Overthinking things?

By Laura Vivanco on

When I was young I was read the story of the Elephant's Child

who was full of ‘satiable curiosity, and that means he asked ever so many questions. [...] He asked questions about everything that he saw, or heard, or felt, or smelt, or touched, and all his uncles and his aunts spanked him. And still he was full of ‘satiable curiosity!

That poor little elephant suffers a lot as a result of his curiosity. He's not just spanked: he gets his nose irrevocably stretched by a crocodile. He learns, though, that the growth is a positive development and the story ultimately condemns the family who do the spanking.

I much prefer this story about curiosity and its rewards to the idea that curiosity kills cats or that bad things emerge when Pandora's Box is opened. So in the past when people have mentioned the possibility that the academic study of popular romance could involve overthinking  things, I was just puzzled. Isn't thinking about things always a good thing?

Recently, though, I've seen a couple of things which have got me rethinking the idea of overthinking.

for every person who is interested in interrogating and contextualizing her own choices in reading material, I feel certain there are more people who just want to read what they want without over-thinking it or being questioned in any way. I guess I am trying in a clumsy roundabout way to figure out if there are ways in which academic or “wonky”  incursions into the online romance community are perceived as a negative development and, if so, where, and for whom?
a college writing instructor, [...] offered a course that asks students to examine everyday arguments: that is, to use rhetorical and critical theory to construct academic essays about the arguments that we daily encounter in the news, in popular culture, and online. (1)
When I taught this course in the winter of 2011, I encountered a problem. For their third formal essay of the semester, students wrote a critical analysis of a television show of their choice; not surprisingly, most students picked programs that they regularly watched and enjoyed. This was by far students’ favorite assignment, and in fact these essays were the strongest and most sophisticated of the semester. One by one, however, students turned in written drafts that eviscerated the shows they spoke so animatedly and lovingly about in class. The student who had seen every syndicated episode of Friends scrutinized the show’s lack of socioeconomic and racial diversity. The student who routinely watched The Bachelor each week with her friends interrogated its portrayal of romantic love and marriage. And on the day when the final draft was due, Maria – who wrote a beautiful analysis of how the show Entourage perpetuates hegemonic masculinity – asked me, “Does this mean I can’t watch Entourage anymore?” (1-2)
If Maria’s Entourage essay gave the show a critical viewing, how was she watching it before? Was she viewing it uncritically? If so, how does this characterization of her viewing practices position Maria’s expertise about the show in the classroom? What knowledges, practices, or subjectivities actually comprise Maria’s expertise, and how do they compare to academic ways of thinking? Is there another way to understand Maria’s pleasure from watching Entourage besides saying it is uncritical? What kind of affect is pleasure, and where does it fit in the writing classroom? What happens when texts that students use primarily for purposes of pleasure and entertainment are brought into the classroom for critical analysis? What happens to students in such situations? And finally, how should I respond to Maria’s question? (2)
romance readers take part in shaping how textual conventions are understood, what texts mean beyond their narrative function, and how they circulate. Moreover, some women use popular romance fiction to maintain intimate connections to friends and family members, reflect on and transform their personal lives, and demonstrate collective and civic engagement online. These experiences may remain invisible in classrooms that focus primarily on the role of popular culture texts in reproducing hegemonic ideologies. (15)
critical literacy pedagogies can actually disempower students when such pedagogies invite popular culture texts into the writing classroom but position such texts primarily as ideological artifacts that require critical, academic “tools” to excavate their hidden meanings. (13)
In a post celebrating her blog's first anniversary, Pamela of Badass Romance said that
They're questions which also preoccupied Stephanie Moody who, as
Like Pamela, Stephanie began to ask herself questions about questioning and critiquing:
What, in other words, if academics are not the curious little elephant but are some of the older animals in the story? I've never really taught any students, which makes it hard for me to see myself in this role, but could we be the pompous yet helpful Bi-Coloured-Python-Rock-Snake who asks the elephant "questions, in the Socratic mode of instruction" (Meyer)? Perhaps we're the Kolokolo bird, with its mournful cry of "‘Go to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees, and find out," sending the elephant off on a possibly instructive but also dangerous and painful quest? Or are we the crocodile, forcefully pulling the elephant's nose while trying to turn him into fodder for our careers?

Maybe I'm overthinking things and should just sit back and enjoy some pictures instead?

Pretty, aren't they? But I'm still asking questions. And in case you're wondering, Stephanie Moody concludes that
and so
I'm not sure that academics who are also romance readers "position such texts primarily as ideological artifacts" but I can see how we might come across as doing that. In which case, we might seem to be taking an authoritative position which disempowers other romance readers.

On the other hand, the online romance community isn't being forced into a college composition classroom, and those of us who are both academics and romance readers are still romance readers, so should being an academic (or simply being a reader who takes a more academic/"wonky" perspective) disbar someone from taking "part in shaping how textual conventions are understood, what texts mean beyond their narrative function, and how they circulate"?

Meyer, Rosalind, 1984. "But is it Art? An Appreciation of Just So Stories." Kipling Journal 58 (232). 10-33. Qtd. in Lewis, Linda. "The Elephant's Child." Kipling Society, 30 July 2005.

Moody, Stephanie Lee, 2013. "Affecting Genre: Women's Participation with Popular Romance Fiction." Ph.D thesis. University of Michigan.

Anonymous (not verified)

Saturday, 5 April, 2014

Why not? Lol. I guess I don't see the debate. Of course some people are interested in exploring texts deeper -I don't even know what people mean by "stop thinking"- and some are not (droves upon droves of those blogs, don't worry). Let's not forget that much of the audience have earned degrees themselves, so they won't be intimidated by analysis so much as they'll be alienated or impeded by jargon created by romance scholars. Created for good reason, I'm sure, but my point's that as long as you introduce any unique vocab/concepts, shouldn't be a problem. Some abstract theories about symbols, etc., maybe more abstract and less relevant to romance readers (e.g. werewolves stand for transformation), but readers can determine for themselves. I agree with you that it could be a problem if you start presenting an academic position as the authoritative one. Anyway, just my two cents.

Let's not forget that much of the audience have earned degrees themselves, so they won't be intimidated by analysis so much as they'll be alienated or impeded by jargon created by romance scholars.

I don't think romance scholars have created any jargon yet (unlike romance readers who have come up with HEA, HFN, TSTL, DIK and probably quite a few others that aren't coming to my mind right at the moment). What we may do, though, is import existing academic jargon and I myself find some existing academic jargon pretty difficult to understand and rather off-putting. As you say, though, jargon is often "Created for good reason" and I've found some of it helpful myself: I've drawn on Northrop Frye's theories about mimetic modes, for example, and in an essay in which I was collaborating with an anthropologist, we used some jargon from anthropology. I did try to do as you suggest, and "introduce any unique vocab/concepts."

The problem is that even if one's trying to be clear and only use jargon when it's (a) necessary and (b) well explained, some bits of jargon may have become so normalised for a person that they don't even realise it's jargon any more.

Obviously being inaccessible to the majority of potential readers isn't going to stop an academic from publishing, but if the academic was also hoping their work would be widely accessible, it's going to be upsetting if they later discover that what they've written is only going to be read by a handful of other academics.

Mind you, that's only really a matter of concern and interest to that particular academic. As you say, what really matters is "if you start presenting an academic position as the authoritative one." I can see that there's a risk of that happening given that the media are probably more likely to ask a romance scholar for a quote than they are to ask a random romance reader.

Anonymous (not verified)

Monday, 7 April, 2014

That's a good point. Jargon does get so normalized that you don't even realize you're using it. It may help in that case if the academic can run the blog by a beta reader -heh, to dip into the authors' realm- or lay person attached to the blog. But yeah, interesting question.