Radford professor leads field study to Comic-Con
New School of Communication Director Matthew J. Smith channels his personal love of comics and pop culture into an experience that redefines what is done in the field of communication.
Ten years ago, Smith created a one-of-a-kind field study, which he leads to Comic-Con International in San Diego each summer. Smith’s love of comics originally inspired him to create this unique field study. Another factor contributes to his love of the comic convention, called "Con" by those familiar with it.
“The great thing about the way I experience Con is that I do it with students,” Smith said. “For them, it’s always new. They’re like, ‘oh my gosh! That’s going on! This is going on! I just saw so and so!’ It’s always fresh for me. They find things I would never seek out. I have 10 sets of eyes going around Con, bringing me up to speed on pop culture, fan culture, what the organization is doing, what they are learning about, and the process of human interaction.”
The opportunity is designed for students to experience one of the premier events of the entertainment industry from an academic angle.
“We have a unique relationship with the folks that help run the Con,” Smith said. “They’ve allowed me and my students to get access to places that most people in the public don’t have access to.”
While the students get to experience the Con from the perspective of fans, the primary purpose of the visit is to conduct field research.
“Every student gets to choose a project of their own devising,” Smith said. "I let students choose what they want to investigate. Then, I turn them loose and let them see what they find."
Jodie Grace McKaughan, a Corporate and Professional Communication graduate student at Radford University, went on this year’s expedition to San Diego.
“I went in with a very specific idea, but the first day I got there, I picked up on something and wanted to study that instead,” McKaughan said. "I was looking at the attitudes and relationships between hardcore fans and casual fans.”
Smith said one of the team's favorite aspects of the field study is sharing preliminary research results with other Con participants and members of the public.
McKaughan took advantage of the unique experience of presenting at Comic-Con International, something that she compared to what the stars do on their panels.
“We all had our parts, so we rehearsed beforehand,” McKaughan said. “We spent all weekend going to panels and at the end of the week, we’re sitting there with our own name card and microphone.”
Most important, Smith said, is setting students up for success.
“I think that’s the philosophy that I’ve set up across my teaching," Smith said. "If they want to go after it, they can be successful.”
McKaughan credits her experience in Smith’s field study to Radford University.
“I feel really lucky that Professor Smith came here,” McKaughan said. “I learned so much on this trip, but I feel really fortunate that I had my eyes open to those new experiences, because they are there. Radford has the resources that students need to help them learn and grow.”
Smith was recently hired as director of the School of Communication at Radford University. One of his unique calling cards is the program that he spearheads each year to Comic-Con, something he wishes to continue at Radford.
Most field studies involve visiting either a country or a place. With Smith’s, it’s traveling to an event – something that very few field studies do.
“Nobody does this,” Smith said of his field study. “Nobody.”