Today I want to address a question that gets thrown at me a lot at anime conventions. Usually after I’m done hosting panels, I find myself swamped by attendees who want to ask if I’ve ever been to this con or that con, where I get my information, can I share my bibliographies, what do I think of [x] series and so on. But there is, without fail, a question that gets thrown my way time and again, that I always smile at and try my best to answer.
“Do you really have a degree in anime?”
The short answer is, of course, yes. I did do my graduate coursework in anime convention history and culture. I am in the process of being conferred a degree from a nationally accredited, and some might argue renowned, university confirming as such. So in a way, yes I do have a degree in anime. But that’s the short form answer, only taking into account the surface of the matter in its loosest terms. Getting further down from the surface, ask me the same question and the answer changes.
Do I have a degree in anime? Well, that’s not what it says, no. Did I do my fieldwork in anime? Yes. So then, how can you say you have a degree in anime? And how can I go about getting one? Well that is a whole other can of worms, one I can gladly point in your direction.
Maybe a decade ago, probably a little bit more, I learned something about college, and it was all from a most unlikely source. I was watching MTV and they were showing one of their “Movies that don’t suck” marathons. The film at hand was called “PCU” and it starred an obviously out of demographic Jeremy Piven (otherwise known as Ari “Get the F*** Out!” Gold from “Entourage”) as the head of a dying fraternity looking to grow again, or at the very least, throw one last kick-ass party before being shut down by the university. There’s a scene where he is talking to a high school kid visiting the school for the weekend, and he introduces an alumni member doing his graduate work on the “Caine-Hackman Theory”, which essentially states that no matter where you are, at any given time, there will always be a Michael Caine or Gene Hackman film on television. When the kid asks if that was really a valid thesis topic, Piven goes on to utter the immortal phrase that came to dominate my upper academic career: “This is college, you can major in Game Boy if you know how to phrase it.”
At the time I thought it was just a witty jab at the collegiate experience. In time, I came to learn exactly how true it is. One of the jokes around my department is “If they pay you to do it, then it’s valid.” Or the more popular “If you defend it more (or less, based on circumstance), then you can get away with it.” I had heard these phrases time and again from drunk anthropologists at the Christmas party, but when it came time to submit the thesis proposal, I thought I would be turned away. You can imagine my surprise when I was given the green light.
So what does a prospective anime scholar need to know before they jump headlong into the field? Well, I might not be the absolute best authority on the subject, I kind of fell into it myself. I designed a project based heavily on my passions, and because I was so invested in the idea, it just worked. So that would be my first bit of advice to budding scholars: love what you do, then make it work for you.
Secondly: there is no real department that exclusively studies anime or anime culture. Very few schools offer Japanese Media Studies as a major, and those that do tend to be interdisciplinary. Film and media studies are an obvious choice as well, but a lot of them tend to focus more on the techniques, history and impact of the media as a whole, with only casual references to specific forms of media. A lot of people who study the field, myself included, tend to be drawn from, or at least have been influenced by, psychology, sociology and anthropology, three disciplines that focus on culture, personal experience, customs and mindset. So it pays to know what you actually want to focus on before you declare a major. Speaking with a department representative will do wonders, as often a young would-be scholar finds out that the department they so desperately want to join might not even be capable of filling the needs of the student. Ask around, and you shall be rewarded.
Thirdly: know the field. Obvious, yes, but crucial when looking into upper academic pursuits. Having at least a basic knowledge of key works, recent studies, classic studies, active researchers and topic will make your job that much easier, and take a lot of the stress off. I know when I began I knew very little beyond a few names, and I almost burned out when I realized exactly how much there was that I needed to know. I’m still learning more about the field every day, but from what I’ve read, and the people I speak with on a regular basis, I’ve managed to balance out the initial shock. Plus knowing the field will inevitably help when you come across that first paper that looks suspiciously like your own work. This way you have a chance to edit, compare and learn from the published article before you freak out or worse, submit an identical paper for review.
Fourth: Network. This has become a critical objective for all sorts of people, not just businessmen. Aside from the obvious implications of finding jobs or discovering new things to read, networking also allows you to share your ideas with others in your situation, get advice or blow off steam, or have a support system in place for when things get challenging. Nobody should have to go it alone, it only will hurt more when things start going wrong. And they will.
Which brings me to my fifth point: nothing ever works out perfectly. Some might say this is pessimistic, but it’s also true. The idea that a project will be smooth sailing from initial inception to finished project is a pipe dream. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had to revise subjects, edit surveys, add books, add sources, remove information, scrap entire passages of written text or just plain burn down the project itself and start over. These things happen. One of the hallmarks of the social sciences is that as you interact with your population and go over your data, you will always find holes, or realize that question A could (or should) have been asked a little bit different. Sometimes data needs to be edited or tweaked, sometimes the holes are so large you need to do follow up research (like I have been doing all year). Just understand that this will inevitably happen, and do not freak about it. Keep calm, look over your data, look over your sources, and see what you can do.
Sixth: Don’t be intimidated. My first encounter with the academic anime experience scared the hell out of me. I found a few people doing what I was doing, at the same general level I am at, and I freaked. Looking back, it was easily the leading factor that contributed to the burnout I experienced post-Anime Boston. I could not stop comparing myself to these people, seeing flaws in my work, repeatedly telling myself my work was horrible in contrast, and I very nearly gave in. It took me a long time to claw my way out of that hole, I still can’t remember exactly what did it, but it set me back a full semester while I tried desperately to put all the pieces together again. Looking back on it from today, hardly 6 months later, I can see that I was allowing myself to become crippled, because I saw an idealized “monster,” created from insecurity and doubt towards my own work, and I let it run rampant across my mind. This was counter-productivity at its worst, and I fell for it.
Now I feel the need to warn you: the likelihood that this will happen to you is pretty good. I don’t know a whole lot of people who haven’t felt this before. But as with anything else, how you react and adapt will shape who you are as a scholar. Remember, this insecurity is in your mind, and you can control it. A wise man once said “When you compare yourself to others, nobody wins.” And this is true. Because you are yourself, and you can only be yourself. Don’t lose sight of that, and you will push through it.
Finally, and this is probably the best bit of advice I can offer from my experiences, enjoy yourself. This project, this lifestyle, they can be daunting, they can be overwhelming, but if they are causing physical pain, stop. Forcing yourself to work on something you have come to hate will only cause you to do sloppy work. Now I am not saying to abandon the idea if you hate it because its not doing what you want it to do. That is frustration, a natural and expected part of field work. When an advisor says you will eventually hate you data, they are usually referring to this sensation, when you throw your all into the project and it spit it back in your face. This is a challenge to be overcome, and it is a sign of your devotion to the work that you slog through it and complete it. But when i say hate, I truly mean you never want to look at the data, you sincerely put off doing it because it makes you want to do bad things. You have no love for, or connection to the work, you just want to destroy it. That type of hate is what destroys projects and lives, and should be avoided. How can you tell the difference? Because if you’re frustrated, you might SAY you hate your work, but deep down you can’t just put it away, you will keep coming back to it no matter what, because it’s your child and you want to see it develop.
This is the best advice I can give to anyone who wants to study anime. I wish all prospective scholars the best of luck, because you will need it. But at the same time, you are going to have the ride of your life, because if you can find a way to merge your passion with your career, you will be very fulfilled with the end result.