Of Anime Conventions and Academic Conferences

Grey as Sollux Captor

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.)

    Grey with Steam Powered Giraffe after the show

  • 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.

Me and Grey on the convention floor

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 its 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?

 

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Citizen Scholar

After a long day of one meeting after another, I managed to make it to my primary voting location and cast my vote. No line, and the lady at the desk said that 500 (out of 2000 registered) in my precinct had cast their bcitizen scholarallots. That’s probably not too bad, considering the work day hadn’t ended for most people. (I was there at 4:00.)

There’s a lot of conversation in the Humanities right now about the need for public scholars, that is, people whose writing and research reach a broader audience than the 8% of the population with graduate degrees.

I’d be into that.

As a person who sits uncomfortably in that 8% (What do I need all these degrees for!?!), I’d like to imagine ways to make the kind of research I do relevant and accessible to the people I research, to the teenagers (about 15 million) and teachers (about 3 million) who spend the majority of their waking hours preparing for or going to public school and school-related activities. I was one of those teenagers and also one of those teachers. I am invested in the project of improving conditions for teaching and learning.

And I guess I’m blogging about it because even though people say to me that my experience and investment count for something in this business, I don’t often feel very much like they do. I’m trying to put my finger on why.

Thoughts?

 

It’ll be a hard day

This week, I got some feedback on my methods chapter – which is still in development since I’m still in the middle of collecting data. It was of the “you’re on the right track, but this will all change, of course” variety, which I’m actually pretty okay with. Funny what you get used to.

Anyway, between illness and spring break, I don’t have much to report on the data front, so I thought I’d talk a little about the qualifying exams in my program.

My program has four steps (in addition to coursework) to qualifying for candidacy:

  1. A foreign language requirement – can be satisfied through testing or coursework. I did both. (French, Latin, Old English)
  2. The First Year Exam (FYE) – This is a 30-50 page paper (typically) on a topic of your choosing that reviews the related literature and proposes an intervention. It is meant to be completed during the summer between the first and second year, and it is supervised by two faculty readers. The point of the FYE (I think) is to build your experience with revising. The problem with the FYE (for me) was narrowing and bounding the project and attending sufficiently to the theories and implications. For a variety of reasons, I was not able to complete the exam during the summer, and I dragged it with me through the next school year. I worked on it during winter and spring break and then finished it after classes ended in April. Looking back on it, the process makes fairly good sense, and my only regret is that I haven’t (yet) done anything with it to make it publishable. Going through it, though, felt like this:
    3. The Second Year Exam (SYE) – This is another 30-50 page paper, completed over the summer between the second and third year and supervised by two faculty readers (usually different from the ones who read the FYE), that is something like an academic autobiography that ends with your research questions. It documents your academic journey. There is a bit of conventional wisdom in “The Program” (as we call it) that people tend to prefer one or the other of these exams. Some people like writing arguments and some people like writing about their experiences. In spite of my long history with reflective writing, I found the SYE tricky.  At its best, my writing is fine-grained, evocative, emotionally charged, and surprising. At its worst, it is convoluted, opaque, and clichéd – I frequently misstep when I reach for closure or try too hard to avoid it. The SYE brought some of the best and worst aspects of my writing together in ways that made me dissatisfied with the project on the whole, but there are some gems there, and maybe I’ll find the courage to go back and rescue them some day. The whole process felt like this:

    4. The Prospectus – This is the proposal for research, which is defended in front of The Committee (4-5 faculty who are with you for the long dark of Moria haul of the dissertation) during the spring semester of the 3rd year. I defended early for logistical reasons, and though my vision for carrying out the project was pretty solid, my theoretical framework was an omnishambles. I revised the lit review and theoretical framework extensively, and, honestly, will probably do so again for the dissertation. <tracking down video clip>

So, that’s the super short version of PhD milestones.

Diss Orienting

I am now a 4th year student in my program, which means I have completed all of my required coursework, proposed my research project and had it approved by a small group of professors (my committee), and am now collecting data that I will use to write my dissertation, which will basically be a book or a collection of articles.

Sounds simple, right?

Honestly, it is pretty simple, but like all simple things, it conceals a tangled network of social and material support systems, logistical acrobatics, and—for me—deeply felt and often painful emotions. I’ve been doing this academic thing long enough now to understand that there is nothing special about what academics do. It is a kind of work—like any other kind of work—that rewards some kinds of behavior and punishes others, that values some kinds of expression and dismisses others. Its impact on the public is minimal, for the most part. This distresses me sometimes. Other times, it is a comfort.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be a downer. I’m in one of those lulls where the work seems overwhelming, and the point of it is not too clear. This attitude comes and goes. I feel better when I’m actually collecting data, so today I’ll talk about that a bit. But first, the elevator pitch for my project:

I study high school students’ use(s) of technology for social and academic purposes, attending to the ways their composing practices in each context converge or compete with one another.

To do that, I observe two high school classrooms, survey all the students in those classrooms about their attitudes and beliefs about technology for social and academic purposes, and interview a smaller number of students in each class to get more in-depth and fine-grained descriptions of (what might be called) their digital literacy practices. It’s actually pretty fun. Students say (and do) funny and interesting and unexpected things. They have fascinating ideas about what is important and interesting (in life and regarding technology). I’m at home in those conversations, though I worry that I’m not asking the right questions or noticing the right things to produce the kinds of data I need to make the kinds of arguments that will be interesting/persuasive to an academic audience. I worry that I’m not really going to be able to say anything that hasn’t already been said.

And I guess that’s where the title of this post comes in. How I orient myself in the classroom as a teacher feels quite different from how I am orienting myself as a researcher. Navigating that new territory is strange, and I worry that I am not giving back to the community in a way that is satisfying (to me). When I think about how I might do that, I feel overwhelmed by the potential time commitment. I am currently a parent of two teenagers who go to two different high schools and a researcher in two (other) different high schools, and a student taking a history class with a heavy reading and writing load, and an employee with the Sweetland Digital Rhetoric Collaborative and with the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, and a mentor to two undergraduates through the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program, and a co-facilitator of a Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop. The time commitments embedded in all these things fluctuate from week to week, and they push hard against the dissertation work, which still feels dreamy and speculative to me.

So, I guess, if part of my project here is to track not just how I feel about the dissertation project (tired), but also how I am developing strategies to do the work—and it’s just work!(remembering that helps)—then right now it looks something like this:

IMG_4419

I like to think globally. It helps me see that there is a light at the end of the project. But I also like to compartmentalize and rank my lists, breaking down the project into (more) manageable pieces. The next trick: managing the time.

 

Critical Compassion

I’ve asked you to collect photos at your placements that convey some aspect(s) of your school that are not easily visible to those who have never been there or that are not easily measured by the usual assessments (either classroom or standardized) and to write about what you present in a way that will help us think about what we see going on in schools and what it means. Though standardized assessments are frequently used as a measure of the worth of a school, they represent a narrow slice of the complexity of what students and teachers do.  I’ve assigned this project because I’d like us to think together about ways to represent more of what it means to be teachers and students embedded in a school community.

Here is my simple example. (I expect you all to outdo me!) I’m creating it in WordPress, which is sufficient to our needs, but you should feel free to use some other format if you like – Prezi, tumblr, glogster, etc.  I would prefer it in digital format, but we could negotiate a paper version if you feel strongly about it.

Do I have to go to school today?

Su Lin and Healim in their national costume for Independence Day celebrations.

Su Lin and Healim in their national costume for Independence Day celebrations.

What became most evident to me in assembling these pictures for this project was that they reflect as much about what I value as an educator (and as a parent of school-age children) as they do about the activities sponsored by the school.

Gavin and his "Big Sister" at an event that matched students from K-8 with big brothers and sisters from grades 9-12.

Gavin and his “Big Sister” at an event that matched students from K-8 with big brothers and sisters from grades 9-12.

I’m most interested in the ways that school supports interactions between people from different backgrounds and promotes ways of valuing different experiences and perspectives while pursuing shared projects. In my mind, this is not only the work of school, but the work of living, and my working definition of love.

A college volunteer reads Padma's stories back to her during free-reading time in class.

A college volunteer reads Padma’s stories back to her during free-reading time in class.

Of course, success in this endeavor is not easy to define, let alone measure. And it’s important (to me, to students, to parents, and to administrators) that we are demonstrating adequate gains in reading and writing. Literacy skills have the potential to improve quality of life not only in monetary ways, but also in emotional and psychological ways. Telling your own story in your own words (and respecting the stories of others) in a diverse society committed to accurate representation  and acknowledgment of its citizens is important. Even if you feel all those pieces are not in place yet.

Healim, Sadvhi and other students taking a knitting break with the knitting club sponsor (that's me!) on a school-sponsored hike.

Healim, Sadvhi and other students taking a knitting break with the knitting club sponsor (that’s me!) on a school-sponsored hike.

Building that kind of tolerance takes a lot of work. It isn’t enough to tell students that they matter or to instruct them to listen to each other. You have to do those things, and you have to model it in your own behavior. You have to spend time on developing the kinds of relationships that show students that they matter. You can invest that time in class and/or out of class, but you can’t short-cut it.

Students read their versions of "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day."

Students read their versions of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”

In my classes, we discuss it in the literature we read as a means of practicing for in-person application, and we practice it in a controlled and heavily structured way in writing workshop and gallery walk activities, where students are given the chance to respond to their peers’ work and to know what it feels like to receive response to their own.

I’m sure that on those “performance” days, there were many

We made it to the top! Students leap for an action shot at the end of our hike.

We made it to the top! Students leap for an action shot at the end of our hike.

students who were not excited to go to school. The dread inherent in exposing your work to criticism is keenly felt in people whose whole lives revolve around their relationships with peers. They need practice to endure, and they need peers and mentors they can trust to even give the practice a chance.  We have to value more than what students can do on a test to build that trust.

Students playing "spoons" at a class night dinner at my house.

Students playing “spoons” at a class night dinner at my house.

There’s a popular poem by Tom Wayman, which often gets pinned to teacher bulletin boards, called “Did I miss anything?” The poem suggests that when students aren’t in school, it’s not just the content of the course that they have lost, but the opportunity to engage with other people in a way that prepares them for the way life works. It’s a little heavy-handed, and not something I’ve ever put up in my classroom, but I’d like to bend its message just a bit into a shape I like better, and say:

You have to come to school today, because we will miss you (and everything you have to share with us) if you don’t.

Free and Free By-products

“Here is a simple fact: it is a better time to be an artist than any other time in history. Whether you are a writer or a painter or a musician or a filmmaker, you were born at a lucky time. Thanks to the Internet, global distribution and organization is now available to everyone.” ~ Joseph Fink, co-creator of Welcome To Night Vale

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What does it mean to give your work away? To encourage your supporters to make and give their work away? What sustains the work in these kinds of networks, and what does it mean for education (especially the kind that is presumably meant to equip people with skills for work)? What does “work” even mean anymore?

Big Questions, Night Vale. Big. Questions.

To address some of these big questions, I’d like to think through (with you) how a free podcast that welcomes and solicits fanworks as part of its creative ethos sustains itself. Within that fan community, I’d like to look specifically at how a fiction/fanart exchange might generate interest and extend both the fictional and online communities. Along the way, I’d like us to consider together what fanworks and fan exchanges might offer to conversations about multimodal composition, fair use, and 21st Century literacies.

Though my argument is still in its formative stages, I’m especially wondering about whether the multimedia skills that are often touted as job skills might be approached more productively as community skills. Online communities offer a stage to display a wide range of talents and abilities to an appreciative audience, and in turn, they encourage the uptake of skills and habits necessary to create and share on that stage.

This reciprocal process blurs the lines between audience, creator, performer, and performance, creating a new kind of consumer culture that thrives on the opportunity to participate in its own creation, to pursue its own education, and to produce its own entertainment largely outside of monetary systems. All of this work takes place around shared narratives, so an attendant question might be: does giving your work away and inviting people to transform and remix it create a more durable community? By creating a more durable community, do you increase your chances of sustaining yourself by your art?

If you want to know more about Welcome to Night Vale before we talk about it at WIDE-EMU, check out my storify collection:

How Narrative and Community drive tech adoption/adaptation

The night Vale logo - a crescent moon that makes up the iris of an eye against a purple background with the silhouettes of a water tower, telephone pole, mountain, and antenna in the foreground.If you live a significant amount of your life in social media (like I do), you’ve probably seen something cross your dash or pop up in your twitter stream about Welcome to Night Vale. No? Well, consider this a recommendation to go check it out. It is a 20-30 minute fiction podcast written as a community radio broadcast from a small town in the American Southwest that is crowded with a combination of the mundanities of small town life, an abundance of conspiracy theories, and a number of Eldritch horrors. Written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, it is beautifully narrated by Cecil Baldwin (the name of the main character and the actor who voices him), and it is posted on the 1st and the 15th of each month. You can find it here on iTunes, where it caught a good bit of media attention for leaping to the #1 podcast spot just over a year after it started.

I could go on and on about the things I like about Night Vale, and I invite you to feel free to talk with me about it if you decide you like it too. Seriously. I need discussion partners. But what I want to dive into here is not the awesomeness of Night Vale, but the way my introduction to it came through social media and developed my facility with that particular platform.

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how I didn’t quite get tumblr. I chalked my ambivalence up to a (generational) unfamiliarity and thought perhaps it had something to do with my preference for text as well, since I take tumblr to be a largely visual platform.  I still had a tumblr, and I checked it once a month or so when I felt “caught up” with my usual social media sites. On one of these drive-bys, I slowed down to look at some incredible fan art, and I thought, “I wonder what that’s based on?” About a week later, I checked back, and my tumblr feed was overtaken by cryptic quotes and great art, so I went looking for the podcast.

I sort of get tumblr now. I spent the next two weeks checking my dash every day, reblogging and following new people. I connected my tumblr to my twitter and pinboard accounts, and I had a fascinating conversation with a teen on an airplane trip to Austin who noticed Night Vale on my iPhone. She wrapped up our 40 minute fangirl conversation by saying, “I’m going to post about this on tumblr, and no one is going to believe me.”

When I think about my progression from an ambivalent, nearly scornful, attitude toward tumblr to a wholehearted embrace of the platform and what it offers, I think it’s fair to say that I adapted my internet habits and adopted new ones because I found a community of people making (textual, visual, musical) art around a narrative that I was interested in. My points of entry into myspace, livejournal, dreamwidth, delicious, pinterest, Facebook, twitter, and tumblr were similarly constructed around the twining ideas of community, narrative, and art/making. I think with all the conversations around the ways that social media and technology can leave us “connected, but alone,” it’s important to think about these communities of interest and how they support – well a variety of things, really, but especially the acquisition of tech savvy practices.

The teen I sat next to on the plane from Atlanta to Austin was going to stay with a friend she had met online. She described an incident at a fan convention where the people she was rooming with were talking about an amazing story they had read without realizing that she was the author. She had a brand new Homestuck tattoo, and she was concerned about the implications of Yahoo’s acquisition of tumblr and what it might mean for creators like herself. Her life online is clearly an important aspect of her identity, and she was shocked and delighted to find that that could be true for a 40-year-old high school teacher and PhD student as well. For all our common interests, I still had to ask her, “But how do you meet people on tumblr?” She looked at me, perplexed. I tried to clarify, “I mean, I can see how you follow people, and they follow you, and you use tags to find things, and link platforms to keep them easily accessible, but how do you start a conversation with someone?”

“You ask,” she said.

It’s not greatly different from how it’s always been done, or from how our conversation on the plane started, though it may not look the same. You have to risk and learn the appropriate code/cues and find compatible people and invest in them. You invest in a shared project, you learn the language specific to your shared space, and you invest in each other with your own stories. You build community; you build narrative; you build tech experience.

Welcome.