What place does Fandom have in Academia?

A couple weeks ago a Facebook friend of mine, maybe a half a generation older than I, posted a status about the poor intellectual state of the upcoming generation. The anecdote goes: while riding on the Metro Rail in downtown Miami, my friend overheard two youths commenting on a poster advertising a festival in honor of Emily Dickinson. The comments were something along the lines of “I dislike the work of Dickinson, and question her importance—overall, though, I just don’t care about her.” (For a more accurate reading, insert multiple explicit words and a pun on the phallic nature of Emily’s last name). Needless to say, my Facebook friend was alarmed and disgusted by these commentsemily-dickinson.jpg and vowed to raise her children with an appreciation and respect for Emily Dickinson and literary canon in general. Being an English major, and a published fiction and non-fiction author, this scenario and proceeding declarations raised some serious questions about the fundamentals of literary canon and its place and relevance in contemporary society.

Typically, literary canon, specifically Western canon, is works of literature (but also film and art) that embody scholarly sanctioned aesthetics and are representative of important social shifts, thus having resonance and relevance for centuries after it was written. What should immediately be addressed is the inherent subjective nature of these standardizations. Literary canon has a history of denying writers inclusion into canon due to their race or gender or sexuality, regardless of the nature of their writing, and then posthumously including them. Unfortunately, this means that canon largely discredits and undermines contemporary mediums and movements—only validating them after the fact when historical context creates a foundation for the cultural significance. This creates a break, or generation gap, in terms of values, and potentially alienates intelligent youth, making education more of a social burden and less of a personal pleasure.

Going back to my friend from the Metro Rail, what bothered me about her comments was the lack of contextual understanding. A teenager, growing up in the heart of downtown Miami, probably has little need for, or understanding of, the works of Emily Dickinson. A reclusive white woman who wrote poetry almost a hundred and fifty years ago means nothing to someone raised in contemporary urban society. This generation is so far removed from the context of Dickinson that her work and her life, generally, has no resonance with today’s youth. Does that mean that this upcoming generation is uneducated and obtuse? Some might argue yes, but it is important to recognize that literary canon is a morphing standard that has a long history of discrediting the contemporary in favor of validating and elevating past works.
The contemporary fallacy is that the youth are stupid. The youth don’t read. They are lazy. They are entitled. What is remarkable is that these are claims have been leveled against every preceding generation. What is also remarkable is that youths do in fact read and engage, just not in the ways adults view as credible. For instance, the Harry Potter saga has a coveted place in youth culture. Many Potter fans report that upon obtaining their 700-page book at the midnight release, they spend the night reading the book cover to cover, completing it in one fell swoop. This is impressive youth consumption that they do willingly and joyfully. It isn’t that youth aren’t reading it’s that they aren’t reading the sanctioned texts. It can be argued that the struggles of Harry Potter are in line with tropes from literary canon (the quest trope from Alfred Tennyson’s Arthurian Legends), but it is discredited because the reading comprehension level is so low and JK Rowling’s initial audience was grade school children.

It seems that the key to getting the youth to invest in the medium of literature is to know what engages them. Using popular literature to bridge the engagement gap is an intelligent way to reintegrate youth into the realm of the “literary.” Fandom is one way to exercise and involve youth in intellectual pursuits. Story telling has strong cultural roots, both historically and socially, and allowing students to write fan-fictions opens them up creatively and intellectually. Using the canon of Harry Potter to create a fan authored text harkens back to the ideas of folklore and participatory culture. From a standardized educational perspective, these are historically significant modes of communication that are implementing themselves in contemporary society. To discredit or ignore these modes of storytelling is to cling too desperately to the idea of sanctioned literary canon, thus reinforcing its Achilles heel: the inability to see value in contemporarily produced texts.

Generationally the struggle has always been how to communicate effectively with youth culture. One of the answers might lie with Fandom and its ability to be both socially relevant to youth culture and to foster critical thinking. What makes fandom such a strong candidate for academic engagement is the sheer pleasure that people extrapolate from it. Youth naturally gravitate towards these contemporary productions that have yet to be incorporated into sanctioned literary canon (and may never be), and integrating texts into academia would increase interest level and thus increase reception of complex structures. Although my Metro Rail friend maintains the importance of literary canon, we as a society must no limit our intellectual pursuits to a system that is historically flawed and so glaringly subjective.

The goal of education should be the fostering of critical thinking and the articulation of this thought process. In a society laden with technological resources and innovation it is short sighted and archaic to deny the presence and relevance of popular culture in the classroom. The problem with modern education is that socially things are changing rapidly causing the lag of the sanctioned literary canon to become more and more apparent. Youth do not see their interests represented in the classrooms and conversely are told that their interests are nonsensical and trite. Not only is this not true, but it is incredibly detrimental to one’s understanding of intellectual discussion and education. Fandom is an important component of social understanding and communication, to ignore it is pig-headed and to discredit it is unwise. We need to engage and stimulate our youth, not chastise them for not partaking in archaic and outdated canon. The bottom line is, this upcoming generation is important, and the older generation has a responsibility to adapt in order to communicate effectively and efficiently with them to secure a positive and progressive future.