Academic fandom

Constellation of starfish (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

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.

Picture this:

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.

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About Tseen Khoo
Dr Tseen Khoo is a lecturer in research education and development in Melbourne. In previous incarnations, Tseen has been a research grant developer, and research fellow. She founded a national research network (AASRN), edited an academic journal for 5 years, and has been part of successful major competitive grants. Other than that, she can be quite normal.

8 Responses to Academic fandom

  1. OMG! And here I was thinking it was only me uncool enough to have an academi-crush. Even us non-academic-research-administrators have academic heroes! I was humbled that mine deigned to attend my presentation at last year’s AARE Conference which further fuelled the fandom fire. This year she accepted an invitation to give a keynote at our Faculty Forum, further fanning the fire but also proving she’s just a very nice person! Thanks for a great post.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Glad you enjoyed the post – and you know that on the internet, you are never alone… ;)

      Very true about academic/intellectual heroes not being relevant only for academics. Particularly when those heroes may cross over into the general public sphere, beyond uni lecture halls or confs.

      Glad to hear of another happy ending!

  2. guest says:

    oh, love it! my first international conference, I wanted to meet a professor I really wanted to do my PhD with and I had a huge academic crush on. He ended up standing next to me in front of my poster.. I was frozen the entire time just thinking that this was the perfect moment to introduce myself. I ended up chasing him the moment he walked away. turns out he was nice but super shy and awkward, but I got to exchange some words with him. My friend couldn’t stop laughing. ;) (I’ve grown up since then)

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Hah. Thanks for sharing that, and glad you liked the post.

      We often forget that people are just people, and academics are often…super shy and awkward! I had a colleague many years ago who was so awkward, he hid behind convenient poles rather than brave corridor ‘hellos’.

  3. sarahasloan says:

    great post, and very entertaining! I saw one of my academic crushes, who actually wrote the textbook on my subject at my first conference last year. I was too shy to talk to him but seeing him on the dance floor at the conference dinner was so funny I couldn’t stop laughing for some reason. None of my friends would understand.

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      Oh, ‘dancing academics’ deserve a whole other post to themselves. I have been traumatised a few times by dancing academics…

      Great that you liked the post. I had a lot of fun writing it. Wandering around Google Scholar one day, I have been re-inspired to read Henry Jenkins’ TEXTUAL POACHERS. And his blog in general – “Confessions of an Aca-Fan” http://henryjenkins.org/ :)

  4. Newbie Academic says:

    Totally understand this — I developed an academic crush on someone after reading their book on minority rights — and then when I saw them in person, it was “crush at first sight”… I then subsequently spent the rest of the conference furtively glancing at them + going out of my way to avoid them. So awkward. So ridiculous (but true).

    • Tseen Khoo says:

      I think that happens to many. The best thing is when, years later, those ‘academic crushes’ actually become colleagues and even friends. I’ve had this happen, and it’s wonderful. I’m a great believer in mutual admiration societies. ;)

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