The Possible Futures of Fan Studies: Harmonic Convergence of SCMS and PCA/ACA

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to be in the room for two amazing and productive conversations about the future of fan studies. The first was at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Montreal, and the second was at the Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association (PCA/ACA) conference in New Orleans. For the most part, these discussions were comprised of entirely different groups of scholars, and yet many of the same themes, questions, and concerns were raised in both.

Given that many members of our field will be gathering again at the Fan Studies Network conference in July, this post is my way of pointing out some of these connections in hopes that the FSN can a) keep up the momentum generated by the discussions SCMS and PCA/ACA and b) begin to move those discussions forward from talk into concrete action.

Some quick context:

At SCMS, the conversation was centered around efforts to have fan studies recognized as a “scholarly interest group” (SIG) within the larger SCMS organization. Such recognition would allow fan studies to sponsor panels at the annual conference, hold an official business/interest meeting, and (implicitly) be recognized by SCMS as a legit subfield of media studies. Check out Lori Morimoto’s excellent Storify of that conversation here.

At PCA/ACA, the discussion was hosted by the Journal of Fandom Studies (JFS) and led by journal’s editor and editorial board. Although ostensibly focused on the future directions of the journal itself, conversation turned inevitably to larger questions about the field and what role the journal might play in it. You can read my Storify of the discussion here.

Here are the three key themes/questions that united these two conversations:

1) What the hell is fan studies, anyway?

This question absolutely dominated both of these discussions. Participants at SCMS and PCA expressed a desire to celebrate the disciplinary diversity that is part of what makes fan studies so special, while offering some sort of legible vision of the field that can be recognized (and thus valued) by people who don’t do what we do. At SCMS, the question was in part a practical one: an effective application to become a SIG demands that we be able to define ourselves as a unique and thus valuable field–something that the group’s previous application had (according to the SCMS overlords) failed to do. Similarly, at PCA/ACA, participants discussed how and why fan studies might fashion a version of itself that the university—department chairs, dissertation directors, deans, etc.—can understand and thus support.

Indeed, there seemed general consensus in both spaces that making fan studies legible in this way—embracing its potential for disciplinarily—would be a productive move. Interestingly, at SCMS, the room seemed to agree that fan studies should want to BECOME a discipline; at PCA, there seemed general agreement that fan studies already IS a discipline. (FWIW: I am not so sure on either count.)

Defining fans and fandom
Further, participants also wondered what kind of work fits under the frame of “fan studies”? Is the field defined by its sites/objects of study? There was a great deal of discussion of how and why fandoms other than those centered on media—like sports fandoms and festivals like Burning Man—can and should be brought more definitively into the fan studies fold. There was also a push for taking a historical approach to the field. Audience members at both SCMS and PCA discussed their interest in going to the archives to examine fan activity pre-Sherlock Holmes, and there seemed to be a great deal of energy and excitement about this prospect in both spaces.

In addition, an overarching theme at SCMS was the need for expanding our understanding of fandom as the purview of white, middle-class culture in order to consider how fans are defined and operate in other cultures. Rebecca Wanzo’s amazing “African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies” was a particularly beautiful call to action on this point, while Lori Morimoto and Darlene Hampton’s papers on transnational fandoms underscored how much we miss when we allow our gaze to stay fixed on fan activities in the US and the UK.

As Paul Booth put it at SCMS, it means something when we as scholars label a person (or a group of people) as fans. Channeling my inner Richard Lutz, I’d say that much of the work at SCMS suggested that it’s just as significant when we choose not to call a person a fan. It’s both an inclusive and exclusive act, this (not)naming, and the conversation in Montreal suggested how and why we need to think carefully and deeply about the ethics involved in how we choose to employ it.

Methodological concerns
Participants in both spaces also wondered if fan studies can be defined by its interdisciplinary nature or its methodologies. If so, they asked, what kinds of disciplinary approaches and methodologies can and should we use? At SCMS, Anne Kurstiz talked about this in terms of using participant observation in the classroom; how can we prepare students to do this kind of work effectively and ethically? At PCA, a board member noted that there’s been a shift in the field from the ethnographic approach that marked early studies of fan cultures in the 90s to a more media studies-centered methodology in recent years. In addition to calls for supporting more historiographical work in the field, there was also some discussion of how and when researchers might employ more explicitly social science approaches in their work.

Who does fan studies?
The time and attention that both groups devoted to this topic—that I’ve devoted to it here—points towards the rapid Gremlin-like growth of fan studies as a field. Although fan studies hasn’t been recognized as an official SIG at SCMS, there were nine or ten panels centered exclusively on fan studies scholarship; and, as an audience member, I heard many, many papers located ostensibly outside of fan studies that invoked key thinkers, concepts, and practices from our field. There is a similar expansion occurring within PCA. As Katherine Larsen, chair of the fan studies area at PCA noted, in 2009, there were 9 panels in the area; in 2015, there were 21 (!!).

So discipline or not, more and more early researchers, grad students, and undergrads want to play in our sandbox. As one member of the audience at PCA put it, “I’m a graduate student who decided that I do fan studies.” Isn’t that how most of us came to this work? (Yes.) But does that now put us in the uncomfortable position of policing–or at least more clearly delineating—boundaries of our field?

2) Ethics

In the wake of Ficgate, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the ethics of researching fan cultures and practices was on so many people’s minds. To that end, scholars in both spaces called for the creation of some sort of guiding definition of what constitutes “ethical” research practices in our field. At SCMS, for example, Booth suggested we created a set of “best practices” that might be applied both in the teaching of fan studies (to explicitly avoid Ficgate II: The Awakening) and in our own work as researchers. At PCA/ACA, Larsen raised the question in terms of the Journal of Fandom Studies’ own operations: does the editorial board need to create a statement of ethics to which work published in the journal will be asked to meet?

While participants at both SCMS and PCA seemed generally receptive to these ideas—and indeed, there was a lot of enthusiasm expressed as well—there was some trepidation expressed about attempts to create a universal definition of what constitutes “ethical” practice in our field. Some of the very elements which make fan studies as a field so exciting—the diversity of spaces, cultures, practices, and fans that we study—make that kind of universalization not only difficult but counterintuitive.

Certainly, it seems logical to assume that a researcher working in the archives would operate under different ethical obligations/constraints than one doing interviews with living, breathing fans, for example. Similarly, someone who studies a fandom of which she is a part might have different ethical questions to consider than one who is studying a fandom in which she doesn’t participate. To be clear, differences like these don’t mean that such a statement of ethics is a bad idea, or impossible to create. Rather, it means that creating ethical guidelines will be, I think, more an art than a science—an ongoing series of negotiations rather than a fixed-end document equally applicable to all.

To that end, at PCA, I suggested that we consider using the Association of Internet Researchers’ (AoiR) ethical framework as a model. The AoiR’s guide is less a series of requirements and hard-and-fast-rules than a set of questions that a researcher can use to shape her always-evolving practices. The organization’s full statement of ethics is also worth checking out.

Overall, scholars at SCMS and PCA expressed a real desire for more opportunities to talk and think critically about ethics in fan studies. One such space, no doubt, will be the FSN conference in 2015. Further, the editorial board of the JFS committed to a special issue about the topic (in 2016, I think, at the earliest). However, based on what I heard in these discussions, it seems that there’s a need for an ongoing, informal space of discussion about this topic as well.

3) A need for more spaces in which fan studies scholars can talk to each other

Finally, what struck me about the participants in both sessions, two conferences and one national border apart, was how EAGER everyone was to talk about fan studies as a field. So many of us are on our own—as independent scholars, grad students, even tenure-track faculty, we are the only ones in our home departments who do what we do. And, as this synthesis has suggested, it seems that many of us are running into the same problems of identity, ethics, and practice, but find ourselves isolated from scholars doing similar work with whom we can share.

The UK has the phenomenal Fan Studies Network, and their conference in July 2015 will no doubt serve as such a gathering space (check out the FSN on Twitter + their blog). There was also some discussion at PCA of the fan studies area sponsoring a pre-conference at next year’s PCA, a day-long get together where interested scholars could talk through these higher order, even meta, issues associated with our field. All wonderful things!

But my biggest takeaway from SCMS and PCA is that we need more—more discussions like we’ve had over the past two weeks and more opportunities to gather (virtually and in person) to continue these conversations and, more to the point, move the discussion forward into action. Not to get all Obi-Wan, but let’s face it: the future(s) of fan studies are in our hands. So. Let’s make them happen.

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3 thoughts on “The Possible Futures of Fan Studies: Harmonic Convergence of SCMS and PCA/ACA

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