Now I am officially an academic. It's one thing to be a Robert E. Howard
scholar (which is, to borrow a turn of phrase from Alan Moore, like declaring
yourself the world's tallest midget). It's another thing altogether
to present a paper at the 2004 PCA conference, where your panel is vying for attention
among Gender and Masculinity studies panels, media theory panels, and lengthy
ruminations about the cultural significance of The Grateful Dead.
The Popular Culture Association (I thought it stood for Pasty Caucasian Academics)
is a national organization of students, professors, and other collegiate types
with an interest in furthering popular culture studies to gain a greater understanding
of contemporary issues. Specifically, it's just the place to go when you
want to expound upon your Marvel Comics as Post-Modern Cosmology theory, and providing
that you write your views in MLA style, you'll have a captive audience.
Of course, I was presenting a paper on Robert E. Howard, along with five other
fellow scholars. Three of my co-panelists were acquainted with these kinds of
conferences. For those of you not in academia, it's sorta like the panel
discussions at comic conventions, only a little more structured. Everyone presents
their paper, and then the chair opens the floor up for questions. This is when
you will find out if your paper works or if your theory is full of holes.
I'm sure we can all recall scenes in films where a character is assailed
from the podium as he presents a new and controversial theory that will change
the way we view life on other planets. Unfortunately, none of those verbal pyrotechnics
were observed by me on any of the panels I chose to attend. About as heated as
it got was a couple of riled-up professorial Trekkies who objected to the Federation
being called an Imperialist pedagogy in the "I, Borg" episode of ST:TNG.
They were wrong, of course . . .
Seriously, this place was an overly analytical fanboy's wet dream. On
every panel I attended, there was something to make you go, "Hmmmm."
Even panels that I attended that were outside my given sphere of knowledge were
fascinating -- maybe even more so, since I was coming to the topic with little
to no prior knowledge.
While attending all of these learned discussions, I solved a personal mystery
that has dogged me for a while now. I now know where SF fandom gets its lame
sense of humor: straight from the professors. At just about every session I attended,
in just about every paper I heard, the academics would sneak in a pun, or a turn
of phrase, or a clever aside, or something to let the audience know that they
were really human after all. And every time it happened, they broke the room up.
It was incredible. I could see myself flashing back to the early comic and SF
conventions, and seeing professors and grad students presiding over panel discussions,
throwing out their witticisms to an all-too-receptive audience. The birth of the
"captain's log" jokes. My god, it's full of stars.
Once I knew that I could rule the roost, I started taking part in the discussions.
I called C-3PO a metrosexual in one masculinities session. I thanked a woman for
using charts in her discussion of Fight Club in another. Talk about liberating!
I felt like the Belle of the Ball, hopping from room to room, discussing things
and throwing out ideas to general nodding of heads and requests for my email so
that they can send me finished papers. I spent a couple of frantic hours talking
comics with Geoff Klock, author of "How to Read Superhero Comics and Why."
Klock was bringing a Bloomian interpretation to comic rhetoric, and I was regaling
him with . . . well, I don't know what. Finnian deconstruction, maybe? We were
both talking so fast about the Ultimates, it sounded like a barrage of vowels
and consonants. Hog heaven.
It's just a shame that 90% of the papers I heard, I read, or that I wanted
to see, will never be reprinted anywhere. Yeah. Most of the people at the conference
were presenting a paper just to be presenting a paper. Apparently, it looks good
on an academic resume. No plans for cleaning it up and putting it in a journal.
No plans for cutting out the jargon and putting it in a newspaper. Or on a website.
Or anything. It's a lot like the markings on the set of the Star Trek shows
when they talk about the conduits running the length of the corridors: G.N.D.N.
It stands for "Goes Nowhere, Does Nothing."
This is foreign thinking to me. When I write something, I either know exactly
what I'm going to do with it, or I have someone already asking me for it.
I very rarely write on spec anymore, and even when I do, I tend to have a back-up
plan in place if the first option doesn't pan out. Why on earth would you
write a persuasive paper, extolling the virtues of something or presenting an
argument to someone about something, that only a dozen people hear or read? I
could Blog a paper and get a larger audience than the number of people who attended
some of these panels. Hell, there's more people reading this right now than
will EVER read my paper on Robert. E. Howard. Sobering thought.
So, why do it? Great question. In the academic world, it's possible to build
a reputation based on the strength of your papers alone. And if you're aggressive
with your papers, and you wave them under enough noses, two things happen. First,
you get recognized as an expert in your given subject, or at the very least, someone
who can clearly articulate and theorize on said subject. Second, you have an outside
chance of actually influencing what people say about your chosen topic and how
they say it. This, for me, is the longest shot out there, but considering the
alternative ("Robert E. Howard? Wasn't he that freak who killed himself
because he was unnaturally attracted to his mother?") I'll play those
long odds in the hope of addressing some still-extant wrong-headed character assassinations
that persist to this day.
Our Session's panels all met with favor and acclaim. People asked good questions.
The chairman presiding over the Pulp and Dime Novels categories raved about how
well everything went. Now I've got a few college professors and textbook
writers to send the paper to. The real question is, will I do it again next year?
Probably. I'm a glutton for punishment.
You can view the complete PCA/ACA 2004 program here, and God help you.
My paper, "Texas as Character in Robert E. Howard's Fiction"
will appear in an upcoming issue of The Dark Man.