Interview with Louisa Ellen Stein: Whole self and felt scholarship in fan studies

Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist

[0.1] Abstract—Fan studies scholar Louisa Ellen Stein discusses her journey into felt scholarship and whole self scholarship in fan studies. Her fannish interests and personal identities are varied and affect her scholarship in different ways. Choosing how and when to reveal and interrogate them is difficult but important work.

[0.2] Keywords—Acafan; Methodologies; Political activism; Research; Vidding

Stein, Louisa Ellen. 2020. "Interview with Louisa Ellen Stein: Whole Self and Felt Scholarship in Fan Studies." Conducted by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist. In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

[1] Q: First of all, thank you for participating in this interview. The TWC special issue on fan studies methodologies was partly sparked by your keynote at the Fan Studies Network 2017 meeting and some of the questions you raised about our different identities (fans, scholars, activists, to name just a few), especially in politically challenging times. We are taken with the concept of felt scholarship, and what we'd like to do in this interview is talk about both your fannish and academic practice and what some of your ideas mean for how we do fan studies.

[2] Could you tell us more about your fannish practice? What do you do? What makes you squee? And how does that spill over into your scholarship?

[3] LES: I'm struck by the fact that you lead off with a question about my own fannishness and fannish activity. I remember a time when I would have been hesitant to share the specifics of my fandom, and also when folks probably wouldn't have asked, or for that matter perhaps wouldn't have wanted to know. I know this is still a fraught issue for many for a host of reasons—–either because of professional insecurity (especially graduate students but even pretenure professors) and also for personal reasons. Some fandoms and fan practices are easier to share than others.

[4] My main fandom practice these days is vidding (that is, editing fan music videos). I've been vidding since around 2006…a big portion of my life when I think about it! I think I've always had vidding in me. When I was thirteen or so I made a video in which I set my camp art class lithographs to the "Sounds of Silence," and when I was in college I made an experimental film editing old family films intercut with Yiddish women's poetry set to Kate Bush. Not pretentious at all…So it seems I've always been fascinated with juxtaposing audio to video to create something more, something new, something that triggers emotion in the viewer (and in me!). When I found vids and vidding, it was like everything clicked into place—–this was my medium, a medium that took what I loved (both music and TV) and synthesized them into something more and something shareable, something that communicated fannish investment.

[5] I've made my share of intellectual self reflexive metavids and my share of feels vids, or what some might call Lord King Bad Vids, and more often, videos that work in the weird in-between space between those two poles. In that way my vidding echoes my academic concerns and vice versa, as I have always seemed to want to muddy the assumed divides between intellectual and emotional, and between personal and political. So in some ways vidding has been the constant that's made me squee over the decades—well that, and Supernatural (CW, 2005–). I can't believe that show dragged me back in! I'm catching up on season 13 now.

[6] In terms of what makes me squee fandomwise these days, I'm definitely a TV media fangirl, but recently I've shifted somewhat from the WB/CW teen TV shows that used to be my bread and butter to an ever-growing love for anime. This is something that I've been able to share with my daughter, and I've found unexpected joy in sharing my home and life with an evolving/growing fan person. Right now we're obsessing over the quirky show the Disastrous Life of Saiki K. (2016) and also all things Hamilton (2015). Oh, and I made a very undignified noise while standing in a rental car line when I saw over Twitter that the new Yuri on Ice movie [scheduled for 2019] would feature young Victor. Vidding feeds all of this enthusiasm because I'm always thinking, what will give me amazing or fun or provocative visuals for a vid?

[7] So how does all this to spill into my scholarship? I have always felt that the insights I've had to offer are based on my own intimate and idiosyncratic understandings and experiences of particular media and fan communities. So my scholarship focuses on the texts, fandoms, and practices that I have personal experience with. Yes, this means I may focus on some texts and not others, and that my own biases shape the track of my research, but I feel that this is a necessary dimension of what I do, and I hope that I have presented my work as necessarily partial and qualified, limited subjective knowledge. Not that I shouldn't question my own assumptions and limits—quite the opposite. Rather, I believe those limits need to be transparent as much as possible, and then I can question them and push myself out of my comfort zone, and consider that as well.

[8] Q: Given that what you study is informed by your fandom, how have you brought fannish practices into your scholarly work? What kinds of challenges have you encountered when doing so?

[9] LES: I am increasingly interested in nontraditional forms of scholarship and videographic criticism, and the relationship between videographic criticism and vidding, for example. At the Fan Studies Network North America conference in November 2018, Lori Morimoto and I organized a vid/crit show that featured videos that overlap, intertwine, and explore the potentials in the merging of these two forms. I'm also interested in developments in online multimedia/multimodal scholarship that is open access and speaks to fan-scholars and scholar-fans alike, something I hope the TWC Tumblr and Fandom issue (No. 27, 2018) achieves to some degree, and that I really want to explore in my next book project (still in the planning/proposal stages).

[10] I feel that broadly speaking, there are two sets of challenges at play in blending fannish practice and fan studies, though they're interrelated of course: internal and external. Over the course of my fan studies career, from masters student to tenured professor, I've faced external pressures—–from professors and reviewers and editors who questioned the value of the very topics I was writing on or who sought to tame my attempts at integrating a more personal voice into my writing.

[11] The structural issues there can't be ignored—–the sense that fan cultures and especially feminized fan cultures are frivolous and shouldn't be studied, and that if we express enthusiasm for the thing we study, then that overshadows any other arguments we might be making/striving to make. At my first conference presentation as a masters student, one senior scholar said to me after my talk, "Well, I could tell you really love Roswell" (The WB, UPN, 1999–2002). The incident was partially my doing—seeing senior (to me at least) scholars winging it rather than read their papers made me want to do so as well, but I hadn't had practice at walking that careful line that academia expects us to tow if we want to express enthusiasm about our topic: keep it caged, separate, containable, don't let it spill over into your analysis, god forbid. That's a line that's not easy to walk, and I have struggled with it in various ways in my career thus far. I struggled with that early on, in that I was determined to study what I wanted and to produce insights from the inside, but then I felt I had to mask the inside of it so I could jump through the hoops grad school demanded. For a while there I took out the word "fan" and replaced it with "audience," because I knew that was just more likely to fly as a legitimate insight that could be legible to the people assessing it as something that mattered.

[12] Of course, not every advisor/senior scholar who was guiding me would have said such drastic measures were necessary. Indeed, it was my advisor, Anna McCarthy, who, seeing my budding passion for fandom, handed me her copy of Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers (1992), thus sending me down my path.

[13] But this is where the "internal challenges" comes in—–as much as there are external resistances to fan studies and affect-driven scholarship, even more so how we internalize resistances matters and impacts our experience of our scholarship. When I set out to write Millennial Fandom (2015), I was intent on writing it in a more personal voice that showed my investment and highlighted the necessarily personalized and partial nature of my insight. I felt at that point that I had been much better at embodying this felt scholarship position in conferences and maybe blog posts, but that I had reverted to a more traditionally reserved, authoritative voice in my more traditional academic scholarship. At least I had made the switch from "audience" to "fan," but still, whenever I wanted to incorporate my own perspective, it felt like narcissistic navel-gazing, disconnected from my larger argument. But Alexander Doty's work—–most especially Flaming Classics (2000)—had a huge impact on me. His voice is so deep in every line of that book; he's so present, it makes the book both a fun and powerful read, and I found myself deeply convinced by his argument, not despite the presence of his emotional self (he even records his own experiences of self-doubt and struggle in relation to his scholarship), but because of all that presence of self. I tried to embody that approach in Millennial Fandom. I'm not sure I fully succeeded, but it was a step in the right direction.

[14] Indeed, I think the talk in which I integrated personal emotions and experience the most was in my FSN talk that inspired this interview (and in part, this issue? wow!). I have to confess, I was riddled with self-doubt before giving that talk. Once there was no turning back, in England, talk in hand, headed for the podium, I wondered what I had been thinking, writing something so personal for a keynote speech! It was only when I was speaking the words and feeling the release in the audience—–the sense that were in this together even if we are coming from different perspectives, fandoms, and national contexts, that I felt excitement that my career had led me to a place where this was possible, where I was able to give such a personal talk to a room full of scholars in our rapidly expanding field.

[15] Q: It's certainly difficult—and a bit scary—to be vulnerable about our feelings as scholars, but we're definitely inspired by your use of whole self or felt scholarship. Can you tell us more about what those terms mean to you and how you would encourage others to incorporate them into their work?

[16] LES: I don't really see myself as coming up with something new in this notion of whole self or felt scholarship. I've already mentioned Alex Doty as a deep influence on me. But Henry Jenkins's discussion of the necessity of owning personal insight in Textual Poachers framed my whole entrance into the field. I do think that's a part of Textual Poachers that isn't always recalled—perhaps because it is harder to culturally digest and certainly met with a fair amount of resistance within academia where—even in media and fan studies—notions of maintaining some semblance of critical distance are still held dear. I was recently rereading Textual Poachers in advance of my teaching a fan studies seminar this fall, and I was impressed again by Jenkins's argument for why self-location is necessary. And yet, in Textual Poachers, even Henry Jenkins himself restrains his personal voice to only the introduction. He then lets that serve as the remembered (or forgotten) frame for the case studies chapters that follow, which on their own do read as more traditional academic analyses. I don't mean this as a critique of Textual Poachers but rather as an example of how hard it is to maintain the presence of self in an extended way in academic analysis. It's both enormous emotional labor and a contradictory/impossible set of expectations.

[17] So I don't think I really would advocate for a whole self scholarship where we are present in all elements of ourselves in relation to our work at all times. Rather I would advocate for a strategic personal scholarship where we offer models for the value of personal insight and perspective in key moments—a register we can shift to that in turn can inflect our field's conversation overall. This shouldn't be a checklist, or necessary self-exposure or confessional, or an obligatory listing of fannish qualifiers, but rather an opening within the field to respect and acknowledge the role of lived and felt experience and investment in our scholar-fan and fan-scholar work.

[18] Q: We're definitely big fans of celebrating those experiences! In particular, we've understood felt scholarship in the context of fan studies as doing our scholarship fannishly—that is, to incorporate our own fannish sensibilities, interests, and communities, as well as bringing nonacademic modes of knowledge production into our work. Doing so seems to open fan studies up to different understandings of fandom. What insights has felt scholarship offered you?

[19] LES: Ideally, when we do research fannishly, we are less likely to see ourselves in the position of assessor and thus less likely to devalue or objectify—or fetishize—the fandoms/fans we study. Of course, the flip side threat might be that we fight fandom battles (say, shipping wars) with academic language, but as long as this is owned and acknowledged, I'd rather see fannish debates mapped onto academia in self-reflexive, thoughtful ways than academic misreading or misuse of fandom. (Although another pitfall here would be wielding academic power/status within fandom circles—something I think it would be really valuable for us to have some further conversations about as academia and fandom commingle and merge evermore online and at cons.) But overall, I think that integrating our fannishness to some degree can ground us and can humble us within the complexity that is fandom. It can also open us to the myriad rich, messy, complex, beautiful, and ugly motivations and interactions that make up fandoms.

[20] Some examples of recent work that do this well: Rebecca Williams's "Tumblr's GIF Culture and the Infinite Image: Lone Fandom, Ruptures, and Working Through on a Microblogging Platform" ( in the 2018 TWC special issue on Tumblr and Fandom; and Alexis Lothian's discussion of her own vidding in her 2018 book Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. On the flip side, the vidding zine Videlicit ( brings together vidders and academics (and both at once) in nuanced, accessible, fascinating discussions of vids and vidding.

[21] Being grounded in our fandom can give us insights into the intimate, incomplete, communal, ephemeral, temporary, multilayered, multifandom experience, the flow of an interface like Tumblr in a given moment, the situated use of one interface—say AO3 (—in conjunction with others, or the personal histories of fans migrating from platform to platform as we might experience such migrations over our fan lifetimes, or the very quality of being a lurker, academic or otherwise. All of this lends us deeper, more nuanced, more specific felt/lived insights into fans and fandom, ourselves included.

[22] Q: It's wonderful to see you include "ourselves" in the list of topics into which we can gain insight, although—as you expressed above—we should be doing so carefully. What are the kinds of identities or aspects of yourself that you bring to your scholarship (and to your fandom, and activism)? How do you negotiate those identities in different contexts?

[23] LES: Necessarily I bring my fan history and my fan present, my academic identity, my motherhood, my political frustrations, my Jewish-otherness, my gender and sexual identity, my geographic and cultural location—all of these inform my scholarship, my teaching, my fandom, my activism. I don't spell them out all the time. Rather, they bubble up in different ways at different moments—not only in more obvious ways (say in my identification with Rachel Bloom) but also in my identification with alienated angel Castiel, or with Theodosia Burr as imagined in Hamilton fandom, and resultingly with the fandom(s) and media texts I feel able to write about in my academic work. I don't always make these intersections explicit in my scholarship or teaching, and indeed it's easier to do so in my vidding than in my written work, but they're all at play. I used to strive to keep them all much more separate; in many ways its a privilege of seniority and age that I feel I can bring them together in public, here in this interview, or at conferences. But it's also the result of supportive communities—both within fan studies and within fandom (Vividcon folks, I'm looking at you) that helped me to be able to be somewhat closer to my whole self really at any given time with others, in my scholarship or otherwise.

[24] Q: Can you elaborate on how your position and tenure allows you a privilege that other junior faculty might not have? How might fan studies, or a wider academia, provide space for junior faculty and beginning scholars to experiment and engage with felt scholarship?

[25] LES: I have felt the shift acutely over the course of my career. As a graduate student and junior scholar, I used to admire other scholars who performed different variations of whole self or felt scholarship, but I didn't feel that I was in a position to do the same. I lived in fear that my students would discover my fannish activities, that my work would sound too emotional, or too partial, or too invested. These were gendered and generational concerns in part, but not totally. I still worry about all of those things, but to a lesser degree, having found myself in a supportive department and institution that value the insights of fan studies and nontraditional scholarship. Time, professional status, and a supportive work and cultural environment have allowed me to lean into rather than away from these intersections and to explore the way in which they can be productive, if still sometimes uncomfortable.

[26] I believe that the more we create forums that invite exchange of ideas between scholars, junior and senior, in less formal contexts, and the more we create structures for mentorship and collaborative scholarship, the richer our field will become, and the more we will benefit from a wider range of perspectives. I certainly felt this sense of a supportive, multigenerational scholar-fan space when I went to my first Fan Studies Network UK conference, and I hope that the recent North American edition of the Fan Studies Network conference did this both in its panels, roundtables, its mentoring program, and its opening speedgeeking event. I'd also like to see an online forum for fan studies that offers what Antenna ( did for TV studies—a short form sharing of ideas in a more casual tone, without the pressure of a formal publication. I think we need initiatives like this to build diverse communities of support among fan-scholars with different foci, from different disciplines, and at different stages of their careers.

[27] Q: It seems as though this is a supportive moment in fan studies for expressing a whole self and felt self. Is this true in other contexts? For example, when you name something political as fannish, as you do in your activist work, how is that taken up?

[28] LES: I think it depends a lot on the audience/listener. Someone who has been engaged in media fandom going way back wouldn't likely be surprised at the implication that there's a connection between politics and fandom because fandom for many has always felt/been politically charged, even if we're just talking about the politics of pleasure. For people less familiar with fandom past or present, it's more surprising that there might be a political or activist dimension to fandom because those taboos still exist that fandom is a place for only uncritical celebration rather than a complex landscape of cultural, social, and emotional engagement. From that perspective, on the one hand, I feel that the insistence on the presence of the political within fandom is an important intervention to make over and over again, because dismissive narratives about the simplicity or vapidity of fandom are deeply problematic, recurrent narratives that continually erase and erase again the subjectivities of fans, youth, women, queer, and "nonnormative" identities and experiences of cultures. On the other hand, there's a perception that we might taint the purity of an activist voice with the supposedly compromised, consumerist, culture industry dupe of fandom.

[29] But on the ground in 2018, no such clear divides between activism and fandom exist, as I attempted to get at in my FSN talk. Activism is modeled on fandom and uses fannish approaches to popular culture because activists are already fans and because modes of fan engagement have become modes of cultural engagement more broadly. So of course the two are merged, because they weren't separate to begin with. Calling out that already existing merger is important to me because any suggestion that the two actually are separate reads to me as wishful thinking and cultural policing. To use Harry Potter as an example: Harry Potter was already political; people don't make Voldemort signs for rallies just because of the strategic planning of the Harry Potter Alliance but because Harry Potter has been for many a key part of their cultural lexicon for making sense of the social and political landscape, communicating to one another and making their perspectives heard. That said, the work of the Harry Potter Alliance was critical in transforming the perception that fandom couldn't be political or do valuable social activist work.

[30] Q: What would you say is the effect of the blending of fandom and political activism how we do fan studies?

[31] LES: Well, if fandom and politics were already merged, then fan scholarship and politics are also already necessarily intertwined. To me, this only heightens the need for self-reflexivity and for critical analysis of our own positions and how they shape our work. Yes, our scholar-fan work likely may have political purposes or dimensions (and indeed this has likely always been the case), but we should also be cautious in assuming that all fans or fan-scholars share the same political frameworks and investments.

[32] Q: It's hard to imagine doing anything fannishly, self-reflexively, and with our whole and/or felt selves without including feels in one way or another. How do we share heightened or overwhelming emotions—sadness, joy, grief—in scholarship, fannish or otherwise? How can we use emotional expression responsibly?

[33] LES: There's a place for considering and incorporating such emotions (also anger, frustration, discomfort, or alienation), but thoughtfully and self-reflexively. I don't think it's always a necessity; it depends on the topic and the meat of the argument. I've already mentioned Rebecca Williams's account of fandom mourning through Hannibal (NBC, 2013–15) GIFs; a couple of other examples that come to mind are Maud Lavin's "Tomboy in Love" (2015;, which looks in part at the cultural significance of transcultural misinterpretation, including her own situated experience of 1st Shop of Coffee Prince (2007) as a US viewer, or even, arguably, Rebecca Wanzo's "African American Acafandom and Other Strangers" (2015;, which is not a personal narrative but an invested critical argument that indeed argues that we revisit this question of writing about what "we" know, to recognize how an uncritical focus on scholar's fannish comfort zones has resulted in the othering of black fan experience in the face of assumptions of fannish whiteness. Wanzo's piece isn't a confessional narrative of self, but it's a felt analysis that is all the stronger because it feels like it matters in a personal way, and not just to the author. Another piece that comes to mind is Paul Booth's "Tumbling or Stumbling?" (2018;, again in the Tumblr and Fandom TWC issue, in which he talks about his own failures using Tumblr in the fan studies classroom and about the necessity of failure—or a willingness to fail in teaching (fandom and perhaps in general) more broadly.

[34] I'm struck by this short list that first comes to mind in answer to your question, and how it doesn't include feels in the joy or squee sense. I don't think we're there yet. We're not at a place where we can comfortably incorporate love and fun and joy and pleasure into our research and scholarship; anger, critique, dissatisfaction—those are easier fits, actually.

[35] Q: Why do you think we are not yet in a position to incorporate squee, love, and pleasure in our research? What do you imagine it would look like to do so?

[36] LES: I want to say that the taboo against (female) pleasure in media runs deep and is still with us around every corner. I do think this is the case. But at the same time I think that fannish squee is never purely positive, never purely love. Fannish pleasure is mixed in with displeasure, or it simultaneously functions as love and critique, distinction and separation. On the ground as media fans, we know this in our everyday interactions with fandom. But when people say "fandom" (in academia and in popular culture), they still think "uncritical love," and anything perceived as uncritical doesn't sit well with academia. So there's the very present risk that including fan emotion (be it squee or ranting, all with potentially a critical edge) will be immediately misread as uncritical and will thus taint our academic work. But if we could get past this, I'd love to see fannish emotion, mixed bag that it is, integrated into our scholarship in thoughtful and self-critical ways, where we engage with questions like, what are these fannish pleasures built on? On what assumptions do they depend? Who do they include and exclude? What releases do squee, love, and pleasure offer? Why, and to whom, and in what ways?

[37] Q: Those are important questions to ask if we want to stop erasing nonnormative or minority fannish experiences. What other kinds of pitfalls—for researchers, participants, and/or audiences—should we consider while doing felt scholarship?

[38] LES: There are significant potential pitfalls to felt scholarship. There's the risk of uncritically focusing on the limits of our own experiences, communities, pleasures, and displeasures, and assuming that those experiences represent fandom at large. There's the risk of misrepresenting the communities we study because we're not fully taking into account how our investment in the topic might shape the picture we see and paint. There's the risk of creating a field in which only certain felt scholarships are welcome, with others dismissed or not recognized or simply not invited to be part of the conversation. There's the risk of graduate students and junior scholars feeling the pressure to self-disclose in order to be part of the field, when their specific position, department, or publication needs do not value (or indeed devalue) felt scholarship.

[39] I don't think that whole self or felt scholarship should be a requirement, or a constant state. At different stages in our lives we'll want more or less privacy, more or less of the personal in our fandom, more or less fandom in our academia, more or less academia in our fandom, more or less politics in all of the above. This depends on who the individual researcher/scholar/fan is, what fan communities they participate in, what their relationship is the communities and practices they study, what their personal life demands are, and what point they are at in their academic careers (or perhaps they may be independent scholars working in other fields simultaneously, with additional sets of professional frameworks and concerns). I don't think there's a single answer to this or a right way to maintain boundaries; it's a constantly changing process. These are such personal mergers. We can only perform what feels right for ourselves in a given moment while respecting the boundaries that others choose to keep around us, or that an institution may demand of us or of others.

[40] I do think that when there's a reason to, those of us who feel we can should work to incorporate personal experience, insight, and emotion into our fannish scholarship because doing so will cumulatively make it more of an option and an accepted practice that others can experiment with as well, and then I hope we can move toward having a larger range of voices, perspectives, and bodies performing/enacting felt fannish scholarship. But we also need to be collectively self-aware about whose experiences and feelings are being represented, and who is being left out. Felt scholarship needs to be engaged with self-reflexively and self-critically or it may do more harm than good.

[41] Whole self scholarship should never be perceived as mandatory; nor should felt scholarship necessarily require self-disclosure. It's not about proving yourself or sharing all details of your fan history. It's about being aware of how your fannishness and personal history informs your work and taking that into account (if not necessarily spelling it out in the written work).

[42] Q: Since the rest of the work in this special issue is specifically devoted to fan studies methodologies, let's end with a question about how you see felt scholarship fitting into conversations about fan studies methodologies going forward. What would you like researchers—fans, acafans, fan-scholars, and so on—to think about?

[43] LES: I am moved to see more folks venturing into this territory and exploring the value of integrating personal history, emotion, political investment, and even creative practice in fan studies work. I don't think people should feel like they must practice this type of scholarship, but the more folks who do, the more we can explore what these mode of fan studies have to offer to our understanding of media culture and popular culture more broadly, and to our community specifically.

[44] But—and this is a big but, which came up as a significant concern at the recent Fan Studies Network North America conference—if we engage with felt scholarship uncritically and let it limit what we study, whom we include in the conversation, or what we consider fan studies (or even whom we consider a fan), we'll be in deep trouble as a field and as individual scholars.

[45] This type of felt scholarship needs to be practiced self-critically and inclusively, and in generous rather than proscriptive ways. This means working to include in the conversation multiple felt scholarships, perspectives, and histories, and even multiple definitions of what counts as fandom, while continually working to create and recreate multiplicity. Moreover, that multiplicity needs to include felt and more traditional scholarship together. We're not there now, and it's going to be hard, ongoing work for the field to be truly as robust and diverse as it should be—and as we need it to be.