My Upcoming Presentation to MLA 2015: “Pursuing Two Passions: On Being a Graduate Student and Something Else”

I am excited to announce that I will be participating in a roundtable this January in Vancouver at the 130th meeting of the Modern Language Association.

“Pursuing Two Passions: On Being a Graduate Student and Something Else,” will be held on Thursday, January 8, at the Vancouver Convention Centre. The title refers to the twin goals that each roundtable participant will discuss, as each of us has pursued our graduate research while dedicating ourselves to activism, family, and hobbies.

This will be my fifth presentation to the MLA, and my focus will be on the intersection of academic and fan appreciation of the texts and cultural studies that we research. In my submission, “Can My Dissertation Just Be On Fandom? Pursuing a PhD in American Literature While Watching Too Much Anime,” I discussed my involvement in fan communities centered around popular and nerd culture—anime, comics, cosplay—while completing a PhD in English literature with specialization in nineteenth-century United States literature and gender studies.

When I was accepted into graduate school, one of the first questions I asked when speaking with PhD students in these programs was the following: where was the nearest comic book shop? That answer was not the top priority in determining into which program to enroll—evident, as finding comic book shops near Stony Brook University is difficult (although much easier in New York City).

Nevertheless, while completing my doctoral degree, I kept my interests in fandom alive while taking courses, studying for qualifying exams, teaching my classes, and completing my dissertation. This interested resulted in seminar papers on masculine affect in the works of Joss Whedon; drawing comparisons in the classroom between Emerson’s transcendentalist philosophy and the anime Fullmetal Alchemist (two words, not three); and pursuing additional research and teaching specialization in comics, graphic novels, and other sequential art.

Reading forward this earlier time period into twenty-first-century popular culture, I have invigorated my teaching and kept myself motivated in my research by drawing comparisons between the literature I study and the fan culture I enjoy. (Of course, I enjoy my studies and teaching, too.) In identifying the similarities between literary studies and fan culture, I appreciate how some practices identify the skills we seek to refine in our students: by writing fan fiction, scholars identify gaps in narratives and representation to fill in for more compelling, more realistic stories; even persuasive instances of shipping require an ability to analyze literature and find evidence to support claims.

By approaching my academic and fan interests simultaneously, I have opened career opportunities to improve as a scholar and teacher. For example, looking towards animation, fantasy, and science fiction allowed me to draw parallels in the classroom between the works of Edgar Allan Poe and recent productions in popular culture for a successful course I have taught twice at Stony Brook University. The success of this class resulted in an invitation to speak at New York University and to write an article on using pop music to teach gender in the works of Poe.

As well, one of the employees at my favorite local comic book shop, Bergen Street Comics in Brooklyn, put me in contact with the comics and graphic novels library at Columbia University, which has been of great assistance towards drafting successful proposals for panels on the research, teaching, and creation of comics at the Northeast Modern Language Association. It was one of these initial presentations on comics and representations of gender to NeMLA that encouraged me to be a more active participant in this organization. This involvement led to me being hired as Marketing Coordinator for NeMLA, where I apply my skills at online rhetoric, print and web design, and social media awareness towards producing newsletters and serving as an admin for NeMLA’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

It also helps that being involved in a number of online fan communities improves my skills at coding, writing, and even some research related to my dissertation studies: there are quite a few English PhD students in some anime fan communities on Tumblr whose feedback and friendship continue to provide motivation through those difficult times that graduate students experience. With the stresses of graduate school—with finances, with relationships, with finishing the freaking dissertation already—online communities can be supportive.

Granted, the anonymous death threats I have received just for posting on fan sites has not been fun, so Tumblr has also helped me identify the violence that many of our students and peers experience in their online interactions.

Therefore, I also direct this content towards how we should apply the skills developed in literary analysis and rhetoric to produce more welcoming environments for our students. Because of bullying and threats against fans for their participation in activities—the revelation of private contact information and death threats as part of Gamergate, the misogyny against cosplayers—teachers must make themselves aware of the media that their students encounter in order to educate them on responsible actions to take in writing and in practice against such violence.

I am grateful to the Graduate Student Caucus for the invitation to join this discussion on graduate student life inside and outside academia. After completion of my PhD, I hope my remarks identify the opportunities and challenges that come after graduate school. Based on how important fan communities are to teachers and students, I participate as both a scholar and a fan in order to enrich my research, my teaching, and my service to my department and my students.

Check out the roundtable description here and below. I also have included my submitted abstract below.

Pursuing Two Passions: On Being a Graduate Student and Something Else
Thursday, 8 January, 3:30–4:45 p.m., West 217, VCC West
Kristal Bivona, Univ. of California, Los Angeles Vice-President, the Graduate Student Caucus

This roundtable explores the challenges and rewards of pursuing another passion concurrently with graduate study. Participants reflect on what it means to be a student and “something else,” to lead a “double life,” in order to share approaches and tactics for being successful at both passions. Topics include alt-ac careers, having a family, activism, and hobbies.

Dominick Rolle is an interdisciplinary scholar and Ph.D. Candidate in English Language and Literature at Emory University. His areas of research include 20th century and contemporary American and African American literature, Anglophone-Caribbean and Afro-Cuban literatures, literature of war, and gender studies. As a former U.S. Navy sailor who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom, he possesses a keen interest in illuminating the diverse needs of America’s veterans in community-based organizations and the academy. Rolle’s intervention will interrogate the intricate ways in which his social activist background complements his research and pedagogy. Rolle will speak to his experience as the graduate assistant for the Emory-Men Stopping Violence (MSV) Initiative. Rolle’s diverse professional and personal experiences will enrich the perspectives of graduate students seeking to build intellectual strengths in community-engaged scholarship while focusing on their research goals.

Rebecca A. Lippman received her MPhil in Latin American Studies from the University of Cambridge and is currently pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She works on the relationship between literature, technology and music in the context of 20th century Latin America and Brazil. Lippman’s intervention considers opportunities for students to engage in alternative work experiences on-campus, such as archival research, as opportunities to rethink the potential contributions of doctoral candidates who may wish to transition into the private sector upon graduation. Lippman will speak to her experience indexing collections and the unique skill set that archival research gives graduate students to promote a consideration of “professional” and “academic” career tracks as paths that are not disparate poles of a field in crisis, but instead two options that are intrinsically related to one another and can be taught together.

Julie Williams is a PhD student in American Literary Studies, with a focus on Western American literature, Native American literature, landscape and the environment, atomic culture, and discourses of health and embodiment. Williams will speak about her experience pursuing a private pilot’s license while in grad school. Rather than positioning one to be an obstacle to the other, Williams will discuss how learning to fly has actually strengthened her academic work, and vice versa.

Jessi Snider is a graduate student working on her doctorate at Texas A&M University. Her areas of research include Victorian and gothic literature, young adult fiction, and critical theory.  Her forthcoming article “‘Be the Tree’: Classical Literature, Art Therapy, and Transcending Trauma in Speak” will appear in the Children’s Literature in Education in fall 2014. Snider, a divorced mother of four and doctoral student in English, will speak about the challenges and rewards of being a parent and a grad student, which is a topic that dominated the Caucus’s panel last year on being a graduate student.

Alison Reed is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her academic work on performance and social justice movements has been published in several journals including Digital Creativity, Media-N, and Women & Performance. She was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Poetry. Taking seriously George Lipsitz’s call, in “Breaking the Chains and Steering the Ship,” for amplified dialogue between academics and activists, Reed’s intervention examines the stakes of being an academic and an organizer. A Graduate Fellow of the Antiracism Inc. program directed by Dr. Felice Blake of UCSB, Reed has experience organizing with the Coalition for Sustainable Communities for the prison abolition movement. Reed’s intervention argues for the impossibility and necessity of engaged scholarship that moves outside of institutional boundaries, recognition, and support—reminding us that social justice-oriented scholarship should not leave us in a place of hopelessness but should (re)invigorate our coalitional commitments.

Matthew Sherman is a graduate student of Medieval and Modern languages at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. He holds a master’s degree in German Studies from Michigan State University. Sherman will discuss life as a graduate student athlete, and what he calls “the baggage of (hyper)masculinities. His intervention explores a “double life” that not only competes with grad school for time devoted, but that engages with “something else” that can threaten one’s intellectual reputation.

Derek S. McGrath is the recipient of a doctoral degree in English literature from Stony Brook University (May 2014), where he specialized in nineteenth-century American literature with additional research and teaching interests in gender studies, digital humanities, and contemporary popular culture.  As he begins to revise his dissertation “American Masculinity and Home in Antebellum Literature” for publication, he has completed two forthcoming articles:  “Bad Romance:  Teaching Poe’s Women with Lady Gaga,” and “Some Assembly Required:  Joss Whedon’s Indecisive Gendering in Marvel Films’ The Avengers.”  Dr. McGrath can also be found on Tumblr and WordPress (user name:  dereksmcgrath), which he uses as online platforms for his courses on composition and nineteenth-century United States literature—and to re-blog posts on Fullmetal Alchemist, Soul Eater, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and other fandom nerdiness. Dr. McGrath will speak about his academic and personal interests in fandom, contemporary forms of cultural production that include science fiction, comic books, and animation, and how these interests play off of his dissertation topic: literary representations of masculinity and domestic ideology in the nineteenth-century United States. Dr. McGrath will share how, by cosplaying, writing fan fiction, and designing Tumblr fan sites, his involvement in fandom has been instrumental towards successful teaching, conference organizing, and publishing.

Can My Dissertation Just Be On Fandom?

Pursuing a PhD in American Literature While Watching Too Much Anime

Derek McGrath

Stony Brook University

Submitted to the roundtable
“Pursuing Two Passions: On Being a Grad Student and Something Else”
at the 2015 Modern Language Association (accepted)

While researching and revising a dissertation on literary representations of masculinity and domestic ideology in the nineteenth-century United States, I also have pursued additional academic and personal interests in popular culture. As a fan of contemporary United States and Japanese animation, comics, and science fiction, my interests in those topics may not seem immediately related to my interests in older periods of United States literature and culture. However, by pursuing my interests in fan-oriented communities—fandoms—through social media platforms, at conventions, and in the classroom, I have been able to read earlier periods of United States culture forward in time and across national boundaries in order to enrich my teaching and appeal to common interests that I share with my students when it comes to anime, the superhero genre, and that zombie episode of Community. By engaging as a scholar with the parts of popular culture that I enjoy as a fan, I have found academic communities in potentially unlikely places—at anime conventions and fan sites—that opened opportunities to meet with curators at major comic book archives, organize sessions at major conferences, and improve my skills at administration, marketing, and digital production. These dual interests in pop culture fandom and literary scholarship culminated with a costumed sing-along to the works of Joss Whedon at a national academic conference. By cosplaying, writing fan fic, and designing Tumblr fan sites, my involvement in fandom has been instrumental towards my successful teaching, conference organizing, and publishing.


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