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Conferences and Cosplayers

I attended a conference last week that was probably the best conference experience I've had to date. In my pre-PhD imaginings a conference was a place where people went to share information, where you had a chance to show off your research publicly and get feedback. But that also you were spending a day or two or three in the company of other academic types who wanted to share information and talk about well, academic things.

Sadly my conference experience to date has not been that. I've had some good experiences,  yes. The one prior to this, on television detective drama was a positive experience, others have been frankly hellish. I spent five days in Manchester last year where I think I had a conversation with two people at the conference the whole time. Now part of this I realise is my own growth, I'm incredibly introverted and shy in situations that conferences present. Give me a paper or a class to address and I'm fine. Give me a room full of people having coffee or lunch and I'll want to hide in the toilets until it's over. This time however I didn't, now while in part that's probably me growing in confidence in such situations it's also the environment you're in. I wanted to talk to these people and more importantly I felt like they might want to talk to me.

The conference I attended was 'Sherlock Holmes Past and Present' now Sherlock Holmes has nothing at all to do with my PhD, I can't even make a tenuous link to it. I call my Holmesian interests my 'academic hobby'  justifying it to myself (and my supervisors) that I waste a good portion of my time reading about Holmes (and messing around on various fan websites) that I may as well waste my time productively with a conference paper.

My passion for Sherlock Holmes, a long reaching general nerdy obsession with all things detective was reignited a few years back when BBC series Sherlock aired just as I was re-reading some Holmes to begin teaching the stories to my first batch of undergrads (who are now all grown up and graduating, well they're graduating...I digress) As I was also starting the PhD opportunities to waste time and obsess over anything other than the actual PhD were easy to fall into, and so my Holmesian passion was reborn.

The trouble with my passion, being academically minded (allegedly) I tend to border on the more extreme end of being a fan in my level of investigation. And although Sherlock Holmes and his various incarnations had undergone a renaissance themselves in fan culture I always feel somewhat outside it. Partly it's to do with being a bit older than a great deal (but not all) fans, partly to do with a general discomfort with online fan culture-it's not a world I grew up in so I always feel and prefer to be a casual observer looking in. That and I do have to actually get some work done.

So lacking in an outlet for my academic hobby I was thrilled to get the opportunity not only to attend an academic conference on the subject but present as well. Throwing myself into my work (Entitled A Study in Bute Street or Baker Street; television tourism and Sherlock for anyone who is interested) and it provided a welcome and productive distraction from PhD work.

The conference itself then, was such a diverse mix of interests, disciplines and personalities but never have I felt this worked so well. I lost count of the number of papers prefaced with 'this isn't really my area of expertise but it's a passion of mine' and what a wonderful thing, to share an interest strong enough to essentially make you do extra work from your day to day. Of the shall we say 'real' Holmes scholars there was no sense of derision to us 'impostors' indeed keynote speaker David Farr acknowledged in his speech that many others at the conference knew far more about Holmes adaptations than he did. Across the panels questions and comments were always productive, people adding their own knowledge to fuel the discussion or share knowledge rather than shame someones lack of knowledge.

Mixed in with this diverse band of academics or academics in training as there were a healthy dose of MA students or people about to start their doctorates which again was marvelous to see. I don't mean to sound patronizing but I wish I'd had the confidence to do that then! In all this was also a healthy dose of fans. Now this is in some ways an oxymoron, we were all fans in one way or another. I mean those without academic affiliation (ie a sort of work related excuse to be there) who were just interested in Holmes in various incarnations. Now I'll hold my hands up and say I was nervous. Not because fans are bad people, some of my best friends I met because of shared fannish interests. But because I was concerned how the two worlds would collide.

My conclusion? Every conference should have a fan contingent. People who are generally there because they simply love something. It would stop academics walling themselves up in their ivory tower and in the case of literature and culture remind them that in the first instance this was supposed to be for FUN. I also strongly believe that having someone walk into your panel wearing and 'I am SHERlocked' T Shirt or dressed up as Sherlock Holmes frankly gives you some perspective as an academic-you're studying something, talking about something that is fun, an entertainment. I chose to write conference papers about it, probably because I'm not brave enough to dress up (also I'd make a terrible Sherlock cosplayer, I'm short and ginger after all...) To any academic who was stuffy about fans at a conference I'd also say this: talk to one of them, you'll probably find they might know as much as you, they may even know things you don't. Above all they'd be thrilled to talk about their favourite subject.

There is after all a fine line between fan and academic. We all choose our academic subjects because we're passionate about them. What's that if it's not a fan? I tip my deerstalker in respect to any fan who came to that conference, I'm sure we academics look like a scary bunch on the surface, and I hope you were as happy to meet us as I was a group of fans there. And actually, were were all there fore the same thing. To talk about Holmes, to learn about Holmes and maybe have some fun too. I came away buzzing with ideas for further Holmes research (slapped wrist this was supposed to be a one off) and an endless list of books and articles I wanted to read (again slapped wrist I have enough reading to do) I wish every conference could be like that.


  1. As another person indulging an 'academic hobby' there, I was keenly aware that the fans probably knew way more than I did! No doubt they could have shredded me to pieces if they'd wanted to, but there was such a lovely collaborative spirit. Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did.

    1. Thanks Sarah, glad I'm not the only one! So lovely to meet you at the conference, hopefully our paths (or academic hobbies!) will cross at another conference one day!


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