Technically speaking, I am not a fan. Fans are found in fandoms, which are communities who generate a shared discourse on a fiction narrative. Fans make the narrative their own by inserting and adding their own narratives to the fiction. Fans avidly share their creations and enthusiastically evaluate each other’s work. Fan communities establish norms for how to go about generating their discourse, and each fan holds the others to those responsibilities. While I am not a fan, I find something useful for teaching in the ethos and structure of fandoms.

In my experience the ethos and structures for teaching make classrooms function more like fiefdoms, where the teacher’s authority is organized around controls over the learning process. That structure informs the ethos of the class, too. As a teacher in the humanities, I find this model gravitates against one notion that runs in the background of student-centered, active learning: collaboration. I want to explore how my classes may be more like fandoms.

What follows is from a session on “Platforms that matter” at the 2017 HASTAC conference. The session focused on what fan studies can teach academics to set up their own peer-reviewed, open alternative to the current modes of dissemination offered by for-profit companies (See Pooley and Duffy and the open academic journal Transformative Works). I wish to apply the content of that session to teaching.

How might fandoms provide a model for a learning environment?

Much like designing a course, a fandom is created by moderators who establish the topic and focus of the space. They set the initial conditions for the community, too. In teaching, this amounts to the syllabus and the first day of class. What comes next somewhat departs from typical teaching practices: fans see what the space has to offer, and if it interests them, then they join. But they also expect to be actively engaged by the moderators to establish the community. One very common element is rules on privacy and ethics.

Fan rule #1: fans don’t out fans. Fan space is private. This is not a Facebook group. There is no tweeting about what fans are doing. The structure is focused on privacy so that fan can share in each other’s experiments, explorations, failures, and successes.

Informed consent is the bedrock principle of the fan ethos, and this translates into each fan’s effort to ensure that other fans do not misread or wrongly assume what can be made public. Each fan space has some kind of constitution or set of principles.

How does this translate to teaching?

  • One outcome is to consider how using social media or online platforms unravels students’ trust in the teaching environment.
  • Another is to respect actual fan spaces. Don’t send students into protected spaces and let them run wild.
  • Finally, I have begun to think much more deliberately about student privacy. Amy Collier has some useful reflections on learning and digital sanctuary, and I think it worthwhile to consider how to structure a class along the lines of a fandom. FERPA already promotes this kind of thinking, but fandoms emphasize privacy and consent in order to elevate the level of participation and collaboration a learning environment.

Devoting the first weeks of class to establishing a class constitution and collectively learning its practices is one example. I base my class constitution process on the work of Cathy Davidson, and that process may involve some of the following:

  • Presenting examples of class constitutions.
  • Starting a dialogue about the examples using an anonymous survey.
  • Generating content for the constitution by presenting everyone’s draft principles in anonymous surveys and brief discussions of the survey results.
  • Formulating iterations of a constitution through anonymous commenting.
  • Seeking unanimous assent to arrive at the final iteration.
  • And then, demonstrating and supporting adherence to the constitution.

In my limited experience designing constitutions in my courses, we, as a class, have always formulated principles for respectful contributions to class, moderation of speaking time and the importance of privacy.

I was struck by how the class constitution process leads to something quite close to something the presenters called a fandom. Isn’t that interesting?

Fans want to learn how to create and improve. Some fields or course topics may lend themselves more to this approach than others. At minimum, thinking about fandoms is useful for considering more deeply how I understand the importance of students agency and privacy. I think these considerations actually matter only in their application to actual teaching practices.

What do you think: how might your classes be modeled on a fandom?

Nathan Loewen is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Faculty Technology Liaison for the College of Arts & Sciences