Writing professor who dedicated career to fandom, academia, dies at 63

Media Credit: Courtesy of Mikah Zaslow

Officials are considering establishing a student writing and research prize dedicated to Larsen.

Katherine Larsen, a teaching assistant professor in the University Writing Program, died earlier this month. She was 63.

Larsen joined GW in 1995, with faculty recalling her teaching about seven University Writing courses each year and interacting with more than 3,000 students during her tenure, according to officials. Larsen – a notable academic of fandom, which encompasses fans of media or people – was a founder and editor for the Journal of Fandom Studies, authored multiple books on the subject and regularly spoke at national conferences on the importance of fandom studies in higher education.

She was also a prominent supporter of labor rights for faculty and staff at GW, working to form the first part-time faculty union as an advocate and member of its bargaining committee nearly 15 years ago. Larsen also served on the Faculty Association steering committee and Contract Faculty Group, which specifically advocated for faculty without tenure status at GW.

Gordon Mantler, the executive director of the University Writing Program, said officials are considering establishing a student writing and research prize dedicated to Larsen. He said the talks are still preliminary, and officials are still trying to determine which students would be eligible to apply and what the focus of the award would be.

“Many of my memories of Kathy revolved around our shared conviction for greater equity at the University through our work together in GWUFA – she was a stalwart on the group’s steering committee for years,” he said in a statement.

Faculty and students who knew her said she was a dedicated scholar and faculty member who pushed her students to investigate less-explored academic topics in culture and media.

Abby Wilkerson, an associate professor of writing, said Larsen was a consistent advocate for her fellow colleagues and other faculty members. She said Larsen regularly criticized University policies that prevented or discouraged contingent or part-time faculty members from receiving promotions or serving in administrative positions.

“I’ll always be grateful for her tireless work on behalf of contingent faculty,” she said in a statement. “At that time, when the phrase ‘hotbed of union organizing’ was being applied to GW, the English Department in particular, another colleague did some digging and learned that over 60% of GW faculty had contingent positions then. That has changed, and Kathy played a big part in that.”

Wilkerson said Larsen was always a friendly face in the English Department and would give her colleagues personal and professional advice. She said Larsen would help with topics ranging from lesson plans to making bread with yeast.

“I said I’d be trying to get a sourdough starter going (my first time), and soon Kathy was cheerfully and concisely delivering an invaluable on-the-spot tutorial on the ways and means of sourdough,” she said. “Was there anything she couldn’t do, and do well?”

Heather Schell, an assistant professor of writing, said Larsen’s work had visible effects on the entertainment industry as she researched the viewer base of different media and television networks for a series of books she wrote on the topic. She said Larsen worked with the directors and leading actors of “Supernatural” – a dark fantasy television series – to shape the plots and references in the show and garnered academic respect for her focused area of study.

“Kathy and I regularly attended the same national conference, so I got to witness her star power in action many times,” she said in a statement. “We’d make plans to have dinner one night, and while walking to the restaurant, a number of enthusiastic colleagues would cluster around her, chatting animatedly and inveigling their way into the group.”

Schell said students and faculty would physically gravitate toward Larsen because of her friendly attitude and helpful demeanor.

“I’ve heard another professor refer to Kathy as their ‘acafandom hero,’” she said. “Almost all the fandom tchotchkes in her office were offerings from fans, fan studies colleagues and students.”

After Larsen’s passing, Gelman Library staff added her name and “Fangasm” – the title of her book about “Supernatural” and what fans will do to contact their favoring actors – to the search bar on the front page of their website to honor her research and time at GW.

Anna Connelly, a senior studying English and communications who took Larsen’s University Writing class as a freshman, said Larsen is one of the biggest reasons why she decided to work as a consultant at the Writing Center and continue her studies in the English Department.

“She’s definitely impacted how I go about interacting with pop culture and intertwining academic studies with that,” Connelly said. “But also, the path that she assisted me to get onto through the Writing Center has been really helpful, because after I came to the Writing Center, I’ve been able to get a lot of internships, and then after that I was able to actually get a job before I even graduated.”

Connelly said people who don’t see Fandom studies as a legitimate academic area of expertise often professionally “stigmatized” the topic without giving it much professional attention. But she said analyzing the media industry and its audience is a good way to teach students how to think and write critically.

“I think she was really great about encouraging students to lean into that instead of practicing this academic distance that we’re used to in a lot of other subjects,” she said. “So I think she was great at teaching us how to incorporate our own personal interests into – quote, unquote – ‘respectable fields of study.’”

Danika Myers, the director of the first-year writing program, said Larsen was a hardworking member of the University Writing Program and regularly helped other faculty develop their curriculums and shape lesson plans.

“She’d be sitting there, working on three projects at once, with an episode of Supernatural playing in the background on her computer, but she never acted like it was an imposition to help me think through a lesson plan or listen to me tell her a story about my kid because she had a generous heart,” she said.

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