Not Such a World Apart: What an Other-Worldly Convention Can Tell Us About Ours

The scene: December 2002, the first ACPA 2004 convention planning committee meeting in Philadelphia. As I walk to our meeting room, a person with a latex mask and a long billowing black cloak strolls casually towards me. Moments later, I see a shirtless man in leather pants, green body paint, dark sunglasses, nipple rings, and fright wig talking to someone with rainbow suspenders and 25 buttons that say things such as, “Purr if you like cats!” Is this my committee? No, we were here at the same time as PhilCon 2002, the annual meeting of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society.

Because our two groups shared the closest bathroom, we were afforded many occasions to observe this curious gathering. Periodically, members of the planning team would come back from our breaks shaking their heads and comment on some of the strange things they had just witnessed. I must say that, at first, the attendees of PhilCon were a very easy target for good-natured ribbing. Things started falling into place when I realized that we were at the beginning of what must be the Sci-Fi high holy days: Star Trek Nemesis was released that evening and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was coming out the following Wednesday.

However, over the course of the weekend, I was aware that I was making light of something that I did not understand. Admitting my own myopia, I picked up a program book to see what I could learn about this earnest and spirited group. I also spoke with a woman named Carol, a member of the PhilCon planning team.

At first, Carol talked more about the nuts and the bolts of the convention, how it was organized and some of its defining characteristics. The more we talked, the more I realized that despite my first impressions, ACPA and PhilCon had a lot more in common than I imagined. For example:

  • Hot Topics/Activism: We have issues related to affirmative action and FERPA. They have concerns about the impending cancellation of Farscape and the state of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
  • Exhibit Halls: We have indestructible furniture and for-profit internship programs. They have sci-fi art and memorabilia.
  • Featured Guests: We have experts speaking about issues such as academic dishonesty and spirituality in the academy. They have guests speaking about sci-fi art and writing.
  • Committees/Sub-Organization: We have affinity groups related to LGBT, disabilities, and residence life. They have affinity groups for Goth/Horror, Science Fiction, Fantasy, Gaming (role playing), Television, Books, Film, Hard/Plausible Science, and Anime.
  • Multiple Organizational Connections: We have advertising related to higher education organizations and institutes (e.g. AAHE, ACUHO-I, NACA, etc.). They have advertising for gatherings such as Penguicon (combination Science Fiction Convention and Linux Expo).
  • Social: We have Carnival and Cabaret. They have the Masquerade Hallway Costume Contest and “filking” (performing inventive and humorous spins on popular songs such as Little Dead Smurfette sung to the tune of Little Red Corvette). We have smaller parties for members with ties to specific graduate programs. They have smaller parties for members with more specific interests such as “Furry Fans” (i.e. individuals who adopt characteristics of animals that they admire such as tails, ears, etc.).

When I was thumbing through the PhilCon program, I was also struck by many similar programming characteristics to our own:

  • Current Issues: Science Fiction Promoting Alternate Sexual Lifestyles (A discussion of the way science fiction can lead us to living and loving differently), Changing Prejudices in Sci-Fi (With the demonization of Arabs and Muslims in current American Culture, would Dune be publishable today?), Was Tolkien a Racist? (What would the Orc Anti-Defamation League say?), and Security Leaks from the Future.
  • Research/Scholarship: The Physics of Time Travel, Mommy, Where Do New SF Writers Come From?, How Do You Change History Assuming You Have the Chance? (Does the time traveler shoot Napoleon, give Leonardo Da Vinci a laptop or publish just the right ad in the New York Times?), and Magical Objects (A ring is as commonplace as a toothbrush but a story about a quest for an enchanted toothbrush would make us snicker. What sort of objects work in this context and why?).
  • Practical Issues: Monsters, Aliens and Spirit Gum, Klingon Language For Beginners, Hey! I’m Not Dead Any More! (The implications of suspended animation: moral, religious, legal, social and biological. Will the revived dead be second class citizens or (in an unhappier future) a source of cheap protein?), How to Pass When You’re Over 150 (Vampires and other immortals need to conceal their nature. What are the legal, practical and emotional issues involved in outliving everyone you know and passing yourself off as your own heir?).
  • Honoring Their Own: A Tribute to Vincent Price.
  • Open Meeting: Gripe Session.

I also asked Carol about the deeper aspects of their convention–who attends and why, and what this convention does for its members. Carol noted that many fans (“mundanes” are those who do not enjoy science fiction/fantasy) come primarily for the opportunity to be with people like themselves in terms of interests and background. Fans find PhilCon to be a very supportive, encouraging and accepting environment. Carol said that many people attend for the “smiles and hugs” because PhilCon “is like coming home to a family.” Most people come here to renew old acquaintances, meet new people with similar interests, and even find romance (Carol met her husband and “soul mate” here). The unconditional acceptance and shared understanding allows fans to put their guards down. Some participants get to explore aspects of their real and idealized selves more fully – a meek woman might come to PhilCon in the character of Princess Yaya, all-powerful and confident. Some find this is the only place where they can openly explore issues of sexuality and transcend gender roles safely and without judgment. Others find that this is one of the only places they don’t need to explain themselves.

As I boarded the plane home, I tried to make sense of this collision of two convention cultures and what it said about each of us. This interaction certainly made the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Not surprisingly, I ended up learning more about ACPA than PhilCon. Given that I had just walked out of a very intense and protracted discussion about our role and responsibility as an ACPA convention planning committee member, it was clear that underneath the costumes, we had much more in common with PhilCon than I had originally thought. However you dress it up, both our conventions fulfill a need for our members to gather in a welcoming place for our shared communion, rejuvenation, and development. PhilCon may be more of a social gathering whereas ACPA’s convention supports the core work of the student affairs profession, but attendees want similar things our own members have repeatedly identified in our annual convention evaluations and surveys: meaningful connections, personal enrichment, and professional development.

This experience also has had a profound effect on my recent role as the ACPA 2005 Nashville convention chair. It has challenged me to frame the convention as something deeper. What is this annual gathering that draws thousands of people, rebirthed in different cities for less than a week, borne by the work of innumerable volunteer hours, with immeasurable commitment? What does the convention really mean for our members, and how has that shaped the way we have come to consistently organize it? What do we value and privilege and why?

The ACPA annual convention is arguably the most meaning-laden expression of our association’s core values, performed publicly on such a large scale. The convention serves the expressed and unexpressed needs of our association to ultimately help us to help our students. For a profession that knows the value of deep and sustained reflection, it is important for us to reflect on ourselves. Every artifact related to the convention serves as spoken and unspoken signifiers of our association’s culture, communicating what we value through our governance, organization, dress, buttons and badges.

Our convention is important because we do important and difficult work on our campuses. We must negotiate multiple and often competing priorities in institutional environments that don’t always appreciate our work. Thus, the convention is both a mirror and a lamp, reflecting our best and most true selves and illuminating our most cherished ideals. The convention inspires, enables and emboldens us to go back on our own campuses with renewed commitment to do our important work.

For many years I have wondered what people from the outside must think if they stumbled into our convention. Anthropologically speaking, we must seem like we are from a different land. I imagine that if any PhilCon members stumbled onto ACPA’s annual convention, they might say, “why do they do that —-that’s just so…weird.”

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