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Teaching Tips for Geek Gatherings

I’ve actually lost track, but I want to say that if I attend New York Comic Con this fall (which looks increasingly likely), this will be my sixth time, which happens to match the number of times I’ve been to Geek Mecca in San Diego. Those aren’t the only shows out there, of course, with countless regional and indie-flavored comic cons as well as manga/anime, genre-specific, and book-based conventions all appealing to pop culture fans of various persuasions.

I’ve been showing up at these events since I was a tween myself, so it’s odd that only in the past few years have I appreciated the inherent teaching potential in such gatherings, especially where media literacy is concerned. So here are a few tips, many of which I’ve put into practice in the classroom.

  1. Clarify the purpose. While the individual creators and fans who attend cons enjoy the personal connections they can make, you’ll want to explain to students that the overall purpose is promotional. Ask: how does the convention itself make money? Many students will simply respond that revenue is earned from the cost of attendees’ badges, not realizing that all booth space is bought and paid for by those who want to showcase new and forthcoming media products  (…not to mention points 3 and 4 below).
  2. “Fan service” or fan exploitation? Consider going deeper with this line of inquiry: why are media publishers willing to pay so much money to reach fans in person, considering the bigger (potential) audiences that can be reached through other forms of marketing? Answer: It’s not necessarily to show appreciation, or to get feedback from a special target audience (although those are often the case), but rather because feeding a fan base and helping it thrive can disproportionately increasing the efficacy of a company’s marketing efforts. How? Well, by essentially creating an army of volunteer marketers who will heighten the “buzz” around specific media products. Bottom line: fans simply are not like other consumers, and so are not treated as such.
  3. Identify branding opportunities: Save your convention badge, lanyard, and official shopping/tote bag: these items are usually plastered with brand names and logos. Using them as real-world props, you can explain how event sponsorship works, involving even non-geeks by having them cite analogous examples such as sporting or charitable events. In all such cases ask: what qualities does the sponsor’s brand take on as a result of being associated with this event?
  4. Analyze advertising: What’s featured on the back cover of the program? How ’bout the inside front and back cover? Such a discussion, which should probably cover the increased advertising rate for such high-profile placements, also gives you a chance to address advertising in comparable print media such as magazines and newspapers.
  5. Share the swag: Scoop up as many giveaways as you can, no matter how junky or personally uninteresting you find a given property—in fact, I suggest bringing an extra bag just to cart this stuff back and give to students. Most of the swag you’ll pick up isn’t available anywhere else, and it all provides a fun, hands-on way to teach marketing basics. For example, elementary-age students are prone to think that the publishers who hand out millions of bookmarks are doing so as a form of public service because apparently they’re just really, really concerned about readers losing their places. Point out that bookmarks, like key chains and flash drives, are intended to be used repeatedly over a long period of time… in effect presenting the owner with a subtle ad again and again… and again… and again.
  6. Practice visual literacy: With smaller swag items, how does the limited space force the brand to distill its message down to the minimal? Ask: why have the marketers chosen to emphasize this particular image or text? For larger items, such as posters and T-shirts, built on this approach by analyzing which visual elements the eye is drawn is most drawn to—because they are centered or made prominent through sizing—and why.
  7. Apply critical thinking to costumed attendees: Go ahead and take pics of them to share with students and giggle along with them… but then ask why cosplayers are “allowed” to dress as copyrighted characters while those same fans would be quickly escorted to the exit if they tried to distribute fan fiction and the like. Ask: from the perspective of the rights holders, where does promotion stop and copyright infringement begin?

In conclusion, in case all this sounds rather single-mindedly skeptical, if not cynical, there are plenty of other ways to use your con experience to enrich your teaching, many of them fairly obvious. You can get the contact info for writers and artists for school visits, either actual or virtual; you can pick up some pointers on how to organize and moderate panels if you’re interested in doing the same at a school or library (or a school library, ‘natch); most importantly, you can gain some “insider” info for fans as well as re-charge your own enthusiasm for pop culture… and then bring those back to share with students. And who knows where that may lead?

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