Thanks for your opening statement, Alisa. I agree that our pairing up for this conversation is interesting not only because of our history, but also because of the fact that neither of us identify specifically as “fan studies” scholars. I would love to hear a bit more from you on some of the questions of disciplinarity that I brought up in my opening statement. In particular, I’m curious about your perspective on the kinds of fragmentation that happen within media studies and the pressure on scholars (especially graduate students and junior faculty) to “brand” themselves in a particular sub-field. This issue comes up frequently in the Fan and Audience Studies SIG meetings, often in the context of needing to demonstrate the value of fan-focused work to more “traditional” university departments. I’d also like to hear your thoughts on the role of SCMS SIGs, and potential strategies for mobilizing these groups in a more collaborative way that might push back on some of the fragmentation that I find so frustrating.
Ah yes, the issue of disciplinarity. Just a small topic to get us started! I have been part of SCMS now for roughly (gulp) twenty years, so it has been fascinating to see how that particular professional organization has evolved, and by extension, how film and media studies has evolved. When I joined SCMS, in fact, it was SCS (the Society for Cinema Studies) and the struggle was over including the “M” of Media within it. At that point, the organization — and the number of humanistically oriented scholars focused on film and media, more generally — was much smaller. And the big battle then was to legitimize TV Studies, in particular, within the organization (not to mention within the academy more generally). This struggle for legitimacy was a lengthy one that was fueled by a number of factors that many scholars have recounted elsewhere (for example, see Jonathan Gray and Amanda Lotz’s Television Studies and Elana Levine and Michael Newman’s Legitimating Television).
A tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm accompanied the appearance of the TV Studies SIG at SCMS in 2000. Early meetings for that SIG were packed — the room was often overflowing — and the same was true in terms of attendance at many of the TV Studies panels. But then, once TV Studies scholars began to be more welcomed by SCMS — and began to occupy more positions within the academy, appear with greater frequency within publications such as Cinema Journal, etc. — that energy slowly dissipated. It was most noticeable for me because it seemed that some of that energy (and many of those scholars) shifted their focus to media industries scholarship. But I can see the same pattern more recently taking place with the movement of scholars toward fan studies, among other areas of study. Of course, many of those scholars engaged in TV Studies also engage in fan studies — the historical relationship between the two is close. But then, fan studies scholars can also identify as media industry scholars, cultural studies scholars, media historians, etc. So as you suggest in your remarks, one might perceive such labeling as cynical to the extent that it is a means of branding oneself, for communicating who one is for the purposes of job applications, for keywords on journal submissions, etc.
That said, the complicated relationship of fan studies to the academy, and its struggles for legitimacy as an area of study, arguably make the the move toward branding oneself as a fan studies scholar somewhat trickier than branding oneself an industry scholar. My sense is that the “industry scholar” label has a certain cachet institutionally to the extent that it communicates to colleges, departments, and hiring committees (along with concerned parents who worry about the employability of their kids) a certain orientation toward professionalization. (Please note that this is a much more complicated issue than I can address here, but I don’t want to go TOO far afield topically!) Fan studies scholarship clearly is burgeoning now, as is the industrial targeting of fans and the formation of myriad new fan communities. That said, I’m not sure that most departments seek to hire scholars in the area of fan studies, per se. I certainly have not seen such job calls nor written letters for students applying for such positions. Rather, from what I have seen, at least, fan studies scholars typically pitch themselves as other types of scholars as well — as digital media scholars, television studies scholars, feminist media scholars, etc. So fan studies as an area and as a label carries a particular community building power and (potential) political potency that is somewhat distinct from, for example, media industry studies.
Nonetheless, I can see a number of benefits to this recent “disciplining” of fan studies, media industry studies, and [insert the many other interest groups and subareas burgeoning at SCMS and elsewhere]. The benefit to “disciplining” (if we must use that term) comes from the possible productivity of connecting a (loose) organization of people in a variety of settings and contexts. Being organized under the mantle of “fan studies” potentially helps one better define who they are and who they are not — in terms of theories, methods, politics, pedagogies, etc. As the field of film and media studies (not to mention communication) gets larger and larger, such subareas or subfields (as I prefer to see fan studies and industry studies) provide a way to make our worlds more intimate, to focus our conversations, to forge connections more easily, and to build “mini-conferences” within larger conferences. The trick then becomes recognizing the porousness of such identities and groups of which we are a part, and finding ways to build or sustain relationships beyond them.
OK, that was quite an answer on my part...but when you ask a question about defining fields and developing disciplines, that is to be expected, I suppose! I’m going to build on the questions you have posed to me to ask how you see yourself connecting to fan studies moving forward, with your own work? And, related to the topic of defining areas of study, how do you include fan studies in your courses? For example, in which of your courses does work in fan studies appear, and how do you situate it?
Thanks for that perspective—as always, you explain complicated disciplinary dynamics in incredibly clear and useful terms (full disclosure: I kind of set you up for that lengthy response, since I think your take on these issues is really valuable). I like that you point out similarities between the struggles to legitimize television studies and fan studies, especially, since, as you note, there is so much crossover in terms of scholars who do both. Based on conversations with some folks on the job market, it does seem that fan studies usually needs to get folded in under some other disciplinary umbrella, but it will be interesting to see if that fact changes in coming years. I really like your idea of “porousness”—in terms of scholarly identity, but also seeing disciplines themselves as porous. I feel like that’s something I’ve been able to embrace more during post-PhD life, but it can be overwhelming as a graduate student to learn how to wear so many different hats. To answer your question about my future with fan studies, I see myself continuing to think about fandom as part of a spectrum of viewer experience, but not necessarily working with fan studies methods. I’ve been experimenting with creative dh strategies, such as videographic and deformative criticism. One of the advantages of multimedia scholarship is the ability to recreate and build on aspects of the viewing experience, and so I think that fans and audiences will remain at the heart of my work in many ways.
I also think that continuing to teach about fan practices will help keep me engaged with fan studies. Fandom offers an accessible and dynamic lens for introducing students to key ideas in media and cultural studies. And as with my own research, I teach fandom through a combination of fan studies and other critical frameworks. I’ve also found effective ways to teach fandom as critical method; my assignments often ask students to engage in fannish practices in order to analyze texts. Last semester, for instance, I ran a collaborative fan fiction exercise, in which groups of students wrote a few sentences of a story (based on various pre-designated genres of fanfic), then passed it along to the next group, who would extend the story. This activity helped students better understand some of the motivations for writing fan fiction and think critically about storytelling, world-building, and authorship. I regularly incorporate Twitter, blogging, meme-making, podcasting, and GIF-ing into my courses—getting students to use social media tools for cultural analysis gets them to reflect on their personal media consumption habits (including, but not limited to, fandom). There is no real valuing of fan studies in my department, so I’ve sort of had to sneak fandom into various courses. This semester, in Poetics of the Image, my students made memes about Wonder Woman, and then brought each others’ memes to life in short videos. Students respond really well to these activities, and discussions about texts become richer when they engage and collaborate in creative ways. What about you, how have you been incorporating fan studies into your teaching?
It’s exciting to hear about some of the activities you use in the classroom to encourage your students to think critically, in a hands-on way, about their own fannish identities and media consumption practices. As far as how I incorporate fan studies into my teaching, it figures differently depending on the course. For my Contemporary TV Criticism course (which in effect is an introduction to TV Studies), for example, I have expanded on an activity developed by Erin Copple Smith. The assignment asks students to take on different roles in producing a specific reality TV show episode (e.g., advertiser, producer, etc.). Then, asking them to work from their particular role, they have to come up with strategies for encouraging an active, engaged fandom with the episode. As part of our debrief after the assignment, we discuss the different types of viewers they are most likely to attract through their strategies (building on Jenkins’ discussion of loyals, casuals, and zappers) as well as the industrial challenges involved in building and sustaining fans.
For my Business of Hollywood course, I am fortunate to be able to bring in a series of speakers from the media industries. I try to use that opportunity, when pertinent, to ask the speakers how they conceptualize fans, and the ways in which they try to engage with them. Throughout the semester, the students and I compare the answers that the speakers provide to this topic. In the process, we address the wide range of attitudes and practices that industry practitioners have toward audiences in general and toward fan communities in particular. This helps the students think through their own identities as fans as well as how they might choose to connect with fans if they become media professionals. Casey, this has been an enjoyable conversation for me, both because it has let me catch up with you and because it has enabled me to share some of my thoughts about collaboration, disciplinary formations, and pedagogical practices. As we wrap this discussion up, I’m wondering what about fan studies is most inspiring to you right now, and where you would like to see the field go moving forward?
I’ve heard about that TV production role-playing assignment, what a useful model! Getting students to think about different aspects of the production/consumption circuit is so important. Indeed, I think fan studies pedagogy is one of the most exciting aspects of the field. I’m especially compelled by efforts to bring fan studies to new audiences, such as Lori Morimoto’s “Fan Studies for Fans” course, and would love to undertake something similar in the future. In terms of research, it’s inspiring to see new waves of fan studies work that pay more attention to race and representation, non-US fandoms, and the complexities of industry-fan relationships. Fan studies work is increasingly visible—in addition to these new Routledge and Wiley companions, the number of online, open-access platforms and publications that support fan studies work seems to be growing all the time. Derek Kompare, Paul Booth, and I are planning a fan studies podcast series that would bring scholars into conversations around current topics, review recent work in the field, and revisit earlier canonical texts. I think these kinds of collaborative, public-facing projects are an essential part of fan studies.
I definitely appreciate the call in your opening statement for more granular analysis, and I agree that such work is critical for fan studies moving forward. I would add that detailed approaches to specific industry-fan relationships might be enlivened by attention to formal aspects of texts and paratexts. One potential drawback of granular analysis is that the highly-focused research process might mean we miss out on interesting connections across case studies—but that’s just one more reason to engage in collaborative scholarship!
Indeed! For my next book project, The American Comic Book Industry and Hollywood, I’m continuing to examine industry-fan dynamics in a collaborative mode — this time by partnering with colleague Greg Steirer. One of the ways that we have sought to extend prior discussions of industry-fan relations is through an exploration of how professionals in the comic book industry have positioned themselves in relation to fandom. For example, many comics professionals — whether creatives or executives — became interested in working in that industry in part due to their own fannish identities and affiliations. Yet upon launching their own careers, such professionals have maintained a complicated, frequently fraught, relationship both with their own fannish desires and with various fan communities. For some professionals, having gained a degree of creative control over the properties and characters they loved growing up provides them with an immense amount of satisfaction and fulfillment. But often their excitement in having such control is tempered by corporate dictates on one side and the strong expectations and demands of fans on the other side. (Certainly the parallels between aca-fandom and professionals-as-fans are worth noting here.) How professionals navigate these tensions is incredibly varied, of course. Indeed, there are many professionals who deny any fannish identification or engagement with comics at all, which is another matter worth probing.
While this topic is but one component of the larger book project, hopefully it will direct other scholars to thinking about fan-industry relations in fresh ways moving forward!