My relationship to fan studies, as with other disciplinary descriptors, is complicated. From an MA in Literature and Theory (with a quick pit stop in Communication Studies), to a PhD in Cultural Studies (in a relatively traditional English department), I feel like I’ve been floating between disciplines for years—something that used to terrify me, but that I now find quite liberating. When you lack a clear disciplinary home, it opens up opportunities for collaboration that might have otherwise remained off the radar, and it makes it easier to identify—and work against—the limitations of any given disciplinary approach.
During my MA at Georgia State University, I met some graduate students who, like myself, were longtime fans of Joss Whedon. They introduced me to the interdisciplinary mix of scholars who make up the Whedon Studies Association (imagine my shock and delight at learning such a thing existed!). The 2010 Slayage conference was the first time I’d seen people talking about TV in an academic context, and it encouraged me to include televisual case studies in my thesis project. There was certainly fan studies work happening at Slayage, but I was not aware of it as a distinct field—and, while I found the fan-based work fascinating, my own approaches remained mostly “literary,” looking at genre, themes, and storytelling forms. In the last semester of my MA, I ventured over the the Communication Studies department and took Alisa Perren’s “Media Industries” course. This experience was no doubt the turning point in my academic career; Alisa introduced me to media studies methods and theories, setting me on a track that would veer away from literary studies in favour of studying television and digital media, considering modes of TV production and consumption alongside textual analysis.
In Fall 2011, I began my PhD in Cultural Studies at McGill University in a department that was not quite the right fit for my new research interests. Before I left Georgia State, Alisa had helped me strategize ways to stay connected to the media studies world, even if my new department wasn’t. At her advice, I attended my first SCMS conference in 2012, where I began to get a better sense of the dynamics of disciplinarity across media studies, especially at the Television Studies and Media Industries SIG meetings. I saw the value of these groups as counterforces to the alienating nature of a large conference, as networks for mentorship, and as platforms for defining your scholarly “brand.” I still wasn’t sure how to describe my own disciplinary situation, but I found myself gravitating towards panels about fans and getting to know the very generous and approachable scholars from that sector the conference.
In Chicago in 2013, several conversations over beers and Twitter brought up the underrepresentation of fan studies work at SCMS—some folks even suggested that fan-focused work was being systematically rejected from the conference due to perceptions of the field as less important and/or rigourous than other forms of media scholarship. At the airport, waiting for my flight back to Montreal, I created a Facebook group for people who supported the formation of a “Fan Studies” SIG. The group quickly gained momentum, but a debate arose: what to name the SIG. While many potential members were dedicated to the title “Fan Studies,” several others argued that “Audience Studies” was a more inclusive and appropriate title. Champions of “Fan Studies” argued back that naming the SIG “Audience Studies” would participate in the same devaluing of fan-focused work that we were fighting against in the first place. I learned a lot from that debate, and looking back on those Facebook conversations, I see my own views on disciplinarity taking shape:
"First of all, I agree that the most important thing about this SIG will be what we do, not what we call it. Matt [Hills], when we were initially having this debate, I backed you up on the argument that Fan Studies is still in need of legitimation in the eyes of institutions such as SCMS. But, I think that going the "Fan and Audience Studies" route does not detract from the legitimation that this SIG will help to create for Fan Studies. I also think I disagree that the two fields are "significantly" distinct. Yes, they are different, but as Louisa [Stein] pointed out, Fan Studies (and I would add Audience Studies) are both inherently interdisciplinary fields. I don't really see how including "and Audience" into the SIG title could really hinder anything that we're trying to do in the name of Fan Studies, but it could allow for more interesting, diverse, and interdisciplinary conversations. Those who study audiences have to think about fans, and those who study fans have to think about other kinds of audiences. So, to conclude, while I was initially on board with sticking to "Fan Studies," I think I am now a proponent of "Fan and Audience Studies." Also #FAAS has a nice aural and visual ring to it."
The Fan and Audience Studies SIG held its inaugural meeting at the 2016 SCMS conference in Atlanta. I was deep into my dissertation at that point, and while I was excited to celebrate the establishment of this SIG, it felt clear to me that I was not, after all, a “fan studies” scholar. Out of five dissertation chapters, only one focused specifically on fans (a version of which, thanks to my fan studies mentor, Paul Booth, eventually became my contribution to the Wiley Companion to Media Fandom and Fan Studies). Overall, my work is more focused on intimate moments of viewing, different modes of viewership, and how these experiences relate to the forms of TV storytelling. Formal analysis is quite often absent from both fan and audience studies, so one of the things my work does is model how attention to textual form can draw out some of the affective stakes of viewing practices. I’ve also extended formal analysis to fan-authored paratexts to reveal a feedback loop of poetic strategies—it’s important to think about how fans make meaning, not only the meanings themselves or the motivations behind them.
Although my interests have pulled me away from a strictly fan studies approach, I remain linked to that community of scholars who welcomed me to the SCMS fold years ago—and co-founding (with Paul Booth) the Fan and Audience Studies SIG is one of my proudest academic accomplishments. Fandom is my favourite subject to teach, and the pace of growth in discipline is exciting. I think that fan and audience studies foster collaboration in ways that rarely exist in other branches of media studies, and this blog series is a perfect example. Here I am, seven years after walking into Alisa Perren’s classroom, engaging in a dialogue with her about the state of a field that I hardly knew existed in 2011.
As Casey indicates, it is serendipitous that she and I were matched up for this conversation about our relationship to fan studies. This serendipity comes not only through our prior relationship to each other, but also through our own distinctive relationships to fan studies. Much as Casey came to fan studies through literary studies, my arrival at fan studies came primarily through studying the media industries. I am particularly interested in understanding the evolving ways in which different industry sectors – and different industry professionals – have imagined, cultivated, and interacted with fans.
Although I contributed to Melissa Click and Suzanne Scott’s Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, I typically have not identified myself as a fan studies scholar. (Indeed, I was surprised and flattered to be asked to participate in their collection.) However, my interest in fan studies has expanded both as the media industry’s engagement with fans has increased, and as I have engaged with colleagues such as Casey who have exposed me to new ways of thinking about the field. About ten years ago, I was fortunate enough to have Henry Jenkins (along with Joshua Green) contribute an article to my co-edited collection (with Jennifer Holt), Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method. In their contribution, Jenkins and Green addressed the growing tensions between industrial desires to exploit fan activities and fans’ desires to be heard (but not exploited) by the media industries. Jenkins and Green’s contributions there and elsewhere spurred much of my own preliminary thinking about the increasingly complex relationship between industry and fans, and between industry studies and fan studies. While certain (e.g., white, male) fan communities obviously have been highly valued by the media industries for some time, the economic value of diverse fan constituencies has continued to grow. Of course, the very meaning of fandom has become more elusive (and fraught) at the same time.
Through my contribution to Click and Scott’s collection, I was finally able to delve into exploring industry-fan dynamics more fully. I did so by collaborating with one of the doctoral students in my current department (Radio-TV-Film) at UT-Austin, Laura Felschow. Together, Laura and I were able to survey the (relatively limited) ways that fan studies, industry studies – and another area in which fan-oriented scholarship is thriving, comics studies – had been placed in dialogue in the past. We argued for the importance of more granular examinations of industry-fan relationships – examinations that moved away from constructions of “industry” as a monolithic entity that primarily sought to exploit from/benefit from/harness fan communities. Through case studies of comics publishers DC Comics and Image Comics – and interviews with creatives and executives who worked at each company – we showed how conceptions of and interactions with fans varied based on differences in corporate structures, professional identities, and business models (among other factors). Our hope was that this article helped to push scholars to think beyond the simplistic industry-fan binaries that often dominate both media studies scholarship and popular culture.
My co-authored essay with Laura is but one of many examples of how my thinking on fan studies has developed through collaborations and interactions with colleagues, and in particular, graduate students. As yet one more example, my thinking regarding fans-as-laborers has been aided by current UT-RTF graduate student Lesley Willard’s analysis of how fan work has been incorporated into promotional campaigns for television programs such as MTV’s Teen Wolf. It is humbling to read Casey’s opening statement and see how her exposure to media industries scholarship through my graduate course altered her academic trajectory. Obviously this relationship has gone both ways.