Fandom as classroom practice: A teaching guide, edited by Katherine Anderson Howell

Adam Golub

California State University, Fullerton, California, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Fan studies; Pedagogy; Remix

Golub, Adam. 2019. Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide, edited by Katherine Anderson Howell [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 30.

Katherine Anderson Howell, editor. Fandom as classroom practice: A teaching guide. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2018, paperback, $70 (168p), ISBN 9781609385675.

[1] The curriculum, the classroom, and the very genre of "books about teaching" are all reimagined in innovative ways in Fandom as Classroom Practice: A Teaching Guide. Edited and with an introduction by Katherine Anderson Howell, an independent scholar and multigenre writer, this collection of eleven essays demonstrates the pedagogical value of integrating fan practices into our teaching spaces. The volume's central premise is that "the ways that fans create can provide models for students in the academic classroom" (1). Contributors discuss how they use fandom to teach subjects such as literature, market research, composition, communication, literary theory, popular culture, and foreign language. In addition to the core chapters, Fandom as Classroom Practice includes three appendices: sample syllabi, sample assignments, and the transcript of an interview conducted by Howell with a student who took her "ReWriting Jane Eyre" course.

[2] A common theme across the essays assembled here is the power of fan practices not only to engage students in the material and teach them critical skills and dispositions but also to transform the classroom environment into one that values play (remix) and community (affinity). When teachers design and create a "remix classroom," they invite students to compose, to "write back," to "play with the material they study" (2). Similarly, an "affinity classroom" encourages students to develop a meaningful relationship with the course topic, the classroom community, and the larger academic culture; it inspires them to "participate in their education, to talk back to experts and authorities, and to shape the discourse themselves" (7). Fandom as Classroom Practice makes the case that translating fandom concepts such as remix and affinity spaces into formalized pedagogy can reframe teaching and learning "as actions, practices to be done, not lessons to be consumed" (7).

[3] What is especially noteworthy—and, frankly, exciting—about this essay collection is its commitment to bringing student voices into the pedagogical conversation. Here, we do not just see the classroom through the eyes of the instructor. Much as fan studies writ large seeks to foreground and take seriously the voices of fans, Fandom as Classroom Practice listens to learners, creating space for students to comment and reflect on their experience in remix classrooms. To this end, the book maintains a dual focus on "praxis and response." As Howell writes in the introduction, "This volume does not rely solely on an instructor's perceptions of student work or on evaluations as mere data but rather values students as coscholars and cocreators of the classroom" (8). Indeed, a number of the chapters are designed to be read in tandem: in one chapter, a teacher will describe their pedagogy, and in the succeeding and correlating chapter, a student or students will write about what they learned in that particular class. You can find four instances of such couplings in the table of contents, and the remaining three chapters, though not paired with student responses, adeptly find ways to integrate the voices of learners into their discussion, using various forms of student feedback.

[4] The essays themselves lay out pedagogical strategies that are both fresh and readily adaptable to a variety of academic subjects and instructional levels. Readers who do not necessarily teach these specific subjects will very likely find ideas and activities they can borrow, modify, and implement. For example, in "Adaptation as Analysis: Creative Work in an English Classroom," Anna Smol describes how she incorporates fandom into her undergraduate course on medievalism. The course looks at the "re-creation of any aspect of the Middle Ages in a later time," with a special focus on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien and the concepts of adaptation and intertextuality (17). Because her students are exploring Tolkien's revisioning of texts like Beowulf, Smol uses the class as an opportunity to challenge them to create adaptations of their own. "Why just study adaptations as an external observer when you can create an adaptation and experience the process…from the inside?" she asks (20). Accordingly, Smol tasks her students with creating a "transformative work in any medium" that responds in some kind of way to a text they are studying.

[5] While this is a creative assignment that invites playful learning, Smol carefully structures and sequences the project so that students have clear parameters for their research and their final product. Smol helpfully describes a three-stage assignment she uses to guide students' thinking as well as focus her evaluation of their creative work. Students must keep a planning journal, or "design log," throughout the semester, where they narrate their research process: each journal entry must be dated and written in complete sentences and should discuss the sources students have read, how they found those sources, and how their ideas are evolving. Smol encourages students to "keep track of dead ends as well as discoveries" (23). The first step in the adaptation process is design: students should talk about what they are planning to do. The second step is craft: how will they effectively portray their ideas to their audience? And finally, insight: what did they learn from producing an adaptation? Students are given deadlines and word counts for addressing these steps in their planning journal. Smol also schedules time for students to present their adaptations to the class. And at the end of the semester, they have the opportunity to revise any portions of their design log "if they wish to express more clearly their project aims or to develop their ideas further" (28). For any teacher who has aspired to assign creative work in the classroom but has grappled with how to structure and assess student products, this essay is a terrific resource.

[6] Smol's adaptation assignment appears to have been a success. For her project, one student did a dramatic retelling of an Old Norse poem that influenced Tolkien but told it using American Sign Language. Another student produced artwork that explored Tolkien's use of color in his writing. Another student composed a storyboard of photographs for an imagined dystopian film version of The Lord of the Rings set in the future. In each case, the students' creative work was guided by focused research, deep consideration of craft, and meaningful exploration of fannish practices of adaptation and intertextual engagement. One of Smol's students wrote a response that serves as the next chapter in the book. The author, Rebecca Power, talks about the excitement of becoming a "subcreator" in Smol's class, a "creator of myths and worlds through the use of language" (32). The creative assignment helped Power make connections among texts. In addition, she felt it allowed her to "become part of the ongoing conversation that adaptation creates" (33). Ultimately, writes Power, the remix classroom "reunited me with creative and abstract thinking" (34). It also, incidentally, inspired her to pursue graduate work in English.

[7] Paul Booth similarly has his students produce fan work in his course on "Fandom and Active Audiences," as described in his chapter, "Waves of Fandom in the Fan Studies Classroom." Booth's course focuses on fandom's historical development and study, and to help students investigate the issues raised by this subject matter, he gives them a term-long assignment "that asks them to analyze their fandom as it applies to their own lives" (116). A copy of Booth's syllabus is helpfully reproduced in Appendix B. Students must select a media text (book, video game, film, television series) that they are interested in. They must maintain a Tumblr account that follows their chosen text. Their first assignment is to analyze their text and describe the generic and component parts—characters, narrative, plot, locations—that fans "take hold of and attach to themselves" (145). Then, students write their own fan fiction story about the media text they have chosen; the story is accompanied by an analysis that "describes how it connects to the media text and offers historical context for the genre of fan fiction" (145). Next, students offer a critical reading of a fan-created work, such as fiction or a video, and compare it to their own product. Then, students create a fan video three to five minutes long, along with a statement that describes how it fits in with topics discussed in class. Finally, students must reflect on their Tumblr experience as a "community of voices." In the succeeding chapter, Booth's student Ashlyn Keefe remarks that the course's "twofold process of in-depth creation and objective yet subjective analysis of our own fan creations masterfully coerced us into a critical engagement with our fan texts" (127). Keefe also notes that the class helped her understand the importance of fan studies in giving students a critical lens for understanding today's media environment.

[8] Still other inventive ideas appear in this anthology. Shannon K. Farley talks about how she uses fan-created videos to teach deconstructive reading in her class on literary theory. Leslie Leonard and Lee Hibbard describe how they use online blogging spaces in the composition classroom to involve their students in "low-stake activities that would make them comfortable with their own writing voices and their ability to craft and sustain an argument" (48). Mattias Aronsson, Anneli Fjordevik, and Hiroko Inose discuss the use of manga to teach Japanese and English translation. Maura Grady, Richard J. "Robby" Roberson, Jr., and Erika Gallion recount a fascinating service learning project that had students surveying fans of local film tourism in Ohio (specifically, fans of "The Shawshank Trail," which features sites that appear in the motion picture The Shawshank Redemption). Rukmini Pande explains how she uses a Lion King casting exercise—asking students to imagine themselves as directors of a live-action adaptation—to enable a critical discussion about racebending in popular culture.

[9] One can see how many of the ideas presented in Fandom as Classroom Practice would be portable to other disciplinary and interdisciplinary topics and educational settings. The book serves as a useful primer on fan studies—the chapters collectively make clear why and how we should study audiences—and also presents itself as a handy toolbox for teachers. In recent years, more and more scholars have been writing about the pedagogical applications of fandom, with such work appearing in the pages of various academic journals or in the form of an occasional chapter within a larger fan studies collection. So it is both timely and welcome to now have an entire book dedicated to the topic. Fandom as Classroom Practice delivers what its title promises, and I can see the anthology inspiring even further avenues of related inquiry. For example, one wonders how fandom might be a productive lens for studying history. So much of what is presented in this collection is digital and relentlessly of the now, but how might fandom practices of the past shape and inform the teaching and learning of history today? How did audiences engage with popular culture phenomena pre-internet, via fan mail and scrapbooking and postcard collecting and photography and fan clubs, for instance, and what might students learn from engaging with these analog practices in the twenty-first century?

[10] As Howell writes in the book's introduction, the experimentation that is authorized by playful learning "leads [students] to new knowledge and interpretations" (9). And for teachers, I would argue, the tales of remix classrooms collected here invite us to remix our own pedagogy and see what transpires.