Yesterday, I read Lucy Bennett’s “Tracing Textual Poachers: Reflections on the development of fan studies and digital fandom,” an excellent history-cum-consideration of fan studies, some 20+ years after the publication of Henry Jenkins’ foundational work. In the context of the conversations I was part of recently at SCMS and PCA/ACA, I was particularly struck by Bennett’s discussions of how we as scholars might encourage the continued, conscious evolution of our methodologies, objects and subjects of study, and our own reflective self-positionality as researchers.
This essay, it caused a thunderstorm of sorts in my head.
Me, I’m just a whippersnapper in these parts; hell, I’m at a stage where the phrase “early career researcher” still feels like a stretch. That said, I’ve had my flag planted in fan studies ground for a while now, and I feel settled enough in this happily still-wild territory to draw up a wish list of my own. I’ve been staring at the horizon here long enough to have a sense of the kind of work I’d like to do, the sort of scholarship I’d like to see, in the future.
So here’s my disciplinary wish list for fan studies, things I’d like to see us do moving forward:
1) Do a better job of welcoming new fan studies scholars and helping them integrate into our field.
The beauty and curse of fan studies is that we’re a discipline and a community by choice; that is, most of us don’t come from universities that offer institutional support for, or recognition of, the kind of work that we do. We’re in fan studies, basically, because we decide that we are: it’s the best kind of self-hailing. And more and more scholars from a wide variety of disciplines are coming to our shores because they too feel called (as it were) to such scholarship.
Let’s face it: many of us are coming from institutional spaces where we feel like we don’t quite fit in. So how can we help our newer arrivals to feel welcome on our discursive island of misfit toys? By making a more concerned and organized effort to help new scholars integrate into—and thus enrich—this community.
Particularly in the US, I think, there’s a real opportunity (and need) to create scholarly and social infrastructures that can facilitate that kind of integration. For example, we could create a working list of fan studies scholars on Twitter that a researcher new to our field might want to follow—and perhaps even begin a dialogue with. We could create a living Google Docs-based bibliography of texts that we as fan studies researchers have found useful in our work, and that new scholars might dig, too. Or we could make a concerted effort to host fan studies-oriented social events at both smaller regional and national conferences.
Now I’m not suggesting that we duplicate the terrific work of the Fan Studies Network (FSN); there is zero reason for us to cross the streams. However, the FSN is UK-based, and I do think that makes a difference. For my money, we need some scholarly and social infrastructure here in the US, too. Perhaps the Journal of Fandom Studies would be a natural driver for such efforts? I don’t know. Regardless, I’d like to see us be more conscious of the way we interact with—and thus encourage—scholars who are new to our field.
2) As we write up our research, include discussions what kind of ethical decisions and negotiations we made (and re-made) over the life of the project and why.
In some ways, ethics is an always-already question in fan studies work. However, there seems to be renewed energy around such issues of late, and a real desire to talk openly and frankly about the particular ethical challenges that researching fans and their practices can pose. I think part of the reason that it’s become such an issue writ large is that most of us (me included) don’t talk about the ethical decisions that we had to make about a particular project in our write-up of the project itself. That is, as we know, our work requires us to negotiate ethical questions through the lifespan of a project; one size of ethics does not fit all.
What I’d suggest, then, is that including such discussions in our own work, at the level of an individual research project, would serve as fodder for broader and more collective conversations about questions of ethics in our field. To my mind, this suggestion (this wish) is in keeping with previous calls for us to include more specific discussions of our methods and methodology in our work. That said, there is a clear and present exigence here, a real desire among many of us to talk seriously and openly about ethics. Such a conversation would not only provide some clarity (perhaps?) for us as a field, but would also provide a forum where we could exchange strategies, solutions, and even unforeseen pitfalls that we’ve encountered in our own work—information that might prove invaluable to our colleagues and save them a few bruises along the way.
3) Embrace the messiness inherent in what we study and what we do.
There’s a lot I want to say here, which is why I will try to be brief. In essence: I want to see and do scholarship that acknowledges that the notion of “a fandom” or “the fandom” is total bullshit. At some level, I think, we know this, whether from our own lives as fans or from our scholarly engagement. As Bennett notes, “the Internet and social media has allowed for the development, and fragmentation, of networks and communities comprised of fans” [emphasis added] (7).
Spend 10 minutes on Twitter (or 30 seconds on Tumblr) and it’s pretty clear: nine times out of ten, what media property you’re talking about, there is no “fandom.” There are many, many (sub?)fandoms that are loosely collected in orbit around a particular text. And yet I think we (myself included) still too often retreat to that lazy phrasing of “the fandom” or “the community.”
As argued by the amazing “We’re Not Third Wave Just Yet: Reconsidering the Place of Identity and Fandom in 21st Century Fan Studies” panel at SCMS, another consequence of talking about fans in this way is that in our attempts to talk about “everyone,” we’ve left a whole hell of a lot of people and communities and modes of engagement behind. As my friend Shannon and I like to say: fandom is a Kinsey scale, not a binary, and the more that we can do as scholars to revel in the messiness of fandoms, rather than engage in attempts (however well-meaning) to fence that messiness in, the better. I’d like to see us sacrifice some of our legibility in our writing, in our thinking, in our research, if doing so means that the work we do can reflect more colors of the spectrum of fandoms, especially when they don’t fit nicely into ROY or G or BIV.