Exploring a threshold concept framework to fan studies research methodologies

Danielle Hart

Mandy Olejnik

Miami University of Ohio, Oxford, Ohio, United States

[0.1] Abstract—We turn to threshold concept theory to imagine ways scholars can approach fan studies methodologies and make their research and underlying values more explicit, as well as outline what some common and shared values and foundational concepts are in the discipline. We consider notions that all fans understand and value, regardless of home discipline, and the ways such shared understandings can lead to shared and consistent research methods and methodologies. We also provide some examples and illustrations from our own experiences before concluding with a threshold concept–inspired framework for conceiving of fan studies methodologies.

[0.2] Keywords—Interdisciplinarity; Methodology; Shared values

Hart, Danielle, and Mandy Olejnik. 2020. "Exploring a Threshold Concept Framework to Fan Studies Research Methodologies." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Like many fans, neither of us knew what fan studies was until we were deep into it ourselves as both practitioners and scholars. Danielle was introduced to fan studies during her master's degree, where she studied literature and read fan fiction simultaneously and in similar ways. She felt some disciplinary tension, wondering if she would be allowed to study fan texts as a literary scholar rather than a scholar in media studies. Mandy wrote fan fiction secretly for years, with others scoffing that she wasn't writing anything real. She then met Danielle during graduate school, where she realized that people in her field of composition and rhetoric—and in other fields across the academy—dedicated their research to this area of study. Our introduction to fan studies, then, happened organically, and sometimes in conflict with others' perceptions of what fan studies is and is not. We happened upon this field without explicit instruction; we learned more about it as we moved forward with it. And we wonder how fan studies can be made more explicit for newcomers in the field, both in terms of what it is and how people study it.

[1.2] As we will discuss in this piece, there may not—and perhaps should not—be one set of methods or one concrete methodology for all fan studies scholars to use in their research, given the diversity of academic disciplines that contribute to fan studies. Sam Ford (2014) reminds us that fan studies is an "undisciplined discipline" with concentrated efforts by practitioners and scholars for it to remain so (54). Fan studies is indeed a field made up of—and made rich by—various disciplines and influences, which provide many pathways into the field. However, as we will posit, there are inherent and overlapping values and beliefs undergirding one's fan research methodologies and approaches that should be made explicit. We are not advocating for any particular set of rules when it comes to the study of fans and fan works, but in order for us to "express a common sense of ethics, practices, and stances" in fan studies, we need to come together and think carefully about what we know, how we know it, how others might see it, and what we must understand to approach fan works as fan studies scholars. In other words, we need to have some explicit semblance of a connection and interaction across disciplines when thinking about the work we do and how we do it in order to not only do it ourselves but also facilitate entry into the field.

[1.3] To address those needs, we explore how threshold concept theory—an interdisciplinary framework known for its focus on process and acceptance of struggle and liminality—can lend itself to making fan studies methods and methodologies more explicit and accessible for both newcomers to the field and seasoned practitioners, buoyed by our own experiences with it. As we will argue, threshold concepts can be helpful tools both for fan studies scholars and fans themselves to consider in their methods, methodologies, and practices. We can think of threshold concepts here in relation to fan studies as ways of thinking and practicing. Building from this framework, we also offer three threshold concepts we've begun to identify for fan studies, hoping to start an important conversation about inherent beliefs and ways of doing and researching in the field.

2. Threshold concepts: Definitions and application to fan studies

[2.1] Threshold concepts are foundational concepts a person internalizes as they come to fully participate in a discipline. Ray Land and colleagues (2005) define threshold concepts as "concepts that bind a subject together, being fundamental to ways of thinking and [practicing] in that discipline" (54). They are "akin to a portal" that opens "a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something" (53). Threshold concepts are characterized as transformative, probably irreversible, integrative, possibly often bounded, and often inherently troublesome (Meyer and Land 2003). To provide an example, "pain" is a threshold concept for undergraduate medical students: it transforms their thinking from personal to "in the discipline" because they learn to see pain differently as a medical practitioner. They view pain in a helpful way to diagnose and treat patients as opposed to the negative perceptions they've likely experienced themselves in the past (Meyer and Land 2005, 374).

[2.2] To that end, there's undoubtedly an essence of transformation involved that characterizes threshold concepts. Once students learn threshold concepts, there's no going back—an internal shift in their perspective takes place that often cannot be unlearned and brings them into the discipline. Students go through recursive, nonlinear learning tunnels during their transformational journeys, but some learners are better able to traverse the tunnel and grasp certain threshold concepts sooner (Rattray 2016). There's also a sense of loss as a learner lets go of a previous way of thinking in favor of the transformed one. They must "strip away, or have stripped from them, the old identity" as they veer toward a new one (Goethe, quoted in Meyer and Land, 2005, 376). They must see "the universe through the eyes of another" (Proust, quoted in Land et al. 2005). This opens a new portal through which to view the world while also closing a formerly used one.

[2.3] Threshold concept theory can be seen as a useful tool that instructors—and fields like fan studies—can use to help learners master and struggle through disciplinary concepts, as well as a helpful framework to use when building courses and curricula. It's a tool that relies on disciplinary and subject expertise and ways of thinking and being, and, arguably, it exists without a home discipline of its own. It also makes more explicit to newcomers what masters have spent years gleaning. Much discussion of threshold concepts revolves around disciplinarity, and it's especially interesting to think about threshold concepts in the context of fan studies as a field that exists on the edge and in the midst of various disciplines, as we and others have already established (Ford 2014; Evans and Stasi 2014, 6).

[2.4] Building from this discussion of threshold concepts and of doing and being in the context of fan studies, we'd like to share what we've identified as the possible threshold concepts fans and fan studies scholars encounter in their work. We are thinking about what it means to do fan studies, how one becomes a fan, and what conceptions and understandings fans embrace and embody as they become members of these communities. Explicitly naming and examining these concepts is important, for many scholars and practitioners alike may implicitly already find them integral to fan work and useful for better understanding and advancing the work that they do. Ultimately, we hope that our discussion helps to elucidate what threshold concept theory may look like in our field and make room for further conversations to be had.

[2.5] First and foremost, we affirm that fan fiction is a valid form of literature and writing that is worth scholarly attention. To the readership of this journal, this statement may already be familiar and affirm your beliefs about fan fiction. As we described in the introduction, we both came upon this concept organically, without anyone explicitly telling us what it was and that it was true. But it's nonetheless there, rooted in our educations and our lived experiences as we now formally study fan fiction. We argue that the fact that this concept seems so intuitive to us, and to many others in the field, while perhaps not resonating with people outside of our field, indicates that this concept is something that we internalize when we become acquainted with fandom and fan studies.

[2.6] In line with that first threshold concept, we embrace that the creation of fan works is not just copying another's creative work, and can be generative and meaningful for creators and audiences alike. Again, this statement may feel familiar to those immersed in fan studies scholarship and those involved in fan communities, but this concept is something that a person has to acquire and learn over time to fully understand, appreciate, and operate within the community. We recognize that this is a concept that might be difficult for someone outside of the fan studies field, or those new to the field, to automatically accept and understand. Mandy, for example, has been asked several times by colleagues when she will start to write real fiction instead of copying others' characters and storylines, which indicates a difference in understanding about what kind of writing is valid. Those who do not currently accept or understand that fan fiction is a genre in its own right may still be in the process of learning about and experiencing fan studies, or they have previous (mis)conceptions about what fan works are. Resulting from such experiences, we wonder what steps need to happen for colleagues to cross the appropriate threshold and stop asking such questions about copying. We also think about how they could possibly make this leap when, unlike in a more formalized area of study such as writing or history, people are not likely to take a designated class in fan studies to introduce them to such ways of doing and being.

[2.7] Finally, we posit here that fan studies researchers must respect fans' agency and consent when conducting research on them and their works. The notion that fan studies researchers should respect the unique situation of fan works and the potential precarity of fans has been adopted by Transformative Works and Cultures in their submissions guidelines, and this notion has been taken up extensively in fan studies scholarship (OTW n.d.). Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (2012) address how fan studies methods have diverged (or, at least, should diverge) from those of the humanities by their different approach to close readings of texts: "fans perceive the space where they create their artworks as closed," and "it is not ethical to ignore fans' expectations of privacy" (39–46). Busse and Hellekson advocate for asking permission from fan creators whenever possible or making an effort to conceal the creator's identity. Similarly, Brittany Kelley (2016) writes that "we have a responsibility to enact an ethics of goodwill that balances the concerns of fans with those of scholarly development" (¶ 1.7). This could involve forming relationships with participants and making sure they are aware of the goals of one's research study (Kelley 2016, ¶ 4.11). Our threshold concept is clearly one that is already being explored in fan studies scholarship, indicating that it is an idea most of us have engaged with at some point.

[2.8] Though our ideas are by no means definitive or exhaustive, in our three proposed threshold concepts for fan studies we see values and principles that we—both as scholars and practitioners of this field—inherently recognize and agree with and that have changed us at our cores. In other words, because we accept these three concepts to be true in our work, we approach fan studies differently than someone who has not. We also see, in naming and describing these threshold concepts, a generative way to help introduce others into the field, be it burgeoning fan fiction writers, students taking a fan studies–themed course, or people who have no idea what fan fiction is. And if the threshold concepts above seem obvious to you (if you think of course fan works are not just copies!), it is likely that you have already crossed those thresholds, as many in fan studies have.

[2.9] From this discussion, we wonder: do such threshold concepts happen more organically than formally, as fans interact with work largely outside of the academy and begin to learn more and appreciate more about it as they go? Why is this? How can we make it more explicit? In asking such questions, we arrive at a certain tension and crossing between learning in a classroom and practicing outside the classroom as it relates to fan studies, which brings about even more methodological questions for us to consider as we move forward. How can one study this phenomenon of crossing fan studies thresholds when so much of it happens outside an academic setting? What tools and methods would be most helpful to see this transformation? Ultimately, we advocate for more explicit attention given to the values and ways of doing and being that we as fan studies scholars have come to internalize, which will manifest itself also in the methods and methodologies that we adopt when doing our work and demonstrating what it is we know and value.

3. Conclusion and takeaways

[3.1] It is important to recognize that even though scholars and practitioners of fan studies hail from numerous academic disciplines, professional workplaces, and areas of inquiry, there are still certain things about fan studies that most of us share in order to do fan studies and think about it in a certain way. We have begun to lay out what we consider to be threshold concepts—foundational concepts a person comes to internalize when practicing in a discipline—within fan studies. We also argue in this essay that explicit attention to and consideration of concepts like these can be a generative way to introduce people to the work, activity, and scholarship of fan studies.

[3.2] In doing this work, we must acknowledge that there are very real differences in disciplinary training that have effects and consequences, which is why it is so important to articulate and make explicit our shared beliefs. For example, Danielle's first foray into fan studies led to much confusion and uncertainty in both herself and her academic advisors regarding how to discuss and cite fan works because literary scholars typically do not need to obtain authors' permission to reference their works. As Danielle became more immersed in the field, she became aware of the shared beliefs of those working in the field and internalized those beliefs. However, this process could have been expedited had she been made more explicitly aware of these policies in the field, which indicates the value of clearly laying out fan studies threshold concepts and values (as Transformative Works and Cultures does in their submission guidelines, as previously discussed).

[3.3] Articulating the shared beliefs of fan studies scholars will ease the process of neophytes becoming experts and also has the potential to ensure that more fan studies research is being conducted in an ethical manner. Although threshold concepts often seem obvious to those immersed in the field, they may be more difficult for outsiders and newcomers. Understanding what our shared beliefs are, as well as why they exist, will help to produce a more cohesive and explicit fan studies methodology that crosses disciplines without discounting the unique benefits different disciplines and disciplinary traditions can bring to our richly interdisciplinary field.

[3.4] We write this essay, then, as two fan studies scholars bringing with them multiple identities and positionalities: both of us as fans, academic researchers, and teachers, but one of us as a literature scholar, one of us a composition and rhetoric scholar, and each of us uniquely exposed to methods and methodologies through our education and experiences. These similarities and differences are what make our endeavors as fan writers and scholars rich and storied. Methodologies that embrace and are receptive to such disciplinarity and framing are part of what makes fan studies research invigorating. In parting, we wish to reiterate the value of that interdisciplinary cumulation and also the advantages of making underpinning values more explicit in our research and our discussions of our research.

4. Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Tim Lockridge, Caitlin Martin, and Jason Palmeri for discussing earlier ideas and drafts of this article.

5. References

Busse, Kristina, and Karen Hellekson. 2012. "Identity, Ethics, and Fan Privacy." In Fan Culture: Theory/Practice, edited by Katherine Larsen and Lynn Zubernis, 38–56. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Evans, Adrienne, and Mafalda Stasi. 2014. "Desperately Seeking Methodology: New Directions in Fan Studies Research." Participations 11 (2): 4–23.

Ford, Sam. 2014. "Fan Studies: Grappling with an 'Undisciplined' Discipline." Journal of Fandom Studies 2 (1): 53–71.

Kelley, Brittany. 2016. "Toward a Goodwill Ethics of Online Research Methods." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 22.

Land, Ray. 2015. "Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge." Keynote Address, Vice-Chancellor's 13th Annual Teaching and Learning Conference, Plymouth University, Plymouth, United Kingdom.

Land, Ray, Jan H. F Meyer, G. Cousin, and P. Davies. 2005. "Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (3): Implications for Course Design and Evaluation." In Improving Student Learning Diversity and Inclusivity, edited by Chris Rust, 53–64. Oxford: Oxford Centre for Staff and Learning Development.

Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land. 2003. "Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines." Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses Project, Occasional Report 4, University of Edinburgh.

Meyer, Jan, and Ray Land. 2005. "Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge (2): Epistemological Considerations and a Conceptual Framework for Teaching and Learning." Higher Education 49:373–88.

Organization for Transformative Works. n.d. "Submissions." Organization for Transformative Works.

Rattray, Julie. 2016. "Affective Dimensions of Liminality." In Threshold Concepts in Practice, edited by Ray Land, Jan H. F. Meyer, and Michael T. Flanagan, 67–76. Rotterdam: Sense.