Fly on the Wall – Escaping the Fandom in Academia

The quotable Steve Jobs once claimed that “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough?that It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing” (Jobs). Variety is the spice of life may be a worn-out aphorism but the positive results in terms of innovation are clear: “diversity unlocks innovation by creating an environment where ?outside the box? ideas are heard” (Stirrett). When we consider our lives as distance students, each of us lives in a few different worlds ranging from family responsibilities to entertainment fandoms. Not unlike an employer endorsing critical thinking, our varied lives embody the Globe and Mail’s theme that “as a consequence of different life experiences and training, a chemical engineer is likely to see an issue differently than an art history graduate” with the result being a balanced and creative approach to issues (Stirrett). Because we aren’t students attending classes surrounded by others sharing our major, our non-academic lives are the backdrop of our existence in a unique way.

One can imagine chemical engineers and art history majors as two fandoms, nations akin to enthusiastic viewers of pop culture programs like Game of Thrones or Star Wars. They each have their own language and themes and may display a certain antipathy towards one another. We at AU inhabit the status of post-secondary students without necessarily enjoying the benefit of the safety net of a group of supportive peers. Where we lack the comforting feeling that we are enclosed in a worldview shared by our student peers, we also lack the sense that outside of our discipline there is a jungle inhabited by the Other.

The Other marks difference and differences can repel. In the late 1700s, Johann Gottfried Herder implored readers to resist judging foreign cultures by claiming that “each nationality contains its centre of happiness within itself as a bullet has a centre of gravity” (Herder). Every online fandom, every academic major, has its own world of thought and its own epistemological assumptions about how something known comes to be known. Think of how students in a chemistry classroom might feel about an English literature class discussing Hamlet and vice versa. The two classes might even mock each other. A daring perusal of online fandom communities, including political forums, attests to the acerbic character in disputes between those holding different epistemological assumptions. Even as we live in progressive times and how, in terms of innovative business practices, this means staying ahead of the curve, there remains a distinctive aroma of insularity between worldviews and their certainties. Herder claimed that “you must first enter into the spirit of a nation in order to empathize completely with even one of its thoughts or deeds”. Yet how often do lovers of pop science take off their Neil deGrasse Tyson swag and consider not only how the universe began but why it did?

Fandoms, in this sense, have their own cultures akin to traditional national cultures, each with their own peculiarities. Yet when we turn our gaze onto ourselves we realize, like the tech startup company exec who has hired a roomful of computer science majors, that our own diversity may be lacking. Herder summarizes this cultural narcissism by noting that “vague feelings, transient side associations, and perceptional echoes which arise from the depth of the soul…are so much in conformity with the manner of talking and seeing of the people, of the inventor, in a particular country, in a particular time, under particular circumstances, that it is exceedingly difficult…to strike them right” (Herder). We get used to things being as they are without realizing that everything could be done and seen differently.

As such, the genius of Steve Jobs was to incorporate a pastiche of elements into his creative stew rather than a steady diet of one outlook or worldview. Christopher Bergland states that productivity involves empathy such that “consciously seeking and experiencing something that is ?disagreeable? you become physically and mentally tough” (Bergland). For AU students, many of us liberal arts majors, our lack of physical classmates means we must be coarsened to the invariable criticism of our supposedly-useless major. At least now we have the words of Steve Jobs as a talisman of defence.

Diversity and openness is easier said than done. Distance students or not, we are all human. We tend to experience life according to our “distinct worlds, not merely the same world with different labels attached…because “the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” (Herder). It turns out that we Homo sapiens are wired to agree with the group. Herder anticipated this by writing that “we see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation” (Herder).

What seems reasonable depends on our social and academic point of view. Recent studies show that “reason developed not to enable us to solve abstract, logical problems or even to help us draw conclusions from unfamiliar data; rather, it developed to resolve the problems posed by living in collaborative groups” (new yorker). One thinks of a French fable called ?The Wolf and the Lamb? where a wolf confronts a lamb who is drinking from a stream and, after rebutting the lambs verbal defence of his right to drink the water, eats him up. The poems first lines? “The strong are always best at proving they’re right. Witness the case we’re now going to cite” (La Fontaine).

To be part of strong communities means towing the line of the majority, and this is where confirmation bias kicks in. We humans tend to dislike new data that contradicts our expectations. As researchers Mercier and Sperber write “reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves” The “hypersociability” of our species translates into a stronger need to belong to an enclosed community of like-minded individuals than to question hegemonic beliefs within our group. No wonder young people who ask the wrong questions are sometimes falsely accused of having Oppositional Defiant Disorder!

In this sense, what seems merely to be leisurely entertainment or a good workplace culture is not as innocuous as first appears. Confirmation bias works to maintain stability just as the organs within a being produces comfortable homoeostasis for the organism, but may be slow to respond to adapt to change or to compete with outsiders.

In previous decades, it seemed like everyone watched the same TV shows. Now, the online world provides countless archipelagos where individuals can find others of their ilk. Fan fiction, for instance, allows a degree of creative participation to the point where writers will create “headcanons” defined as “what an individual believes to be true about a character” even if this was never explicitly stated in the show or book (Norman). At AU our ability to write essays in response to course material also requires a certain creative use of the expectations of one’s discipline in a way that makes out hearts sing a Steve Jobsian tune.

In the case of fandoms, the fictional nature of favourite characters may lead people down the road of alienation and isolation. Parallel to this is becoming so absorbed in one’s discipline that it becomes difficult to relate to others in one’s daily world. Abby Norman noted her surprise that “approaching fandom as an adult woman, was the depth of human emotion I became aware of” (Norman). A favourite character became like a long-lost friend and “we just really enjoy spending time with them” (Norman). This alternate world where emotional needs are met might seem a bit disturbing, yet, in its defence, we can recall that the isolation of distance education also involves a relationship of sorts with our course material, such that the material itself fills an intellectual role in our lives. After all, we want to go back to school as adult students to achieve and gain something. In this sense fandoms function to achieve greater emotional wholeness although, considering Herder’s earlier words, they can serve to atomize groups of citizens from one another.

What we learn as students is that our real life and our academic life must cohabitate; brick and mortar students experience this too, although perhaps it is easier for them to fall into disciplinary fandoms as they accumulate real-time acquaintances in their studies. Perhaps we at AU learn to avoid confirmation bias by necessity, by the fact that we don’t have others around us who automatically agree with our assessments of the professor and the material. We have to think things through for ourselves, and those who we do bounce ideas off of aren’t taking the same class. It’s rewarding to know that, for instance, explaining course material to a friend who has no background is actually making us a better thinker and student.

The recent passing of the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman, who famously said “when elephants fight, pity the grass”, provides a final consideration on the value of thinking outside one’s normal boundaries (Davis & Campbell). Bauman’s concept of liquid modernity suggests that the desire for inclusion is itself alienating. We spend so much time trying to fit in that, even if we partly have evolution to blame, we spend less time fulfilling our being for ourselves. Again, at AU we are situated to discover our destiny without excessive need to pay homage to the group or be drawn into confirmation bias. Bauman stated that the internet leads to “a matrix of the identity update required by the global world in order to ?be included?, as the need for inclusion is nothing more than a legacy of the abandonment of the authentic sense of belonging … the swarm tends to replace the group and its leaders, its hierarchy and its ?pecking order? … They come together, scatter and gather again, from an occasion to another, every time inevitably for a different reason, and are attracted by changeable aims. The seductive power of mobile objectives is a rule sufficient to coordinate movements, and this is enough to render superfluous any other command or imposition from above. In reality, the swarms do not even have a high and low: only the momentary direction of flight to place the units of the swarm (working self-propelled) in position of leader or followers, usually only for the duration of a given flight , or even a part of it” (Bauman). Fandom, discipline, or swarm, too much belonging can lead us to trample the grass of our creative potential.

Bergland, C. (2013). ?The Neuroscience of Empathy? Retrieved from, M. & Campbell, T. (2017). ?Zygmunt Bauman Obituary?. The Guardian. Retrieved from, D. (2017). ?Trying Herder? Retrieved from, B. (2017). ?Herder and Human Identity? Retrieved from, E. (2017). ?Why Facts don’t Change Our Minds?. Retrieved from Fontaine. ?Le Loup et L?Agneau? Retrieved from, A. (2015). ?The Psycholgoy of Fandom: Why We Get Attached to Fictional Characters? Retrieved from, E. (2013). ?Zygmunt Bauman. Individual and Society in the Liquid Modernity?. Springerplus. Retrieved from, S. (2017), ?Why Liberal Arts Degrees Are More Valuable Than You Might Think. Retrieved from

Jason Hazel-rah Sullivan is a Masters of Integrated Studies student who loves engaging in discourse while working in the sunny orchards and forests of the Okanagan.