“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…”: Fandom, Learning and the Future of Higher Education
Josh Stenger, Wheaton College (Massachusetts)

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

‘We can be heroes’: First-Year Students Cosplaying at Rhode Island Comic Con

In two recent articles for Flow, I’ve attempted to make the case that as colleges and universities take up the hard but exciting work of transforming higher education for the twenty-first century, fan studies offers a useful model for many areas of the academy that have begun to think seriously about alternatives to certain structures and practices long considered to be irradicable. This view derives in large part from the basic fact that, like most academic fields with comparably complex genealogies, fan studies exists despite rather than because of the entrenched institutional practice of organizing knowledge – and with it, curricula, research opportunities, and staffing decisions – in primarily disciplinary terms.

Obviously we want our students to acquire knowledge, and to develop skills, competencies, and ethics that prepare them not just for the classroom or the workplace, but for the world they will go on to shape. Perhaps there are some scenarios in which this is accomplished more effectively by fostering students’ disciplinary expertise than their intellectual curiosity and ability (to learn how) to learn, but I confess none come immediately to mind. Which brings me to the focus of this, the third and final installment of my short treatise on fan studies and higher education: namely, that participatory fandom is legible as a mode of integrative, often autonomous learning, one that presents higher education with a sui generis opportunity to help undergraduates identify the skills and habits of mind they have already developed as fans, then strengthen and apply these in intentional, edifying ways in more traditional academic settings.

screenshot of a tweet by Josh Stenger. The tweet reads “During one on one meetings with students in my first year seminar on #fandom: Student X: I’m not really a “fan” but I’m psyched we’re going to Rhode Island comic so I can wear my chain mail body armor, hemet and broadsword from #Merlin. Me: Let me stop you right there. . .

“I’m not really a ‘fan’, but . . .”



LARP: Learning As Role Playing

The Twitter exchange pictured in the screenshot above took place the day before the start of a first year seminar I taught last Fall called Fan Communities and Creations. It perfectly (and quite charmingly) anticipated a conversation I planned to have with the class the following day and that I suspect virtually everyone who teaches a course or a unit on fandom has with theirs, in some form or other, early on: What does it actually mean to be a “fan”? Working toward an answer to this question allows us to begin drawing links between fandom and fan studies, in part by identifying ways to close the distance between the affect commonly associated with young people’s media consumption and the intellect typically associated with higher education. To get the ball rolling rarely requires more than pointing out that seemingly simple questions often have very complex answers, and then asking, again, “What does it mean to be a fan?”

Screenshot of Video Autoethnography on Fan identity. Star Wars opening scroll with the text in yellow over a black background. The text reads: Yo! My name’s Sammy, and as you can probably tell, this is going to be about my identity as a fan of Star Wars. While I still consider myself a fan of shows like “Game of Thrones: or “Breaking Bad”, Star Wars . . .

Video Autoethnography on Fan identity

This is also an opportunity to have a discussion about the labels and/or roles with which we identify (or from which we distance ourselves), and how and why they matter. Here, the question becomes “What does it mean to be a fan?” This is a worthwhile conversation in any undergraduate fan studies course, but especially so in a room full of first-semester, first-year students on the first day of class. Before the conversation moves too far away from roles and role-playing, I ask everyone to consider what, if anything, might change – for them, for others – if they thought of themselves not as “students”, but as “learners”, especially if we stipulate the following:

Students study. Learners learn.
Students have teachers. Learners learn.
Students attend classes and schools. Learners learn.
Students write essays and take exams. Learners learn.
Students pass and fail. Learners learn.
Students graduate. Learners learn.

This exercise is not meant to besmirch being a student, but to make visible the fact that whereas learning can be undertaken somewhat autonomously, a student’s relationship to knowledge is impacted and arguably circumscribed by multiple, often mutually reinforcing factors. Thus, being a student does not necessarily prepare one to be a strong learner, but being a learner will very likely prepare one to be a strong student. Nevertheless, undergraduates seem firmly attached to their student identities, and just as reluctant to identify as learners.

It occurs to me that this dynamic may in fact be homologous to the one that I believe motivated my student to make clear that she was “not a ‘fan’” only to immediately (and unselfconsciously) enthuse about the chance to don her Merlin-inspired chain mail body armor, battle helmet and broadsword. Why reject the “fan” label one minute then embrace the accoutrements of fandom the next? Was it because she could disappear into the latter but had to declare and own the former? Was it because wearing chain mail was ‘just’ cosplay but being a fan was an identity?

My sense is that there is a strong but misunderstood parallel here with respect to considering oneself a “student” or a “learner”. The educational system and its institutions, to say nothing of the popular culture, have so thoroughly naturalized the role of “student” for young adults that by the time they arrive to college, it is almost inconceivable that they could be anything else. If they are students IRL, learning becomes relegated to a kind of role-playing, a very different version of LARP. Unfortunately, this is quite backwards. Students are students within an academic context, yes, but what about when they are interns, employees, athletes, tutors, friends, partners, parents, and so on? There is ample room in all of these roles to be a learner, though, just as one can be a fan regardless of what book one is reading or what show one is watching.

Learners and fans have much in common, beginning with the decision to identify as such. Unlike being a student or a consumer, to identify as a learner or a fan is to name oneself rather than be named. Whether or not it registers as such immediately, it is also an assertion of agency, one that both requires and reflects a degree of self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It is a declaration of intellectual curiosity as well as of a desire and capacity to become autodidactic. It is an acknowledgement that every person has a right to make meaning, and to access and produce knowledge. And as the closing section below illustrates, it has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not one is enrolled in a college or university.


#FanWorksTaughtMe

In mid-June 2015, anxious that a Congressional review of U.S. copyright laws might result in changes that would have a chilling effect on fanworks, The Harry Potter Alliance took preemptive action in the form of Fan Works Are Fair Use. During the weeks that followed, groups such as the Organization for Transformative Works and the Supernatural Wiki expressed their solidarity, promoting the campaign at the San Diego Comic Con and providing signal boosts on social media.

Image of a Fanworks are fair use promotional card. The text on the blue and yellow card reads:

Introducing Fan Works Are Fair Use at San Diego Comic Con

Rather than rely solely on the name of the campaign, organizers of Fan Works Are Fair Use encouraged online supporters to “[show] the world how valuable fanworks are by using the hashtag #FanWorksTaughtMe.” At first glance, one might read the wording here as counter-intuitive insofar as it emphasized personal anecdote over organized action. To do so, however, would be to overlook the way in which #FanWorksTaughtMe strategically drew together the individual (‘me’) and the collective (‘fanworks’, and by extension those who create them). Crucially, the relationship between them is structured not around the former’s affective attachment to the latter, but rather around their shared investment in and respect for the kind of informal education that regularly takes place within fandoms but that is rarely valued in traditional academic settings.

A Twitter search for tweets using the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag produced fewer than 300 results.[ ((This number reflects the results of a Twitter search executed in May 2019 for tweets published during the Fan Works Are Fair Use campaign (roughly mid-2015 through early 2016). It will not include any tweets posted by users who have removed their accounts or changed their Twitter handles, and thus the number of tweets returned by the search is virtually certain to be lower than the actual number of tweets that made of use of the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag.))] This is a modest number, to be sure, yet more than large enough to reflect a wide range of focus, voice, and even ostensible purpose and perceived audience. In tweet after tweet, users credit fanworks with teaching them to be a documentary filmmaker, a community organizer, a podcaster, a musician, to build worlds and share them, to give and take criticism with grace, to persevere, to respect others even in the absence of understanding them, that their stories and voices matter, that they are not alone, that their credentials don’t necessarily reflect their potential. The list goes on.

Voice bubbles with some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag. The bubbles read: 1. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think of scenes with different angles, tones, POVs, universes – to both demolish and salute a story’s sanctity. 2. #FanWorksTaughtMe that I don’t have to be passive. I can have a voice. I can be audience and the creator. 3. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to critically analyze narratives. Actively reimagining how stories were told helped me reimagine the real world. 4. #FanWorksTaughtMe how to edit and how to be edited. 5. #FanWorksTaughtMe that underserves markets serve themselves . 6. #FanWorksTaughtMe to think outside the box and to write the “what ifs.” 7. #FanWorksTaughtMe English as a second language, how to tell stories and write beautiful texts, how to be a community organizer.

Some of the voices on the #FanWorksTaughtMe hashtag

Diverse as they are, the individual voices in this conversation give rise to a unified and unifying message, one that celebrates creativity; defends individuals’ right to create, and thus to make, transform, and question meaning; and that attributes their respective and collective knowledge not to a college education, but to fans, fandom, and fanworks. In this, they recall Claire Pentecost’s concept of the artist as Public Amateur, someone who “learns outside the circuits of professional normalization and reward,” and who embodies

[…] a proposition of active social participation in which any non-specialist is empowered to take the initiative to question something within a given discipline, acquire knowledge in a non-institutionally sanctioned way, and assume the authority to interpret that knowledge, especially in regard to decisions that affect our lives.[ ((Claire Pentecost, The Public Amateur, https://publicamateur.wordpress.com/about/ [n.d.].00))]

Like Lawrence Lessig’s discussion of read/write culture,[ ((Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), chapters 1 and 4.))] and Henry Jenkins’s application of collective intelligence and popular epistemologies,[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), chapter 1.))], Pentecost’s construct of the public amateur serves as yet another potent reminder of the growing importance of informal knowledge networks.

As higher education contemplates ways to coexist with these networks and how to implement the inevitable shift in undergraduate education away from a focus on disciplinary expertise and toward more dynamic and integrative forms of learning, it would do well to keep fans and fandom in mind. Consider, for instance, that although they may not always think of their fannish behavior in these terms, fans tend to have strong online research skills; know how to differentiate between primary and secondary sources; are able to evaluate the reliability of information they encounter; regularly produce close, critical readings of texts; participate actively in online knowledge and affinity communities; and are prolific creators and sharers of digital content and transformative works. And that’s often before they even get to college. Imagine if, once there, their institution valued and helped to strengthen these skills rather than dismiss them as undisciplined, or inadequately disciplinary.

Image Credits:

1. Rhode Island Comic Con (Nov. 3, 2018); photograph by author
2. “I’m not really a ‘fan’, but…” via Twitter; author’s screenshot
3. Still of first-year student’s video autoethnography on fan identity; author’s screenshot
4. Image via Twitter user @TheHPAlliance (July 9, 2015)
5. #FanWorksTaughtMe tweets via Twitter; collage by author.

Please feel free to comment.




Undisciplined and Beyond Content: Teaching Fan Studies to the Academy
Josh Stenger / Wheaton College (Massachusetts)


Supernatural

Fanon Meets Canon: Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S 10, e05, November 11, 2014)

In a recent piece for Flow, I drew what may initially seem an unlikely connection between fans, fan studies and Cathy Davidson’s timely and compelling call for the reinvention of American higher education in order “to prepare students for a world in flux.”[ ((Cathy N Davidson. The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017).))] More specifically, I made the case that fan studies enacts several efficacious ways of working toward this goal, and has a meaningful role to play in helping colleges and universities to reexamine, perhaps even relinquish, some of the entrenched norms and practices that tend, however unintentionally, to hinder curricular innovation, pedagogical experimentation, and/or institutional reorganization.

To be fair, the scope of the important work that must be undertaken inside higher education is such that the ideas, input, and participation of each and every academic discipline, department, and program of study will be crucial. Insofar as this is the case, fan studies may seem an unlikely candidate to single out for inspiration or direction. After all, it’s not a discipline, but an interdisciplinary field of study shaped by other interdisciplinary fields of study such as cultural studies, film studies, media studies, and the like. In part because of its genealogy, one needn’t spend time looking a Department of Fan Studies or even a fan studies major on any college or university campus; there are none. However counterintuitive it may seem, though, these are also among the reasons fan studies can serve as a model for change within higher education generally, and within academic disciplines, departments, majors, and learning spaces more specifically.

Historically, the academy has categorized knowledge by discipline. There were and are compelling reasons to do so, but this has never been a purely epistemological distinction. On the contrary, it has significant pedagogical and methodological ramifications as well, effectively circumscribing what, when, where, how, and from whom students learn. Such an approach is increasingly, at times glaringly, antithetical to how people actually encounter, acquire, use, and transmit knowledge in the so-called “real world”. The problem is compounded by the fact that the academy has, by turns, either actively promoted or passively tolerated an erroneous equivalency between disciplinary expertise and the mastery of specialized content qua knowledge. This has left it rather clumsily positioned to explain the value of higher education in a world in which anyone with an Internet connection can easily and freely access more content than they could hope to read, view, or listen to in a single lifetime.

In what follows, I continue to make the case that although it is not alone either in facilitating change within higher education or in preparing undergraduates for academic and/or professional success, fan studies offers the academy a unique example of active, distributed, and integrative learning through an approach I describe, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, as undisciplined and beyond content.

To call a fan studies approach to learning “undisciplined” is not to suggest that it lacks rigor, but rather to note that within the context of most fan studies courses, classrooms, assignments, materials, etc., rigor has nothing to do with the ability to recall accurately an arbitrary body of information, as one might in a Vulcan “skill dome”. Rigor may, but certainly need not be demonstrated through the mastery of discipline-specific knowledge. An “undisciplined” approach to learning leaves room for but is not reducible to disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity, and in the undergraduate fan studies classroom, it allows students to engage in forms of academic rigor and to develop identities as intellectuals that needn’t conform to or demonstrate mastery of established disciplinary conventions and/or boundaries.

Vulcan skill dome

Not disciplinary, but disciplined: The Vulcan Learning Center’s “skill domes” in Star Trek (2009)

This concept of “undisciplined” learning merits a conversation with students. It not only invites them to reflect on the fact that “discipline” and “disciplinary” mobilize dual meanings – a branch of knowledge along one register, a form of punitive or corrective action along another – but to consider the ways academic institutions rely on the latter to enforce the former, as in the ubiquitous ‘checklist’ of major and general education requirements that structure discipline-based pathways students must take through the curriculum to earn a diploma. In my experience, once students begin to recognize some of the ways in which their relationship to knowledge and learning has been, is, and is expected to be “disciplined”, they often become intentionally and actively “undisciplined” in ways that make them more agile, provocative, and syncretic thinkers. This may not be a desirable outcome in all areas of study, granted, but it surely is in many, if not most.

One of the most daunting yet rewarding aspects of teaching fan studies is that unless the course topic is atypically specific, there is little to no chance for any one person – perhaps the instructor least of all – to match the aggregate knowledge that students bring to the table. Further, each student brings their own expertise and distinct form of fannishness to the room, all but ensuring there is no substantial body of shared prior knowledge. Add to this that time constraints make watching or reading an entire series or franchise, much less studying an entire fandom, a logistical impossibility. In each of these ways, we might say that the fan studies classroom exists in a realm beyond content. This is not a realm without content, but rather one with so much that whatever content does make it into the syllabus functions primarily as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. Put differently, the focus quickly moves away from the content and toward the students’ ability to develop and/or strengthen skills and strategies that will enable them to responsibly and efficiently locate, identify, organize, summarize, synthesize, analyze, interrogate, and transform content. Within the learning space of a fan studies class, it is a virtual certainty that students will bring these skills and strategies to bear on specific content and in specific ways based less on what is important to a discipline and more on what is important to them and their learning.

description of image

Keanu Reeves’s Neo “learning” kung fu in The Matrix (1999)

Lurking just beneath the surface of every conversation in the fan studies classroom is an unfathomable volume of media content and fannish knowledge. There is little value in expecting each student to ever know what other students know, but there is tremendous value in students learning (to learn) from their classmates in purposeful, intentional ways. We may not be able to download ‘knowledge’ directly into our brains a la The Matrix (1999); however, we absolutely can leverage the community’s collective intelligence to everyone’s benefit.

The concept of collective intelligence has enjoyed considerable purchase since the advent of Web 2.0.[ ((See Tim O’Reilly, “What is Web 2.0? Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software” (Sept. 30, 2005, https://mediaedu.typepad.com/info_society/files/web2.pdf)))] It is, however, worth taking a moment to recall how Pierre Lévy first defined it:

What is collective intelligence? It is a form of universally distributed intelligence, constantly enhanced, coordinated in real time, and resulting in the effective mobilization of skills. I’ll add the following indispensable characteristic to this definition: The basis and goal of collective intelligence is the mutual recognition and enrichment of individuals rather than the cult of fetishized or hypostatized communities.”[ ((Pierre Lévy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York: Helix Books, 1997), 13.))]

Lévy envisions collective intelligence not as an abstraction, but as a real and potentially emancipatory humanizing force. He does not lament the impossibility of knowing everything; he celebrates it as the basis for individuality, and as the impetus for a model of community that enriches its own knowledge by enriching others’. This is distinctly at odds with what Peter Walsh identifies as the “expert paradigm.” Henry Jenkins explains the tension between these two views of knowledge by noting that “the expert paradigm requires a bounded body of knowledge, which an individual can master. The types of questions that thrive in a collective intelligence, however, are open ended and profoundly interdisciplinary.”[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 52.))]

The expert paradigm is, for all intents and purposes, the academy’s paradigm: in addition to emphasizing “bounded bodies of knowledge;” both use those boundaries to distinguish between who is inside and outside of the knowledge community; both endow disciplines with the authority to determine what counts as legitimate knowledge, as well as to enforce protocols for how it is acquired and shared; and finally, both emphasize the importance of credentials to verify one’s expertise.[ ((Jenkins, Convergence Culture, 53-54.))] It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that both of these seem increasingly out of step in a world full of smart, engaged, and engaging ‘amateurs’ who create original content and knowledge, then share it freely with anyone interested.

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Amateur Hour: College student, film major, YouTuber, and Wayward Daughter Alana King

Fan studies does not eschew the value or importance of expertise outright, but neither does it consider expertise to be the only form of valuable knowledge. By inviting students to create knowledge that is meaningful to them and others rather than requiring students to demonstrate competency in a subject area, I would argue that those who teach fan studies model a reality that many in higher education seem reluctant to acknowledge: namely, that our value is not defined by disciplinary expertise, but by a relationship to learning that we inculcate in our students. By doing this in learning spaces that are undisciplined and beyond content, moreover, fan studies offers one example (for surely there are others) of a “new kind of teaching” that Cathy Davidson sees as crucial to the future of higher education, “one that focuses on learning how to learn – the single most important skill anyone can master.”[ ((Davidson, The New Education, 14.))]

Image Credits:
1. Supernatural, “Fan Fiction” (S10, e05, November 11, 2014), author’s screenshot
2. Star Trek (2009), author’s screenshot
3. The Matrix (1999), author’s screenshot
4. Alana King, “FANDOM Q&A | YouTube, Supernatural, Conventions, College & More!” (February 18, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CnV569I8Z6k), author’s screenshot




Fandom, Fan Studies, and the New Education
Josh Stenger / Wheaton College (Massachusetts)


Students as fans

So much has changed in the eight years since Paul Booth claimed in this same journal that “the time has come for a critical reassessment of the value of fandom within the academy.” I believe he was quite right, just as I believe the academy has developed a fuller understanding of fandom’s value, thanks in large part to the dauntingly robust body of scholarship and curricular and pedagogical innovations of so many fan studies scholars. I would like to propose a different kind of critical assessment, or rather, a realignment, and a time-sensitive one at that. No one needs to worry whether or not higher education is going to be disrupted. SPOILER ALERT: It is. Whether the disruption is dramatic or traumatic will depend to some degree on whether the transformative changes it entails are adopted from within or imposed from without. In what follows, I hope to begin a conversation about the ways in which fandom and fan studies are distinctly well-suited to help effect some of the changes the academy needs to consider making if it hopes to proactively navigate the uncertainties ahead.


The New Education

“The college education we need today must prepare our students for their epic journey, the mountain and the cliff’s edge. It should give them agency, arm them to take on a difficult world, to push back and not merely adapt to it. […] To revolutionize the university, we don’t just need a model. We need a movement.”
Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education[ ((Cathy N. Davidson, The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World in Flux (New York: Basic Books, 2017), 12, 13.))]

The New Education

Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education

The modern American university came into being between roughly 1860 and 1925, and was designed, according to Cathy Davidson, to train and credential “the professional-managerial class in a time of rapid technological, scientific, social, and economic change.”[ ((Davidson, 40.))] We are currently about two decades into a period of comparably disruptive technological, scientific, social, and economic change. Despite this, as Davidson argues in The New Education, our institutions of higher learning remain stubbornly yoked to the past in a number of consequential ways, making the need “to revolutionize the university to prepare students for a world in flux” increasingly urgent.

If academics and academic institutions aspire to contribute meaningfully to our students’ ability to navigate and contribute to the world as it will (soon) be rather than as it (just) was, we need at least to be willing to let go of some of our most entrenched structures and practices. Davidson contends, for instance, that we must “redesign the university beyond the inherited disciplines, departments, and silos by redefining the traditional boundaries of knowledge and providing an array of intellectual forums, experiences, programs, and projects that push students to use a variety of methods to discover comprehensive and original answers.”[ ((Davidson, 13.))]

Achieving this will not be easy.

Most colleges and universities accommodate, and many actively encourage, some degree of change within existing disciplinary, curricular, and administrative entities – e.g., individual courses, major requirements, academic departments, and the like. However, the system as a whole has always favored continuity over disruption, and so structural transformations that ramify across, between, or throughout these entities, are often regarded as impossible, anathema, or both. This is neither accidental nor inevitable, and for over a century it has reified an educational model that privileges disciplinary bodies of knowledge and expertise.

In the proverbial “real world”, however, bodies of knowledge are promiscuous, unruly, and un-disciplined, and are arguably becoming more so all the time.

So where does all this leave higher education, and what does it have to do with fans, fandom or fan studies?


Fans, Fandom and Fan Studies

“Fandom as a practice has always existed in an uneasy relationship with its own academic study.”
– Paul Booth, “Fandom in/as the Academy

“Purity”, via xkcd

“Purity”, via xkcd

If, as Paul Booth observes, there is an “uneasy relationship” between fan studies and fandom, xkcd’s “Purity” suggests there may be any number of uneasy relationships between certain disciplines and, well, other disciplines. Academics’ capacity for disciplinary self-importance notwithstanding, disciplinary hierarchies are a reality in higher education, though they tend to be shaped by external rather than internal dynamics. “Some disciplines are culturally valued higher than others,” Booth explains, making “the choice of what we teach and study […] limited by those that have value in our culture” as determined by “ideological validation” and associated market forces.[ ((Paul J. Booth, “Fandom in/as the Academy” (Flow, Dec. 2012, https://www.flowjournal.org/2010/12/fandom-in-as-the-academy/) ))] Over the last decade or so, the value of a given discipline, and indeed of a college degree, seems to rise and fall based not on factors like intellectual purity or specialization, but employability and professionalization.

It is worth noting that in either scenario, academics who teach and research certain aspects of popular media can expect occasionally to find themselves having to explain, or even to defend, their fields to colleagues or administrators, just as our students can expect occasionally to encounter skeptical family members eager to know why someone would go to college (‘just’) to study fandom or video games or television. Such interactions may be motivated by doubts about these fields’ intellectual rigor, academic legitimacy, or pre-professional worthwhileness. And whether initiated by a senior professor keen to protect and preserve the (“purity” of) traditional academic disciplines or by a parent anxious about the enormous cost of a college degree, they express a common belief that if a body of knowledge can be acquired without the specialized expertise of a university faculty it should be.

They also express a common anxiety about the ability of higher education to justify itself in a post-Internet world. We should not trivialize that anxiety, but neither should we disregard the value of forging thoughtful, intentional connections between academic and non-academic knowledge, skills, and expertise. Analogous connections between knowledge communities happen online all the time, almost always resulting in opportunities for productive tensions to be explored and resolved through what Henry Jenkins usefully describes as “exercises in popular epistemology,” where the emphasis is “as much on how we know and how we evaluate what we know as on the information itself.”[ ((Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York: NYU Press, 2006), 44.))]

Fandom and fan studies have a meaningful role to play in helping colleges and universities reexamine, and hopefully even transform, how, whom, and why they educate. They are not alone in this, to be sure, but I believe they are particularly well-suited to the task. Consider, for instance, that despite (or indeed because of) the fact they have an “uneasy relationship,” fandom and fan studies have a long history of interacting, collaborating with, and yes, challenging each other in ways that, more often than not, are mutually edifying.

Below, I offer several additional observations and examples of how and why fans, fandom and fan studies can contribute to the kind of “new education” Davidson describes, and invite readers to think of and to share how other disciplinary traditions and forms of knowledge might do so as well.

  • Fans are autodidactic. They can and often do acquire skills and specialized knowledge that rival what most undergraduates can expect to attain through formal disciplinary training. That they do so on their own and through interactions with other fans neither devalues nor delegitimizes their expertise; on the contrary, it models the kind of intellectual curiosity, initiative, perseverance, and capacity for self-teaching that are so crucial to success, regardless of one’s field of study or professional goals.
  • The fan studies classroom redefines expertise and models learning to learn. Fans are experts in their fandom(s). Just ask them; they’ll be happy to tell you. In the fan studies classroom, this presents numerous opportunities to validate students’ prior knowledge, but also usefully demonstrates the limitations of equating expertise with the mastery of content, which in turn demonstrates the limitations of equating teaching with delivering more content. As John Hartley writes, “The shift from teaching as transmission of knowledge to learning as production of knowledge means that an important responsibility for the [educational] system will be helping people learn to learn and to become motivated to learn.”[ ((John Hartley, The Uses of Digital Literacy (London: Transaction, 2011), 37.))] The fan studies classroom starts with a tremendous advantage here in that students who are also fans are, as noted above, likely autodidactic to some degree, but any classroom can shift the focus from teaching content to learning to learn.
  • Fandom is read/write culture. As part of his important work on remix and fair use, Lawrence Lessig argues that as new technologies produce new opportunities and demands for new literacies, we must develop a read/write (RW) culture that complements and pushes back against an entrenched read-only (RO) culture. Though “critically important both to the spread of culture and the spread of knowledge,” RO culture “teach[es], but not by inviting questions.” RW culture “ asks something more of the audience. It is offered as a draft. It invites a response. In a culture in which it is common, its citizens develop a kind of knowledge that empowers as much as it informs or entertains.”[ ((Lawrence Lessig, Remix: Making art and commerce thrive in the hybrid economy (London: Bloomsbury, 2008), 84, 85.))] Fans create an enormous amount of transformative creative work, each instance an opportunity to develop and democratize the kind of digital literacy skills that are crucial to cultural citizenship in the twenty-first century.

description of image

Fangirl and white hat hacker Charlie Bradbury (Felicia Day) in Supernatural (“The Girl with the Dungeons and Dragons Tattoo,” S07e20)

Last but not least, and in conclusion, fandom and fan studies are just so ‘meta’. That is, they tend to be deeply self-reflexive pursuits wherein even well-established epistemological, methodological, ethical, and community norms are regularly reexamined, refined, and renegotiated as needed. This at once results in and from—and to a certain degree requires and rewards—a relatively high degree of active participation, engagement and communication among members of these communities. At the risk of seeming either cynical or glib, one suspects there are lessons here for faculty and administrators as well, for if there is any chance of revolutionizing higher education, we must be willing to reevaluate everything, and to listen to and work with everyone who shows up.

Image Credits:
1. Tapping into students’ fannish literacies, author’s screenshot
2. Cathy N. Davidson’s The New Education
3. “Purity”, XKCD.com
4. Supernatural (“The Girl with the Dungeons & Dragons Tattoo,” S07,e20), author’s screenshot.