Teaching Hub

Should Your Classes Be Like Fiefdoms or Fandoms?

by Nathan Loewen, Department of Religious Studies


Technically speaking, I am not a fan. Fans are found in fandoms, which are communities that 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 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 fan studies can teach academics how 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 want to apply the content 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. 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 fans 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?

  • Be sure to consider how any use of social media or online platforms unravels 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 the fandoms emphasize privacy and consent in order to elevate the level of participation and collaboration in 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 through an anonymous survey
  • Generating content for the constitution by alternating anonymous surveys with brief discussions of their content
  • Formulating iterations of a constitution through anonymous commenting
  • And then, demonstrating 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 a minimum, thinking about fandoms is useful for considering more deeply how I understand the importance of student 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?