A PhD project exploring intersectionality through fan podcasts

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Tag: Participants

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part 3

Even before I began the project, all my research prepared me for the fact that a lot of my initial plans will seem naive in hindsight and I’ll need to be willing to adapt and be flexible throughout all stages of the research project. I’ve tried to keep this in mind as I’ve met with unanticipated aspects throughout the project (some of which I’ve written about previously). Since this whole process is an educational one, even for myself, I’ve looked forward to learning from my mistakes – or even just learning another perspective. At the same time, whenever I first encountered an alteration in plans, my initial reaction would inadvertently be resistance. I was unsure what degree of change was allowed in my project not only based on early plans but also based on what I’d discussed with my supervisors and with the ethical review committee. However, four months in, I’ve become more comfortable and flexible changing some aspects of the project – despite what my initial thoughts were.

1) Editing out awkward bits in the episode 

When I first planned the podcast, I wanted to preserve the “authenticity” of my conversation with co-participants and not edit the episode too heavily. While I’m still onboard with this in terms of the actual content of the conversation, I’ve grown far more comfortable in marking filler phrases, pauses, stutters and fumbles to be edited out – not just my own but also of my co-participants. While my allegiance remains with the DIY aesthetic of the PhD project (where the quality of the podcast isn’t as important as the conversations themselves), I realise that making it easy to listen to is something which will help make it more accessible and approachable to more people. I’ve also become more confident in editing the transcript to filter the awkward bits out so that for those who prefer reading to listening, the experience is as easy and comfortable as possible.

2) Not doing the actual editing myself 

This is something I’ve been uncomfortable about right from the beginning – the fact that the technical editing is done by Jack, my partner. Jack offered to do this even before I launched the podcast; even though he had never edited audio before, he was confident in his abilities to experiment and figure it out. I was hesitant for two reasons – i) I didn’t want to impose on his time and hold him accountable to my self-imposed 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. Initially, I went along with this plan purely as a time-saving exercise. I quickly learned that the podcast recording itself was the least time-consuming part of the episode process – the pre-production (wherein I shortlist texts and organise the episode) and the post-production (marking edits, transcript, intro/outro, publishing) took up much more of my time – about a week. If I added editing to the mix, my already-ambitious timescale would have been delayed and it would add to my overall stress. Lately, however, I’m growing increasingly comfortable with this. The time which is saved is still the most important bit – while I mark out the edits themselves after typing the transcript, Jack does the actual editing on Audacity – while he’s doing that, I can focus on other tasks which need to be done. Additionally, Jack responds to our conversation while editing 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. In Episode 7 about the representations of different cultures in fantasy media, he pointed to an episode about encountering unfamiliar food in Star Trek (which is science fiction not fantasy, but the point still held) which made it to the episode’s outro and transcript. Now, I like the idea of expanding the idea of co-creating the project by involving other perspectives than my own in the production process.

3) Using other fan podcasts

For every episode, I suggest some fan texts (mostly fan podcast episodes) for both my co-participants and I to look at to structure our own conversations. I also encourage my co-participants to share their own texts based on their interests and priorities. In the beginning, I was determined only to include those fan podcasts who had provided me with explicit permission to use their podcasts in my research in this way. However, after recording nine episodes of Marginally Fannish, I’ve realised that the ways in which we’ve included these episodes are usually only as discussion prompts to structure our episode and give us topics to talk about or to refer to when they introduce 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 garner permission from all those involved (this is excluding Breaking The Glass Slipper podcast, which one of my co-participants suggested in Episode 3, and which I then included in my research as a general fandom podcast – after getting in touch with the creators). For some of the upcoming episodes, I’ve included fan podcasts where I haven’t heard from the creators despite getting in touch with them twice before beginning my project. 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.

4) Co-participants not going through all the fan texts 

When I first began the podcast, I assumed it would be best for my co-participants and I to go through the same fan texts so that we have a common starting point to base our conversation on. At the same time, I was wary of giving my co-participants extra “homework” which they may not have the time or inclination for. I tried to create room for their opinions about this format after they signed participant consent forms. All of them agreed to go along with the format. However, when I started recording, I soon realised that some participants did go through the texts while others didn’t. I was initially uncomfortable about this but chose to ignore it since our conversations were still based on what both the co-participants and I were interested in talking about. After one participant revealed that they were uncomfortable about my choice of texts and the process of going through the texts themselves however, I’ve been much warier of placing the “burden” of these texts and this format on my co-participants. Since then, I’ve made it clear in emails that my co-participants are under no obligation to go through all or any of the texts I’ve suggested. If the participants prefer, we can just have an informal conversation without any resources structuring the episode. I still use the texts since they help me put my thoughts together but my co-participants are no longer required to do this, especially if they already have thoughts about the topic we’re exploring in our episode.

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part Two

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.

Growing Comfortable With Discomfort – Part One

As someone who is averse to conflict of any kind, bringing up something which will potentially lead to an uncomfortable/emotional conversation or reaction is something I usually avoid. The few times I break this self-imposed rule are when someone on my social media profile says something problematic – either unwittingly or bigoted-ly – but even then, I tend to become so upset with the ensuing conversation that I can’t do this to my emotional health too often. If it’s someone who I don’t mind cutting ties with, I prefer unfriending or unfollowing the person to having a long conversation-through-comments with them, which usually ends up being futile anyway.

This is a lot of backstory for an incident which happened with one of my participants earlier this year. For our episode, we were approaching the topic as people who weren’t in the marginalised group we were talking about – we were approaching it as people from the dominant group who were learning about the marginalised group’s experiences and perspectives through the fan podcasts and other texts we had exchanged. We were extremely aware of our position and readily acknowledged our privilege even before planning the episode. While we were planning the episode, one of their suggestions involved a thought experiment where we would pretend we inhabited the identities of the marginalised group and imagine how those imagined identities would impact our actions and feelings during a series of fictional events at Hogwarts. Knowing the participant, this suggestion was entirely well-intentioned, and presumably a way for us to imagine a life we wouldn’t otherwise have any experience with. At the same time, I was immediately and viscerally discomfited by the idea. As people from the dominant group who have no experiences with that specific marginalised identity, I felt it would be insensitive to people who actually inhabit that identity. As I pointed out, the thought experiment may work with participants who actually had lived experiences of that identity – and even then, only if it was their idea in the first place and it was something they were comfortable exploring through a fictional framework.

Now, even though the suggestion made me supremely uncomfortable, it wasn’t because I thought the participant meant to be insensitive. In fact, when I pointed out my reservations, they were quick to agree with me and then deleted the suggestion from our shared Google document (I make a shared Google document for each of my participants since it helps make the planning process much easier). The fact that the suggestion was deleted is why I’m not directly talking about who the participant is and what episode we were planning. I’m not sure what I would have done had the suggestion been left intact. Perhaps I would have tried to disguise their identity regardless. However, under the circumstances, it definitely feels unethical to refer to them directly. While we haven’t had any further conversation about the suggestion in particular, I get the sense that the participant realised they had been inadvertently insensitive and were perhaps embarrassed by it. This is a participant who has been deeply appreciative of being able to learn from diverse perspectives through their participation in my project.

I, myself, have been – and probably will continue to be – ignorant and consequently thoughtless about some of my ideas, suggestions, and opinions. This isn’t born of malice; it’s just we don’t know what we don’t know. Even when it comes to someone who is unusually careful about their beliefs and attitudes, we have blind-spots which we don’t even realise until someone points it out or until we discover it through another person’s experience. On thinking about this a few days after our conversation, I found it interesting that the participant had made the suggestion and it’s a suggestion that I perhaps may have made myself had I not been researching and thinking about different intersectional identities in many different ways – that’s basically my job at the moment. Not everybody has the luxury to do this because most people are just living their lives. Usually, if it doesn’t impact them, they’re probably not thinking about it. No judgment there, because I’m the same. It’s only my PhD research which is making me actively aware of all my biases and blind-spots. Having this conversation with the participant helped me confront  my own social conditioning too. I hope it did the same for my participant. I think that everyone should never be one hundred per cent comfortable with all their beliefs – there are so many lives and experiences we’re wholly ignorant of. Being comfortable with being uncomfortable is a great way to learn what we don’t know.

Recruiting Participants As Podcast Guests

Due to a series of unanticipated events, I only officially started recruiting participants on the 23rd of December by sharing posts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – something I had planned on beginning a month and a half earlier. This was terrible timing both for the UK (holiday season) and India (mass protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens – something which was also keeping me heavily distracted). Consequently, I was fully prepared that I wouldn’t get enough volunteers the first time around, and I planned to do another round of recruitment mid-January.

Apart from the three social media platforms I used, I also emailed four people I thought may be interested in participating based on previous conversations; of these, three agreed. Everyone else got in touch with me after encountering my posts. My Facebook post largely reached my personal network (which, to be fair, is relatively diverse), of which a few people volunteered. I’m unsure what impact my Instagram post had and I wish I had shared it to my Stories instead of as a post; at least with Stories, I can track how many people viewed it. Twitter was by far the most successful in reaching out beyond the people I knew. My post was shared by 100 people (including some highly targeted fan accounts and fan studies accounts), had 45,905 impressions and 1,216 engagements. Additionally, my boyfriend’s post was shared by someone with a high follower count on Twitter as well (though I can’t gauge the reach of that). For me, Twitter was the best way to increase the social and geographical diversity of my co-participants.

While I had initially planned to recruit ten participants as guests (apart from my two co-hosts), according to my spreadsheet, I currently have twenty-four confirmed participants. I’m currently overwhelmed both by the enthusiasm of my co-participants (in a very good way) but also by the sheer amount of work and data I’m going to accumulate (in a less good way). I’m still excited about the podcast but also aware that I have the tendency to over-commit to things and make things unnecessarily unwieldy. I am also utterly unable to say no to things. My project was already over-ambitious enough as it was when I was planning to record 20 episodes. It’s laughable now that it’ll be about 34! I’m defending this inability to say no to volunteers because 1) People may still drop out; and 2) I am blown away by the enthusiasm and would love to learn from the diversity of perspectives and multiplicity of experiences. I’m sure my future self will curse my past self’s naivety. I’m already laughing at the plans I had made a month and a half ago.

Some of my suggested intersectional themes turned out to be more popular than others, and most co-participants were interested in exploring more than one theme (though my email about potential themes, format, and schedule may have directed their attention that way). My favourite thing was that some people also suggested their own ideas – ideas I hadn’t thought of. While I was initially trying to crowbar all their suggestions into my original ten-theme framework (I’m still doing this to an extent), I quickly realised that I actually like the open-endedness and disruption to my initial plans. While I thought I had kept the format and themes as flexible as possible, my conversations with some participants made me aware that some of my boundaries were firmer than I had intended. I still think the ten intersectional themes are useful, especially for episodes with my co-hosts, but I’m now less beholden to the structure they provide.

Relatedly, my initial plan of dedicating a month to a specific theme quickly fell by the wayside, for three main reasons:

1) Planning episode schedules with different participants

2) The time I needed to listen to fan podcasts in order to shortlist relevant episodes

3) Participants largely outlined a diverse array of themes, some of which coincided with other people’s, which makes the idea of monthly themes a bit unfeasible

Subsequently, while I’ve only been properly at this for a month and a half, my plans have already changed. I’m now launching the podcast in February rather than January. I’m going to have a weekly(ish) podcast rather than a fortnightly one. And I may have to recruit some more participants mid-way through the year based on whether any participants drop out or which themes remain under-explored. Some of the participants who reached out to me explicitly outlined their diverse identities (in tune with the intersectional theme of the project). However, I wanted to make sure I offered everyone a chance to suggest the themes they were most interested in – which may differ from the identities they inhabit – because I realise it can be frustrating always having to only talk about the marginalised aspects of your identity rather than any other things you may be interested in. This may leave some themes unexamined, something I’ll have to re-evaluate come June.

Gif of Chandler Bing from FRIENDS. Text says: That's too much information!

I’m going to be drowning in data and I definitely haven’t made my life any easier. But then again, when do I ever?

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