In this episode of “It’s a Thing!” I talk with Dr. Paul Booth about being a prolific writer, life after tenure, fan studies pedagogy and, of course, Doctor Who.
Lori Morimoto: Hi, and welcome to “It’s a Thing!”, the podcast where we talk about fan studies and how it’s a thing. I’m your host, Lori Morimoto.
LM: On this episode of “It’s a Thing!”, I’m talking with Dr. Paul Booth, a professor of Media and Cinema Studies in the College of Communication at DePaul University, as well as a co-coordinator of the Fan Studies Network North America conference. So, stick around!
LM: I want to thank you for joining me today, Paul.
Paul Booth: Thanks, Lori. This is super fun. I’m really excited.
LM: Yeah, me too. And I’d like to get started with what’s kind of my typical first question, which is, what was your introduction to fan studies?
PB: That, you know, it’s funny. I’ve listened to every episode of this podcast that you’ve put together, and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that everyone seems to have a very different kind of entry into fan studies. And I’m going to continue that tradition with a different entry into fan studies, kind of, which is that I, I kind of, I fell into it the way you fall into a like a hole in a forest or something. I was working on my PhD and I had no real idea that fan studies existed. I hadn’t – I mean, I’d read things from Jenkins and other kind of fan work in classes, but it didn’t really resonate with me at the time. I was just kind of like, here’s another reading assignment I have to do in this Media Studies class. And it came time to put my dissertation together, and I thought, what’s gonna be the most expedient thing for me to do? Let’s take all of the final papers that I’ve written for every class, that were all about 20 pages long, and say, what is a common theme that they all have? It’s like, so this will take me the least amount of time possible. And I suddenly, when I took a step back from everything that I’d done in class, I realized that every paper was about some aspect of fandom and I hadn’t realized it at the time. So like in a rhetorical studies class, I did a rhetorical study of the way people talked about the cancellation of Firefly, and they were all about different things, but they were all about fans.
LM: How did you parlay that into your dissertation?
PB: Well, I went to my dissertation advisor, and I said, “I’ve noticed all of these things are about fans. I want to kind of use all of these, what should I do?” And she said, “Here, read this book,” and she handed me Textual Poachers. I mean, metaphorically, I think she probably just told me, go to the library and check out Textual Poachers. And I did, and I’m like, “Ah, this is what my dissertation was gonna be. Shoot. Well, now I have to do something different.” And so that’s what ended up … I kind of read Textual Poachers. I read Matt Hills’s Fan Cultures, and then I kind of said, “Okay, what hasn’t been done?” I was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. My main area was kind of digital media and new media stuff. And so, I thought at this point, which was 2007, I said, no one’s really been looking at fans and social media, we didn’t even really have the term social media. So, what, what has changed in this environment from 1990 to 2002? Now 2007, 2008, what has changed? And so that’s where the dissertation came from. And that’s where Digital Fandom came from.
LM: Are you, I mean, I kind of feel like I know the answer to this, but are you a fan of anything yourself?
PB: Oh, geez, Lori. I don’t know. Um… This is a really difficult question as I look around my office-
LM: I know.
PB: -surrounded by posters of Doctor Who fan art, of Doctor Who …
LM: You hide it well but …
PB: Yeah, it’s really tough when you, when you teach a class on Doctor Who and yeah, so it’s Doctor Who.
LM: Yeah. When did you encounter Doctor Who for the first time?
PB: So I was somewhere between the ages of three and four when I first encountered Doctor Who. I have the very … I don’t even know if it’s a real memory or just a memory that’s been implanted in me, but the long story is, my family – at least my dad and that side of the family is from England, from Britain, and my dad grew up watching Doctor Who and is a Doctor Who fan. He was there the first day watching it, he was 10 years old watching the first episode, and he said it kind of blew his mind. And so, we were living in Chicago suburbs, and it came on, it was on public television. So, he was kind of re-watching these old episodes, and he said, “Oh, you, Paul, you should come in and watch this episode with me.” And I did. And it terrified me. And I was hooked. I have a very vivid memory of being in an elementary school after-school program, and going up to some of my friends and saying, just talking to them, like, like everyone watched Doctor Who. I was like, “Oh, did you see, you know, what did you think of that kind of bog monster on Doctor Who last week?” And they’re like, “What the actual f are you talking about?” We were in elementary school, so they probably were a little bit more restrained. So, I’ve been a fan my entire life. And I’ve only really been in fan studies in the last 10, 12 … yeah, 12 years.
LM: How is your experience of sort of negotiating that? I know for everybody, it’s a little bit different going back and forth or just through both being a fan studies scholar and a fan. For you, what is that experience like?
PB: You know, that’s, it’s a great question, and I struggle with it whenever I hear it on your podcast, because I try and think about it when you ask other people, and I’m never quite sure how to answer it because I think it’s different for different roles. So I’ve made fan studies such a part of every aspect of my life that, in some ways, it’s very hard to separate out myself from it. Like I said, I mean, I teach a fan studies class, I teach classes about things that I am a fan of, I research fan studies, and I also write about things that I’m a fan of. In my personal, everyday non-academic life, I’m still a fan, but because all of my friends know of my passion for fan studies, they will ask me fan studies-esque questions, even outside of academic things. And so, it, in some ways, I’m inseparable from these identities and in other ways I think they define me in my everyday interactions. And I love it, I mean, I’m not, it’s not a complaint, I think it’s accurate. And it is a way that I, I would describe myself, but to be able to parse them apart and say, “Oh, this part of me is the fan, and this part of me is the fan studies scholar,” I just I don’t see that distinction as clearly as some other people do. And I think that’s because I studied the thing that I am a fan of.
PB: You know, like I’ve written a lot about Doctor Who, I sometimes write about things that I’m not a fan of, but most of the time it is I am a fan of this and I am writing about it.
LM: Mm-hmm. I know you’ve been on at least a panel at Gallifrey One, which is the big US Doctor Who convention. In that space, how do people receive you?
PB: They don’t receive me and, and I don’t introduce myself as a “fan studies scholar.” And I think that’s very deliberate on my part because I, and that’s why you have this podcast. I don’t think people know what it is, and I think it’s confusing, so … but I introduce myself as a media studies scholar, a pop culture scholar, a teacher, an educator, you know, and all these different terms that, you know, in a kind of more meta sense or a larger sense encompass what I do. But I don’t ever get so specific as to say I am, I’m a fan studies scholar. But what I find is that, and, and almost universally, I don’t know if I have an exception to this really, people have really embraced and loved the things … I shouldn’t say they’ve loved, I don’t know if they’ve loved it. But they’ve, they’ve embraced the things that I have talked about. They find it fascinating that someone teaches pop culture. They find it absolutely amazing that, especially if you’re at a Doctor Who convention, if you talk about the Doctor Who class they are all in and I get, like, either, “I wish I had a class like that when I was in school,” or they get quizzy, like, “Oh, do you teach this episode? Do you teach that episode? What do you do about this, what do you do about that?” But I almost never had a negative reaction to, “Oh, you’re, you teach fan stuff, and you’re a pop culture scholar,” especially when I’m, when I’m not speaking at academic institutions. If I’m speaking at conventions, if I’m speaking at community events … I just did a talk at a library last week on cult film, and there’s never pushback. It’s always, “I had no idea people studied this, that’s so interesting,” and “You’ve made me see something in a new light.” And I think that’s, that’s exactly what I want. As an educator, I want people to start thinking about the things that they like.
LM: So, I’d like to shift gears a little bit and talk a bit about your writing, because you are an impressively prolific writer, and especially coming from a position where, you know, I am not a prolific writer by any stretch of the imagination, what motivates that writing and how do you keep to it regularly in order to produce as much scholarship as you do?
PB: Insanity? Would that be the word for it? Um…
LM: Well, it would work for me.
PB: You know me too well. So, when I, I never really, I always wanted to be a teacher, I never really wanted to be a writer or a researcher, particularly. I knew it was going to be part of the job, and I enjoyed writing my dissertation, but it wasn’t like, “I’m gonna write 10 books in 10 years,” you know, like, that wasn’t my goal. But when I first started at DePaul, and I found a very supportive environment for the type of work that I enjoyed doing, and, and they really encouraged me to kind of explore my writing and get into it. They have, kind of, writing workshops and things, and they have, you know, work-life balance and do all that, which I promptly ignored. But what I ended up finding out is that I just, I really enjoyed the process of writing. I really enjoy almost every step of it, and by now I have a pretty solid, what kind of plan, and if I’m going to write something I know what I need to do. I enjoy the research part of it, I enjoy the outlining part of it, I enjoy the drafting, I enjoy the editing probably the most. I enjoy editing the most. And even down to the formatting, like, so that like I really, and this is now you’re delving into psychological stuff my therapist doesn’t even touch, I really like getting into the down and dirty of words and figuring out like, alright, for this footnote to appear here, what combination of things do I need to do?
PB: So, like, that’s really enjoyable, that the whole thing is very enjoyable. In terms of my process, I look at writing as one of the three things that I have to do, right? I, as, as a tenure-track academic, teaching is approximately 40% of what I do, research is approximately 40% of what I do, and then service is about 20%. Give or take, and it changes on what rank you are, and everything, but that’s my rule of thumb. That’s what I was told. So that means I’m expected to spend 40% of my work days, my work week writing or doing some, some research or something writing, productive. So certainly, for the first five years, up until tenure, I blocked off a day and said that’s my writing/research day. I know not everyone can do that, schedules are different. The way that I work, I can work for eight hours on writing stuff, and that’s fine. Some people can’t. Some people do a couple hours and then go away, and a couple hours and go away. It’s fine. You know, however it works for people. I’m not saying this is the best way. It’s just the way that works for me.
PB: So like Mondays, research day, nine to five. I didn’t grade. I didn’t plan classes. I didn’t take meetings. If someone said, “Can you have a meeting this day?” “No, I’m busy.” And it was because I am. I’m being paid to do research, so this is the day that I’m doing research. And then teach was two days a week. And then service, you can’t always figure out when you’re going to do service. So that fit in when I did it outside that research day. And it usually worked out that there was one other day or half day, the rest of the week, that I could spend writing and researching. And that was my schedule for five years. And it changed every quarter because my classes changed days every quarter. But I had to set aside, and I had to put it on my calendar, like I couldn’t just say I’m going to do this Monday, it had to be on my calendar to remind me. And then I became I became used to that, and and now I just kind of do it naturally. But it was something that I had to plan and I learned that from my dissertation.
PB: The discipline required to do a dissertation while all of your friends are doing other things, and there’s all these opportunities to go and, I mean, you you have no other responsibilities. It’s in some ways, the best time and also the worst time, and I found if I didn’t just sit down and put it on the calendar and say, “Alright, nine to five, that’s my workday, that’s when I’m going to work.” And then give yourself permission to stop. 5pm I stop. I mean, I finish the sentence I’m doing, you know, and then I’m done. And then I don’t feel bad, enjoying my evening and going out, bingeing television for four hours, because I’ve spent the day working and it is work.
LM: You should try it with a baby.
PB: Well, see, and there’s, this is where privilege enters into it. Again, I never had children. I always had a very supportive environment, supportive home life, supportive school. So I know not everyone can do this. I know that people have different responsibilities and is impossible for some people to do that. What worked for me was finding out what worked for me. And then sticking to it. And so, it’s not that plan, particularly, it’s just saying, here’s a plan, and I’m going to stick to it. I can’t do that with cutting carbs. I can’t do that with exercise, but I can do it with writing, because I love writing. And, and I found that I really did.
PB: When I finish a draft of a book and send it off, when that happens, and you’re kind of just sick of that book at that point, in that period between sending it off and getting a new, getting feedback, I write a new book proposal. Like, because I like writing, and I have other ideas, but I don’t want to write about frickin board games anymore. I don’t want to write about fans anymore, or I don’t wanna write about Doctor Who. So, I’m going to write about this new thing. And then I have another book proposal. And then I’m like, “Well, I should probably send that one off.” So, it’s, I’m doing it to myself, which is the worst part. It’s kind of masochistic in some way. I will say, you know, I have taken a backseat in a certain respect, and I’ve started editing more and, you know, guest editing journals and editing books, and working on the Fan Studies Network North America conference, because that at a certain point, I feel like people have read Paul Booth. They don’t need to read more Paul Booth. But what I can do with my privilege, and what I can do with the position that I’m in, is help bring new voices in and help, help new people find fan studies and find that. So that I found that to be a very rewarding part of what I’ve been doing now.
LM: Yeah, that kind of ties into another thing that I wanted to ask you. And that is about your involvement in Fan Studies Network North America. For the interest of disclosure, I will say that we’re both on the committee with Louisa Stein and Jacinta Yanders and Leslie Willard [ETA: and the critical involvement of Kristina Busse in our first year]. And so, the five of us have done that for two years. And I’m wondering what your motivation for getting involved in that was what, you’ve found rewarding about it or difficult about it.
PB: It really kind of started, the bringing the Fan Studies Network to North America, it was a whole bunch of us. And as I recall, you know, it really started when Casey McCormick said to me in 2013, or something like that, we should start a fan studies group SIG, at SCMS, and those of you-
LM: Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
PB: Yes. So that’s a Special Interest Group at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. And it’s kind of like a little club within a much larger club of like-minded scholars or like studied scholars, I should say they’re not like-minded. And we had, which took us a while, and we had all sorts of arguments about what the name should be and what we should focus on. But we finally got it organized, and we had our first meeting, and there were, god, there were like 100 people in a room built for 40. I mean, like, which was a fire hazard, but also amazing to see, you know, like, we’ve built something. And I and Casey, I mean, it was it was 90% Casey, did an amazing job.
LM: Yeah, she really did.
PB: And we went around the room and we did introductions, and that took 90% of our time. And then we said, “All right, what should we do?” And almost universally everyone said, “We need a fan studies conference.” Like, we’ve created a group in the space that allows us to have a group, and now we need a separate place for this group to meet. And so, the Fan Studies Network existed in England, in the UK, and so let’s talk to them and see what we can do. And it, it took a couple years of fi- kind of figuring it out and getting people together and organizing, but we did and, and I think part of the rationale was it’s expensive to fly to the UK, environmentally, it’s not very good to kind of fly a bunch of scholars over across the Atlantic, and US fan studies is different than UK fan studies. It concentrates on different things. And so, we, and I say it we, it’s you, me, Louisa, and Kristina was participating in it at that point. And Leslie. So, we contacted the UK one and we created this US one, and we deliberately set out to copy the things that we really liked, like the speed-geeking and, and the food, having food all the time, and then bringing our own ideas into it. The workshops and the pedagogy-focused stuff, and really bringing kind of some US-focused fan studies material. A lot of focus on race, a lot of focus on marginalized fandoms.
PB: And so, I think we’ve created our own identity, I think we have created a space where a lot of scholars, a lot of junior scholars, younger scholars, independent scholars feel comfortable coming and sharing research that isn’t necessarily seen as, as productive as other research in mainstream academic organizations like MLA or NCA or SCMS. And it’s fun, and we’ve created a kind of environment where we have like a Fan Studies Against Humanity card game at our kind of dinner. So, I kind of touched on this a little bit, as you said, but when I went up for tenure, in 2014, 2014, you know, they asked me, “What do you want to do now?” And I realized, you know, I wanted to start exploring new research. So that’s where some of the board game stuff came from. But I realized that there aren’t a huge number of tenured, full- time faculty in fan studies. Certainly, in the US. There are some and they are and they’re very good, but it’s, it’s not a very large group of people. And I think part of the responsibility of getting tenure and suddenly being told, “We like what you’re doing, even if we don’t quite understand it-“
LM: That’s a pretty powerful position.
PB: It’s a pretty powerful position, and I didn’t want to just spend… it just sounds so self-aggrandizing, and I hate…
LM: You have my permission to say it.
PB: But I don’t, I don’t, I don’t feel it like this. But yeah, it felt kind of like I have a responsibility to take the position that I am in and help people who are not in that position. Help them through advising, mentoring, you know, answering emails, meeting them at conferences, which, you know, I’m happy to do with anybody. Reading material, which I’m always happy to do. But in a more formal way, is what I could do with my position. I don’t have to publish this book. I don’t have to publish this article. I do because I enjoy it, and it’s, I have time to do it. But if I am trying to divide my time between getting a peer-reviewed article out or organizing a conference that can bring 25, 30, 40 junior scholars a line on their CV, then that conference is going to be more important to me at this point. I’m going to get off my high horse a little bit.
LM: Well, let me ask, you know, this actually does tie into where I wanted to take this anyway. In what ways do you think that that felt sense of responsibility ties in with the, your work on pedagogy in general? I mean, it’s not exactly pedagogical, but its outward-focused?
PB: Yeah, that’s, that’s a good way of putting it. It’s outward-focused. It’s pedagogical, in the sense that it’s teaching people about fan studies, people that are not necessarily used to it or, or may have not thought of it, not, just never considered it as a thing. You know, when I said it’s kind of promoting it in a formal sense, I think there’s, there’s a lot of power and a lot of fan studies power lies in not being disciplined. You know, Sam Ford wrote a great piece about this, the undisciplined nature of fan studies. Like, it doesn’t have formal structures. And, you know, we, we can have great debates about what is the canonical work, and, you know, it doesn’t have strict methodologies. Or rather, I should say, doesn’t have absolute methodologies. They’re strict in the ones that you use, but you can use lots of different kinds of methodologies. But there is also power in the institution. And I don’t think people like to think about that, because certainly in fan studies, we’re largely trained to be critical of large institutions. we’re largely trained to be critical of authoritarian regimes. You know, which academia is, like, less as, we try and pretend that it isn’t because most of, at least the people I know, aren’t, but that’s its structure. And there’s power in using that structure to enable others.
PB: So, if I can create a conference, help create a conference, if I can encourage younger scholars, if I can get on a tenure, the promotion and tenure committee for my college and help a junior scholar who is doing fan studies work to contextualize that work that helps them get tenure, then then that is helping the field, even if it’s just a byproduct of someone else’s success. So yeah, it’s pedagogical, in that it’s teaching other people what fan studies is. And it is putting, it’s re-contextualizing it in a way that people understand it. When you’re teaching a media, any sort of class, a media studies class, Hong Kong cinema, to a bunch of business majors or a group of law students or whatever, and it’s, so, nothing against them, but there’s, it’s someone familiar to their background. You have to contextualize it in a way that they understand. And sometimes that means simplifying, and sometimes that means emphasizing things that are not what we would normally emphasize. When I teach fan studies, and I’ve got, you know, 30% of the class are business majors, I’m gonna spend a little bit more time talking about the industry. And I’m gonna spend a little bit more time talking about how fans interact with the industry, because that’s a language that they understand. And if I can get them to understand that, I can try and sneak in some of the more critical stuff that I want them to do. You know, so it’s that writ large. When you’re in front of your university’s tenure committee, and you’ve got one representative from every college, and there’s a business full professor, and there’s an art full professor, and there’s a chemist, how do you make these eight people understand the importance of Hannibal fans?
LM: Absolutely. I mean, when we do, well, the first year that we did FSN North America, which was in 2018, one of the things that really impressed me was that the dean, I believe, of your college?
LM: -came and seemed very enthusiastic at our first keynote, and that was something that I don’t think I’d seen in quite as accepting a way. And, you know, we were talked about a little bit on their Twitter feed. And so, we got some publicity and it seemed like, gosh, that’s, that’s an opening of arms that I haven’t seen a whole lot of. And it matters.
PB: Yeah, it does matter. And it matters to people that aren’t visible. It matters to people who are publishing their first journal article, who are juniors who are looking at where they want to go for grad school.
LM: All right, well, that brings me actually to my last question, and this is something as you know, I ask everyone, as this is “It’s a Thing!”, the podcast about fan studies and how it’s a thing, if you could tell anyone who is unfamiliar with fan studies anything about it, what would that be?
PB: I’ve been dreading this question. I guess if there’s, if there’s something I want to … Okay, here’s one. Um, okay. It’s good, I guess, is it? Okay, well, it is, it’s okay.
PB: Fan studies is plural. And we don’t really write that, because we look at it as a cohesive thing, even though it isn’t. So, we say “fan studies is” as opposed to “fan studies are,” but in my heart, and in the way that I conceptualize it, I see fan studies as a very plural kind of activity. And I mean that in all senses of the word. So, there are multiple ways of doing fan studies. There are multiple types of fan studies, there are fandom studies, right? So, there’s multiple types of people that we’re talking about, but it’s also plural in the sense that what it actually is looking at is a universal kind of experience.
PB: I have this discussion with my dad, right, who is a fan of Doctor Who, but would never call himself a fan of Doctor Who. And I like having this tension in my head when I write, because he never misses an episode. He has a bunch of merchandise. He has gone to Doctor Who conventions, he has a ton of Doctor Who t-shirts. He was there and he watched the first episode, and he likes to talk about that. And all these things that if I was going to say, what is a fan, he’s checking a bunch of boxes, and yet he says, I’m not a fan. I’m not one of those people that you study. And so, what is my role as a researcher? Is it to say, is fandom a practice? Or is it an identity? Is it a thing that is done? Or is it a feeling that you get? And my answer is yes. You know, like, it is all of these things, and it is more than that. It is, it is plural.
PB: I can write about my dad as a type of fan that doesn’t want to identify as a fan for particular reasons. Because I believe, and I think everyone, there is something fannish in everybody about something. It’s just how we phrase it. It’s how we look at it. Someone who is a diehard political junkie would never call themselves a fan, but they’re doing things that are fannish. And so, one of the things I think that fan studies can do is show us the importance of affect, the importance of emotion, the importance of all of these things that we are taught, from day one of school, are less important than logic and rationality. That these things transcend the particular activity that you’re doing and can be described, and can be examined, and can be critically assessed. And it doesn’t matter if it’s media or music, or celebrity or politics or food or whatever. But fan studies offers us such a plurality of ways of examining this phenomenon, that it is crucial.
LM: Well, that’s, yeah, that’s great. And as you know, I agree completely. And I would just simply like to thank you for joining me today. This has been a really enjoyable conversation.
PB: Thank you, Lori. I appreciate it. I appreciate you asking me to do this. And I’m sorry if I talked a lot.
LM: Well, that’s the point.
PB: Well, I know but you, here, you, we’re so, at least I am so uncomfortable. I’m so British in the fact that I am very uncomfortable talking about myself. Except that when you start me, I just can’t stop. So that’s, it’s this tension of being British and being a professor that just can’t, can’t reconcile. But I appreciate the opportunity to introspect a bit.
LM: You did fine.
PB: Thank you.
LM: Thanks a lot.
LM: That’s all for this episode of “It’s a Thing!” Next time, I’ll be talking with Dr. Benjamin Woo, an associate professor of Media and Communication at Carleton University in Ontario, Canada, and author of Getting a Life: The Social Worlds of Geek Culture. Until then, stay safe!
Music: “Neck Pillow,” by Silent Partner
To cite (Chicago): Morimoto, Lori. 18 April 2020. “Paul Booth.” Podcast audio. It’s a Thing! MP3, 1.8. [Accessed date]. https://itsathing.net/2020/04/18/episode-8:-paul-booth