Back in 2015, the English scholar Lisa Ruddick wrote an article for The Point magazine that I’ve been thinking about ever since. In "When Nothing is Cool," she attempted to understand the experience of certain graduate students who were struggling to adapt to the norms of their discipline. Observing those students, she saw "unaccountable feelings of confusion, inhibition, and loss." They had identified something broken, dead, or mean in contemporary academic criticism, she wrote, but either they couldn’t articulate it or they feared that saying it out loud would damage their career prospects in academe.
Drawing on what Eve Sedgwick has identified as "a strain of ‘hatred’ in criticism" as well as Bruno Latour’s articulation of "how scholars slip from ‘critique’ into ‘critical barbarity,’" Ruddick bemoaned the "thrill of destruction" and the ruthlessness and cruelty of much contemporary criticism. "The only way now to replenish academic discourse," she concluded, "is through innumerable tiny acts of courage in which people say the uncool things."
I have a theory on that. I think it would look an awful lot like fandom — engaged, enthused, uninhibited, critical but lovingly so, and very very uncool.
Ruddick’s work on academic coolness has stayed with me because it hit so close to home. In February 2015, I was six months out from the end of a postdoc at the University of Alberta. I didn’t know yet if I would get any adjunct teaching gigs, but I did know that I’d failed to secure any interviews for tenure-track jobs. I was having a really hard time remembering why I’d started down this whole Ph.D. path in the first place.
In short, I had forgotten what I loved about my work, and become too immersed in the cool, critical, professional task of "being an academic."
One day I was reminiscing fondly with my friend and colleague, Marcelle Kosman, about rereading favorite books. As a 2013 article in Bustle magazine, "In Defense of Rereading," put it: "Broken-in books also have a secret power that you won’t unlock until you experience the thrill of rereading for yourself: Time travel. Rereading a book allows you to take a giant leap back in time to the place you inhabited when you first pored through a particular novel." As we talked, both Marcelle and I realized we longed to travel back in time to an era when reading had been a source of embodied and enthusiastic joy.
And so we agreed to embark on a collective rereading — a sort of book club of two — of the Harry Potter series. Moreover, we decided to record our conversations.
Since then we have released more than 50 episodes of our podcast, Witch, Please. We’ve also given public talks across Canada and the United States, created a Twitter following, and reached almost 10,000 subscribers. Heck, we’ve been on the CBC three times, which for a couple of Canadian literature scholars is hitting the big time.
Even in academe, we’ve received far more attention for the podcast than for all of our traditional accomplishments combined. At first we were baffled, but I think Lisa Ruddick can help us understand what’s going on.
If academia is about acerbic coolness, nothing could be less cool than launching a Harry Potter-themed fan podcast. And it actually did feel like a "tiny act of courage" — particularly for two young female scholars — to not only indulge in the embarrassing business of fandom, but to do it so damn publicly. Fandom, after all, is the opposite of keeping cool and emotionally distant to a subject. That’s part of why people often find the notion of fandom so disturbing or laughable. As Constance Grady wrote in "Why We’re Terrified of Fanfiction," a June 2016 piece for Vox, the public backlash against fandom is, in fact (surprise, surprise), deeply gendered. "Young women are so attacked for loving the media they love," Grady wrote, "that it is a radical act for a young woman to love something unashamedly."
On the podcast we laugh, we cry, we drink a lot of wine, and we talk about our feelings for the Harry Potter books and movies. So we anticipated that coolness — and cruelty — would be directed toward us. If, to quote Grady again, "fandom is the province of young women," we feared the ways in which our affective and embodied fandom would infantilize us in the eyes of our peers.
Marcelle and I think of the podcast itself as a kind of academic work, and we have received attention for it from fellow academics. Yet as an early-career scholar, I worried about doing both my fandom and my academic work in public — via a platform that deprives me of the critical distance of writing and denies me the institutional protection of a university classroom or a peer-reviewed journal.
But what actually happened was far from cruel. In fact, what has been perhaps most surprising about our small corner of the internet has been the remarkable generosity and productivity of the Witch, Please community.
Robert C. MacDougall, a professor of media studies at Curry College, has questioned the value of podcasts as a form of media for the way they encourage people to remain in their silos. Listeners are likely to self-select for podcasts that reinforce their pre-existing worldview. His critique, however, assumes that politicized communities lack internal diversity, and that there isn’t work to be done within communities that share the same basic principles but are struggling with the language to articulate them, or the means to enact them.
Many of our podcast listeners are devoted to Harry Potter, and, as a result, they fact-check the hell out of us, argue with our interpretations, and send us indignant messages with screen-caps of book pages or links to correct us. And our feminist listeners — who are sometimes, but not always, Harry Potter fans — call us on instances of ableism, transphobia, and appropriation.
One listener, for example, took issue with us after "Episode 7B: The Goblet is Political," when we talked about how we self-identified as intersectional feminists. "I hate to be this girl, but you can’t really be an intersectional feminist. Intersectional feminism is a concept and theory created by a black woman to interpret and analyze oppression. It’s something you can attempt to practice as a white woman, but I don’t think you can be it." Of course she was right: to appropriate intersectional feminism as white women is to elide its origins in black women’s activism and criticism. Thus the distinction between "I am an intersectional feminist" and "I strive to practice intersectional feminism" is enormous.
Much has been made of internet call-out culture, but appeals for accountability that come from within a community are a different thing altogether. That kind of critical commentary opens up dialogue and creates new, shared vocabularies. It builds, instead of tearing down. It’s the kind of response we often lack in academia, where our students are separated from us by huge gulfs of institutionalized hierarchy and our peers respond to our work through the barrier of blind peer review. Yes, it can be uncomfortable to be taken to task publicly. It is also part of what it means to participate in a community, and to do our pedagogy and our scholarship in public.
So let’s return now to Ruddick’s essay — to her call for us to "replenish academic discourse" with "innumerable tiny acts of courage." Courage could mean bringing fannish affect into our classrooms and bringing our critical tools into our fandoms. But courage could also mean making your work public first, being wrong sometimes, being publicly accountable for the ways in which you are wrong. It could mean discarding the academic version of cool in favor of something infinitely more valuable.
Hannah McGregor is an assistant professor in the publishing program at Simon Fraser University.