Rewriting Diversity in The Classroom Syllabus Through Fanfiction

Patricia Bizzell and Mary Louise Pratt have spoken for years about re-conceptualizing what an English syllabus could look like. Most of their criticism comes from the fact that our curriculum itself is very narrow; we draw what we call “great literature” from specific sources that are often steeped in white, cisgender, and straight identities. When it comes to teaching a standard syllabus, there are lots of ideological choices and structures that get rehashed, and remain unquestioned by admin and instructors. I purpose that instead of placing the onus on re-conceptualizing the syllabus solely on the instructor, by utilizing fanfiction as a pedagogical practice, the students can attain the agency to rework and restructure a given text to something that benefits their learning.

Henry Jenkins has described fan practices as oscillating between fascination and frustration. By framing engagement this way, Jenkins allows for both the celebration and critique of a source text to become part of its reconstruction. If instructors can encourage the same fascination and frustration with the texts on the course syllabus, then the students can begin to participate in actively rethinking and re-envisioning these texts.

So what could fanfiction as a classroom practice look like? Let's take the novel The Great Gatsby as our source text. Some students may have a hard time engaging with a text they can't relate to or one which contains language they find out of reach. If students rewrite scenes—or conceive of completely new scenes altogether—about The Great Gatsby in the context of a Modern Fannish Alternative Universe, they may begin to connect with the class issues the novel presents on another level. Moreover, if we're concerned about texts on the syllabus not having enough diversity, we should turn over the power to recast the narratives to the students' writing where they’re allowed to envision different looking characters who directly confront the racism, sexism, or classism in the book.

Engaging with fanfiction—moreover, taking it seriously as an act of learning and creativity—is especially important for LGBT students. The way in which many queer students come into contact with the LGBT narrative is through the confessional story (such as the coming out narrative or the critical branch of identity politics).  Many students who are still working out their identity may not want to participate in a genre that asks them to proclaim an identity that is still forming. What fanfiction as a practice does is allow for students to engage with their own questions of identity but recast them in a fictional world. By engaging and critically assessing what they produce, not only does a student have the chance to understand a source text better, but by ‘shipping’ Jay and Nick, or Jordan and Daisy, an LGBT student may feel welcomed in a classroom and recognized in a way they may not be within a standard syllabus.

According to Kristina Busse, fandom creates an "ambiguous space" online where fans can be both creator and participant in a source text; this liminal space also allows for an exploration of identity (208). Some people don't spend long exploring their identity, but others spend years online finding out what they like and who they are. By taking this "ambiguous space" from the online world and bringing it into classroom settings through the use of fanfiction as a teaching tool, it is my hope that other marginalized students will be given a chance to explore and express themselves in a safe learning environment. 




Busse, Kristina. “My Life Is A WIP on my LJ: Slashing The Slasher and the Reality of Celebrity and Internet Performances.” Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of The Internet. Ed. Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson. NY: McFarland, 2006.


Jenkins, Henry.  Textual Poachers: Television Fan and Participatory Culture. NY: Routledge, 1992.



While you (rightly so) point to fanfiction as a transformative writing practice for those working through LGBT (and more) identities, I think the power of identification may also work the other way--that by reading and then writing about familiar characters who fail to fit neatly into norms, students who are not questioning their identities may come to be more empathetic and sympathetic toward those who are.

Fic "works" because it is based in an established universe that we're comfortable with (even if we don't fully understand it, as my students are struggling through Hamlet); that comfort with the rules of that universe allows us to transgress the norms more easily than original fiction. Students who on some level "get" Gatsby can use fic to test out other possible identities and the cultural problems he might have run into. Because, as you say, the characters are fictional, it is a safe space to discuss issues that I know my students wouldn't ordinarily touch with a ten foot (very straight) pole. [Particularly those of us teaching in the Bible Belt].

I think this idea can and should be extended, but very carefully. Fic seems to naturally question gender, sex, and sexual orientation, but we fans seem to be somewhat less adept at handling questions of race, class, and ability (falling into sometimes harmful tropes in the case of blind!character or disabled!character genres). Fic isn't immune from ideologies, so while I agree that we can and should use fannish moves in the classroom, I struggle with how to safely manage teaching issues of identity with fic without falling into these pitfalls. We want them to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. 

Any ideas? 

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