Amid the stress of grades, coursework, and piles of assigned readings, what can we do to remind students—and ourselves—why we came to the academy in the first place? How can we liven up the classroom. Last fall, I was offered the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant for ENGL 261: British Literature to 1660. The survey class, compulsory for the majority of undergraduate English degrees, features the daunting likes of Beowulf, Paradise Lost, and the other usual suspects of the early English literary canon. In the first class, it became clear that many students’ academic interests lay elsewhere, and that the centuries-wide chasm between today and Volume A of the Norton Anthology of Western Literature positioned the syllabus as largely un-relatable.
To render these texts more appealing and accessible, the students didn’t need me at my most academic—the needed me at my most fannish: as someone capable of modeling interest and of connecting the works and concepts under discussion to cultural objects they already knew and cared about. Clips from ABC’s comedy musical Galavant opened the door to discussions of courtly love and the chivalric code; She’s the Man clarified the stakes and subversions of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The weeks where we took contemporary adaptations as our conversational starting points resulted in some of the more enriching critical conversations we had.
Around that same time, I sat down with my fellow members of the organizing committee for the annual Concordia English Graduate Colloquium to decide the theme of our fifteenth iteration. Our concerns cohered around a collective desire to do exactly what I was struggling to do in class: to make scholarship more engaging for academics and the broader public.
Like canon-driven syllabi, conferences have long been criticized for their elitism and affective distance. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Friere describes an academy that is “detached from reality,” disconnected,” and governed by an “alienating verbosity.” Such a disconnect means that, as academics, we occasionally forget what drew us to scholarship in the first place, how we initially learned how to close read not in classes but through our favorite books, movies, video games, and an assortment of cultural objects that only tangentially make their way into class discussions.
A number of my co-organizers and I were fans long before we became serious about academia. We are, to borrow Matt Hills’ widely popularized term, aca-fans, liminal individuals who identity as both fans and academics, and who have access to the cultural communities and means of knowledge production of both. When our committee settled on “The Sincerest Form of Flattery” as the title for our call, we didn’t want to create a fan expo by overthrowing the structures of academia altogether. Instead, we wanted to open a dialogue between criticism and cultural objects not often discussed in universities. Our panels examined fan-fiction, memes, video games, Disney, movies, translated letters, and social media platforms through the lenses of feminist, queer, and postcolonial theory.
The conference concluded with a keynote address from Dr. Hannah McGregor, an Assistant Professor in Publishing at Simon Fraser University and one half of the duo behind the fortnightly podcast Witch, Please. McGregor’s talk, “Like Dumbledore’s Army Except Hermione is In Charge: Podcasting, Feminist Fandom, and the Public Academic,” addressed the intersections between fandom and scholarship.
McGregor suggests that the aca-fan “can bring fannish enthusiasm into the classroom and critical thinking into fandom.” In addressing what a critical practice that is at once analytical and based in love rather than disdain would look like, she says, “My theory is that it would look an awful lot like fandom: engaged, enthused, uninhibited, critical yes, but lovingly so.”
Fandom synthesises affection and criticism. As Anne Jamison argues in Fic, fanfiction takes a story and “makes it new, or makes it over, or just simply makes more of it.” A form of making, fanfiction is bound up in an excited desire to take part in a conversation, to say something—and this something is often a critique. The difference is that this form of productive criticism develops out of attachment, engagement, and excitement, not cool superiority.
A pedagogy that looks like fandom would therefore be generative rather than silencing, community-oriented rather than isolating. Unfortunately, the specialized language of fandom and the critical interventions that fans undertake out of a desire to explore, transform, and improve the objects of their fandom are often elided or disparaged as being too uncool precisely because they’re too affected. As McGregor notes, “[t]he primary difference between cultural criticism and fan production is the institutionalization of the former,” but imagine what can happen if we were to grant fandom institutional acknowledgement as scholars like Hannah McGregor, Marcelle Kosman, and Anne Jamison do? Imagine what it would be like to sit in a classroom and be encouraged to feel.
When we teach the same texts over and over in a way that, as Freire describes, “is alien to the existential experience of the students,” we teach without affect and we teach students that affect and affection does not belong in the classroom. There is merit in studying the cannon, but it’s about time, I think, that we adapt the syllabus.