On Autoethnography and Acafandom


No blogging for me for the past couple of months, as I’ve been teaching my freshman core course on Fandom and Participatory Culture at Occidental College, and generally getting settled in my new corner of #alt-ac in the Center for Digital Learning + Research.  I’ve returned with some interesting tales from that class’ first assignment, and to shamelessly promote my contribution to the Acafandom and Beyond series that’s currently running on Henry Jenkins’ blog (our conversation is continued here).  In a nice moment of blogging synchronicity, both have encouraged me to think about transparency when it comes to how we (and our students) mobilize our fan identities in our scholarly work.

For the first assignment in my class, I asked my students to record a short, auteoethnographic audio file documenting their first fandom, and how that “fandom” was embodied and performed.  I required them to manipulate their audio file in Audacity, in part to maintain their anonymity on our course blog and encourage them to speak candidly, but also to have them consider if a fannish identity is still something to hide, or be ashamed of, in our contemporary participatory culture.  My students’ autoethnographies are archived here, and I’d strongly encourage you to go check a few of them out.  I think they’re really fascinating, both in terms of form and content (e.g. a student sounding like Andre the Giant while discussing a love of The Spice Girls).  The second part of the assignment was a written reflection on their audio file, through an address of the continued relevance (or not) of Joli Jensen’s 1992 essay “Fandom as Pathology: The Consequences of Characterization.”

I created this assignment with a number of goals in mind:

  • To get a better sense of if/how my students self-identify as fans
  • To see how they negotiated, contextualized, and performed those identities
  • To get the class thinking about the culturally and socially constructed lines between “normal” and “excessive” fandom, how they’re maintained or dismantled, and the (often gendered) power dynamics that underpin those distinctions

The written responses were incredibly revealing about evolving understandings of (un)acceptable fan identities.  Many grounded their fan identity in their families, framing media texts as something they coalesced around with parents or siblings to deepen (or in some cases, establish) those relationships.  Some noted that they played down their fannish affect for a particular property in their authoethnography.  Conversely, others exaggerated their fan identity.  In both cases, the knowledge that their peers would be consuming their autoethnography impacted its content.  As a lifelong tomboy who spent her first few weeks at NYU channelling Cordelia on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (hey, it was 1997…I sort of considered it identity cosplay), I completely understand the flexible moment that the first few weeks of college represent, and concerns about codifying one’s identity when people are scrambling to make new friends and suss each other out.  What I had hoped would be a confessional assignment in many cases became an implicit commentary on how we perform our taste for others, and how we deploy our fan identities as a way of sculpting and reinforcing our identities more broadly.

Reading Will Brooker’s provocation in our Acafandom conversation, I couldn’t help but think about my students, and their responses to the autoethnography assignment, specifically what prompts us “shut up.”  I am a huge fan of Will and his work, but as I noted in my response I was put off by some of his remarks, in particular what I felt was an (implicitly gendered) dismissal of the “baby talk and sleepover squealing” quality of some fannish jargon that makes frequently its way into our work (squee, squick, et. al.).

In retrospect, my kneejerk response says a great deal about both my fannish and scholarly identities.  The response itself (which admittedly struck a much larger nerve surrounding the trend towards heralding fanboyish pursuits while devaluing fangirls or, worse yet, remarginalizing them within fan studies as we shift our focus to industrially sanctioned fan practices) was a defensive reflex, but it’s always felt a little performative to me.  As I noted in my response to Will, writing a chapter of my dissertation on Twilight anti-fandom forced me to confront my own biases about certain segments of fan culture that I don’t approve of as viable representatives.  I get Will’s point.  I don’t like being lumped in with the “squealers,” and I distance myself from them even as I defend them.  This is equally rooted in my fan identity (which has always occupied something of a conflicted position between the “fanboy” and “fangirl” camps, as they’re broadly defined), and my scholarly identity (which remains preoccupied with retaining the feminist underpinnings of the first wave of fan studies, and championing female consumers and scholars, even as we engage with fans’ new positions of power within convergence culture).

Not unlike my students, I’m still establishing my professional identity, and perhaps that has led to a heightened awareness of how I frame and present that identity.  My choice to focus on the job market in my provocation about acafandom was, in part, a response to the fact that many of the scholars who have called for the discontinuation of the term (or those, like Will, who make the personal and completely understandable decision to “shut up” about it) tend to be more established scholars.  Louisa Stein eloquently captured most of my feelings on the significance of the term “aca-fan” on her blog, but within my current work at Occidental’s Center for Digital Learning + Research, I see new evidence every single day that this isn’t just a debate within a small corner of media studies over the continued relevance of a term, but one facet of a much broader debate about the growing hybridity and interdisciplinarity that academia now demands.

I’d be curious to hear from others teaching courses on fan studies, media audiences, and/or social media if you’re asking your students to do similar self-reflections.  And, if you broach the topic of acafandom, how do you frame that identity (how it shapes your approach to pedagogy, or your own scholarship, or in terms of framing the articles they read in class)?

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  1. […] of discussions at Henry Jenkins’ blog last summer bore out. (bonus: here’s my colleague Suzanne Scott on her own misgivings about the term and fannish identities) I’m uncomfortable with the term “acafan” primarily because it leaves out many […]

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