Good-Bye Academia, Hello Fandom!

Friday, 26 August 2011 17:10

Good-bye academia, hello fandom! I know, I know. I technically left academia nearly a year ago at the completion of my PhD, but like in any massive breakup, there has been baggage. I have been working through my issues with my graduate education by writing on this blog. Overall, writing about my experience in grad school has been cathartic and has let me connect with others in similar positions. If anything, my disenfranchisement with academia has only deepened over time and I am entirely confident that I made the right decision to leave.

Still, the shadow of academe has loomed large over me this past year. Most of the people with whom I spend time I met in grad school and our conversations inevitably turn towards departmental politics and frustrations over our employment prospects. I have been waiting for the decisive break when I stop looking back and begin to move forward into a venture of my own design. I am happy to announce that Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, in Reno (Aug. 17-21) was the break I was waiting for all this time.

I was uncertain as to what to expect of this WorldCon. My only other experience of intensive fandom was in 2009, when I attended WorldCon in Montreal. As I mentioned before, I was overwhelmed with people and panels during that trip and my presentation was less than stellar. Going into Renovation this year I set myself three goals: to talk to as many people as I could, present an engaging paper (leaving time for meaningful discussion), and to pitch my non-fiction book idea. On all accounts, I met with greater success than I could ever have imagined. I talked with writers and fans until I was literally exhausted. My paper presentation was awesome (Laura J. Mixon attended! More on that to come in another post) and we had a productive discussion about race in SF. My book idea was met with enthusiasm and sincere interest. To put in bluntly: I received more positive feedback during the 5 days of the con than I did in the entire 6+ years of my graduate education.

Part of the reason for the difference in response is obviously due to the fact that everyone at WorldCon loves SF/F, while I only met one or two individuals in academia who had a passing interest in the genre. As I noted before, SF is still a marginalized field of academic study. It just felt good to be surrounded by people who love SF as much as I do. Even when our specific interests diverged (because there are many different sub-genres in SF/F), the tone of conversation was one of sharing favourite authors and books instead of the never-ending academic competition of “who is better read.” I left Reno with a long list of books to read and a buoyed sense of self-esteem.

I am also acutely aware of the problems that exist within fandom. It is not a fairy-tale realm where everyone gets along and all of the world’s problems are solved. Sexism and racism are still issues that need addressing in SF/F fandom. Women writers, especially those who openly write feminist or queer SF, are still overshadowed by their male (heterosexual) peers. The marginalized presence and participation of people of colour at SF conventions is a site of great anxiety that is in desperate need of open conversation (one that is particularly pressing in my Canadian eyes). With these limitations in mind, I nevertheless feel that fandom is currently ready for significant change. As the generational split in fandom becomes more obvious (between the 50+s who have been attending cons since the 1960s/70s and the latest group of 20- and 30-somethings who bring with them the comic and gaming culture of the 1980s/90s), I believe that the conversations around the limits of fandom have the opportunity to evoke a real shift in the SF/F demographic.

Whereas I felt that I had limited impact on the same biases present in academia, I feel that I can perhaps create generative change within fandom. Someone had mentioned to me that it was a shame that I left academia as they need strong feminist women there, but I believe that the SF/F community needs them too. Instead of staying in academia and talking with a handful of colleagues who already agree with my politics, going into fandom introduces me to new people whose socio-political ideas are different from my own. While conversations around race, gender, ability, and sexuality, may not flow as easily as they would in a graduate classroom, the majority of the people I met at WorldCon are open to discussing (or, perhaps more accurately, debating) new ideas. The old fannish want to see fandom continue – and that means fandom must change to become more inclusive.

While I still don’t know with any certainty where I will be in terms of my career in the near future, I know that I want it to be within the SF community. Fandom offers me the opportunity to continue my research into SF and provides me with an eager and engaged audience for it. I can already map out some of the arguments that need to take place and I look forward to discovering new areas of contention (because that is where work needs to take place). I don’t want my life to be boring and safe. I want to live on my own terms and I want to be a positive and productive force in the world. SF, by its very nature as a speculative genre, coincides with my philosophy: to look ahead, to challenge and, hopefully, to change the future. So: Hello fandom. My name is Kathryn Allan, I’m a Feminist, and I’m just getting started …

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