This summer I attended Anime Midwest with my younger child, Grey, who was on an in-character fan panel for Homestuck, a webcomic drawn in MS Paint that follows the adventures of John Egbert and his friends as they navigate a post-apocalyptic world through the multiverse. (I haven’t finished reading the comic yet, so forgive my glancing summary. You can, of course find more thorough information on Wikipedia and on the comic’s fan wiki. Or read the comic! It’s great!) Grey cosplayed Sollux Captor, a troll, on a panel called “CircusStuck,” which is a reference to an extensive fan AU where all the characters in the webcomic are circus performers. Having not read in the Homestuck fandom, that’s about all I know to tell you about it, but it’s probably enough to be going on with for what I want to think about here, which is the places where anime conventions and academic conferences converge and depart from one another.
Anime conventions are like academic conferences in that:
- there are too many things to do and see
- there are opportunities for free food and socializing
- there is a convention floor with lots to browse and buy
- you will see characters you recognize and have read (about) and sometimes get selfies with them
- there’s a mix of workshop-like “how to” panels and critical/interpretive panels
- people are really into the things they are talking about
Anime conventions are different from academic conferences in that:
- there’s live music (We actually went to this convention because Steam Powered Giraffe was performing.)
- people dress in costume
- there seems to be a wider age range in the participants
- they are not “destination” events (This one was in Chicago, and we never left the convention center/hotel. We had a similar experience 8 years ago when we went to San Diego Comic-Con. Both great cities. Didn’t venture out.)
- there is more of a mix in the panel presenters—there are panels run by professionals, panels sponsored by retailers, and panels run by fans (The panel Grey was on was assembled on Instagram by teenagers who wanted to host a conversation.)
And here’s where we get to the (more) interesting part. I have presented at 18 academic conferences, and I have only once had an audience as large as Grey’s (roughly 40 people—I broke the bank at NCTE one year with an audience of 60+, no clue why). The youngest audience member in attendance was probably about 6. She sat next to one of the most vocal, who was probably close to 10, and whispered suggestions in her ear. At 43, I might have been among the oldest in the room, though there were a few other parents of panelists, so perhaps not. Even accounting for parents and siblings, there was a good-sized audience, and they came ready to participate. The teen who organized the panel gave out circus-themed party favors as audience members entered the room, which put me in mind of Jody Shipka distributing rhetorically relevant cookies at C&W:
and Franny Howes handing out PhD survival comics at CCCC. (I still have my copy!)
But then imagine my surprise when the audience brought prizes! Fans in the audience brought apple juice and Betty Crocker-brand snacks (both Homestuck allusions) to entice panelists to respond to their questions. (Grey points out that the panel organizers *also* brought Betty Crocker snacks.)
The loosely-structured panel started with a round of truth-or-dare, continued through quiz-like questions (What Hogwarts house are you?)—which were answered both “in-character” and “as yourself,” often to comic, conflicting effect—and caroused through improvised character interactions and sing-alongs to Homestuck fandom versions of popular songs. There were several moments when an improvised bit or a sing-along could have carried the panel, but the panelists didn’t often seize these opportunities.
During Q&A (although, the whole hour could have been considered variations of Q&A) an audience member asked what the organizers would do differently when they planned their next panel. This turned out to be a touchy subject as some people who had planned to be at the con were unable to come, and while remarking on their absence was an easy explanation for the improvised nature of the panel, some panel members objected to “throwing shade” at people who were not in the room. (They had also wanted to bring a trampoline—an idea that was either nixed by the convention runners or concerned parents.) As a parent (and a sympathetic presenter), I didn’t want the panel to end on a down note. I raised my hand to ask what they felt had worked, what they would be sure to repeat next time. They had, after all, a good-size and highly participatory audience, great costumes, and some strong community moments. Really, they only needed a few more structured activities and planned transitions between them—a bit more advance coordinating, scripting, and rehearsal would have done the trick.
And yet. There was something lovely about the patient and impromptu nature of the whole thing. Framed as an instance of epideictic rhetoric, it accomplished its goal: it surfaced the shared values and knowledge(s) that bound the community together and reinforced those bonds. If there is a takeaway for academic conference presenters (and I don’t suppose there *has* to be, but, you know…) I think it would be to think about the role of character and narrative and play in our academic work, to loosen some of our insistence on argument and control of the (panel presentation) structure. There are plenty of experienced, talented, and amazing rhet/comp and computers & writing scholars working in this vein, but I think it’s a message worth thinking about as a junior scholar. Given my interests, commitments, and growing knowledge of the field, where can I give myself permission to play, and how can I explicitly invite my audience into that environment? And maybe—as a longer project—how could I fashion at least some part of my academic work to be as accessible to my 17-year-old as the anime convention was to me?