In addition to writing for Sequart and teaching college history, our writer J. Holder Bennett runs the Fandom and Neomedia Studies (FANS) Association and its FANS Conference. We decided to sit down with him and learn a little bit about this annual event, now preparing for its third year.
PHILLIPS: So, to begin, what do you mean by fandom and neomedia?
BENNETT: Well, fandom has a wide range of meanings. It can be as simple as passively enjoying a show or book to engaging in critical analysis or making your own fanfic. We try to take a wide understanding of this area because the ways people are fans, the ways they express their fandom, is a complex and ever-growing field. As for neomedia, it’s more than just new media, though that’s part of it, too. It also means new ways of using or understanding traditional media. For instance, a few years back, The Economist published an article reinterpreting the Protestant Reformation as a social media phenomenon via the printing press. I have my students read that one, and thinking of a monk as “going viral” gets them a bit more into the material.
PHILLIPS: How did you get started in all this?
BENNETT: I had been with A-Kon for a number of years doing various things but needed a change. Doing anything for a decade or more will do that to you. So when we moved to a new venue, I proposed an academic conference and worked with several colleagues for a year to get it going, and the first year was a stunning success. Thus far we’ve had presenters or writers from 23 states and eight other countries.
PHILLIPS: But how do you relate to all this? What about your associates?
BENNETT: Well, I come at the topic as a historian. I’m a fan of fandom, if you will; I joked once that I was a meta-fan and it sort of stuck. Helen McCarthy is from an anime and manga background, founding Manga UK in the ‘80s and generally being awesome. Brett and Shannon Burkett, geologist colleagues with me at my school, like to look at the science behind science fiction. Dr. Michael Vandehey, a psychology professor, takes his discipline’s angle. Dr. Darren Ashmore is an anthropologist. Jonathan Davis and Jake Tarbox are both entrepreneurs. Dr. Marc Hairston, our newest committee member, is a physicist. And then there’s Andrew Tague, a former student of mine and assistant. I’d go mad without him. As you can see, we’re a wide group and we’re happy to hear from anyone who has thoughts on our fields of interest.
PHILLIPS: What sorts of presentations have you had in previous years?
BENNETT: Oh, wow, they’ve run the gamut, and you can see them on our website in The Phoenix Journal. But for just a few, last year we had two presentations on furry psychology and anthropology. We did one on the geologic science in a few sci-fi films that found high correlation between accuracy and box office returns. Video games as latter day imperialism. Filipina fanfic. World English varieties. Translating cartoons into Swedish. Are Pokémon companions or slaves? Gender and cosplay. Two different presentations on copyright law, a personal favorite of mine. The origins of kabuki. The list really goes on, especially if you include those in the journal who weren’t able to attend the conference. This year we’re already considering one analyzing the game play of a new poker program put out at the University of Alberta by an actual poker pro. I’m interested to see where it goes.
PHILLIPS: Have you collaborated with any other academic groups?
BENNETT: So far just one, led by Drs. Sharon Roberts of Waterloo University and Stephen Reyson of TAMU-Commerce and their graduate students on the International Anime Research Project. With us, Dr. Roberts said her group got more responses on the Thursday of our event last year – a sort of Day 0 before the main events – than she did in entire weekends of work elsewhere.
PHILLIPS: Tell me about your hosts.
BENNETT: As I said, I’ve been with A-Kon for a while. They host and sponsor our events and publications. It was at the convention last year that we partnered with Dr. Roberts. A-Kon, a convention for anime, manga, and gaming fans, has been going since 1990 in and around Dallas, Texas. Last year we had about 27,000 attendees. Our conference is set up so that any A-Kon attendee can go to conference sessions, and conference presenters have open access to the convention. We encourage both of those, actually, as it gives a chance for fans and academics to mingle. At one point our presentation hall was crowded to standing room only with interested fans. Loved that. We also facilitate study groups who want to look at fans in their native environment. It’s been a great partnership.
PHILLIPS: When are you holding the event this year and where can folks sign up for it?
BENNETT: We meet 6 and 7 June, again alongside A-Kon, in Dallas at the Hilton Anatole. People can find out more about us, read our publications for free, including a massive research bibliography, and submit abstracts for the conference on the FANS Conference website.
PHILLIPS: Who should sign up for this? What are you looking for in a paper?
BENNETT: We take presentations from professors, industry experts, students, and interested fans. We don’t much care about the letters after your name or the degrees on the wall. The things we look for are solid analysis and novel contribution to the field. Almost anyone can do that. And even if you don’t present, we take articles and reviews for the journal, too. Or just join us and learn a little about the things you enjoy. That’s more than half of what got us started on this. We hope some of Sequart’s readers will join us.