SCMS day 1! Early this afternoon I attended the workshop “The ‘F’ Word: Fan Studies in and beyond the Academy,” chaired by Casey McCormick and featuring Paul Booth, Louisa Stein, Anne Kustritz and Bertha Chin as participants. The workshop used as a launching-off point the fact that a bid for fan studies, as a discipline, to host a special interest group at the SCMS conference has been postponed, as the organizers felt fan studies hadn’t quite yet articulated its raison d’être, as distinguished from, for example, audience studies. The workshop therefore posed a set a questions toward the end of developing a more concrete definition of fan studies or—as it was put a few times—”legitimization.” These questions included why claim fan studies as a distinct discipline; how has fan studies influenced media studies pedagogy; and what are the the ethics of fan studies scholarship.
The ensuing perspectives and discussion were great and—as someone who feels she spends a lot of time on the sidelines—it was fascinating and exciting for me to hear top minds and voices in the field (such as it is) hash this problem over, introduce new complexities, and poke at each other’s reasoning. Most of the conversation centered—reasonably—around fan studies in the university setting: its marketability as a discipline for job candidates, the responsibilities and risks in “teaching fandom,” what “best practices” can be—or whether they should be—implemented as a means of delineating the work done within fan studies, etc. The topic of what fan studies means for those “beyond” the academy wasn’t as widely touched on. There was talk of fans’ recognition of their subject position as a objects of study, but not, say, how one might explain fan studies to one’s mom. Or what it is to be a fan scholar without an institution behind you or a PhD candidacy to blame your interest on. Or how to tell your boss/hair dresser/customs agent that, well, see, actually you’re going to this conference you’re paying money and taking time off work to attend for fun.
With that in mind, yes, as independent scholar it would be nice to lean on an accepted, “legitimate,” traditionally respected field when explaining what I do and why it’s important. But as a fan, the idea of becoming The Man I’ve spent years gleefully subverting makes me squeamish. Plus, you know, it’d be nice for fan studies—and fans—to be respected just for existing (i.e., isn’t it the world that needs to change, not us?). In some regard, I don’t have a stake in this—I’m not, and don’t want to be, in the academy. I don’t need tenure. I’ll never teach students to “do” fan studies. Seen another way, though, I am the stake in this—independent scholarship is my fan practice, it’s how I fangirl. I am the “beyond.”
Toward the end of the session a little dust was kicked up over whether someone can be called a fan based solely on participation in practices typically considered “fannish.” There’s a difference, it was asserted, between self-identifying as a fan and labeling someone a fan. So, for example, as my friend/colleague and I broke it down later: is reblogging a .gif from a television show on Tumblr a performance of fandom whether or not you label yourself a fan of that show? (And if it’s not, necessarily, then what’s with the impulse to tag those posts with things like #i don’t even go here?) It’s a little bit of a false equivalency but just as a thought experiment, from my position outside the academy, I almost feel the reverse can be asked: does attending academic conferences about media make me an academic? Is there a difference between academic and scholar the way there is between liking a thing well enough and feeling fannish about a thing? Who gets to do the labeling? Am I more “legitimate” if others call me a scholar/academic than if I call myself one?
I don’t know how to square all this yet. Or if I have to. But it’s damn well satisfying to think about.
In fact, my favorite point during the session came from Ashley Hinck (@hinklet), who proposed that perhaps it’s more useful to think of fan studies itself as a question rather than an object. I love that. Maybe we have to be okay with open-endedness. Maybe fan studies isn’t a path, but a useful intersection of many different roads. Maybe it’s kind of important to be illegitmate.
As a side note: I was surprised by how viscerally I responded to the ideas and perspectives floated today. Whether I agreed or not is sort of beside the point; the point is that I felt it every time. Heart flutters, brain lightbulbs, gut wrenches—the whole shebang. It was cool, if weird, to feel physically engaged as well as mentally. Makes me think maybe I have a stake in this after all.