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Synonyms: scholar-fan, aca-fan, acafen
See also: Fan-scholar
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An acafan (sometimes aca-fan) is an academic who identifies as a fan.

Though we don't have an exact date for the coinage of the word, it clearly happened between the time the first academics, Patricia Lamb and Joanna Russ, started writing about fandom in the late 80s, and 1994 (or possibly late 1993), and when Patricia Gillikin started ACAFEN-L, the Academic Study of Fandom.

The term "aca-fan" was popularized by Matt Hills in his 2002 monograph, Fan Cultures. [1] Hills ascribed different meanings to the terms aca-fan and fan scholar and based the different use on primary interest. If the primary identity was academic, they were acafans; if it was fannish, they were fan scholars. After Hills, the term acafan has taken on a use of its own, both with Jenkins's blog title[2] and the use among acafans themselves, who've used the term to indicate that there is no primary identity whatsoever.

The next generation of academics who published scholarship on fan cultures and productions only sometimes defined themselves as fans in their scholarship. Henry Jenkins was an example of someone who identifies as a fan in Textual Poachers, 1992.

Now, many current academics self-identity as acafans.

The Beginnings of Academic Interest in Fandom and Some Tensions with Fans

An example of interest in 1977: a academic paper titled The Final Frontier: An Ethnography of STAR TREK Fandom was printed in Interphase #4. An excerpt, one that sets a less-than-positive tone: "The culture of Star Trek fandom seems to serve two basic needs of trekkers: "to belong" and "to be somebody." Insurances with regard to the former of these are achieved by uniting membership through three criteria: the person must be a fan of the Star Trek series; this fan must be an active member of ST fandom; and the fan must communicate with other trekkers. By implicitly controlling membership in this way, many of the uncertainties trekkers face in society as a whole are eliminated. Thus, people who were "socially less successful and introverted" have now found a niche."

From the start, there were tensions between the fannish community and academics who studied fandom.

Thinking About Slash/Thinking About Women, a 1988 article in Nome #11 -- a recap of an academic presentation by fan Edi Bjorklund
Though she doesn't specifically use the term, "acafan," in 1982, this fan writes of academic interest she has been seeing:
I am aware of that a number of fans have done or are doing academic papers, projects, etc. which relate to Star Trek or its fandom. I think a listing of these would be an interesting and helpful fan resource. If enough interest exists, perhaps papers and printed materials could be compiled and printed in zine-form. Let me hear your thoughts on this, please. [3]
Another fan writes in about acafandom in late 1990:
Fandom is actually attracting a lot of academic interest at the moment. I think it's going to emerge as a hot topic of study in Media Arts over the next couple of years, but I'm convinced that's a good thin. I know I couldn't have begun to conceptualize this project [the fan survey she has and what it was to be used for] if I hadn't actually become a fan first. It was only after I'd jumped in and started participating that I thought, hey, this is great. I wonder if anyone in Media or History or whatever's looked at it. The answer was very, very few... Fandom as a network is much more complex than most academic (who aren't fans themselves) are willing to allow for. I've met with resistance from most of my professors and many of my peers. [4]
In 1991, fan comments on the recent academic interest in fandom:
What's all this about 'Comlink' and other fanzines being a source for scholarly research? I shudder to think of some eager PhD candidate might find my ravings of some academic interest in the future or that I might even be somebody's PhD thesis... What's worse is that I won't make any money off of it! Seriously, it is somewhat comforting to know that the ephemeral of our subculture is being preserved for future generations. Pity the poor scholar wading through all the Mary Sue stories, though. [5]
Another fan is also not accepting of this academic interest:
I get uneasy when academics start questing for subjects in fandom. Not that I don't think it's an intriguing social phenomenon, because it is. Nor do I believe that most researchers have Evil Designs on fans or fandom. However, I do think that putting fandom under a microscope and scrutinized for the benefit of bored academics would have a chilling effect. Spontaneity and free expression in fandom are already endangered species, thanks to both a society's general shift away from first amendment freedoms -- a shift that fandom seems to be mirroring faithfully and to a certain petty vindictiveness to be found among a few within the fold. According to one publisher, quite a few zine buyers with careers to protect are afraid to deal with zine editors and fellow fen on a one to one basis, opting instead for the relative safety of anonymity. I think that's sad. And knowing you might end up in a psych or sociology journal could put a real damper on your enthusiasm and willingness to participate, taking away fandom's greatest appeal, and leaving paranoia in its place. [6]
Depends on the acafan's motives -- a Blake's 7 fan in 1998 writes:
Fans in general do have a history of being burned in varying degrees by people who are not themselves fans but just want to study fandom for the sake of an academic ulterior motive, or in order to write a "Look at the freaks!" type piece of journalism, or some such thing. This is quite different from what happens when fans themselves study fandom, as Una is doing. It's a matter of the attitude of the person doing the study, and there are indeed people out there who have betrayed the trust of the fans they dealt with in one way or another. Under the circumstances it's not unreasonable for fans to be a bit wary. [7]

Enterprising Women and Textual Poachers

Camille Bacon-Smith's 1992 book, Enterprising Women, created a strong negative reaction among many of the female fans who were the subjects of the book. Among the areas of contention were what many perceived as shallow, or incorrect, gender assumptions:
Some of Bacon-Smith’s theories concerning slash writing include: 1) that the male characters are actually surrogate women and, 2) that slash writers are afraid to write about heterosexual sex because they’re afraid they’ve been doing "it" wrong all these years; that women aren’t really expected to know the mechanics of gay, male sex so essentially anything is allowed and accepted.[8]

In 1992, Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture was published. It was a book that was massively influential in the development of fan studies and coincidentally introduced many new fans to media fandom. The book was unusual in that it celebrated fandom instead of pathologizing it. The book made Jenkins the go-to man for many things, one of which was a reliable quote. When mainstream interest in fanfic, specifically slash, became a staple of journalists in the mid-to-late 1990s,[9] something that coincided with the availability and popularity of the internet, Jenkins was quoted and interviewed in just about every newspaper and magazine article on the subject of fanfic, something to the amusement of some fans. [10]

One fan's reaction to both Jenkin's and Bacon-Smith's books:
Yes, I have recently read parts of Textual Poachers, along with most of Enterprising Women by Camilla Bacon-Smith. Just the idea that there, were people out there doing serious scholarly studies of fandom disturbed me. The copious footnotes in both books make it clear that this isn't a new trend, either. I haven't been a K/Ser long, but I've been a fan most of my life. It may currently be in vogue to be a Star Trek fan (neofen think "Trekkie" is a complimentary term), but I was teased and insulted for it so unmercifully during my adolescent years that I'm still sensitive about any nonfan even knowing about my affiliation. And that goes double for K/S. So I did feel quite threatened at the thought of these "ethnographers" and other scholars making our underground "culture" public. Both Jenkins and Bacon-Smith appear to be sensitive to this concern; they say it often enough, but that didn't stop them from shouting a lot of our secrets from the rooftops. Still, I take comfort from the fact that they've probably sold more of these books to us than to nonfans or other "outsiders" . . . [11]
Who gets it right, and wrong, and in between regarding K/S? One fan writes:
I also disagree with Jenkins' conclusions about why we women write K/S. Jenkins, a man himself, is mostly sympathetic--but he is a man. And isnt it interesting that he and so many others believe this phenomenon is about men? I've seen it suggested that we're writing about idealized male characters, more sensitive, emotionally whole men, because we cant find such men in our own lives. Well, maybe we cant, but I'm not sure any of us are really trying. I think my husband is wonderful (and sensitive), but I don't expect him to be a swashbuckling hero or an "ideal" person... Bacon-Smith comes close to the truth when she points out that fan writers use fan fiction to explore issues in their own lives. But that's from a woman who sees h/c as the "heart" of the media fanzine community. I dont think she realty understands the way we work out such issues in K/S. Further, it could be said equally that we explore issues in our own lives in order to write fan fiction! [12]

Acafans Among the Natives

Screenshot of the header of Henry Jenkin's blog

In some instances, having aca-fen attend fan run conventions helped bridge the gap in the 1990s. Henry Jenkins attended several Escapade slash conventions in the 1990s and was generally well received. [13] In comparison, Camille-Bacon Smith did not fare well at conventions with one fan describing her interactions with fans as "patronizing." [14] [15]

The differences regarding in person reception may have been that Jenkins openly identified himself as a fan, whereas Bacon-Smith felt it important to stress that she was not a fan and that her interest in fandom was academic. [16]

While acafans have gained more acceptance among the fannish community, academics have not been so widely well received. Even back in 1994, Karen Ann Yost drew important distinctions between 'academics' and acafans:
So why do I have one impression of fan fiction while a serious researcher has another? Well, fans probably view me differently and are willing to give me more information or insight. When I approach fans with an idea for a Strange New Worlds article, I tell them that I’m a fan. When I’m at a convention, I don’t need to identify myself as a fan; I have a stack of zines in my arms and wear a button that says: Hello, I’m from the American Association for the Abolition of Acronym Abuse, Regional Group Headquarters (AAAAARGH!). From the title of the publication, fans can tell that the audience of Strange New Worlds is other media fans. As a result, I may get more information than a ethnographic anthropologist who approaches fandom as simply a curiosity to be studied.

An "us against them" attitude will always exist in fandom. This is not fan snobbery, but fan fear. Fans have created a unique community with valid forms of expression: fan art, fan fiction, filk music, and fan music videos. The possible results of academic studies of fandom include an influx of people who come to conventions in search of a world they’ve only read about.

They really don’t want to be a member of the fan community. They have no interest in the shows, nor the fans who enjoy them. Disinterested or uninvolved people may change the very nature of the community that Star Trek fans began to build over twenty years ago. [17]
Another viewpoint, this one from 1992:
... the emphasis on acquisition in the fandom pales beside an even more insidious trend: the academizing of Trekdom. Star Trek has become the pet project of many celebrated mass culture critics. Feminist film theory professor Constance Penley, who found it necessary for her research to infiltrate the fandom at the deepest levels by pretending to be a Trekker extraordinaire, delved into slash fiction in order to speculate on the feminist subversiveness of the genre. Marxist mass culture critic Henry Jenkins studied fan-published fiction as “textual poaching,” placing it in a specious opposition to mass marketed Trek fiction. In addition to analyzing and patronizing the fen, these critics committed the grave sin of dissecting their fandom for intellectual purposes.

The reason Classic Trek worked was that it never got too smart or too preachy. Whenever the dialogue threatened to Make A Point, William Shatner managed to subvert it by allowing his overblown acting to put a comic twist on the proceedings. Fen watch countless reruns not to hear Captain Kirk sermonize about its ideals, but because it showed those ideals in practice by people who were having a good time...

Penley, Jenkins, and other academics’ intellectualizing of fan pleasure seems worse than its commodification. Trekdom has always been committed to the exchange of ideas in as open a forum as possible, without scientific jargon, without poststructuralist jargon. Trek devotees from the slashers to the Trekkers are committed to the notion that their ideals can and should be allied with pleasure. Between the capitalists and the Marxists, Trek gets lost. The mainstreaming of Star Trek may have gotten it out of the closet and into the academy, but it’s costing fan culture its soul. [18]

Autoethnography and Acafans

In his 2002 book Fan Cultures, Matt Hills uses the term autoethnography to call for a process that allows acafans to reflect upon their personal investments and roles in both fandom and academia. He describes how "the tastes, values, attachments, and investments of the fan and the academic-fan are placed under the microscope of cultural analysis" (72). Accordingly, Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse use this method as a framework in their 2006 Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet

[W]e hope to shift the concerns from a dichotomy of academic and fannish identity to subject positions that are multiple and permit us to treat the academic and fannish parts as equally important. Our identities are neither separate nor separable. We rarely speak as fan or scholar; we rarely differentiate between an academic and fannish audience, except perhaps in formality of tone. We return again to the theme of this introduction: the act of performing fandom parallels the act of performing academia. Both rely on dialogue, community, and intertextuality. All of us are academics who have spent years training in the particular discourses established by our disciplines. All of us have learned modes of interaction and mediation and specific forms of analysis in fandom. We’ll continue to exist on the intersection of the two, trying not to aca-colonize fandom or lose our academic allegiance through our fannish one. But we also want to profit from this intersection and to use our academic and fannish tools and insights to give a more complex and multifaceted image of fandom and its communities. In fact, we contend that our self-definition as participants and observers does not hinder us from seeing but rather helps us to see a more comprehensive picture of fandom. (24-5)

An Explosion of Acafandom

[so many acafans now!]

Examples of Some Fan Commentary: A 2014 Discussion

Some excerpts from a disscussion at Fail Fandomanon (see the entire discussion here [19]):

My personal issue with aca-fans is that I find a lot of what they produce not very interesting, and a lot of the times fan meta has a more interesting take on the issue. Also, a lot of the aca-fan rhetoric comes off as an apologia for fandom, as if the purpose of academic study is to justify or elevate the subject of study (which it may be these days, who knows). [20]
This isn't just an acafan thing: a lot of academic writing about "low" culture takes that form in any era. The first wave of academic writing about a non-prestigious topic usually takes the form of an apologia. It's only later waves that move on to a deeper analysis once the topic is established as a normal one for academic investigation. [21]
Yeah, a lot of acafandom seems way behind most fan meta to me, and there's also this really self-congralatory delusional "We are legitimizing the queering of desire! We are beating up John Winchester with copies of Foucault!" which, LOL, no. [22]
The idea that somehow slashfic is going to make the world a better place for queer people and women is kind of an insult to the people who are, you know, actually working to make the world a better place for queer people and women. And in the midst of all the apologia and rah-rah-fandom acafanning, there are legitimate criticisms getting lost in the shuffle. It's all well and good to talk about all the good reasons women get into slash, but there are uncomfortable topics that I think need the slightly more distant eye of academia. Fandom may already be discussing among itself issues with race and women (particularly canon female love interests) but those conversations rarely go anywhere, because we're all too close to it and people get defensive. It's an exhausting conversation to have, but it needs to be had, and I think at this point only an acafan really has the chance to make any headway on the issue. I'd want the person doing this to be more of a sociologist than a lit prof, though. [23]
We are now in our third decade of academic fan studies (Jenkins's book was first published in 1992, and there are actually a couple of essays that precede that) with some great articles and many mediocre and some really horrid ones coming out every year (just like in any field). [24]
...I get the impression that most fan studies research is about slash, for whatever reason. Is it that a lot of the non-fan academics came out of gay studies? [25]
But luckily we've come a long way from then (and I haven't seen Cicione cited in a very long time). Personally I don't think Lamb&Veith and Russ are wrong, per se. Just too limited in their analysis and, of course, also dealing with a much smaller number of stories and narrower range of fiction. Still, if I never have to read the "heterosexual women" claim again, it'll be too soon. (My own personal moment of incredulity is Bacon Smith's assertion at the beginning of her H/C chapter that the hurt never occurs between the partners but always comes from the outside. Even in the nineties I had a long list of fics saved who belied that statement!) I'm not sure who the first acafan was (meaning someone who was as immersed in fandom as they were in academia rather than finding fandom and maybe becoming a fan via and through academia). Jenkins calls himself a fan in Textual Poachers, but he clearly got a lot second hand via Cynthia; both Camille and Penley became fannish AFTER their initial writings. I'd guess it's somewhere in the early 2000s, which is incidentally when Matt coined the term aca-fan (and the much less used but to me equally useful fan-scholar). Of course through the 2000s you still see interlopers and outsiders (I still cringe remembering that dreadful Oh Frodo essay [26], and Salmon and Symons should only ever be cited to show what not to do!), but for all that is bad or wrong or weak within the scholarship, much of it comes from positions of inside fandom (for better or worse!) [27]
...I think it's important to look at both romance and porn in terms of what slash (or het NC17 for that matter) does and doesn't do, where it intersects and where it differs. I thought Driscoll's analysis of that was actually pretty good in laying out the field. I think we can all too easily fall into the default where we dismiss those who came before for what they failed to do rather than appreciate that they addressed something at all. (Not that I think you're doing that!) And yes, it's ironic that gay studies scholars didn't look at slash, but I'd argue the moment in scholarship we're talking about still was very much GAY rather than QUEER studies and the last thing they'd want to have focused on was supposedly het women (heck, they barely had the time of day for lesbians! And yes, I'm remembering some of my grad school classes and the gay studies praise of the mostly white gay cock bitterly). Cultural Studies, on the other hand, was all primed for Jenkins's (and Bacon-Smith's and Penley's) intervention. They dragged the resistance argument into the birth of fan studies until its much belated death. But again, that's something you don't see PFG talk about. The thing that bugs me most of acafan scholarship (and I don't exclude myself) is that we ignore the issue of participant observer and, when we don't, we reinvent the wheel. We also tend to play fast and loose with selection and examples. I guess that's a danger in all of cultural studies, but even when I have read every fic in a fandom and can in good conscience say that a certain type of story is predominant - how do I pick the one I then discuss. [28]
To the extent that academic writing is disproportionately about slash, I would guess that it has more to do with the many different flavors of academic woo that can be written about this than with acafen having come from queer studies specifically. Women writing het isn't going to seem as anomalous to an outside audience, so there are fewer avenues for writing edgy articles and making yourself look like an exciting New Media scholar. (Guys and queer women liking f/f is also something that outsiders aren't going to think needs an explanation.) There's also the effect of scholars feeding off of previous scholarship, so if there is a bias towards slash, it may also just have to do with whatever was written first. [29]

Further Reading


  1. Hills, Matt. Fan Cultures London: Routledge, 2002. A review of Hills' book can be found at: Scope: An Online Journal of Film & TV Studies.
  2. His blog is titled Confessions of an Aca-Fan.
  3. from Laurie Huff in Universal Translator #15
  4. from Comlink #46 (1990)
  5. from Comlink #47 (1991)
  6. from Comlink #47 (1991)
  7. Lysator, Jackie, April 1998
  8. Academia Explores the Final Frontier, Strange World, 1994
  9. see Category:Press
  10. A letterzine editor jokes after reading one of these articles about the "ubiquitous Dr Jenkins" in Discovered In A Letterbox #23 (2002). She also jokes about the ever-present Jenkins as she comments on an Australian article about fanfic: "OK, now the Aussies are getting in on the act. And they still manage to track down Henry Jenkins for a quote. The day man lands on Mars, the good Dr J will be there with a quote for the bemused Martians, no doubt!" in Discovered In A Letterbox #24 (2002). As she was shutting down her long-running letterzine, she bemusedly writes: "Heavens, how I shall miss my quarterly fix of Henry Jenkins' views on fanfic!" from Discovered In A Letterbox #24 (2002)
  11. from The LOC Connection #54
  12. from The LOC Connection #54
  13. The Escapade convention organizer described Henry as: a very good person to have at a slash con; he's been attending ESCAPADE for the last couple of years, and it's my hope that he and Cynthia will continue to do so. He's a great attendee, for that matter; he's generally helpful, polite, and friendly. (posted to the Virgule-L mailing list in 1994.
  14. In a 1993 Worldcon report to the Virgule-L mailing list one fan related:
    "I found Camile Bacon-Smith's public persona patronizing. At her solo panel in which she informed us blithely that we were all being recorded and if we didn't want our words of wisdom to show up in her latest AP reporter sitting next to me was heard to mutter "That's hardly fair."
  15. And: Putting all recording issues aside, I found it disturbing that whenever a fan related a story (their favorite convention moment or how fandom changed their life) she always put a "spin" on their comments. For example, one convention organizer agonized over having to call the police when a young fan was spotted waving a realistic looking gun around only to find out later that it wasn't real. She felt that she had betrayed the unwritten rule of acceptance in order to save the other 999 fen from harm. CBS smiled and pronounced "That must have been a *very difficult decision* for you to make." A few minutes later, in response to a fan comment about problematic social interactions in fandom she asked the room: "How many of you would describe yourself as socially inept?"
  16. In 1992, Sandy Herrold offered the following assessment of both Jenkins and Bacon-Smith to the Virgule-L mailing list:
    "Camille has spent some serious time in fandom (paid her dues? I don't know). But, she *herself* says she is *not* a fan. She wants to keep her distance, her "objectivity" (as if there is such a thing in the social sciences). I'm not saying this makes her a bad person, but I do think that, as with many choices made, it carries consequences. Henry Jenkins, on the other hand, is willing to admit to his academic peers that he is a fan, a member of the community that he is observing, and take the flak for that. Again, this doesn't make him god, or make his observations more (or less) valid/interesting than Camille's, but he is taking responsibility as a member of the community.
    But to heck with a lot of that; I think *I* learned things about fandom, and the ways I play (if not particularly *why* I play (more on that later, maybe) from both Camille and Henry's books. So I am glad they were written."
  17. Academia Explores the Final Frontier
  18. from The Selling Out of Star Trek/WebCite, originally printed in The Charred Phoenix, 1992
  19. archived link; WebCite
  20. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  21. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  22. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  23. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  24. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  25. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  26. "Oh. . . oh. . . Frodo!": Readings of Male Intimacy in The Lord of the Rings, Smol, Anna. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, Volume 50, Number 4, Winter 2004, pp.949-979 (Article)
  27. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  28. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
  29. from fail-fandomanon, November 11, 2014
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