Fandom in the classroom: Fanfic as/is pedagogy

(co-written with Katherine Tanski)

This survey has demonstrably presented the benefits of “using” fanfiction in the classroom, but what is often missing from these discussions is the idea of fandom itself as a classroom; while Karen Hellekson and Kristina Busse’s Fan Fiction Studies Reader includes “pedagogy” as a sub-field, their collection is lacking scholarship in that area. In an age when collaborative and digital writing are becoming increasingly prominent, it is time we as writing instructors look at how fandom writing practices relate to those we want employed by our students.

For this discussion we’ve chosen to focus on betaing. The entry for “beta” on the Fanlore Wiki credits the coinage of the term to tech communities, “in which an unfinished version of the software (the beta version) is released to a limited audience outside of the programming team."  At first glance, this description seems to simply be another version of peer review. However, the ways in which the process is discussed by fanfic writers indicates that good betaing differs in attitude from the traditional editing process in several distinct ways.

First, betaing involves transparency about collaboration. Betas are usually thanked and acknowledged in the accompanying author’s notes, revealing how betaing creates a dialogue between partners who are equally invested in the fic’s outcome, emphasizing the collaborative nature of writing. For example, one author writes:

"This story would never have been posted if it weren't for Karin the fearless and mighty Beta Queen. Thanks bunches and great big hugs for your patience, encouragement, and kind but honest advice. [....]." (as posted on the page, citation #13 ).

(For an extended view into a beta-author relationship, we recommend Speranza’s DVD commentary for her fanfic “Kowalski is Bleeding").

Second: because it’s embedded in these collaborative relationships, betaing also offers a different approach to the review itself, recommending a more holistic, social view than what we often (necessarily) assign in class. Fic (and pro) writer Astolat, for example, has written advice on the process:

Don't look so much for "mistakes" (eg typos, plot holes, canon errors, wandering POV, unrealistic physical actions, passive voice, show-not-tell, etc). Instead, look for things that are not yet GREAT [....] Try and come up with concrete suggestions to fix them, and reasons for those suggestions, but if you can't, at least point them out to the author, and try and figure it out with her.

Third: in addition to the benefits of betaing for the writer, betaing can provide valuable insight for the beta as well. In analyzing the strengths and struggles of a peer’s work in a supportive capacity, they may become aware of their own strengths and struggles, and feel less self-conscious about admitting them within an atmosphere that encourages self-improvement. After all, how often is it said that to really learn something, you must teach it?

By viewing fanfiction writing communities as being not entirely dissimilar from our own classrooms, writing instructors may gain insight into our own pedagogical practices. Other fannish composition practices, such as author notes and concrit, may be equally instructive for us, and we’re aware that we’re probably missing a whole host of other possibilities. We invite you to share your own experiences and observations about fandom as writing classroom.

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