On found family, fandom, and academia

So I went to a conference this weekend, a regional pop culture deal-y up in Baltimore. One of the reoccurring themes of the con was that of “found family”–how ragtag fleets of misfits seem to find each other in cult television shows like Teen Wolf, Doctor Who, and Supernatural.

And, weirdly, it was a theme that also rang through my own experience at the conference, and got me thinking about the distinctions between being a graduate student and being a scholar.

Now see, in my program, there’s been a lot of talk about how, as PhD students, we should act like our professors’ colleagues, rather than as “students.” That is, we should act like the professionals we want to be, rather than the insecure chicklets that we often are. I’m all for this attitude, in theory.

But in practice?

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Let’s face it: the relationship we have with our professors, especially those on our dissertation committees, have a very specific tenor. For our diss chairs–and to a lesser extent, our committees, job #1 is to make sure that we finish the damn dissertation and graduate on time. Job #2, straight on its heels, of course, is that we find gainful employment at an R1.

At some level, our profs aren’t there to be our colleagues. They’re there to be our taskmasters, our whip-crackers, our temporary doms who ensure that we do just what we’re supposed to.

derek reclining wifebeater smirk

Um. You know what I mean.

And that’s great, our profs playing that role–a very necessary thing, else we all dawdle and linger in the halls of PhD land until we’re old and even more grey.

But what this weekend reminded me is that I’m lucky enough to also have colleagues, fellow scholars with whom I share academic interests, or projects, or even frustrations about our research and writing.

Some of those people are to be found in my program, sure; in my office, even. But for me, most of the people I consider colleagues I’ve only met in person once or twice.

These are folks I’ve met at conferences and kept up with via Twitter. These are folks I’ve met on Twitter and run into at conferences. These are folks I only know through Twitter, who I’d be hard pressed to pick out in a crowd without the familiar avatar and screen name to guide my eye.

And most of them? Are folks I’ve found one way or another because of fandom.

By in large, my relationships with the people I consider colleagues/cheerleaders/fellow academics with a fellow ax to grind have been established and maintained primarily through electronic means: through Twitter, sure, but also via tumblr, Archive of Our Own, and even my personal blog.

For the most part, this kind of engagement isn’t something I learned in coursework. Indeed, most of my profs, excellent scholars and fine writers all, have zero interest in the whole online thing for personal use, much less for their scholarship.

However, I did have one prof (bless you, sir) who bloody well made us as a class test out the waters of academic Twitter, to try engaging with our field of rhetoric and writing writ large via 140-character blasts of smart.

I’d had a Twitter account for awhile before I took this prof’s class, but I’d never considered using it for anything other than yelling about American politics or pushing out links to my blog posts (and my slash fic *cough*). So this was a push I really needed; I don’t think I’d have come to use Twitter in the same way without it.

And now, and now, Twitter is essential to my identity as an academic. Not as a grad student, but as a real, bone fide academic, one who gets shit published and live-tweets conference panels and finds a lot of key resources through other people’s Tweets. That’s me.

Indeed, this cross between “real” life and electronic engagement was critical to my work at the conference this weekend. I co-presented a paper with another scholar. Here are the 12 steps of how we met and re-met and were well-met, as Touchstone might say:

  1. We met at a conference when she attended a panel I was on;
  2. Then, some years later, I unknowingly recommended on of her gorgeous fics on my personal blog.
  3. This scholar found me again through that recommendation, and then posted a link on her tumblr to one of the conference papers she’d seen me give,
  4. I, in turn, re-found her through the trackbacks on my blog linking to that conference paper, and we started talking.
  5. We then collaborated on a long, dirty fanfic (yes) and during that process, found that we were enraged by what we saw as the same problem in Supernatural, and THEN
  6. We decided to write a paper together. Eventually.

Without this tangled interplay between online and off, this paper, this past weekend, would never have happened. My colleague and I, we battled with the text of this thing together, showed it off together, and got tweeted about as a team.

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It was awesome.

For me, then, my colleagues, my fellow scholars, are almost all people that I’ve come to know online. They’re the people, frankly, who are most interested in my work as an academic, that shit that I do outside of my dissertation.

I’ve found my family, as it were.

cas dean sam hug

By contrast, my dissertation, as my committee members are keen to tell me, is a means to an end. It’s my ticket out of this tiny mountain town and into–well, who knows what. But someplace, I hope, out there above and beyond this valley.

It was hard to come back to Blacksburg, to my uni, and now I think I know why: it’s hard to go back to being a grad student after four days as a scholar.

You’d think that’d make me more determined that ever to finish the diss, to complete job applications ad nauseum, to do whatever I had to in order to move on. And maybe it will.

Right now, though, I’m looking forward like whoa to PCA/ACA’s national conference in April, to the people I’ll get to hang out with and present with and in general act like a scholar with. I can’t wait.

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