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433 Words on Why Fandom Doesn’t Belong in Schools

Last month I had the honor of being asked to speak at the annual conference of NJCTE, a state affiliate of NCTE*. I actually presented twice that day, but this wasn’t so hard since the topics covered represented a kind of personal “greatest hits”—critical thinking via pop culture, scriptwriting as a means of connecting core curriculum and media education, and the literacies of fandom. It was this last topic that generated most of the audience interaction, which was all positive and supportive.

So where’s the problem?

Well, those who were enthusiastic about “fandom pedagogy,” even to the point of already putting theory into some actual practice, had a few, um, questions. Questions I couldn’t really answer—at least not in any definitive or pragmatic way. These were questions that had wiggled in my gut for some time, ones that I’d always categorized as matters “deserving of further consideration”:

1) How to preserve in classrooms both the full self-expression and the usually requisite total anonymity that characterizes online fandom?

2) How to avoid divulging students’ participation in specific fandoms when they would rather not share such private information with classmates?

Yes, these are not wholly original concerns, and there are some tentative work-arounds (e.g., student work can be anonymous to peers, not to the educator). Still, a far more troubling truth—maybe a truism, it seems so obvious—suddenly hit me: a key part of the power of the fandom is precisely that it lies outside the realms of codified hierarchy we find in school and in the workplace. In other words, all along my endless rationales and complaints regarding how curriculum doesn’t embrace fandom but should have been largely misplaced: it’s the fan, not the curriculum writer, who may be most averse to the idea of a partial overlap.

So until we can answer those questions above in a way that works for both educators and students, let’s hold off on importing youth fandom directly into the classroom, shall we? And no, this is not a full retreat, just an acknowledgement that things are trickier than they may have initially appeared.

Already I can see a possible way of reconciling the challenges with the benefits, and that’s by being mindful of the distinction between drawing on students’ personal, individual participation in fandom… and drawing on their fan practices—the general literacies they have developed that can be reinforced and transferred. We’ll see where this goes, and please drop me a line if you have any guidance for me. As you can see, I need it.

*the National Council of Teachers of English

About Peter Gutierrez