Academia

Convergence Culture and Fan Fiction

So I've been reading Henry Jenkins' book Convergence Culture, which talks a great deal about new forms of interaction with media. One chapter, Why Heather Can Write: Media Literacy and the Harry Potter Wars caused me a bit of trouble. This chapter practically evangelizes fan fiction as a legitimate form of writing, with the strong implication that it can and will lead to commercial writing contracts. I somewhat understand where Jenkins is going with this. It's exploring areas of a franchise which are otherwise left alone by the original author. Fan fiction allows the audience to participate, to deepen their connection to the works in question.

Let's talk early web media. Back in 1997, a 10 minute short film called Troops effectively accomplished what Jenkins is discussing in this chapter. The  film has Imperial Stormtroopers from Star Wars out on a domestic disturbance call at the Lars farm seen in A New Hope.

Vader and Stormtroopers at Ad Astra

To my knowledge, Troops really started the whole short films launched on the internet. While fan movies had been made in the past, they were not shared as extensively, and did not have the same capacity for collective enjoyment.

Troops was embraced by the fan community, and was even recognized by Lucasfilm with the Pioneer Award at the 2002 Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Since directing the film, Kevin Rubio has been working as a freelance writer, and has even written an episode of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated TV series.

Is film more receptive to fan participation? Perhaps George Lucas is more receptive to this type of collective intelligence? Lucas did have the foresight to maintain the merchandising rights to Star Wars, so this may be part of his goals for a larger media empire.

There is an ever-growing Star Wars fans who own their own Stormtrooper costumes, such as the above photo which I took at the 2009 Ad-Astra science fiction convention. The 501st Legion epitomizes many of the convergence tactics that Jenkins discusses, and makes numerous appearances at fan conventions, as well as charitable events. From what I can gather, they have a relatively good relationship with Lucasfilm's Fan Relations department.

The 501st testimonal page includes a quote from Steve Sansweet, Lucasfilm Content Manager and Head of Fan Relations saying that "e consider the members of the 501st part of the extended Lucasfilm family. They have fun and share a sense of community, while at the same time bringing joy to a lot of people.”

How does this fit in with novel and short story writing? Copyright law is in general fairly unambiguous, in that fan fiction firmly crosses that invisible line that marks out a publisher's rights. While some franchises, such as the Harry Potter universe have a thriving fan community, under the implicit approval of Rowling, most publishers and the authors they represent actively discourage fan fiction. The above link notes that Anne Rice, Anne McCaffrey and Raymond Feist have in the past asked fanfiction.net to remove derivative works.

How then should fan fiction be judged? Is it a valid attempt at engaging with an author's world, or is it something which has the potential to damage audience perception of a work?

Kindle for Academics

Currently, no ebook reader appears to completely solve my needs. Some come close in some areas, while still making things unnecessarily complicated in the final steps of the solution. Ulysses notes

Some ebook readers, such as the Kobo, quickly fail to solve my needs. The standalone Kobo ereader provides no means for text entry, having only a D-pad toggle. My first need for an ereader is to highlight and take notes on the text.

While there appears to be some support for these annotation features on the iPad Kobo app, they don't appear to sync across the cloud. Their desktop app, for example, provides no annotation features at all.

The Amazon Kindle has more strict Digital Rights Management (DRM), which restricts some forms of access to the text, such as in 2009 when Amazon deleted George Orwell novels, including 1984, from all Kindle devices. This is a level of control I'm uncomfortable with a large corporation to have. The opportunities for abuse are evident, as Amazon has shown in January of 2010, by pulling all books published by subsidiaries of Macmillan, including SF publisher Tor, from the Amazon store. This was done as part of a power play on digital rights sales, such as Kindle books, but it involved pulling all print editions as well.

Amazon's Kindle has a multi-platform triple-threat. In addition to their portable ereader devices, they provide a desktop reading solution, as well as other mobile devices such as the Apple iPad. While Kindle is available for BlackBerry, like many other things Amazon has to offer, this isn't available in Canada.

While I haven't used the Kindle ereader hardware, I have used both their desktop reader, and the iPad version. Both of these offer highlighting and text annotations, which sync wirelessly with each other. They also maintain your reading position between the two applications. This is unfortunately only the first part of the solution.

The important part is where Amazon fails. Once you have selected portions of the text, and made annotations on the go, students need to access this text. Amazon sometimes allows these "clippings" -- as they refer to the selections -- to be exported via their web interface. Note the qualifying word of sometimes. Each book in their system apparently has some undefined, undocumented limit as to how much of the text can be exported in this manner. Some books have a hard limit of no exported text. While I can understand the publisher's desire to stop people from copying the book, this is not helpful for students in the least.

Sadly, copyright tends to actually be more restrictive for academics in Canada. Concordia University has a helpful comparison between fair dealing (in Canada) versus fair use (in the United States). The restrictions in clipping length may be analogous to the lack of definition of the term "substantial" in the Copyright Act (s.3). As this term is undefined in the Act, publishers may decide on a more restrictive definition than commonly accepted.

The web interface that Amazon uses is also difficult to use. In an ideal world, I would be able to select my highlighted sections from the desktop app, and have them copied in proper citation format, including an entry for my works cited list.

Another problem when dealing with the Kindle is directly related to citations. Amazon has standardized on a "location" number to reference text in a book, rather than the term "page". The thought on their part is that at different zoom levels, pagination will change, making page references unstable.

Amazon has lately started to remedy this problem, by including page numbers which presumably link back to a print edition of a book. While I see this change on the iPad, my desktop application only provides Location information. In either case, I still have to manually type the quoted text into my essay. How is this more convenient than just using a print book again?

What's the solution? It's been tempting to run screenshots through OCR software, except that I'd still have to proofread the text for corrections. I guess what really bothers me is that this is something that would likely be easier than what Amazon is doing now, and not just for students.

Years Passing By

In one of my first classes upon returning to university, one of my professors urged the class to "think ahead to the future. What do you see yourself doing at the age of 23?" I laughed at the time, as I didn't remember what I had done just a few years previous. It was a reminder however, that returning to undergraduate studies as a part time student would bring an increasing age difference. It hasn't stopped me from making friends with my classmates, although they have this nasty habit of graduating and moving off for grad school. I hear conversations about parties, and bars, or just going out to see a movie last minute, and I just shake my head. I have to remember if I need to pick up another pack of Pull-Ups on my way home. Life has a tendency to catch up, when you're not expecting it.

One of the coop students in the office once revealed that they are younger than the Simpsons TV show. While they didn't watch it as a child, they have not lived in a world without Bart Simpson. That's kind of a cultural touchstone for me, and its disconcerting to learn that it predates people I work with.

Formulas For Writing

I'm really enjoying my Media Writing course this term at the University of Waterloo. Every week, we have a different writing assignment, and so far, they've been quite varied. Week one was an obituary. Morbid perhaps, but as the format is extremely well defined, it was a good introduction to writing for the media. We have since written newspaper feature articles, magazine feature articles, broadcast journalism, and the current assignment is writing some public relations material.

Part of the challenge in this course is applying writing skills to a particular format. Each week's assignment tends to take a different approach. It's a combination of changing audience, and purpose. The expectations of the different formats require a much more comprehensive approach to writing. It's far different from creative or essay based writing which I'm familiar with. Its also really quite enjoyable. While I don't see myself joining the dead beat (obituary writing), all of the other formats I've been writing in have opened new possibilities for writing, which I've never seriously considered before now.

While at the Ad Astra science fiction conference in past years, I've often attended the various sessions on writing groups, and breaking in to the fiction market. Many of the writers on these panels have advocated freelance writing of one sort or another. It's something to keep the mind focused on writing, and keeps the skills finely honed.

Which is all well and good, if I wasn't swimming in essays at the moment. The only non-coursework writing I've been able to manage the past few weeks has been my daily blog posts. I'm not quite ready to give up on them yet.

Choosing Electronic or Print Books for Academic Research

As someone with 200 books within arms reach of my desk, without counting those in the bookshelf behind me, I obviously have a fondness for the written word. When reading a particular text closely however, what advantages are there to an electronic format over a physical format? While portability of an electronic text is often cited as an advantage, as the ereader can hold multiple books in a relatively small space, I believe that the true strength of an electronic text is the search functionality. With proper bookmarking, one can quickly refer to key sections of the text, and search for other similar passages.

This isn't really a new technique. Many popular academic texts have comprehensive indices and supplementary notes, and with a little work, one can mark passages in any physical book for later reference. In some ways, this actually helps one understand the text at a deeper level, as it requires a deeper engagement with the text.

Ulysses notes

Another key aspect of using an electronic text is an easy way to mark up the text, and make meaningful notes. While I don't usually mark up fiction I'm reading for fun, my academic texts have lines underlined, words circled and squared, and margin notes. This is something I've started recently, especially for passages I'm trying to more deeply understand.

If I was studying a book with an electronic edition, it would be great if I could highlight, or otherwise mark up the text, and have my selections exported to my word processor for essay writing, with full citation support in whatever format I require (MLA is the citation format I most often use for writing in the humanities). I would love for the pagination of the online version to reflect a print version, even if it is displayed in a different format on the device. Sadly, not all texts are available in ebook format, and when they are, there are often regional restrictions on availability. Robert Fagles' contemporary translation of The Odyssey is available on Amazon.ca in print, but the Kindle edition on Amazon.com is unavailable to Canadians. A sad state of affairs, and not likely Amazon's fault, as there are licensing restrictions put in place by the rights holders.

I'm pleased that a number of scholarly presses and consortiums are planning changes and advances in etext publishing, as reported on sites such as Library Journal. I'm generally pleased by what I've heard about these initiatives, I only wish they were available now.

Classes start again

It feels as if I just handed in my final paper for last term, but it appears that classes start this week. This term I'm taking English 408A - Writing for the Media, and English 301H - Honours Literary Studies. 408A is being taught by Andrew Deman, while 301H is being taught by Murray McArthur. I haven't yet had McArthur for any courses, so that should be interesting.

The course texts look interesting. I've scanned through the first chapter of Batty and Cain's "Media Writing: A Practical Introduction," and it seems to be an actually useful textbook, which is a pleasant change from some other courses I've had. I haven't yet read any of the companion text for 408A, Jenkins' "Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide" but it seems to contrast nicely with "Media Writing," with more of a focus on non-traditional media. Page one includes an image from "Bert is Evil" with Bert from Sesame Street fame posed next to Osama Bin Laden.

For 301H, the major literary text being studied is The Odyssey, by Homer. The particular translation is by the late Robert Fagles, which is presumably a modern translation into more modern language than others, while still maintaining fidelity to the greek text. Along with Ulysses, the course readings include excerpts from Aescylus' Agamemnon, Canto 26 from Dante's Inferno, the Telemachus, Calypso, and Lotus Eaters chapters from Joyce's Ulysses (not surprising, as McArthur is a Joyce scholar), and finally, Lord Tennyson's poem Ulysses.

I'm not entirely sure what to expect from this course. The calendar description merely states that through lectures, discussion, and presentations by visiting faculty, this course provides Honours students with an enriched survey of the discipline of literary studies. Topics of discussion will be drawn from bibliography and research methods, critical approaches to literature, literary history, genre studies, rhetoric, media perspectives, and other areas of scholarly interest. This seems to me to be rather vague, and from what I can tell, each offering of this course tends to be rather different.

The course syllabus for 408A states that This course examines the genres and strategies of both journalism and public relations. With a strong orientation towards rhetorical and linguistic theories, this course will cover audience concerns from both within and outside organizations. While this is perhaps a shorter description, it is also far more concrete in nature. I fully expect a number of written assignments on a regular schedule in this course.

I'm looking forward to seeing how this term progresses. Hopefully I haven't signed up for more than I can comfortably handle. I just need to make sure that I carefully manage my time this term, something much easier said than done. My toddler turns three at the end of the term.

Evaluating professors and lecturers

As a part time undergraduate student, I've had several years taking courses at the University of Waterloo. Just a course or two per term, except for that soul-sucking term where I briefly managed three courses. Hello full-time student tax credits. Whenselecting courses part time, there is often a number of factors considered.

Does it fit my schedule? Does it match my interests? Does it fulfill any course requirements? Do I have the prerequisites? What do I know about the professor? Will this course be offered again soon? Here are some of the thoughts I have on some of my former professors, and the courses they taught.

John North

Professor North was my first English professor after returning to academia. This was part of a non-degree term I took while switching majors. The course studied poetry and the novel. One of the course texts was C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold" which remains one of my favouritenovels. His course was valuable in preparing me for English studies. He introduced me to some techniques for speed-reading, which I have employed with some success over the years. I can't recall if he was a hard marker, but he was certainly fair.

Stan Fogel

Stan is one of those crazy profs of which legends are told. It's extremely fitting that he teaches the summer term in Cuba. His course texts are unconventional, his classes can be disorganized, and the course syllabus may be lacking in some detail, but his classes are certainly memorable. One day his class lecture note was a single yellow post-it note on which was scrawled the single word "parrot". This enigmatic note was left until the end of the class, at which time Fogel told us of a language in which the last remaining speaker was a parrot whose previous owner had passed away. Fogel is the Hunter S. Thompson of professors. Gonzo.

Andrew Deman

I had Deman for the Science Fiction literature course at Waterloo. It was a fun course, and it included a number of novels and short stories which I had not yet had the pleasure of reading. The course followed a historical and thematic sense of science fiction literature. The Golden Age, New Wave, Pulps, Steampunk, Posthumanism, Feminism. An interesting aspect of the course was the suggested reading list, from which I've selected a number of books. This course required regular writing response assignments, which was a valuable way to engage with the materials. I believe the marking was tough, but fair. His availability during office hours was great, and I abused the chance to drop in and chat about science fiction that wasn't covered in the class. With his encouragement, I revised a course essay which I presented at the academic track at the 2010 WorldCon in Montreal. This was a great experience, for which I'm thankful. I skipped a different class so I could attend his PhD oral defense. I plan to take a course on Media Writing with him again in January. I'll also be surprised if he doesn't come across this blog entry.

Aimée Morrison

Another professor I fully expect to find this blog entry is Aimée Morrison. I had the pleasure of creating a selected studies reading course under her guidance. Here's a tip: nothing helps increase student engagement with the material than creating the course yourself. I created an outline and text selections from the works of Philip K. Dick, and then with further guidance, built up a selection of critical resources examining his work, and the wider theme of postmodernism. This course also included a regular schedule of writing small responses which incorporated the readings of the course. More importantly, these were extremely limited in length. Writing to a short length was a great challenge, and I feel it improved my academic writing. It takes greater effort to cover your major points without being sidetracked by literary flourishes, or a wander train of thought. Aimée blogs at the Hook and Eye, and is also on twitter. I look forward to taking another course with her.

Jacqui Smyth

I took a creative writing course with Jacqui. The course was a writing workshop, and in my opinion, had an overly large class size. While her critiques were insightful, the nature of the class means that you're going to get fifteen responses which begin with "I really liked this story," which eats into precious critiquing time. While I understand why she prefers for students not to submit genre fiction, as she would not necessarily be aware of genre-specific tropes and expectations, and therefore she would be unable to fully respond to these works, she was still receptive to them. I suspect that I took the course, and the critiquing, more seriously than some of my classmates. It was a great course nonetheless, and I still keep in touch with some of my classmates.

Tristanne Connolly

You can tell when a professor loves the subject. It shines throughout the course. This was certainly the case with Professor Connolly in the Romantic Literature course I took. Following the literature of Byron, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats, one cannot miss the enthusiasm in her lectures. While Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was on the course syllabus, with permission, I wrote about The Last Man in my final essay. I would love to take another course with her.

Randy Harris

I took a course on contemporary rhetorical theory with Harris two terms ago, which has had a large impact on how I perceive media influence, and negotiate meaning. Through Harris' course, I learned about rhetoricians such as Perelman, Booth, Burke, Weaver and Toulmin. A very thought-provoking course, and also leading some interesting research in rhetorical computation. This was perhaps the most important course I've taken.

Gray Graffam (Anthropology)

I've had Gray for two anthropology courses. Both were night classes, and were great. Anthropology 101 (Introduction to physical anthropology) was perhaps more interesting, as it deals more with archaeology rather than the sociological implications of social anthropology. Gray has some pretty amazing stories of his archaeological expeditions around the world. I'd love to take more courses with him, but I'm trying to focus on english studies, rather than anthropology.

Current Reading

A quick overview of my current reading projects. The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, by William St Clair

As can likely be guessed by the title, this is an academic study of reading habits throughout the Romantic period. It actually goes further than this, with a thorough examination of how intellectual property laws were developed to support the printing industry, and how this affected book prices, print runs, and general availability of books through the Romantic and Victorian ages. There are roughly three hundred pages of appendices containing tables of print runs and unit price of various works of interest throughout the period. It's a very complex study, and I've only read a few chapters so far, but I've been quite impressed so far. The impact of intellectual property is especially relevant today, especially when one considers the Google Books settlement. I'm certainly oversimplifying the importance of this book, I just haven't read enough of it yet to fully grasp whats going on.

The Last Man, by Mary Shelley

I'm reading the Bison Books edition from 2006, which aside from a few minor alterations, exactly follows the text of the first (1826) edition. I've only read two chapters so far, and I intend on taking notes while reading this. I can see some similarities already with Frankenstein, as Lionel starts out a rough savage, to be later educated in the classics. The opening chapters focus on the wilderness and freedom of youth, which I expect to recur as the novel progresses. It should be a most interesting novel.

Campus Chills, edited by Mark Leslie

I read several of the stories in this anthology when it launched, and I'm finally getting around to finishing it off. The best stories so far have been ones deeply rooted in a particular location. Three of the stories were written by Waterloo graduates. Julie E. Czerneda's "The Forever Brotherhood", James Alan Gardner's "Truth-Poison", and Douglas Smith's "Radio Nowhere" all take place on the Waterloo campus. I was fortunate enough to attend the book launch in October, and all three read excerpts from their stories. Kimberly Foottit and Mark Leslie wrote "Prospero's Ghost" which takes place at McMaster. "Different Skins" by Michael Kelly takes place on Philosopher's Walk at the University of Toronto.

The story I liked best from this anthology is Douglas Smith's "Radio Nowhere", which has recently been posted on his website. While all the stories give some view of the supernatural, hauntings and horror, "Radio Nowhere" also carried a great melancholic sense of guilt and  loss. It's a great story.

I'm reading some other books at the moment as well, but they're currently on hold while I focus on these.

Self Critic

I had my creative writing class again this evening. We broke into small groups for critiques of flash fiction. Despite having one fewer member in our group this week, we finished at least half an hour later than some of the other groups. It was a fun little session. The stories showed good promise, and I hope my suggestions were helpful. I don't think I pull any punches while providing my criticism. I certainly don't start off every critique with another version of "I really liked this story". Where there are problems, either in plot progression, character development, description or dialogue, I point it out, usually with a suggestion as to how to do things better.

My story somehow got selected to be last for review yet again. Thankfully, in the smaller sessions, we're not working under the same time restraints. I find it disappointing though, to receive minimal feedback, most of which dealt with things I did well. While I'm pleased that people enjoyed it, as a workshop draft, it's not at a state where I'm particularly happy with it. In fact, I think my story has major issues in plot, pacing, characterization, and point of view. Some characters were certainly not used as well as they could have been.

A few parts of this were mentioned, but nothing specific was cited as being a point for improvement. Maybe my expectations for this course were too high? Ah well. I know where I want this story to go. I'll revise it over the weekend. I also want to revise one of my stories this weekend so I can submit it for the Tesseracts 14 anthology. It's a dark little Canadian steampunk story. Hopefully it will interest John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory.

Busy with classes

Life's been fairly hectic lately. In addition to my day job, I somehow decided that it would be a cool idea to take three courses this term. This term I'm taking English 362 (Shakespeare 1), English 350B (17th Century Literature 2) and English 335 (Creative Writing 1).Creative Writing is a night course, and is workshop based. I'm enjoying the opportunity to focus on the writing craft. Thus far, we've focused on poetry, which is a nice change. The importance of precise diction is challenging.  The other two courses are distance education courses. Audio lectures, web based discussion forums, and regular assignments. English 350B is primarily a study of Milton's Paradise lost. It's an impressive work of literature, made more so as Milton composed it while blind.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, during the summer term, I took a selected studies reading course on the works of Philip K. Dick. I think the course went really well. I'm currently reworking my final paper, expanding on some of the ideas I touched upon, and hope to submit it to one of the science fiction journals at a later date.

Science Fiction at Waterloo

The University of Waterloo is sadly lacking in science fiction literature courses. The only course offered is English 208B, which does provide a good introduction to the field of science fiction in literature. Sadly, it is just an introductory course. It has a very high enrollment, from multiple disciplines. There may have been more engineering and physics students in the course than English majors. Since there are no further courses offered by the English Department at Waterloo, I'm preparing a "Selected Reading" course. This is an independent study course, supervised by a member of the faculty.  I've been working with Assistant Professor Aimée Morrison on the content of a course studying the work of Philip K Dick. The primary texts I will be studying will be

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
  • The Man in the High Castle
  • A Scanner Darkly
  • Ubik
  • The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
  • Flow my Tears, the Policeman Said
  • VALIS

As well as some short stories

  • "Minority Report"
  • "Imposter"
  • "We Can Remember it for you Wholesale"
  • "The Electric Ant"
  • "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon"

This isn't just a "reading" course. There is a significant literary theory component to this course. I've selected a number of articles and book chapters regarding PKD's work. Some of the more notable texts I will be using include The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn, A Companion to Science Fiction edited by David Seed, and the Pocket Essentials guide to Philip K Dick, written by Andrew M Butler.

I'll be meeting with Professor Morrison tomorrow to work out the syllabus for the course.

I'm really looking forward to this course, and it will wrap up just before my trip to the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal.

Anticipation

The 67th World Science Fiction convention is Anticipation 2009, being held at the Palais des congrès in Montreal. It's a big convention, and will be held from August 6th-10th. The Academic Track is run by Dr. Graham J. Murphy from Trent University, and Chrissie Mains, an instructor at University of Calgary and Mount Royal College in Calgary. My paper, "Modernizing the Difference Engine" has been accepted, and I will be attending Anticipation in August.