Now that this semester of grad school has ended, I finally have time to write a post! It just so happens to be our last post before our holiday break, too, which tells you a bit about the craziness of my schedule…. You see, I’m a PhD student studying Learning Sciences, which is all about researching how people learn and how we can use those findings to reform the educational system. Trying to balance my online fandom life with my grad school life has been an ongoing struggle, but surprisingly, one of the things I’ve learned in my program is that many researchers in and around this field study the educational implications of fandom. Well, now I’m here to cross over between my offline and online life by sharing some of that work with you, as well as some findings from my own research!
It may come as no surprise to you that fans learn a great deal from engaging in fandom, whether they’re writing fanfics, composing meta, creating fanart, making cosplays, or heck, even writing essays from a critical lens like on this blog! But fandom still tends to be viewed dismissively by mainstream culture, and even we fans sometimes devalue our engagement as a mere “hobby”. Modern learning theorists now acknowledge the importance of learning outside of school, and are calling for in-school learning to be more like the interest- and peer-driven realm of outside-of-school learning, including hobbies like fandom. There are so many ways that fan engagement is related to the kinds of subjects people learn in school and to skills that are generally useful in life. And better yet, it’s in a context that people really care about, rather than the decontextualized content conventionally presented in schools, which can seem random and unconnected to students’ lives.
So, this fandom thing you’re doing right now? It’s totally legitimate, important, and socially responsible. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
At the simplest level, merely consuming a piece of media can have educational benefits, without even needing to take part in any extra-canonical fandom culture. For instance, experiencing stories can help people to develop empathy with others (e.g., see this study on how reading Harry Potter helped young people to become more empathetic), and playing video games comes with all kinds of benefits, whether in physical skills like reaction time and motor coordination, or even literacy skills in learning how to “read” a world/genre. In regards to learning to read, of course kids are going to be more motivated to learn how to read if they’re reading something they enjoy. There is no compelling reason to reject from schools certain books or genres like comics simply because they’re “pop culture.” Language arts education tends to expect every student to read the same book at the same time, but that leaves no room for the variety of interests and personalities that students bring to the table. Even from the earliest ages, letting kids read what they’re fans of–even if it’s in the classroom, and even if every student is reading a different thing–can be valuable.
Taking it a step further, seeking out a fandom online, even if you don’t actively participate by contributing fan works, can still be educational. For me, looking up Sailor Moon and Harry Potter fandom was how I learned to use the internet. I learned how to curate search results in order to find high-quality content, and how to critically examine sources to find legitimate ones. When you’re looking for spoilers about what will happen next in your favorite movie or TV franchise, how do you know which sources to trust? You probably have an answer for that, and those skills can also help you to find legitimate sources of information for other things, like news. In an era when fake news is causing such controversy, being able to distinguish legitimate sources from untrustworthy ones is more crucial than ever.
When a fan makes the leap to start contributing to online fandom, they get to develop even more skills. For instance, if they start writing fanfic, then they’ll learn more about how to write stories. And creating fanart will help develop their art and design skills. Even writing “bad” stories or making “bad” art is practice that will help you get even better next time, and exposing your work to an audience provides the opportunity to receive constructive feedback. While you can’t always trust random commenters to be able to do that for you, many fic writers seek out beta readers who constantly challenge them to improve their work. Fan artists challenge each other to go out of their comfort zones with things like “draw a character with a particular expression” challenges, and sometimes collaborate on large-scale projects like Sherlock: The Game, in which they all learn from each other and expand their repertoires. The writing and art/design skills (and even programming if you’re making a fan game!) that fans cultivate here can have applications throughout life outside of fandom. Fic writers can go on to publish original books of their own, like Marissa Meyer, author of the Lunar Chronicles series, who used to write Sailor Moon fanfic. Writing skills are useful for a great many other jobs as well, of course. And so are aesthetic design skills like those developed through fanart, whether working in publishing or advertising or engineering.
Fans can also develop critical literacy and argumentation skills, such as by writing meta about media. Many meta essays engage the same sorts of literacy skills that language arts teachers actively encourage in their students, such as analyzing symbolism, metaphor, archetypes, characterization, setting, etc. For instance, here’s a long and well-researched meta on racism in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. These also tend to be persuasive essays that present arguments from evidence, which is another skill that teachers try to instill and which is broadly applicable to a variety of real-life settings.
The critical aspect comes through when fans interrogate what’s accepted as normal in mass media and imagine something better, or at least more resonant with their own experiences, in their fan works. This can range from racebending or genderbending characters in fanart or fic in order to increase representation and show how it does not harm the integrity of the story, to the well-known tendency for fandom to insert more queer representation through slash ships, to essays like those on this blog that argue for greater, more positive representation for marginalized groups in media. This shows how fans do not simply accept media as it is given to them, but make it their own, often in a way that imagines the world of that media property as a “better” place that more accurately reflects the diversity that exists in our world and that more positively empowers characters (and by extension, the fan creators as well). Being able to critically interrogate fictional media, rather than just accepting its messages, helps us well beyond fandom to question messages transmitted by the news, by politicians, and by the culture at large. Beyond just the benefits to fans of developing this important skill, it can also help lead to wider societal change. And, indeed, some fans have started organizing to promote social causes, such as the Harry Potter Alliance.
So what about my own work? I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to begin investigating the educational potential of cosplay as part of my grad school research! Cosplay fits into some of the categories I’ve discussed above; for instance, it develops art and design skills, and sometimes can be a critical statement on media or a form of self-expression, such as when genderbending or crossplaying characters. But unlike the above examples of online fandom, cosplay moves into the physical realm. I’ve found through my own work and by interviewing several cosplayers that making your own costumes requires a great deal of math and spatial skills. Sewing involves things like measurement, symmetry to make the left and right sides of outfits look the same, and proportional thinking when resizing patterns to fit you. Sometimes cosplayers have to work with static pictures of an outfit or prop and mentally project how that would look in 3D space before actually building it. Getting it to look right definitely involves spatial skills and proportional reasoning. Sewing also involves the complex spatial skill of visualizing from 2D patterns and fabric what an outfit would look like on a 3D body. This is particularly important, because spatial skills are not usually explicitly taught in schools, but they’re crucial for STEM fields like medicine, dentistry, and engineering, as well as more artistic fields like architecture and fine art. Finally, if a cosplay incorporates electronic elements, then that brings in science and technology learning too!
This post is just barely scratching the surface of the educational potential of fandom. Fandom is generally a fun, welcoming, motivating space that encourages the use of conventional literacy, internet literacy, critical literacy, writing, art/design, and even sometimes math and science. That’s not to say that fandom is always perfect; it can sometimes be a site for toxic harassment, bullying, and petty arguments. But just as fans can curate their online fan experience, teachers can curate the way they use fandom in the classroom as well. The point is to try to latch onto students’ preexisting interests in a fandom, so, for instance, students could fulfill a fiction-writing assignment by writing a fic for a fandom they like, demonstrate that they know what “symbolism” is by writing a “meta” (which teachers just call a “paper”) on symbolism in their favorite video game, or do a math project by sewing a cosplay or making a cosplay prop. Teachers need to be careful how they bring the online world into the classroom; we don’t want more situations like “TheoryofFicGate”, which violated fandom norms by requiring students to read a fic even if it wasn’t in their fandom, to leave a critical comment that was neither solicited nor appreciated by most of the fic authors, and to write and post fics of their own that were supposed to get a certain amount of online response. The wide community of the internet can sometimes be scary and unfriendly; a classroom community can provide a smaller, safer space, and if most students are aware of the fandoms that everyone is engaging in, then it can be a micro-level fandom community providing some of the same benefits as the wider fandom community.
Can you imagine if schools incorporated engagement with fandom into classroom learning? I bet we’d see an instant increase in student interest and thus, student success. Let us know in the comments if you have additional ideas about how teachers could do this! Part of the mission of this blog is to help fandom to be viewed as a more legitimate, worthwhile pursuit. I vow to do the same in my own research on learning in fandom.
We here at Lady Geek Girl and Friends would like to wish you all a joyful holiday season, no matter what you celebrate! See you again in the new year!