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.

[META] Bringing Fandom to the Classroom
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8 thoughts on “[META] Bringing Fandom to the Classroom

  • 29/07/2011 at 20:57

    Hey Lisa,

    This is a great post, and kudos about being so open about your expectations and sense of failure here (I would argue that you didn’t fail in the slightest, but I totally relate to that crushed “why aren’t they more engaged with this?!” feeling when material you’re passionate about doesn’t quite rouse the students like you’d expect).

    Don’t know if you saw this, but I posted about an exercise I did with my fan studies class that might be of interest to you:

    I am coming at this from a slightly different angle, because I’ve had the luxury of teaching whole courses on fandom, and accordingly I don’t feel like I’ve won/lost based on one class session. I have done many a one-shot lecture on fandom though, so I am well aware of some of the issues you address above, and all of the explanations you suggest are viable problems that I’ve faced as well.

    For the most part, I’ve found students to be more receptive when I’ve prefaced the topic by “outing” myself as a fan. Granted, my own fan identity tends to slant more towards fanboyish “acceptable” modes of engagement, but I think it’s important to be up front about the “fan” quotient of our identity as acafen.

    I’ve also found that framing the class around affirmational vs. transformative modes of fan production, and collaborationist vs. prohibitionist responses to fans by the industry, really helps students contextualize slash vids and fanfic. You’ll always get the few student who snicker uncomfortably. But maybe (like I have) you’ll also get a few male students who are really fascinated by the ideas you’ve introduced and write term papers on slashing as a fan practice!

    Ultimately, I think this all comes down to the concept of resistance: debates around its continued significance to fan studies, and to fans (or, students, in this case) themselves.

  • 29/07/2011 at 21:27

    I love this post! I always come out as a fan (like you, it’s pretty obvious what my number one fandom is, although obvs I don’t tell them where I hang out online or anything), and I always get that awesome core group who chats after class, and blank stares from the rest. But isn’t that the spirit of the thing? If everyone recognized themselves in what you were talking about in your third part, fandom would lose its definitional edge, its worthiness as a subcultural sphere filled with rare intensities of critical energy, and its differentiation from cultural consumption. Fandom, for me, is about intense connections and braintwin experiences — if I found them everywhere, I’d never get anywhere, because I’d be having too much fun walking down the street :).

    • 29/07/2011 at 22:14

      That is very true, now that you mention it. I wouldn’t want everyone to be on the same page, even if everyone in the class was a fan of something. There are lots of ways to be a fan, right? But, like you, my way is about obsession and intensity.

      Thank you for the comment!

  • 30/07/2011 at 20:39

    As a fellow college teacher, I think four students who are self confessed fans who can take the discussion in the way you hoped it would go is about right.

    I think the rest of the students were just not that into it! They are fans, but of other things — sports, or a band, or whatnot.

    I think when we live in our fannish or fanficcish circles, it’s easy to overestimate how many “closet” fans there are — fans in the media fandom, vidding, or fanfic type of fandom, I mean.

    I’ve taught college writing for ten years now, and in that period of time I’ve had one student (female) who freely admitted to writing fanfic and posting it on I’ve had five other students who were diehard fans of shows or books or comics (three men, two women) in the way that you and I understand “being fannish,” and one of the four of them actually had a livejournal.

    In “real life” I’ve run into two other people, not students, by chance, who are into fanfic or fanfic erotica.

    So I don’t think any of your four reasons are ‘it.’ I think “our sort” of fans are just a small subset of Everyone. And to think you found your four! That’s wonderful!

    • 30/07/2011 at 21:55

      Oh, the four students weren’t fans per se…just people interested in talking about the subject. I don’t necessarily want everyone to admit to being a fan. I just wanted them to be interested!

  • 31/07/2011 at 06:05

    As a college student until very recently, I can suggest a couple more options as to why the students were quiet. I know that if I were in the class I would be starting up and responding too discussion of fandom, but I’d also be afraid to steer that discussion to far into one direction. Say I’m interested in hurt/comfort– if I get an acafan professor to discuss that specific type of fanfic, that’s great, but I also understand that it will probably involve terminology and assumptions that most of the classroom won’t get. That sort of thing would be better for an after-class discussion.

    It’s also possible it was just an off day. Your students were tired of the heat or hadn’t had enough coffee yet. Keep up trying to inject your passion into your lessons. You’ve got one reader who wishes she was in your class!

  • 01/08/2011 at 15:00

    My own suspicion, from the Asian studies and anime/manga/manhwa/East Asian fandoms side, is that a lot of people just aren’t interested, and the reasons for that are a whole other class discussion. But there’s a reason ‘fan’ is derived from ‘phanatic,’ y’know?

    Someone in fandom asked me once what I thought fandom was; one of the things I said then, and still believe, is that it’s a worldview. And by definition, it’s an uncommon–if by no means limited or new–one.

    • 30/09/2011 at 18:53

      Coming to this discussion two months later (because now that the semester has started for me I’m thinking about this more), Andrea’s suspicion here is borne out by my own experience. I get the feeling that while each of my students has something they are fanatic about, this thing we call “fandom” is of minimal interest to most of them. Given their age and interests, I suspect that many of them have read and probably even written a certain amount of fanfic, and yet I don’t think any of them would register themselves as being in “fandom”.

      … Possibly except for the ones that are talking about going to Harry Potter conventions. But even then, the label “fandom” that is often used in TWC-style conversations doesn’t seem to apply very well to their experiences. It’s more book/media fandom writ large.

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