So now I find myself wanting to talk about academic labor and publishing in fan studies. Maybe that’s idiosyncratic, but that was what stood out to me as I read your opening statement. It feels like a place to talk about what fandom can teach us as well.
My first response at 7 discussion sections was horror, but it also points to the ways that, even at elite institutions like Princeton, humanities are undervalued and under-resourced. So then, when you add on top of that studying something that’s not always taken seriously--you mentioned that professional studiers of literature don’t often, and I have heard from academic jobs that they wouldn’t have even considered a fan studies person except for something particular about me (which is flattering and also not)--it can be quite difficult to do the work that we do. There’s a reason that so many of the most vibrant voices in this field are in contingent positions and so few are at the traditionally elite institutions.
It’s also, to your point about academic vs. trade presses, not that easy to get fan studies work published. There are absolutely venues that value fan studies--Transformative Works and Cultures and University of Iowa Press to name a couple--but many of the “mainstream” venues are more skeptical. That can, for those of us in the early stages of building a scholarly reputation, result either in having publications that carry less cachet or or being nudged away from studying fans at all. I don’t think we’re going to solve this in one conversation, but I do want to poke at it a little bit.
So then, what can fandom potentially teach academia? I’m not one of those people who thinks fandom is this awesome egalitarian place without hierarchies, but there is a way that in the absence of formations like the Big Name Fan (and accounting for broader social inequalities from which fandom is not immune), anyone’s contribution to a conversation has the potential to be seen as valuable. I would think it was great if academia could be more like that.
I *wish* fandom would teach academia that interest and intelligence does not necessarily follow rank or prestige. One of the elements I loathe most about my corner of the profession--and now here I’m speaking to literary and cultural studies, not fan studies--is the stratification of conversation even at those big conventions that are designed in part to be “mixers.” Too often the Ivy Leaguers are on their own panels, and East State Teaching University Satellite Campusers are on their panels, and the flow of interest only works in one direction. It’s wrong, anti-intellectual, elitist, and doesn’t begin to take into account the reality of academic labor and hiring right now. There are great, smart scholars at every level, including outside the university structure entirely--this is especially true of fan studies which is both emerging and studying a historically stigmatized culture. One of the things I really value in fan studies is that I feel less of that kind of hierarchical stratification.
That said, part of the reason that my own voice has been amplified on the topic of fanfiction is, ironically, because it wasn’t my training. I have a lit degree from an Ivy and my tenure book was on nineteenth-century poetry. I just finished another one on Kafka. That background makes snobs credit what I say about fanfic because I also write on “real” books. This bothers me, but then I remember that what *really* drove media interest in my direction a few years back was that I had once taught the fanfic that became Fifty Shades of Grey, and that is really what established my reputation-- arguably along with my expertise on My Immortal. So that… acts as an important counter-weight.
Still, I think it’s important for emerging scholars to know that many of us got trained and hired and in my case tenured in established fields and departments. There’s not a Department of Fan Studies. I do think there will only be an increasing demand from students to study what we study because it has been important in shaping their lives and culture. As this happens, I hope and believe that we--whoever we are--who have some institutional clout will work to make sure those future positions are funded, humane, and, if ever and if at all possible, tenure-track. We also need to keep in mind that in a marginalized field like fan studies, scholars from traditionally marginalized backgrounds are even more at-risk from a kind of compounded stigmatizing effect. For a variety of reasons, fan studies scholars are particularly vulnerable to adjunctification. So when we make up panels or invite speakers or review books for publication or in book reviews, we should try our utmost to correct for that.
Power and influence can kind of creep up on you, and it can be startling for a lot of us to recognize that we have any of it at all. I know that was the case for me with teaching, particularly adjunct teaching where I had less economic and institutional power than a Hooters waitress (I checked) but often a really outsized influence on the lives and careers of my students. It is certainly an issue that comes up a lot around teaching and researching fandom and fanworks. But academia has a weird way of producing simultaneous and contradicting interstices of power and disempowerment.
Have you had a learning curve where it comes to navigating the politics, power differentials, and ethics of teaching and studying fandom?
Oh absolutely. I’m kind of a weirdo in fan studies because in my individual research I don’t study fans as people (sometimes I do with coauthors). I don’t do interviews, I don’t analyze fic, nothing of that sort. At least, not anymore. My 2013 article came out of my MA thesis, for which I interviewed fans. And as I sat down to analyze that data and theorize what I saw happening I was so acutely aware of the power I had over these people, even as a master’s student. That feeling never left me, and I do my best only to research laterally to other professionals or “up” to people more powerful than me now. I’m actually tremendously distressed when I see some of our colleagues name and shame fans--even when they’re sexist or homophobic or racist--because we have power over them as the people who are educationally authorized to tell the story.
Though research is the big one for me, I do run into some of these tensions with teaching too. I don’t know if it’s generational or what (I do see it more with just-out-of-undergrad folks), but students often feel that everything on the internet is public and fair game for research. So one thing I have to talk about a lot (and will be focusing specifically on in the social media research class I’m teaching this fall) is the ethics of semi-public data, and the fact that a researcher is not the target audience, and you should not just go around exposing people to unexpected audiences lightly, etc (which all became more urgent after the latest Facebook/Cambridge Analytica news). I have had to have those conversations more than I would have expected.
So then, what does this conversation about power and ethics and inclusion tell us about the future of fan studies?
I think we have a lot of thinking to do, some of it practical, some of it ethical, and most of it a little bit of each. Like...how to teach tumblr? There’s so much personal information from kids, it feels weird to me to put it in a classroom, but it’s so important! And where are we fan studies folks on Wattpad? Right now, it is much more diverse, more global, than AO3, but it’s commercial and proprietary and hard for olds to navigate.
I too worry about academics coming down on individual fans, and I almost never say anything negative about a fanwork in my capacity as a professor. But there is a down side to that. It might mean I am tacitly acquiescing to elements I would really want to resist or critique (and I don’t mean grammar). It means I’m saying, take this stuff seriously! But don’t say anything negative about it. I think it’s better than the alternative which as you point out seems very mismatched and unfair, but it’s still a bit off. I agree about not *lightly* exposing people to unintended audiences, but the fact is that without meaning to, today an individual can suddenly reach and influence a lot of people they never imagined they were talking to, and that can be extremely uncomfortable. If it happens, though, it can’t really be taken back and you can’t expect people not to think critically about the forces shaping their world.
As you can see, as soon as I start thinking about digital ethics--which I do so very much of the time--I start channeling Chidi, the indecisive, tortured moral philosopher from The Good Place, and so maybe my personal future of fan studies is writing the fic of that. I hope we get some good fan studies philosophers in the future.