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 www.powerofcomics.com/fieldstudy). 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

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