How I Became an “aca-fan” or my journey to academic fandom at university…
I’ve always been a geek, and it started when I read my first science fiction novel The Rowan by Anne McCaffrey and then got into space opera like the Vorkosigan Saga and Star Trek: Voyager. The Trekkers were the first true aca fans who started the first recorded traditions of fan fiction, building secondary alternate universes around the initial three seasons of classic Trek. The comic convention, such as Comiccon, as we’ve all seen that’s become a sign of prestige with the new generation of geeks like on The Big Bang Theory.
I was geek-like back then despite starting an anime club in my first year of university (even though I didn’t know what anime or manga was!). Later that year I became a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) for 15 years on and off as a Venetian courtesan who specialized in dancing, a brocade & velvet addiction and the rules of traditional Italian hospitality of the renaissance. It took another decade to discover the arts and sciences of cosplay and steampunk (don’t worry I’ll be visiting some costume makers to get a beginners kit together).
At university, I studied a mixture of archaeology, Roman classics and English. I vividly recall the one night in second year where I was left with 15 minutes to go before submission of units, to enrol in a self-directed unit in English. I looked at my dread-locked boyfriend, then back again at my pile of Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDS & pile of Penguin Classics from my time as a classics nerd (Ovid’s Metamorphoses was on top). And I said to my boyfriend, ‘I can totally make some crap up about Buffy being a re-imagined version of Ovid’s Metamorphosis underworld stories.’ And then without any serious intentions, I submitted in about the span of ten minutes my spurious proposal of the self reading unit, coincidentally, little to know actually the theme for that year in the self directed project was in fact the underworld tales of Ovid. And I got selected. Oops. Turns out this was actually an instinct I’d develop in finding trends in popular culture texts and has served me well ever since. It wasn’t just luck. Well maybe that first time but since then I’ve had an uncanny ability to pick interesting and relevant texts honed by years of excellent teaching at Newcastle, UNE and Flinders Universities.
As part of third year English in my Bachelor of Arts, I worked on that Ovid project and the other part of the assessment was to come up with a Honours proposal based on the research I’d conducted for the self directed project. My project was an in depth article on Buffy as a re-imagining of Ovid’s underworld tales and the hero’s journey as explored through Buffy and Spike’s relationship. I became fascinated with the sympathetic vampires of Joss Whedon & Anne Rice and their obsession with regaining and revering humanity. I discovered that in all the gothic literature and philosophy I’d consumed for the project aspect (the article on Whedon’s re-imagining of Ovid) was that vampires had ceased to be monsters and now were evolved into a different kind of creature, a sympathetic figure in Anne Rice and antiheroes/ heroic in Buffy and it’s spinoff, Angel. So I wrote my fourth year arts degree proposal on this and it was accepted into the Honours programme.
And thus I began my journey to becoming an aca-fan to now, when I am a serious academic, writing a book chapter on Doctor Who’s archaeologists and time agents currently and have a second chapter to finish proposing for Netflix & Marvel’s AKA Jessica Jones. I have a busy few weeks with an osteoarchaeology field school thrown in, so I can’t forget my day job!
What does an aca-fan look like now ten years later? It’s still short for academic fandom and is a synonym for people like me who take their popular culture obsession and turn it into an academic discipline where they create academic discussion and publication of papers discussing the issues that science fiction, young adult texts and fantasy raises. Many have serious positions at universities and there is even a Joss Whedon Studies Association with a journal called Slayage (and Junior Watcher for undergraduate publications). My Ovid and Buffy comparative study of the underworld tales became a two and a half year Honours thesis in English, covering sympathetic vampiric obsession with morality and humanity and the relationships between human and vampires.
Some authors discourage the expansion of their universes and characters such as Anne Rice who views Lestat and his coven as her intellectual property; others like J.K Rowling encourage reader participation yet essentially control direction of the the fandom such as with Pottermore and others allow readers to build communities like Sherrilyn Kenyon and The Dark Hunter novel readerships who regularly post tattoos based on beloved characters on Facebook and other social media.
Luckily events stopped me before I got to the Twilight Saga PhD. But I am a member of the Whedon Studies Association as mentioned and we are one of the bigger groups out there with annual and bi-annual international conferences, a journal (Slayage) and journal for undergraduates (Watcher Junior). We are a multidisciplinary fandom and I encourage you to start thinking critically about your fandom if being an an aca fan appeals to you.
The thing about being an aca fan is that you need to strike the balance between being able to critique your favourite text and fandom but enjoy the experience of immersing yourself objectively in your material and subjecting it to serious criticism alongside other academic disciplines such as philosophy and psychology. I admit I have studied Stephenie Meyer as a consultant for a project and I swear I read Breaking Dawn to send me to sleep. Not all fandoms are equal but everyone I met has been passionate and engaged with their text in a way I don’t think the literary, television and film establishments envisioned. I particularly enjoy shipping now the era of Spuffy and Bangle has passed. My favourite Alternative Universe pairing is Bucky Barnes and Clara Oswald.
Since then other groups have evolved opening the door to activities like Pottermore and I am currently in the position of working on papers including a definite 9000 word chapter on modern Doctor Who, today an abstract for a piece about Jessica Jones and later in the year: Love between alien and human relationships in Science Fiction Television. I’m excited about human love, alien romance and shipping the companions in Doctor Who at the end of 2016 along with my Jessica Jones and PTSD victim narrative for 2017. Dipping my toes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe with an abstract on AKA Jessica Jones has me both exhilarated and terrified.
How did I become become an aca-fan? I immersed myself in my chosen universes and I looked for the opportunities to use the academic skills I acquired along the way with everything from archaeology and history to English and that one counselling unit I took. Last year I learned how to buy and catalogue a Dalek last year as they are manufactured in Australia, and I discovered that most of the people who run the shows we love are aca-fans too and have learned all there is to know about the universes their heroes inhabit (my house is covered in TARDISes). I’m cosplaying from Doctor Who at the Steampunk Pirate Ball in November 2016. But when I’m writing my paper, it’s be like undoing the knitting of Baker’s scarf with a lot of River Song and Jack Harkness. There are definitely worse ways to spend your time!
Another example; from Buffy fandom research, I’d never have learned about Spuffy, “shipping” and Whouffle and Whouffaldi. From my own studies, I’d have never been given the chance to look at River Song and Jack Harkness beyond their role as the Doctor’s companions and see them characters with personalities in their own rights. This started with two years of memorizing all of BtVS and Angel, reading obscure philosophy at all hours and then reaching out and expanding into fandoms beyond my own such as the Harry Potter conference at Flinders University a decade ago.
On that note, we have the Southern Seekers, the Adelaide chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance that meets monthly at Dymocks Rundle Mall. These guys take ordinary fandom and turn it into heroism through activism. I’m also going to be doing a special on different styles of gaming, steampunk, cosplay and LARPing as several groups have things planned soon and hopefully I can find a Hodor so I can get out there. The next article over the weekend will be a basic guide to LARPIng and Cosplay for beginners. But you’ll find many many aca-fans in these groups that can put me to shame, as I’ve only adopted Harry Potter since there was no magic in my house as a kid! I’m planning on interviewing some local SA authors next weekend for the blog!
Clara Rosetta Santilli