Online Spaces and the Alt-Academic: An Interview with Brenna Clarke Gray and Peter Wilkins

  • Ernesto Priego

On Tuesday 10 November 2015 Drs. Brenna Clarke Gray and Peter Wilkins ( Douglas College, British Columbia, Canada) will lead a seminar titled " Online Spaces and the Alt-Academic: How to Build Your Own Scholarly Community" as part of the #citylis seminar series at City University London (UK).

Brenna and Peter will talk about the value and importance of the online scholarly community in their research practice, reflecting on scholarly and popular blogging, open access journals, and Twitter's hashtag communities as spaces to network and find support.

Brenna Clarke Gray holds a PhD in Canadian Literature and teaches at Douglas College, where she also serves as Associate of Arts Coordinator. Recent publications include work on Scott Pilgrim, Alpha Flight, and the history of Canadian comic books. Brenna is part of the editorial team of Graphixia, a Conversation about Comics and has contributed to The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship.Brenna is on Twitter @brennacgray.

Peter holds a PhD in American Literature and Critical Theory. He is the faculty research liaison for the Training Group at Douglas College on secondment from the English department where he has taught since 1996. He is a founding editor of Graphixia, a Conversation about Comics and a deputy editor of The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship. Peter is on Twitter @wilkinspeter.

Brenna and Peter are refreshingly enthusiastic, never missing an opportunity to be seriously insightful through humour. They also hold a special relationship with the United Kingdom, and maintain networks within and outside academic circles around the world. In this quick interview I talk to them in anticipation of their seminar on Tuesday 10 November 2015.

Ernesto Priego (EP):The title of your #citylis seminar is "Online Spaces & the Alt-Academic: How to Build Your Own Scholarly Community". Could you give your own definitions of 'online space', 'alt-academic' and 'scholarly community'?

Brenna Clarke Gray (BCG): Online space is where I live, alt-academic is who I am, and scholarly community is what I crave. Is that too trite? It's the truth.

EP: You both have established professional connections with the UK. Could you tell us about it?

Peter Wilkins (PW): Online space is any engagement with Web 2.0: Twitter, blogs, what have you. Alt-academic refers to academic activity that isn't institutionally sanctioned or supported, for the most part. Scholarly Community is tricky because community is so difficult to define. I like Jean Luc Nancy 's notion of the "inoperative community". More on that later, I think. I also like the idea of 'productive friendship' which is basically a definition of friendship that depends on a "let's put on a show" mentality. Brenna says this is just the Protestant work ethic applied to friendship.

BCG: Maybe it's right of return, since Peter and I both come from English parentage. I have worked with our college's international field school relationship with the University of Wales, which has given me the opportunity to spend a month in 2012 and 2013 teaching Canadian students about the parallels of colonial practices in Wales and Canada (and a really fun guest lecture there on Canadian identity in 2012). Comics Forum in Leeds in 2012 and this year have allowed Peter and I to develop our scholarly blogging in really interesting ways in a more conventionally academic space with some of the best names in the field. The UK has been good to me!

EP: In your work offline and online, what kind of relationship do you have with librarians and the library?

PW: I think my UK scholarly connections have emerged from online connections: there are lots of UK comics scholars and creators on Twitter, I guess. Again, it was a matter of making friends who wanted to make things together: Graphixia, The Comics Grid. Etc. Interestingly, I have far fewer US or even Canadian scholarly connections. There is something relaxed, inviting, and inquiring about the UK intellectual comics community.

BCG: Librarians are my favourite. Seriously. Last month I was lucky enough to be asked to give the keynote address at the British Columbia Libraries Reader Advisory Group conference, and it was great fun to talk to them (I was discussing how to get diverse reads into the hands of readers, and what our responsibilities are in that regard).

At Douglas, we're blessed with responsive librarians who work within a limited budget to make magic happen - I've had the tremendous experience of developing my zine-themed Academic Writing course in close relation with our library, and I learn so much every time we engage.

My only library-related complaint is that New Westminster Public Library is no longer open on Friday nights. That was my hangout and I miss it.

PW: I'm ashamed to say I have a terrible relationship with libraries. This is my fault, not the libraries! I did recently get a library card, but it was for a Vancouver suburb and I haven't used it. I used to love the library when I was a university student, particularly the reading room. But then I discovered I worked better in coffee shops! Our college library is pretty minimal. I don't know. I'm a bad person.

EP: (Laughs). Good you like them! In this sense, what would the differences between different types of "alt-ac" types play out in online spaces in your experience?

I do like librarians though. They are like veterinarians. Hard to find a mean one.

BCG: I think alt-ac spaces are great equalizers, in that if you can brave the playing field you can build an equal voice for yourself. I'm a community college instructor in Canada, but because I'm mouthy on Twitter I ended up on the BBC last winter talking about [comedian] Jon Stewart 's retirement. I mean, that's both totally great and totally weird, and it's not supposed to happen by the traditional markers of who is to be a "public academic."

PW: I think Brenna's answer is a good one here. I think the online environment had returned the arts to the people, rescuing them from the experts. Sometimes the discussion is nasty and bigoted, but that's the price of the Bakhtin ian carnival of the Internet.

EP: What does it mean to you to speak to students and academic communities in real life from a different country in an age of global online connectivity?

I think for the arts and humanities it is important to recognize that they are not like sciences that depend on paradigmatic thinking. The arts and humanities depend on people joining the discussion without having to learn a paradigm. The internet allows that. This, for me, is the message of Moby-Dick: everybody talk about what they know, or think they know, or what they think! Don't leave it to the philosophers. Having a PhD is not essential.

BCG: Well, I get to make a trip to Marks and Spencers. So. But seriously, putting real human beings to Twitter handles deepens and develops the connections in important and difficult to describe ways. One thing I've noticed is after I've been "present" at events in the UK, students have felt more able to track me down on Twitter and ask for help or advice, which I love. Something about the virtual becoming real. That's probably some theorist's domain - I defer to Peter. I do superheroes; he does smart people stuff.

EP: (Keeps laughing). Finally, what can we expect at your seminar?

PW: I love the idea of coming to England to talk to people about doing the thing that made it possible for me to come to England and talk to people. Cue the story where I met Ernesto in a comic book, which allowed us to solidify our friendship on Twitter, and now I'm going to sleep in his guest room in South East London after talking to people at his university. It's almost science fiction. Also, it would be fun for people to come and visit us. We can set up a talk for you at Douglas College, no problem!

BCG: Expect some very candid discussion about the limits and opportunities of pursuing an alt-ac career path. If you want to keep yourself in the game, you have to build your own field (it's Field of Dreams, but with books and administrative hierarchies). Peter and I are both clear-eyed about what this means for students and early-career folks, and we're willing to be frank. There are tough choices to be made and hard work to be done. We'll talk about both. Also, you can expect us to be jet-lagged.

EP: Thank you guys! Looking forward to the seminar!

PW: I'm hoping that the seminar will be interactive, like this interview. I'm hoping to have a conversation rather than give a lecture about how people can satisfy their desire to be scholars in circumstances that don't necessarily promote scholarship. I know that people are stressed about their futures and the demands of research and "impact." I hope this conversation helps people lessen their stress and focus on the pleasures of thinking.

The seminar will take place on Tuesday 10 November 2015 from 5:30 PM in Room C304 ( Tait Building), City University London, UK. The event is public and free but requires registration.

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