Faculty member has built a career around a niche, but is it time for him to study a new subject?
Seated between two very full bookshelves, Mike Perschon explains “steampunk.” It’s not the first time (and it probably won’t be the last) that he has been asked to define the term. As a leading academic in the area – his blog is titled Steampunk Scholar – Mike has travelled around the world, spoken at conventions and written articles on the subject.
So what is steampunk and why is this MacEwan University English faculty member ready to step back from being an expert on it?
Hyperbolized time period
“Ultimately, steampunk is any speculative fiction – horror, fantasy or science fiction – set in a world that feels like the 19th century in some way,” he explains. He adds that some iterations of steampunk include a technological aspect (modern or futuristic gadgets) and may present a “hyperbolized” view of that time period (dirigibles, parasols, pocket watches, etc.).
Mike had been interested in steampunk around the time he needed a direction for his doctoral research. His faculty advisor was excited for him to pursue the idea, pointing out that not much research had yet been done on the subject.
It was also an opportunity to carve out a niche for himself. “I came onto the scene right when the first big steampunk conventions were happening,” he says. “I was there for one of the seminal conventions and, as a result, my name got lumped in with others who were doing this. And it worked out ridiculously well.”
So well, in fact, that while his day-to-day life in the university’s English department has remained the same, Mike has travelled around the world for his research and to attend conventions as a subject matter expert. He has published articles and has even met some of the authors of the works he studies.
Early on, he realized the best venue to talk about his research interest was at fan conventions. Academic conferences, he found, didn’t allow much room to present new papers because the first question other academics asked was always “so what is steampunk?” But at conventions, fans of the genre gave him the perfect audience to present and discuss new ideas, and their eagerness to challenge his research was invigorating.
Although he is renowned as the scholar of all things steampunk, Mike is ready to shift his research focus. He explains that after receiving countless requests to review new steampunk novels, he was unable to pursue other research interests, namely the broader genre of speculative fiction.
So in June he announced that while the Steampunk Scholar blog will live on, he will contribute to it less regularly. Later that month, he made a guest of honour appearance at a fan convention – in Sweden.
“This is really hard for me to wrap my brain around – that someone’s flying me to Sweden to talk about this,” he said in June. “There are far cooler people that they could have flown over there, and they chose me, this academic from Edmonton.”
When he returns, he has his new research work cut out for him: “I’ve given myself 10 years to read every pivotal or influential work of speculative fiction,” he says. Anyone interested in following his research findings can visit his new blog.
Though academics may eschew the idea of non-traditional publishing, Mike wants to see more academic discussions on social media and blogs. He notes how traditional academic publishing can take up to a year to release a paper on something that is relevant today, while bloggers will dive into that same topic or interest and rehash it within weeks. Mike wants to “elevate the conversation” online, and hopes that more academics will begin doing that as well.
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