Karma Waltonen is a lecturer at the UC Davis and is co-author of The Simpsons in the Classroom: Embiggening the Learning Experience with the Wisdom of Springfield. As you can (maybe?) tell, Waltonen is a Simpsons, sci-fi, Weird Al, and comedy geek and also quite a nerd: she can explain postmodernism, understands science writing, and has written on Margaret Atwood, British drama, and a multitude of other topics.
In Friday's panel, she'll be discussing one of her geeky loves, The Simpsons, in the contexts of one of her intellectual passions, pedagogy. Waltonen will be in a panel entitled “Everything I Really Need to Know, I Learned from Batman and Bart, Man: Embiggening Brains without Crayon Implants.” On Sunday, she will present a paper entitled “The Whedonverse Graphic Novels: The Newest Television Genre” in a panel on Adaptation and Media.
OC Weekly: Considering your research interests, you seem to be both a nerd and a geek. Do you take offense at either of these terms?
Karma Waltonen: I don't take offense at either term, but I'm more used to calling myself a nerd–it's a term I've always embraced, especially in the context of being smart and earning awesome grades and too many degrees. I know other people find terms like this offensive. Once, I was having to make conversation with someone who seemed painfully normal/average in basically every way. I said something about being a nerd (lightheartedly, I might add).
She, who I guess was never accused of being good enough in school to be a nerd, thought I'd just insulted myself, that I was feeling sorry for myself. In a very reassuring voice, she said, “You're not a nerd. You're pretty.”
I told her that I could be both and that I was proud of being a nerd, since that's actually an accomplishment that genes don't do for you. And then I couldn't talk to her anymore, because I knew she was one of those people who probably looked down on nerds.
“Geek” and “nerd” are often used interchangeably, but there are some people who draw distinctions. For example, I have an ex who insisted I was only a nerd and not a geek because he associates “geek” only with being a tech-geek, while I'm a late adapter. Another close friend, though, uses geek for what I call nerd and envisions nerds as people with so social skills.
The whole thing reminds me of the distinction Margaret Atwood makes between science fiction and speculative fiction. If you actually look at what's she says about it, she's making a distinction between two very different schools of writing. In her definition, she's a speculative fiction writer, but she notes that if you're using the terms differently than she is, then you can easily say she's doing sci-fi. Geek/nerd, sci-fi/spec–they're all about definition, and none of the terms should ever be considered derisive.
Unless you're the old-fashioned geek who does things with chickens.
You teach literature courses in the graphic novel and are presenting this weekend on the adaptation of Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer television show into a comic. Have you always been a fan of comics?
Like most people, I was exposed to comics as a kid. I was a great fan of the Justice League characters, especially when the cartoon was on. I even made a Hall of Justice out of a shoebox and made paper dolls of the characters to populate it. Unfortunately, I grew away from childhood comics and didn't come back to the genre until a long time later, when many of my trusted friends said that graphic novels had gotten good enough to return to.
Growing up has taken its toll on what I can read. I don't usually enjoy superhero stories anymore–I prefer things with postmodern twists. Superman was a favorite when I was young; now he's a bit too goody-goody for me. I want to see what Mark Millar does to him in Red Son or how Moore shows us the death of the modernist hero in Watchmen.
I know you're a Whedon fan, so I want to ask you how you felt about Dollhouse. I gave up on it very quickly, so tell me, did it end up at the standard that Whedon audiences are used to?
Dollhouse got canceled just as it was getting good. (I guess it just took too long to get good.) I have to admit, though, that I'm not a big fan of Eliza Dushku in it–I don't think she has enough range to carry a role like that, especially when the role is all about being lots of different people. Every time she'd supposedly be someone else, I'd ask, “Why, then, are you walking exactly like Eliza Dushku?” However, the other characters were awesome. The series did well in opening up to those characters as it went on.
Did your feminism affect how you watched Dollhouse?
Echo is no Buffy, but I didn't feel let down as a feminist.
I find plenty of stereotypes objectionable in lots of different kinds of media, but I rarely mark something as upsetting just for Feminism.
Last year, I had American Dad on. I feel sometimes that as a Simpsons scholar, I have to watch other primetime cartoons because people ask me about them all the time. It's hard for me to watch Family Guy because I don't like most of the characters at all–I'm not attached emotionally to them. And I hate Peter Griffin. He's abusive to his daughter, and seeing it really upsets me. But anyway, I was watching American Dad that day and my son said, “Why are we still watching this show? It's so sexist.”
And I agreed. And that was the last episode we needed to see. When something is so sexist that a teenage boy notices, it's pretty damn sexist.
Often sexist jokes won't necessarily upset me “as a feminist” but as a writer and a comedian–I'll just be offended by the laziness of the writer.
You present frequently at academic conferences and pop culture conferences. Do you prefer one more than the other? What have your favorite conferences/panels been?
I enjoy both kinds of conferences, but I definitely like it more when audiences ask lots of questions–of the panelists, of each other–when the conversation continues afterwards. I was just at a graphic novel conference in Madrid that was small enough where everyone got really involved with each other's topics.
I've been to some awful conferences though. Sometimes there just isn't an audience, or not an engaged one. (That's often the presenter's fault for not being engaging–for reading all monotone instead of talking.) But most often what upsets me is bad presenting. I don't like it when people go way over their time because they either think the rules don't apply to them or they haven't adequately prepared–this robs the other presenters of their fair time and the audience of its question/answer period.
I've had some nightmare times as an audience member–panels where someone's droning for over an hour, but you can't leave. Panels where the presenter doesn't show up but requests that someone else read their paper–you're sitting there for 20-30 minutes listening to some read something out loud they've never seen before, something they aren't invested in. And then you can't ask questions because the author isn't there to answer.
Last year, I was on a panel with a guy who spent his allotted time trying to get the technology to work, then gave his paper, which ran long, which made the rest of us have to cut our presentations in half on the fly. There were errors in his PowerPoint, "feet” when he meant "fact,” etc. And he even had a basic aspect of the film he was talking about wrong as well. I was very irritated, but I didn't let myself get bitchy. I mean, it's the moderator's job to make sure we all get our time.
I also don't like it when we tear into each other in front of an audience. The very first panel I attended when I was an undergrad, I watched an audience member tear into someone. I went almost 15 years before I saw someone do that again, luckily.
Well, I hope your WonderCon panels run smoothly! Any disaster prevention plan in place for this weekend?
My first presentation is on lessons from The Simpsons, which has taught me, among many other things, to avoid calling on anyone wearing a t-shirt that reads "Genius at Work.”
Where to see Karma at WonderCon:
Panel: Everything I Really Need to Know, I Learned from Batman and Bart, Man: Embiggening Brains without Crayon Implants — Friday, March 16 1:30 – 2:30, Room 210
Panel: Adaptation and Media — Sunday, March 18 2:00-3:00, Room 210