The new issue of Transformative Works and Cultures almost here, and I can’t wait to check out the content on transformative works and fan activism. It’s such an important topic, and one that’s bound to generate some energy from readers moved by direct action. However, while we wait for June 15th, I thought I’d share how valuable I’ve found the Fan/Remix Video issue, and how much I want to encourage readers to check it out. In fact, I can’t imagine a better place to start for a reader who’s new to academic writing than the editorial introduction to the issue, by Julie Levin Russo and Francesca Coppa, which, above all, showcases the pleasures of incorporating embedded video and images into academic writing. I’d recommend that any skeptical reader start by watching one of the videos that first draws her attention, and then locate what else on the page might contextualize that experience. The issue is really an art museum. At an art museum, one quickly realizes that he can’t read every description of every piece and experience them all as well, at least not within the short time he’s got to spend there. Personally, I always prefer to follow my instincts and find what moves me, even if it means I end up confused about whether the one with all the dark shadows was supposed to be about religion or not. I’m much more comfortable revealing this non-linear preference now than I would have been when I started graduate school in 2006. What changed me was teaching, and specifically, teaching in classrooms with excellent technological capabilities, which have enabled me to incorporate streaming video into almost every class I have taught. Streaming video has undoubtedly been the most helpful pedagogical aid I have found over the past five years. I started teaching in 2007, and the first thing I learned as I got to know my students was that it’s important to present information in as many different ways as possible. Everybody learns differently, and, while some do respond strongly to written texts, a lot of people do not. I had thought of my writing class as “an English class,” which, like the English classes I’d taken in college, would consist mostly of reading (literary) texts, analyzing them, and then writing papers about them. I had never really thought to question what a paper was, because it seemed to me that it was “between four and five pages,” primarily. Although my private approach to art, literature, and, of course, online fandom, was one of searching, skimming, and skipping, I’d been in school long enough to understand that my writing should disguise this fact. When I wrote about a quotation from a novel, for example, I should not reveal that I was drawn to it because it revealed the author’s secret attitude toward women, or that I had found it because I’d been looking for a new quotation for my AOL Instant Messenger profile. Instead, I was expected to claim that the quotation was clearly central to the novel, and that it would reveal itself as such to any careful reader. When I transitioned from student to teacher, I realized that I would have to find a way to explain to my students what was expected of them, in terms of reading and writing, without being hypocritical. So at first, I assigned text after text. A poem about the experience of being away from home, that’ll strike a universal chord! It did not, at least not universally. An essay about learning curves, which will inspire self-reflection on learning styles. Yes! No. The texts did inspire discussion, of course. Students are kind-hearted people who take pity on their graduate student teachers, and also, a good portion of them have the background and natural curiosity in the humanities to succeed in most contexts. But I could tell that some students simply did not feel spoken to by the material, and I knew that it was not simply a lack of interest in academic success on their part. I needed to introduce something new, and fortunately, because this was 2007, and I had a computer in my classroom, I settled on YouTube. After all, the way I bonded with my friends much of the time was by sharing a 3-5 minute video about an issue that moved us, and then discussing it, or responding with a video on a related topic. Why not try to bring that dynamic to the classroom? To be clear, I’m writing this under the assumption that the practice is much more common in composition and other kinds of classrooms now, so don’t take my rhetorical questions as though they represent actual expert advice. For that, see Table 1 in Russo and Coppa’s article, which offers a selective overview of whole university courses devoted to remix and related practices. These courses undoubtedly represent a much more sophisticated approach to teaching with digital media, as compared with my “have you guys heard about this?” approach. Even so, I maintain that there was value to my approach even when it was best described under the latter category, before I understood how important it was to keep my desire to tell people about everything interesting, contained. And that is how simple my argument in this post is. The Fan/Remix Video issue of TWC is simply inviting in a way that not every issue of an academic journal proves to be. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon than watching every video discussed in Elisa Kreisinger’s piece, “Queer video remix and LGBTQ online communities.” I’d be amazed if anyone did this and was not moved to read the author’s notes and analysis, because these videos demand further engagement, and the article acts as an instant interlocutor. Web video, especially remix video, is as powerful for many of us as poetry is for, well, fewer of us, and this issue offers a great array of examples and reasons why. I take Andrea Horbinski’s intervention into the issue’s place within fan studies seriously, and I think that, for those of us who are committed to the central issues she raises, her post should be required reading. At the same time, I think that, for a reader wondering what academic writing might look like if it spoke about her life on the internet in the 21st Century, she might be pleasantly taken in by it. Since 2007, my goal in teaching has changed from “give them the same things I was given, because then they will follow the same path of inspiration” to “give them as much good stuff as possible, in as many different ways as possible, in hopes that something excites their intellect or desire.” Similarly, my take on this issue is, “I’d never seen that one before! People are amazing.”
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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.