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


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

Amelie Hastie / Amherst College

tv classroom

TV Classroom.

In the third chapter of Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary opens with a discussion of Goethe’s description of a room. Initially pointing to that perception engendered by a camera obscura, Goethe instead turns, Crary writes, to describe “the corporeal subjectivity of the observer.” [ (( Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1990. 69. ))] He continues, drawing on the work of Francois-Pierre Maine de Biran, to note: “the body becomes a stubborn physical fact.” [ (( Crary, 72. ))] Of course, the very sensations of the body of the observer remain grounded in the very room in which she or he sits. For me, this is a provocative — and extraordinarily appropriate — way to think not only about television spectatorship but also those other spaces that enable our sense of perception to take hold.

techniques of the observer

Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer.

I want to begin, then, by contextualizing my own pedagogical practices through a consideration of the critical and institutional spaces that have inevitably informed me as a teacher, scholar, and colleague. My graduate training was at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I earned my PhD in the Modern Studies program of the English Department. During the period of my study, Modern Studies was the program where both Film and Media Studies and Critical Theory were lodged. But it was just one of five programs at the time, which also included Literary Studies and Composition (as well as Creative Writing and Linguistics). Thus the context for our study and research was inevitably an interdisciplinary one (along with courses in Film, Television, and Critical Theory, for instance, I also took classes in nineteenth-century US literature, as well as interdisciplinary topical courses). I was therefore steeped in disciplinary studies — film and media, composition, literature — that together were set within an interdisciplinary model for research and teaching.

From UWM, I took a job at the University of California-Santa Cruz in the Film and Digital Media department, where I worked for almost a dozen years. Here my teaching became immersed in the discipline of Film and Media Studies, yet in the context of a program that included, equally, Production and Critical Studies. Our philosophy was that these two arms of “theory” and “practice” must be in conversation (or, at the very least, that students take courses in each). But while my teaching here was more “disciplinary” than “interdisciplinary,” my scholarship and my collegial practice were both informed by working with artists. From UCSC, I moved to Amherst College, a small liberal arts in New England, to start a program in Film and Media Studies. And here I was able to capitalize on resources to develop a major for students that thrives on an integrated practice between artistic and scholarly production in moving-image media. Moreover, being simultaneously housed also in an English department, my courses have again taken on an interdisciplinary thrust and, in some cases, a renewed attention to writing (especially at the “introductory” level). This institutional move has been, then, a return to some of my interdisciplinary roots as both a student and a teacher, but it has always carried with it the insistence on the complementary, if also “disciplined,” work of artists and scholars, which together create an inherently interdisciplinary practice.

classroom space

The “space” of the classroom is shaped by the disciplinarity of institutional sites and programs and in turn influences teachers’ and students’ interactions with their objects of study..

These three institutional sites, and my own place within them, have inevitably shaped my primary pedagogical site as well — that is, the “space” of the classroom. The classroom, after all, is that space where we continuously practice our own changing ideas, which are themselves in turn transformed by the students in the room with us. In my case, I encourage a creative critical practice as viewers, researchers, and writers in my classroom. And in both film and television courses, I try to integrate the following concerns: the materiality of viewing experiences, medium specificity, changing modes of viewing practices, and an expansion of what counts as “theoretical” material. These elements culminate in some of the writing assignments I offer students (and which I also attempt to complete myself, whenever possible). And they also, inevitably, recognize the body who watches and writes as a “stubborn physical fact.”

In the past few years, in what might seem a strange revenge scenario against all those non-specialists who integrate film and television into their syllabi (sometimes as a “break” from more serious study, sometimes as a “fun” addition, sometimes as a form of representation of a particular idea – but rarely as a medium- and culturally-specific form), I have increasingly added works outside of the discipline of Film and Media Studies into my own syllabi: poetry, novels, memoirs, personal essays, etc. And I’ve also been teaching a first-year seminar called “Things Matter” — an introduction to studies of Material Culture without the theoretical readings of the field — which includes a unit on various media forms. The latter class has, in many ways, shaped my approach to my upper-division courses in Film and Television Studies. Throughout “Things Matter,” I assign a series of “Object Lessons,” in which I implore students to “write in the form that the thing demands.” Ultimately my goal is not to have them produce, say, essays in the shape of a pair of socks or a candy bar, but rather to consider what shape their writing might take in response to particular objects. How, for instance, would they approach a discussion of a television series in relation to the device on which they watch it? How does the one inform the other, and how does that relationship inform their own writing?

My foundations course in Television Studies, “Knowing Television,” centrally inquires, as the name implies, how we know television — as a medium, a textual system, a cultural object. And how, I continually ask (if only to inform my assignments), do we write in the form that this particular “thing” demands? First and foremost, I think, we must recognize television as always an intertextual system and, as one that incorporates many kinds of material devices. In this way, writing about television always demands an ability to move between, whether that’s between texts, between devices and images, or between the spectatorial experience of perception and that thing or image that we perceive. Let me here offer a response of my own design to return to that image with which I began via Crary and Goethe: the room where we sit and how it might open and close depending on our visual focus.

classroom space

New screens and interfaces activate not only engage time-shifting but also space-shifting in television viewing and viewership..

Time-shifting has undeniably eliminated certain elements of television viewing. But space-shifting — transferring the interface to an extension of our bodies or something very near to it — has altered other aspects as well. At least in terms of our physical proximity to it, the hand-held screenic device makes television viewing more like reading. But of course the television set was not originally designed as a replacement for the novel. Rather than isolate readers in space from one another, as novels do, and, in a sense, from the very rooms where they sit, the television sought to unify members of a room (as members of a family) in a shared space. This architecture of space enabled particular kinds of viewing practices, coterminous with the structure of content of commercial broadcast television in particular. So, while television’s form invited a distracted viewer, one whose distraction was born of the “interruptions” that make up commercial broadcast television, its spatial structure similarly allowed for a sense of distraction. That spatial distance meant one could look across the room at another viewer, shift one’s line of vision to another part of the larger space of which the viewing room was a part, or simply take in a broader point of view around the set itself. In this form, the viewer watches the set and the texts it screened in the context of the space in which it was/is situated. What happens, then, when the viewing device produces a more immediate proximity to what we see, particularly as our interfaces are, in essence, these very same objects we hold in our hands? How do our bodies adapt to what we see through how we see it? And what role does spatial proximity or distance, as enabled by those things we control, play in relation to our narrative, perceptual and affective experiences?

Simply put, television study — and the writing about it that I encourage my students to practice — must be contextualized in time and space, particularly as “time” and “space” continuously shift. Knowing television demands a consciousness of the experience of perception and of the physical body who both perceives and exists in material space oneself. Entering into these coterminous spaces invokes a learning and writing practice that, I hope, allows the “I” of the student to maintain a critical, creative, and embodied response to what might otherwise seem to be ephemeral images moving on the screens before us.

Image Credits:
1. TV Classroom.
2. Techniques of the Observer.
3. Classroom space.
4. TV on our phone.

Please feel free to comment.