A couple of weeks ago happened what some would call “the World Nerdiest Academic Conference”. Once a year, members of the Fan Studies Network, researchers, professors and students working on, or interested in, Fan Studies meet to present, comment and challenge their ideas in a friendly-nerdy environment. This event is called the Fan Studies Network Conference and it took place at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, on June 25th and 26th, 2016. If you picture a con for academics (without the collectibles and tee-shirts booths), you will get a close image of the event!
The Fan Studies Network, who organizes the conference, is an academic network created in 2012 by Lucy Bennett and Tom Phillips with the wish to “keep fandom scholars connected.” The founder Lucy Bennett explains: “Tom and I started the Fan Studies Network in March 2012 as we wanted to foster a space for international fan studies academics in all different levels of study and career to engage together in fruitful debate and make new connections. We were very keen for network to encourage a communal and welcoming sensibility alongside critical debate, which we think has been successful.” With four conferences organized so far and the fifth anniversary of the network coming along, scholars show an increasing interest in Fan Studies. Lucy Bennett states: “The number of abstracts [i.e the conference presentations’ proposals] we receive, and the different countries they come from across the world, increases year by year.”
The Fan Studies Network Conference gathered this year more than 100 academics, with a Twitter coverage never seen before: live-tweeted by the delegates and covered by both The Daily Fandom [you can find the storify of the event here] and SCMS (The Society for Cinema and Media Studies), the hashtag #FSN2016 ranked 38th on Twitter on the first day of the conference.
During a whole weekend, scholars introduced their fantastic projects on fandom. Grouped into panels (like in a convention), they covered topics as varied as co-creation, sites of memory, fans’ archives, questions of race, culture and identity, fan fictions or fan-producer relations. One of the panels discussed how to teach Fan Studies in college and the relevance of this topic for students.
Apart from panels, the great strength of the conference is to set up other formats, such as workshops or the famous speed geeking sessions, presentations on the format of speed dating, but with scholars’ feedback instead of potential relationship outcomes.
The objects of study ranged from Harry Potter, Lord of the Ring, Star Wars, Sherlock and Jane Austen to Lego, Bollywood B-movies, Doctor Who, The Witcher, Mass Effect and many others. Scholars came from around the world, from Europe and North America to Australia, South America and Asia.
Out of all the subjects discussed, one emerged as the main topic for exchanges and debates, and possibly the one that is most at the heart of fandom scholars’ preoccupations: fan activism and the influence of fans on politics and societies. The topic was first set out by Henry Jenkins, one of the most influential scholars on fandom and the keynote speaker of the conference. In his address about how fandom can “help us negotiate the politics of diversity and fosters the civic imagination”, Henry Jenkins claimed: “Fandom has become the site of cultural wars – conflicts amongst fans and conflicts between fans and producers. […] Fans are innovative, often out front of producers as they experiment with new scripts for race and gender within popular genres.” Fans have power, and for the USC professor, “they should use that power for a change.” The influence of fans on society and culture is an ever-growing one that deserves more than ever both academic and media attention. Fans can make representations change, and thus have an meaningful impact on society.
This question developed into the part academics should play in this change: should they use Fan Studies and their knowledge on fandom to promote actual change or shouldn’t they be engaged in order to remain objectively critical? This is a question at the core of Fan Studies today. Scholars still debate on whether they should be aca-fan-tivists, a singular place to hold but nonetheless an important one. For Peter Kramer, a senior lecturer at the University of East Anglia, there is no doubt on where academics should stand: outside, in the world, helping fans and having a good influence on society.
Apart from questions and controversies, FSN is also a place of exchange, fun and thrill, as the evening social with quizzes and the conference diner shown. Living two whole days with other Fan Studies scholars from all places definitely changes you and makes you a more passionate, engaged and motivated person. The only thing to regret is that such an event isn’t attended by non-academics. Fans’ insights into scholarly work could be an interesting input, although, no doubt, this will stir even more debate into the academic world!