The affective labor of fan studies: A pedagogical problem in two parts

Regina Yung Lee

University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This work describes the iterative redesign of a single introductory fan studies course over several years. The exigencies of teaching fandom tactics, combined with institutional uptake of affective labor, affect students' learning. Methods of addressing these issues in the next iteration of the course are contemplated.

[0.2] Keywords—Academia; Fan studies courses; Pedagogy; Teaching

Lee, Regina Yung. 2020. "The Affective Labor of Fan Studies: A Pedagogical Problem in Two Parts." 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] There is more to the work of the fan studies classroom than teaching technique. I found this out through multiple iterations of a single course on fandoms, and the transforming architectures of instructor labor that came with them. What I want to articulate here are the depth of fandom's pedagogical acts, evident in this course's design and execution, and the specific affective labor forms, as well as the work these pedagogical acts require when they come into contact with the institutional structures of the university. To no one's surprise, fandom's methods teach fandom effectively, but deploying these tactics requires prodigious affective labor—perhaps a commentary on fandom's pedagogical methodology, which seems to center on targeted forms of care work. Attempting to replicate something like fandom communities in my classroom resulted in institutional uptake and functionalization of that care—from both myself and my students. It also resulted in increases in immersion and connection with the subject matter. Here's what I've been thinking through as I revise the course once more.

2. The backstory

[2.1] I first proposed a special topics course on fan studies in spring 2015, knowing that its subject matter would likely be popular. I had underestimated the thirst: fifty seats filled in two days with students from a variety of majors. Using Hellekson and Busse's 2014 Fan Fiction Studies Reader, then hot off the press, we ventured together through discussions of slash as critiques of heteronormative representation, the alternate universe (AU) as feminist analytic, the recap as transnational mediation, postcolonial studies and racebending, and fan vidding as a tactical angle of responsive engagement. My primary forms of assessment comprised small collaborative written assignments, an individual paper, and a collective transformative final project. It all seemed to go relatively well.

[2.2] But after that first quarter, I realized that although we had covered the content, little of our learning had departed from a traditional lecture-based university course. Students' online interactions were fairly minimal, even as we studied online gift economies and digital mediation. In addition, I was still considered the major authority, even when our study took us to fandoms I did not know well. This was at odds with my own fannish education, both in fandom and in my piecemeal entry into the field of fan studies. The border tensions between fan cultures and academic coursework delineated a necessary rethinking of the syllabus. Could fandom's own techniques be used to teach fan studies in a formalized way?

[2.3] At this critical juncture, two things happened together: I read Paul Booth's illuminating article "Fandom in the Classroom: A Pedagogy of Fan Studies" (2012), which discusses his pedagogical process and gives some examples, and I went to WisCon 39, where fan studies scholars discussed TheoryOfFicGate in the immediate aftermath of this controversy ( A brief recap: in "Theory of Fan Fiction," a student-led credit offering at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2015, students were directed to read and respond to fan works on the Archive of Our Own fan fiction site ( However, without discussion of the comment's relational aspects, the students' responses left disruption behind them. This incident highlighted the problems with assuming fandom communication norms are transparent or self-evident (note 1).

[2.4] These two events galvanized my initial course redesign. While I had taught my students about fan studies as a field, I had not prepared them to tactically address issues emerging from its assumptions, which mostly follow those of fandom (Pande 2018). As Booth puts it, "By treating the classroom as a minute fan community, students effectively discussed the contemporary media scene and articulated a meaningful point of view about the practices of fandom. In other words, treating students as fans helped illustrate connections between fan culture and classroom culture" (2012, 174–75).

[2.5] I was about to find out how strong those connections actually were.

3. Reboot 1: The hybrid course

[3.1] My overhaul focused on the concepts laid out above: teach fan studies using fandom's own responsive, critical, and personally invested methods; engage students through collaborative networked online production; and discuss the ethics of accessing fan-created works. I created the online component of the course to flatten the power dynamics of lecture-based interactions. I hoped the peer-to-peer responses would mimic the many-to-many relations forming fandom ecologies of gift and response (Turk and Johnson 2012).

[3.2] Before teaching the course again, I contacted the fan creators on my syllabus, letting them know about the course, providing multiple options for acknowledgment or anonymity, informing them of the boundaries we use for interaction with their work, and requesting permission to use their work. All creators now had a reliable way to interact with me, especially if their needs changed. I also discussed these preparations openly with students on the first day, telling them what I had done and why I had done it. My goal with this part of the revision was to have students become keenly aware of the ethical components of studying, working with, and engaging with online communities (Busse 2018).

[3.3] I refocused student production around two weekly individual comments on our learning management system (LMS) and one weekly collaborative project, with a changing array of classmates. I provided an initial set of roles and descriptions for each five-person group: The Mod, The Researcher, The Archivist, The QC, and The Uploader. These roles were based on fan subbing groups from the mid-2000s who spread amateur translations of East Asian popular media, as described by Mizuko Ito (2012). In using these group categories, I introduced awareness of transnational and multilingual online fandom practices, coalescing around our unit on Korean popular culture in Anglophone contexts.

[3.4] As I planned the course, I imagined it as a form of immersion—an educational dip in the shallow end of the emotive, affectionate, digitally mediated, interactive all-inclusiveness that had characterized my own fandom heyday. A central tenet of these fannish responses was a kind of deep feeling for the work, respect for canon knowledge on display in the transformative work, and recognition of the time and labor that had gone into its creation. For my students, I called this care work "affection," and I delimited its presence as the defining separation between academic and fannish forms of writing.

4. Initial results

[4.1] Students leapt enthusiastically into the redesigned course. Their desire to learn and their willingness to experiment quickly led to massive amounts of output: two comments plus a collaborative project put total output at something like 100 comments and ten projects per week. Students' peer teaching, resource sharing, and desire to learn were evident. Together, we tried online quizzes, slide PDFs, asynchronous and synchronous assignments, collaborative and solo online work, and collaborative and solo classwork. Sometimes it worked.

[4.2] But sometimes it didn't. The format I designed wore away at us. Instead of an immersive dip into online participatory communities, our work ran aground on two major structural hurdles. First was the LMS-based interaction, which kept students' conversations within the class (note 2); it rendered their interactions through the complex matrix associated with student grading—which was its job. Second, the fervent devotion of a fandom model resulted in significant instructor burnout. The structures of reciprocity were so asymmetrically lopsided that comments the students were taking minutes to write were taking me days to return. This lopsidedness was highlighted by the unexpected but fortunate addition of a teaching assistant. These two circumstances brought to light the pedagogical conclusion that fandom's asymmetrical voracity and (interestingly) its basic motivations could be artificially echoed through the inducement of peer pressure.

5. The two-part problem

[5.1] With this redesign, the work or labor of fandom became a productive area of exploration, with students up in arms about whether fan writers should be paid, and whether or not such labor should protect the fan creator as copyright does the original work. Having students create works was a good technique for getting them invested in such creation's specific affordances and helping them understand the importance of invisible labor like that of the beta reader or fan sub QC, or even the emotional investment of a good reader.

[5.2] But the labor of the course was concomitantly immense. As Paul Booth notes, "I ask my students to work as fans" (2012, 175), and I required the same of myself. To do so was to insist on a kind of affective engagement from all of us that the university, frankly, may have no right to demand. How closely related were the simultaneous emergence of the inclusion of fandom methods, the methodology of affective engagement, institutional appropriation, and significant labor overload?

[5.3] First, fandom methods are not always legible as knowledge-gathering tools; these methods required repeated explication to students and TAs. Because students were being asked to work in unfamiliar forms using new methods, their midquarter assessments recorded confusion around the purpose and goals of their weekly exercises, even as I laboriously rehearsed these in each class. But students' transformed understandings joyously unfolded in their final collaborative projects as they deployed fan methods as creative, practical, tactical responses to canon texts.

[5.4] Second, the redesign required that I model and reflect fandom's intense digitally mediated affection back to all fifty students simultaneously. While each student commented on assigned fan works and students' group products two to three times a week, I commented back 110 times per week, engaging carefully, faithfully, and without replication. This was clearly unsustainable—and an indication of the reproductive care work (often gendered and racialized) that instructors perform (Chua 2000; Ahmed 2017). But I had created a bigger problem for myself: I had functionalized the gift of response. I had also hidden my labor from the institution through my refusal to institute a rubric.

[5.5] For fandom studies and its pedagogical wing, my anecdotal findings provided valuable insights into the problematic integrations of fannish methods into course-based assignments. I tracked my lagging capacity through the quarter as a time-based index of my affective labor. The addition of a TA and my partial withdrawal from commenting made these clear. Also, my new distance meant I was no longer course-correcting students' specific misunderstandings in midair. Without overt address of the comment's power in building fandom rapport, it was increasingly difficult to integrate students' collective online experiences into the classroom experience.

[5.6] This brought me to the heart of the matter. At a fundamental level, the students were contributing their gifts, and my TA and I were reciprocating them. However, combining the affectively weighted precision of the good comment with institutional assessment structures resulted in a cooption of the good comment by the assessment: that is, the care and precision of the good comment, as well as the affective labor required to produce it, vanished into the institution's LMS-mediated grading structures. I needed to untangle the functionalization of the comment from the LMS and illuminate the laborious work of the good comment, for both my students' sake and my own.

6. Reboot 2: Getting out

[6.1] Three things I'll do going forward:

[6.2] I already have a scaffolded lesson on how to build a good comment. I will be leaning into the institutionalization model to create a rubric as well. By assigning readily discernible values, the rubric simplifies work for both graders and submitters. By privileging fan-derived values, the rubric teaches the good comment through fannish norms. I am eager to see if a clear explication of the rubric's purpose and formation leads to better clarity in the classroom.

[6.3] Next, the weekly group projects will only continue for three weeks. I will continue the fan-derived random group roles, scaffolding for the final project, but all of the exercises will become transformative works because this was the group exercise that the students in the course designated as being the most helpful and interesting (and difficult). Leveraging fandom versions of response and critique to productively discuss course readings in fan studies should produce good summative assessment.

[6.4] I am still working out how to reintegrate effective online methodologies into the course, especially through the LMS. How to work collectively without either exposing my students to differentially damaging online circumstances or else burying all our work out of sight? The functionalization of affective relations between fans and their production seems to spiral much wider inside of this educational structure. One thing I can guarantee: no more grading 110 times a week.

[6.5] This record of the five years I spent refining a single fan studies course demonstrates the pervasive persistence of functionalization as a primary mode of online production, especially within the academy, highlighting serious inequities in the practices of teaching and scholarship within the US academy. I have offered this account as neither encomium nor invective but instead as proof of concept and an example of necessary change. The fan studies class can be taught using pedagogical tactics developed from within fan communities. It just risks functionalizing both the classroom and the tactics to the extant work of the institution as it is, not as we would like it to become. To this end, the Transformative Works and Cultures special issue on Fan Pedagogies, coedited with Paul Booth, addresses these complex discussions in more detail, includes more voices, and uses better tactics. We will find our solutions together—as fandom has for a long time. I continue to believe it is possible.

7. Acknowledgments

[7.1] With deep gratitude to the students of GWSS 290 S15, and GWSS 272 A16, W18, and A18, whose dedication, enthusiasm, love, and hard work fill all the interstices of this contribution.

8. Notes

1. Interestingly, this expectation of civility is where Rukmini Pande (2018) opens a discussion of what fans are and are not willing to discuss among themselves, including the thorny questions of racial representation and inclusion, like RaceFail '09 ( In consonance with Sara Ahmed's 2010 formulation of the "feminist killjoy" (someone who refuses the social tranquility of normalization), Pande refers to this critical interpolation as the act of a "fandom killjoy," considering the interruption as making an epistemological claim; see the introduction and Pande's discussion of RaceFail in chapter 1 for more. Reinterpretation of TheoryOfFicGate through these lenses would make for some interesting analysis but is beyond my scope here.

2. Keeping the comments within the class was a safety concern on my part, given the differential risks my students would face online, as well as part of my promise to fandom content creators that my students would not disturb the ecologies surrounding their work in digital arenas. I explained my logic to the students, and we came up with several course norms surrounding the leaving of comments at a later time, away from course-specific requirements—basically a restoration of a primarily fannish one-to-one relation over the created work.

9. References

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. "Feminist Killjoys (and Other Willful Subjects)." Scholar and Feminist Online 8 (3).

Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press

Booth, Paul. 2012. "Fandom in the Classroom: A Pedagogy of Fan Studies." In Fan Culture: Theory/Practice, edited by Katherine Larsen, 174–87. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Busse, Kristina. 2018. "The Ethics of Studying Online Fandom." In The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, edited by Melissa Click and Susan Scott, 9–17. New York: Routledge.

Chua, C. L. 2000. "A Stranger in the Department." In Power, Race, and Gender in Academe, edited by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and María Herrera-Sobek, 48–57. New York: Modern Language Association.

Hellekson, Karen, and Kristina Busse, eds. 2014. The Fan Fiction Studies Reader. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Ito, Mizuko. 2012. "Contributors versus Leechers: Fansubbing Ethics and a Hybrid Public Culture." In Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, edited by Mizuko Ito, Disuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji, 179–204. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Pande, Rukmini. 2018. Squee from the Margins: Fandom and Race. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Turk, Tisha, and Joshua Johnson. 2012. "Toward an Ecology of Vidding." In "Fan/Remix Video," edited by Francesca Coppa and Julie Levin Russo, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 9.