Thursday, June 5, 2008

WisCon 32 Panel 31 and Afterward

I didn’t take notes on the next two convention events I attended. The first, after a brief exchange with Timmi and Beth in the corridor, was Joan Haran’s “Can Fans and College Teachers Be Friends?” panel (the prospects ended up looking pretty good), officially entitled “Academics and Fans: Bringing Them Together I.” At the start Joan (pictured at left) said, “Okay, a number of us are academics; and I think all of us identify as fans, except for Josh, who’s not sure.” She focused the discussion on very practical matters as to what could be done for the Academic Track of programming which she’s in charge of. Evidently the Academic Track has been kept a distinct programming thread in part because people needed institutional funding to get to the con, and saying that you’ve presented a paper and earned a cv line is necessary for that. Most people were okay with the idea of having panels on which people presented papers (although there were some suggestions that the papers could be briefer to allow more discussion, and some questions as to whether copies of the papers could legally be made available for con-goers); a few had had their beefs with this or that academic style. Two or three guys said they’d seen academics come ‘round like old school anthropologists, trying to put fans under the microscope; grad student KB [I think she’s the strawberry blonde head in the foreground of the first picture here] said she’d had some trouble with profs who looked at her work on SF and said she had to cite “all the French poststructuralists.” HOLDEN, I think it was, cited the spectre of Henry Jenkins and his Fan Culture studies.

Two of the more dramatic contributions to the discussion came from MIKE LOWREY –not the first big, loud, hirsute, Scotch-Irish rural anarchist American named Mike I’d ever met, but the gentlest. He expressed relief that the “academic track” was, thanks to our discussion, going to be renamed the “Science Fiction Research Track,” since he’d always thought it was only for people with academic jobs and not clerical workers like himself. And he was quite generous in the discussion of academics needing institutional support. But, thanks to his past history, he had a bit of a “transference moment,” when, thanks (as I later found out) to unresolved old traumas, he thought it meet to talk in defensive tones about his class origins: “I’m a cracker!” he roared, “I’m one generation away from the cotton fields!” Which provoked KB to point out that you could still be “an academic” in that situation: “Look,” she said in a more pronounced Southern accent than his, “I’m also one generation removed from the cracker fields!” At some point after which I had to note that “I’m not one generation removed from the crack fields; my grandfathers were both petit bourgeois. But I’m contingent faculty, like the bulk of college teachers in the U.S., so I’m unlikely to be in a more secure or prosperous position than anyone!” Mike nodded knowingly: like most of the other discussants, he seemed to oppose the idea, held by his forebears, that mental labor was not “real work.”

People seemed generally pleased that the discussion had gone more or less amicably, and a couple of women volunteered to help Joan with the Academic, er, Science Fiction Research Track for next year. I chatted with a number of participants afterward, mentioning my unease with the anti-theory position I’d heard advanced in an earlier panel. Told Nisi I’d been at the “Can Academics and Fans Be Friends?” discussion and she said happily, “They can be roommates!” Then got involved in a discussion, or discussions with MIKE, KB, and a couple of shortish, pale, hefty young men in thick glasses, men I’ll call MERCHANT and IVORY. MERCHANT, the sort of fan who had a hard time seeing how anyone could disagree with the politics of The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress or The Doomsday Book, had a multitude of facts at his command, many of them wrong, and was happy to have found in KB someone painfully aware of holes in her SF knowledge so he could Explain It All. I brought up a couple of topics, mostly sympathizing with KB and expressing agreement or disagreement with MERCHANT; the quiet IVORY, used to listening to his friend pontificate, went online to look up the relevant data when MERCHANT and I had a factual disagreement and resolved it in my favor.

The most memorable bits of my conversation with KB –it was pretty much just the two of us after an hour, although MIKE was still IIRC around and talked a little about his life –were her accounts of her life as a nontraditional grad student in rural Mississippi teaching freshman comp: although she’s a native of the U.S. South, she finds the culture in that particular region very stressful; and WisCon is the only time of the year she gets to see people with values similar to her own. Otherwise, it’s dealing with the preachers who come to the house she shares with her Swiss husband and try to save them, or with hired men and neighbors who just burst into giggles when they see her using hardware or gardening implements and insist on talking to The Man of the House, or with students whom she tries endlessly to persuade to write papers that cite evidence other than Bible quotes. She regularly asks these kids what languages the Bible that they endlessly invoke was originally written in –she was very proud when one student, coming closer to a correct answer than any of the others, said “Uh . . . Italian?”

We spoke of these and of literary and theoretical issues until 1:30 Saturday morning.


Anonymous said...

I really wish I had made it to this panel. There was just too much going on at WisCon! But both the paper I presented in the academic track and the panel I took part in on the main track addressed these issues to some degree, in particular regarding the work of theorizing. I just wrote a blog entry about that.

I'm curious to hear about how the 'spectre' of Jenkins's work on fan culture was raised, since I'm doing work on media fandom as well as science fiction and would place it squarely in his tradition (not that I agree with everything he's ever said or done, of course). It sounds as though he was seen as a negative figure?

Regarding making papers available, would that be any different than many academics' practice of putting conference papers online?

Josh said...

Glad the post interested you, QGT. As to the work of theorizing, I got a lot out of how the "It's Not About Identity" people addressed that.

The tone in which I referred to Jenkins came entirely from the fact that I sometimes encounter adherents of his who either fit the Mike Lowrey "Lets put fans under the microscope" characterization of "academics" or who frustrate me in other ways. Actually, his name came up when someone (maybe Holden?) cited an idea of his approvingly. I'm glad to see that there are thoughtful people like you and her who find him useful, although it rather disrupts my strategy for dismissiveness and means there's More Writing I Have to Consider Seriously! Argh!

I too don't see a problem with making papers available: as you say, there are scholars who post their conference papers online. And someone mentioned that the M/MLA offers some people's papers for sale. But I don't think my lone voice dissuaded others from worrying that there could be problems with copyright or with subsequent publication arising from that practice. Do drop a line to Joan H if you want to encourage it.