Fan Writing, Remix, and Research: Engaging Students With Genre, Context, and Transformation

Fanfiction, in one view, can be seen as finding solutions to problems or questions raised by the canonical text. In my first year writing classroom, I encourage my students to write adaptations (or remixes, as Stedman discusses) of Jane Eyre and base these remixes in a “what if” question, to address a problem or imagining wild possibilities for the characters.  Rather than asking them to become a “fan” of the text, I ask them to use fan practice as a model for research Jane Eyre. Contrary to what students imagine for creative work, fanfiction requires research in three major areas: genre, context, and ethics. Students, like fan writers, must first understand the demands of their genre and their audience. They must have enough contextual information from and beyond the origin text to create a believable world, and they must understand the boundaries of adaptation, pastiche, homage, and plagiarism.

Students can be confused about what purpose genre serves in writing. Even if they understand that all writing happens in genre (research paper, Tweets, slash), they generalize about what the expectations of a particular genre may be. We explore academic genres and audiences together as a class using Jenkins, McGee, and other scholars of fandom and adaptation. However, when asked to explore fan works on their own, they begin to see more clearly how all forms of writing participate in genre. I suggest starting their research into genre in three ways: reading genre-based works and observing the common factors; looking into genre-based style guides or organizations; or reading fan works and paying careful attention to the labeling (AU, slash, crossover etc…) and structure of these works.  

In terms of context, or background, students initially expect that they only need an understanding of the origin text and that their reader will have the same understanding. However, in order to answer their “wild” what if questions, they must write like fans, and see beyond the text, either by delving into the history of or by exploding the canon. Fan writing gives them a way to push themselves to develop an in-depth understanding of how contextual information helps writing.  For example, student Jacki wanted to modernize and identify with Jane created a (shared with permission; if prompted, password is bronte); in order to do this, she explored how tumblr works; examined how young girls used social media; and chose appropriate language and images through a mix of research modes.  

Even as they find fan writing legitimate, students can have black and white concepts of academic plagiarism. I provide them with some specific academic essays and journals (Rich, Zabus, Journal of Neo-Victorian Studies, and Transformative Works and Culture) to start their exploration of what they can do to plots and characters. They begin to put it together when they explore concepts of “transformation” in past students' adaptations. They participate, often more than fan scholars, in focused concepts about what actually constitutes transformation and where the lines of ethical remix may be; by developing ideas of what one “can do” to an origin story, they begin to see their own use of sources as transformative, and begin to understand the roles that gender, race, sexuality and class may play in remix and research.

When they see their research in transformative ways, students understand research as neither a fill-in-the-blanks exercise in finding quotes, nor a slog through the inaccessible language of academic journals. Instead, research becomes a conversation, one taking place beyond academia, beyond the library, and beyond assigned readings. They come to appreciate the multiple modes of research required to write in different voices.   



Jenkins, Henry. "Star Trek Rerun, Reread, Rewritten: Fan Writing as Textual Poaching." Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 5.2 (June 1988): 85-107. Communication and Mass Media Complete. Web. 22 August 2014

McGee, Jennifer. "'In The End Its All Made Up:' The Ethics of Fan Fiction and Real Person Fiction." Communication Ethics, Media, and Popular Culture. Ed. Phyllis M. Japp, Mark Meister, and Debra K. Japp. New York: Peter Lang, 2005. 161-180. Print.

Putnam, Jacklyn. Plainly Janie. April 2014. Web. 13 April 2015

Rich, Adrienne. "When We Dead Awaken" On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978. New York: Norton, 1979. 33-49. Print.

Stedman, Kyle D. "Remix Literacy and Fan Compositions." Computers and Composition. 29(2012): 107-123. SciVerse Science Direct. Web. 9 June 2013

Zabus, Chantal. "Subversive Scribes: Rewriting in the Twentieth Century." Anglistica 5.1-2 (2001): 191-207. PDF File. 


Hi Susan - 

Yes - I use fanfiction as a model for first year rhet/comp students at George Washington University (our template is here: Your observation is exactly what I find - that writing fanfiction is a very effective tool for understanding how all writing works. I design an entire research assignment around it, though, not just a workshop. I have students rewrite a scene from Jane Eyre and then produce an persuasive defense of the choices and research they used in the rewrite. They write in multiple voices and modes, and (hopefully) come to understand the different ways that research works in academia and beyond. 



Could you also analyze Wide Sargasso Sea (a prequel to Jan Eyre)? It works just like a fanfiction. My professor likes to read Wide Sargasso Sea after Jane Eyre to comment on race representation in literature. It is well written and has changed my perspective on Jane Eyre. Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea?

You certainly could use Wide Sargasso Sea, and I have in the past taught the class with a standard "lens" paper that requires students to make arguments about an adaptation of their choosing (examples include Jane, a YA adaptation; The Autobiography of Jane Eyre, a vlog series; The Man that I Love, an Egyptian Film adaptation; Jane Slayre or The Eyre Affair, contemporary literary adaptations). There are two issues with this approach:

1) Both Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are complex novels. It is a lot to ask of a first year university student to read, understand, and write about these books while also learning academic writing and research principles. While I do have students choose to use Wide Sargasso Sea for a lens paper, I find that students can have difficulty wielding the material effectively. 

2) Literary adaptations, especially ones regarded as "high" literature, don't always combat the perception of academic writing as impenetrable, elite, and exclusive. Using fanfiction practices as a model for students to write and research helps break down this perception; this model lets students see academic writing as yet another genre with expectations rather than the only acceptable genre to write in (and thus prepares them to be more flexible as they write in the multiple genres of the university). 



Forgive me, I've been taking classes on how to teach literature so my head was not in the right space when I suggested Wide Sargasso Sea. 

The vlog series like Frankenstein MD, The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, and Emma Approved would be more appropriate in a first year classroom. They are longer but a few episodes here and there would help get the lesson across. Have you seen these vlogs? all three are modern retellings of classic stories. They also add representation of race and gender. All of them were created by Permberley Digital. 

The Vlogs are great - I've only see Lizzie Bennet Diaries, but I think they're really interesting, at least from a teaching perspective. These kinds of remixes can challenge students to see all the work that goes into adapting in an accessible format. Fan vids might also serve a similar purpose.

I was discussing fanfictions applications in the classroom with Jacqueline Rhodes, a queer theory scholar who focuses on the importance of "play" in scholarship, and she stated that fanfiction helps students understand that scholarship isn't always about filling the negative space in academic conversations but also playing around with the conversation. It also helps them learn how to paraphrase. 

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