On Autoethnography and Acafandom

15 11 2011

No blogging for me for the past couple of months, as I’ve been teaching my freshman core course on Fandom and Participatory Culture at Occidental College, and generally getting settled in my new corner of #alt-ac in the Center for Digital Learning + Research.  I’ve returned with some interesting tales from that class’ first assignment, and to shamelessly promote my contribution to the Acafandom and Beyond series that’s currently running on Henry Jenkins’ blog (our conversation is continued here).  In a nice moment of blogging synchronicity, both have encouraged me to think about transparency when it comes to how we (and our students) mobilize our fan identities in our scholarly work.

For the first assignment in my class, I asked my students to record a short, auteoethnographic audio file documenting their first fandom, and how that “fandom” was embodied and performed.  I required them to manipulate their audio file in Audacity, in part to maintain their anonymity on our course blog and encourage them to speak candidly, but also to have them consider if a fannish identity is still something to hide, or be ashamed of, in our contemporary participatory culture.  My students’ autoethnographies are archived here, and I’d strongly encourage you to go check a few of them out.  I think they’re really fascinating, both in terms of form and content (e.g. a student sounding like Andre the Giant while discussing a love of The Spice Girls).  The second part of the assignment was a written reflection on their audio file, through an address of the continued relevance (or not) of Joli Jensen’s 1992 essay “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization.”

I created this assignment with a number of goals in mind:

  • To get a better sense of if/how my students self-identify as fans
  • To see how they negotiated, contextualized, and performed those identities
  • To get the class thinking about the culturally and socially constructed lines between “normal” and “excessive” fandom, how they’re maintained or dismantled, and the (often gendered) power dynamics that underpin those distinctions

The written responses were incredibly revealing about evolving understandings of (un)acceptable fan identities.  Many grounded their fan identity in their families, framing media texts as something they coalesced around with parents or siblings to deepen (or in some cases, establish) those relationships.  Some noted that they played down their fannish affect for a particular property in their authoethnography.  Conversely, others exaggerated their fan identity.  In both cases, the knowledge that their peers would be consuming their autoethnography impacted its content.  As a lifelong tomboy who spent her first few weeks at NYU channelling Cordelia on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (hey, it was 1997…I sort of considered it identity cosplay), I completely understand the flexible moment that the first few weeks of college represent, and concerns about codifying one’s identity when people are scrambling to make new friends and suss each other out.  What I had hoped would be a confessional assignment in many cases became an implicit commentary on how we perform our taste for others, and how we deploy our fan identities as a way of sculpting and reinforcing our identities more broadly.

Reading Will Brooker’s provocation in our Acafandom conversation, I couldn’t help but think about my students, and their responses to the autoethnography assignment, specifically what prompts us “shut up.”  I am a huge fan of Will and his work, but as I noted in my response I was put off by some of his remarks, in particular what I felt was an (implicitly gendered) dismissal of the “baby talk and sleepover squealing” quality of some fannish jargon that makes frequently its way into our work (squee, squick, et. al.).

In retrospect, my kneejerk response says a great deal about both my fannish and scholarly identities.  The response itself (which admittedly struck a much larger nerve surrounding the trend towards heralding fanboyish pursuits while devaluing fangirls or, worse yet, remarginalizing them within fan studies as we shift our focus to industrially sanctioned fan practices) was a defensive reflex, but it’s always felt a little performative to me.  As I noted in my response to Will, writing a chapter of my dissertation on Twilight anti-fandom forced me to confront my own biases about certain segments of fan culture that I don’t approve of as viable representatives.  I get Will’s point.  I don’t like being lumped in with the “squealers,” and I distance myself from them even as I defend them.  This is equally rooted in my fan identity (which has always occupied something of a conflicted position between the “fanboy” and “fangirl” camps, as they’re broadly defined), and my scholarly identity (which remains preoccupied with retaining the feminist underpinnings of the first wave of fan studies, and championing female consumers and scholars, even as we engage with fans’ new positions of power within convergence culture).

Not unlike my students, I’m still establishing my professional identity, and perhaps that has led to a heightened awareness of how I frame and present that identity.  My choice to focus on the job market in my provocation about acafandom was, in part, a response to the fact that many of the scholars who have called for the discontinuation of the term (or those, like Will, who make the personal and completely understandable decision to “shut up” about it) tend to be more established scholars.  Louisa Stein eloquently captured most of my feelings on the significance of the term “aca-fan” on her blog, but within my current work at Occidental’s Center for Digital Learning + Research, I see new evidence every single day that this isn’t just a debate within a small corner of media studies over the continued relevance of a term, but one facet of a much broader debate about the growing hybridity and interdisciplinarity that academia now demands.

I’d be curious to hear from others teaching courses on fan studies, media audiences, and/or social media if you’re asking your students to do similar self-reflections.  And, if you broach the topic of acafandom, how do you frame that identity (how it shapes your approach to pedagogy, or your own scholarship, or in terms of framing the articles they read in class)?

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Critical Creativity in the Classroom: A Call for Advice

15 07 2011

I’m currently in the process of translating my fandom/geek culture syllabus into a syllabus for one of Oxy’s freshman Core writing seminars this fall.  This is a pretty fun prospect, because in addition to now being on a semester system (which allows me to bring back designated weeks on vidding and wizard rock that I had to drop for the quarter system at UCSC), my new position at the CDLR is actively encouraging (nay, insisting!) that I rethink what a “critical writing assignment” looks like.

As pitched to me, these core freshman writing seminars are centrally concerned with helping students learn how to craft a scholarly argument.  Now, I get to think about all the different ways, and on all the different platforms, that “crafting” might occur.  Added bonus that the class is on fandom and participatory culture, thereby presenting a truly symbiotic pedagogical exercise.  How better to teach about the many ways in which fans craft arguments about, and speak back to, media texts than to ask my students to use some of those same forms to analyze and speak back to the issues and literature we will encounter in class?

I have typically included theory/praxis options for students for their final projects, which has led to some truly wonderful student-created vids, comic books, fanfic, and short films, but logistics, class sizes and other factors prohibited me from building these components directly into the syllabus.  Now that I will have an abundance of resources and support encouraging me to do just that, and only 16 students, it’s a whole new quidditch match, as the kids say.  (Okay, maybe not ALL the kids…)

To give you a sense of the weekly topics and readings...gee, I wonder when class meets...

For some excellent examples of the sort of course design and assignments I’m thinking about, see these excellent examples from courses taught by Julie Levin Russo and Melanie Kohnen.

Early thoughts on these assignments include:

– Autoethnographic video blogs discussing their fan identity/modes of participation

– Weekly, informal writing assignment to post to our course wordpress blog, currently being constructed

– Vid or fanfiction analysis (this would be a more conventional response paper…gotta throw a few in there)

– Some sort of visual essay (via tumblr?  flickr?  Have them create vids? Still beginning to think about this) coupled with a written analysis, most likely as a group project

And for the final project…

– Peer review of first essay drafts in google docs

– Multimodal presentations of their central argument in class

– Accompanied by a more standard term paper

I’m clearly just beginning to think about this, and so I pose question for both professors and students (or anyone else who wants to weigh in on the topic): What works?  What doesn’t?  What do we stand to gain or lose by retaining conventional academic writing assignments or moving towards digital or multimodal alternatives?  Students, which digital tools do you think would be most useful to you in crafting alternative forms of argument?  Would you prefer to submit work and get comments back by google doc or email, or is my lovely penmanship something all future students should experience on hard copies of their work?

All thoughts on this are greatly appreciated, and obviously as soon as the syllabus is locked in I’ll be posting it here.