students and fans: fascination and frustration

Thinking some more about Jenkins’ Convergence Culture… And also Dan Anderson’s recent discussion of Jonathan Coulton and his song, "Code Monkey" (on YouTube). Basically the idea from Jenkins is thinking about the role fans can play in a networked culture. Fans develop a sense of ownership over the media they love. They complain when things don’t go as they hoped. They recruit more fans when they are excited. They expand on that world through their own creativity. As Jenkins writes, fandom "is born of a balance between fascination and frustration: if media content didn’t fascinate us, there would be no desire to engage with it; but if it didn’t frustrate us on some level, there would be no drive to rewrite or remake it" (247). Jenkins is a good read on its own merit, but my interest continues to be in thinking about how the practices of networked culture might move into academic spaces. (Jenkins also notes this, btw, suggesting that the crticial, creative, and collaborative practices developed in the "low stakes" space of pop culture fandom can be translated into politics, education, and the workplace.)

But how is the question.

I think this notion of fascination and frustration relates well to the classroom. I have always been opposed to the "cult of personality" approach to teaching, to the cultivation of devotees (not that it’s ever been much of problem). I’ve always felt strongly about the importance of students developing their own motivations and purposes for being in a course or being in college in general. At the same time, part of teaching is creating opportunities for students to engage in course material, to develop some fascination with the subject matter.

On the flip side, there is always some frustration with a course, a "drive to rewrite or remake it." In a typical course, as with traditional media, there was no opportunity to do so. However, taking up the opportunities of a networked/convergent pedagogy, this frustration can serve to intensify fascination.

Of course, you can’t just turn on a pedagogy like this. Students
(and faculty) need to learn how to behave in such spaces, just as they
learned how to behave in conventional classrooms. The participatory
spaces of fandom offer some insights into what these behaviors might be
like. I think one of the biggest challenges will be developing the ethos
of a fan community. Not to be cynical, but if an "Intro to Fiction"
course selects short stories b/c they imagine they won’t have to read
as much, then there’s an issue there that needs to be addressed. In the
terms laid out here, there’s a lack of "fascination" with the subject
matter. This is a significant problem, but not one I’ll address today;
it’s related to my many diatribes against general education.

However, making the (big) assumption that students are actually
interested in the course they are taking, there is still a challenge in
changing their relationship to the material, of their claiming the
authority to engage with the curriculum in the way fans engage with
media. We always say that we want student engagement, but we rarely offer a mechanism by which it can occur in substantive ways.

Imagine, however, an undergrad major being like a convergent media
production: a combination of print texts, websites, a video game,
television series, movie, soundtracks, etc. that is then extended by an
interactive fan culture. Every semester, you offer a dozen courses with
interlinked material, assignments, concepts, practices, and so on. The
linking is sometimes explicit and intentional, but mostly it’s just a
reflection of the fact that all the courses are part of a single
discipline and major. No one takes all the courses. The whole is thus
really a kind of amorphous zietgeist I guess. Each student has a unique
trajectory as s/he moves through the curriculum; each student
contributes to the network of course material and shapes the overall
experience. This doesn’t mean that one can’t have a core curriculum.
Even in the world of fandom there are things every fan must know and
rules every fan must obey (e.g., there are certain things Harry Potter
would never do, right?).

In the end it’s really not so alien, is it? Is it so strange to
imagine that every department hopes to inspire its students to engage
with disciplinary subject matter with the same intensity and interest
as an ardent fan? Now we just have new means of making that happen.

2 thoughts on “students and fans: fascination and frustration

Add yours

  1. I like the idea of rethinking the curriculum in terms of these convergences. It sounds doable here in the blog posting, but then I think about the working of curriculum development at most (or at least my) univeristy and become more cynical. Things incredibly siloed–the early modernists set aside from the Victorians set aside from the theorists set aside from the rhetoricians. That shouldn’t have to work against serious transformation, but it does mean that you need to get broad buy in to enact some revisions. Thinking about it, I see that we have some opportunities. We are looking at outcomes, for instance, that cut across the silos–things like develop a sense of historicity, genre, reading strategies, literary argumentation, etc. It seems we can get most members of the dept to agree to these kinds of goals. Why not exchange those for something like collaborate on an argument, remix an interpretation, network a performance? Such an exchange might do the trick, but you’d never get the buy in.
    This is helpful to think about, though. I think at our next curricular meeting I’ll see if we might not replace the old standards but at least fold some of these kinds of activities into the mix.

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  2. Thanks Dan. I wouldn’t even try to bring up something like this in my English department, though I think among our professional writing faculty these kinds of practices might be possible. I also go beyond my department looking for interested and interesting colleagues. Going back to Jenkins, the Convergent Media program at MIT is very interdisciplinary.
    That said, I think with the right faculty there would be great possibility for doing this work across English Studies. The challenge lies in rethinking literacy and then claiming that space for ourselves.

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