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poster: Alex Jenkins

[META] Flow Conference 2012: Let the Conversations Continue

I returned last night from the Flow Conference, which exceeded my high expectations, and, of course, left me with an overwhelming list of book and article recommendations to sift through now that I’m back at home and within walking distance of my university library. The great thing about media studies is that much of this material is available online, and without any particular subscriptions or memberships. For example, just on the online schedule for the conference, you can read over 150 position papers by conference participants on such a wide variety of topics as Twilight anti-fandom, NASA technology and video games, and public television in New Zealand. I made it to five panels throughout the conference, and, at every single one, I learned something memorable from every single panel participant, as well as an audience member or three. It was the most genuinely interactive academic conference I’ve ever attended, and I was delighted to be a part of it.

It’s something I wouldn’t have thought possible ten years ago, and one particular experience from this weekend brought that fact home to me. (It’s also worth noting that the conference did not begin until 2008, so it would not in fact have been possible for me to attend ten years ago.) While preparing for my panel, on the future of queer media studies, I ran into someone I knew from the past, and who I didn’t quite recognize at first. I knew that I knew him, which was confirmed by his personal greeting to me, but I couldn’t quite put together from where. It turned out to have been my very first film professor, Jim Roberts, who was at the conference with his colleagues. I took his evening film history and theory class in the winter of 2001, when I was a junior in high school, and he was teaching at Penn State. He reminded me during our conversation at Flow that I had written a memorable evaluation for him in that class, which made me laugh nervously. I wondered what my sixteen-year-old self could possibly have had to say on a teaching evaluation, and hoped I had not embarrassed myself too much. I remembered the first comment he raised, which was that I had learned from the instructor that you should not begin a sentence with the word “this” when it does not appear to modify any particular noun. Secondly, and I have no recollection of having left this comment, I said that I liked that the instructor “didn’t take the films too seriously,” and that he would fast forward through scenes that didn’t seem to matter, even making funny comments about the extended depictions of people walking down hallways. “I was so happy to be in college,” I exclaimed on hearing this story, marveling at the extent to which I’ve been desensitized to the pleasures of the media studies classroom.

I learned so much in that first film class I took. I learned that there were a lot of different versions of Dracula, for example. I learned that Hal Hartley was a person who existed in the world, and who said smart things that were worth quoting in my LiveJournal. I remember those. What’s harder to remember is a moment as simple as the fast forward revelation — what I must have seen in that moment was that academic analysis did not have to entail a comprehensive interpretation of every second of a film. Instead, it was a process that necessitated making choices about what seemed really important, and gleefully discounting the parts that didn’t help to build an interesting argument. I had never really gotten that experience from my English classes in high school. I had always assumed that everyone else in the room fully understood, and even cared about, what was going on at all times in the books we read, and that strategic reading, as I would come to know it later, was flawed and lazy.

Looking back to that realization helps me to contextualize the many other realizations that led to my ability to appreciate the Flow conference as deeply as I did. I first had to learn that you could pause and fast forward. I then learned that, if you wrote a compelling enough paper proposal (or were in your instructor’s good graces by virtue of being a high school student), you could write your final paper about the movie Heathers. The next year, when I started college full time, I learned that you could read graphic novels as literature. The next summer, I learned that you could quote Ani DiFranco in your final exam. (On Felicity, the titular character’s best friend Julie experiences a similar thrill when her stodgy-seeming freshman English professor “[gets] her Liz Phair reference.”) In my senior year, I learned that television could constitute a section of an English class at the college level. In my final year of coursework during my PhD program, I learned that you could take an entire seminar on HBO series (okay, and Victorian novels). It’s worth remembering this series of developments, because I still get frustrated when I meet people who simply laugh at the idea of working on television in an academic capacity. It makes us laugh because it is a delight. Reading media texts strategically in order to form academic delights is, in the best of circumstances, a genuine delight. The Flow Conference reminded me of that, and I’m deeply grateful for it.

As fans know, one doesn’t need a university classroom or official institutional approval to read strategically and experience pleasure from it. However, the university is an important space where many people do get access to that kind of reading for the first time, and it’s nice that scholars who continue to work in fields of textual analysis are making more and more of their texts accessible to everyone. There is much more to be done, but I think that the Flow schedule site offers an exemplary model for sharing the most current work in media studies. Check it out!

[META] Tabletop, on Geek and Sundry: Improv Meets Instructional Video

It’s hard for me to explain just what I find so entertaining about the Geek and Sundry Network’s webshow Tabletop. It’s not a huge transmedia playground like The Guild, and it’s not a zany talk show like The Flog, but rather a half-hour (by TV time) webshow, in which a rotating cast of three geeky New Media creators get together with Wil Wheaton to play a tabletop game. I knew that that Wheaton, who co-created the series with Geek and Sundry founder Felicia Day, would shine in this environment by the sheer enthusiasm with which he related the rules to the game he played in the first episode. However, I remained suspicious that he could reliably recruit actors who would take so readily to the concept. From my own limited experiences with tabletop gaming, I feared that, even with significant editing, some games and some sets of people simply wouldn’t have it in them to create an entertaining half hour of television. Fortunately, I was completely wrong, which I conceded when I watched the June 29th episode, in which Buffy‘s Amber Benson, The Guild‘s Michele Boyd, and YouTube’s Meghan Camarena teamed up with Wheaton to play the hilarious card game Gloom.

Before the Gloom episode, I felt like I was watching instructional videos — incredibly well-made instructional videos, populated by highly-likeable New Media celebrities — but still instructional videos. However, the Gloom episode changed all that, and, for the first time, invited me to relax and enjoy improvisational comedy and storytelling, with the game resembling a series of thoughtful prompts, and a loose structure, rather than constraining the players’ in-game actions to the point of first-timer confusion. I say this not to critique highly complex games — I am a huge fan of long-arc commitments to any storyworld, be it a game, a television series, or, my favorite, a transmedia universe populated by fictional gamers — but rather to suggest that the show realized one of its creator’s major goals in the Gloom episode. Wheaton summarized his two-part mission in a May blog post about Tabletop, in which he said, “I want to inspire people to try hobby games, and I want to remove the stigma associated with gaming and gamers.” In order to inspire the broadest range of viewers to try out new games, I think that the decision to feature a different game in every episode is wise, and I think that offering games that allow a diversity of skill sets to be showcased is important. For example, any opportunity to highlight Amber Benson’s macabre sense of humor is an opportunity for a fine moment in webshow history, and I’m glad that this show took it.

The second part of Wheaton’s mission, the removal of stigma, is harder to assess. Those who absolutely reject gaming and geek culture because of its stigma are unlikely to watch the show long enough to realize the error in their own thinking, and those who stigmatize from within, for example, those who hate on women gamers, apparently need someone like Felicia Day to do even more than found an entire network devoted to their interests before she can prove herself. However, for someone like me, who is primarily a television fan, and only somewhat curious about expanding my horizons into games, I think that the show makes an excellent case for me to try out some of what’s newly available. (Gloom, for example, was designed in 2004, long after my lazy high school summer afternoons of rejecting Settlers of Catan had been taken over by other obligations.) I love storytelling, and I love experimental storytelling, and Tabletop provides a bridge between my love for Michele Boyd’s New Media celebrity persona and my love for creative approaches to communal storytelling. Like compulsively refreshing a ficathon, watching an episode of Tabletop gives me the sense that people can easily help each other to articulate their surprising and creative observations about the world, and that the end result will be worth preserving.

As with Wheton, so much of what Felicia Day creates and oversees is an inspiration to others to tell their own stories and to do so in innovative ways. Her Vaginal Fantasy book club, for example, has inspired women who may not have felt hailed by previous book club cultures to form their own, specifically devoted to genres that appeal to to them and their sexuality. And perhaps that is the stigma that is most flexible and removable — the stigma that people can internalize about their own desires, which they then miss the opportunity to express to like-minded friends. Within New Media culture, women who don’t feel particularly spoken to by The View or The Talk can instead watch Vaginal Fantasy, and thus perhaps be inspired to expand their fannish engagement in new directions, or simply find peace in the fact that there is such visible interest in women’s responses to literature written with them in mind.

The Geek and Sundry lineup lives, in terms of accessibility, somewhere between this weekend’s Comic-Con, and online fanfiction. Hosted on YouTube, the shows do come with advertisements, which, understandably, might frustrate people. However, the content is all original, and I am excited to see what will come of the experiment, as well as from other experimental networks, such as Pharrell’s i am OTHER, which is now showing the second season of Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. While there is still a crucial distinction to be made between fandom proper and fandom as industrial response, I do think that experimental and independent media about which one is fannish merits a different kind of consideration than the mainstream, especially when its creators are specifically trying to reach an audience of which certain segments of fandom are a central component. The Geek and Sundry channel is far from representative of the incredible diversity of fandom at large, but its structure invites a great variety of possible responses, ranging from affirmation to imitation, and from transformation to critique. Ideally, these networks will take advantage of one another’s talent and ingenuity, as, for example, The Guild‘s Amy Okuda settles into her new role as Sam in BFF’s, a series appearing on Justin Lin’s YOMYOMF Network, thus bringing her old fanbase to a new set of creators. As this particular segment of the media landscape takes shape, inevitably fans will respond just as creatively as they always have, sometimes through industrial response, and sometimes through their own networks, which may include their own unrecorded evening of storytelling with the assistance of a card game.

[META] I Know I’m Still Thinking About Wisconsin

The latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, “Transformative Works and Fan Activism,” is now available for your reading pleasure. There’s so much great content here to peruse, much of it offering context for ongoing debates among fan activists, many of which speak to still-unfolding current events. Just last week, for example, Andrea Horbinski and Alex Leavitt updated readers on the latest developments surrounding the Metropolitan Tokyo Youth Ordinance, whose implications they had explored at length in their article. The piece I first clicked on when I accessed the issue, however, was on an issue closer to my immediate context and long-term concerns: Jonathan Gray’s moving Symposium piece, “Of snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish play at the Wisconsin protests.” This piece describes the morale-boosting role played by fannish signs and chants at protests, and argues for their incalculable contribution to the large-scale registering of political dissatisfaction.

The topic of activism is inherently emotional, which is part of why I think that its union with transformative works is so illuminating. Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova begin their editorial introduction to the issue with two quotations that speak to this point, one by Liesbet van Zoonen, from her book Entertaining the Citizen, and one from Stephen Duncombe’s own Symposium piece on More’s Utopia, and his own relationship to that concept, such as it has emerged in his own experiences with fandom and activism. There is a clear thread that ties each piece in this issue to the rest, as well as tying the issue as a whole to a long series of debates, online and off-, about those most seriously critical, and thus, seriously hopeful energies within fandom, and how these intersect with those same energies in activist movements, often within the same subjects. From my own standpoint in the Midwestern United States, no single recent event has filled me with as much hope, and then disappointed me so strongly, as the fannishly-inflected 2011 Wisconsin protests against Scott Walker and his union-busting legislation, which, sadly, did not in the end lead to his replacement.

That aside, I think that Gray’s piece archives much of what was exciting about the 2011 protests, which moved so many people, and were so misrepresented by the mainstream media, first by not being represented at all, and then, worse, being mischaracterized as “riots,” as Gray describes:

As the protests continued and as they drew national media attention, for many protesters, and for the organizers especially, it became important to ensure that the protests remained peaceful and upbeat, countering Fox News’ images. The fannish signs aided this mission, offering reasons to smile and laugh amidst the anger and angst, and often inspiring discussions between fellow fans.

Gray is, of course, careful not to reduce the protests to a momentary fannish community-building exercise, although he is just as careful not to subordinate fannish caontributions to countable actions such as petition signatures, absolutely. Instead he inhabits the ground of the short-form social archivist, who witnessed positive social and political actions bolstered by fannish energy and tactics, and wishes to record it alongside the ultimately disappointing political verdict on Walker.

Gray’s piece exemplifies what I love about the Symposium section of Transformative Works and Cultures. The author guidelines for the Symposium section read as follows:

Parallel to academia’s tradition of compact essays, often published as letters, fandom has its own vibrant history of criticism, some of which has been collected at the Symposium archive. In the spirit of this history, TWC’s Symposium is a section of concise, thematically contained essays. These short pieces provide insight into current developments and debates surrounding any topic related to fandom or transformative media and cultures. Symposium submissions undergo editorial review. (1,500–2,500 words)

And indeed, in just over 2000 words, as well as photographs of six different fannish signs seen at the Wisconsin protests, he articulates a material intersection of fandom and activism, and one that will likely ring true, both for those of us who anxiously followed the protests as they happened, and for those who take pleasure in memes well-executed. He fleshes out the experience of the protests with memorable details, some of which speak to us quickly and generally, like his description of the protests’ occurrence “in the middle of a characteristically long Wisconsin winter,” while other descriptions speak to perceptions specific to the fan activist’s worldview. I love the idea that, “when the Capitol Square was covered in snow, it seemed distinctly Hothlike,” because it’s that level of observation that invites the reader into the process of forging lasting connections between different spheres of her life.

From Gray’s piece, the reader might move on to Aswin Punathambekar’s essay, “On the ordinariness of participatory culture,” which offers a different national context for the intersection of fandom and activism, namely, the Indian context, as well as a different kind of activism, namely how, in response to Indian Idol 3, “people in the northeast Indian state of Meghalaya had cast aside decades-old separatist identities to mobilize support for Amit Paul, one of the finalists.” The issues at stake here are very different than those in Wisconsin, but Punathambekar’s argument in fact shares much with Gray’s, although he uses a slightly different critical vocabulary. Punathambekar summarizes his argument as such:

We need to develop accounts of participatory culture that take the sociable and everyday dimensions of participation in and around popular culture more seriously while remaining attuned to the possibility that such participation might, in rare instances, intersect with broader civic and political issues and movements. Using Indian Idol 3 as a case, I want to suggest that sociability should be as fundamental to our analyses of participatory culture as civic/political engagement.

Like Gray, Punathambekar argues that we should make sure to value those moments of sociability that are often subordinated to specific political activity, as they share much with the energy that is needed to enact large-scale change and, ultimately, to create better societies. Both authors’ arguments are at home in the Symposium section, because it is a space in which this subtlety of individual and social experience can be articulated, and preserved alongside more long-form academic analyses of phenomena within fandom.

We are actively seeking Symposium submissions for upcoming issues, and all readers of this post, this blog, Transformative Works and Cultures, and other sources of fandom analysis to consider submitting. Thank you!

[LINK] Embedded Videos at TWC: Such Fun!

The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures almost here, and I can’t wait to check out the content on transformative works and fan activism. It’s such an important topic, and one that’s bound to generate some energy from readers moved by direct action. However, while we wait for June 15th, I thought I’d share how valuable I’ve found the Fan/Remix Video issue, and how much I want to encourage readers to check it out. In fact, I can’t imagine a better place to start for a reader who’s new to academic writing than the editorial introduction to the issue, by Julie Levin Russo and Francesca Coppa, which, above all, showcases the pleasures of incorporating embedded video and images into academic writing. I’d recommend that any skeptical reader start by watching one of the videos that first draws her attention, and then locate what else on the page might contextualize that experience. The issue is really an art museum. At an art museum, one quickly realizes that he can’t read every description of every piece and experience them all as well, at least not within the short time he’s got to spend there. Personally, I always prefer to follow my instincts and find what moves me, even if it means I end up confused about whether the one with all the dark shadows was supposed to be about religion or not. I’m much more comfortable revealing this non-linear preference now than I would have been when I started graduate school in 2006. What changed me was teaching, and specifically, teaching in classrooms with excellent technological capabilities, which have enabled me to incorporate streaming video into almost every class I have taught. Streaming video has undoubtedly been the most helpful pedagogical aid I have found over the past five years. I started teaching in 2007, and the first thing I learned as I got to know my students was that it’s important to present information in as many different ways as possible. Everybody learns differently, and, while some do respond strongly to written texts, a lot of people do not. I had thought of my writing class as “an English class,” which, like the English classes I’d taken in college, would consist mostly of reading (literary) texts, analyzing them, and then writing papers about them. I had never really thought to question what a paper was, because it seemed to me that it was “between four and five pages,” primarily. Although my private approach to art, literature, and, of course, online fandom, was one of searching, skimming, and skipping, I’d been in school long enough to understand that my writing should disguise this fact. When I wrote about a quotation from a novel, for example, I should not reveal that I was drawn to it because it revealed the author’s secret attitude toward women, or that I had found it because I’d been looking for a new quotation for my AOL Instant Messenger profile. Instead, I was expected to claim that the quotation was clearly central to the novel, and that it would reveal itself as such to any careful reader. When I transitioned from student to teacher, I realized that I would have to find a way to explain to my students what was expected of them, in terms of reading and writing, without being hypocritical. So at first, I assigned text after text. A poem about the experience of being away from home, that’ll strike a universal chord! It did not, at least not universally. An essay about learning curves, which will inspire self-reflection on learning styles. Yes! No. The texts did inspire discussion, of course. Students are kind-hearted people who take pity on their graduate student teachers, and also, a good portion of them have the background and natural curiosity in the humanities to succeed in most contexts. But I could tell that some students simply did not feel spoken to by the material, and I knew that it was not simply a lack of interest in academic success on their part. I needed to introduce something new, and fortunately, because this was 2007, and I had a computer in my classroom, I settled on YouTube. After all, the way I bonded with my friends much of the time was by sharing a 3-5 minute video about an issue that moved us, and then discussing it, or responding with a video on a related topic. Why not try to bring that dynamic to the classroom? To be clear, I’m writing this under the assumption that the practice is much more common in composition and other kinds of classrooms now, so don’t take my rhetorical questions as though they represent actual expert advice. For that, see Table 1 in Russo and Coppa’s article, which offers a selective overview of whole university courses devoted to remix and related practices. These courses undoubtedly represent a much more sophisticated approach to teaching with digital media, as compared with my “have you guys heard about this?” approach. Even so, I maintain that there was value to my approach even when it was best described under the latter category, before I understood how important it was to keep my desire to tell people about everything interesting, contained. And that is how simple my argument in this post is. The Fan/Remix Video issue of TWC is simply inviting in a way that not every issue of an academic journal proves to be. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching every video discussed in Elisa Kreisinger’s piece, “Queer video remix and LGBTQ online communities.” I’d be amazed if anyone did this and was not moved to read the author’s notes and analysis, because these videos demand further engagement, and the article acts as an instant interlocutor. Web video, especially remix video, is as powerful for many of us as poetry is for, well, fewer of us, and this issue offers a great array of examples and reasons why. I take Andrea Horbinski’s intervention into the issue’s place within fan studies seriously, and I think that, for those of us who are committed to the central issues she raises, her post should be required reading. At the same time, I think that, for a reader wondering what academic writing might look like if it spoke about her life on the internet in the 21st Century, she might be pleasantly taken in by it. Since 2007, my goal in teaching has changed from “give them the same things I was given, because then they will follow the same path of inspiration” to “give them as much good stuff as possible, in as many different ways as possible, in hopes that something excites their intellect or desire.” Similarly, my take on this issue is, “I’d never seen that one before! People are amazing.”

[META] Happy Free Comic Book Day!

Happy Free Comic Book Day! Here in Columbus, Ohio, the day has been a huge success. The comic I was most excited about, The Guild: “Beach’d,” was awesome, and the event at which I acquired said comic was surprisingly pleasant. I am an impatient person, and I tend to avoid crowds and long lines, but, for free comics, I figured I could give it a shot. I will never understand people who are energized rather than drained by events such as Comic-Con, or its academic complement, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference, but this year’s Free Comic Book Day (FCBD) has given me a taste of the particular pleasure of convening with other fans in person.

My girlfriend and I arrived at the Laughing Ogre comic book shop here in Columbus around lunchtime, and we saw a line out of the store and several friendly, costumed superheroes. Amused, we joined the line, and were heartily welcomed by a man dressed as Superman, who, along with a little girl who was likely his daughter, and who was dressed as Supergirl, entertained the waiting comic book fans. Behind us stood a man and a woman, the latter of whom Superman asked if she’d been “dragged along” to the event. She said she hadn’t, and Superman seemed pleased that they were a comics-reading duo, rather than a fanboy-plus-support person. This was my first FCBD, so I can’t speak for the crowd in past years, but I imagine that Superman’s experience had been to notice particular demographic changes throughout the recent history of the event. Feeling moved by this public assessment of each fan’s authority, I planned a speech about how I was just here for Buffy, fictional feminist role model, and The Guild, authored by real life role model Felicia Day. Nobody asked, and so I didn’t get to give my speech, but it gave me some pleasure to know that I could share it with you in this venue later.

Normally, when I go to the Laughing Ogre, it’s on a Wednesday at 10 a.m. Twice a month, I make the trek to purchase my new Buffy comic (Buffy Season Nine one visit, and Angel and Faith the next), and I’m usually one of only a few people there. However, the staff always greets me kindly, and, knowing what I’m looking for, they never fail to tease me that Buffy Season Nine has been cancelled. I got the same personal greeting today, but I got the further pleasure of seeing some of the rest of the store’s clientele, and hence, some of the rest of Columbus’s comic book-reading community. There were a lot of children, for example, who I assume are in school on Wednesday mornings, and the store had prepared well for this, setting up superhero face painting, as well as photo opportunities with the costumed superheroes. Additionally, the staff members in charge of the free comics tables had divided up the comics nicely, explaining to children, parents, and those of us who are neither, which comics were intended for which audiences. The idea of the separation was not one of censorship, but rather one of clarity, helping visitors to find what they were looking for. In front of me was a kid of indeterminate age (perhaps a savvier observer of people could have determined it, but I couldn’t), who expressed interest in a non-fiction meta comic intended for adults, and he was invited to take it if he wished, but warned that it did not contain a story with action, but rather was more of a history. This interaction reminded me of one of the things I like most about comics, namely, the medium’s flexibility, and its fans’ desire to educate new fans about the form’s many histories and pleasures.

The free comic I was most anxious to read, The Guild: “Beach’d,” was, as I mentioned, an absolute delight, although this review admittedly comes from a reader who has adored every single installment of The Guild‘s transmedia universe, and a reader who feels that The Guild: Fawkes comic must have been created as a personal gift. But I feel like this free comic embodies Felicia Day’s mission beautifully for more reasons than my personal enjoyment of this latest extension of The Guild storyworld. The decision to package it with the Buffy comic was wise, as Buffy fans are likely to be familiar with Felicia Day, and might take this opportunity to acquaint themselves with The Guild, her best-executed project to date. Perhaps some of them watched the first few episodes back when they first rolled out, but forgot to keep up with the series. Others might have seen the music videos, but not realized that they were meaningfully attached to an increasingly complex and impressively fleshed out narrative. The Guild: “Beach’d” embodies the greatest pleasures of the series in an easily-digestible format. On its title page, we are reacquainted with all five of the show’s main characters, as well as their in-game avatars. This page showcases the adeptness with which The Guild comics represent the game/life balance as experienced by each of these characters: we see that Codex, Day’s character, responds as viscerally to violence in- and out of game, because she has an uneasy constitution and a low threshold for stimulation. By contrast, Tink, played by Amy Okuda in the series, can happily drink a soda out of game, while attacking brutally in-game. The language of comics works so well for this series, and I love the way this particular comic, offered to us as a free invitation to explore the series’s current stage of development, speaks so easily to a concern central to online fandom. It’s so funny to get up in the morning, walk four and a half miles to a comic book shop, wait in line with strangers who share only my anticipation for free comics, and then be transported back into the storyworld that feels like home. Henry Jenkins once described fandom as a weekend-only world, and, while it’s come a long way since then, my particular Saturday nevertheless revealed a kinship with that utopian idea.

[ADMIN] Signal Boosting – April Fundraising and Membership Drive!

Spring is here, at least in Ohio, and the world is buzzing with life. It’s a time when I start to realize how grateful I am to those people who sustain me during the winter, when trees are bare and not yet flowering frantically. Those people are fans, and I have the Organization for Transformative Works to thank for connecting me with more fans, fanworks, and fannish opportunities than I ever imagined existed.

I’ve been aware of the organization for two years, and I’m constantly learning new things and finding new content. Every issue of Transformative Works and Cultures feels like a gift to me, and I genuinely look forward to sharing new articles with my non-academic friends in fandom. (The others already read the journal!) I was pleasantly surprised just the other day to discover that Fanlore had a whole page devoted to one of my all-time favorite vids. The OTW does good work, and I look forward to working with the organization for many years to come. It’s always spring in online fandom, and I am so grateful for that. I’m making my donation today.

OTW: By Fans, For Fans. Organization for Transformative Works Membership Drive, April 18-25, 2012. transformativeworks.org

Please support the OTW if you can.

[META] Writing Sandcastles Versus Playing in Sandboxes: The Writing Life in the Twenty-First Century

Rich Juzwiak recently announced on Gawker that he will no longer write recaps of currently-airing television shows. He will continue to write about television, of course, but he will never again be “a recapping machine,” because it is “thankless work” that leads inevitably to fatigue. To illustrate, he cites the fact that recapper extraordinaire Tracie Potochnik has written over 1,350,000 words about America’s Next Top Model. In another place and time, this word count could constitute multiple novels (War and Peace *2), but in the blogosphere, all is lost to the accelerated time scale of popular culture. Because they were funneled through the recap machine, her words, in Juzwiak’s view, lost value as quickly as they acquired it, thus depriving the writer of time for creative development, as well as the audience from engaging, long-form thoughts about the show. Juzwiak suffered similarly from his years of recapping, and, although he concedes that recaps helped him to build his audience, he laments that he expended so much energy and stress-inducing, time-sensitive labor on this ultimately ephemeral genre of writing.

I have a lot of sympathy (at least in comparison to some of the harsher commenters) for Juzwiak’s perspective, but I think that his disappointment offers an opportunity to explore and celebrate why fandom sustains such an important alternative sphere of popular culture criticism, including the transformational as an essential complement to the affirmational. That energy to transform is, as far as I can tell, exactly what Juzwiak is longing for when he laments that recaps are rarely crafted to the point where they can sustain their value for more than the sad few hours in which viewers will hungrily be seeking them out. I read his complaint that Potochnik could have written War and Peace twice over in the words it took her to recap ANTM as a genuine desire for writing to take form and communicate something deeper than sharp observations and topical humor. Writing can mean, and not only when it’s written by Nineteenth-Century Russian men, and, as Juzwiak himself makes clear, not only when it is a novel. He notes that there is high quality long-form television writing, for example, but that recaps, even while experimental and enjoyable, are unlikely to contribute to its flourishing.

So why not just seek out good long-form television writing? For me, it’s because the War and Peace comparison betrays transformational desires, and so, I think it’s worth taking a look at the writing landscape of transformational media fandom, in order to see if its participants offer a way out of Juzwiak’s resentment at his years spent on “sandcastles.” At the beginning of last month, lunabee34 posted a thoughtful essay on her feelings of fatigue in fandom, entitled “Fannish Trajectories: Isolation, a Sense of Disconnection from Fandom, and How We Deal.” Her piece, like Juzwiak’s, speaks of her declining energy to produce a certain kind of writing (here, fanworks) at the pace she once did. Already in the titles, though, a clear difference in focus emerges between the two authors. The Juzwiak piece, “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I’ll Never Recap a TV Show Again,” focuses on an individual “I,” and makes a claim for “never.” In “Fannish Trajectories,” however, the focus is on “we,” we who also sometimes lose steam for articulating our every thought on our favorite television shows, but we who experience this loss as temporary and social, more than we do as evidence that our mode of participation has failed us. (I should make clear that I identify strongly with the “we” of lunabee34′s piece, although it’s just as likely that any given fan will not.)

Juzwiak’s claim gains strength from its definitive refusal: Recaps are not a shortcut to serious engagement with popular culture. lunabee34′s claim gains strength rather from its openness to the many different possibilities of engagement with fandom over time. The reality is that, as RL responsibilities take away from the free time required to participate actively in transformational media fandom, one must set individual boundaries in order to maximize one’s time with her fan community. Both Juzwiak and lunabee34 rely on writing IRL. Juzwiak is a professional blogger, and lunabee34 is an English professor. Both write in a variety of genres on what I assume is a daily basis, and therefore, there’s much the two share in their descriptions of writerly fatigue. Writing recaps for a show can get old. Writing conference papers can get old. One of my favorite aspects of the blogosphere and the LJ/DW fandom sphere is the way in which they provide space for reflection on the writing life, both when it’s a narrative of fatigue that leads to a drop-off in a certain kind of production, and when it’s a celebration of inspiration, the kind that leads to War and Peace-length fanfic. (Confession: I have never read a War and Peace-length work of fanfiction.)

But there is a difference, and it’s important. One of the major problems with recaps is that they guarantee page views, which, in the world of for-proft blogging, constitute the difference between profitable and not. In fandom, we have the privilege of saying no to an episode, a show after it kills off the character we were watching for anyway, even a whole medium. We can switch entirely from television to comics without leaving fandom. We can switch from writing drabbles to writing multi-media analyses of individual episodes of television shows from the 1970s. Sure, entertaining and beloved writers will always be burdened by requests for more, but in fandom, they are welcome to change their tune at any moment. It’s simple but true that the machine-like quality that Juzwiak describes as being acquired by the recapper is more threatening in professional writing than in fandom. It doesn’t mean that fandom is low stakes, of course. Every day, people are writing their novels, and many of them, the most talented and serious, inhabiting the most-beloved sourcetexts, can be confident that they will have readers both right away and in the future. But even if they don’t, they knew what they were getting into when they added the “for fun” disclaimer at the top of the page. “Fun” is a broad enough term to account for the incredible range of pleasures fanworks can offer us, but it keeps them free from the thing that will undoubtedly make them not fun at some point — money.

[LINK] The Fan Studies Network Launched

Guest post by Tom Phillips and Lucy Bennett

As young researchers, we are frequently told to place an emphasis on networking. It is certainly true that making connections with others can help boost your career, whether in terms of finding a co-author for a research project, or simply knowing someone at an institution that will let you know of any vacancies.

In addition to the more traditional mode of meeting others at conferences, networking websites such as Academia.edu have also proved useful, giving an overview of scholars’ academic profiles.

However, what we felt was lacking in terms of having a relatively informal space in which to bounce around ideas. The “traditional” mailing lists are useful in terms of disseminating information, but creating a dialogue via these formats is often not welcomed – mailboxes can become full of conversations about subject matters considered irrelevant by some.

In creating the Fan Studies Network, we wanted to cultivate a space in which scholars of fandom could easily find others with the same research interests, and could also converse in a non-judgemental way. To this end, we are encouraging all those who sign up to the mailing list to introduce themselves and their research. This should have the effect of allowing a sense of community – all other subscribers know that only interested parties will be seeing their messages. It also allows people to talk about their research, and in the process hopefully make new contacts.

We welcome scholars to join the network by signing up to our Jiscmail mailing list: FanStudies@jiscmail.ac.uk. You can also visit our website, which features CFPs and events of interest at
fanstudies.wordpress.com, and our Twitter account @FanStudies.

With the assistance of the team members who help us run FSN – Bethan Jones (Cardiff University), Richard McCulloch (UEA), and Rebecca Williams (University of Glamorgan) – we aim to host an event within the next year.

As a project in its infancy, we would welcome any feedback or suggestions from blog readers.

[META] Fannish Moments in the Poetry Classroom

Regular co-blogger Lisa Schmidt has posted two excellent reflections on teaching and fandom, and I thought that today might be the day to share some of my own. The course I taught this quarter was Introduction to Poetry, which sounds much more conventional and less potentially fan-friendly than Lisa’s Media and Society course, or, say, a course in the History of Audiences, or Transmedia Storytelling. But in fact, I find that I can relate better to her experiences this quarter than I was able to while teaching Reading Popular Culture. I have my suspicions about why this is so, and I hope that my reflections will be of interest to anyone who, like me, sees themselves not only at the intersection of academia and fandom, but also at the intersection of literary studies and media studies.

I tried to introduce fandom into my Reading Popular Culture course in several ways. The first time I taught it, I assigned Kim Deitch’s graphic novel, Alias the Cat!, which tells the story of the evolution of the mass media in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century in the United States from the perspective of a hardcore collector. I introduced students to Lostpedia. I assigned blog reviews of Dollhouse episodes alongside academic articles in order to start a conversation about the investments of different kinds of media critics. I got my point across, more often than not, but I was rarely able to feel a fannish energy in my classroom, outside of a few post-class one-on-one interactions. This experience is normal, as commenters on Lisa’s first post suggested, but it’s not satisfying. There was part of me that felt like I was giving away too much for too little reward — part of me that was disappointed that students who came in unimpressed by Twenty-First-Century storytelling left feeling the same, rather than having been called to critical practices that would help them find their rightful place within a more democratic interpretive landscape, one defined by fan practices.

I’m sure that those readers who are teachers can easily recognize what I’m describing as the standard utopianism of the newish instructor, but fortunately, I’ve finally started to find what I’d been looking for. In order to excite fannish energy, it turns out, one must alter a portion of the work of the course into creative production. Lisa describes in her first post the experience of showing an episode of fan favorite Supernatural, and then later, a Supernatural fanvid, but she remained disappointed until she asked students to create a fanwork for their final project. It doesn’t even have to be anything as significant as a final project, as I’ve learned this quarter, and it doesn’t have to be a fanwork. In Introduction to Poetry, I simply gave students the opportunity to write an imitative exercise once during the quarter, which would be worth 5% of their grade. Initially, I created this assignment because I thought that students who didn’t already love poetry might get into it more if they experienced the challenge of writing for themselves. And indeed, a complex form like a sestina or villanelle almost demands to be imitated — I even remember writing a (very bad) sonnet almost automatically in high school, because it seemed like the only logical way to take notes on Shakespeare. I even thought that students whose talents were in quantitative fields might be impressed by the mathematical demands of rhythm, and then produce poetry in spite of whatever shame is associated with articulating one’s feelings in verse.

However, while a few did take on these pseudo-mathematical tasks, more took on the task of writing in a famous poet’s voice, or drawing from their tactics, especially found poetry. Those who wrote in the voice of a poet revealed to me a depth of critical engagement I might have completely missed out on, had I tried to extrapolate it from their descriptive claims. Those who, inspired by Alice Walker and Hart Seely’s found poetry, proceeded to “find” their own poetry in documents addressed to them, inspired me to think about incorporating a found poetry assignment into any future writing course I teach, because I was so impressed by their clear senses of humor and subtlety. Part of what I’m describing is my own journey from being a lover of essayistic critique and meta first and foremost, and only then the fiction and art that share the same source material, into a more broad-minded thinker and fan. It would, of course, be inappropriate for me to convert an Introduction to Poetry course, whose major goal is to instruct students in tactics for reading poetry, into a creative writing course inadvertently. I am not qualified to teach creative writing courses, and there are plenty of people who are. However, I have been thoroughly convinced that at least part of what I’ve been looking for, in terms of inviting students into an exciting, multi-faceted contemporary reading landscape, can be attended to via targeted imitative exercises.

I’ve heard more and more about literature professors assigning fanfic or fanfic-like work to college students, although perhaps less often than I hear about media studies professors and Digital Composition specialists assigning remix projects that lend themselves to a comparison with fanvids. I think that it’s an exciting development, because, while it turns out that it’s difficult to impress people by just insisting that there is fandom, and it is intellectual and awesome (which it is!), it is easy to excite a certain fannish energy by inviting students to participate in creative tasks that reward their skill at capturing voices and filling gaps, without requiring the accompanying expository justification.

I’m very jealous of people who teach courses on fandom in which both come together somehow — courses in which there is time enough to explore the history and culture of fandom, as well as incorporate fannish critical and creative practices. But until I am given the opportunity to teach such a course, I will happily incorporate assignments that give students, as well as me, the instructor, a glimpse of the reading community that is made momentarily visible by an archive of creative responses to literature, enabled by the course website. It can even make grading momentarily feel like checking out a trusted friend’s latest fanwork recommendations.

[META] Fandom Makes the Front Pages

Twice this week, the mainstream media has turned its attention to issues I normally encounter only within fandom discussions. In the first instance, the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly features an article about shippers, authored by Jeff Jensen. In the second instance, I was surprised to learn that issue #6 of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 9 Comics had, within three days of its publication, generated fourteen responses from mainstream media sources, including The Guardian and USA Today. Oddly, the shipper piece focuses mostly on shippers as target market, although the author both gets in his dig about shippers being “TV’s weirdest fans,” and also cites scholars who point to the social subversion that has animated many ship-driven fan cultures. By contrast the Buffy coverage focuses almost entirely on the plot development as a feminist response to the current political climate in the United States, and spends little time justifying its reporters’ attention to the cult television (and now comics) icon.

It turns out that, although fannish behavior is generally understood in the mainstream media as mere excess, fans do, increasingly, matter in at least two situations: when we distill cultural consumption trends for cultural producers, and thereby constitute a target demographic, and when our beloved source material turns out to bring newly-layered perspectives to real political issues, thus leading commentators to visit, or at least imagine a visit to, our world. The latter version of fandom on the front pages gives us more credit, but it is also more potentially volatile. It’s exciting to be a part of the “comics fans welcoming the development”(link), but it’s scary to know that so much of what one holds dear can simultaneously be presented to a careless and unforgiving public. Could I handle (and here comes the spoiler alert for the current Buffyverse development) a public trashing of the Buffy comics and of a woman’s reproductive rights on the same day? Add to that the reversion of shipping to its earlier meaning, of human labor facilitating the transfer of resources and capital, and it all starts to sound pretty overwhelming.

But, you might counter, that day is every day. It’s not as though the Buffy comics are any kind of critical darling of any mainstream reviewing sphere, and reproductive rights are rarely afforded unqualified support outside feminist-identified media outlets. As Mark Greif has argued in his n+1 piece, On Repressive Sentimentalism, in much of public conversation, “safe medical abortion, a fundamental social good in any sexually egalitarian society, an invention to be celebrated like the polio vaccine, must disguise itself as everything but what it is—the freedom from involuntary motherhood, owed to any woman young or old, to let her shape a life equal in freedom to those of men.” Whether or not one personally agrees with the entirety of Greif’s statement, and it happens that I do without reservations, the fact that the conversation has been forced into sentimental terrain improper to policy discussion is indisputable. Should I, then, be so surprised that the comments section on The Guardian article about Buffy’s hypothetical abortion contains hostility, both to abortion, and to the Buffy comics, as well as a particular contempt for their shared page space in this instance? Of course not, but that doesn’t mean that the intensity of my emotional response is without important context.

Fandom, as the EW article makes clear, is, for many of us, a space in which to explore desire, including its enactments and their concomitant consequences, beyond the constraints of those social worlds we otherwise inhabit, circumscribed as they are by such external factors as geographic location. This is not to deny that fandom itself is volatile, in its own way, already — fandom, too, is a world inhabited by human beings and therefore all the messiness of human communication. However, its volatility is different from the often-predictable kind of the public sphere, the kind that can have so many long, unproductive conversations about reproductive rights. In fandom, however, sentimentality is given its own space, and given the freedom to flourish according to the trajectories of individuals and specific sub-groups of fans, so that it doesn’t (in the best of times) seep into conversations that are actually about something else entirely, without first making its presence known. Abortion is something of a limit case for the roped-off sphere of sentimentality, hence my anticipation of emotional upheaval of unpredictable proportions at this latest development.

As Joss Whedon, creator of the Buffyverse well knows, popular culture has an incredible power to inspire meaningful conversation about important issues, particularly when there is a visible, engaged and savvy fanbase following each new development with a critical but generous sensibility. His choice to go public about his own approval of Buffy’s decision to get an abortion was not made randomly, or, I don’t think, as a cynical attempt to make money. There are much easier ways for him to make money than by temporarily drumming up interest in an installment of the ninth season of a long-arc serial. To be clear, this isn’t to say that I think that the comics belong on the same playing field as fanworks — they are a for-profit enterprise, and they engage regularly in various kinds of sensationalist marketing, and their authors deserve many of the serious criticism they’ve received from fans. However, I think that there is a serious distinction to be made between sensationalist marketing and an incitement to public conversation about a currently-contentious political issue, particularly one which lies at the center of the feminism that has, since the beginning, informed the concept of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In a moment in which fans are being noticed more and more by the mainstream media, in more and less exploitative ways, I think it’s important that we register these opportunities to take note of the differences between the conversations we’re able to have with one another, and the conversations that happen next to us, and, if only tangentially, about us. I am a Buffy comics fan, and I am excited about this most recent development. I’m so excited about it that I’m reading comments sections in The Guardian that I know will break my heart. But I know that I want the conversation to be happening, and I have hope that even 10% of the joy that is the intersection of Buffy and feminism will somehow seep into it. Shipping, to unite my two threads, might still strike many as akin to a million schoolgirl crushes, transcribed onto a notebook during study hall. But if it is more than that — if it constitutes a veritable reconsideration of how relationships are structured within complex social worlds, then the possibility of abortion starts to look less like a topical news item, and more like a social reality worth incorporating into the unfolding canon of any story that wishes to speak directly to a contemporary audience.

[LINK] Yaoi Research Blog Launched

Guest Post by Mark McHarry and Dru Pagliassotti: Dru Pagliassotti and I have launched a blog, Yaoi Research: www.yaoiresearch.com. Formal work about yaoi and boys’ love is finally beginning to appear but we saw a need for a central place to publish more informal content than that in a journal or book. If you study, create, and/or enjoy yaoi, BL, and/or male/male romance and would like to contribute well-informed descriptive or analytical writing to our blog, please contact us: admin@yaoiresearch.com. We’re hoping for posts about ongoing work, observations and opinions, reviews, commentary, analyses, and research notes and queries. Discussions of fanfic, artwork, original stories and novels, including slash and gay comics and fiction, are welcome, as are posts about context, creation, or consumption across historical periods, regions, and cultures. Graduate students, professors, independent scholars, publishers, and published mangaka, dōjinshika, and novelists are especially encouraged to contribute. If you do, please take a look at our submission guidelines. You don’t need to present original research or in-depth analysis, just interesting ideas that may stimulate thought. Although we request that posts be in English, if it is not your first language we will help you copyedit your contribution should you wish. Best Wishes for the New Year / あけましておめでとう.

[META] Fanon, Glorious Fanon (or The Shortest Oliver Twist Companion to “More”)

Guest Post By Patrice Persad

I will admit that (in most cases) I favor fanon over canon. In fact, sometimes the enthusiasm that I feel for a particular original work when all I know is the plot or characters’ names is because I was dragged into canon by an engrossing fanfiction piece or fanon. Of course, I appreciate the original creator or author’s story and character development, but, with fanfiction and other transformative fanworks, or fanon—whether they are from fledgling fans to acafans—the presented opportunities promote something that canon may have been miserly with: hope.

In fanworks, a character can earn redemption, detain (or even hoodwink) Death, or be the awe-struck recipient of other miracles that are just not within his/her grasp in canon. The merging of fanon and canon to showcase an original work’s themes and story in wholeness can be illustrated in a miniseries adaptation of one of my favorite classic literature pieces, Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, or The Parish Boy’s Progress. (Ironically enough, the novel Oliver Twist is one of the cases in which I prefer the text, canon, instead of all the media adaptations.) Although I have not seen or read every version of the classic, The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) program ExxonMobil Masterpiece Theatre (which is now, I believe, just called Masterpiece) in 1999 covered Dickens’ book in what I deem as the most comprehensive and best Oliver Twist media version [link: www.pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/ olivertwist/index.html]. In this three-part series, Mr. Alan Bleasdale, who shares the writing credits with Mr. Dickens and who is a longtime Dickens aficionado, pens the backstory of Oliver’s deceased parents, Mr. Edwin Leeford and Agnes Fleming, and their illicit affair. One could say that their history is pieced together and based from circumstantial evidence, such as hints, facts, documents, and personal effects, that Dickens includes in the book. This backstory, or prequel, also stars two shadowy characters from the novel: a younger Edward Leeford (who later sports the alias Monks amongst folks in the underworld), Oliver’s half brother, and Mrs. Elizabeth Leeford, Edwin’s wife. (The full name of Edwin’s wife is never disclosed by Dickens, so this selection of “Elizabeth” is another fruit of fanon, Bleasdale’s fabrication. Mrs. Leeford is bodily absent from Dickens’ narrative, yet Bleasdale bestows upon her dialogue—a voice.)

Now let me go back to connecting fanon (or fanworks) with hope. Before viewing the actors’ portrayal and dramatization of Mr. Bleasdale’s screenplay, I had never expressed sympathy for Dickens’ Monks. To me, he was a bad seed. (Imagine my disgrace when I later heard Bleasdale’s Edwin echoing my exact sentiments about his son.) In canon, Monks does all that is within his power to erase Oliver’s existence/identity in an episode of enmity for the child and allegiance to his dying mother to gain his inheritance. He eventually dies from an epileptic fit in jail after being incarcerated for reverting to vices. In Bleasdale’s pre-canonical depiction, Edward is a sickly, reluctant boy who is bullied into the vindictive Mrs. Leeford’s schemes, which include murdering Edwin and attempting the murder of the young pregnant Agnes Fleming. Under Mr. Brownlow’s, the lawyer’s, insistence in the miniseries’ third installment, Edward breaks down, along with having a seizure, in front of an audience that includes Oliver Twist and confesses what Mrs. Leeford, his mother, did and how his father’s apathy for Edward hurt Edward the most. Bleasdale’s ending for Monks, in its kindness, grants Edward peace in the New World with a family of his own making. I curiously began to think that perhaps Monks indeed had a conscience. I began to think that perhaps he is not an evil man, or at least not the incarnation of a very nefarious historical figure. Through Dickens’ words, I am introduced to Monks, the dark, unrepentant creature who makes deals with criminals. I only learn of his life story and identity near the novel’s conclusion. In contrast, I encounter Edward as Edward, a human—one scorned by his father on the basis of a medical condition—in the series’ first installment. I meet Edward first and see him as Edward even as he is addressed as Monks by Fagin and his associates in London.

Bleasdale’s screenplay, to my delight, allows me to entertain the significance of the family bond. From just one line in the miniseries’ script, I envision the family bond as a symbol for salvation—a symbol of hope. Edward, for the first time in his life, is not shunned by a member of his birth family or belittled on account of his affliction. Even after exposure to Edward’s fit and the man’s confession of ill will, Oliver clasps Edward’s hands in his pair and remarks guilelessly, “I’m sorry, sir. I wish none of this had ever happened.” Now Bleasdale does not explore the fraternal relationship between Oliver and Edward, two orphans, as it is only merely featured (perhaps this might inspire some fanfiction?), but fanon arranges the following premise that does not exist or is not hinted at in canon: the compassionate acknowledgement of the humanity in a person—Edward—whose health condition influences society to hastily label him/her as unacceptable or, from Dickens’ text, a “villain.”

Fanon is a balcony where the readers or viewers can catch a glimpse of some sort of goodness—of something possibly humane—in any character; it gives us hope that no one can truly be evil at heart or that evil is not natal. The, however meager, missing scenes witnessed from this balcony are proof enough of a character’s remorse, heartbreak, and commiseration. Bleasdale’s chase scene of Bill Sikes sets up an unlikely exchange between Fagin and Bill Sikes; this exchange distinctly reveals how much Sikes loved Nancy, his murder victim and accomplice in some of his undertakings. In fact, Oliver Twist in all its forms is represented, enacted, sung, and/or choreographed in which people, both men and women (males and females), of all classes, stations, and ages do bad and good deeds. There are female characters who do bad and good deeds; there are male characters who do bad and good deeds. All men are not inherently “bad,” or wicked. All women are not inherently “bad,” or wicked. Performing one bad deed does not stop one from being human. Doling out one wrong deed does not strictly identify anyone as diabolically evil (perhaps with the tentative exception of Bill Sikes or Bleasdale’s Mrs. Leeford). This is what makes Dickens’ world, his story, timeless. The Nancys still die after refusing aid from the Mr. Brownlows and Rose Maylies. The Bill Sikeses still are murderers. But at least the Oliver Twists still remain kind-hearted and optimistic when careening into misfortunes and misadventures. In canon and fanon, I suppose that this is all I can ask for. No, it is all I can hope for.

[META] On Very Special Episodes and “Holiday Favorites”

Netflix has made me very happy over the past few years. They’ve offered me access to an amazing range of documentaries that I never would have had the energy to locate on my own, created the opportunity to watch about fifteen minutes of some very bad movies that I vaguely remember watching an overlapping ten minutes of on USA when I was a kid, and of course, they’ve given me something to during any otherwise-dead 22 minute block in my day. They’ve also made me more confident in sharing my fannish behavior with new friends. “What do you do in your spare time?” “Well, last night for example, I watched eight episodes of Glee.” Sure, some people still raise their eyebrows at such a response, but more often than not, they say, “You’re kidding! I watched eight episodes of The Vampire Diaries! How awesome are our lives?” Pretty awesome. Sure, marathoning the occasional show does not a fan-identified fan make, but it’s a step along the way to a broader understanding of the emotional intensities of investment in long-arc serial narratives. I also genuinely think that it helps people to understand just how high-quality many programs are: when you marathon a show, ideally, you get away from “that episode was pointless,” and move closer to “my curiosity about that development was satisfied a mere hour after it was ignited!”

This makes me happy. I’m not sure, however, what to make about a more recent Netflix development, namely, the “Holiday Favorites” section. Now, don’t get me wrong, for a long time, our viewing practices have been partially guided by the idea of “holiday favorites.” There’s 24 hours of A Christmas Story, family traditions, newspaper and magazine top 10 lists, etc. It only makes sense to extend this to individual episodes of television series. Special episodes are made to be re-watched as part of the season. However, I paused over a few of the choices on Netflix. For example, the My So-Called Life episode, “So-Called Angels” was recommended in the “holiday favorites” category. For the record, I love this episode, and think it is brilliant. However, I would hate for someone to watch it as a “holiday favorite,” because I think that the removal of context in this case would lead to an inevitable misunderstanding of the episode, and thus, the larger series narrative of which it is a part. One could say the same for this year’s controversial Christmas episode of Glee, which I have not yet watched, but which sounds like it should never, ever be consumed outside the larger, high-context series narrative of Glee.

Perhaps I sound tyrannical. Just two paragraphs up, I was praising the way in which Netflex is re-creating the surprising television moments of my childhood, like giving a chance to a movie with an incomprehensible premise, or trying out a documentary about an unfamiliar issue. But it’s different with television. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by my many marathons with 90s and 21st-Century shows, but I feel that “So-Called Angels” would give new viewers the wrong impression of My So-Called Life, because it’s a heavily serialized drama, whereas 30 Rock‘s “Christmas Special,” which was playing on my flight on Wednesday, works just fine in isolation. Sure, it’s more enjoyable for the knowing viewer, because I have context for the character interactions, but there’s no risk of seriously missing the point with “Christmas Special.” There is much less at stake. The episode represents Liz Lemon’s misguided affective politics in a way that is consistent with their representation throughout the series, and one can either take or leave this easily-recognizable ambivalence. “So-Called Angels,” by contrast, represents several characters’ growth, and because savvy audiences take pleasure in their inability to be caught by sentimental traps, this growth is much harder to sell.

Whether or not My So-Called Life sells it is up for debate, but I would hate for the terms of the debate to be set by isolated experiences of “So-Called Angels.” My So-Called Life is an important show in the recent history of dramatic representations of queer life, and it would be a shame for an interested viewer to try to enter this history by way of this episode, which allows in an ungenerous interpretation for a purely sentimental reading. With all the criticism that the recent Glee episode has received (much of it by broadly-invested fans), I worry that, where My So-Called Life could offer an interesting counterpoint from the history of queer-friendly television, it is unlikely to do so under Netflix’s rubric.

There are other downsides to the Netflix rubric, of course, not least that it so quickly made itself indispensable in my daily life — -there is surely something sinister in anything that appears so helpful and desire-I-didn’t-even-know-I-had-fulfilling. But maybe the point is that here, like in so many other arenas, fandom has a slightly better option. Instead of “Holiday Favorites,” why not Yuletide? Like Netflix, Yuletide has a history of inviting new viewers into a new view of under-represented source material, but this time, it comes with a context. Not just the simple context of “I like to watch a lot of TV,” but the complex context of fandom, of fic-writing, and of desire-sharing. I love to read “Dear Yuletide Writer” entries on new friends’ journals, because they give me so much insight into what others most long to see in the shared source material that captures our imaginations. I love to see fans’ frustrations with television shows manifesting as desire surpassing resentment, although obviously the resentment is often earned and deserves to be registered. I love to see the incompleteness of imperfect stories taken on as a gift-giving challenge. “A Very Special Fic” can do a lot of things that an equally special episode cannot, not least because it’s addressed to someone who’s intimately familiar with where the new installment fits into, or challenges the narrative as it stands. Sure, there are lurkers on Yuletide fics outside of their own fandoms (I am one of them!) but there is more of an established ethics to lurking in this context than to lurking on Netflix. So, that’s where I’ll be looking to discover new holiday favorites. I look forward to it.

[META] Fandom as Industrial Practice? Christian on The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else

Once again, Aymar Jean Christian has written something thought-provoking that I feel an immediate need to write about myself. I know I shouldn’t be surprised that this emerging leader in Web Series Studies keeps publishing brilliant and timely thoughts on the medium’s rapid and fruitful expansion into every possible corner of contemporary culture, but his latest article in TWC is seriously excellent reading. In “Fandom as industrial response: Producing identity in an independent Web series,” Christian argues that the Web series, The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else, is worthy of attention within fan studies specifically, as well as media studies more broadly, both because it is in itself a storyworld born of fannish engagement, on the part of the producers, with the Sex and the City franchise, as well as because of its success at re-imagining the relationship between the labor of cultural production and identity in a new media economy.

Full disclosure: I had not watched an episode of The Real Girl’s Guide to Everything Else before I read Christian’s article. There are so many great Web series right now, and there is so much mainstream media content I’m following, that it’s difficult to keep up. That said, once I read Christian’s article, I realized that there was really no excuse for me to have missed this one. After all, like the producers of Real Girl’s Guide, I was once a serious fan of Sex and the City, primarily because of its extended focus on my very favorite theme: women’s friendships. Sadly, as Christian outlines as he situates Real Girl’s Guide as a frustrated (even anti-fannish) response to the direction Sex and the City took with the feature film sequels to the television show, I, along with many others, look back with embarrassment at the series’ missed opportunities to deepen the celebration of women’s friendships by taking seriously the ways in which the category of “woman” intersects with other social categories, including race and sexual identity.

Having watched the first few episodes now, I can personally highly recommend Real Girl’s Guide. Go watch the first episode right now. From the very first episode, I find myself agreeing with Christian’s claim that this seems like an example of fannish critical practices transformed completely into cultural production on the same playing field as SATC. But I also retain my automatic nervous response to any scholarly attempt to locate a telos for fandom, especially one that isn’t my telos, or that of most fans I know. Christian makes clear that many Web series producers “create shows both for commercial reasons (though few make money or get sponsors) and, more importantly, to correct mainstream representations and of the industry in general.” (1.4) Already, these are goals not shared by many fans, particularly when it comes to money-making. So, while I agree with Christian’s insistence that we find modes of understanding that are “rich and appropriate for their objects of study,” and which thus must change as the cultural landscape changes, I want to step back from his implicit desire to get beyond fannish activity “produce[d] solely for affective communities.” (5.5, emphasis mine)

After all, I am a member of several intersecting “solely affective” fan communities, including fan communities whose primary text is a Web series. I agree that fan studies and media studies more broadly should take note of the changing industrial landscape, but I’m not sure about the extent to which fans themselves need to be asked to do this. Some will be interested, but others will focus entirely on the stories, the characters, the dialogue, or even an individual actor. And to relegate this engagement to the sphere of the “solely affective” provides fodder for those who devalue fan practice in its own sphere, as a half-formed mode of engagement with contemporary culture.

My ideal is for the industrial landscape to change in such a way that enables the greatest possible range of people to work as full-time cultural producers, telling the stories that audiences, who I like to understand as potential fans, could truly grow to love, and in which they could recognize the world they live in. One side of that coin is industrial change. But the other side, one which cannot be abandoned, insists on valuing the full range of reading practices that enable fans to maximize their engagement with, enjoyment of, and even pleasurable frustration with, their chosen sourcetexts. Those who do not wish to become professional cultural producers ought not to have to see their mode of critique as lesser or contingent on another step in order to be complete. In other words, while I am excited by Christian’s provocative exploration of new intersections of the industrial and the fannish, I am more excited still to become a fan in my chosen way of the fictional storyworld that is Real Girl’s Guide, and so, I’ll take Christian’s article as a recommendation in that spirit.

[META] The Art of Fannish Conversation

Before I committed myself fully to transformational media fandom, tattooed “I heart vampires” across my forehead, and started trying to explain the appeal of slash to men in suits at dinner parties, I was into “CLACK” fandom. For those not in the know, CLACK stands for “Contemporary Literature And Criticism, Kay?” Basically, I mean I was an English major with an internet connection, as well as enough spare time to hang out in the Current Periodicals section of the library, and see what all my potential friends in thought around the world might be up to. I knew they were out there, because they kept appearing to me in sentences I read for school, although they just as often disappeared in the following section of their article. In that moment, though, I’d get a glimpse of the Perfect Conversation, and I’d know that others must be looking to have it, too, realizing the clear superiority of the ephemeral perfect sentence to the knots and tangles of the rest of the argument. Later, I’d discover that the perfect conversation is actually to be had across multiple platforms with committed fans of the Perfect Media Franchise, namely, Buffy. But I’m grateful to have experienced CLACK fandom, as I think it prepared me well for media fandom proper.

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, it is an article in CLACK Central, which best articulates the experience I’m talking about. CLACK Central is the magazine n+1, which confirmed for me that others were actively pursuing the Perfect Conversation, the one that would make up for their years of not having had it, and being forced to talk about the wrong details of their days. In n+1, there were book reviews that didn’t shy away from citing insignificant moments from other books. There were articles about what, specifically, is oppressive about the fact that other people go to the gym. There were judgments and love-fests and polemics. It felt like home. The writing was so good that it freed up mental space for me to think about other things. It sounds like I’m being hyperbolic, but the experience is real, of feeling like a good writer is answering a question you’ve had for ages, and freeing you from the fear that it wasn’t even an important question to begin with.

But this peaceful feeling, it turns out, was not the sum of what I’d wanted when I went looking for friends in the library. I’d wanted the Perfect Conversation, and, now that I knew that it was possible, it was time to find the perfect interlocutors. To experience Chathexis. And I was a reader, alone with a book, sometimes giving someone a speech about what I’d read, but not properly entering into conversation based on a shared reading. I was still in the position of closing the magazine and then trying, as fast as possible, to convey the good parts of it to someone else, not realizing that the good parts are not actually the individual quotations, but rather the parts where the writing works for you. According to the n+1 editors in “Chathexis,” I was missing a key component of the Perfect Conversation: “Where have we had our best conversations? When we were sharing a booth with someone in the back of a dark bar, or lying in bed, or walking somewhere, or nowhere at all, our faces turned in the same direction: outward, toward the world, into which we moved forward together. We arrive at a shared perspective when we do, actually, share a perspective—when we take, quite literally, the same view of things.” Thrusting a witty summation of everything one has ever though at an uninitiated reader, it turns out, is not the way to establish this kind of shared perspective. It’s funny, actually, that the above quotation is excerpted from the editors’ case against video chat, which, while internally consistent with the CLACK mantra that the written word is uniquely capable of conveying truth, is something that media fandom has convinced me is inherently reductive. Their argument is that, in video chat, as compared to text chat, we over-focus on one another’s facial features and not one another’s ideas, from which we could look out into the wider world together.

This dichotomy between video and word reveals the disconnect that led me to media fandom. While “Chathexis” impeccably describes and contextualizes my pre-Buffy experience of digital life, it rings false in its ignorance of fandom, not just of the emotional resonance of gifs and the significance of the perfect graphic, but also the kinds of fannish friendships that are made possible by television shows. The perfect conversation, for me, it turned out, requires images, some moving, appropriated from what, to me, is much more than a sleep-encouraging good choice on Hulu. I don’t know where this need came from — was there always something suspicious about the “and critcism” part of CLACK? Have I fallen prey to television’s seductive bright lights, at the expense of the purity of the word? I’m pretty sure that’s not it, although it does speak to a certain fear I have, that my insistence that television (with its happy complement, fandom) is nearly perfect falls into some unfortuante traps, of which I should try harder to make myself aware.

I do feel, though, that it’s a good intellectual exercise to connect the experiences described at the upper end of the CLACK hierarchy, and had within my various, intersecting fandom homes. There’s pleasure to be had in finding the thread that connects the two. What I want, sometimes, is to argue that television + fandom is the rightful heir to CLACK. But what is more important is the lively conversation between the two spheres, in which the level of immersion in image-inclusive conversation technologies remains up to the individual user. After all, the core concerns of criticism and fandom, I think, unite in the n+1 editors’ suggestion that “In Gchat, as in life, we are happiest when paying attention—when we belong completely to a conversation that continues. Might this be a model of commitment: truly felt on both sides, mutually desired, without exclusivity?” I’m reminded of Andrea’s excellent post about “disrupting the intimate society.” If this, indeed, is what we are after, then obviously neither minimalist gchat, nor fannish gifspam is the end in itself anyway, and so both must be valued for the readers for whom they work, as well as the conversations for which they work. After all, one can, and almost always does, have accounts on multiple platforms.

[META] Twilight Antifandom: A Case Study

Jacqueline Marie Pinkowitz contributed an amazing article to the Praxis issue of the latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures, and it took on a subject close to my heart. In “‘The rabid fans that take [Twilight] much too seriously’: The construction and rejection of excess in Twilight antifandom,” Pinkowitz does important work identifying some of the most common ways in which fannish excess is policed by anti-fans. The author focuses entirely on a single prominent organization of Twilight anti-fandom, namely, the Anti-Twilight Movement(ATM), and argues persuasively that, marginal though such a group may seem, the work they are doing serves to “perpetuat[e] accepted cultural notions about the superiority of the reasoned, the academic, and the elite, as well as of the inferiority of the popular, the emotional, and the feminine,” in ways that merit examination by fans who situate their investments in the latter three terms, whether or not they see these realized most centrally in the Twilight franchise. For those who would ally themselves with the antifans, Pinkowitz notes that the movement works according to this logic”in hopes of rendering its own antifandom safe from similar cultural censures.” This argument is important because it reminds us that the intellectual work of antifandom is serious and entitled to cultural space, but due to its own merits, not as a corrective to affirmational or transformational modes of fannish engagement with the same texts.

Being a Buffy fan first and foremost, I am familiar with the vampire fandom hierarchy, and being an English major, I am familiar with the use of literary criticism as a weapon in culture wars, even on the micro-scale of late night comment threads. For these reasons, and because I remember the days of Angelfire and Geocities, I felt happily at home in Pinkowitz’s descriptions of the ATM. In fact, I’d say that one of the things I enjoyed most about the article was the way in which it modeled a close reading practice for websites, which can be difficult to do. So often, when I read academic articles about the internet, I find myself longing for this kind of sustained attention to the authorial voice constructed by the site, rather than assumptions based on mission statements written in the language of advertising. Only then can we grasp that there are people with particular agendas creating these movements, rather than, as seems to be the default interpretation on some political blogs, simply opinions to be agreed or disagreed with.

What fandom and antifandom share is investment, the belief that a franchise like Twilight matters in some way, whether because its narrative, characters, and celebrity para-culture interest and move us emotionally, or because it enforces a morally questionable agenda and replaces more edifying reading and viewing, and therefore needs to be “marked” to the unaware. Pinkowitz does an admirable job tracking the similarities of these two kinds of investment, and also the way in which the ATM specifically tries to present their view as the rational middle ground, between “rabid antifans” and “rabid fangirls,” but still end up affirming arbitrary limits to reasonable engagement with fictional storyworlds, which ultimately punishes those who are identified with the feminine and the popular.

My own story of Twilight fandom is just beginning. I once was a hater, although not one who left a digital trace of my private and groundless negative opinion. Now I love the movies, although I still haven’t read the books. It’s funny how easy it was for me, in the end, to enjoy something, and to let go of second-hand judgment. However, if that was one’s model for everything, one would never find gems that become favorites that become years-long obsessions and whole social worlds, in fandom. And so, I’m glad that there are fans and antifans giving us all kinds of thought-provoking hoops to jump through before (and after, and while!) we get absorbed in something new.

[META] They Should Film That Story and Show It Every Christmas: Faith at the Fic Carnival

Amanda Hodges and Laurel Richmond published an article in the latest issue of Transformative Works and Cultures that will delight and intrigue fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, especially fans of bad girl Faith Lehane. Much of what the authors say about fanfiction generally is familiar terrain for the readers of this publication, but it leads nicely into a case study of Faith fic specifically. Their most persuasive argument is that fannish responses to a character like Faith reveal much about the value of fandom as a space to explore female sexuality.

They explore a number of common tropes in Faith fic, including the fleshing out of her canonical redemption arc from bad girl to caregiver, speculation on the details of childhood with her canonically neglectful and alcoholic mother, and interpretations of her hypersexuality, including suggestions that it is a cover for, or enactment of, her closeted lesbianism or bisexuality respectively. At play here is the idea of carnival as a metaphor for fandom, the idea of a space apart from the workaday world in which the rules of the dominant culture, which are in this case present mostly to delimit expressions of female sexuality in the name of stable gender identities, are made visible via performance-based aesthetic practices. In other words, both “bad girl” and “caregiver” are roles, signified by dress, speech, and mannerism as much as by action. In canon, we rarely get access to Faith’s interior life, and so there is much left open to interpretation about how Faith ended up acting successfully in those roles at different points in the narrative, and fic serves not only to fill in those gaps, but also to advance interpretations that restore a degree of intentionality and self-awareness to Faith’s various performances of femininity.

Of course, the authors are careful not to romanticize fanworks as “rescuing” the male-authored canon narrative of Faith in the name of sex-positive fan feminism. Instead, they are careful to enumerate some of the key ways in which Faith is subversive in canon, and the ways in which some fanon explanations of her behavior in fact dull that subversive energy by restoring normative gender expectations in their own narratives.

The bibliography of relevant fanworks and academic articles here is a pleasure to see, and offers a great resource to anyone interested in Faith fic, the current state of Buffy fandom (alive and well!), or academic approaches to gender play. Go check it out!

[META] Outsiders in Hisland

Guest post by Patrice Persad:

Fraternal fellowship, especially when it is displayed, among the Curtis brothers in S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders is why the novel is one of my favorites. Of course, in Outsiders fanfiction, many stories feature the fraternal bond—if not among the Curtis brothers then among the greaser gang. Consequently, there are the other pieces—the “sister fics” (where one of the boys who are only children suddenly have a sister or where the Curtis brothers become the Curtis siblings) and fanfiction in which lesser known female characters in canon are magnified and become the protagonists; one could compare the latter fics to Stoppard’s Rosencranz and Guilderstein Are Dead. Fanfiction is where a writer can construct tunnels from and build secret passageways in the creator’s infrastructure; it is where canon’s reality is reengineered in the fanfiction writer’s words. However, with Outsiders fanfiction that trains specifically on female characters, the presence of fraternal fellowship, like in canon, still eclipses the kinship among females and the overall female influence.

I have come to conclude that in canon female characters are:
1) dead (Mrs. Curtis).

2) serve mostly as potential partners in a non-platonic relationship (Sandy, Cherry Valance, and Angela Shepard).

3) supposedly so minor to the plot that they are mentioned in passing (Keith ‘Two-Bit” Mathews’ mother and sister).

Females in the novel are the true outsiders. I understand that the novel is set during the 1960s when females did not have as many opportunities now. (But, then, was not the 1960s the time of the second wave of feminism?) We hardly see the sisterly bond among female greasers and socs because the book is clearly not focused or does not intend to focus on them; it chronicles certain events from Ponyboy’s life. (After all, at his age, the reader learns than he is not into girls.) The most important sustenance he is given is that from fraternal fellowships among his blood brothers and adoptive brethren—particularly in the loss of a maternal figure, Mrs. Curtis, and a paternal figure, Mr. Curtis.

In fanon, even though original female characters (OFCs), which are female characters fabricated by the fanfiction writer, or even though those female figures in the canonical background are placed in the foreground, they still come off as outsiders. Fanon, even if the sister fics can be labeled as alternate universe (AU) pieces, reflects canon in this aspect.

Several scenarios in fanon follow:

1) the sister or twin sister (who may be named Nutmeg, Orange Blossom, or Licorice as in the tradition of the younger Curtis’ unique names) is a non-platonic interest for a canon character.

2) as a narrator, the female sibling/friend/acquaintance merely accompanies the boys on adventures instead of being a dynamic actor (i.e, a tag along).

3) the female is used as leverage against a gang member.

I suppose Cherry Valence is the only saving grace for females in canon. However, in fanon, she reverts to being a romantic interest for one of the boys (Ponyboy or the resurrected Dallas Winston). It is as if these characters are in the spotlight, but they are stagnant—frozen in function or purpose to just act for themselves.

I cannot help but describe the female’s role in both fanon and canon by referring to Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting Night Watch. There is a canon Outsiders character who Ponyboy briefly thinks about: a girl who he thought looked good in yellow. Now, in the painting, there is a girl who is illuminated in bright light. She looks straight at the viewer, and she is dressed in garments—an ornate dress—of a light hue, which could possibly be yellow. Even though she is highlighted by a light source, the viewer—well, I—cannot help but shift his—my—eyes to the surrounding sixteen male officers of the militia group—particularly on the captain and lieutenant who are in the foreground. Most of the officers are in the shadows or dark, but the viewer finds his attention drawn to them.

I apologize for throwing in a bit of seventeenth century art with my musings, but I do have a point. In Night Watch, there is only one female figure. In fanon, an OFC or canon female is disconnected from other females. She is surrounded by mostly male characters in which the fraternal bond is featured, so there is hardly any development for the female bonding, sorority, along with little emphasis on non-platonic relationships with the other male greasers.

I hope that I do not sound like I am belting out Aretha Franklin and Annie Lennox’s Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves, but, if Outsiders female characters in fanon and canon are certainly doing something for themselves, they are not fully acknowledged in the male-dominated world of The Outsiders. And, if these females are not, then how can the fanfiction reader come to care about them as much as he does for the Curtis brothers and the rest of the gang?

[META] Attracting Contributors to the TWC: Part Four

Guest Post, the fourth in a four-part series, by KC Lynch:

Part 4: Social Networking the TWC

Earlier this year, UW’s Anthropology Librarian received three faculty requests for a magazine called Anthropology NOW within a two-week time period. In academia, that’s like Surprised Kitty popularity.

I asked Anthropology Now’s managing editor what her strategy was. Did she advertise at a local Anthropology conference? Sponsor a symposium? No, she said, it was social marketing, pure and simple.

Social marketing includes mainstays like Facebook, LinkedIn, and for academia, Academia.edu. But it’s not enough to just log on or create a page. That’s what professional business strategist Phil Simon refers to as the “set it and forget it” mistake. To be truly successful, you have to cultivate an online presence through frequent posting, provide applications that reflect changing technologies, and most importantly, find your audience.

Finding your audience isn’t about making a website and asking them to come to you. You have to find out where they are and go to them.

Andrew Gossen, now Director of Social Media Strategy at Cornell, focused on exactly that when he launched a multimedia effort to reach Princeton Alumni in 2007. He found that while Princeton Alums were routinely bypassing traditional web content, they were gathering in extraordinary numbers to play an online game open to current and former students, as well as faculty. And they were engaged in deep, authentic, intelligent conversation.

The key, as Gossen sees it, is to participate in conversations without trying to control the message. This may be a revolutionary concept for nonprofits, but for social media users it goes without saying. In a 2010 interview with EZRA, Gossen explained:

“Many institutions think of social media as simply another channel for distributing the same content that is disseminated through more traditional means, but that misses the unique nature of the evolving social Web space. Social media gives us the chance to communicate with alumni with a frequency and level of informality that makes it possible for Cornell to be a daily presence in their lives.”

Is it the same for the readership of a scholarly journal? Maybe. The process of working with social media in academia is experimental and incremental, says Gossen.

We know that academics participate in social media, well, socially—but thanks to a recent report from the College of London’s Centre for Information Behavior and the Evaluation of Research (hilariously acronymed CIBER), we now know that academics also use social media for research: 84% in social sciences, and 79.2% in the arts and humanities.

For TWC, we know the readership, including possible contributors, visits three types of online communities regularly: those where transformative works are made, those which produce useable research, and their own social networks. These may include anything from Livejournals and Tumbler to Blogs on the Paley Center for Media website.

To engage these communities, first you have to have available staff, familiar with the interests and needs of the readership, to tend the growth of new social networks. Then you develop a strategy for engaging your audience on their own terms, in ways that keep them coming back for more.

Websites like TED, Historypin, and OpenIDEO have all been successful at attracting dedicated users and giving new ways to communicate and collaborate beyond Facebook and Twitter.

Most social networks grow organically, and they die organically too, but there’s always a new crop for a new season. If we can grow the social network, we’ll grow TWC’s readership, making it more appealing to contributors.

This is how it starts: I’m an acafan and an avid fanfic reader. A few years ago I started reading a particular author, and the work was so good that I bookmarked her Livejournal. I check for updates all the time, thrilled when she posts stories in a new fandom—like a whole new world has opened up. Then she started posting about Archive of Our Own, which led me to TWC, and now I’m hooked.

Why? Because I go where the work is. And anything that strikes the fancy of the authors and artists I follow is worth a look. Hey, it got me to watch the Fast and Furious movies, and subsequently, all of the transformative works they spawned.

[META] Attracting Contributors to the TWC: Part Three

Guest Post, the third in a four-part series, by KC Lynch:

Part 3: Utilizing the Power of Librarians

Let’s say librarians rule the world…since it’s not far from the truth. While some decisions are out of their hands, like which databases to subscribe to (these decisions are made at University or even Consortia level), librarians are responsible for the collection development in their specialty. They respond to requests from faculty for specific periodicals, but they also suggest new materials, and provide guidance for students and curriculum developers.

When a student comes looking for a specific journal, the librarian will first determine if it’s part of the institution’s catalog. Most journals in university collections are available through immense, searchable database packages like EBSCO or JSTOR. To be listed in such a database, journals are reviewed on characteristics like readership, relevance, citation data, etc. (The MLA has a similar review process for its list of vetted periodicals.) Different databases have different criteria: TWC is listed by EBSCO, but not by Jstor.

Since TWC is accessible for free, there is another way the title can be found. When I sat down to discuss the finer points of collection development with a librarian at the University of Washington (UW), she created a catalog entry for TWC in 30 seconds. Now, when librarians all over campus use programs like Serials Solutions to comb through UW’s collection, TWC will be listed, regardless of its presence (or lack thereof) in the larger database packages.

Better than that, Specialty Librarians can help a journal gain visibility within its field. Each department has its own librarian, who runs a web page that acts as a vital digital resource for students and faculty. This type of resource, according to Ithaka’s 2009 Faculty Survey, has a greater impact than general-purpose search engines as the starting point for research.

We already know that librarians are big fans of online journals. In Ithaka’s Library Survey 2010, 267 library administrators from colleges and universities across the U.S. were asked what they would do with an unexpected 10% budget increase. A 55% majority said they would spend it on online and digital journals, even over discovery tools and staff/facility expansions.

Library administrators also support open-access platforms: 84% believe they should take an active role in educating faculty about OA, and 71% believe that OA journals that are linked from their website are part of their research collection.

Moreover, 68% said it was important that library staffs work with faculty to incorporate digital information resources into their curricula.

It’s their role as teaching facilitator that makes the librarian a scholarly journal’s greatest ally. Ithaka’s 2010 Library Survey reports that 97% of respondents believe the highest priority for library staff resources is supporting faculty instruction and student learning, and that it will become increasingly important over the next five years. 84% agreed with the statement: “it is strategically important that my library be seen by its users as the first place they go to discover content,” not because the library is a repository, but because librarians know how to find what you’re looking for.

Ithaka quotes the “Value of academic Libraries” report by Megan Oakleaf: “In the past, academic libraries functioned primarily as information repositories; now they are becoming learning enterprises. This shift requires academic librarians to embed library services and resources in the teaching and learning activities of their institutions. In the new paradigm, librarians focus on information skills, not information access; they think like educators, not service providers.”

All of this boils down to one thing: librarians consider themselves integral to the teaching experience, whether faculty do or not. Which means not only are librarians filling the needs of their department, they’re actively engaging in curricula building. They’re making smart choices for the future of their department.

So how do we get them to choose TWC? The short answer is to engage them through their departmental web pages and that old staple of librarian communication: the listserv.

There are other ways, of course—outlets that Librarians, Administrators, Faculty and Academics-at-large have in common. Coming up in the next part: Social Networking.