Fandom in the Classroom

When I tell people that I’m a professor who teaches classes on fandom, I’m usually met by one of two reactions. One reaction is disbelief, as if I had just told them I teach classes on juggling, origami, or beer pong. This stems from the perception that the academic classroom is a hallowed space where deep discussions lead to meaningful discoveries (and popular culture, the thinking goes, just doesn’t get us there)—think Mr. Chips, not Mr. Miyagi; epic poetry, not fanfic; Twain, not Twilight. The other reaction is jealousy, usually accompanied by a plaintive sigh and “I wish they had courses like that when I was in college!” For these green-eyed friends, studying fans and fandom is meaningful because popular culture reveals the intricacies of contemporary life and the influence of the media on our cultural (and individual) consciousness.

(There is a rare third reaction to my fan studies classroom, as most mechanics ask, “V-belts or serpentine?”)

After nearly a decade of teaching students about fans, I’ve encountered these reactions a lot, and I’ve spent a long time thinking about how to respond to them. Why teach fandom? What does fandom bring to the classroom (and what does the classroom bring to fandom)? And why is fandom so important today? Here, I want to explore some of the main themes I’ve discussed with students about teaching fans (unless you really want to hear about fan belts, in which case, you’re out of luck I’m afraid).

In class, we discuss a spectrum of practices that individuals can do to be perceived as “fans.” I have the students follow one media object (usually a TV show) for 10 weeks; they research its creation, they write fan fiction (fanfic) about it, they analyze the types of fan response the show has generated, they work on a class Tumblr, and they create fan-edited music videos (vids). They spend the quarter discussing different ways people have responded to the show and analyzing the influence of these fans in social and cultural venues. And throughout it all, students discover a wide gamut of reactions, from unyielding devotion to hate-watching, from fandom to anti-fandom. We study the origins and histories of fandom, representations of fans in the media, and the types of practices fans engage in.

I teach about fandom because it influences today’s media more than we realize, and it offers a way of looking at the world that can be applied long after the doors of the classroom have shut. I teach fandom because I believe we need to help students build the type of critical self-evaluation and reflection that can happen in fan communities—the type of fan discussion that can change the conversation, can engage issues of diversity, can illuminate the importance of even the most minor of characters or social issues. Conversely, fandom can also be messy, and nasty, and filled with hateful speech; so too students must also learn where this speech is coming from, and why, and then how to safely and appropriately combat it. Teaching fandom isn’t just about showing students how to appreciate media in a deeper and more emotional way; it’s about discovering the ways fandom itself can change our perceptions.

Much has been written about the influence of fandom on mainstream popular culture; perhaps unsurprisingly, each year my students come into my fandom classes with more knowledge and experience of fandom than the year before. They’ve encountered fandom online; they’ve attended Comic-Con or C2E2; they’ve cosplayed; they’ve read (and sometimes created) fanfic and seen vids and reblogged Tumblr posts. They know the stories of obscure Marvel heroes and they can name who played the Fourth Doctor.

What they haven’t encountered is the history of fandom. Every year I see shocked expressions when I describe fandom as something older than Tumblr and bigger than Game of Thrones; when I demonstrate that slashfic started before Stucky (Steve/Bucky slash from Captain America fandom). Studying the history of fandom tells students about the types of people who get labeled as “fan” today, and offers clues about the trajectory of fandom for the future.

The history of fans is varied and changes depending on whom one asks—and in that respect, works as a potent metaphor for the importance of teaching fandom. Common fan studies wisdom holds that fan communities started in the late 1920s and early 1930s as science fiction fans wrote letters to and formed friendships through Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories. From these titles spawned a group, the Science Fiction League. The League sought to link multiple fan groups together because they, as Gernsback noted, “believe in the seriousness of SF. They believe that there is nothing greater than human imagination, and the diverting of such imagination into constructive channels.” Other science fiction clubs held conventions (like Worldcon, which started in 1939) and wrote fan-created magazines, or zines.

This is the common history of Fandom, and it’s perfectly valid (if a bit white and male-centric). From this early science fiction Fandom sprung many other fandoms, including media fandoms like early Trekkers and contemporary ones like the Whedonverse fandom. (Noteworthy, though, are the many schisms that have emerged between the early Fandom and later media fandoms. For the purposes of this essay, I’m using the word fandom in a “Big Tent” fashion that encompasses all of these fandoms.) Yet, interpreting the history of fandom through a different lens reveals a great variety of experiences.

As we know, origin stories tells us more about characters than we realize—the murder of his parents makes Batman into a justice-obsessed vigilante; Kamala Khan was just an ordinary girl before being given extraordinary powers. So too is it with studying fans, as the historical origin story we give to students reveals the type of fan we want to portray. Beyond the traditional stories of Fandom history, other histories tell a different tale. Should students focus on science fiction fans from the 1930s to discuss early cosplay and the rise of convention culture? Or do we look beyond the obvious genre connections to see more feminine antecedents? For instance, even before Amazing Stories, a great many other literary magazines had letter columns which allowed fans to communicate with each other. Although science fiction was largely thought of as the domain of male readers, other genres (romance, melodrama, poetry) had large female followings and similar fan-like communities flourished.

Or should the class focus on the letters to the Strand in the late 19th century to assess the influence of fans on the creator’s writing? Many people may know that British fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes held demonstrations when the character was killed off in “The Final Problem.” Many women were among the fans demonstrating (a famous, albeit possibly apocryphal, story sees one woman dressed all in black accosting Doyle outside his home with plaintive cries of mourning) and women have kept that fandom alive (even before Cumberbatch!). Prior to Holmes, Jane Austen had enormous female fan followings starting in the 1870s. And running parallel to discussions of literary fandom, there are other, less-well-known fandoms in media, music, and sports that saw more African American fans at the heart of fan communities. Should students dig further, to look at the rise of baseball fandom in the 1800s as a type of religious fervor, or look geographically distant to non-Western fandoms in Japan, Korea, India, or the Middle East, from which different fan origins would tell completely different stories?

Ultimately, studying fandom, and the history(ies) of fandom, allows students to see there is not one right way of viewing the story of fandom, but multiple genealogies, a prism of origins that not only allows for overlapping versions of history, but also enables them to see how multiple truths can exist simultaneously. History is nothing more than the stories we tell about ourselves. How we frame the past tells us what we make of the present, and focusing on different stories opens up dialogue with these truths. One is not more correct than the other; they represent different points of view about what happened in history, and how we (as educators/as fans) frame that history when we retell it to others indicates our own particular biases and influences.

Studying fandom thus becomes a microcosm for examining how all history, art, literature, and humanities is understood. The Western tradition is steeped in the Dead White Male paradigm, but showing students alternative ways of understanding the origin of fandom allows them to connect the idea of multiple origins to other aspects of their diverse world. Studying fandom illustrates hidden elements about students’ worlds that they may not have engaged with before, but that they can take with them out of the classroom to help them view not only popular culture, but the whole world with a more critical eye, and potentially strive to make it better.

(For more on the many histories of fandom, check out Rebecca Wanzo’s 2015 essay “African American acafandom and other strangers,” and both Karen Hellekson’s and Alexandra Edwards’s forthcoming chapters on the history and experiences of fans.)

Of course, in a class for college students in a media studies program, we focus mainly on the rise of media fandoms in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Studying fandom and its history also helps students understand how fans have impacted (and continue to impact) the contemporary media environment. Many people are aware of the influence of fandom in keeping some television series on the air: Bjo Trimble’s letter-writing campaigns kept Star Trek going while fans sent bottles of hot sauce to WB in support of Roswell; Firefly fans bought DVDs and Jericho fans mailed peanuts to CBS. Fans are shrewd: when they learned that fast-food giant was sponsoring Chuck, they went out in droves to buy Subway sandwiches in support of the show.

Studying history allows us to see how this image of the empowered, media-savvy fan contrasts with the antipathy that has greeted fans for decades. Recall William Shatner on 1985’s Saturday Night Live, standing in front of a group of nerdy Star Trek fans, declaring, “Get a life” and exclaiming “There’s a whole world out there! When I was your age, I didn’t watch television! I LIVED! So… Move out of your parent’s basements! And get your own apartments and GROW THE HELL UP! I mean, it’s just a TV show dammit, IT’S JUST A TV SHOW!” Or, remember obsessed fan Annie Wilkes from Stephen King’s Misery, who loves the character Misery Chastain so much she forces author Paul Sheldon to write more (and later dies after being killed with a typewriter and gagged with the pages of the new novel—metaphor much?). How many images of obsessive, violent, or hysterical fans populate television and film? (Even Netflix’s recent Gilmore Girls gets in on the fan-shaming act, when Rory has a one-night stand with a man dressed as a Wookiee and then pitches an article about women who have sex with nerds just to feel good about themselves. Ouch.)

Fandom ​often ​becomes a mechanism through which students can approach stereotypes in order to appreciate and better understand issues of diversity and representation. Being a fan is not the same type of socially oppressed identity, but studying representations of fans can ​create opportunities for students to engage more critically ​with issues of representation in fandom, and how they reflect societal expectations regarding who gets to be perceived as “belonging in fandom.” For some students, discussions about representation in fandom can also provide a means to explore their own experiences with marginalizations (gender, race, sexuality, disability, etc.) and cultural stereotypes.

In class we contrast these mediated representations of fans with those that valorize fandom today—think Abed on Community or Charlie on Supernatural (RIP). Yet at a time when “nerds” and “geeks” are routinely lauded as the key to a successful television, film, book, or comic series, it is more important than ever to interrogate what those terms mean and how they are deployed in specific and tactical ways by media creators. Many media creators are themselves fans—just to name a few: Joss Whedon, Jane Espensen, Maurissa Tancharoen, Mindy Kaling, Lauren Faust, Russell T Davies, Sam Esmail, Sara Gamble, Steven Moffat, Katie Jacobs, Aisha Tyler—and it is therefore odd that so many other representations of fans still remain mired in stereotypical behavior.

Our classes discuss how these representations beget particular readings. The argument revolves around the implicit contrast that representations of fans create. On the one hand, “hyperfan” portrayals are overtly negative: hyperfans are seen as too emotionally-invested, too overt in their love for and knowledge of the media object. On the other hand, a more “mainstreamed” fan is tempered: there is a more “acceptable” amount of emotion displayed. That audiences are then encouraged to identify with the mainstream fan implies there is a right and a wrong way to care about something; that “too much” emotional response will alienate more “mainstream” people. It’s good to be invested, it’s just not good to be too invested. When we see the hyperfan as the “other,” we are tacitly encouraged to identify with the more mainstreamed fan; we take their characteristics as a subtle reminder of how to temper our own actions and behaviors as fans. Rather than opening up representations of fans, then, mainstream media try to channel fannish enthusiasm into particular ways of acting and being.

But I try to teach my students to see this investment differently. A media text is valuable to the fan precisely because of its emotional validation, its ability to become part of an identity. Studying emotion means weighing the heft of a character death (“I am a leaf on the wind…”) and why it might make someone feel. The hyperfan may be an object of mockery, but that’s only because we are taught from an early age that caring too much is too bad and Truth (as told to us) is more valuable than Meaning (as created by us). The hyperfan is only negative in a culture that devalues emotion and encourages a less active engagement in our media.

Of course, it also matters what people are fans of—masculinized activities like sports are culturally considered much more valid than feminized activities like fanfic. There is a subtle hierarchy of “geekiness” that valorizes particular objects of fandom higher than others—and, leading from that, a hierarchy of audiences as well. Our own fandoms are also on these hierarchies (although we may argue about which is more or less acceptable), and whether we like it or not we stereotype fans of things we think are less valid than our own. Too often in fan circles we are asked to be more or less critical, more or less emotional, more or less concerned with canon. And too often disagreements within fandoms stem from these issues. We are encouraged to practice fandom “the right way” and to discourage those that practice it differently.

But with more popularization of fannish texts comes different fans who bring their own ways of being into the fannish mix. Teaching fandom has brought me into contact with hundreds of students who all approach fandom differently. I’ve become more aware of the spectrum of fandom. So as a teacher, I try to bring my own fandom into the classroom to demonstrate for students that it’s okay to have unmitigated passion for something. I proudly wear my “Gallifrey University” tee shirt and show the students photos of my 10-year-old self dressed as a Dalek for Halloween.

I also try to point out times when my favorite media text is problematic. It’s also okay to be critical of the media that we love. We don’t have to see everything as all good or all bad. Most media texts are problematic in some way because they are made by people and people are fallible. But it can be hard to critique the problematic things in the media that we love.

So we point out the problems in order to bring light to a variety of under-discussed cultural issues. Fandom gives us a voice to do this while still retaining our passion for the object and for our communities. Fandom presents a bastion of critical thinking in a world of conformity. We need to teach critical and thoughtful fandom in a world increasingly hostile to emotion and increasingly concerned with profit.

Studying fandom in the classroom is crucial because people never stop watching media, and their fandom of that media will help guide how they see their culture. I strive for my students to critically evaluate contemporary culture. Studying the different ways fans can react to something tells us that not everyone or everything is homogenous. It is hard for individuals to break out of their own mindset and to realize that other valid viewpoints exist (now, more than ever, this is an important skill to teach). Probably the most challenging thing to instill in students is the idea that not everyone shares their reaction to something—more often than not, I write on students’ papers that “you can’t assume everyone else finds The Walking Dead compelling.”

I’m not saying that studying fandom will radically change the world, but it can help students learn to appreciate alternate viewpoints. So for many students, it’s mind blowing. I still hear from one of my students whose fan research on The Monkees has helped her become part of a community she didn’t know existed. For others (often the ones who are fans already) it’s a chance to dig deeply into an important facet of their life.

Although I tend to get two very different reactions to my teaching fandom, I think both might be right. Some people feel that the college classroom should be reserved for Very Important Subjects; others are jealous because they love fandom and popular culture. But fandom is a Very Important Subject. It is serious work that allows students to approach and talk about serious issues. It is fun but it has real power. Popular culture can be a mirror but it can also be a crystal ball, allowing us not only to comment on what’s happening today, but also develop ideas about what we want the future to be like. Fandom is one possible future, and my students will be prepared.

My sincere thanks to Katie Booth for her superb comments on an early draft of this essay.

Paul Booth

Paul Booth is Associate Professor at DePaul University. He is the author of Crossing Fandoms (Palgrave 2016), Digital Fandom 2.0 (Peter Lang 2016), Playing Fans (University of Iowa 2015), Game Play (Bloomsbury 2015), Time on TV (Peter Lang 2012), and Digital Fandom (Peter Lang 2010). He has edited Seeing Fans (Bloomsbury 2016, with Lucy Bennett), Controversies in Digital Ethics (Bloomsbury 2016, with Amber Davisson), and Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who (Intellect 2013). He has published and spoken widely on fans, science fiction, and technology. He is currently enjoying a cup of coffee.

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