Expanding Literate Landscapes: Persons, Practices, and Sociohistoric Perspectives of Disciplinary Development. The Case Study of Kate Sharer.

Chapter 4 | A Lengthy Trajectory of Interweavings:
Knotworking English Studies and Fan Activities

Fan Fic-ing Kenneth Burke

Kate’s fan fiction also figured prominently in much more acute ways as she negotiated the required readings for her MA exams (during the spring and summer terms of her second year of the MA program). Having decided to specialize in composition and to take the thesis option, the next step along her path to an MA involved a series of written exams based on the required reading lists for the three areas she had selected, her area of specialization (rhetoric/composition/technical and professional writing) and two others: English literature to 1500 and early American literature. Kate started preparing for her exams during the spring and summer of her second year in the program, planning to take them the next fall (the fall of her third year of the MA program). Her preparation consisted of reading some secondary sources about the assigned readings and then working carefully through the readings themselves. As she did, she took careful notes in a notebook she used specifically for that purpose, making sure to list key themes, concepts, and terms but also to record her own insights and observations, connections she saw to other texts she had read, questions she had, and so on.

Having been exposed as an undergraduate English major to much of the material on both the English to 1500 and early American literature lists, Kate felt very much at ease working her way through those readings, comfortable that she was picking up on the right things and that she could respond to whatever questions she encountered on the exam. She also noted that engaging with some of those texts in terms of her fan fiction activities helped her as well. When asked about whether crafting her fan fiction version of the Everyman play and the associated pencil drawing might have impacted her studying for her MA exams, Kate stated, “Yes, it was helpful because I had rewritten it in more modern language, so it was easier to understand, and I remembered the characters better after seeing how I had connected them to my own characters.” In response to a question regarding how the Beowulf fan fiction and the associated drawing might have impacted her studying for the MA exam, Kate stated, “Doing the two papers [for her graduate classes] and the fan fic[tion story] had already prepared me enough, so by the time I prepared for the exams, I felt like I knew Beowulf pretty well. I don’t think I even really studied it.” Her confidence waned, however, when she started working her way through the rhetoric, composition, and technical communication list. This was especially the case as she negotiated the rhetoric readings, which consisted of key excerpts from Bizzell and Herzberg’s The Rhetorical Tradition that spanned the full length of the field’s history, starting with Plato, Aristotle, and continuing on through Chaim Perelman, Stephen Toulmin, and Kenneth Burke. Having had no coursework in rhetorical theory, negotiating these readings was often quite a challenge for Kate.

Her efforts to engage with these readings were repeatedly scaffolded by her fan fiction activities. Kate turned more explicitly to her long engagement with fan fiction to help her negotiate what she saw as more challenging readings. According to Kate, her ability to negotiate the readings had gone fairly well until she encountered the excerpts from Toulmin’s The Uses of Argument and Burke’s A Grammar of Motives in Bizzell and Herzberg’s (2001) The Rhetorical Tradition, where she found herself lost just a few pages into Toulmin and then again as she dove into Burke’s discussion of the dramatistic pentad as a way to parse rhetorical situations into act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. Describing her initial reaction to this unfamiliar material, Kate stated, “the Toulmin was difficult. If he hadn’t had his little diagrams in there I wouldn’t have understood it. The Burke was terrible for me. It was long, it was dense, and there were terms being used in ways that I’d never heard before, like the whole act, agent, agency thing.” In negotiating these more challenging readings from the list, she leaned even more heavily on her note-taking: “I just took a lot of notes so that I could study from them, and so I tried to write the notes in ways that I could remember the readings when I came back to them.”

According to Casanave (2002), a key issue for MA students involves finding “frameworks for their writing and thinking into which initially puzzling terminology, methods, and concepts fit” (p. 217). For Kate, a framework for gaining some purchase on the slippery terrain of Burke’s dramatistic pentad emerged from her long engagement with fan fiction, particularly some of the fan fic stories she had written based on Spy vs. Spy some years before. Recounting her introduction to Spy vs. Spy many years before, Kate stated, “I saw this Mountain Dew commercial where they had the two spies from Spy vs. Spy fighting over a can of Mountain Dew. And I saw that and thought the spies looked neat and then I started looking up and reading stuff on the Internet. That’s when I found a Spy vs. Spy fan fic community on the web and so I started writing some of my own. I also started reading all the Spy vs. Spy comics.” In the same way that she drew from her engagement with fan fiction and fan art to generate frameworks for navigating Bishop’s "Roosters" and Beowulf, Kate pulled heavily from the Spy vs. Spy fan fiction she had written some years before to create a kind of heuristic for understanding Burke’s terminology (see Figure 6 below). Discussing the connection she saw between the two that led her to create the document below, Kate stated,

[Burke] kept talking about “agents” and I thought “Well, that sounds like Spy vs. Spy,” and so I drew the little cartoon with the spies as the agents and thinking about them doing stuff to each other helped me understand Burke. I started drawing this in the middle of reading him because otherwise I knew I could never keep track of “agent” and “counteragent,” “agency,” all that stuff. I knew that when I came back to this reading, I’d have my little drawings to help me. It really did help me figure out what was doing what and what was being acted on. Basically, I’m illustrating Kenneth Burke with characters and things from Spy vs. Spy. [Laughs] I’m fan fic-ing graduate school.

Figure 6
Kate's Spy vs. Spy Drawing
(Click to Enlarge)

Kate's Spy vs. Spy Drawing; Click the X in the Upper Right to Further Enlarge the Image

Assembled using passages from A Grammar of Motives and hand-drawn images borrowed from the Spy vs. Spy comic, this “promiscuous combination of writing and drawing” (Medway, 2002, p. 146) from Kate’s MA exam notebook reflects her efforts to use fan fiction to scaffold her understanding of Burke’s dramatistic pentad. At the top and center of the page, Kate worked to clarify Burke’s abstract notions of act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose (the underlined terms) by drawing upon the concrete interaction between the spies she wrote into the space above those underlined terms (i.e., “black explodes” as the act, “B’s house” as the scene, etc.) and enhancing it with images of the white spy as an agent and smaller spies as co- or counteragents. In the page’s lower left quadrant, Kate used drawings of common elements from the comic (i.e., the bomb, the briefcase, and one of the spies themselves) as well as some other common objects unrelated to the comic (i.e., the crystal ball, the paintbrush) to illustrate Burke’s passage regarding the various entities that could be identified as an agent: “Under ‘agent’ one could place any personal properties that are assigned a motivational value such as ideas, the will, fear, malice, intuition, and the creative imagination” (Burke, 2001, p. 1301). Down the right-hand side of the page, Kate again sketched elements from the Spy vs. Spy comic (i.e., the spies as hero and villain, the file, the bound wrists, the spy behind bars, etc.) to illustrate a passage in which Burke offered examples of the various terms that make up his pentad: “The hero (agent) with the help of a friend (coagent) outwits the villain (counteragent) by using a file (agency) that enables him to break his bonds (act) in order to escape (purpose) from the room where he has been confined (scene)” (Burke, 2001, p. 1301). In repurposing elements from her experience with fan fiction, Kate is, quite literally, “fan fic-ing” Burke’s dramatistic pentad, and “Burke-ing” Spy vs. Spy as well.

Kate also noted that the overall look of the page was heavily shaped by other texts she had read and created for her fan fiction, particularly the “reference sheets,” pages that include an image or images of the character and then notes regarding various details of the character’s appearance including style of clothing, colors, eye shape, personality, and so on, she had seen other illustrators using and had used herself for her own characters (see, for example, the computer-generated reference sheets, shown earlier and reproduced below in Figure 7).

Figure 7
Kate's Fan Art Reference Sheets
(Click to Enlarge)

  • Kate's Fan Fiction Artwork, 1 of 2 (Use Arrows Below to See 2 of 2)
  • Kate's Fan Fiction Artwork, 2 of 2 (Use Arrows Below to See 1 of 2)

Referring to the Spy vs. Spy page from her notebook, she stated, “It’s kind of like a reference sheet people do for their characters. I picked it up from there.” Explaining further, she stated, “illustrators will have drawings of the character combined with notes about how to draw them or other information. I have this book for Sailor Moon called The Materials Collection by Naoko Takeuchi that has her drawings of every character and her notes beside them, and they look like this.” In employing the various texts she consumed and produced associated with the Spy vs. Spy comics as well as the reference sheets she created (which, in turn, were based on those she encountered in Takeuchi’s book and perhaps others), Kate’s engagement with Burke’s A Grammar of Motives emerged from her efforts to coordinate and stabilize a dense network of diverse texts and representations, what Spinuzzi (2003) referred to as “compound mediation” (p. 98) (see also Bazerman, 1994; Hutchins, 1995).

In their analysis of architecture students’ sketchbooks, Dias et al. (1999) argued that the various unofficial texts that students create for disciplinary activities are critical sites for “rehearsing both the ideational content and the rhetoric … of the discipline” (p. 111). Woven from elements of Burke’s A Grammar of Motives and Spy vs. Spy, this page from Kate’s MA exam notebook reveals how she drew upon her engagement with fan fiction to rehearse both the content and the rhetoric of composition studies. Finding herself without the “little diagrams” she found so helpful in understanding the Toulmin reading, Kate created her own “little drawings” to help her negotiate Burke’s pentad by recruiting a nexus of practice that linked English studies with fan fiction. Through repurposing texts and textual practices from her extensive history of engagement with fan fiction and fan art, specifically objects from the Spy vs. Spy comic and the reference sheets for her fan fiction characters, Kate deepened her engagement with and understanding of Burke’s theory.

Casanave (2002) stated that writing games such as preparation for exams are designed to assist MA students in acquiring “a sense of agency and authority that allow[s] them to feel they [are] legitimate contributors to a professional conversation” (pp. 107-108) and to help them develop identities that “bring them into the peripheries of professional communities of practice” (p. 111). Examination of the literate activities associated with Kate’s preparation for her exams reveals how profoundly her efforts toward these ends were mediated by her extensive history of engagement with fan fiction. Elements of the Spy vs. Spy comic and the reference sheets she’d used to develop fan fiction characters enhanced her understanding of Burke’s dramatistic pentad. Echoing Wittgenstein’s (1953) notion of crisscrossing a topical landscape as a metaphor for building knowledge, fan fiction functions for Kate as another traverse across the disciplinary landscape of English studies, although from a somewhat different angle.

The alignment of Kate’s fan fiction and her disciplinary activities continued to thicken throughout her final year in the MA program as she worked to maintain a literate identity that reflected the variegated literate landscape she inhabited. After passing her comprehensive exams, Kate completed her thesis, a case study exploring the agentive potential in one young woman’s fan fiction and fan art, the following semester. The research and writing for her thesis, which included Kate’s reflections and insights into her own experiences with fan fiction, served as the basis for her presentation at the 2008 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC). Kate also began research on the rhetoric of rejection in one of the online fan communities she participated in for her seminar paper in a rhetorical theory course. The work for her thesis also served as the foundation for an initial draft of a chapter detailing her engagement with fan fiction Kate submitted to an edited collection about the literate lives of the digital generation. Upon completing her chapter and submitting it to the editor, she stated that “it might be the only academic publication to mention Darkwing Duck.” That chapter was eventually selected for publication and was included in the collection when it was published in 2010. She also found the time to complete the fortieth chapter of Navigational Error, a fan novel she had been writing, and continue her efforts on a number of other fan fiction projects, including a website and stories based on the Darkwing Duck cartoon and comic book that she was especially enthusiastic about. Elaborating on a number of other alignments she saw between her fan fiction and graduate school activities, Kate stated,

basically, fan fiction is embedded in my grad school experience. Melanie [all of the names in this extended interview excerpt are pseudonyms], one of the grad students, is [into fan art] too, and so she’s seen all of my stuff. And, like if you look at my notebooks from different classes, I basically have drawings of my characters all over them; I draw them everywhere. My character Belle from my Darkwing Duck stories is a feminist from me having conversations with Whitney, she’s another grad student, about feminism from our classes. [Whitney] was a huge influence on Belle. Whitney loves to cook and so do I, and so we would get together to cook and have dinner and so Belle loves to cook as well. Steven, he’s a grad student too, is interested in Plato, and so one day I told him about using Plato’s Phaedrus in one of my stories and so he asked to see it, so he’s seen it too. Sometimes when I would have my students in the [computer] lab working on their drafts, I’d be working on my fan fiction right with along with them.

By the end of her two and a half years in the MA program, then, Kate’s engagement in fan fiction had come to mediate not only her graduate coursework and her disciplinary pathway, but also the very fabric of her social relationships with other graduate students and her teaching as well.

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