There’s a story I tell about one of my first ever international conferences, which I attended as a PhD student, where I heard about a colleague hanging out with one of my academic heroes. Let’s call him Prof GM (short for Global Modernity). In this colleague’s story, Prof GM was in board-shorts. At a Hawai’ian beach.
I was so envious.
Not because I would’ve had anything intelligent or engaging to say to Prof GM, but just because I would’ve gotten to see the ‘realness’ of that person. Luckily for Prof GM, I’m less the Kathy ‘Misery’ Bates kind of fan, and more the Wayne’s World type (‘We’re not worthy!‘ [YouTube vid]).
As much as we may want to eschew the idea, there are academic celebrities. I don’t mean the ‘media stars’ and leviathans of productivity that we hear and gossip about. I mean the intellectual and theory heroes that we all have: people whose work becomes the foundation of much of our subsequent academic thinking, and even oblique career enablers. They are the ones who think the thoughts and frameworks that we hang our theoretical hats on (or wish we’d come up with…!).
Through the years, I’ve seen many instances of academic fannishness, and enacted some of them myself. While drafting this post, I fished on Twitter and Facebook for other academic fandom stories and had a wave of responses. Many of them talked about that time at that conference when they finally scraped up the gumption to approach their academic hero; every story ended happily: no regrets about introducing themselves and scoring a spontaneous chat with their intellectual idols (thanks to Helen Kara [@helen_kara], @bradyjay, @deborahbrian, and various others for sharing their experiences!). Similarly, there are tales of accidental (and not-so-accidental) co-locations with academic heroes, including walking behind them to the keynote lecture that they were delivering… and realising they were taller than you’d envisaged.
There were also other (some fabulously exotic) moments that make my fandom-oriented heart squee:
- getting academic heroes to sign your clothes,
- writing a poem about a lecturer who could recite Homer in Greek (kudos, @mTullia)
- OMG and similarly feverish + excited responses to new publications or announced conference keynotes by your fave academic,
- wearing an ever-increasing range of t-shirts and badges, or underwear embroidered with your favourite theorist’s name (Kittler would’ve been proud, @MinxMarple),
- inviting your aca-hero for a night out on ‘your’ town (and they take you up on it…),
- having your aca-hero call you by your pet name in an email (nice one, Cat).
In writing this post, I’m tempted to start an aca-fandom tumblr (e.g. ‘OMG, I thought Homi Bhabha was taller than that!’). But I don’t, for several reasons. The main one is that I already have way too much cyberpresence and need to curtail more than amplify my time online.
Also? This fannishness can feel not quite right. In academia, we’re trained to appreciate minds and ideas over the physical and emotive (the “Studmuffins of Science Calendar”, notwithstanding). Aren’t we?
It often feels like we’re meant to be removed from the visceral excitement and curiosity about the person when a high calibre thinker is in the same room or at the same event. The seamy and intrusive side of celebrity status also seems inappropriate for interactions in academe’s hallowed halls.
I’m a big fan of fandom. The quick research I did for this post made me very happy, and the stories people shared (on- and off-line) were satisfying because they showed me how intellectual enthusiasm can result in creative, fun, often constructive aca-fandom moves.
All the examples shared with me for this post were delightful and positive. There was a real sense of appreciation for great thinkers, even more so for those who also demonstrate that they are lovely human beings.
That’s not to say that all fannish stories have happy endings. An early experience of mine, seemingly trivial in retrospect, resonated with me for many years.
The guru in my field was keynoting at my first interstate conference. The venue was plush and speaker-list lusciously rich with prominent profs. I was merely a Masters student, almost completed. I forced myself to go up and talk to the guru after her keynote. The guru was polite, but room-scanning until she found a buddy. The wild fantasy that they might want me to join them in the break flew through my mind. Then they turned to me, and asked me to look after their luggage.
Even back then, after the conference, I could laugh at their presumption and my astonishment. Part of the allure of engaging with celebrity is to see their ‘realness’, and this can often deflate as much as it can boost.
Most recently, my aca-fannishness emerged when a stalwart and elusive hero from my PhD days crossed my Twitter radar. I love this prof’s work; it was always challenging, wise, and lucid. I’ve tried to invite him as a keynote speaker to various events I convened, but the conferences had always clashed with his schedule and he couldn’t make them. Through email, he was always gracious and regretful, adding fuel to the fannishness.
He’s on Twitter now, and he RT’d a Research Whisperer post, then followed RW. That’ll do me for a long, long while.