From the website: In this course, together with three other specialists, Professor Niijima, Professor Takahashi and Professor Ohwada, we will explore girls comics, boys comics, the Hatsune Miku vocaloid, cosplay, and J-pop idols, focusing on the themes such as Love, Battle, Technology and Fan culture, in which you’ll learn about the different cultural creations that underpin Japanese subcultures. With materials for cultural analysis, you’ll develop a basic knowledge of key Japanese subcultures, learning the recognisable traits of each.
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Many (New York Times articles about fan fiction) described fanfiction authors as dedicated (Nussbaum 2003), but the specific language used to frame their “zealous” (Stelter 2008, 5) or “marginal obsessive” (Manly 2006, 1) behavior varied. The normalcy of fanfiction appeared largely dependent on the fan’s age. Adult fanfiction authors were portrayed as perverts playing out their media-inspired sexual fantasies (McGrath 1998; O’Connell 2005; Orr 2004), whereas children and adolescents used fanfiction as a creative form of literacy and self-expression (Aspan 2007; Kirkpatrick 2002; Salamon 2001).
Drew Emanuel Berkowitz, Framing the Future of Fanfiction: How The New York Times’ Portrayal of a Youth Media Subculture Influences Beliefs about Media Literacy Education, p203 ift.tt/1i2fPfg
Regular co-blogger Lisa Schmidt has posted two excellent reflections on teaching and fandom, and I thought that today might be the day to share some of my own. The course I taught this quarter was Introduction to Poetry, which sounds much more conventional and less potentially fan-friendly than Lisa’s Media and Society course, or, say, a course in the History of Audiences, or Transmedia Storytelling. But in fact, I find that I can relate better to her experiences this quarter than I was able to while teaching Reading Popular Culture. I have my suspicions about why this is so, and I hope that my reflections will be of interest to anyone who, like me, sees themselves not only at the intersection of academia and fandom, but also at the intersection of literary studies and media studies.
I tried to introduce fandom into my Reading Popular Culture course in several ways. The first time I taught it, I assigned Kim Deitch’s graphic novel, Alias the Cat!, which tells the story of the evolution of the mass media in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century in the United States from the perspective of a hardcore collector. I introduced students to Lostpedia. I assigned blog reviews of Dollhouse episodes alongside academic articles in order to start a conversation about the investments of different kinds of media critics. I got my point across, more often than not, but I was rarely able to feel a fannish energy in my classroom, outside of a few post-class one-on-one interactions. This experience is normal, as commenters on Lisa’s first post suggested, but it’s not satisfying. There was part of me that felt like I was giving away too much for too little reward — part of me that was disappointed that students who came in unimpressed by Twenty-First-Century storytelling left feeling the same, rather than having been called to critical practices that would help them find their rightful place within a more democratic interpretive landscape, one defined by fan practices.
I’m sure that those readers who are teachers can easily recognize what I’m describing as the standard utopianism of the newish instructor, but fortunately, I’ve finally started to find what I’d been looking for. In order to excite fannish energy, it turns out, one must alter a portion of the work of the course into creative production. Lisa describes in her first post the experience of showing an episode of fan favorite Supernatural, and then later, a Supernatural fanvid, but she remained disappointed until she asked students to create a fanwork for their final project. It doesn’t even have to be anything as significant as a final project, as I’ve learned this quarter, and it doesn’t have to be a fanwork. In Introduction to Poetry, I simply gave students the opportunity to write an imitative exercise once during the quarter, which would be worth 5% of their grade. Initially, I created this assignment because I thought that students who didn’t already love poetry might get into it more if they experienced the challenge of writing for themselves. And indeed, a complex form like a sestina or villanelle almost demands to be imitated — I even remember writing a (very bad) sonnet almost automatically in high school, because it seemed like the only logical way to take notes on Shakespeare. I even thought that students whose talents were in quantitative fields might be impressed by the mathematical demands of rhythm, and then produce poetry in spite of whatever shame is associated with articulating one’s feelings in verse.
However, while a few did take on these pseudo-mathematical tasks, more took on the task of writing in a famous poet’s voice, or drawing from their tactics, especially found poetry. Those who wrote in the voice of a poet revealed to me a depth of critical engagement I might have completely missed out on, had I tried to extrapolate it from their descriptive claims. Those who, inspired by Alice Walker and Hart Seely’s found poetry, proceeded to “find” their own poetry in documents addressed to them, inspired me to think about incorporating a found poetry assignment into any future writing course I teach, because I was so impressed by their clear senses of humor and subtlety. Part of what I’m describing is my own journey from being a lover of essayistic critique and meta first and foremost, and only then the fiction and art that share the same source material, into a more broad-minded thinker and fan. It would, of course, be inappropriate for me to convert an Introduction to Poetry course, whose major goal is to instruct students in tactics for reading poetry, into a creative writing course inadvertently. I am not qualified to teach creative writing courses, and there are plenty of people who are. However, I have been thoroughly convinced that at least part of what I’ve been looking for, in terms of inviting students into an exciting, multi-faceted contemporary reading landscape, can be attended to via targeted imitative exercises.
I’ve heard more and more about literature professors assigning fanfic or fanfic-like work to college students, although perhaps less often than I hear about media studies professors and Digital Composition specialists assigning remix projects that lend themselves to a comparison with fanvids. I think that it’s an exciting development, because, while it turns out that it’s difficult to impress people by just insisting that there is fandom, and it is intellectual and awesome (which it is!), it is easy to excite a certain fannish energy by inviting students to participate in creative tasks that reward their skill at capturing voices and filling gaps, without requiring the accompanying expository justification.
I’m very jealous of people who teach courses on fandom in which both come together somehow — courses in which there is time enough to explore the history and culture of fandom, as well as incorporate fannish critical and creative practices. But until I am given the opportunity to teach such a course, I will happily incorporate assignments that give students, as well as me, the instructor, a glimpse of the reading community that is made momentarily visible by an archive of creative responses to literature, enabled by the course website. It can even make grading momentarily feel like checking out a trusted friend’s latest fanwork recommendations.
Time to post! But I’m afraid that my brain is full of nothing but teacherly thoughts and I apologize for this. Once again, I am dwelling upon the challenge of bringing folks to acceptance of the fact that we are all fans. As some readers of this blog may remember, I set myself the task of teaching about fandom for the first time last semester. An entire course…but not a graduate or even upper level course. So there were limits to the depth of theorizing that could be accomplished.
Briefly put, there were times when I felt quite certain that I had made a mistake. I had endeavoured to get students to reason through things, to see what they have in common with those “other” people, the fans, the weird ones. I’m still not confident that I pulled it off. Some came in as fans and left as fans. Others…not so much.
But some amazing things happened towards the end of last semester. When I asked them to create a fanwork for their final project, there was love suddenly pouring out of them. Not all, of course. There were still a few resistant ones, but most of them astonished me. One girl painted a large, elaborate image based on the television show V. If I ever needed proof that every text has a fan community around it…! Some kids made their first fanvids. Others did animations. One kid brought me a painted skateboard covered in images from his favourite bands.
In short, I was amazed by the degree of creativity and passion these kids could bring to a project. And it seemed to confirm what people like Henry Jenkins have been writing about participatory culture. He/they have been arguing that people, particularly youth, are increasingly accustomed to living their creative lives through media. Media are the matter and the tools that surround us, and we use them in the same way that someone generations ago would pick up a stick and whittle something out of it.
On the whole, I must say it was a rewarding experience. Well, it had better be, because tomorrow I begin teaching the same course again…to three more sections of 40 students each. I know one thing I have learned: keep the fanwork assignment, and make it earlier in the semester so these young fanlings can share and enjoy each other’s works!
Most fans know how it feels to contemplate sharing their fandom with the outside world. You dwell, you ponder, you cogitate and you finally decide that you are not gonna hide, dammit! You are gonna fly your geek flag, because this is important to you and you have nothing to be ashamed of. (Or maybe you decide for very good reasons not to reveal yourself, but let’s assume otherwise for the purposes of the moment).
So you “come out” to someone. You tell them about your love. You explain all the ways that you express your love and you brace yourself for judgment. You are ready with your arguments: You do know the difference between fantasy and reality. You do have a life. You are a contributing member of society and it isn’t just a tv show/movie/book/game, it brings you meaning and pleasure and friendship. It allows you to express parts of yourself that wouldn’t see the light of day otherwise.
Except, to your surprise, the judgment doesn’t come. You get vague, puzzled expressions and shrugs but little more, and you leave the encounter feeling oddly disappointed and maybe just a tad uncomfortable, as though you just tried to write a really cracky crossover fic and the characters just refused to exist in each other’s worlds.
Bringing fandom into the classroom is a lot like this – except entirely different.
I write on this topic today in the genuine hope that other acafen might have wisdom to impart. You see, I just finished teaching an introductory level course called Media and Society. On the whole, it was a great experience. The students were engaged and talkative. They were full of opinions, so I imagined that when we got to the section on fandom there would be a plethora of exciting conversation. Some might react, others would challenge the reactions…. or if not, I would intervene gently but firmly. Perhaps some would admit to being fans themselves, even talk about their own transformative works. We would debate whether or not fans are harmless, folksy innovators or the dupes of capitalism. If nothings else, we would have fun. I brought to class some great examples of fan vids, fan films, machinima, fan art. I told them about slash, yaoi, hurt/comfort, and I waited for the questions.
The party was a bust. Just as with my more generic revelation fantasies, I got silence and blank faces. There were the occasional giggles and expressions of shock but otherwise the galvanizing encounter that I had expected did not materialize. (I did have a bunch of athletes in the class who quite willingly owned up to being sports fans, but in this sport-centric society who would feel the need to hide it?) At the very least I expected the subject of slash to inspire curiosity or outrage – but no. The void I that I contemplated in response to slash was particularly gaping.
The way I see it, there are four possible explanations for this.
One: I was too obvious and the students didn’t want to risk getting on my bad side. Now, I did not make a secret of the fact that I am myself a fan, but I did not name outright my fandom, nor did I tell them that I have written fanfic and slash. Still, they may have been able to figure it out. I did show an excerpt from an episode of Supernatural and followed it up later with a Supernatural fanvid. But this only made sense, didn’t it? I had discovered early on that I could make no assumptions about them having seen any show or film, regardless of its popularity, and if I was going to show a vid then they ideally needed some context for it. It’s not like it was all-Supernatural-all-the-time. In fact, I thought I had done a good job of being not-too-overly-enthusiastic when I mentioned the show, using it as just one (very apt) example of what Sharon Marie Ross has called “participatory viewing”.
However, it is entirely possible that I was not as inscrutable as I had hoped.
Two: I was not obvious enough. In my desire to not seem too partial, to have a balanced dialogue about fandom, perhaps I undersold fandom. I did not express how I adore the unquenchable, idiosyncratic, joyful creativity of fans. I did not manage to make my students understand the depth of feeling that we fans invest in our loved objects, how strange yet ordinary that emotion, how necessary and yet how secret. And even though I touched on the gender divide in fandom, I did not adequately convey my wonder at women all over the world turning media to our own purposes the way that we do. I did not advance any arguments about slash being more than just gay sex. Perhaps I should have told them how slash is so much more than dirty stories, how it is an entire woman’s genre built from our desires and fantasies – exciting, mundane, cute, sentimental, passionate, sometime violent.
Maybe I failed in all this because still, after everything, there is something about fandom that is embarrassing to me. I don’t care if people know that I read and write sexy man-on-man stories but I do mind people knowing about all the sentiment. There is something squirmful about the fact that I need a fix of emotional goop every day. Even if I know cognitively that there is nothing wrong with it, I still find it hard to face the discomfited sniggers when displaying a piece of fan art that depicts excessive tenderness between two naked male characters.
Third: Fandom is no big deal. Maybe these kids are just too accustomed to the idea that people are entitled to their pleasure as some inalienable right. Maybe they secretly think “Yeah, total geek…but hey, to each his own” along with “I like my shows/games/movies too. I’m not going to wear a costume though…I’m not a fan like that.” Maybe they figure there’s nothing much to argue about and that, again, would be my failure.
Fourth: Now I’m going to make a confession. I’m exaggerating a bit. My students did ask some questions. There was even a group of four or so who stayed after class one day (I had just shown the first 30 minutes of Trekkies), to argue about the meaningfulness of fandom relationships and the ethical implications of spending thousands of dollars on collectibles. It was an energetic, intellectually satisfying discussion that we never had the chance to resume. I had hoped to pick it up in class but the same students didn’t seem interested anymore. So I was disappointed, and that just may be my problem. It is possible that the “fan” in “acafan” will never be able to find the experience of teaching fandom satisfying, either because her students are not fans and don’t quite get it, or because her students are fans and they do get it but, like her, they aren’t willing to expose their quivering, emotional, fannish self. Perhaps there must always be a limit on how much of the fannish experience she can reveal, not because there is anything inherently wrong about what she does and feels and believes but because it will simply never translate into the classroom.
Am I once again being the idealist, comparing my imagined experience with reality and finding reality wanting? And wouldn’t that just be typical of me.