I presented at on online conference – The Research Students’ Education Conference 2020 by the University of Leeds – about the ethical challenges of Marginally Fannish and thought I’d include it as a blog post too. I’m also including a slide I cut from the final presentation because it went over the prescribed time limit but it does articulate an ethical concern I shared. 

 

Introduction: My Project and Methodology

To briefly introduce my interdisciplinary project: I’m exploring how fan podcasts provide a social learning context in informal digital spaces. Specifically, I’m looking at how podcasts created by fans from groups which are under-represented or misrepresented in mainstream media and culture use the fictional framework of their favourite media texts like Harry Potter and Doctor Who to raise awareness about their own marginalised experiences and perspectives. I’m focusing on the themes of gender, gender identity and gender expression, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, religion, regional/national origin, disability, and age. These identities can be privileged or marginalised based on different contexts. For example, when I’m in India, my race doesn’t matter, but when I’m in the UK, I’m suddenly a brown immigrant woman. In fan podcasts, conversations about fans’  favourite media provide complex and nuanced insights into their own lives and identities.

Now to briefly introduce my hybrid methodology, which is inspired by fandom’s collective knowledge-making culture.  I draw from online ethnography, collaborative ethnography, autoethnography, and feminist participatory and dialogic research methodologies. I’ve created my own fan podcast Marginally Fannish where I chat with my co-participants in different themed episodes. My co-participants are fellow fans who come from a wide range of social, cultural and geographical backgrounds and inhabit both marginalised and privileged identities. We exchange fan texts i.e. media which fans have made like podcast episodes, essays, fanfiction, art, videos etc. based on the theme of the episode. We use these texts as discussion prompts to structure our episode. I’ve tried to avoid an interview format so that it’s not just my questions which control the conversation. This method tries to make our episodes more participatory by including my guests’ interests and priorities. I’m trying to involve my guests in the decision-making process and highlight their voices in the research. I also have a blog where I publish a lightly edited transcript of the episode and my autoethnographic fieldnotes. All this constitutes my research data and is publicly available. I’d also like to encourage comments from a broader range of non-academic audiences where their interpretations and opinions can expand my understanding and be included in my research. Next I’m going to talk about the ethical considerations and challenges I’ve negotiated in my research project.

Blurred Boundaries: Public/Private Data In Digital Spaces

 

In online spaces, the line between public and private data is quite blurred, making it difficult to distinguish what media you can use in social science research without consent. I’m listening to many fan podcasts to shortlist episodes which I can then share with my co-participants. These podcasts are freely available online on different platforms. Before I launched my own podcast, I wrote to them to introduce my project and ask them whether I could include their episodes as discussion prompts in my own podcast. Out of the fifteen podcasts I approached, I received permission from eleven of them. I didn’t hear back from the remaining four even after a follow-up email. In the beginning, I was determined only to include those fan podcasts who had provided me with explicit permission. Due to the format and purpose of podcasts, I do consider them to be publicly available media – unlike say a Facebook post from a personal profile. But I wasn’t sure what role they would play in my own project and wasn’t comfortable using ones who hadn’t responded.  However, I soon realised that in our conversations, we were only using these episodes as conversation starters to frame and explore our own experiences and opinions in greater detail or we referred to them when they introduced us to new ideas. While I had initially thought that we would be analysing these fan podcast episodes in our podcast, that hasn’t been the case. Furthermore, my co-participants present their own contributions of fan texts, where it isn’t feasible to get permission from all those involved. So for some of my upcoming episodes, I’ve recommended fan podcasts where I haven’t heard from the creators. I believe that as far as we’re not analysing or critiquing the podcasts themselves and only using them as references or discussion prompts, it isn’t unethical to use these publicly available fan texts to inform our own ideas and discussions.

Delegating An Aspect Of Podcast Production – Editing

Before I started the podcast, I had planned to learn all the different aspects of podcast production through trial and experimentation (and some research). Before I launched my podcast, Jack, my boyfriend, offered to edit the episodes. I was hesitant about delegating for two reasons – i) I didn’t want to impose on Jack’s time and hold him accountable to my deadlines; and ii) I wasn’t sure that I should be getting outside help for any aspect of my project rather than doing everything myself. However, I had vastly under-estimated how much time the different stages of the podcast process would take. I quickly learned that the podcast recording itself was the least time-consuming part – the pre-production and the post-production take up much more of my time – about two weeks for each episode. If I added editing to the mix, my already-ambitious timescale would have been delayed and it would add to my overall stress. Which is why I’ve grown more comfortable with not editing the episodes myself. I tell my participants beforehand that Jack does the editing and none of them have been uncomfortable so far. I mark out the edits myself after typing the transcript, then Jack does the technical editing. While he’s doing that, I can focus on other tasks which need to be done. An unexpected bonus has been that while editing the episodes, Jack responds to the conversation with his own insights, examples, and experiences as a fan. As a Scottish man who grew up in a small town outside Glasgow, his perspectives and even the media examples are very different from my own knowledge. The conversations we have are interesting and illuminating – conversations which may not have happened had he not been in-charge of the editing. Now, I like the idea of expanding the co-creation aspect of my project by involving new perspectives during the production process.

The Challenge Of Participatory Methods 

When I first designed my methodology, I wanted to keep the format as open-ended, participatory and flexible as possible so I could incorporate suggestions from my co-participants. I assumed it would be best for us to go through the same fan texts so that we have a common starting point to base our conversation on. Before recording each episode, we have a brief planning session where we discuss what themes we’d like to talk about. Once I finish analysing my data, I want to send it to my participants and include their feedback in an epilogue episode to expand the range of voices in my final thesis. All this does require a fair amount of homework from the participants – much more than if they had just turned up to the podcast to answer my questions and that was the extent of their time commitment. Now, I’ve made sure this is all clear in the participant recruitment information. However, as we’ve all discovered over the last few months, sometimes life unexpectedly gets in the way and the time you may have committed a few months ago may no longer be possible. One of my participants said they didn’t want to go through fan texts and just wanted to chat about the themes. I haven’t recorded the episode with this participant yet because they ended up falling ill with COVID-19 but I’m hoping I still get to chat with them. While this change in format initially made me uncomfortable, I realised that while I find the texts useful, my participants may not. I was also concerned that my co-participants may feel too uncomfortable to bring up problems with the format. So since March, I’ve made it clear to my participants that they need not go through all or any of the texts. I still use the texts since they help me put my thoughts together, but my co-participants can just turn up for a conversation, especially if they already have thoughts about the topic we’re exploring in our episode – which many of them do. It’s not an ethical concern I had considered while designing this project, but I do tend to get so enthusiastic about ideas I love that I sometimes accidentally end up bulldozing other people’s perspectives. This is something I’m learning to grapple with not just when planning episodes but also during the conversations themselves. I don’t want to impose my ideas on others and leave little room for different opinions.

The Challenge Of Open Access Research

Open access has always been an integral aspect of my methodology and research philosophy. I’ve been learning from online fandom discussions right since I was 13 years old and I wanted to incorporate this same ethos of collective intelligence in my project. Since the recruitment stage, I’ve made it clear to potential participants that our podcast episodes will be publicly accessible. This is to ensure that our opinions and interpretations go beyond primarily Western and academic audiences and also include their comments. The only data that isn’t publicly available is the conversations I have with my co-participants before and after the recording of the episode as well as any part of our conversation that they’d like edited out. A couple of potential participants wanted to chat on the podcast but they had some concerns about their participation. One of them didn’t want their professional life to be connected with their fandom experiences. Another person wanted to talk about their personal experiences but was concerned that their parent might come across the conversation – a valid concern since I have the parent on my Facebook friends list where I share details of my podcast. I did want to maintain the audio element since I’ve found that conversations tend to flow more organically there than via email or instant messages. I researched audio disguising software and found that Skype offers an option to do that. Skype is where I plan and record all my episodes with participants. I suggested that the two participants could adopt pseudonyms and we can use software to alter their voices so that they’re unrecognisable to friends, family or co-workers even if they do end up stumbling onto the podcast. I have yet to coordinate details with these participants. However, this might be a good solution for similar hurdles with open access research.

Linguistic And Cultural Barriers In Dialogic Research

Since my methodology is dependent on dialogue, conversations between my co-participants both during and before the episode play an important role. One of my participants wasn’t comfortable with English since it wasn’t their first language. They also came from a cultural background where they tend to let older people speak more, especially if the older person is in a position of power. While I’ve tried my best to minimise the imbalanced power hierarchies between my co-participants and my role as the researcher, I wish I had taken more steps with this participant. Due to the linguistic and cultural barriers, I’m afraid our episode had me monopolising the conversation – where it ended up more as a lecture than a dialogue, with fewer inputs from the participant than I would have liked. I did learn a lot about this participant’s perspectives during our planning and episode. I met this participant at a module I assisted in last year and we had had a lot of conversations then. These informal in-person conversations were definitely valuable in providing a better context for the episode. Meeting this participant personally and having conversations over a period of months helped fill in the gaps the language barrier posed. However, I don’t think this is reflected in the episode itself. In this case, I think all the other conversations were just as important as the one we had on the podcast. It’s also helped me be more mindful of different language needs and accessibility issues both while preparing a classroom lecture (that this participant was a part of) as well as digital projects in general. This is one of the reasons I provide a text transcript of every episode.

Emotional Labour Of Talking About Personally Sensitive Topics

Many of my co-participants come from groups whose perspectives and experiences are marginalised in mainstream media and culture. So far, we’ve spoken about race, religion, class, gender, misogyny, ageism, ableism, ability and disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and how different cultures are represented in Western media. The participants have deep emotional connections not only with these identities but also with their representations in the media we discuss. They love the books, TV shows and movies but are often disappointed by how these media represent their lives and cultures. Some of my participants – including myself – have also had difficult personal experiences which we draw on while discussing media representations. Even though I clarify to my participants that they should only share what they’re comfortable with, sometimes this information is deeply personal and full of hurtful memories and experiences. With one participant, one of the fan podcast episodes I had recommended ended up resonating with their own experiences quite uncomfortably and reminded them of childhood trauma. They then suggested including a content warning for our episode where we talked about both our personal experiences with family abuse and trauma. This is something I’m much more mindful of now not just for my participants’ mental wellbeing but also my own. There is no real solution to this issue since these conversations form the crux of my project. All I can do is check in with my participants and make sure they are okay both before and after our conversation – particularly if we have had a difficult one.

Impact On My Own Mental Health

I tend to get carried away when I’m really excited about something and this is a project which is deeply personal to me. My supervisors and transfer examiners warned me I’ve taken on a lot of work and were concerned about the risk of burnout. I launched the podcast in January and it’s due to run until October. I also have more participants than I had initially planned for, though some may still drop out. I naively believed I’d cracked the work/life balance code. I hadn’t. I reached burnout status around March-April where I was simultaneously working all the time and also feeling guilty about not working enough. I was constantly irritable and stressed out because of the overwhelming feeling of falling behind. This was compounded by the fact that over the last few months, I began using the podcast as a coping mechanism during the quarantine to get away from all the stressful news – both pandemic-related and political – from India, the UK, and the US. I didn’t know where my work life ended and my personal life began. The work was seeping into all aspects of my day and I couldn’t turn my brain off and just relax. I worked long hours, sometimes through illness, sometimes without a day off. I needed to change my unsustainable work habits – personally, I don’t think a culture of overworking during a PhD is helpful or even necessary. I now take two days off work every week. I also try and prepare realistic and not over-ambitious weekly schedules every Sunday. I try and finish work at 6 pm every day though I’m only intermittently successful at this. After that, I go for a walk in the park to end the work day (though I do listen to fan podcasts on my walk so that’s still technically working). I’m trying to learn how to be kinder to my brain, but the process is long and slow with lots of unhealthy relapses. One of the first things I’m learning to forgive my brain for is not changing overnight.

The Journey From Platform Nine And Three Quarters: Conclusion

Ultimately, my project seeks to create counternarratives which provide opportunities for people from marginalised groups to engage collectively with knowledge and culture in ways which matter to them – ways which may not be traditionally acknowledged in institutionalised educational spaces. It is also important to me and my research philosophy that these counternarratives are freely accessible in the public domain beyond academic bubbles and barriers. I’ve been hugely lucky to have a bunch of incredible co-participants who expand my brain in so many different ways. Through our conversations, we collectively engage in producing knowledge which challenges established norms and values. This is why, despite all the ongoing ethical challenges we’ve encountered, my participants and I believe in this project. By researching the alternative spaces of online fan podcasts, we’re exploring how fans from both marginalised and dominant groups adapt their favourite texts to place their concerns at the forefront and how this access to diverse perspectives can lead to empathy and respect for different experiences. As Walidah Imarisha declares:

“The decolonization of the imagination is the most dangerous and subversive form there is: for it is where all other forms of decolonization are born. Once the imagination is unshackled, liberation is limitless.”

If you have any feedback, suggestions or critiques or would like to talk to me about fandom, I’d love to hear from you! My email id is edps@leeds.ac.uk and on Twitter I’m @wildpyjamas. Thank you!