Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Mel Stanfill and Samantha Close (Part I)



In the past year or so, something I’ve said often is that I keep trying to write a book called Fandom is Ugly. By this I mean that, though it’s not the project I’m supposed to be working on, I keep circling back to it. I’ve given talks about the harassment tactics fans used in response to the death of a queer character and the ways that fandom’s reputation as progressive may not be warranted; I’ve published about the role of whiteness in making fandom inhospitable to fans of color; among the work I have in preparation is a special issue organized around the concept “reactionary fandom.” So, when I think about participatory politics, it’s in that zone of how such politics are reactionary.

In her part of this series back in March, Ashley Hinck argued that “fans anchor their civic appeals in the ethical frameworks emerging from their fan object.” That usually runs one way: that Harry Potter fans, say, root their politics in opposition to Voldemortian genocidal policies. But texts can also support other belief systems. To keep going with the theme, this can be overt racist politics like memes about so-called “white genocide,” but it can also be the very same text that seems progressive from another angle: Rowling’s message may be ostensibly antiracist, but her representation of people of color is pretty marginalizing. Those are the cases that draw my attention--how does it change thinking about fandom as political when the object of fandom is racist (overtly or just centering whiteness), or sexist (overtly or just androcentric), or homophobic (overtly or just heterosexist)? How can we grapple with people’s passionate attachment, social media advocacy, and even more tangible activism being rooted in fandom of that?


Academia is a strange space to inhabit during a time of crisis. The university is simultaneously a non-profit, education-oriented institution where inhabitants have the time and freedom to analyze the world and an intense microcosm of the very truths, powers, and changes that we research. This is particularly clear to me as someone who both studies creativity, work, and digital society and works in a very creative, digitally-connected field, as I discussed when presenting my research on handmade craft entrepreneurship. It’s something I continue to reflect upon as the academic job season winds down and I see incredibly accomplished researchers and friends, people whose work I assign to my students, leaving a field that will fly them across the globe to give a 20 minute talk but won’t pay them enough to eat while they teach students in the regular week-to-week grind.

Completing my PhD at USC during Obama’s second term and beginning my first job as an Assistant Professor at DePaul during Trump’s first (only? Please let it be only.) term, I’ve tried to learn how to be an academic while waves of both highly progressive activism, like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, and highly regressive activism, like GamerGate and the resurgence of white nationalism, rocked both the wider nation and particular subcultural niches I inhabited. Throughout, I’ve vacillated between wondering whether my work analyzing popular culture (with its concomitant joys and pains) was utterly meaningless or incredibly essential. I empathized with a friend who described feeling like a robot when she was only able to reply “I’m focusing on my academic career right now” when a student making up material missed during a protest asked her “what are you doing for Occupy?” To have a hope of finding a sustainable place in academia, she (we) had to emphasize publications, research, teaching evaluations--but it’s an odd irony when what you’re researching are the very oppressions that activists outside your window are fighting against. I’ve also seen the lights go on in a student’s brain when they understood how the theories of power we deconstructed in the classroom live, breathe, and work in the world outside of it. One favorite moment was when my Gender and Popular Culture class visited the Ripped Bodice romance bookstore, an entrepreneurial enterprise by two sisters and romance fans to recognize and support women-centric literary culture, and they exclaimed “It’s just like in the reading!”

When I think about participatory politics now, my thoughts center around the kinds of politics that I participate in myself, particularly professionally. The most concentrated work I’ve done in this area is diving in to Community-Based Service Learning (CBSL), a teaching style that seeks to build partnerships between universities and the community organizations around them. CBSL courses aim for a balanced partnership where students, faculty, community organization workers, volunteers, and community members work together and learn from each other. For example, I teach an Introduction to Digital Skills class where students and I take a whirlwind tour through different arenas of digital media production skills. This year and last, we partnered with community organizations who had digital media-related projects that groups of students could work on throughout the quarter. The Benedictine Sisters of Chicago, for instance, had an incredible archive that they wanted to share with the community but weren’t sure how to go about it. One team of students went through the archive with archivist sister Virginia Jung, taking strong photographs and even videos of neat finds, and composing social media-aware copy to go with it.


Another team went to performance-based anti-bullying events created by the Free Lunch Academy to document their work. They research the best hashtags and photograph styles to increase the spread of FLA’s message online.


Beyond that, both groups created guides explaining how to produce more such content so that knowledge, not just objects created or time spent, could be shared between the privileged space of academia and the community. The students learned a great deal about working in the real world with actual communities—for instance, some of their very favorite ideas or material might conflict with what the organization was trying to do in their community and thus not work after all. That meant they had to let go of that idea and re-center their minds, setting aside their own viewpoints to understand why and how others might do things differently. We are in the midst of continuing these projects as I write these words, working this year with animal rescue organizations Tree House Humane Society and One Tail at a Time. Rather than just taking cute photographs of puppies and kittens, which can dramatically increase adoption numbers and website hits but ironically and cruelly contribute to the underlying problems of pet abandonment, the students are helping both organizations to sustain their work through focusing on processes like managing community cat colonies or fostering elderly and chronically ill dogs.

I’m lucky not only to have ended up in a position where I can teach like this but to actually be at an institution that, because of DePaul’s Vincentian mission for social justice, supports and recognizes it. And yet I often still find myself explaining the value of this work—sometimes to skeptical students or in official university contexts—using the terms and language of neoliberalism: partnering with a community becomes developing career skills. Learning to shift your viewpoint away from your own ego becomes learning how to meet client needs. This is painfully ironic because neoliberalism and a narrow focus on career and individual, rather than meaning and community, is responsible for many of the problems that both academia and our partners face. But it is also a recognizable central tenet of our academic, public, and private institutions, a language we often must speak in order to practically sustain ourselves. (these two points are not unrelated) Students certainly are developing job skills through my and other such classes--it is not an untruth--but it is a shifting of perspective that worries me. All of this is to say that I hope we can discuss how to live in a world that we know is broken, how to build a better future while still housing ourselves in the now.


Mel Stanfill is an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Texts & Technology Program and the Department of Games and Interactive Media at the University of Central Florida. Stanfill’s book, Exploiting Fandom: How the Media Industry Seeks to Manipulate Fans, is available from the University of Iowa Press.

Samantha Close is an Assistant Professor in Communication at DePaul University. Her documentary, I Am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers, and her peer-reviewed research articles on topics such as graffiti knitting and fan masculinity are available online. You can find her on Twitter @ButNoCigar