When I initially designed my project and its methodology, I wanted to keep the format as open-ended and flexible as possible so as to incorporate suggestions from my co-participants and their priorities/preferences, especially if they differed from mine. About a month into my project, I realised that my theoretical plans may differ from practical considerations; however, even then, I assumed that the overall structure of my project was reasonably dynamic. The overall design involved:
1) Asking participants what themes they were interested in exploring (both from the list I’d developed as well as their own inputs)
2) To make the format more of an informal conversation rather than an interview, I suggested exchanging fan texts about our favourite fictional worlds based on themes of our episode.
In my initial emails, I outlined my plan and sought suggestions from my co-participants about any format ideas they had which could inform the structure. One of my co-participants immediately pointed out that they weren’t a fan in the sense that I had suggested; rather than consider themselves fans of a specific text, they considered themselves fans of science fiction and fantasy as a genre. Hence, the exchange of fan texts based on specific media may not work. That’s the first time I realised that perhaps the format I had outlined wasn’t as flexible as I had envisioned since I hadn’t even considered this alternate expression of fannishness. In my response, I acknowledged that my suggestion may have been limiting. I asked them to suggest any kind of texts – fannish or otherwise – which would help me learn about their perspectives since I was so ignorant of the theme we were going to be exploring. After some thought, they proposed talking about a specific aspect of the theme we were exploring and its engagement with their fandom. This sounded great to me and I scheduled our episode and put it out of my mind.
When I was putting together texts for this co-participant, I shortlisted fan podcast episodes which touched on the theme we were exploring in different ways – either through the hosts applying that specific lens to a popular text or by talking about a more niche text which explored the theme in interesting ways. This included a section which had extracts from a Harry Potter fan podcast. My participant responded saying they hoped I didn’t expect them to talk about Harry Potter since they didn’t like the books too much – something I hadn’t realised. I responded by assuring them they didn’t have to talk about the series at all and explained the reasoning for the inclusion since it helped me understand the perspectives better – especially since it was an idea I hadn’t previously considered. Additionally, I told them I might bring up Harry Potter since I was a huge fan and I use it as a framework for the discussions; however, I may also leave it out since our conversation would ultimately depend on what the participants themselves were interested in exploring.
Shortly after that, the world went into quarantine. My co-participant and I were scheduled to record an episode at the end of March. However, not having heard anything from them by the date we were supposed to chat and plan the episode, I sent them an email assuring them that we could postpone our episode given the circumstances. I didn’t want the podcast to burden any other duties or priorities they may now have. They responded saying they would like to postpone; however, it wasn’t for pandemic lockdown reasons. They revealed that they didn’t like any of the texts I wanted to talk about. They said they would be happy to talk about their own research but weren’t up for looking at new texts. None of this was said in an unkind way; they were quite apologetic about their response.
When I first read the email, I wasn’t able to articulate my feelings. My initial emotion was discomfort, quickly followed by dismay. It was only when I took some time to sit with my feelings and think about them at a (brief) distance that I could unpack my exact emotions. I was initially uncomfortable because I began second-guessing my format and suggestions. I wonder if this has something to do with my imposter syndrome generally – in academia, in the UK, as a fan. I didn’t want to cause offense and I didn’t want to come across as a fool. I interrogated these feelings further and realised I have no problems acknowledging my ignorance or inexperience – in fact, I had done precisely this in my initial emails to all my co-participants. Next, I briefly considered whether I was uncomfortable because I felt like the participant wasn’t being flexible. I dismissed this thought when I realised the true source for my consternation – the format I was so proud of designing (incorporating some advice from my supervisors too) was actually not as open as I had initially thought. While I was convinced that it (and, by extension, I) was flexible and dynamic and responsive to alternate suggestions, my first brush with something not going according to plan revealed how wedded I was to the original plan.
Additionally, I was very ashamed that my co-participant may have felt put upon by the format and felt unable to say so. I sent them an email saying as much and reiterating that their concerns and reluctance were absolutely valid and was deeply apologetic that my assumption of the flexibility of the format format caused their discomfort. It’s not an ethical concern I had even considered about while designing this project. I tend to be excitable and enthusiastic about ideas I love and sometimes end up bulldozing other people’s perspectives; while this is usually inadvertent, it is still something I need to grapple with not just with the planning of episodes but also during the conversations themselves. I don’t want to impose by ideas on others and leave little room for different perspectives – completely the opposite of what I want, actually! For now, I’ve emailed the participant an apology and said I’d be happy for them to participate in any way that they can. They responded graciously and said they would think about an alternate format. At this point, I’m not sure whether our episode will still go ahead – I absolutely would love for it to because I think I have a lot to learn from my participant’s perspective. But even if it doesn’t, I’m still glad to have had the opportunity to learn from my missteps, miscommunication, and discomfort.