Blog Post

Traversing Digital Boundaries: The Sponsorship of Fanfiction

Hello! My name is Staci Shultz, and I am a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan in the Joint Program for English & Education. I?m taking this opportunity to blog about my work and how it relates to the theme of Traversing Digital Boundaries.

I situate my work within the so-called ?public turn? in composition and literacy studies that asks instructors and scholars to connect students? writing to everyday texts, events, and practices. This effort to capitalize on students? knowledge and experiences offers students more intrinsic motivations for their writing by helping them see broader purposes or audiences for their work. Moreover, it facilitates more attentive, relevant, and engaging college composition curriculum that acknowledges the work students do beyond the boundaries of classroom while also further preparing them to participate in dynamic emerging rhetorical spaces.

In response to this turn, I examine college students? participation in online fan fiction communities. (Fan fiction describes the process of fans taking media narratives and pop culture icons as inspiration for creating their own texts.) Historically, fans have used a variety of media and technology to facilitate communities and practices. The Internet has expanded and complicated these practices by providing more opportunities for fans to network, interact with the texts, and develop their writing skills. As Henry Jenkins (2008) notes, digital technologies have made media consumption and literacy practices ?profoundly social? processes, and indeed, the emerging ?props? (James Gee, 1992) available on the Internet, such as tools, technologies, and systems of representation, have re-shaped the practice and the ways fans (as well as producers and critics) participate.

However, in examining these emerging networks and props, it seems important to note the ways fans? literacies are expanded but also suppressed. Deborah Brandt (2001) defines sponsors of literacy as ?any agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who enable, support, teach, or model, as well as recruit, regulate, suppress, or withhold literacy?and gain advantage by it in some way? (p. 2). These sponsors might include printing presses, governments, churches, prisons, schools, and workplaces. I suggest that online fanfiction communities can be placed in this tradition of sponsorship ? that they function not only as Discourse communities (Gee, 1996) but also as culturally relevant sponsors of literacy in which participants are recruited, regulated, and suppressed. I have begun examining how various fanfic communities serve as sponsors; for instance, how a site manages communication between writers and readers and the rating systems that censor writers in various ways.

Rebecca Black (2008) argues that online fanfiction provides clear examples of youth learning to use new tools and technologies to develop communities and practices in ways that ?traverse traditional boundaries of time, space, and linguistic differences? (p. 98). And it?s not only youth who traverse digital boundaries but also teachers, scholars, critics and television networks. Not only do fans (consumers) become producers but also corporate networks like Fox (producers) become consumers of fans? work, even co-opting grassroots practices to encourage more participation and loyalty but also, and importantly, to exert control.

Thus, understanding online fanfic communities as sponsors might productively unpack issues of access, agency, and agenda in the digital era. Examining such issues of power, in turn, might help writing instructors better prepare students to be more rhetorically aware ? to help them not only be aware of how they are pursuing literacy but also how literacy is ?in pursuit? of them (Brandt, p. 24).  A socially responsive composition pedagogy that is attentive to emerging sponsors and, in particular, to the ways online communities position participants that may alternately empower or dis-empower them is essential in preparing student writers to more successfully traverse across in a variety of spaces.

*HASTAC III.  "Traversing Digital Boundaries."*
/This blog is part of a series of blogs leading up to the third annual HASTAC
conference, which will be held April 19-21, 2009, at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign under the theme "Traversing Digital Boundaries." As the theme
suggests, the gathering will focus on the exploration of new territory and on work that
crosses, manipulates, or simply ignores traditional boundaries. The conference program
will include presentations of research, performances, technology demonstrations,
posters, panel discussions, and "virtual" participation via telepresence technology.
For more information, contact HASTAC3@ncsa.uiuc.edu ./

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