CFP: Panel on Resisting Language as Weapon (open until 9/30/17)

Calling #teamrhetoric!

With a little less than a month of “official” summer left, I wanted to let everyone know about a panel I’ll be running at the 49th NeMLA Annual Convention that will take place in Pittsburgh from April 12-15, 2018 at the Omni William Penn.

Resisting the Weaponization of Language: A Panel (

As specialists in language studies, we have a particular affinity for and accompanying responsibility to use language in ethical ways. We embrace the power of language to change the world and ourselves for “good,” but are rightfully hesitant to focus on the potential for language to cause harm out of concerns regarding silencing and censorship. Yet, there can be no doubt that language can and does cause harm. Abstracts are encouraged that examine such weaponization of language from a variety of perspectives including, but not limited to, “grammar” as cudgel, misgendering and/or dead naming transgender individuals, and dehumanizing language in public discourse.

Follow the link above to submit a 300-word abstract before the September 30th deadline. Members and non-members of NeMLA may submit to as many sessions as they want, although they may present on only one paper presentation panel and only one other type of session (a roundtable or a creative session).



CFP for A Second New Edited Collection (Memory in Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales)

I am thrilled to announce that I have signed another contract with McFarland for a companion collection to Essays on Memory in Popular Culture, this one focusing just on the way memory works in post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories. The tentative title is Recovering What We’ve Lost: Essays on Memory in Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales. See the below for details and please consider submitting an abstract, or sharing the CFP with anyone you know who might be interested.


Upcoming collection on memory in post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories, under contract with McFarland and Company, seeks proposals for academic essays on the complex role of rhetorical and social memory in science fiction/fantasy, fandom, and online gaming. Abstracts due 1/5/15 with final essays due 6/1/15.




For the upcoming collection Recovering What We’ve Lost: Essays on Memory in Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian Tales, I am seeking abstracts for essays to be included in a collection designed to blend the classical rhetorical concepts of memory with more post-modern approaches to the notion of social and public memory as a lens for examining stories set in post-apocalyptic and/or dystopian settings across many media. Essays analyzing films, television shows, online games, and graphic novels are being requested along with those focusing on traditional print fiction.


This collection looks to directly connect two overlapping cultural trends of the early 21st century: the popularity of post-apocalyptic/dystopian speculative fiction and concerns over the ways we remember and memorialize the world around us. Fears regarding the “outsourcing” of memory in the 21st century (to smartphones and other digital devices) are echoes of past panics about loss of memory (such as Plato’s famous complaint about writing). But the current panic is as ahistorical as the previous ones in that much of recorded history relies on memory objects that foster and celebrate shared cultural memories. These might be the ballads of old heroes and monsters or the monuments commemorating great battles or simply a family Bible keeping track of the generations. The power of such memory objects is one reason that post-apocalyptic and dystopian tales resonate so strongly across the generations.


As genre and cultural studies scholars have argued before, the post-apocalyptic and dystopian strains of speculative fiction more often than not carry a message of hope. This optimism takes several forms such as recovery of freedom/civilization, resilience of the survivors to carry on, and successful prevention of the dystopia on the part of readers. David Brin has called this tendency the “self-preventing prophecy” and while not all tales in this category fit that mold, many do.


A key part of that recovery and resilience is the collective social memory of the characters within the story. At times, the history has been lost and must be reconstructed (see Canticle for Leibowitz) while other stories focus on the characters’ attempts in the immediate aftermath to preserve the cultural memory (as in the show Falling Skies). Much of the power of post-apocalyptic stories lies in the ruins of the familiar: the decaying monuments in Logan’s Run, the traces of familiar English in the dialects of Canticle, the brief mention of the “ancient” form of self-governance known as democracy in Mockingjay. Meanwhile, the power of the state, or other controlling entity, in dystopian tales very often relies on their ability to control information not only about the present, but especially about the past as well.


I am particularly interested in receiving abstracts for essays by and about texts from under-represented groups across the spectrum and the globe. In addition, graduate students and junior faculty are especially encouraged to submit abstracts. Anticipated themes of this collection include, but are not limited to,

  • Ancient Memory: Allusions to Shared Myths and Legends
  • Memories of Domestic Life: Hearth and Home
  • Memorials and Landmarks: Visual Symbols of Loss
  • Stolen, not Lost: Authoritarian Control over Information and Memory
  • Entertainments of the Past (Music, Novels, Theater)
  • The immediate past (such as V for Vendetta) compared to long-lost past (such as Hunger Games and Canticle)

While the underlying premise of this collection is rhetorically based, interdisciplinary approaches are most desirable. In particular, my goal is to collect perspectives that cover the intersection of contemporary interpretations and explorations of the ancient rhetorical canon of memory, narrative theory, and cultural studies. Please also keep in mind, however, that the primary audience includes both fans and academics so the approach should be accessible to interested, but not expert, readers.


Abstracts (250-500 words) proposing essays of 5-7,000 words each will be accepted until January 5, 2015, with completed essays due June 2015. Please send the abstracts as attached Word files to Heather Urbanski at memoryinsf_book @

My finalized LonCon3 schedule (where to find me at WorldCon next week)

In case you might have missed the news, the World Science Fiction Convention begins next week in London. And I’m so excited (and not just because I’ll be debuting a new hall costume inspired by Brave’s Merida).

My official programming appearances are on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday (see below) but I am also planning on attending the events on Thursday to open the academic conference.

Come and find me and we’ll chat about….well, I’m sure if you follow me on social media and are at WorldCon, we’ll have plenty of topics.

Hope to see you there!

I’ll also be in Dublin the next weekend for Shamrokon (the Dublin Eurocon 2014) and hope to have that schedule finalized soon.



Thursday, August 14

“Diversity in Speculative Fiction”: Welcome to the Academic Conference

Capital Suite 6 (Level 3), 10:30am – 11am

A chance to find out what the academic programme is and to meet (other) academics at the event before the first session. Please bring your own drinks along.


Diversity in Speculative Fiction Conference Reception

South Gallery 21/22, 10pm – 11:30pm

A reception primarily aimed at participants in the academic programme “Diversity in Speculative Fiction” but open to those who are interested in meeting the academics and discussing the programme with them. It is sponsored by the Science Fiction Foundation, who will be publishing selected papers drawn from the programme in the journal Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction.



Saturday, August 16

Place and Time: Capital Suite 6 (Level 3), 9:30am – 11am

Panel Title: Mediated Boundaries

Panelists: Jo Lindsay Walton, Pawel Frelik, Colin Harvey, Heather Urbanski

Three academics each give a 15 minute presentation. These are followed by a jointly held 30 minute discussion with the audience.

  • Heather Urbanski, “Narratology of Science Fiction and Fantasy Franchises”**
  • Colin B Harvey, “Tink Talks! Transmedia Memory and Neverland”
  • Pawel Frelik, “Subversive Moddernity—Fantastic Game Modification and Politics”

**I’ll be presenting the latest version of my analysis of Agents of SHIELD, Hunger Games, and Once Upon a Time as narratively disruptive franchises.


Sunday, August 17

Place and Time: Capital Suite 1 (Level 3), 10am – 11am

Panel Title: Working for a Living

Panelists: Martin McGrath, Donna Scott, Susan Connolly, Alison Page, Heather Urbanski

Most SF TV focuses on (and is written by!) professional/white collar/middle class individuals. But a few recent examples — such as The Walking Dead, True Blood, Orphan Black and Misfits — have included a greater focus on working class/blue collar experiences. How does this affect the stories such shows tell, the range of characters and identities they include, and how they use their fantastic elements?


Place and Time: Capital Suite 15 (Level 3), 1:30pm – 3pm

Panel Title: Secrecy in Science

Panelists: David L Clements, Katie Mack, Heather Urbanski, Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf, Sunil Patel, Leah-Nani Alconcel

What role does secrecy have in science? Should drug companies be allowed to hide trial data from their competitors? Should scientists be allowed to publish papers and not the data they are based on? Is there a place for commercial confidentiality in space missions? But if everything is open, how will anybody get commercial benefit from new inventions and discoveries? And do we really want DNA sequences for super-flu, and the designs for dirty bombs and plutonium refineries to be available to all?



Monday, August 18

Place and Time: Capital Suite 13 (Level 3), 12pm – 1:30pm

Panel Title: Brave Young World

Panelists: Cory Doctorow, Gillian Redfearn, Heather Urbanski, David Farnell

How is the nature of young people’s reading changing, and how should it change the ways we write and publish? Are new forms of storytelling emerging along with new technologies?




Whose History? Whose Context? The Dangers of Nostalgia

Two excellent blog posts have crossed my newsfeed over the past day that bring me back to a line of thinking I wrestled with in Writing and the Digital Generation: the prevalence and dangers of nostalgia. In my chapter for Digital Generation, I tackled the laments that digital texts were in danger of replacing (to the detriment) traditional print books.

Now the question has come up in another area of my research interests: fandom.

For some background, here are links to the two posts that have generated my thinky-thoughts for today:

Smuggler’s Ponderings: History, Fandom and Masters of Science Fiction” by Ana on the Book Smugglers blog.

The Orthodox Church of Heinlein” by John Scalzi.

When I first entered SF/F fandom by attending the 2001 WorldCon on a total whim, I was enthralled by the stories I heard about the first cons, and how the “big names” I’d only read about were active participants, and even defining influences. And, to a certain extent, I still am. But as I become more engaged, I heard other stories, from those who were less vocal, less “powerful,” and I was less enthralled, and more disturbed.

The scholar and rhetorician in me then kicks in and I consider the liminal nature of fandom, and the complex history and memory involved in these communities. Such considerations led to my new project, the collection on memory in popular culture. While I want to capture the fannish sense of history and memory, I also know I need to do so in as complex a way as possible. My discussions with other fans such as Mikki Kendall (@Karnythia) and posts written by Kameron Hurley (@KameronHurley) and so many others have reminded me to ask, “Whose history and whose context?”  Those questions have now become the driving force in how I will approach editing this new collection.

And I wouldn’t have known to ask them without the fandom community. Once again, I am grateful.

Calls for Proposals for new edited collection on memory in popular culture

Exciting news!

I am currently seeking proposals for an upcoming collection, Essays on Memory in Popular Culture, under contract with McFarland.

The key assumption of this collection is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom that memory is no longer important, this rhetorical canon has been transformed and complicated rather than subsumed, as recent scholarship into such areas as digital media, fandom studies, and memory objects demonstrates. This collection, therefore, seeks essays and participant reflections that document and examine this rhetorical principle in all its complexity.

Submissions are being solicited that examine cultural memory within the following categories:

  • Science Fiction and Fantasy Genre texts
  • Fandom activities (including fan fiction and cosplay)
  • Online Gaming
  • Digital collaboration and media

In addition to traditional academic essays (approximately 5,000 words each), there will also be a section for player and participant reflections (approximately 1,000 words) that briefly describe the experience of fan memory from a non-academic perspective.

I will be distributing these CFPs during Arisia this weekend (January 17-20, 2014) and you can also follow these links for more information:

Proposals should be submitted to memoryinsf_book @i by May 1, 2014.

On “Rights”: Speech, Opinion, and Harassment at Conventions

I owe a lot to fandom and the con-runners who organize conventions like the World Science Fiction Convention. My first two books, Plagues and Writing and the Digital Generation, were directly inspired by World Cons and I tested and refined the ideas in Reboot at several others. The pros who attend these events, from Greg Bear to David Brin to John Scalzi to Mary Robinette Kowal and many others, have influenced my career in both subtle and overt ways since my first con in 2001. And, of course, I have started many wonderful friendships over these weekends as well.

Needless to say, over the past few weeks I have watched the unfolding online debate regarding sexual harassment at conventions with (self) interest and trepidation. For those unfamiliar with recent events, see this post on MRK’s site from Elise Matthesen, this response from Maria Dahvana Headley I reblogged earlier, and this page that summarizes and collects other reactions.

As both a fan and a rhetorician, these reactions fascinate me. I was particularly intrigued (and frustrated) by the responses to Scalzi’s Convention Harassment Policy, which I co-signed here. Scalzi posted a fairly lengthy response to the responses to his policy here and MRK similarly identified, and spectacularly dismantled, one particular type of response here.

I won’t quote from Scalzi or MRK’s posts here, though I’d like to, because I try to keep my online presence at a PG-13 rating, at most, and these pieces use expletives to stunning effect. I recommend readers follow the links to read for themselves, so long as you know what you will find.

But to summarize the particular line of response I want to focus on in this post, several commentators and respondents condemned those like Scalzi and MRK on “free speech” grounds. This argument (if you can call it that) rests on two inter-related premises:

  1. Such policies infringe on the right to free speech of con-goers and therefore asking creepers/harassers to curb their behavior (since there is a substantial verbal component to harassment) is unacceptable.
  2. Those who object to and/or reject policies and stances like Scalzi’s cannot be criticized themselves because they are simply exercising their own rights to free speech.

Now, the response to these responses also breaks down along two paths:

  1. The First Amendment to the US Constitution only protects us from the government putting us in jail or otherwise punishing us for the words we use and this right is not absolute.
  2. Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences or criticism for what spews out of our mouths. If and when others use their own right to condemn or reject our speech, we can’t object on “freedom” grounds.

Over the past week, these responses have been rattling around in my head (an occupational hazard for writers) and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much these debates reminded me of conversations I have with my students every semester.

I teach First-Year Writing at the college level and students often struggle with the nuances and complexities of the concept of “opinion,” and understandably so. We use this term in so many different and conflicting ways that it has essentially become, I tell them, meaningless. After all, we can hear “opinion” being used to describe everything from the Brown v. Board decision in 1954 (or the more recent Shelby County v. Holder or United States v. Windsor rulings) to Mike Golic’s take on whether or not the Kansas City Chiefs used the first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft wisely.

I watch and/or listen to sports commentary quite a bit, especially during football season, and I hear two phrases that invoke opinion so often that I can completely understand my students’ confusion: “Hey, that’s just my opinion” and “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.”

Putting aside the usage error of “everyone” and “their” in the latter phrase, this combination of ideas leads to several rhetorical problems whenever we try to have a complicated debate, like the one currently going on in fandom.

The first is that we’ve beaten any sense of meaning out of the word opinion and rendered it useless for communication in many instances. What most people mean when they use the word “opinion,” I’ve noticed, is instead a conclusion or judgment that they’ve reached based more or less on an analysis of evidence. Or, on the opposite pole, they mean a gut response or knee-jerk reaction that involves little thought, if any. Using “opinion” to cover both of these situations is an obstacle to say the least.

The second is that the “just my opinion” construct is used as a trump card to end all conversation. After all, if we are all entitled to our opinions, then how can we move beyond that? We’re entitled. This is similar to the free speech objection above.

Finally, just like the limits on speech rights, we are not entitled to turn our “opinions” into actions that harm others and then weasel out of the consequences because we have a “right to our own opinions.” This is the sentence I was most scared to write in the entire piece, and why it took me almost a week of thinking to actually do it. Even now, after all that pondering, I almost typed qualifying phrases like “could harm others” or “we must be careful when we turn our opinions into actions.”

But this point in my career, and my fandom, is not the time for equivocation so here it is again: It is not okay to turn our opinions into actions that harm others and then weasel out of the consequences because we are “entitled” to such opinions. In terms of the current fandom debates, this means that if it is your opinion that con-goers who dress in any sort of hall costume (read, women cos-players) should expect to be harassed because they “ask for it,” and then you act on that opinion either by being a creeper, ignoring a creeper, or refusing to institute a harassment policy at a con you run, then that is not okay. And the same applies to so many of the other “opinions” so thoroughly dismantled by Scalzi and MRK.

Moving beyond conventions and fandom, though, we also need to consider those times when our opinions turn into actions that can harm others. For example, if we form an opinion based on bad information or faulty “science” or some unexamined ideology, and then vote for a referendum and/or a lawmaker who will pass laws that hurt others (but not ourselves), that is not okay either.

To invoke a familiar, and perhaps over-used, geek maxim: with great power comes great responsibility. The same applies to our rights, whether to speech or our own opinions. We must take more care with how we exercise each.