Theoretical Role Models

In my past life as an aspiring academic, it wasn’t always easy to find role models.  Yes, the faculty in my department at Indiana University was incredible, but when it came to nationally known academics that weren’t obliged to mentor me, I tended to have but a couple of idols.

One was Henry Jenkins, whose approach to intertextual film studies, fan studies, and cultural consumption jived with mine.  He had a writing style that was accessible even to non-academics, not to mention a point of view that was not as bogged down in theory as many other writers in film and media.  I knew I wanted to write like Henry Jenkins, the problem was I never was going to be able to produce anything as interesting or compelling to say as he did.

This was really my entire problem with academia.  I had things to say, sure, but they were things to say about NASCAR driver Juan Pablo Montoya or Larry the Cable Guy.  I could take someone else’s theory and apply it to something, but when it came to devising my own theories, I had very little to offer.  Part of the problem is that I found myself rolling my eyes at high theory (think the really difficult to read esoteric stuff) more than I found myself inspired by it.  I found writers like Jenkins accessible, but felt like he was the exception rather than the rule.

So I got out while I still could.  To be honest, I was probably more scared to fail than I was willing to admit at the time.  I have an idea still for a dissertation and, to my knowledge, no one has written it yet.  In the back of my head, I always think, “Someday, I’ll write that book.” Therein lies the problem though. As a chronic procrastinator, I could put off writing ten page papers in college and 25 page papers in grad school, but I don’t think I could produce a book in a 48 hour binge. So, it remains a pipe dream.

Every once in a while though, I get a sign of hope that this weird middle space I inhabited in grad school might be growing.  One such sign came this weekend, when a writer I’ve been a fan of for a while announced she was leaving academia to go work for BuzzFeed.  I first came upon Anne Helen Petersen via her Facebook page, Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style.  This was precisely what I had been looking for—an examination of the pop culture news of the moment through the lens of cultural studies (the field I tended to work in when I was in school). 

Reading her Hairpin article, I could relate to some of her academic frustrations, most notably the whole “being paid peanuts” thing and the fact that her given field of study, celebrity gossip, was not something her peers and her superiors necessarily afforded much respect.  My area of interest in film and media during grad school was looking at depictions of rural working class people (read: rednecks) and using a lot of theory from the horror genre to explain how our cultural artifacts tend to very intentionally marginalize them. Worth noting that, right after I exited grad school, the minstrel-show like genre of redneck reality in the form of Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty exploded.  I never said I was good at timing.

Several of my academic friends had a variety of reactions to the news.  I can see how, if you are part of the institution, it is frustrating to see someone give up years of work to go write web content on the cheap at a site like BuzzFeed.  More accurately, it is disconcerting to see one of their peers having to leave the academy because they can’t get hired despite doing interesting work that clearly has a wider reach than a lot of other work.  While I can see the disappointing side to this story, I am mostly just inspired. 

If you can’t tell, I am already falling off my blogging promise for Lent.  I don’t really have an excuse either. Being in LA with friends, just being really tired, these may be explanations I guess, but end of the day, it is hard to write just to write every single evening.  Reading about Anne Helen Petersen gets me motivated again.  Knowing there are a growing number of people existing in this middle space has me hoping that, bad or good timing, there is an audience who cares about this kind of commentary. Either that, or I have a good number of people who feel compelled to read this site out of guilt or a sense of obligation, which works for me too.


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