studies courses. The two are also editing the forthcoming Comics Criticism: Methods and Applications.

The Field Study at Comic-Con

Earn academic credit while studying the dynamics of marketing and fan culture at the largest comic arts event on the continent, July 21-25, 2010.

For complete program details and costs go here.

Application deadline is March 1, 2010