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.