The first-ever Phish Studies Conference will take place May 17–19 at Oregon State University. For much of the Phish community, scholarship is a foreign idea. The enigmatic world of academic conferences and peer-reviewed journals is something that only those in academia are privy to. But for those academics participating in the conference, the chance to blend their livelihoods with their passions is nothing short of a dream come true. For the rest of the Phish community, this is their chance to witness something monumental: the birth of a new academic discipline to validate the deep level of thinking in which this community regularly engages.
It was only a matter of time before this happened. The Phish community grew out of east coast college students in the 80s and 90s who eventually had to pursue greater goals beyond Phish tour when the band began their series of hiatuses. This is an intelligent group of people who, for the most part, participate in complex and intellectually inspiring conversations about the band all the time. Fans use their college-born skills to dissect every nuance of the band and this community because, well, because Phish is our life, and who doesn’t want to delve into a conversation about the meaning of life?
In fact, there is even a whole discipline dedicated to Fandom Studies. These scholars explain how fandom enhances our lives by allowing us to participate in meaningful discourse, similar to academic communities—which, essentially, are the only places that adults are able to consistently engage in the philosophical engagement that many crave. The fans participating in the conference, a group of the most non-traditional scholars you will ever meet, are men and women who have used the band and the community as case studies for their disciplines of choice in order to gain status as PhDs.
This is no easy feat. Academics are stuffy by nature and have very particular views about what constitutes an acceptable area of study. Most do not see modern day jam bands as a good example of groundbreaking research. But why not? We all agree that Phish stands out as a leader in the jam band community, with the unique way they have brought together a neat little community of people who have dedicated a large chunk of their existence to participation in the rituals that are required to be a fan. Ask a fan his or her opinion on a show, a set, an individual jam, and you are likely to receive a dissertation-like response that can rival any peer-reviewed publication. There is no doubt in any Phish fan’s mind that documenting the actions of this band is essential to preserving this cultural anomaly, a band that changed the rules and continues to grow with new fans and new ways of communicating to and inspiring those fans to join the ranks of their dedicated base.
In this respect, Phish allows us to hold up a mirror to a culture and reflect upon the ways in which we situate ourselves in the world. As you can imagine, Phish fans are hella-smart, and their papers reflect an engaging look into their various areas of study, which makes it a great way to digest interdisciplinary studies (see: academic buzzword). This is why, in November of 2018, a group of eight scholar-fans participated in a panel of presentations about their individual studies related to the band at the 104th National Communications Conference. Stuffy academics, beware! Scholar-fans are here to shake things up.
The conference at OSU is the vision of Dr. Stephanie Jenkins, the philosophy professor behind the online course “Philosophy of the School of Phish”. In fact, this past summer, she brought a group of her students to The Gorge as the lab portion of the class and staged the first ever academic colloquium at a Phish show. Eight scholars presented their research for the students, along with a host of curious fans who braved the sweltering heat in order to debate the concept of the “wook” and the statistical formula used to predict the rating of a Phish show on Phish.net. It was a glorious afternoon, and a clear indication of how hungry Phish fans are for a deeper and more intellectual view into how they spend their free time. Remember the saying, “If you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life?” Well, welcome to early retirement.
While the concept of an academic conference about a jam band may raise some questions, as in “whose tax dollars are supporting this?”, it is essential to contemplate the implications of such an innovative proposal. Besides the obvious ability to poke some holes in the academic bubble that is disconcerting for aspiring PhDs these days, there are other benefits to this formula. Firstly, this academic conference will host a panel of students who will have the opportunity to learn how to present at a conference. In addition, they will be connected with existing academics to mentor them in their aspirational studies. This concept aligns with our community as a place where like-minded people are welcome to participate in and be accepted by others who may have more expertise and are willing to share their knowledge. In other words, we must support a deeper level of intellectual engagement in a more public arena in order to expose the nuances of the theories that already guide our lives. An academic conference on Phish Studies, which can attract an audience of non-academics, can illuminate the need for more exposure to bigger ideas which inspire the enlightening conversation that we so desperately need today. There is no better community to support this endeavor than the Phish community.
So what can you do? For starters, we can start this dialogue, make it an ongoing, productive conversation that will inspire action where we need it most—the places that Phish fans converge in their views of the world. The financial and emotional support of this community can do wonders for the field of academia that is currently in a precarious place, and the Phish Studies Conference is an excellent place to start.
Currently, there is a small price tag for students to attend the conference (academics can generally get some support from their universities). There are also opportunities to sponsor a student’s academic endeavors. Non-phans are also encouraged to come and check out the thought-provoking insights on the fan base with which we’re so familiar. We can do our due diligence to document this amazing world we are privy to, in order to ensure future generations can learn from it. We know that it’s not just about the music. Why not prove it to everyone else?
Registration for the Phish Studies Conference at Oregon State University on May 17–19 is now open. For a tentative list of presentations at the conference, click here. You can also click here to learn more about how to make a donation or sponsor a student, or head here for more information.