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.

Cool Tool for Talking about John’s Legacy

Folks have put together a wiki to talk about John Slatin’s legacy. It is a very good idea and worth promoting.

I avoid talking about loss and personal stuff on the blog, mostly because I think I’m miserable at it. It’s a conscious choice, though probably not healthy. So I’ll just say quickly —

I’ve just started remembering the afternoons talking with him in his office, hearing his triple-speed JAWS output and playing ball with an off-duty Dillon. John was a brilliant teacher, technologist and advocate, and an amazing mentor. He dealt with great adversity with patience and kindness; he always blessed me with patience and kindness. I love and miss him very much.

Work Update

For years I worked on stuff that was secreted away onto shadowy corporate intranets, so it still doesn’t immediately occur to me that work products can be public and shared. But we’ve been working on lots of cool stuff at Terra Incognita that you can totally go look at.

  • Late last year we finished The Monticello Classroom, which gives teachers, students and other visitors to Monticello a rich set of resources to compose lesson plans; an online archive of Monticello collections; and, a set of interactive tools to engage with and share. We built this app in PHP with a port of the Mach-II MVC framework, and I built a cool little house builder in ActionScript 3 – it lets you mess up some architecture and then share it with friends.
  • We also released updates to The Genographic Project — this was a mix of ActionScript 2 and 3 and a whole lot of contextual learning about this complex and ambitious project.
  • For AARP, we created an interactive timeline for 1968 which turned out very nicely. I can’t claim much on this — Gregg did an amazing job developing this one — but I did get to have some fun at the tail end tweaking and deploying it, and besides it’s just cool.
  • Finally, the big project for early 2008 — we’ve delivered an exciting museum redesign that should be going live in the next couple of weeks. I’ll add some details when it goes public — until then, I’ll let you know that I’ll be speaking on it at the Texas Library Association conference later this week, with a focus on bringing archival collections online with tools like Flash and Fedora Commons.

Infinite Crisis and the Narrowcasting of Superman

This decision in favor of Jerry Siegel’s family is a thrilling and weird thing… Superman isn’t entirely controlled by his corporate owners any more. That frightens some people. There are some pretty fascinating message board threads that side with Time Warner/DC fairly unilaterally: who are these creator people, to insult Mother Corporation?

It’s a good time for an official shake-up, I think. Superman is in an interesting place. The Scottish Superman is the best Superman storytelling in years… actually, I can’t think of better. And Superman in mainstream continuity is, well… weird these days.

There are lots of Supermen these days. There’s “our” Superman, who is supposed to be canonical, but he’s kind of second-string these days, subordinate to the collective, the many Supermen who are deployed to satisfy various publics and demographics. With him, there’s the aforementioned Scottish Superman; Ultraman, the criminal Superman; haunted older Superman from Kingdom Come (who is the best looking Superman, in my opinion). There was an older future Superman who looked a lot like the haunted older Superman; he was also haunted, but I think he was different. There’s the original Superman, from Action Comics #1, who made a to-do about how superheroes these days (including “our” Superman) were terrible pale reproductions of older, better superheroes; he was beaten to death by a Superboy that indulges in a very personal fascist fantasy of the past (imagine a twisted Pleasantville) and slaughters people. Seriously.

The last two Supermen, along with “ours,” co-starred in a thing called Infinite Crisis. In the dissertation I talk about how “Crises” in DC Comics are opportunities for iterations and revisions of the ongoing comics narrative to engage in dialogue with each other. These dialogues form a metanarrative, an embedded commentary on how the narrative and its characters are unfolding. As you can imagine, the particular metanarrative of Infinite Crisis is pretty juicy.

If Superman is the American dream — the dream of immigration and urbanism; the figure of world-changing American strength, judiciously and justly applied; our country’s folklore as consumer brand — what happens to Superman when the dream is in trouble? When many of us struggle with the thought that our country is, intentionally or not, representing nightmarish things, both to ourselves and to the world? When our strength is badly applied, to the misery of others and ourselves? When our myth of ourselves is dysfunctional and fragmentary, with our leadership and media badly spackling over our disillusion and generating sad, incompetent propaganda? What happens to one of the most powerful advertisements of our national culture at that time?

This is the implicit story of Infinite Crisis — the story of Superman falling apart, breaking apart. His American story is one that cannot cohere. His conservative meanings — truth, justice, and the American Way — are outdated ideals (original Superman), beaten to death by a figure that manipulates those meanings towards oppression and horror (homicidal Superboy). It’s a narrative born of a culture watching cultural memes of the Greatest Generation being mobilized to justify Abu Ghraib. “Our” Superman stood around a lot and watched it happen. He managed to win the fight at the end, of course, because a psychotic Superboy beating his progenitor to death and getting away with it is a pretty terrible superhero story.

Infinite Crisis was a couple of years ago (I’m a slow blogger), and while there have been some great Superman stories since then, none have represented a moment where “our” Superman — or any other — has symbolically declared, “I am canonical.” Superman is narrowcast now. We all can pick the one we like and run with him. And that’s cool: in some ways, it works better. But I can’t help but be sad for “our” Superman, the canonical figure we used to all agree on, now something of a placeholder, holding a spot for a common understanding of cultural ideals and fantasies that no longer exists.

Say you love seitan

Anyone who knows us knows that we are not vegetarians. But it’s late holidays now, and we’re trying to eat better.

I grabbed a package of seitan on a whim at the grocery and made these for lunch, also on a whim. They were pretty good.

Seitan Fusion Tacos
makes 3-4 tacos

  • 1 standard package seitan
  • 2 tbsp canola oil
  • soy sauce
  • lime juice
  • 2 limes
  • one jalapeno pepper
  • sriracha sauce
  • shredded cabbage
  • tortillas (we used spelt but corn and flour would also be good)

Dice the jalapeno and cut the limes into wedges.

Heat up the oil in a pan while chopping the seitan into bite-size chunks. When the oil starts to shimmer, add the seitan to the pan. When the seitan has browned, add just enough soy sauce and lime juice to coat the bottom of the pan and deglaze (we used approx 2 parts soy sauce to one part lime juice and one squirt of sriracha. Go easy on this… too much soy sauce and the tacos will be too salty). Increase heat to high and reduce the liquid by 1/3 – 1/2 (when it’s viscous, it’s good to go).

Start warming the tortillas about the time you’re adding the soy sauce to the pan.

When the sauce is reduced, turn the heat off. Fill the tortillas with sauced seitan. Add a squeeze of lime and sriracha to taste. Top with jalapeno and cabbage and garnish with lime.

On Digital Comics, 1

Both Marvel and DC have taken big steps toward digital content distribution recently, and have, like other media companies, taken steps to eliminate unregulated competition in the process. I’ve been spending a little time with DC’s initiative Zuda, and am just now starting to mess with Marvel’s digital initiative, but I’ll start with some general thoughts about where I think digital comics services fit into an overall ecology of comics production and reception.

Coincidentally (and usefully) we’ve also seen the recent release of Kindle, which allows us to apply some new observations about digital books to the digital comics discussion. The digital book is quite a bit behind digital music as far as a popular medium goes, which at first seems counter-intuitive, since text is so easy to generate, transmit and distribute on the Web. But, of course, the raw logistics of digitizing text have less to do with “the digital book” than do the aesthetic and social requirements of that act of translation.

Conversations about the digital book, and about Kindle in particular, have productively focused on the secondary but crucial decisions that surround the decision to transmit textual intellectual property for profit: aesthetics, convenience and personal usability; how a digital book echoes or extends the social or phatic uses of the paper book. The digital book benefits now from the cultural lessons we have learned about music, lessons about how “digital music” as a concept is only partially about the content itself and largely about ownership, social communication and various patterns of use. I’m going to spend some time doing the same thing here, asking questions like:

  1. What are the primary or secondary uses or pleasures of the physical comic, or of the social system around the physical comic? In other words,
    • What do we do with comics?
    • Why do we buy comics?
  2. What does a digital comic service (regulated or unregulated) extend or mimic from the sphere of physical comics production and reception? In other words,
    • In what ways can online comics meaningfully replace physical comics?
    • In what ways are physical comics difficult or impossible to replace?
    • How can online comics meet the needs of comics consumers better than physical comics, making them therefore valuable?

So, part one: what are comics good for? These are the big pleasures I’d identify in the buying, reading, and use of comics (both mainstream and independent, in different degrees):

Comics as serial entertainment. Both DC and Marvel have over the past few years beefed up the universe (multiverse) concept to emphasize their releases as ongoing chapters of an evolving meganarrative, and as a result the importance of the present fictional “moment” has increased. Comics events like the death of Captain America have value as news as much as fiction. The quintessential example is Countdown, a weekly series whose social value is tied to the current moment, whose “zero-day” value is perhaps greater relative to its ongoing value than any comic before it.

Comics as social media. Closely related to comics as serial entertainment. Comics are phenomena around which interest communities coalesce, exchange information, co-create, and build relationships. Quintessential examples: again, Countdown as a medium, but it might be more productive to think about how this manifests in your local comic book shop, or in the message boards or news sites you frequent.

Comics as imagined history. The accretion of serial entertainment is serial history, and both DC and Marvel leverage what has come before to generate new stories. Spider-Woman and the Legion of Super-Heroes have a lot of backstory, and no one’s giving the reader much exposition: it’s important to be able to find and reconstruct the backstory. Quintessential current examples here: Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, the Essential and Showcase phonebooks.

Comics as aesthetic form. Occasionally, comics not only create a serial meganarrative but do so well. The current mainstream comics culture is one of event and story ascendancy, so the separation of writerly or artistic style from narrative is less explicit, but it’s dangerous to elide the power of Bryan Hitch’s layouts, or Morrison’s prose, or Bendis’ ear for dialogue. Quintessential current examples here: Morrison/Quitely on All-Star Superman, both Bendis/Maleev and Brubaker/Lark on Daredevil.

Comics as fetish object. Beyond formal aesthetics, there’s the pleasure of the comic as object. The value argument for the material pleasures of the comic is in many ways identical to the value argument for the material pleasures of books in general, and the rise in the mainstream book market of McSweeney’s has been mirrored by the rise in the comics market of Ultimate editions, Chip Kidd trade dress, Chris Ware, and… well, McSweeney’s. Quintessential current examples here include Jack Kirby’s Fourth World Omnibus.

Next I’ll spend a little time describing how these pleasures could ideally be met by a digital comics service, and begin looking at how and whether Marvel and DC are currently meeting these needs.

Blogging Countdown: 5

Ryan, you know it’s totally OK to like Countdown: no one’s judging you, really. I’m warming to it, I guess. I like that blue lady from Earth-34, which is I guess where X-Men villains from 1995 live in this new multiverse.

Well, this has been a big week, and a surprisingly good one to talk about fanboys, something of an idee fixe of your musings last week. Wally West and family got pulled back home from Speed Heaven; the Legion of Super-Heroes is all up in modern-day DC business again; it’s a good time to have been reading this stuff for an unhealthy length of time, or to have a love of Wikipedia.

“Fanboys” are kind of a constructed constituency, though, aren’t they? I don’t know if I’ve ever met anyone who self-identifies as one; “fanboy” is the Other, the emblem of habits and behaviors within comics fandom that we may find undesirable.

Specifically, you quite nicely situated “fanboy” as a figure of insularity, echo-chambering, preferring signal over noise:

What I would throw out there is that there’s always a huge risk when editors and writers are the comic fans themselves who’ve crossed a line and are fanboys writing fan fiction rather that acting as custodians of the DCU’s mega narrative.

In this argument, “fanboy writing” is understood as the practice of writing superheroes for self-pleasure rather than for the pleasure of a larger audience. I, comic book writer, tend to Green Lantern in certain ways out of a strong feeling of cathexis for him, and that is my prime mover, rather the pleasures of any imagined neutral audience, or the long-term health of Green Lantern as a character that speaks to the culture at large. “Fanboy” in this case is a motive, or a practice, rather than identity: the practice of privileging an internal dialogue — superhero fans talking to themselves about superheroes, fictions referencing themselves rather than worlds or ideas outside.

If this is the case, I would argue that, in the case of the DC Universe, we haven’t just crossed the line: we’ve left it far, far behind. That isn’t always a bad thing. From the reverent nostalgia that has become the modus operandi of Justice Society and Justice League (take a drink every time you read the word “tradition” in those babies), to the systemic self-analysis we’re seeing in Countdown, most of the best-selling stuff in the DC Universe is very embedded in the universe’s own mechanisms and history. Navel-gazing is currently a selling point, and as you’ve noted, the complexity it generates is pretty tractable.

I personally don’t think the fan-driven culture of superhero comics needs to beat itself up too much about its own fannishness. If “fanboy” is a signifier for myopia and echo-chambering, which it seems to be, then it’s all over the place, from Ocean’s 13 to the PlayStation 3. The fact that comic book fans are so self-reflective about their self-reflection actually seems quite responsible.

I’m going to turn on a dime here, though, and admit that the current fanboyish pleasures of the DC Universe are, for me, guilty ones. This complex self-reflection is fascinating to me as material for research, but if the superhero as a figure is more than a really awesome vehicle for complex self-referentiality — if it is, as most people agree, a vehicle for understanding conflict, ethics, and social ideals in popular culture — then DC is currently being lapped big time by a Marvel Universe generating very culturally provocative stuff in Civil War and beyond. It’s because of this that I find Black Adam really fascinating…

… but that’s a topic for next time. I’m headed to the beach, as you know, so I’ll cut this particular missive short and save up my hot air for the beach house.