To what degree are the pedagogical advances you saw simply a product of being motivated to spend more time writing? to what degree can they be traced back to Beta-Reading and Reader Responses providing greater feedback to the writer?
Well, I believe that one of the best ways to learn a new language and to improve your literacy skills is to practice using the language in meaningful, communicative tasks. So, I think that a good amount of the progress that the English language learners from my study made can be attributed to their motivation to write and read fan fiction and related texts. I also think that their success within the fan community allowed them to develop confidence and begin seeing themselves as people who write and use English effectively. For Nanako and Cherry-Chan, this was very different than how they were viewed in school–basically, in school they were seen as students who struggled with all literacy-based (as opposed to Math or Science-based) tasks. So, if you’re constructed as “bad” at something for long enough, after a while you start to believe it. Fortunately, for Nanako at least, her success in the fan community helped her achieve success and popularity as an online author–which in turn provided her with motivation to continue writing and improving her English. Cherry-Chan, on the other hand, used her participation in the fan community to improve her social connections. Still, she used her language and literacy skills to make her own LiveJournal pages, forums, and web sites, and to post reviews of other people’s fictions and to leave comments on other people’s web pages.
In terms of the effect that beta-reading and peer-feedback might have had on their language abilities–it’s important to note that they were both in English classes at school, so I can’t really make any causal statements; however, over the 3 years that I followed her participation, Nanako’s readers very clearly pointed out grammatical errors that she consistently made in her texts. And, she would acknowledge their feedback and then go back and correct her errors. In terms of second language acquisition, this is an important aspect of learning– actually noticing errors and then figuring out how to correct them. For Nanako, sometimes her readers would tell her how to correct the errors, but other times they would simply point out the phrases, sentences, or paragraphs with errors and leave her to figure out how to correct them. In my opinion, I think these activities helped her to improve her English composition skills. Most of the fan fiction authors that I’ve talked with say that their reviewers and beta-readers were definitely responsible for helping them learn to be better writers.
Some argue that the fan fiction world supports literacy skills precisely because it doesn’t operate under the structures and constraints of formal education. These critics would argue that we would destroy what’s valuable here if we tried to integrate it back into formal schooling. Do you agree or disagree with this claim? What, if anything, can traditional educators learn from this affinity space?
I tend to agree that assigning fan fiction in classrooms would probably ruin its appeal for many students. However, other students might really appreciate having fan fiction texts or gaming-related texts available as options for their in-school composing. For example, many adolescents might feel more comfortable mastering the compare and contrast genre if they were able to write about subject matter that they have some expertise in, such as comparing and contrasting the merits of certain video game character classes or using Inuyasha or Harry Potter to discuss character development. Educators can create lesson plans that include or even encourage different options for students to incorporate their extracurricular literacy activities and/or interests in popular media texts into their classroom activities. Educators can also help students make the connections between their in and out-of-school practices. However, I think it ultimately should be up to students to decide to what extent their out-of-school activities will inform or work in concert with school-based tasks.
What do you see as the value of studying the process of fan fiction writing as opposed to studying fan fiction as a series of texts?
Well, one of the primary values that I see in studying fan fiction writing as a process is that it provides a mechanism for understanding the role of audience participation in the creation of texts. All of my focal participants’ received a great deal of feedback from readers–for example, Grace has received around 9400 reviews, Nanako 7600, and Cherry-chan around 650. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had that many people respond to anything that I’ve written, especially not when I was a teenager. Hmmm… on second thought, you probably *have* had that many people respond to things that you’ve written. Anyway, the fan fiction audience often plays a significant role in determining the direction that a text will go in. As you pointed out in Textual Poachers, the audience has a vested interest in the media series, and they have strong opinions about what should and should not happen with the characters. So, they are happy to provide suggestions for how things should go and complaints about how things should not go in a story. Nanako in particular was very responsive to readers’ suggestions about her texts. Sometimes she would incorporate their ideas into the narrative, other times she would go back and revise her chapters based on reader feedback. She would also use her Author’s Notes to explicitly request guidance on certain parts of her texts, and the audience would respond to these requests. So, simply studying her fan fictions as a body of texts would be missing a great deal of the reciprocal interaction taking place as she goes through the process of writing, negotiating with readers, revising, and finalizing her texts.
Traditional notions of literacy have tended to see it in fairly individual and personalized terms. Yet, one could read your book as making a case for social and collaborative notions of literacy. Would you agree?
Absolutely. I think we have this whole focus in classrooms that’s based around “keep your eyes on your own paper,” and testing for what each individual learner knows, and it really stifles a lot of the potential for collaborative learning. Using language to effectively communicate ideas, negotiate perspectives, and even collaboratively complete projects is important for all students, but it’s especially important for English language learners to have these kinds of interactive learning experiences. Through collaborative interaction, they’re able to build on and extend the knowledge that each participant brings to the space. And, they’re able to further develop their own skills and knowledge by using language for authentic purposes in meaningful contexts.
Appadurai suggests that the contemporary imagination is collaborative in nature–that people are growing accustomed to creating and thinking through things in collaborative contexts. We can see examples of this in how many people will post their projects or ideas on a blog or publish their creative texts online and await feedback. It seems to me that this sort of approach to creation and even thought might be a very effective way to come up with robust representations, perspectives, and solutions to difficult problems. So, it may not just be a matter of social and collaborative forms of literacy, but rather a turn towards all sorts of collaborative activities that are facilitated by new media and technologies.
Tell us about the cover of the book. You mentioned to me that it was designed by a fan artist. How did that come about and how did the press respond to working with a fan artist?
Well, after one of my talks, a professor from the audience told me that his daughter was actively involved in the anime fan community, creating fan art and scanlations (which are fan-created translations of Japanese manga) and suggested that I contact her. We stayed in contact a bit over the years, and when I started the book, she seemed like the perfect person to create the cover. I told her about the main themes of the book, and she came up with this fantastic cover with an original anime character actually drawing herself onto the page with a pencil. I thought this had a nice parallel with one of the points I was making in the book–that many of the focal participants were writing different aspects of their identities into their fictions. They weren’t really writing Mary Sue’s, but they did integrate different aspects of themselves and their lives into their fan fiction texts. The series editors, Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel, and the press, Peter Lang, were all very supportive of using this artwork for the cover. I think it speaks to a strong ethos of valuing the communities and the practices that are represented in the text.
Rebecca W. Black is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the University of California, Irvine. Her research centers on the forms of literacy and social engagement that are emerging in online environments. In particular, Black has focused on the ways that popular culture-inspired environments, such as fan communities, provide adolescent English language learners with opportunities to develop their language skills, establish social connections with global networks of youth, and construct powerful identities as successful authors and knowledgeable fans. Her work has been published in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, TeacherÂ’s College Record, and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. In addition, Prof. Black ‘s book titled Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction was recently published in the Peter Lang series on Digital Epistemologies.