Teaching and Learning with Fanfic

Catcher in the Rye Cover

In Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins analyzes the practices and contexts of young people writing Harry Potter fanfic, and makes an argument that fanfic communities provide opportunities for situated learning (an extension of arguments Jim Gee makes in What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy). This made me want to find out if anyone is actually implementing fan fiction writing as part of a curriculum.

This article gives a good overview of the practice and its potentials. The scholar cited in the article, Rebecca W. Black, outlines the really cool connections between fanfic practices and best practices in literacy instruction in her own article, although at the end she issues the disclaimer:

In presenting these brief examples, it is not my intent to hold this writing community up as a pedagogical model that we, as teachers, should aspire to. Nor am I suggesting that fanfiction should be incorporated into classrooms as part of the curriculum, in fact, I am certain that importing fanfiction into schools would detract from its appeal for many fans.

This took the wind out of my sails somewhat. I can certainly see the logic in the “in school == toxic lameness” argument; I remember when we had to listen to “relevant rock” during 12th grade literature class, and that pretty much ruined Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” for me. But surely that was more an issue of presentation than of substance? Surely there are ways to allow students to practice fanfic without ruining their fandom?

It’s interesting to think about the Venn diagram that covers popular culture fandom and fan fiction production, the overlaps and gaps. Certainly fan fiction practices tend to coalesce around contemporary popular narratives, but Harry Potter isn’t the only narrative with devoted fans, and I’m always very interested by the more fringe-y fanfic satellites out there. To wit: Catcher in the Rye fanfic, evidence that interventionary engagement with a narrative can happen with old-school assigned reading, just as it can with the shiny fun stuff.

A lot of the descriptions on the Catcher fanfic index state that the given story began as an English assignment and turned into fanfic because the assignment went well. So there you go — maybe you just need to invert the practice a little, and the kids will be all right.

Blogging Countdown: 3

Hey Ryan,

You’re right, this is a lot of work and we should probably consider replacing this at some point with the LOLSuperPets concept I kept trying to sell you. I’m guessing I’ll be ready by mid-July. But until then…

I want to start with this from your last post:

To some extent, this notion of managed continuity can be applied to comics, as it’s invariably the mistakes and oddities that most often draw reader attention to the process of the comic’s creation rather than simply accepting the narrative at face value.

Yes, yes, yes, and I would argue that this is not at all bad. You compare the “mistakes and oddities” to the transparency of television and film, and you’re right to note that the Superman mythos feels a lot more like sausage-making than Scorsese does. We see the process of editorial in superhero comics, we interact with it; we know who Dan Didio is, and many fans have an opinion of the job he is doing (me, all I know is that his name has a lovely cadence).

Comics are an open form, and that’s not necessarily because current management is falling down on the job… times were that having Stan and Jack appear in Fantastic Four was an added reason to buy the book. Matthew Pustz does a good job of explaining how the twin communities of comics producers and comics fans interacted over the years and ended up producing a medium that is as much about producer-consumer dialogue as anything else.

Whether it’s representing creators directly within a comics fiction, or just wacky “imaginary stories”, I’ll simply say that I don’t think comics continuity is any more broken than it’s ever been — if anything, fandom brings a more critical eye to a more carefully-managed continuity than it ever has before — and that comics gave up any interest in seamlessness or transparency a long time ago.

On the contrary, the fictional universes of superhero comics exist in a state of awareness with their own processes of production: they wear their mechanics on their sleeves. Other fictions have existed in a similar way: it’s called metafiction, and you can see it in Tristram Shandy, or If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Adaptation.

But it’s different in superhero comics: metafiction is something different and clever in novels, or film, or television. In the DC Universe, it’s standard operating procedure, the way things are. We expect comics to show their means of production and revision: to answer your question, yes, continuity is definitely part of the story.

In fact, in Countdown, it is the story: I’ll lay all my cards on the table (early) and let you know that, in comparison to the consistently frenetic and, in my opinion, deliciously well-executed 52, I think this story is pretty much a yawner so far. The pacing is drab, the characters say things like “What does it mean for the universe… when a GOD DIES?” without a whiff of Morrisonian self-consciousness… God.

But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop buying Countdown. It’s important, good, and desirable when comic books are well-executed and aesthetically pleasing, but for me that’s not necessarily a requirement, and deep down (take a hard look, it’s therapeutic) I suspect it may not always be for you either.

What’s important is that there is progress in history, that something is happening in this large-scale serial form, this “universe” or “multiverse,” that is new and consequent. In a form in which the main characters must stay the same over time — despite his variations across dimensions, “Superman” as a canonical figure will not age or die, and we both realize that — the drama, the rising action and progress of the comics universe, the cause and effect, is not so much character-based as world-based. I would argue that the main “character” of the fiction we are following is the fiction itself, its continually-evolving set of parameters and boundaries.

And that, in the end, is (I think) the best gambit for superhero comics as a form. Fandom worries a lot about new readers and easy accessibility to comics mythos, but the “new readership” for Batman is just fine: they’re watching Batman Begins. Take a look at Marvel’s investor relations page: count how many times comics are specifically referenced. It may be fewer than you think.

We are not reading the publications of comics companies: we are reading the publications of cross-media licensors who deploy their characters to blockbuster movies, TV shows, video games, and also comics. In this ecology, comics are in most cases a product for adult afficionados with enough disposable income to not blink at the $3.00 price of a color pamphlet: afficionados who have been with the form long enough, and care enough, to find the complex unfoldings of the fiction compelling.

The differentiator, the thing that the comics universe provides that the TV show, video game, DVD does not is the sense of being connected to something large, complex, and laden with history. Something through which fans can engage in this messy, communal negotiation of a fictional space, the negotiation that we call “continuity.” Given this, the fact that comics sales are eroding without actually plummeting actually seems fairly successful within a larger corporate strategy.

I’ll leave it at that for now… I missed some of your questions, but I figure we’ll get there soon, when we start actually talking about the comic! That’s going to happen next time, I promise. And here’s what will make it stick: I want to talk about everyone’s new favorite ambiguous postcolonial superbaddie, Black Adam. First word that pops into your head… go.


Batman Home Movies


is amateurish in the way that old Batman theater serials used to be. In the way that the Adam West Batman used to be.

What does it mean when a consumer is able to produce something like this? Something about its off-handedness makes it seem more significant than the more professional fan films that have been produced: the sense that literally anyone can participate in Batman as a network, and publicize it widely, and can do so cheaply.

And I love the almost punk aesthetic of it: a Batman thoroughly entrenched on the West Coast, living in an apartment, detached from Gotham City as a concept, and subject to DC/Time Warner cease-and-desist at any moment.

Is this pastiche? Is this folk art? Is this piracy?