Category Archives: Academic life

PopCAANZ 2017

The call for abstracts for the 2017 iteration of the annual conference for the Popular Culture Association of Australia and New Zealand (PopCAANZ) is closing soon.

If you have an interest in popular culture, presentations are called for in areas as varied as Life Writing, Toys and Games, Disability, Gothic and Horror, Comics, Science and more. There really is something for everybody–and shapeshifters have popped up in Gothic, TV, Comics and Film areas.

This year’s conference will be held in Wellington in late June, and 150-word abstracts are being accepted up until March 31, so get writing!

Popcaanz

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London Calling: Pop Culture versus High Culture

There has been much excitement in the world of the authors of this humble blog lately – we were  briefly reunited. Dr Roslyn upped and buggered off to the Mother Country a couple of years back, and so all our work has been done online (as opposed to our previous model, which was largely online, but every now and then I’d ring her up and announce, “I can’t write! This isn’t working! I’m too distracted!” and invite myself to her place for a working sleepover, sans kids).

So when I got an email asking me if I’d consider submitting an abstract for a conference in Oxford, the answer was a resounding yes. Oxford! OXFORD! You know, where Lyra and Pan were? Where Tolkien and Lewis studied? Where Alice is set and Harry was shot? That’s only a couple of hours away from where Roslyn is currently living, in a country I’ve always wanted to visit but had never quite made it? That one?

Yes, please.

Yes, please.

So, yes, I submitted the abstract. And they accepted it. So off I set for the 13th Inter-Disciplinary Net Monsters and the Monstrous Conference: Monstrous Hungers.

But what to present? Well, with the Wolf Girls getting the band back together, it had to be something wolfy. And since my Day Job is working with students with disabilities (mainly mental health disorders), and Job #2 is training high school teachers how to deal with and engage adolescents, I opted to go with Martin Millar’s Wolf Girl trilogy: about an anxious, depressed, cutting, homeless addict who also happens to be a teenage werewolf.

Millar's trilogy curse of wolf KALIX.indd

The itinerary was pretty much skewed to popular, rather than high, culture. We started with a trip to Wimbledon. I am not a believer in “Bucket Lists,” but when I was treated for cancer at the ripe old age of 31, a family decision was made that some things on the “we can do that in retirement” list needed to be moved to the “do it if the opportunity arises” list, and we set off to visit the Australian Open and the Great Ocean Road once my treatment was completed. After that taste of Grand Slam action, I thought I’d like to complete my own Slam (as a spectator) – Wimbledon, the US in New York (hey, it’s New York! – also on the must-see-but-never-been list) and if you’re going to go to three of them, you might as well go to the fourth, even if it is on clay. Plus, Paris. But up until going to visit someone who actually lived in the suburb of Wimbledon, I was still on Step 1.

So I was introduced to the wonders of The Queue, and then the even more wondrous idea that slightly used tickets get handed back in and you can buy a cheap second-hand ticket and actually get onto Centre Court to watch Finals. I still cannot believe that this actually happened.

Continuing the Wimbledon theme, we headed into Wimbledon Common where Roslyn assured me I would find no actual Wombles.

I know a Womble when I see one

I know a Womble when I see one

wombles on commmon

Or three …

Continuing the low culture theme, we then set out on a quest to locate Sun Hill.

If the guys were hanging around out the front, that would be even better ...

If the guys were hanging around out the front, that would be even better …

We knew that the studio and Sun Hill set was in Wimbledon. We found out the address (we are researchers, after all). And then we kept seeing police cars as we trudged through the drizzle of an out-of-the-way industrial estate.

This was a good sign ...

A good sign?

I was ready to give up but Roslyn (as usual) had done more research than me, and was therefore more confident of an outcome. And we turned the corner and there it was … Sun Hill station. There was much gasping and carrying on from me, and I was there hyperventilating long enough for a security guard to come and advise us we “couldn’t be on site” but to take as many photos as we needed on the way out.

sun hill

Embarrassingly happy

We also had a trip to the London Eye (which did NOT act as an aerial for Doctor Who, on that occasion), walked all over London including around Westminster Abbey (where David Tennant was NOT playing a conniving politician, on this occasion), took a  Beatles-esque photo on Abbey Road and –another highlight–checked out Mamma Mia in Covent Garden.

Doctors 9 and 10 hung out hereMamma Miaabbey roadBut there was one very big, high culture moment … Richard II at Shakespeare’s Globe. Not gonna lie, there was a teary moment when that idea hit home.

Globe

Bear in mind, I’m a recovering English teacher

And on to Oxford. The conference was held in Mansfield College and the meals were served in a Harry Potter-esque chapel.

mansfield collegeseats

The conference was fascinating and intense and as we’ve already established in Oxford. And afterwards a few of us managed to have our final dinner and drink at The Turf, where former Australian PM Bob Hawke broke the world skolling record and former US President Bill Clinton allegedly did not inhale.

I can't down a yard glass at all, let alone in that time frame

I can’t down a yard glass at all, let alone in that time frame

Ros joined me the day after the conference for some literary nerd Oxford adventures. We checked out Blackwell’s bookshop (where they were celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland), and went to the Eagle and Child (where Tolkien and Lewis hung out), and also the Marks of Genius exhibition at the Bodleian Library which blew my tiny little mind by having things on display like Tolkien’s hand-drawn cover for the Hobbit; a 13-year-old Jane Austen’s novel, dedicated to her sister, Cassandra; the original hand-written draft of The Wind in the Willows; and two excised pages of Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which Frankenstein and Clerval roam around Oxford.

Free exhibition, people.

IMG_0971

If you look closely, you can see my mind *actually* being blown

This trip had it all:  sport and Shakespeare, ABBA and Abbey Road, Wimbledon and Wombles, werewolves and woodentops, sandstone and Shelley. It was the best of pop music, pop culture, literature and drama. Anytime London calls, I reckon I’ll go.


Giles, Stiles, and trips to Sydney … GANZA Mark II

Last time I blogged about the GANZA conference, it took me a very long time to get around to doing it. So pick your collective self up off the floor, dear readers, because this time around I’m getting around to it a scant few days after the 2nd biennial conference, themed “Gothic Spaces: Boundaries, Mergence and Liminalities.”

The conference opened with a plenary session from Professor John Stephens about the Gothic in Children’s literature, which I throroughly enjoyed. Professor Stephens introduced us to the picture book of Cinderella Skeleton, who is my kind of princess. Not content with losing her slipper, in this version the would-be princess loses her entire foot.

cinderella skeletonThe next session I attended included papers from Anna Jackson (continuing the tradition of sitting in awe as you’re in the same room as people you’ve cited), Samuel Finegan, Erin Mercer and Elizabeth Kinder. The topics ranged from ideas about memory and privacy, to incest and rape, to the use of candles and simulacra to mimic urban legends, to the “armed bastards” of Life on Mars and Ashes to AshesThis little snapshot kind of gives you a feel for GANZA: postgrads, early career researchers and experts in the field mingle, and the content covered is broad ranging. Over the course of two days, we discussed the Gothic as it appeared in TV, film, literature, fashion, food, architecture, geography, medicine, disability and more.

My paper this time around was inspired by a conversation with my teenaged daughter, who has finally overcome her resistance to reading/watching “anything Mum works on” because her friends are all into Buffy, The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf. In fact, at any given point in time she’s usually more up-to-date than I am, since I tend to binge-watch when I have a looming deadline. Anyway, at some point she came home and in that shocked tone that teenagers use when a parent is right, asked “how I knew” that something I’d said would happen, would happen. I replied: “Because I’m Giles; the watcher from the margins. The teacher” to which she retorted: “and Stiles.” And of course, she was right: Stiles IS the Watcher of Teen Wolf; the token human, the guy who needs to be protected but who has the knowledge and research skills to develop the plans. Only he’s not an adult British tweed wearing bloke with a massive distrust of computers, so how do they keep him in the margins? By adding a series of illnesses and disabilities, of course. As the wolves are managing and embracing their “condition” of lycanthropy, Stiles is shown repeatedly to be weak, sick, incurably human. Or as he puts it, because he’s every bit as into pop culture as we are: he’s always Robin to Scott-the-teen-alpha’s Batman.

Day 2 saw the second plenary, this time from Professor Paul Giles. It focussed on the “Antipodean Gothic;” happily, something that felt more homely than unhomely to me (Roslyn and I both did our PhDs under the supervision of Professor Gerry Turcotte. If you type “Australian Gothic” into Google, the first two entries that pop up were both authored by him). This was followed by more fantastic panel sessions.

After the conference’s close and packing away the conference rooms, we headed off to the Hero of Waterloo in the Rocks for a Gothic trivia night and ghost tour. Unfortunately those of us who were actually carrying everything needed for said quiz hopped into a cab with Sydney’s worst taxi driver, who told us he had never heard of the Hero of Waterloo (Sydney’s oldest pub and a stop on the famous Rocks ghost tour) and didn’t know of Fort Street (!) when we helpfully gave him the street address instead. He then asked us (from Auckland, Newcastle and Nowra) for directions. What ensued was a whacky and needlessly long and expensive trek through Sydney with directions coming from a passenger’s iPhone that was on 1% battery. When I realised that nothing in the cab worked – not the GPS, not the clock, and I’m willing to bet that there was something odd with the meter, given that the ride home was about half the price–we began to speculate that perhaps we had slipped into some kind of fantastic wormhole ourselves. Finally we pulled up just past the pub in a screech of brakes, to be greeted by a lot of anxious quiz-goers who were wondering if they had gone to the wrong place.

81 lower fort street

There were some pretty big hints as to its location.

There were some pretty big hints as to its location.

Anyway, all that drama aside, we had a lovely quiz which was very tight and involved quite minimal smartphone-based cheating. We then headed into the depths of hell rather warm basement and cellar and were treated to a quick history of how publicans past used to drug likely souls, shove them down a trapdoor and then push them out a tunnel and onto a boat while they were still out to it. Our host had one of those lively lilting Irish accents that helps you suspend disbelief–I would have cheerfully listened to him recite the Periodic Table of Elements, I think. The tunnel and trapdoor have long since been “made safe” but there are still shackles in the sandstone that used to be used as a kind of holding bay on busy nights. There’s also apparently a ghost, the late wife of a former publication who shoved her down the trapdoor during an argument and snapped her neck in the process. So be careful about those petty arguments with your spouse, people, especially if shanghai-ing strangers is an entry in your significant other’s CV.

Sadly, we didn’t see any ghosts, but that could be because I didn’t think through my wardrobe choices and turned up wearing my favourite Ghostbusters T-shirt. Sorry, guys.


The BBQ Line

I went to my high school reunion this past weekend. As I’ve noted elsewhere in cyberspace, I went to school in Lithgow, and that’s kind of like the real world equivalent of Old Lima Heights in Glee (I once had a rather senior academic tell me I was “quite impressive,” right after he asked where I’d gone to school. The “~for someone from Lithgow” was kind of left hanging, unspoken, in the air between us. Um, thank you, but no. There are some bloody funny, bloody smart people in any school with 1200 enrolments, and water finds its own level).

"Everyone you wanna be, prob'ly started off like me"

You may say that I’m a freak show …

The other thing I should flag before we go any further, is that almost no-one used their real name in Lithgow, so when I use derivatives of people surnames here, they’re not pseudonyms. They’re what I actually call these people, to their faces, except in front of members of their immediate family. So, having had nowhere near enough sleep but being in a reflective mood, I’d like to share a couple of the best pop-culture related moments of the evening.

First up, I caught up with a very dear mate I actually haven’t seen since, oh, about two months after we left school, which would be about when we all buggered off to various institutions of learning or work. I asked Shep what he’s doing now and he mumbled something about it being boring. I teased – does it have a job title? What’s on his payslip? And he prevaricated. He said has a job title but it doesn’t describe what he does. And I told him he needs a BBQ line. The “BBQ line” will be familiar to PhD candidates. You spend ages coming up with some lexically dense abstract that describes your project in terms that will make academics nod their heads sagely and say things like, “Hmmm, I think that might have legs.” But then you need a totally different, accessible, short line that you can use at the family barbecue in order to explain exactly how you are wasting your life spending your study time. Preferably before the relative with the tongs nods off and the snags get burned beyond recognition.

I reminded him that he’d recommended that I read Raymond E. Feist’s Magician. This was my first “adult” foray into the Fantasy genre. Sure, I’d read Narnia and Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence and Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time–and I loved them!but I had kind of compartmentalised them as kids’ books. So here we were in Year 12 and I was being my complete stresshead self and he suggests I bugger off into an alternate world for a bit.

So I did.

And then I went to Uni and took Richard Harland‘s Fantasy subject where I was introduced to the wonders of Anne McCaffrey. (One of my classmates was the wonderful Adina West, by the way, if you’d like to check out some contemporary Australian Fantasy of the blood-drinking or shapeshifting persuasion).

And now, as I explained to my friend, one of the things I get to do is write about Fantasy.

And that’s my BBQ line. And for a moment we just stood there, grinning. Because it is kind of cool to realise that a conversation in a shared study period can actually lead somewhere totally unexpected.

Later in the evening, I was standing next to Shep’s best mate, Del. Actually, I was standing next to Del for much of the evening. He has an uncanny knack of finding the funny in everything and sometimes it’s borderline inappropriate, but because he’s always been supportive and incredibly kind, I let him get away with it. So at one point he’s in conversation with the other EngLit PhD from our year, who also happens to be a highly successful YA author. And they’re talking books. Oh yes, I was at the nerds’ table, and I’m owning that. I loved every minute of it. Anyway, so Del says how he read Feist’s Magician and that started him reading a whole bunch of Fantasy stuff. And so there was more grinning, and by now I’m thinking Shep should be getting some kind of commission from Feist’s publisher.

(And both lads, bless them, asked where they could find out more about what I’d published. You should find links scattered through this blog, fellas. We’re all about the shameless self-promotion, here. Plus, I’ve got half-a-dozen signed copies on my shelf at work, ready for sale, because I didn’t want to store them at mine and Ros moved halfway across the world so I’ve got her sale copies, too. Just sayin.’ No pressure).

Still later, I had a very earnest conversation with my mate Phoopie about the strengths of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, while our rather sober (in both senses of the word) friend Ols stood behind us rolling his eyes at said earnestness.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

I spent a lot of time in the library, too.

We didn’t spend the whole night talking books or cult TV, and I won’t regale you with all the you-had-to-be-there jokes. But I did feel as though I was on Graham Norton’s couch for a while there. Specifically, the night he had Bill Murray on. The conversation was smart and funny and self-deprecating and I really hope I don’t have to wait another twenty-something years for the next burst.

But on the long drive back yesterday, I was thinking about my BBQ line. And if I focus on that, it really does seem like I have the coolest job in the world. But lately I haven’t been feeling it. Some of my teaching is incredibly cool, too. I work with the most disadvantaged students in the Uni, and while I would be lying if I said that I was always able to make a difference, when I do see progress, it’s spectacularly rewarding. So this week, I am going to try to focus on the BBQ line, rather than the mire of the day-to-day, and see if I’m less of a stresshead by escaping that way. Failing that, I’m going to escape into a Fantasy novel.

* This post is dedicated to the memory of our library mate, Ben R. We wish you were at the nerds’ table with us this weekend.


My Brilliant, Undead Career

I’m supposed to working on a book manuscript right now. Instead, I’m procrastinating. My “day job” involves working with University students to improve their academic learning and literacy. That’s right, I teach people to write, and then try to actively avoid writing myself, sometimes by doing things like blogging. Which is, you know, actually writing. The irony is palpable.

phd comics writing

There’s a curious tension between such a teaching-focused role and my research, which has become increasingly focused on pop culture over the years. A lot of people don’t get it. But as I’ve argued repeatedly, you can’t teach students unless you engage them. If all they want to talk about is Game of Thrones, fine; use that as an analogy to discuss politics and power, or medieval social strata, or the use of mise-en-scene, or whatever else you can twist it to fit. It’s easier to do that and capture their attention than it is to stamp your foot and demand that they stop distracting you from your pre-established lesson plan whose brilliance they are clearly missing. As Roslyn and I have said repeatedly, popular cultures does matter, because anything with which students–and society more generally–engages, influences the thinking of those students and that society.

So when I was approached by the Centre for Student Engagement at my Uni to present a lunchtime workshop on how to “Ace that Essay!,” I saw an opportunity. Let’s rethink this, I said. Let’s rename it. That idea of an essay having a “body”? Let’s use it. Let’s carve up the corpse of some of my old writing drafts and see how the bits get stitched together to make something of Frankensteinian beauty.

Perhaps they were scared of me, because they agreed.

I’m sure there are some who see my research as completely removed from my teaching.  Most people are too polite to actually roll their eyes and say, “She’s in her office doing her own thing, again,” but I suspect there might be some who still think it. But then again, most people don’t see my one to one appointments with my students.

I work mainly with at-risk students. Students with disabilities, Indigenous students, and Mature Age students returning to study after years or decades outside of formal classrooms. Some of them come into my office very cautiously. Others come in seething with resentment, because they think they’ve been identified as somehow lacking and sent for some kind of remediation. But it’s a very rare student who doesn’t comment on the Doctor WhoThe Big Bang Theory, The Vampire Diaries or X-Files paraphernalia on the walls. Or the rows and rows of vampire and werewolf-themed books and DVDs. Or even the occasional Twilight-themed card or decorating item, because Roslyn and I like to buy each other hilariously kitsch gifts whenever we can.

It gets them talking. Pop culture is a great leveller.

So, when faced with a group of students in Week 1–number unknown, faculties and fields of study unknown, and whether or not they are in first year or perhaps a bit further along unknown–I could go with a boring, generic: “An essay has an Introduction, a Body and a Conclusion ….” model.

Or, I could talk about Spike from Buffy as a progenitor for Damon in The Vampire Diaries … and about what turns that from a vaguely interesting observation to an academic argument. Or how Buffy’s other British friend, Giles, has influenced Stiles in the new Teen Wolf … and where do we find the evidence or examples that make this the kind of argument someone might want to read? Or how werewolves are just code for adolescence, really — so look at this paragraph about that idea, and tell me where the topic sentence is and how you would go about creating one that has some depth. And we can talk about how to manage 128 versions of the same document, because sometimes, that’s what it takes. Even for academics. People who say they just wrote one draft an hour before it was due? Good for them, but find out what kind of mark they got before you follow their lead, because personally, I’m just not that brilliant, and I’m not sure I’ve met anyone else who is, either.

And so, in the words of the original and obnoxious Stiles, we’re going to make this something monstrous. We’re going to carve up the cadavers of my writing about weres and shifters and vamps and all kinds of things that go bump in the night, because Barthes may be right about the author being dead, but the writing has a life of its own.

 

lifesucks

But do we, Stiles? What about the vampires? And the zombies?

Or it will do, if I stop procrastinating!

 

 

 

 


Interested in how TV represents mental health disorders? Join our new project

Interested in how TV represents mental health disorders? Love – or hate – how shows like Homeland, The Big Bang Theory  or Glee represent conditions such as bipolar, autism, or OCD?

While writing our werewolves book, Kimberley and I became interested in how TV was representing particular mental health disorders and the characters who have them. So one of the things we put to the side was the idea of taking that theme further into its own book, extending beyond lycanthropy to TV generally.

The time has come to pick up this project in earnest, and we have decided in this book to not only analyse particular TV shows in depth, but to seek the perspectives of viewers who have a mental health disorder, or their carers.

So we want to invite you to join our project. If you have a mental health disorder (or care for someone who does) please let us know. And we would really appreciate you letting anyone know who you think might be interested in the project – so feel free to pass this on.

Some things you might be asking:

* What do you mean by mental health disorders? We’re keeping this broad: depression, anxiety, bipolar, OCD, autism, Asperger’s Syndrome, schizophrenia, dissociative identity disorder, addiction, to name a few.

* Will my privacy be protected? Yes. Nobody’s name or any identifying info will be included in the book, just anonymous comments. We have institutional ethics approval and promise to adhere to ethical guidelines always (which we’d do without the approval anyway!) to protect your privacy, and more details are on an information sheet and consent form we can give you before you decide to join.

* How do you want to use my comments? We’re planning on interweaving viewer comments with analysis. So when we’re talking about, say,  how OCD is portrayed on Glee, we might include some comments from a viewer with OCD about their thoughts on how accurate (or not) the representation is.

*What do I have to do? We’d like to ask some questions in an interview. If you want to participate by email, no problem. The questions are about your views of how television represents particular mental health disorders.

For more information about the project and how you can be involved, contact us using the form below.


Twitter controversies and fan-cademics

“Fans take a much more active and personal role in the viewing experience now. They don’t just watch a show and forget about it until it’s time to watch the next episode. They dissect it and re-shape it into elaborate fan fiction, creative videos, and intricate art work. They want to be heard and even treated as participants in the creative process.”
Angela Harvey, staff writer, Teen Wolf

I gave my paper on Doctor Who and Disability at the Eaton Science Fiction Research Association conference a couple of weeks back. I’m not sure how effective my recollections will be, given that I was rather jetlagged when I gave the paper, and am again somewhat jetlagged as I attempt to write this. But I’m sure my brain will land in Sydney sometime soon.

From what I can recall, the paper went quite well. It was a mixed panel ie a panel on controversies in three different Sci-fi texts, of which Doctor Who was one. There were a number of Doctor Who aficionados in the room, however, if the discussion afterwards was anything to go by (it went 40 minutes into the scheduled lunchbreak!), ranging from interested fans to people who clearly knew every episode inside and out and even one guy who’d written an entire book on the show. And there was an attendee who’s working on representations of disability in Star Trek, so we kind of greeted each other like long-lost sisters because each of us “got” what is sometimes hard to explain to others.

The feedback I received was overwhelmingly positive, but I was questioned on my methodology–specifically, I was asked why the hateful tweets of trolls mattered or were worthy of examination. My initial slightly glib response was, “Well, because they matter to Stephen Moffat” (who had deleted his Twitter account in response to hate messages). But another delegate argued that it is a really interesting space in which to work, looking at online fan responses and the social media zeitgeist. In fact, it’s been the topic of a couple of books, including one to which I contributed, Fanpires: Audience Consumption of the Modern Vampire.

I agree with the second delegate whole heartedly, as it happens. In an age of increasing direct interaction between show runners and fans, there is enormous opportunity for the audience to help shape the text. Equally, it is a fraught process where disgruntled keyboard warriors can lay into showrunners who have not privileged a favoured “ship” or who have strayed away from canonical points of reference. I cited as a further example of the Twitter-disappearance-phenomenon that of Teen Wolf show runner, Jeff Davis.

(Yes, I’m working on a piece on Teen Wolf. Attempting to Twitter-stalk Jeff “The Gift” Davis therefore counts as research, just at the moment).

All of this led me to believe that the insights from Teen Wolf staff writer Angela Harvey were rather apropos.