U2 Aca-Fans, Geeks and Nerds at The World of Bob Dylan and Future U2 Conferences

Are you an aca-fan? Academics who are also fans of the subject they study are aca-fans (sometimes written as acafan). The term has been around for a while as have fan cultures and fandom studies.

There are plenty of online places to read more about aca-fans and what they do, from definition sites like this one, to a first-person “Confession of an Aca-Fan” from Henry Jenkins, who is said to have coined the term, to this recent essay on David Bowie fandom, which was published in The Fandom of David Bowie.

Toija Cinque, a co-author of The Fandom of David Bowie, wrote in another article titled Celebrity conferences as confessional spaces: the aca-fan memory traces of David Bowie’s stardom that:

The exchange of ideas between fans about stars and celebrities frequently takes place in informal circumstances, sometime face-to-face or in online forums and increasingly via social media such as Facebook. An increasingly important aspect of stardom and celebrity in contemporary societies finds now that there are important ‘new’ and professional spaces for commentary, discussion and thinking about star performers and the various affects of fandom itself. Such is the aca-fan conference.

If you’ve been to one of our U2 Conferences, or having been following along in the field of U2 Studies, you know exactly what an aca-fan is. You are, most likely, a U2 aca-fan yourself.

Kevin Dettmar, professor of English at Pomona College, attended the 2009 U2 Conference and presented his paper “Nothing Succeeds Like Failure: U2 and the Politics of Irony,” which he later contributed to Exploring U2: Is This Rock ‘n’ Roll? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2011).

In July, Dettmar wrote for The Chronicle of Higher Education about attending The World of Bob Dylan Symposium, a four-day conference on Bob Dylan at The University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies. Organizers expected about 200 attendees; they closed registration at 500.

“All Along the Ivory Tower: Amateur geeks and scholarly nerds come together to discuss Bob Dylan and his music,” shares Dettmar’s observations, personal experience and questions about the co-mingling of scholars and fans around a common subject. He shared the whole article with me and you can read it here.

I pulled some of Dettmar’s musings which I found to be most relevant to what I’ve noticed at U2 Conferences. Do his reactions strike a chord with you too? What’s been your aca-fan experience? What have the U2 Conferences done for you, and what would you like to see at the next U2 Conferences? Please leave your comments below.

Dettmar writes:

I had participated in a Dylan conference once before, one fully “scholarly” in design and tenor; the program and the talks were brilliant. But the Tulsa gathering was something different — something special. That’s reflected by the fact that it can with justice be described as a “gathering.” In part, it was a meeting of different “tribes”; in stark opposition to the traditional academic conference, the organizers had invited journalists, artists, and fans, as well as popular-music scholars. For many, the conference served as a kind of IRL meetup for folks who had known one another only from Dylan fan sites, message boards, and Facebook groups.

Most uncharitably, to both parties, the division might be described as “geeks” versus “nerds”; more conventionally, I suppose, the participants could tentatively be grouped into “fans” and “scholars.” The distinction is somewhat dubious, of course, but there’s something to it. One of the differences between fan and scholar involves the question of intentionality. Fans aspire to have the mind of Bob; scholars, in theory at least, seek rather to assess the achievement of the work, independent from what Dylan thought or said about it, to figure out not what Dylan meant, but what a given song, or album, or performance does. Scholars don’t care (or try not to care) about what Dylan thought he was doing, or was trying to do; we tend to hold to a more mysterious, even mystical, understanding of art, believing that the work always exceeds (and often contradicts) the explicit intentions of its maker. … Whereas fans, by and large, hold to a more mystical understanding of Dylan himself. For the fans, the credibility of an argument hinges on whether it jibes with their sense of what Bob was trying to do.

Another distinction that struck me that weekend is that fans’ way of seeing, analyzing, and questioning such topics is more detectivelike, more based in fact-finding, whereas scholars cherish the study of ideas. One practical consequence was that we scholars were quickly labeled the pundits, the ideas guys (and more often than not, guys took up the most space).

A final, but crucial, distinction between scholarly and fan interpretation concerns the question of context. Both scholars and fans seemed to eschew reading Dylan’s work in some orthodox New Critical fashion — they rejected the notion that Dylan’s songs alone were the sacred, self-contained source of interpretable meaning — but they had rather different reasons for doing so. The fans, too, spent a lot of time close reading Dylan’s texts, pressuring them to surrender their meanings, while also vigilantly attending to the contexts that framed their readings and proved their validity. For them, though, the principal context was what they conceived to be Dylan’s own intentions: Getting into the texts was a proxy for getting into Bob’s head.

A rich spirit of intellectual generosity reigned among the Dylan fans; I think all of the scholars were impressed with how unstinting they were with their considerable knowledge. We were also more than a little freaked out by them, truth be told, and even a little envious. It’s no secret that academics are routinely beset with professional anxieties, jealousies, and endless self-doubts. The fans, on the other hand, seemed completely untouched by things like “impostor syndrome.” But then again, they’re not impostors: What they know, they really know.

I chaired a session composed of one scholar and one fan — the latter, I’d guess, a late 20-something who said I should introduce him as an “independent basement scholar.” His talk on the world of Dylan fanzines was remarkable — as was the archive of that ephemera he has assembled, which he makes freely available via PDF to anyone who asks. The spirit of trading Dylan and Grateful Dead bootlegs is alive and well and living on the internet. … And the Dylan fans weren’t just generous with one another — they were generous with “us,” the scholars.

As should be clear by now — you will have figured it out far more quickly than I did — we scholars could learn a lot from the fans. This is not to suggest that conferences should be transformed into concerts (though I do think Dr. Freud would have something to say about the way I kept slipping up and calling it a Dylan concert rather than conference). But if we scholars think that fans’ analyses are lacking in rigor, our work would surely benefit from a bit of their enthusiasm, even joy.

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