Interview With a SMOF: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump is an author, a professor, a conrunner, and so much more. She’s published short fiction as well as the YA novel Hulk Hercules: Professional Wrestler [Amazon | B&N].

Catherine is also a self-identified SMOF, so I asked if she’d be willing to talk a bit about her experiences working behind-the-scenes, her perspective on fandom and inclusivity, and her thoughts on our community.

I’m hoping to do a few more of these interviews, because I find the conversations helpful and informative. And because you probably get sick of just hearing me babble all the time.

Thank you, Catherine!

1. Tell us about yourself and your entry into the Wide World of SMOFs.

The first time I heard the word SMOF used about myself was when I was casually talking to some Wiscon planners late night in a Con Suite. I mentioned that I was involved with Mindbridge, the organization that runs some of the cons in Iowa, and at that time, someone asked us what we were talking about, and my conversation partner said, “She’s Mindbridge, and we’re SMOFing.”

What we meant in that conversation was that we were talking about convention planning. There are certain members of Mindbridge who shoulder a bigger share of planning and running conventions, and we meet the definition of SMOF because we do this. I’d say there are actually about 10 “full-time” SMOFs in the Mindbridge Organization, people you can count on to shoulder many of the projects through administrative or personnel management. There are many more “part time” SMOFS who run conventions certain years, or volunteer for huge jobs like Con Suite. Some of the cons call them different things, like AnimeIowa calls their SMOFS gym leaders. I don’t know why, but the idea is the same–people who work hard to pull off conventions.

As the president of the Mindbridge Board, in my state, I am seen as a super SMOF. Really, the power of the board president resides in making out the agenda for our monthly meetings, but the illusory power is that some people think I can make lasers come out of my eyes and fry people I dislike. Which I’ve never done. No, never. However, the board is the public face of Mindbridge, so we try to look like real business people. Which is hard when you are super geeks just out to have conventions to have a good time.

Because we wanted to be more involved in the convention planning scene, four of us from the board tried going to a con planning convention a few years back, and met more SMOFs, but we actually didn’t go back to the convention again, because we actually thought our systems for running cons were pretty good, and we’d gone to a lot of expense traveling to the convention without learning a lot that was new. So, we chat with other convention runners at their cons, and bring back good tips and trade ideas.

2. You lie. I have totally seen you do that laser-eye thing! Okay, that explains what a SMOF does, but what does “SMOF” actually mean?

The understood meaning of SMOF is Secret Masters of Fandom. This is meant to be both a joke and a badge. What SMOFs usually do is work hard to put on conventions. The organization and quality of a convention depends on the abilities and qualities of the SMOFs involved. I guess the status piece of being a SMOF is that you’re someone who knows the answers in a given system, and you are respected/revered for that knowledge.

So that explains the Master of Fandom part. What about the secret part? Well, you can take that a couple of ways. It could be a joke about a shadowy cabal that guides the destinies of various fans. I’ve heard it joked about that way. But really, in the case of our culture here in Iowa, it means unknown or even perhaps under-appreciated. Some people really kill themselves to put on these conventions, and they may not get recognition for it. Hence, secret.

3. As an outsider to SMOF culture, I assume it involves meetings at hidden temples, presumably with fancy robes and sacred chants as the puppetmasters plan out the future of fandom, bestow Hugo awards upon the favored few, and decide where Sean Bean’s character will be killed next. Is that about right?

I really, really, REALLY hate to disappoint you, Jim. You’re one of my favorite guys on the Internet, and I do want to say that we have rituals and funny hats and a secret handshake. Mindbridge does occasionally have a Geek themed food night, or gets together to see a movie, or fund Trek Fest when their town council won’t do it for one year, but I’ve never once got to bestow a Hugo.

I take the 5th on Sean Bean.

But really, what we do is run cons. We support the three cons that we have (Icon, AnimeIowa, and Gamicon). Our organization provides insurance and pays the taxes for all three cons. Additionally, we try to match people with interest in helping to volunteer, run and plan cons. And that’s what we do. Anyone who’s interested can help run our cons. And provided everyone stays civil, they are welcome in our organization.

So, we see ourselves as inclusive. We really try.

4. Diversity in fandom. Is it a problem? If so, how much power do you think conrunners have to change that problem?

Diversity in fandom is a problem. We in Iowa have recently been watching the Internet with great interest. Our state is also diversifying. We want our con to be welcoming and comfortable for all potential members. So, we already have have a sexual harassment statement for the cons, and we have a back up system for those who feel they are being harassed. Soon we will have an overall Mindbridge statement posted that will cover harassment for any reason and its consequences. We’re patterning it on the State of Iowa’s.

So, we’ll have the actual wording in place, but we can’t do much with just words. I imagine in future years we will work actively on getting diverse guests and trying to find ways to pull in fans of many backgrounds, races, religions and creeds. Interestingly, AnimeIowa already has a diverse population, but its fan base is younger than that of our other two cons. I don’t know what that says, but I do know that young people of every kind seem to come out for anime here. It’s our more traditional cons we gotta work on, and make no mistake, we need to be welcoming.

Iowa is kind of welcoming already, in its strange Iowa mind-your-own-business way. We were early adopters in terms of state laws about interracial and gay marriage. Icon has hosted two wedding ceremonies for gay couples in its history, complete with cake and party. I think if we can get the word out, and make others feel welcome, we can do even more things like this. Because we all like cake and inclusion.

5. I’ve talked to several conrunners who described a siege mentality, an Us vs. Them view of SMOFs in their castle while outsiders fling giant wooden rabbits at over the walls. Or something like that. Is this something you’ve experienced? Where do you think that mentality comes from, and what can we do about it?

Another thing that we’ve been watching from afar on the Internet is this siege mentality. I dunno. Two of our board members are women. Some of our strongest members are women. What we lack, as I look over our board are fans of color. As I look over the conventions I see a bit more variety, but we are still a predominately white fan base.

However, our idea is that we need more people of all kinds, not less. We need new people to come in and do things, because more sharing means lighter loads. We want to share our knowledge, not sequester it. And we want new ideas about how to do things. I think our biggest problem is getting people to want to come to Iowa, to be geeks in Iowa. People think Iowa is boring.

Is it, however, a good place to be a geek? I would say yes. The state has five cons. We get really awesome guests, and we are willing to listen to our memberships base and hear what they want. And we are ready to be inclusive, and take those steps. So to visit the earlier analogy, I guess we would hope for a Trojan Bunny with fans of all sorts to come inside and siege our convention, buying lots of memberships, and making us a better convention.

The question of where do I think this comes from? Well, dude, I’ve got an interdisciplinary degree in Second Language Writing, and part of my studies were in intercultural communication, so I could open a whole can of lecture boredom on you and blah on, but I’m going to concisely suggest this: people fear difference and feel that difference will diminish their unique place in the world. Fear of the unknown is perhaps one of the greatest motivations of human kind, and we have to constantly work on the baseness of those assumptions. And while that is a gross oversimplification of some complicated issues, a discussion about this is a great place to start.

Fandom isn’t going to get any better until we discuss difference and get over being intimidated by it. And it isn’t about asking your black friend to educate you. It’s about getting out there and educating yourself. There are conferences and resources all over this country where you can take an active role in working on white privilege, listening respectfully, all sorts of things. It might be a good idea to occasionally have some fandom tracks on it. Wiscon does this pretty effectively, and while I still want to have my panels about who is the best Star Trek Caption (Avery Brooks, hands down. He hit Q), if we’re trying to be a more inclusive fandom, we must boldly go where fandom has not gone before. You see what I did there? With the Star Trek and the…oh well, you get it, right?

6. A writer friend told me one of the first rules they learned was “Don’t piss off the SMOFs.” I managed to break that rule pretty well last week, pissing off a fair number of y’all. I think some good came of that, but I also suspect most of what people saw was a bunch of us with claws out and fur raised. Where should we look to see more of the good work being done toward inclusivity and diversity in the convention scene?

First of all, your friend is probably right. If you want to get invited to a particular convention, you don’t want to aggravate the people who run it. There are good reasons to disagree, but the outcome for writers can be that if you anger con runners, there will be fewer cons for you. Unless you are Harlan Ellison, for some inexplicable reason. Anyway, I think that by this time next year, you will have been Toastmaster at Icon three times on your way to your fourth, so you are going to have to work harder with us, Jim.

Secondly, I consider myself a SMOF, and I wasn’t pissed off. You were trying to open a discussion, and conclusions were jumped upon. The Internet, by the way, is never a good place to have a sensitive emotional discussion. Just saying. I think that the medium was more at fault than the message on both sides of the issue. I have to say things like that because I’m a professor and if I don’t, they make me pay royalties.

As a white woman living in the Midwest, I might not be the right person to answer the good work question. I can tell you what I perceive, given those parameters. I’m always going to hold up Wiscon as an example of inclusiveness. Many people will point to the controversial Elizabeth Moon decision to dis-invite Moon as a guest because of her anti-Arab remarks, but I would contend that that is one of the ways you know Wiscon feels a responsibility to its constituency to attempt inclusivity. You may say something crazy, like, “How dare you not tolerate intolerance!!!” To whit I’ll just be doing a face palm. You know. Black is white. Day is night. War is peace. Freedom is slavery. That kind of face palm.

One important lesson is Mad Eye Moody’s: Constant Vigilance. While I hold up Wiscon as an example, this year a harassment event on the part of a long term harasser was brought up online. The con handled it quite well, and the company the harasser worked for also handled it well. The important thing is that we need to watch out for these sorts of things constantly.
I’ve been to a lot of cons because I’m a woman of a certain age. I’ve experienced a gauntlet of good and bad. As an 18 year old dressed as Starfire (the one with almost no clothing, rather than Teen Titans Go!) I’ve been pinched by a pro and cornered by men. Comic cons. Not really a bastion of tolerance and inclusivity.

As a writer on panels, I’ve been impressed by the respect I’ve been given at Convergence. For example, I was the only woman on a Steed and Peel Avengers panel this year, and there was no mansplaining or speaking over me. Now, maybe that’s because I’m a professor and I’m loud, but I’d like to imagine the con atmosphere has something to do with it too.
There are cons deliberately designed for inclusivity, which I have not had the good fortune to attend yet. There’s Sirens. Or Diversicon. Or Think Galacticon. They’re out there.

But any con can be a place of inclusivity if we work hard at being inclusive. I think we have a lot more to celebrate by enjoying what each other enjoys and being geeks together, rather than drawing geek lines in the sand.

I don’t even know what a geek line is, but I think you catch the drift.