I decided to put my multi-genre essay here on my blog. I was going to just give a gloss of it, but I figured I made my arguments more clearly than a simple overview would. If anyone wants to read the fanfic that accompanied my paper an older version is HERE. Though I’m attaching a warning right now that it contains a graphic male/male/male sex scene. Without further ado, my essay~
Fanfiction in the Classroom
The problem of how to teach English as something that is not intimidating and daunting has troubled Humanities scholars for quite some time. In the upper echelons we all seem to want students to read more and to enjoy reading, but no one really seems to know how to achieve that within a classroom setting. I have a radical solution. Teach the writing of fanfiction in high school English classes.
In elementary school the texts were simpler, easier to enjoy, and teaches merely wanted students to comprehend the novel as well as a few themes. In elementary school, people are still concerned with making things engaging and interesting. In my third grade class we encountered a text with an ambiguous ending; The Giver by Lois Lowry, standard fare for elementary English. Our assignment in relation to the text was to rewrite or re-imagine the ending. We could continue the story or change the ending to make it more concrete, it was a creative assignment. Why can’t we teach high school students in this same manner?
I’d like to take a moment to define a few terms that will be used throughout the paper. Fanfiction or fanfic, the main topic, is a narrative work that is created by a fan of a text (i.e. a novel, film, or television show) which uses the characters of the text in order to tell a new story or revisit aspects of the original. Slash fanfiction refers to fanfic in which the main romantic storyline is between two males from the text. Fandom is the community (often an online one) where fanfic and fan-art can be uploaded and shared with others.
One of the main challenges of teaching high school English is the difficulty of the texts. Students seem disengaged with the texts, they often dislike them and think they are either boring or intimidating. Assigning fanfiction as an assignment in conjunction with essays could be a step towards making Canonical texts more approachable. “It [fanfiction] takes us away from the notion of texts as static, isolated objects and instead reminds us that storyworlds are generated and experienced within specific social and cultural environments that are subject to constant change,” (Bronwen). The act of composing a fanfic would give students a sense of power over the text. It would help to drive home the idea that there are no wrong answers. The teachers wouldn’t be the ultimate authority on the text, students could write anything that they can trace back to some line or thought in the novel.
Contemporary high school English classes do not teach literary theory. There have been reams and reams of essays on the subject, but the high schools do not seem willing to incorporate the teaching of theoretical concepts. Without theory, how are we supposed to teach students how to justify and compose an essay? A freshman in high school once tried to tell me that literary essays were not persuasive essays because in a persuasive essay there would be other points of view to introduce in your argument before you provide a rebuttal. That is how English essays should be, if the students were being engaged with other writers of literary studies. If we were to teach fanfiction, we could slyly begin to teach the easiest component of structuralist theory; Narratology. For example, the novel The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger is told from the main character’s perspective, but if teachers were to assign a creative project that involved rewriting a scene of The Catcher in the Rye from a different point of view, we could show the importance of Holden Caufield’s narrative to the meaning we are supposed to derrive from the text. We could introduce the concept of the unreliable narrator. This could possibly give the students a point to rally around when it comes time to write their essay. A deeper understanding of the text could have been reached through writing fanfic about it. This would begin the task of slipping high school students literary theory – like an illicit drug – and asking them to engage with the text on a deeper level. They would not merely be re-presenting what the teacher said about symbols, but presenting the knowledge they came to by way of their own writing.
Common tenets of high school essays are symbols, motifs, and themes, and sometimes characterization or character studies are included as a valid subject. Any one of these could be taken and turned into a prompt for fanfiction to promote deeper consideration of a text. Creating a fanfic using the symbolism of the original novel in new ways might be quite the challenge, but it certainly would show whether or not a student understood symbolism as a narrative function. For example, in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald there is a scene in which the narrator – Nick Carraway – watches and speculates upon Gatsby as Gatsby gazes at a green light across the water. A fanfiction rewriting of this scene from Gatsby’s point of view and his thoughts upon what that green light means to him might make it easier for students to write an essay about that same green light later without having the help of other theorists in which to engage on the topic. It would be easy to tell in the fanfic if the student/writer understood what the light was supposed to symbolize. And because this would be a creative assignment, there would (hopefully) not be the same fear of the ‘wrong’ answer that there would be when writing an essay. “Fan fiction is a way of interacting with text, converting it from a read-only medium to a read/write one.” (Rosenblatt). Converting a text to a read/write medium would help students no longer believe there is only one right answer. There are multitudes of ways a story can be told, and thus, its meaning can be an array of different things. Creative writing will give students the freedom to explore their ideas of a novel in less of a reader response manner.
Asking students to write fanfiction would promote and inspire deeper reading. An English teacher in England attempted to use fanfiction writing to teach about narrative. We could benefit from this example.
“My approach, when creating a unit of work for Year 9, which ran for approximately seven weeks, was to integrate the skills-based work that is so essential to teaching the craft of narrative writing with tasks that explored fanfiction codes and conventions. These included activities such as creating a voice for a character that mimicked their voice in the actual, established text, looking closely at the style of writing of different authors (including Antony Horowitz, Jane Austen and JK Rowling) and doing short descriptive or narrative tasks such as drabble writing (perhaps more familiar to English teachers as the ‘Mini-Saga’).” (Jessop).
This practice of teaching common codes and conventions would later help students in their University work, by giving them a way to decode and pick apart a text. Decoding is an important aspect of both Structuralism and Deconstructionist literary theories. By giving students this base knowledge we could prepare them better for English essays written in the University setting. This is what college prep courses in high school aim to do, so teaching fanfiction would be beneficial on many different levels.
The teaching of fanfiction could also lead to teaching students how to research. What I mean by that is, a student couldn’t write a fanfic set in the era of Gatsby in the 1920’s but the characters have cellphones. The student could certainly write a modern alternate universe update of The Great Gatsby, but if they were to write a fanfic set in the 1920’s they would have to adhere to the technological limits of the era. Going back further, if one were to write a fanfic of Nathanial Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, one would have to adhere to certain codes of speech as well. People did not refer to each other by first names back then and so having someone address Hester Pryne by her first name alone would be highly improper. It would be important to let students know of these slight restrictions and then give them sources by which to research the era’s if they need to. It would be a way of teach history and narrative at the same time. Though this might intimidate students more, thus it should only be a small part of the assignment, or there should be only one assignment that focuses mainly on historical accuracy.
In conclusion, it would be beneficial to students, in a myriad of ways, to study texts through the medium of writing their own fanfiction. Writing fanfiction would be a way to introduce aspects of literary theories, such as Narratology within the Structuralist theory, and to make students more comfortable with texts that are usually considered intimidating. Fanfiction could help them learn how to compose better supported essays. Fanfiction writing would ask students to consider texts on a deeper level, exploring its characters, themes, and narrative style. Isn’t that all we want from English students?
Bronwen, Thomas. “What is Fanfiction and Why Are People Saying Such Nice Things about It?.” StoryWorlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies 3.1 (2011): 1-24. Project Muse. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
Davies, Raven. “The Slash Fanfiction Connection to Bi Men.” Journal of Bisexuality 5.2 (2005): 195-202. Taylor Francis Online. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
Jessop, Fay. “Exploring Fandom: teaching narrative writing through fanfiction: Fay Jessop argues for the place of fanfiction in the writing curriculum, and suggests that getting students to write fanfiction removes some of the fear of original writing, whilst giving status to their own interests in reading and viewing..” English Drama Media 18 (2010): 29. Academic OneFile. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
Manente, Kristina. “Validation of Internet Fandom: Bridging the Gap between Traditional Fandom and the Age of Tumblr.” The Baker Street Journal 62.4 (2012): 44-48. Literature Online. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
Parker, Robert Dale. How to Interpret Literature. Second ed. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
Reid, Robin Anne. “Thrusts in the Dark: Slashers Queer Practices.” Extrapolation 50.3 (2009): 463. General OneFile. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
Rosenblatt, Betsy. “Sherlock Holmes Fan Fiction.” The Baker Street Journal 62.4 (2012): 33-43. Literature Online. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.
Stedman, Kyle D. “Remix Literacy and Fan Compositions.” Computers and Composition 29.2 (2012): 107-123. Science Direct. Web. 2 Apr. 2013.