Teaching fan fiction: Affect and analysis

Kathryn Conrad and Jamie Hawley

University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, United States

[0.1] AbstractWe reflect on the design and first iteration of an asynchronous online university English course focused on fan fiction, with a particular focus on the anticipated challenges of negotiating affect and analysis in the classroom and the structure of the course.

[0.2] KeywordsAcafandom; Identity; Pedagogy; Positionality

Conrad, Kathryn, and Jamie Hawley. 2021. "Teaching Fan Fiction: Affect and Analysis." In "Fan Studies Pedagogies," edited by Paul Booth and Regina Yung Lee, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 35.

1. Introduction: "Please teach that! I would totally love that course!"

[1.1] Katie: As I began to envision teaching a course on fan fiction, an increasingly large chorus of enthusiastic students suggested that any such offering would certainly surpass enrollment minima. That was as far as I'd gotten at that point—a course on fan fiction—but the response was simultaneously enough to strengthen my resolve to start planning but also enough to give me pause. What was the source of their enthusiasm? Were students excited about the opportunity to study fan fiction critically? Were they looking to legitimize a passion that up until that point was outside the sphere of what they and others considered properly academic? Or did they think it would be a course in which I would be primarily encouraging fannish enthusiasm?

[1.2] The role of affect in fandom, fandom studies, and acafandom has been much discussed—and indeed, since before Jenkins's (1992) coining of the term "acafan," the affective component of fandom and fan fiction has been a primary focus of scholarship on fan fiction. Briony Hannell (2020), following a large number of feminist and fandom scholars, has recently articulated the justification for the inclusion of affect as an essential component of feminist methodology within fandom studies. And certainly fan fiction itself, as Coppa (2006) and others have repeatedly noted, has been delegitimized in large part as a result of the perception of it as connected both to affect and embodiment.

[1.3] While Wilson (2016), following Sedgwick (2003), Warner (2004), and others, has suggested the importance of valuing affect as a hermeneutic separate from the critical, I see no bright line between the two. To be critical or analytical is not to disregard affect, or even necessarily to approach it with a "hermeneutics of suspicion" (Ricoeur via Sedgwick 2003), but instead to articulate it as an epistemological position, a way of knowing that has value.

[1.4] Further, affect does not always mean positive affective response. As Wanzo (2015) has suggested, the love that many fans, including acafans, have for their fandoms may not only obscure the range of possible affective responses within fandom and fandom studies but also obscure the ways in which, for instance, "African American fandom is specifically haunted by specters of stereotypical, grotesque representations and performances" (¶ 4.6). For the acafan, and indeed for the fan in general, a critical approach can—and I would argue should—exist alongside a respect for and embrace of the affective, both the positive affect that fandom can generate (aka the "fandom is beautiful" approach) and the ambivalent or antifan approaches to which Wanzo refers.

[1.5] My serious consideration of the possibility of teaching a course on fan fiction was predicated on a combination of both affect and analysis. My own interest in fan fiction and fandom studies began in the early 1990s, just before Henry Jenkins's Textual Poachers was published, when a friend's sister loaned me her precious and irreplaceable Star Trek K/S zines for me to explore for a grad paper on contemporary American writing. I was entranced by the transformative approach to a TV series that was a formative part of my childhood. As a student of feminist criticism as well as the nascent gender studies, queer theory, and postcolonial studies, however, I was eager to think through—and perhaps challenge—the kind of cultural work that these fics were performing. Fandom interest and affect, in other words, tightly coincided for me with academic interest and affect. This only grew in recent years when I began to combine my scholarly interest in technology and literature with the renewed fandom enthusiasms that I and my family had nurtured.

[1.6] The decision to offer the course online rather than in person was a practical, pedagogical one that considered the best way to combine affect and analysis (note 1). First, as I spoke to students informally over the year prior about the possibility of offering a course, I realized that each fandom brought something different to the table—and I was certainly not familiar with all of them. The fandoms in which I had written and read the most fan fiction were likely to provide a touchstone, but I was not invested in teaching specific fics or fandoms. I wanted to provide students with the critical tools to approach their own fandoms, and I wanted them to learn from them what their fandoms could bring to the critical table. I also anticipated that squee—my own and others'—had the potential both to animate but also potentially to derail the critical approach I was hoping to encourage. Without a real-time classroom setting, I anticipated that students would have the time and space to safely and comfortably consider the critical material and explore its relationship to the fan fiction in which they were most interested—and, especially if they were fan fiction novices, to explore fan fiction in their chosen fandom for the first time without pressure to perform enthusiasm and without feeling lost in the language and norms of fandom interaction.

[1.7] That said, I also wanted students to have the possibility of creating an academic community that paralleled those found online on fan fiction and fan fic–adjacent platforms. Because before the pandemic our university's online course offerings were exclusively asynchronous (usually on a weekly lesson model), it seemed that the ideal way to manage this kind of approach would be through an online class that offered opportunities for asynchronous interaction (discussion boards or, in my case, discussion blogs).

[1.8] As I began to design the course in earnest in the spring of 2020, I was joined by an intern, graduating English and communications studies senior Jamie Hawley, who had already written extensively on fan fiction and whose critical interests and investments, I soon learned, dovetailed neatly with my own. Her approach to fan fiction was what I hoped to encourage in the students who took the course, and her experience with fan fiction was valuable in planning because it was much closer to that of my students than my own.

[1.9] Jamie: My introduction to fan fiction came at a young age. In 2009, when I was eleven, I began reading on the site, a fan site for the USA cop dramedy Psych (2006–14). Although I didn't know it at the time, this site was different from multifandom platforms like LiveJournal,, and Archive of Our Own in that it didn't allow sexually explicit content, and it didn't allow same-sex slash pairings of any rating. While this didn't concern me in the sixth grade, I soon began to branch out, exploring fan fiction in a number of niche fandoms and discovering in the process. I joined Tumblr around 2013 and eventually transitioned to Archive of Our Own for my fan fiction needs. As my experience in online fandom grew more varied, I began to look back on my Psychfic days with a more critical eye. As a child, I viewed slash as nonsense crack fic that got in the way of my OTP. As I grew older, I began to see the Psychfic slash ban for what it was: not only homophobic but also a clear example of how various fandoms' treatment of same-sex pairings has differed over time.

[1.10] It was this critical view that I attempted to carry with me as I began studying fandoms and fan fiction in college, which began in earnest after being introduced to scholarship on Shakespeare fan fiction in the spring of 2019. I knew fan fiction was worth studying; I had long accepted there was too much of it to be dismissed as frivolous, despite what the cultural conversation suggested at times. My final paper in my Shakespeare seminar, in which I analyzed Harry Potter/Romeo and Juliet crossover fic, led to my introduction to Dr. Conrad in my capacity as a student intern who was familiar not only with fan fiction scholarship but also with the experiences of my peers and would thus be able to contribute to the design of this online course. We immediately bonded over our shared understanding of both the difficulties and the importance of balancing affect and analysis in fan fiction studies, as well as a desire to frame this study like that of any other form or genre: a legitimate means of expression well worth the scholarship devoted to it.

2. Balancing affect and analysis in course design

[2.1] The course description tried to anticipate and shape the audience of the course by specifying that the course would "examine some of the definitions and characteristics of [fan fiction], the history and controversies that have surrounded it, and the critical work that it does and that it has in turn inspired, particularly (but by no means exclusively) around gender, sexuality, and storytelling." We also specified that students would be expected to think and write critically about fan fiction as well as produce a short fic of their own, including a short "author's notes" paratext. The course's general lesson plan is available in the appendix below.

[2.2] The arc of the course design was ultimately both topical and roughly chronological—that is, it began with definitions of fan fic, which were themselves connected to the larger history of fan fic, then to early fan fiction criticism, primarily feminist fan fic/fandom studies around the 1990s and Jenkins; and it ended with a more contemporary and forward-looking focus. The course also roughly fell into two parts: the first was primarily an exploration of fan fiction as cultural critique; and the second shifted more into critique of fan fiction, fandom, and fandom studies. As we were finalizing our course, we were also influenced by the cultural moment in which it was being designed. The protests and cultural attention to systemic racism precipitated by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans energized our commitment to make sure that race—from the negotiation of race in early slash fic and fic criticism it to the presumed whiteness of fandom—would be interrogated from early in the course.

[2.3] We acknowledged and encouraged affective responses from the start of the course. As the authors did with this essay (and as is the norm in most fandom and fandom studies interactions), we asked students in their first blog post to introduce themselves, their experience with fan fiction, and any fandoms in which they were interested.

[2.4] But we also anticipated the potential for conflict, especially given the emotional investments that some students might bring with them and the lack of experience with fan fiction, fandom interaction, and discourse that other students might bring. Knowing that there would not necessarily be shared experience or community norms, hoping to prevent the worst ad hominem aspects of fandom wars, and hoping to create a productive learning environment for a diverse population of students, we introduced the students to course ground rules in the first lesson, which were presented as a communal contract that students could add to if they chose. Based on principles set out in Ambrose et al. (2010), the ground rules were crafted to allow students to safely craft a space for respectful interaction. Students were given due notice that they would likely encounter—in fic, course readings, and conversation—controversial tropes or themes, and that they should both approach those topics as neutrally as possible and grant each other the grace to learn from each other and the course material. We also agreed that we would not expect students to read explicit fic, working on the principle of reader choice and an "ethos of consent" (Busse 2017) that informs fan fiction's paratexts (note 2).

[2.5] While the course began with definitional questions (what is fan fiction? What are different ways to "rewrite a television show," à la Jenkins?), the connection between the analytical and the affective was introduced in our exploration of early writing on slash (Lamb and Veith 1986; Penley 1992; Jenkins 1992), our examination of the feminist foundations of fan fiction and fan fiction criticism (Coppa 2020), as well as our exploration of the appeal of fandom genres (Busse 2020).

[2.6] At the halfway point in the course, over two weeks' lessons, we asked students explicitly to consider affect and identity in both fan fiction and fandom studies. In week 7, "Fanfic, Affect, and 'Legitimacy,'" students were assigned a number of readings that asked them to think explicitly about affect, fan fic, and fan fiction studies. They were asked to watch a portion of an interview we had recorded with Francesca Coppa (2020) that connected women's work, affect, and legitimacy; read an excerpt from Coppa's 2006 discussion of the Brunching Shuttlecocks' (in)famous Geek Hierarchy, in which she identifies how the hierarchy reinforces the traditional privileging of mind over body and, in particular, the female body; watch YouTuber KC's discussion of the degradation of fan fiction by "celebrities and influencers" (KC 2018); and read several articles on the role of affect in fan fiction and fan studies (Wilson 2016; Hansal and Gunderson 2020; Wanzo 2015).

[2.7] Rebecca Wanzo's 2015 essay bridged these two weeks. In the first week, students were asked to consider Wanzo's discussion of the acafan and antifan affect in the context of the value of affect in fandom studies. In the second week, students were asked to consider the ways in which representation and identity matter in fandom, following on earlier course discussions of gender, sexuality, and race. Students were asked to return to Wanzo (2015), Pande (2018), and Pande and Nadkarni (2013), and to explore the cultural politics of racebending, genderbending, and other canon identity transformations.

[2.8] The progress between the two weeks also marked a challenge to the notion that fan fiction necessarily always functions as critique, despite Jenkins's claim that "organized fandom is, perhaps first and foremost, an institution of theory and criticism, a semi-structured space where competing interpretations and evaluations of common texts are proposed, debated, and negotiated and where readers speculate about the nature of the mass media and their own relationship to it" (1992, 86). What Jenkins describes is what we considered to be the ideal of the course, but, as the readings and discussion that followed suggested, fan fiction and fandom studies often fall short.

3. Practice

[3.1] As anticipated, we had a range of students in the course, from those who had been reading and writing fan fiction since their tween years to those who had some general fandom interests but were new to the genre. The introductory video, required for viewing during the drop/add period, gave an overview of the course and stressed that students would "need…an interest in the topic and the willingness to think critically about fan fiction" and may have selected out one or two of those who had hoped for a different kind of course.

[3.2] Also as we anticipated, affect was a part of the conversation from the start of the semester, including discussion of the students' own fandom enthusiasms as well as explorations of topics like slash, Mary Sues, and ethics. Students shared a range of reasons why they did or did not share their investments in fan fiction with friends or relatives, with some suggesting that the shame associated with fan fiction was not as pronounced as it was in, for instance, 2002, the copyright date for Brunching Shuttlecocks' Geek Hierarchy (Coppa 2006). At this point in the course, several students made the connection in their blog posts between the dismissal of fan fiction and the devaluing of emotional labor as a highly gendered one.

[3.3] The assigned material and blog prompts also encouraged students to reflect on the relationship between affect and academia, and the general undervaluing of emotion in the work of the latter. Several students agreed that although affective investments (both positive and negative) could lead to bias, much research is animated by the researcher's passion for a topic. Some students commented that affect, even as an object of study, is often at odds with academic legitimacy. One student noted that, for instance, political science had moved away from a study of affect in a bid to be considered a "legitimate" science:

[3.4] "Real science" requires quantifiable evidence and controlled environments, neither of which is truly possible in the study of the feels. A similar thing may be happening in the study of English and literature wherein, as Wilson herself alludes, fanfiction requires "high level of knowledge of and insight into its source texts." A person outside of a fandom cannot understand the affective hermeneutics of a particular fanfiction work, thus making it difficult to truly study the nature of affect, and by extension, fanfiction. (Lee 2020)

[3.5] Yet even so, as this student and others suggested, avoiding affect in academia is disingenuous at best. As another student noted, "Only a privileged few can convince themselves that their minds are separable from their bodies" (Hays 2020).

[3.6] This latter reflection provided an apt transition to the questions Wanzo (2015) raises about race and antifandom and the following week's goal to "explain and provide examples of some of the ways that fanfiction and its affective investments intersect with author and reader identity" and "articulate some of the critiques of fanfic's and fanfic studies' relationship to identity and representation." Wanzo's article served as a bridge that allowed students to consider how fan fiction authors and readers as well as fan fiction/fandom studies scholars negotiate their own subject positions and affect. It also effectively allowed students actively and thoughtfully to value affective response and situate it as part of a more holistic relationship to textual experience—to consider, in short, how and why feeling matters. Students' nuanced responses indicated that they were able to maintain their affective engagement while simultaneously holding their own affective investments up to critical scrutiny and making suggestions for increasing inclusivity and sensitivity, including several suggestions that fan fiction writers engage sensitivity readers as well as the more traditional beta readers.

4. Conclusions

[4.1] On the whole, from the evidence drawn from student writing and engagement and evaluations, the course appears to have been successful in encouraging students to combine affect and analysis effectively, and indeed to consider affect itself as a worthy object of analysis. Students shared their own enthusiasms and built community, but they also moved easily to the "meta," analyzing their favorite fandoms and fics, including the fics they wrote themselves, with a critical eye. In their final blog post for the class, as they considered how fan fiction might productively be used in assignments for other courses, these students of fan fiction appear to have been inspired to take their skill in combining affect and analysis to animate, complicate, and enrich their academic experience beyond this semester.

5. Notes

1. The decision to offer the course online also preceded the Covid-19 pandemic, which caused many instructors to shift to online modalities for course delivery.

2. We also wanted to make certain that we and our students did not repeat the mistakes of TheoryofFicGate ( and specified that students "treat fanfiction or fandom communities outside of this classroom with respect" and "not pretend to be someone else or manipulate fan communities in order to gather research for the class." Students were expected to access fic outside of the class, and the only assigned readings were available through The Fanfiction Reader (Coppa 2017), but no students were required to comment on fics.

6. References

Ambrose, Susan, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. 2010. How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. San Francisco: Wiley.

Busse, Kristina. 2017. Framing Fan Fiction: Literary and Social Practices in Fan Fiction Communities. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Busse, Kristina. 2020. Video interview with Kathryn Conrad for English 329: Fanfiction, University of Kansas.

Coppa, Francesca. 2006. "Writing Bodies in Space: Media Fan Fiction as Theatrical Performance." In Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, edited by Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse, 225–44. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.

Coppa, Francesca, ed. 2017. The Fanfiction Reader: Folk Tales for the Digital Age. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Coppa, Francesca. 2020. Video interview with Kathryn Conrad for English 329: Fanfiction, University of Kansas.

Hannell, Briony. 2020. "Fan Studies and/as Feminist Methodology." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

Hansal, Sophie, and Marianne Gunderson. 2020. "Toward a Fannish Methodology: Affect as Asset." In "Fan Studies Methodologies," edited by Julia E. Largent, Milena Popova, and Elise Vist, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 33.

Hays, Marley. 2020. Blog post, English 329: Fanfiction, University of Kansas.

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

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

KC. 2018. "If You Read or Write Fanfiction, You Suck." YouTube, January 21, 2018. Video, 8:11.

Lamb, Patricia Frazer, and Diana L. Veith. 1986. "Romantic Myth, Transcendence, and Star Trek Zines." In Hellekson and Busse 2014, 97–115.

Lee, Quinn. 2020. Blog post, English 329: Fanfiction, University of Kansas.

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

Pande, Rukmini, and Samira Nadkarni. 2013. "From a Land Where 'Other' People Live: Perspectives from an Indian Fannish Experience." In Fic: Why Fanfiction Is Taking Over the World, edited by Anne Jamison, 344–52. Dallas, TX: SmartPop/BenBella Books.

Penley, Constance. 1992. "Future Men." In Hellekson and Busse 2014, 177–91.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 2003. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Wanzo, Rebecca. 2015. "African American Acafandom and Other Strangers: New Genealogies of Fan Studies." Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 20.

Warner, Michael. 2004. "Uncritical Reading." In Polemic: Critical or Uncritical, edited by Jane Gallop, 13–38. New York: Routledge.

Wilson, Anna. 2016. "The Role of Affect in Fan Fiction." In "The Classical Canon and/as Transformative Work," edited by Ika Willis, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 21.


Course description and syllabus, English 329: Fanfiction (Fall 2020)

Prof. Kathryn Conrad, University of Kansas

(Course administered on Blackboard; contact me for more information, including readings, videos, assignments, and discussion prompts.)

Course description

ENGL 329 Topics in Forms and Genres: Fanfiction. Instr. Conrad. Online. In Fanfiction Reader (2017), Francesca Coppa writes that "fanfiction is made for free, but not 'for nothing.'" If fanfiction is not "for nothing," what is it for? What does it do? And why is it, as critic Anne Jamison puts it in the subtitle of her book Fic (2013), "taking over the world"? We will examine some of the definitions and characteristics of the genre, the history and controversies that have surrounded it, and the critical work that it does and that it has in turn inspired, particularly (but by no means exclusively) around gender, sexuality, and storytelling. Students will be encouraged to think and write critically about fanfic in general and about published fanfic in the fandoms in which they are most interested, although there will be a few selected examples of fanfiction provided. Students will participate regularly in a course discussion blog as well as produce some written responses to readings, craft two critical essays, and write a (short) piece of fanfiction based on a selection of prompts.


Lesson One: Introduction to the course 24–28 August In our first week, we'll be getting acquainted with the scope of and resources for the course, reviewing the syllabus and expectations for the course, and introducing ourselves and our interests in fandom. For future reference, the ground rules blog lives here.
Lesson Two: What is fanfiction? 31 August–4 Sept What is fanfiction? We'll begin exploring—and possibly contesting—definitions and terms this week.
Lesson Three: Early Fanfic history & criticism 7 Sept–11 Sept This week, we'll be engaging with the work of early fanfic critic Henry Jenkins, and applying some of his formulations to fic of your choosing.
Lesson Four: Fanfic history & crit cont: slash fiction 14 Sept–18 Sept This week, we'll continue to explore some more of the foundational texts of fanfic criticism, with a focus on a popular genre: slash. Note: this week will involve some heavier reading. Ten Ways response essay due this week.
Lesson Five: More fanfic genres & tropes 21 Sept–25 Sept Last week, we looked at one very popular genre and some of its attendant tropes (e.g., hurt/comfort). This week, we'll explore some more popular tropes in fanfic, and think about genre in fanfic more generally and how it may differ from genre in mainstream published literature.
Lesson Six: Genres and tropes, cont: the Mary Sue 28 Sept–2 Oct This week, we'll read and talk more about the controversial and oft-derided figure, the "Mary Sue."
Lesson Seven: Fanfic, affect, and "legitimacy" 5 Oct–9 Oct Continuing some of our conversation about affect, this week we'll discuss the "legitimacy" of fanfic, the reasons it is often scorned, and the shame that does (and doesn't) emerge from writing and circulating fanfic. Note: readings are heavier this week and next.
Lesson Eight: Fanfic and identity 12 Oct–16 Oct This week, we straddle the line between thinking about fanfic as (cultural) critique and thinking about critiques of and challenges to fanfic as we think about the relationship between fanfic and identity. Note: Fanfic + Notes due this week.
Lesson Nine: Fanfic and legal battles 19 Oct–23 Oct This week, we'll look at some of the legal conflicts that emerged in the early years of fanfic publication, including cease and desist orders, and one contemporary and slightly unusual legal battle that has emerged out of the fanfic "omegaverse."
Lesson Ten: Fanfic, labor, infrastructure, & exploitation 26 Oct–30 Oct If fanfic isn't part of the usual publishing economy, does it fit into any economy? Does the infrastructure that houses fanfic really matter? Are fanfic writers exploitative—or are they exploited? We'll explore these questions this week.
Lesson Eleven: Fanfic and ethics: RPFs 2 Nov–6 Nov We'll dig into some of the ethical controversies that have emerged out of fandom with an exploration of the ethics of RPF, or Real Person Fiction.
Lesson Twelve: Fanfic and ethics pt. 2: content & trigger warnings, censorship 9 Nov–13 Nov This week, we'll read and discuss the ethics of about warnings, tagging, and censorship in and of fanfic. Note: Meta due this week.
Lesson Thirteen: Fanfic & fandom trends 16 Nov–20 Nov This week, we'll probe some of the changes and trends within fanfic as well as how fanfic fits into fandom culture more broadly.
Lesson Fourteen: Fanfiction as/in pedagogy & the academy 23 Nov–25 Nov This week, we'll be doing a different kind of "meta": we'll be exploring the ways that fanfic might be used in classes other than in a class on fanfic.
Week Fifteen: Study Week & Course Evaluation 30 Nov–4 Dec I would be happy to meet with folks this week to discuss final revisions. As per University policy, there are no new assignments or course material this week. Use this week to work on any revisions you'd like to make to your assignments. If you have missed any short assignments, you can get partial credit as per the rubrics if you submit by the end of this week.
Week Sixteen (Finals Week): Revision 6 Dec–11 Dec This week, you'll submit any paper revisions you have (due by Friday, December 11 at 11:59 pm).