Academic Tracks vs. Conferences

A recent discussion on the Comix Scholars Discussion List got me thinking about the distinction between academic tracks at comic book conventions and conferences held in conjunction with comiccons.  Just to establish my bonifides, I co-founded the Comics Arts Conference back in 1992 with Randy Duncan, and we held it at San Diego in 92-93, Chicago Comic-Con in 94-95, and back at San Deigo in 1996; after a year off, we took it into the Comic-Con and the CAC became an official part of the convention programming.  In the past year, the Institute for Comics Studies (I’m the director) has run academic programming at Wizard World (a panel at Chicago in 2008; Wizard World University-Texas in 2008 and WWU-Chicago 2009), and sponsored the Dragon*Con Mini Conference for 2008 and 2009; I set up a couple of panels at NASFiC in 2007, ran a mini-comics conference at Michigan State back in grad school, co-sponsored the Met@Morph confernce/con in Second Life, co-sponsored the upcoming Possibilities and Perspectives conference at Thought Bubble in Leeds in November,  and chaired the Comic Art and Comics area of the Mid-West Popular Culture Assocation for a bit in grad school.

So what I’m actually saying is that I never thought about the distinction between an academic track and a conference until the discussion came up on the list.  A quick google search for “Academic track” and “Academic track convention” shows that the terms academic track and  conference are used pretty much indiscriminately by convention organizers–the examples I found came from Second Life Community Conference and World Con (NASFiC also), though I know with comic book conventions the terms are used in the same way.

But a point was raised on the list that participating in an academic track at a fandom convention for some faculty is useless in terms of promition and possibly harmful to their careers; other people differed–it all depens on one’s insititution and department.    Of course, scholarly participation in fan events exists not primarily to advance academic careers but as a form of public intellectual engagement and as a way for the convention programmers to expand their offerings and give the audience something it wants.

I think it may be useful for the field of comics studies to start thinking about the distinctions that could be made between academic tracks and conferences that are held during conventions.  A conference should be separable–that is it could be moved off on its own by the organizers, it shouldn’t have the name of the convention in its name, possibly it’s held off site or on the day before or after the convention proper (though this last element is exceedingly tricky as it loses the primary advantage of attaching to a convention, the ability to make use of the physical facilities and AV equipment of the convention, and thereby lower the cost of academic participation).

This is the route of the International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF).  At one time it was held in conjunction with the Small Press Expo (SPX), but since moved to the Library of Congress and is now located at the School of the Art Institute.  The Comics Arts Conference was similar in its first five year–it was held the day before the San Deigo Comic-Con and in a separate hotel during years 1,2, and 5, and during 3 and 4 it was held during the Chicago Comic-Con in a separate hotel and then inside the convention center (IIRC), so it was independent of the cons but it had the material support of the cons in terms of getting conference space and AV equiptment.  The CAC is still a conference in that it could be freed from San Diego and WonderCon and it’s administered by its own committee (me, Randy Duncan, and Kate McClancy).  The CAC is free to separate from Comic-Con, which is also free to start its own academic track (not that there’s any danger of this ever happening because of the mutually beneficial relationship), but it couldn’t be called the Comics Arts Conference.  The point is also that the CAC couldn’t be run by the con alone.

So there’s some sense of independence with a conference. In addition, the con affiliation of a conference need not be mentioned on a CV if that’s an career issue.

Academic tracks, though, are more imbrecated in a convention.  Typically the convention plays a significant role in shaping the academic panels (whether the composition of the panels, the scheduling, or other aspects of the organizing), and the track bears the name of the con (e.g. Wizard World University, Dragon*Con Academic Mini-Conference) so that the conference and the con can’t be separated. In addition, the con itself might continue or take over the track if the academics backed out (or if there were some dispute over the track).  The academic organizers could not take the track private–there’s no way to hold a Wizard World University outside of Wizard World.

I think that conferences have more weight. It’s possile to have a juried or blind juried conference, but the size and compoistion of an academic track is primarily determined by the programming needs of the con.  ICAF is blind juried, CAC is juried (and invitational), and while papers or presentations might be rejected for quality at the tracks at Wizard World or Dragon*Con, those are still in the stage of needing to generate enough proposals that acceptance criteria (outside of papers that don’t fit the track at all or which are of such low quality that they don’t qualify) that this isn’t an issue.

I don’t have an answer for this issue, but I’m starting to think about it.

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19 Comments on “Academic Tracks vs. Conferences”

  1. David Beard Says:

    You crystalize some good issues here, ones that could be complicated by an understanding of knowledge production in comics studies as coming from two bodies of scholars/researchers.

    On the one hand, there is the fan-scholar — the line of thinkers that begin with Lupoff, Goulart, Don & Maggie Thompson and runs through the vast ouput of TwoMorrows. These folks build knowledge of the history of the medium, its stories and its industry.

    On the other hand, the peer-reviewed track of comics researchers whose works could/should best be understood as engaged in building both a historical and a theoretical knowledge of comics as a medium, industry, and set of stories. The process of theory-building, I think, is as important as the process of peer review in defining the works of the comics scholar. This is not to say that we will all become Foucaults, but there is a dialectic between the knowledge of comics as an object and the theories that work in tension that that object.

    That said, the fans who are building their knowledge aren’t interested in theory, or the tension between theory, history and criticism. Con academic tracks are vehicles to bring these two groups together, in much the way that extension agents used to bring science to the highly knowledgeable practitioners of agriculture — and the extension agents brought local knowledge back to the laboratory.

    Where PCA/ACA fails, I think, is that many of the young scholars there don’t understand the difference between these two types of knowledge making.

    As a recent participant at WW-Chicago Comicon, I can say that the panel I attended and the panel I participated in were awesome precisely because of this point of contact.

    David

  2. Charles Hatfield Says:

    >> The CAC is free to separate from Comic-Con, which is also free to start its own academic track… <> Academic tracks … are more imbrecated in a convention. Typically the convention plays a significant role in shaping the academic panels (whether the composition of the panels, the scheduling, or other aspects of the organizing), and the track bears the name of the con … so that the conference and the con can’t be separated. <<

    Again, this doesn't strike me as academic programming. A scholarly panel shaped by convention programmers is not academic in character.

    Don't get me wrong; I'm not claiming that only academics can do seriousness scholarship, nor that academics should not take advantage, practically and intellectually, of comic book conventions. I'm certainly not claiming that academics should have a monopoly on comics studies. But an event cannot be academic in character if it does not originate in an academic institution and is not shaped by academic processes.

    The most important comparison, in my view, is that between the atmosphere and purposes of a comic book convention and the atmosphere and purposes of an academic conference. The comparison between two different flavors of events held at comic cons is a red herring, IMO.

  3. Diana Says:

    I see the fan/scholar distinction as a false dichotomy, at least in part.
    While evolving out of a tradition unlike other disciplines (can you imagine an astronomy conference where fans dress in Carl Sagan costumes?), the history of our chosen art form is a valid study in its own right. David correctly points out the interdependence of theory and history, and all the ancillary disciplines like the semitoics, aesthetics and politics of the form need to be considered in this light as well.
    In short, while we’re all scholars or aspiring scholars, we’re also fans, I would suspect without exception.
    I contend that the journey to academic acceptance need not be devoid of the fan aspect.
    For decades, we’ve striven for the legitimacy of the comic art form. I’d hate to see us succeed at the expense of the joys that bought us to the form in the first place.
    I see no reason comics history scholars, those solely interested in history who understand the place and basics of theory, should be exempt from the peer review David discusses. So much of the work John Lent brings forth in IJOCA deals in history, and I would not presume to demean it as “fan” work. While it’s easy to get bogged down in tangled plot lines and artist/writer geekiness, the history of the form is also a piece of its theory, as David cogently notes.
    The problem I see in comics theory is codifying its form. Comics have three components: language, image, and implied motion. This means the form can be addressed visually, as McCloud and Talbot tend to do, beginning from a linguistic base, as in the work of Neil Cohn, or as a synthesis of the two, requiring its own vernacular, which is still evolving.
    As for the fans not being interested, many are not. But more are, every time. And that hasn’t stopped film from evolving its own language, theories and conventions within academe’.
    We are free to do likewise, though I suspect that some will never take us seriously.
    It’s a question of how much it’s necessary to proselytize on the way.

    • Charles Hatfield Says:

      >> I contend that the journey to academic acceptance need not be devoid of the fan aspect.<>For decades, we’ve striven for the legitimacy of the comic art form. I’d hate to see us succeed at the expense of the joys that bought us to the form in the first place.<<

      Agreed. Who wants to lose the joy? But IMO you're posing a false question, because academic seriousness is not a matter of vacuuming the joy out of a subject. It's a matter of doing and disseminating research in ways that academicians and dedicated scholars can respect. Comics studies in my view still has a ways to go in that area.


      • I have to agree with Charles (hey there) about the distinctions between academic and fan values, though I think I’m disagreeing w/ what I think is his critique of the CAC/Comic-Con relationship (please correct me if I’m wrong).

        First, as someone coming at comics studies from a distinctively non-fan perspective (we are out there, a few of us–though I’ve really grown to love Paul Pope and David B.), attending ICAF the years it was at the Library of Congress opened my eyes to what an academic conference (of any sort) could be: a committed and collegial group of scholars, with varied areas of disciplinary expertise, interested in (in the sense of invested in) the medium and intellectually pasionate about what it could do that hadn’t (hasn’t) yet been satisfactorily figure out yet. It struck me as a neat intellectual project that had accreted an interesting community of thinkers and researchers.

        I was also struck, though, by one insiders’ (Benjamin Woo’s) critique of the bronze/silver/golden age chronology, which he argued scholars had to abandon. As a historian and as someone all too willing to take comics scholarship seriously (I never saw what the problem was), I kept wondering what Benjamin was complaining about: could it really be that widespread a problem? were scholars really using a fan/corporate chronology unconsciously, uncritically, as if it were the natural or most meaningful way to periodize?

        Later, during another presentation (I won’t say whose, but it wasn’t Charles’s), I was surprised to have to grant the point–I think Ben caught my look of concession–as I heard these “ages” invoked in just the ways an uncritical fan (notice I say an uncritical fan, not all fans) might.

        The closest parallel I can think of (my background being US 19th c. history) would be the difference between academic historians of the US Civil War vs. very knowledgeable re-enactors. Or maybe document collectors. All have discourses that perform all sorts of valuable functions. But fan discourses are not the same as academic discourses: they have different fundamental values, different goals, different purposes (and the academic ones are not, I think, primarily about career promotion; if they were, we’re in the wrong career).

        In my academic writing course, for example, I think the least successful students I’ve ever taught were those (few) who were unable to break out of fan mode and say something more interesting than how awesome the Cap’ is.

        How much more difficulty I think my task is, to get students to see the difference in rhetorical registers at the very least, if comics scholars themselves aren’t all clear on that difference.

        That said, I also see great value in CAC’s setup at Comic-Con. When I’ve presented there, I did not at all see it as subsumed by the Con.

        I have to admit that I was, in fact, quite disappointed not to have seen any Klingons or Stormtroopers in any of the academic panel audiences.

  4. Brad Says:

    I never thought about this either until that person brought it up on the listserv — and I think maybe there’s a reason why. Sure, presenting at MLA might look better but it is also much harder to do (few comics panels at MLA, a few days after Christmas) and does it really have the kind of comics networking opportunities that say the CAC has? I don’t think so. I also very much agree on David’s comment on the fan-scholar (though I would just use the term scholar). The comics historians I turn to the most don’t happen to be ‘scholars’ — Steranko, etc. Are they peer-reviewed, etc.? No. Do they have good stuff. Oh yes.

    What has always attracted me to comics studies is its promise of breaking away from what I find a very disheartening system (I’m in English literature). People go to big conferences, spend big money, maybe get 10 people in the crowd, all to put on their CV. The best conferences I’ve been to — and continue to go to — are small, subject-specific, and open to all manner of viewpoints and backgrounds (and these are literary conferences). I think trying to make comics conferences into their tweeded, pipe-smoking ancestral archetypes is just selling out and inviting the same problems that those types of conferences encourage. Are we really so desperate to be accepted still? I think that creative naming, continued good work, and increased submissions will just make conference academic tracks better and better. In fact, I think pairing the two was an incredibly shrewd and creative move– we are thinking about comics, which are a pop cultural entity, so what better place to do so than right in the midst of it? Comics are fun — why can’t our conferences be? It doesn’t mean they are not serious — far from it — but there is no rule as to what makes a good conference other than participants and location. CAC = 2 for 2.

    The only possible addition might be an academic sponsor (a school or an organization) but this might be unnecessary and indeed what ICS is doing with some of the other conferences.

  5. Charles Hatfield Says:

    >> trying to make comics conferences into their tweeded, pipe-smoking ancestral archetypes is just selling out and inviting the same problems that those types of conferences encourage.<> The comics historians I turn to the most don’t happen to be ’scholars’ — Steranko, etc. Are they peer-reviewed, etc.? No. Do they have good stuff. Oh yes.<<

    I loved that Steranko history of comics when I was eleven and I like it still; on a personal level, it will always mean a lot to me. But its "good stuff" comes wrapped up with serious limitations: unsubstantiated, apocraphyl lore; myopic emphasis on heroic fantasy at the expense of other, very popular genres of the 1940s-50s; in-group appeals to a small group of dedicated nostalgists; lack of greater cultural context; and lack of hard-nosed economic and publishing data. If Steranko helped stoke my love of comic books when I was a kid, the more cautious, and duly documented, scholarship being produced by academicians today is a necessary next step for truly understanding the history of comics.


    • And, as Joseph Witek’s article on underground comix (In ImageText 1:1, http://www.english.ufl.edu/imagetext/archives/v1_1/witek/, argues, the non-scholarly histories of comics essentially write the underground out of the picture, not only by ignoring it as a movement unto itself, but also failing to see its influences on the mainstream genres. Maybe a fan of underground comix could have produced this critique, but the fact is that a lit/comics scholar did. And I think this is what we have to value about scholarship: its willingness to keep going back and going forward, looking again and again with new lights. God love Scott McCloud (as I do), but I wish he would revisit his theories and develop them further in light of others’ critiques.

  6. Charles Hatfield Says:

    >> trying to make comics conferences into their tweeded, pipe-smoking ancestral archetypes is just selling out and inviting the same problems that those types of conferences encourage.<<

    [Sorry, this comment appears to have been truncated in my previous, so I'm trying again.]

    Pipe-smoking? This is a reductio ad absurdum argument, based on an outmoded caricature of "traditional" academic conferences.

    One does not have to "sell out" to see that there are serious problems with trying to pursue independent scholarship under the auspices of fandom.

  7. Charles Hatfield Says:

    [Sorry, my previous comment appears to have been truncated, so I’m re-posting the part that didn’t show.]

    >> trying to make comics conferences into their tweeded, pipe-smoking ancestral archetypes is just selling out and inviting the same problems that those types of conferences encourage.<<

    Pipe-smoking? This is a reductio ad absurdum argument, based on an outmoded caricature of "traditional" academic conferences.

    One does not have to "sell out" to see that there are serious problems with trying to pursue independent scholarship under the auspices of fandom.

  8. Charles Hatfield Says:

    >> The CAC is free to separate from Comic-Con, which is also free to start its own academic track… <> Academic tracks … are more imbrecated in a convention. Typically the convention plays a significant role in shaping the academic panels (whether the composition of the panels, the scheduling, or other aspects of the organizing), and the track bears the name of the con … so that the conference and the con can’t be separated. <<

    Again, this doesn't strike me as academic programming. A scholarly panel shaped by convention programmers is not academic in character.

    Don't get me wrong; I'm not claiming that only academics can do seriousness scholarship, nor that academics should not take advantage, practically and intellectually, of comic book conventions. I'm certainly not claiming that academics should have a monopoly on comics studies. But an event cannot be academic in character if it does not originate in an academic institution and is not shaped by academic processes.

    The most important comparison, in my view, is that between the atmosphere and purposes of a comic book convention and the atmosphere and purposes of an academic conference. The comparison between two different flavors of events held at comic cons is a red herrring, IMO.

  9. Charles Hatfield Says:

    I’m sorry, I just can’t let this pass without comment, even though commenting may make me appear ornery and hostile:

    >>Sure, presenting at MLA might look better but it is also much harder to do<> (few comics panels at MLA, a few days after Christmas) <> and does it really have the kind of comics networking opportunities that say the CAC has? <> Are they peer-reviewed, etc.? No. Do they have good stuff. Oh yes.<<

    Peer review is the essence of academic work, the foundation of academic standards of evidence and documentation. If you reject peer review, you are rejecting the foundation of the new comics studies.

  10. Charles Hatfield Says:

    [Sorry, reposting once again due to a truncated comment.]

    I’m sorry, I just can’t let this pass without comment, even though commenting may make me appear ornery and hostile:

    Sure, presenting at MLA might look better but it is also much harder to do

    That’s why it’s better.

    (few comics panels at MLA, a few days after Christmas)

    No longer true. The Comics and Graphic Narrative discussion area will be formed at MLA 2011 (January 2011, Los Angeles) and by then MLA will no longer be just after Christmas. In fact comics study has been on the rise within MLA for some time.

    and does it really have the kind of comics networking opportunities that say the CAC has?

    What matters is scholarly (not strictly comics) networking opportunities. In that regard MLA is vitally important.

    Are they peer-reviewed, etc.? No. Do they have good stuff. Oh yes.

    Peer review is the essence of academic work, the foundation of academic standards of evidence and documentation. If you reject peer review, you are rejecting the foundation of the new comics studies.

  11. David Beard Says:

    I’d like to thank Dr. Hatfield for his comments, which reinforce both the importance of the traditional academic work and the mutual benefit that acrues when scholars enter into dialogue with fan-scholars.

    Good topic. Although I would hesitate to encourage anyone to attend MLA.

    I will be part of the local arrangements committee for the Rhetoric Society of America in 2010 in Minneapolis; do you think that the ICS would be interested in sponsoring a thread of panels at that convention? Is there a compatibility between rhetoric, composition and communication scholars and comics studies that would be worth encouraging?

  12. charleshatfield Says:

    Good topic. Although I would hesitate to encourage anyone to attend MLA.

    Comics studies will have a more prominent role at MLA from this point forward and I therefore disagree. I would encourage any and all comics scholars in the languages and literatures field to attend MLA 2011, because the first meeting of the Comics and Graphic Narrative area there is going to be a watershed in comics study. Scholars should be encouraged to get on the ground floor and seize this opportunity, not discouraged on the grounds that it’s “MLA.”

    In my experience, MLA can be a huge, impersonal, and intimidating experience, but it also can be a more intimate, welcoming experience, depending on the islands of interest and professional/personal association that you have there. The founding of a Comics and Graphic Narrative area at MLA will help comics scholars build those islands of association, to the betterment of the conference.

    • comicsstudies Says:

      Charles,

      Can you provide more info about the Comics and Graphic Narrative area? Who is involved in founding this area? How did it come about?

  13. David Beard Says:

    That is good news, Charles.


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