About Ashley Hinck, Ph.D.: Ashley Hinck is Associate Professor in the Communication Department at Xavier University, where she researches the politics of fandoms, unconventional forms of political participation, and digital rhetorics. Dr. Hinck’s most recent book, Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in the Digital Age won the Roderick Hart Outstanding Book Award from the Political Communication Division of the National Communication Association (NCA) and tied for the Midwest Popular Culture Association and American Cultural Association Award for Best Single Work by One or More Authors.

Dr. Hinck’s first book is the co-authored work Poaching Politics: Online Communication During the 2016 US Presidential Election. Her publications have appeared in journals such as Communication Education, Critical Studies in Media Communication, and Argumentation and Advocacy, and as chapters in several edited volumes. Alongside her award-winning research, Dr. Hinck’s teaching has been recognized with accolades including The Pearson & Nelson Outstanding New Teacher Award from the Central States Communication Association and supported by pedagogical research grants.

Dr. Hinck received her Ph.D. in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). Her dissertation, “Fan-Based Performances of Citizenship: Fandom, Public Engagement, & Politics,” won the Linda Lee Kaid Dissertation Award from the Political Communication Division of NCA. Dr. Hinck also received her M.A. in Communication Arts from UW-Madison and has a B.A. in Communication Studies from Creighton University.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] May we begin with an overview of your academic and professional background? How did you become interested in political communication and rhetorical criticism and, more specifically, begin to study how politicians engage in digital communication and the politics of unconventional civic communities like fandoms?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] I became interested in political communication and rhetorical criticism through speech and debate. I did speech and debate in high school and in college at Creighton University. I really liked rhetorical criticism as a competitive event. I realized if I thought it was fun enough to do on the weekend, then maybe I should think about doing it as a career too. Graduate school seemed like the natural way to pursue that.

I became involved in fandom because of my two best friends in high school, who were superfans of Harry Potter. They took me to all of the Harry Potter fan conventions in our region. We went to Detroit. We went to Toronto. They introduced me to fan culture, fan fiction, and “wizard rock,” which is music written about Harry Potter. I fell down the rabbit hole with them. It was so much fun.

When I was in college, the Harry Potter Alliance started putting out their podcast, and I found it brought these two interests of mine together. At the time, I was interning for the mayor’s office in Omaha. I was interested in politics and in policy. I thought, “If this Harry Potter activism was powerful for me, it must be powerful for other people too.” I took a deep dive, looking for other examples of fandom-based political engagement and talking to other fans to see how this form of politics was working for them.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your most recent book is Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World, which received the Roderick Hart Outstanding Book Award from the Political Communication Division of the National Communication Association and the Midwest Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association Award for Best Single Work by One or More Authors. Could you provide us some background on this work and its key concept of “fan-based citizenship?”

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] Fan-based citizenship is what I call civic engagement that stems from love for a fan object, rather than a political party or a traditional political institution. An example of this would be Harry Potter fans voting for Obama because that is what he [Harry] would do, rather than because that is what the party or “good democrats” would do. I think that is a very significant shift. People turn to pop culture rather than political institutions for guidance on how to act in our world and which political actions they should take.

[MastersinCommunications.com] This book looks to fan groups like the Harry Potter Alliance as representing a novel form of political organization that needs to be taken seriously. Could you spotlight a few of the political fan groups you discuss in this work and what makes their advocacy both effective and distinct from traditional political organizing?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] The Harry Potter Alliance has recently rebranded themselves as Fandom Forward. They have expanded their work to include other popular culture franchises. They are doing activism work in other fan-based communities as well.

There are also other organizations working in the Harry Potter fandom. There is the Protego Foundation organization that works on animal rights and Fanthropy, which ran the Potterhead Running Club for a long time. I also talk about the Vlogbrother’s fan community and their annual charitable giving initiative Project for Awesome. TeamMates Mentoring is another great example because it is a sports example. It illustrates that this is not specific to fantasy, sci-fi, or video game culture but is happening in all fan-based communities. TeamMates is a nonprofit founded around Husker football. They recruit mentors to work one-on-one with kids in schools, but the project revolves around Husker identity and what it means to be a fan of the Husker football team.

What is even more interesting, perhaps, is the many more examples that have emerged since the book was published. There is a group called KPOP 4 Planet that is doing really interesting work. We are also starting to see fandoms being taken seriously by electoral campaigns in official and unofficial ways. One good example is that Misha Collins [Supernatural actor] and Stacey Abrams both worked with the Supernatural fandom during the 2020 presidential election and the Georgia governor’s race.

What is common across all of these is that they put a fan identity at the center of their civic work and they connect that identity to their work in rich and complex ways that drive civic action. All of these examples really tie what it means to be a fan to taking civic action; that identity, that love of the fan object, that commitment and that community, really matter.

There are other instances where this association does not work as well. In my book, I look at the case of the Star Wars UNICEF fundraiser. In this instance, the connection between the fandom and the cause was not clear or motivational for Star Wars fans; for them, it did not matter that it was for UNICEF, they were just buying merchandise.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there moments, like the controversy over J.K. Rowling’s anti-transgender remarks, when the politics of the content the fandom is based on come into tension with the politics of the fan-based organization?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] I think the most powerful civic action occurs when the politics of the popular culture object, the fandom, and the organization line up. When they do not line up, there is either contentious debate or weaker civic action. In the Star Wars fan community, for example, there is debate about the politics of the universe, so there is not a lot of agreement among fans; some people think the lesson of the franchise is to be a libertarian, others think it justifies democratic socialism. Those are two very different interpretations and they reflect political disagreements in the fandom.

In the Harry Potter fandom, there was a lot of agreement around a social justice interpretation of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling’s shift to transphobia has caused a deep hurt within the fan community and fans have responded in different ways. For some, it has meant looking back at the books and seeing transphobia and racism in ways they did not before and walking away. Others have reclaimed the story for themselves, asserted that J.K. Rowling does not speak for the fans, and maintained that the stories support social justice values in ways that contradict the author’s transphobia.

[MastersinCommunications.com] This book develops many ideas you began to investigate in your dissertation, “Fan-Based Performances of Citizenship: Fandom, Public Engagement, & Politics,” which won the Linda Lee Kaid Dissertation Award from the Political Communication Division of NCA. Do you have insights you would like to share on the process of writing a dissertation and translating it into a successful book?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] For me, the difference between the dissertation and the book was the chance to add more case studies. With the dissertation, you are on such a short timeline and there is a limit to what you can do, especially if you are doing something like ethnographic work. One of my case studies ended up not working as well as I hoped in the dissertation, so I was grateful for the opportunity to build out the dissertation into a longer book where I added two new case studies.

I also rewrote the introduction and conclusion to tell the story I was trying to tell, rather than talking as a student. When you are writing a dissertation, you are more focused on, for instance, demonstrating your thorough review of the literature. It is a very different position to write from and has a different goal. I think approaching the dissertation and first book as a two-step process lets you build on your ideas and your research and adopt a more professional voice, and I would recommend that approach to others.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Another key thread of your research has investigated the unique forms of political communication engendered by digital media, including your co-authored pieces “Watch that #NastyWoman Shimmy: Memes, Public Perception, and Affective Publics During the 2016 US Presidential Debates,” and “Influencer Strategies and Political PR: An AOC Case Analysis.” Would you discuss some of the unique rhetorical or communicative strategies that your work has identified in contemporary discourse that are uniquely afforded by digital media, or which perhaps illustrate the convergence of digital popular cultural and institutional politics?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] Both of those essays explore examples of fan practices and digital practices being applied to institutional politics. In the case “Watch that #NastyWoman Shimmy,” it is the use of memes including GIFs of Hilary Clinton shimmying and the hashtag #NastyWoman. For Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it is livestreams on Twitch and Twitter updates. In both cases, the politics we see is networked and participatory. They are not campaign press releases or television advertisements. People grab hold of them and participate; they share, remix, and modify them.

I think this involves an important and powerful shift away from how we think about political communication and rhetoric. It becomes more ambiguous what the “text” is when it is participatory and networked — when there are thousands of these memes out there, how do we analyze them? These are uniquely digital practices and we need to attend to them. In the case of the Hilary shimmy, we tried to identify the most prominent “remixes” of the GIF.

We also traced the origins of #NastyWoman rhetoric, and we explored how people were taking it up, in both digital discourse and in places like political merchandising where different tee shirts were made and marketed, for example. With the case of AOC, we focused on her as a speaker, which allowed us to narrow our study of the audience and the scope of its effects. I also see ethnographic and field methods as a valuable way into these questions. As rhetoricians we need to be archiving data from, surveying, and interviewing these fan and political communities and letting that inform our rhetorical analyses.

[MastersinCommunications.com] You also explore the role of the digital in electoral politics in your first coauthored book, Poaching Politics: Online Communication in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Would you introduce us to the concept of “poaching politics” and reflect on its continuing relevance for understanding the political landscape after 2020?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] This book pulls from Michel de Certeau’s concept of poaching and Henry Jenkins’ use of that concept to describe what he calls “textual poaching.” Jenkins argues that fans poach from mass media texts like television shows to create new texts. They do that through practices like fan fiction where they write narratives that alter and expand a narrative or universe, or remix videos where they literally take bits of the television show and mix them up to create new text that carries particular meaning for them.

In our book, we argue that citizens do the same thing with political campaigns. They poach texts from the institutional mass media structures of campaigns and create new texts through things like memes and remix videos. Seeing citizens this way invites us to think about them as active rather than passive. This is a big shift, particularly with respect to studying political campaigns. It also moves us to think about citizenship as being affective [culturally structured emotion or feeling] in addition to rational.

These are shifts we need to make to understand the 2016 election, the 2020 election, and I suspect we are going to continue to see this in the future. We will see citizens continue to poach from texts and in new ways. They will do it in fan cultures, in trolling cultures, and through other participatory cultures emerging on the internet. I think it is the task of critics, pundits, and teachers to help folks decode this phenomenon, so we are not continuously surprised when we see the internet have an impact on federal and local level elections.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Has this more active and affective approach to politics helped make parties more ideologically diverse or less monolithic?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] I think political parties have become less monolithic in a number of ways. They are no longer the only things that steer our behavior. They are also not monolithic in the sense that we do not all have the same motivations for joining a political party. They are also less monolithic in the sense that they are no longer as hierarchically organized from the top-down.

I think citizens are coming to terms with this. What does it mean to be a Democrat or a Hilary supporter? What does it mean to be a Trump supporter in 2016, but not in 2020? How do we form these identities? This cannot be accounted for simply on the basis of rational assessments of policy positions.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Your teaching and pedagogy have received accolades including the Pearson & Nelson Outstanding New Teacher Award from the Central States Communication Association. You have also published a number of pieces on pedagogy and two of your syllabi were competitively selected for the National Communication Association’s Undergraduate Course Syllabi Resource, which compiled syllabi as a tool for educators. Would you introduce us to your approach to, and research on, communication pedagogy?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] My own teaching and research interests are focused on critical digital pedagogy. This is pedagogy that exists at the intersection of the critical pedagogy advocated for by scholars like bell hooks and Paolo Freire, and digital pedagogy as advanced by folks like Seymour Papert, Sean Michael Morris, Jesse Stommel, and many others. For me, critical digital pedagogy calls instructors to think about the relationship between technology and power in the classroom. How do media and technology affect student agency, power, and freedom? In doing so, it invites the teacher to view the student as a co-creator of learning in the classroom.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you explain the major discourses of teaching and learning you document in your recent publication in Communication Education, “From the Other Side of the Desk: Students’ Discourses of Teaching and Learning,” that circulate among students and mediate how they relate to higher education?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] For this project I interviewed a number of students to develop a set of questions that would help me understand discourses of teaching and learning. Then I did an open-ended survey with students and qualitatively analyzed their responses. This led me to identify nine major discourses of teaching and learning in higher education.

What does it mean to be a good learner or teacher? What does that look like in the classroom? You might answer those questions differently depending on what pedagogical discourses you find yourself subscribing to. Some students were focused on job preparation and some were focused on passion and engagement and thought great teachers performed their passion and stimulated engagement from students. Others focused on academic outcomes, and thought about good learning as getting an A. Others were interested in knowledge expansion, and evaluated their learning based on whether they felt like they knew more at the end of the course than when they started. Information transmission was another key discourse for students, which they based on their ability to reprise the information they had been provided by their professors.

Relationships between students and between students and professors were more important for some students. Others focused on transferability of skills to their jobs or hobbies. Still others were interested in hierarchical disruption; some students wanted a relationship with their teacher, they did not want to see them on a pedestal but as an equal. Finally, some defined teaching and learning as cultivating civic responsibility and civic agency.

For many of us, these discourses may be familiar or unsurprising. What was most surprising for me was the sheer number of discourses. That is nine very different definitions of teaching and learning. If you are a teacher with 20, 30, or 200 students in your class, that means there are so many different and sometimes contradictory ways students are interpreting the course, its materials, and your teaching.

Part of what seeing these discourses helps to remind us is that students come to our classrooms with very different models of teaching and learning and interpret our teaching with those models in mind. That presents a very real challenge for teachers. That might explain moments of conflict and disconnect. Our students often have vastly different perceptions of teaching and learning from our own.

This calls teachers to work with students as co-creators of the classroom to define what counts as good teaching and learning together before moving on to content. You need to define where you are going and how you are going about it. I will have my students make a list of their values and what they want to get from the course, and together we will read excerpts from bell hooks and Jesse Stommel’s works on pedagogy. This helps get us on the same page, and gives them an option to critically examine their own perspectives toward teaching and learning.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Do you have advice you would give to students interested in political communication, digital rhetorics, or the politics of popular culture who are considering pursuing a graduate degree in communication?

[Dr. Ashley Hinck] My only pieces of advice are, first, to be open to new practices as they emerge. They may not look like older fan practices or civic practices. Second, think about taking up ethnographic and field methods. I think this is very important to understanding online communication. There are new communities and new networks that have particular histories, communication strategies, and norms that influence our political world. I think ethnographic and field methods are a useful way to approach understanding that.

Thank you, Dr. Hinck, for sharing your insight on the politics of fandoms, digital rhetoric, communication pedagogy, and more!

Photo of Ben Clancy
About the Author: Ben Clancy (they/them) is a critical scholar and creative living in Chicago with their partner, child, and other wildlife. They are a PhD candidate at UNC Chapel Hill in the Department of Communication, where their research focuses on the politics of communicative and artistic technologies. Ben has an M.A. from Texas State University, has worked as a research fellow for the Center for Technology Information and Public Life at UNC, and is an alum of the Vermont Studio Center residency in poetry writing.

Please note: Our interview series aims to represent the diverse research being pursued by scholars in the field of communication, which is often socially and politically engaged. As a result, all readers may not agree with the views and opinions expressed in this interview, which are independent of the views of MastersinCommunications.com, its parent company, partners, and affiliates.