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


Efforts to more fully understand the circulation of the literate tools and activities among academic disciplines and persons’ wider literate investments have tended to situate persons and practices tightly within networks linking the official worlds of school and work (Beaufort, 2007; Dias et al., 1999; Russell, 1997; Russell & Yanez, 2003). However, like Charles’s encounters in his first-year rhetoric, kinesiology, and introductory journalism classes, Kate’s encounters with English studies throughout high school, college, and graduate school powerfully foreground the linkages she made and managed between her vernacular and disciplinary literate engagements. Fan fiction facilitates Kate’s disciplinary participation in a number of ways and at multiple points along her pathway through English studies. Her encounters with key disciplinary readings—from Everyman in high school to Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry as an undergraduate to Beowulf and Kenneth Burke’s A Grammar of Motives as a graduate student—are enriched by her fan fiction. Kate’s experience with fan fiction deepens her engagement with a range of other disciplinary texts as well, including her class notes, seminar papers, MA thesis, and a conference proposal and paper. This use of fan fiction to enhance disciplinary work is consistent with Barton and Hamilton’s (1998) observations that vernacular literacies commonly underpin more dominant ones. We also find it interesting that tracing this lengthy trajectory of Kate’s interweavings reveals how she agentively draws upon her engagement with fan fiction and fan art to accomplish and indeed excel at increasingly higher-stakes academic tasks, from engaging with Everyman for a high school language arts class to reworking Elizabeth Bishop’s “Roosters” to accomplish an undergraduate writing assignment to crafting a lengthy analysis of Beowulf for a graduate literature course to understanding Burke’s pentad for her MA exams.

Beyond the consumption and production of disciplinary texts, fan fiction enhanced Kate’s disciplinary enculturation in more global ways as well. After all, it is not just that Kate decided to pursue higher education, but that she chose to do so in order to extend her engagement with her vernacular literate activities; not just that she selected a specialization in composition and rhetoric, but that she chose one that aligned with her continued interest in her fan fiction; not just that she chose to pursue the thesis option, but that this step toward becoming a scholar was motivated in part by a chance to more closely examine her and others’ engagement in writing fan fiction and other online fan activities. In addition, Kate's fan fiction also became a focal point of our research and a number of our conversations about her work, and led to mentoring that contributed to her CCCC presentation and chapter publication, which also seems to be a part of this story.

Further, Kate’s fan activities continue to influence her disciplinary activities following her graduation from her MA program. After completing her MA, Kate accepted a position teaching composition and literature and tutoring in the writing center at an urban university in the southeast. For the three years she taught there, she continually found ways to incorporate elements of fan fiction into her teaching and tutoring. For example, Kate evidenced the lamination of her identity as a fan and her developing identity as a composition teacher as she discussed in interviews her plans for developing composition courses. During one interview, Kate stated,

I'll be teaching the themed, research-based comp[osition] II course next semester, and I’m really looking forward to the opportunity to incorporate fan fiction. I want to do it with a theme of animation. That means I'll get to show the students a lot of movies and cartoons I'm a fan of. I haven't fully planned the course yet, but I already have ideas of what I want to show.

One of the follow-up questions we emailed a few weeks later invited Kate to say more about the connection she saw between her fan activities and the aims of the composition course she was planning. Kate responded by writing, “the research areas [the university’s] new curriculum covers—evaluation, comparison, synthesis, and argument—are all a part of what fan fiction authors (good ones, anyway!) do.” As the semester approached, Kate drew upon her engagement as a fan, and in particular her experience with anime, to develop two different versions of the composition II course, one based on the topic of animation and the second based on the subject of the south. Briefly describing these courses in an email interview during the semester, Kate wrote, “I’m using Squidbillies [an animated cartoon based on squid-like characters living in the southern United States] in Composition II, both in the animation class and in the south one.”

In addition to shaping the texts and tasks she developed for her composition classes, Kate’s identity as a fan also laminated her other professional activities as an educator. As part of a campus-wide effort to generate interest in and support for the university’s composition program, for example, Kate volunteered to design a series of posters that would be seen by students and faculty across the campus. Employing textual practices she developed through her long history of creating fan art, particularly drawings of characters associated with her various fandoms, Kate created a number of posters depicting composition-themed superheroes (see Figure 8 below).

Figure 8
Kate's Composition Program Poster
(Click to Enlarge)

Kate's Composition Program Superhero Poster

Kate’s professional practices and identities are informed by her broad array of literate activities, and what might appear to be stable and homogeneous professional practices and identities are actually woven from an amalgam of literate engagements, some of which come from their encounters with formal education and formal professional development, and some of which come from “other” literate engagements. Our sense is that these laminated trajectories have not only transformed Kate’s developing identity as an educator, but also have transformed how her students and other faculty in the program encounter and engage with the university’s composition instruction and with writing and literate activity more broadly. Kate is currently completing her third year in a doctoral program in rhetoric and composition. She is also tentatively exploring a number of options for her doctoral work that will allow her to more fully examine the textual practices associated with fan fiction and other forms of computer-mediated communication.

Although this partial tracing of the interplays between fan activities and English studies focuses on how fan fiction shapes Kate’s disciplinary engagement, the profoundly dialogic nature of the relationship demands attention to the prominent ways Kate’s disciplinary literacies were recruited into her fan fiction. In addition to the popular texts (e.g., comics, movies, video games) Kate drew upon in creating her fan fiction and fan art, she also repurposed many of the texts she had encountered in her English studies classes as well: Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” and Everyman became the basis of fan plays; the poetry of Bishop and Stevens served as the foundation for fan poems about Sailor Moon and a Stephen King novel; “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Beowulf informed a number of fan fiction short stories. In many ways, these repurposings of key English studies texts as the basis for fan pieces invites us to view fan fiction as a way for Kate to maintain, and even enhance, her disciplinary activity, and are certainly consistent with Barton and Hamilton’s (1998) observation that dominant literacies are often incorporated in more vernacular ones. Ultimately, then, this story of making disciplinary texts and activities meaningful in ways other than for seminar papers, passing exams, and earning degrees and making vernacular activities meaningful in ways beyond pleasure and private leisure provides a rich portrait of Kate’s efforts to compose a literate life in a manner that affords ongoing engagement in both.

To a great extent, the weaving and re-weaving together of these seemingly disparate artifacts and activities is afforded, we would argue, by the orientation toward texts that Kate developed through her extensive engagement with fan fiction, a disposition that understands texts as flexible and malleable and thus as capable of being turned to a number of different functions. In addition to what texts are, then, Kate also sees them in terms of what they might become, of how they might be repurposed and to what end as well as how they might be combined with other texts. Bishop’s “Roosters,” for example, can prompt a poem about Sailor Moon anime, Beowulf can illuminate the relationship between characters in a fan fiction novel, and images from Spy vs. Spy comics and webpages can clarify Burke’s dramatistic pentad. Beyond the ways texts might be repurposed, Kate’s disposition also takes into account how texts might be remediated (Bolter & Grusin, 1999) as well. Elements of popular television programs and movies, for example, can be entextualized and digitized into stories and novels displayed on online fan fic sites. Characters that appear originally as descriptions in novels or as images in a movie or comic book can be sketched, first by hand and then using a digital tablet, and then posted online as fan art illustrations. Or, they can be enacted and embodied in the form of the fan art costumes Kate makes or the fan dolls she had commissioned others to create. Kate’s engagement with Burke’s dramatistic pentad traced the extensive semiotic pathways traveled by the images from Spy vs. Spy. The images that appeared in Kate’s MA exam notebook, and which are here re-represented in a scholarly monograph, were only the latest remediation in a long chain that stretched back through the fan fiction stories Kate wrote about the spies, which were informed by the images she found on web pages and those she encountered in Spy vs. Spy comic books that she first sought out in response to the Mountain Dew commercial on television that featured the spies. In turn, those illustrations in her exam notebook were appropriated into Kate’s memory as she prepared for her MA exam, and were perhaps entextualized as she responded to the questions on her MA exam, vocalized as she discussed Burke in her rhetorical theory class or with her friends in other graduate classes, and so on.

This is not to say that these kinds of interplays are always enriching. Although the partial trajectory we have traced foregrounds the ways that repurposing fan fiction afforded deeper engagement with English studies, Wertsch (1998) noted that to attend solely to the kinds of empowerment provided by cultural tools gives us only a partial picture and one that is benign in an important sense. "It does so," Wertsch (1998) asserts, "because it overlooks a countervailing, though equally inherent, characteristic of meditational means—namely, that they constrain or limit the forms of action we undertake" (pp. 38-39).

That tendency to introduce both affordances and constraints to action is, for Wertsch, a key characteristic of mediational means, particularly those repurposed from other activities. This property is foregrounded in Scollon’s (2001a) analysis of cultural tools as well, particularly in what he referred to as their “partial” nature, that they are always “doing and saying more and less than is intended by the users” (p. 121). As he stated, because tools are re-used across engagements, “the mediational means never fits the action exactly. …Thus a mediational means affords some action but this lack of exact fit to concrete actions means the mediational means also limits and focuses that action” (Scollon, 2001a, p. 121). This “partial” nature of mediational means has important consequences for the nexus in which they circulate. As Scollon (2001a) noted, the notion of a nexus refers not just to the points of connection among elements, but to the overall pattern of linkages and incommensuralities, to the affordances as well as the constraints that animate the network. Understanding more fully the interaction of Kate’s vernacular and disciplinary engagements, then, demands attention to how they limited as well as enriched her participation.

Kate’s experience of coming to understand the generic borders of creative writing at the graduate level, or at least in that particular creative writing course, serves as one prominent example of fan fiction constraining her disciplinary engagement. There are a number of other ways, perhaps more subtle but no less powerful, that it limited her participation as well. The three composition studies classes Kate took while in the graduate program, for example, were designed to help MA students develop a breadth of knowledge about the field. Kate’s seminar projects in two of those courses focused tightly on fan fiction. Although it does complement multiple facets of composition studies, the emphasis on fan fiction may have narrowed her attention to those areas obviously and overtly related, and thus kept her from traversing the disciplinary terrain from other angles. Kate’s interaction with Kenneth Burke's A Grammar of Motives offers one more specific example, even though her uptake of that text was not limited to only what she gleaned from viewing it through the lens of fan fiction texts and practices. Although the characters and objects of Spy vs. Spy certainly do bring Burke’s (2001) emphasis on heroes and villains, escape and imprisonment, as well as “the basic stratagems which people employ, in endless variations, … for the outwitting or cajoling of one another” (p. 1299) to the fore, they also tend to obscure the motivations driving other acts Burke addressed (i.e., voting, war, committee meetings) as well as the important issue of the ratios among the various elements of the pentad. Similarly, Kate’s decision to focus on fan fiction for her thesis project because she knew that she already had a great deal to say about that topic might also be interpreted as a missed opportunity to deepen her knowledge of other facets of composition studies. Her experience in the creative writing course aside, from Kate’s perspective these interplays did not constrain her disciplinary participation; she did not indicate to us that she saw them as anything but helping her to negotiate the disciplinary landscape. Such a view is consistent with Wertsch’s (1998) observation that it is usually only when the use of new tools focuses attention and action in different directions that the constraints imposed by previous tools are recognized: “It is usually only with the appearance of new, further empowering (and constraining) forms of mediation that we recognize the limitations of earlier ones” (p. 40).

We cannot know what the future holds for the interplay of Kate’s disciplinary and fan literacies. Perhaps these alignments will continue to thicken and fan fiction will come to play an even more prominent role in Kate’s teaching and scholarly work, asserting even greater influence on her engagement with the discipline. Likewise, perhaps the texts, practices, and motivations emerging from her continued disciplinary efforts will be reflected more prominently in her fan activities. On the other hand, perhaps these alignments will subside and thin, and linkages and tensions with other literate activities will take precedence, prompting development in other directions. For the present as Kate pursues her doctoral work, teaches composition at the university she attends, and continues her array of fan activities, orienting herself on her richly variegated literate landscape will no doubt be part of her ongoing efforts to coordinate the complex ways these and other literate engagements interact and influence one another.

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