Wednesday, March 21, 2007

My chest, too, has been weighted

We were recently given a reminder that our class blog may be generating more interest than that of my peers and a limited sphere of professionals and academics associated directly with Sam. That being so, I want to slightly oversimplify one of the ongoing debates, in order to clarify what I see as the central issue, both for those participating, and for the casual reader. To get straight to the point, skip the bit in dashes.

This class, it must first be noted, is a mixture of MIT students. MIT, for any unfamiliar, stands for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We are one of the leading technological research universities in the world. Our strong emphasis on applied science is not limited to the hard sciences, and so even our humanities departments, both by design and by the character of the students involved, approach their subjects in the most rigorous fashions possible. Out of this legacy came the Comparative Media Studies department (CMS). CMS functions as a central hub to all media work, -training students for jobs that don't yet exist- through an interdisciplinary study of media encompassing the highly theoretical to the economically practical. So yes, you will find individuals here studying everything from Facebook to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", from comic books to Japanese hip-hop. Even pro-wrestling.

Each of our backgrounds can be found in our first posts, but generally we are a mixture of CMS undergraduates and grad students, with limited prior exposure to wrestling, and students from other disciplines who have been wrestling fans, and wanted the chance to look at their fandom from an academic perspective. Together we have been working through the history of wrestling, and beginning dialogues which serve to introduce the non-fans to the fun of pro-wrestling, and the non-academics to the fun of taking a step back and searching for the how's and the why's.

Into this ongoing discussion came Joshua Shea, who will be a guest speaker later in the term. He has an extraordinary history with wrestling, both as a fan, and as someone involved in the business of pro-wrestling. This is not under debate. His central message, however, is that we are primarily wankers, in over our heads and trying to impose theoretical discourses onto what is, first and foremost, an entertainment and a business. The uncompromising, and often unspecific, scope of his arguments has fostered a welcome slew of responses. These responses have often taken the form of reactionary support for academic perspectives, with the qualification that no one can quite get away from agreeing that yes, it is important to know what a fan knows, and to be able to engage in the fandom as a member.

The situation boils down to this: academia is valid, but you don't have to believe in it if you don't wish to. And Joshua's viewpoint is entirely correct, except that the academia as a whole is already aware of this problem, and takes great pains to acknowledge the boundary in all work. The fact still remains, however, that few of us have the experience and training necessary to comfortably navigate this terrain, and at any rate the boundary edge is fuzzy on both sides, which is why we welcome any and all thoughts from fans and academics alike on where we might be going wrong.

What is this boundary of which I speak? Henry Jenkins III, one of the founders of CMS and a leading scholar on fandoms, came in to class Monday to speak with us. He noted that the best work in any given fandom comes from those who had been fans. This is not coincidental, nor is it contradictory. The subtle understandings that a fan possesses naturally, and which Joshua is pushing for, comprise the necessary data from which scholarly research develops. This is reflected in our primary sources, which include pro-wrestling footage, as well as "The Observer". In all fandoms, we see individuals whose theoretical leanings (see Sam's work) develop a sophistication resulting in commentary and analysis on par, and often more insightful, than much of the work we will produce this term.

This work from the fans themselves IS scholarly research, but it is not quite academia. Academia, then, is a step further on, when the analytic results from one fandom are compared with those from another, and higher order generalizations and research strategies are formed. As well, standards develop guiding what data to collect, and how to collect it, such that the results can be minimally seen as true or false, and potential biases can be excised as much as possible. Thus can a fan become a scholar – by familiarizing oneself with related literature and learning from others.

Once these guidelines have been established, it is possible to be trained first as an academic, armed with theories and methodologies to attack the first data sets that appear. While the bottom up approach of a fan becoming a scholar can be idealized as rigorous at each step, this top down approach does hit the fault line of having to penetrate into a fandom. Ethnographers are the most obvious example, since their approach clearly establishes them as outsiders who place themselves as far into a culture (which for our purposes is a fandom), as they can. As such, a large part of their work is maintaining awareness of their status as 'other,' and they analyze their own communicative difficulties as part of their data. For other methodologies, which rarely place the researcher in the thick of it, navigating this boundary can be more hazardous. Yet the space between a fandom and a researcher is not impenetrable, certain aspects of a fandom can be observed and commented on, though there may be holes left to fill by other avenues of research.

What we are seeing here in the blog is this boundary. It manifests as the disjunction of dialect between fans and academics. Yes, we speak different languages, though how this is so (since obviously, we're all speaking English) is a different topic. While the ethnographer forgoes the academic language in favor of communication with the 'native,' our situation as academic students pulls us back into the academic. Joshua, on the other hand, is grounded in the language of the fan, and resists attempts to pull him over to the 'other side.'

This is the central issue at stake. Except, what you all must realize, is that while I know learning the fan language, and becoming one, is my only hope of later doing great research ON pro-wrestling, it is not my only hope for learning FROM pro-wrestling. And seriously? I'm not paying thousands of dollars a year to become a fan of anything – that just sometimes happens on the side.

1 comment:

Sam Ford said...

Tess, thanks for the overview and digging deeper into what Henry was talking about on Monday. You make some great points here that really helps contextualize the debate we're having in class and on the blog, and I appreciate your bringing all this out in the opening.

Quite appropriate, don't you think, that this boundary between fan and academic, etc., etc., gets tested out in a class on pro wrestling, which is all about riding between boundary after boundary. And isn't that what CMS as a department was built on? At a boundary between disciplines, between industry and academia, between "high" and "low" culture, and at a university which is so science-driven?