So I spent this past week at #SWPACA15; which is the Southwestern Popular & American Culture Association’s 2015 conference. It was held in Albuquerque, New Mexico and its theme, Intersecting Borders in Popular and American Culture was definitely in full effect this past week. (CAUTION: This will be a long post, and if you choose to watch my presentation there are a few choice words)
First off you have me. I flew about eight hours (when you add in time differences and everything) from Georgia to New Mexico to attend my first major conference, and it was a pop culture conference. Now some of you may be wondering what I mean by that, well, in the big bad world of academia (the beast that swallows up your college professors’ souls) a pop culture studies student and especially a conference is looked at as lesser. Personally, I am glad I didn't believe that hype because this past week in Albuquerque has been FANTASTIC. Even though I made it there on Tuesday, the real fun (and the conference itself) started on Wednesday.
So the first panel I went to was a Harry Potter Studies panel. Yes, people in academia study Harry Potter and it is AWESOME. I also really enjoyed how tight knit the Harry Potter area scholars were; they stuck together and even planned their own all-HP conference. It was really cool. I went to three Harry Potter events: a movie screening (which of course ended up in a talk about books vs. movies), a panel that showed the global reach of the series (we had scholars from Mexico, Brazil, and India all gushing about the series!), and one on Harry Potter and Identity. I got to that last one late, and by the time I got in, scholar Linda Robinson had started a discussion on the portrayal of Hermione Granger. Those of us who have read the books know how Hermione was described as bushy haired, buck toothed, and pretty plain looking. Now if you take a look at Emma Watson (who plays Hermione in the films) she is none of those things. The problem comes in when you think about how empowering it would be to less facially gifted individuals to have a role model like Hermione, who uses her brains rather than beauty to become a hero. One very interesting point brought up is the fact that while every other character is given at least one race-defining trait, Hermione’s only defining traits are her bushy hair and Harry mentioning after one summer that she looks “darker”. Could we be looking at a Black Hermione?
So the next session was the moment I had been waiting for/worrying about: my own presentation. In the Rap & Hip Hop Culture area my panel discussed Hip Hop and Gender Studies, so my paper on “The Nicki & Iggy Effect” was more than welcome. I won’t summarize my paper; you can just watch & listen to my presentation and the Q&A round below.
My fellow panel member was the same scholar who I credited for recording my presentation at the end of the above video (Denisha Menefee). Thanks to the Rap & Hip-Hop Culture area scholars I met people working with the perception of home, Tupac’s global impact, and the rise of hip-hop’s presence in the fashion industry (Chvonne Parker, Marci Swank, and Anya Kurennaya respectively). The Rap & Hip-Hop area may have been the reason why I came to the conference, but they were surely not my only interest.
I had a slight dilemma that’s familiar to all regular conference goers: two different panels I wanted to see happening at the same time. In my case there was a paper on the gender and power dynamics in the video game Final Fantasy X going on in the Game Studies area and a particular paper called “Fear of a Black Writers’ Room” going on in the Television area. Since I’m a huge nerd AND Fear of Black writers could literally be the title of my biography, I couldn’t really choose. I looked at the schedule and tried to time it out to make both panels.
That didn’t happen. I was able to hear all of Ms. Jackie Brown’s paper on the Fear of a Black Writers’ room (and was able to talk with her afterwards) but missed David Corwin’s “Queering Spira” paper. Thankfully I got to talk to David afterwards (and kept seeing him all throughout the conference) so I still was able to get a feel for what he discussed. Pretty cool to hear such an academic take on one of my favorite RPGs.
The next morning was the big day with seemingly ALL of the panels I wanted to sit in on. I woke up at eight to feed my teacher’s spirit and sit in on the Pedagogy and Pop Culture area. This particular panel talked about how we can utilize TV and film to supplement our teaching. I personally wanna know why didn’t anyone say we could talk about Victorian & Edwardian eras through Downton Abbey? Or use Jon Stewart to teach students how to research and then comment on what they researched? Well, thankfully Bryanna Bynum and Tiffany Scarola decided to tell me, and I appreciate the advice.
Immediately after that I met a man named Mitch Kachum who introduced me to Colonel J.O. Midnight, who was the first Black journalist to be a correspondent for the Associated Press. His story has been buried by history, but Dr. Kachum uncovered him and presented his many accolades, his popularity, and Rev. Charles Stewart’s (Midnight was just one of his many aliases) dedication to the Black church, Black colleges, and Black organizations. It’s amazing how much of our history we are still uncovering.
So next came the main event, the thing I had been waiting on all day; the Graphic Novels & Comics panel on Diversity. You may ask why, and don’t worry, the answer to that will come very soon. But for now, just know that Johnathan Flowers’ paper on “The Diversity Race” and Jess Boykin discussing how we can use graphic novels and comics to teach history definitely were everything I needed from those panels.
My diversity in speculative fiction forms led me to the Women, Gender, and Sexuality area where we talked about how fiction works (particularly speculative fiction) could be used to address both the HIV/AIDS crisis and the representation of women and homosexuals in the media. I have to pause here and say how great a job SWPACA did of putting these papers together, because so many of them spoke together so well. The next morning when I went to a Literature panel and heard even more about how speculative fiction is being accepted more willingly in many schools and on Saturday when people compared American Horror Story: Coven and “Paradise” by Toni Morrison I couldn’t help but see how all of these fit together. This was definitely a very well put together conference.
Now there is no way I could talk about this conference and not talk about the AMAZING high school students there. Yes, there were a bunch of high school students presenting at this conference and they were AWESOME. These kids did everything from shooting, directing, filming, and editing their own film, to writing papers about Invisible Man, transgenderism and gender performance, to studying the cultural influences of anime and “Legend of Korra” (yes, I had another nerd moment then). Crosby High School led by Moorea Coker, and James E. Singley High under the direction of Jarrod Bolin brought a total of 20 students to present at various times during this conference. I was personally introduced to the students when one came to watch my presentation. It was there he told me that he was using the works of Judith Butler to discuss Sophia Bursett from “Orange Is the New Black”. I was hooked, and made it my mission to go and see as many of these high school presentations as possible.
I missed most of them, but I did make the round table panel the students had and was able to be one of the teachers in awe of these kids. Not only were all of them supremely intelligent, but they all had already grasped something that most “higher up” administrators and academic professionals have not: any and everyone’s interests matter and that state testing stomps the creative spirit out of kids. Much like the Minister of Education from Romania (yeah, he was there) said: “We need to take these kids to MLA and in front of every Board of Education to tell them how wrong they are”.
The conference for me ended on Saturday with me tossing a bone to my creative spirit and sitting in on a fiction writers’ panel. The works varied, but a story of a dangerous train ride set to the tone of matador music and a passionate story about the realities of prison culture (written by Stephen Weatherburn and Vanessa Carlise, respectively) really drew me in. I was glad that even though I was able to discuss so many of my other interests at this conference, my last panel was the one based around my first love: writing.
And that was the conference for me. Before I left I was able to meet with some of the executive board and discuss the next conference with my fellow conference attendees, and get ready for the next year. Overall I truly enjoyed #SWPACA15 and I encourage any and every one to look into a pop culture conference close to them if you can’t make this one in New Mexico. The conference gave a number of people the opportunity to discuss things that they love in a way that was productive, educational, and just fun. The environment was very friendly, and all the people I met there will definitely be scholars I keep in contact with. I’m so glad that I crossed borders to get there, and I encourage you to step out of your box and meet some of the many faces and many voices at a conference like this.
Have you ever been to a conference that you really enjoyed? Any of these topics or discussions stick out to you? Leave your questions, comments, and concerns below!