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Fan Discourse and Teaching Charles Dickens

2014 February 25

By Lindsay Lawrence

In Fall 2012, I proposed and taught a 4000-level major authors class on Charles Dickens at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith. Using the wealth of online materials that have become available in the last five years, particularly the Dickens Journals Online in this class, we explored Dickens’s legacy as a serial novelist, journalist, and literary magazine editor. The class also focused on Dickens’s cultural impact and his shrewd reading of the publication industry, including serialization. Inherently, this focus introduced elements of fan discourse to the class discussion, and we began to employ a class discourse, both in our class discussions and on the course blog, which explicitly positioned us as scholar-fans, a term coined by Matt Hills to describe the generative combination of scholarly and participatory culture reading practices.

The use of fan discourse in the class emerged organically. In Spring 2010, our literature curriculum underwent a radical overhaul that included reshaping the program around a cultural studies focus. [i] We felt that this change bettered equipped students for changing demands of literary studies as well as drawing from our departmental strengths in popular culture. As part of that curricular shift, students were required to take an introduction to cultural studies theory course at the 2000 level. Alongside introductions to class, gender, and race theory, students are also introduced to transmedia studies and convergence culture in a unit that focuses on fan discourse, fan behaviors, mash-ups, and fan fictions. Thus, the students in the Charles Dickens class, almost all of whom had already taken the prerequisite cultural studies course, had some training as readers of popular culture. We also read Our Mutual Friend in installments throughout the semester, a practice I have long used in my literature courses. Students often connect serial reading to their own practices and habits in consuming television series, and serial reading combined with a cultural studies pedagogical approach quickly led to the students in this class applying fan discourse to their readings from Dickens, specifically employing the language of “shipping,” short for “worshipping,” to indicate their emotional connection to certain characters.

In this essay, I discuss how classroom blogging assignments can work to shape students into common readers or scholar-fans, blendingtheir emotional connections with the reading expertise in close reading that literature studies emphasizes and explore how a pedagogical model that employs a periodical studies approach inherently invites fan responses, readings that may seem not as nuanced at first, but which we need to reconsider in light of current work being done on fan discourse and convergence culture.

 In this course, I used WordPress to set up a course blog, and the welcome post invited students to narrate their own first encounters with Dickens and his work. I find the welcome post helps create a friendly class dynamic early on as well as ensure that students become familiar with using the course blog before they must post their own entries. What emerged from the welcome narratives was the fact that almost all of us, myself included, had first encountered Dickens’s work through popular cinematic and television adaptations of A Christmas Carol, specifically the Disney film, Mickey’s A Christmas Carol. The fact that we had all consumed Dickens as a cultural product of the Christmas industry and Disney combined with placing the narrative of that experience at the beginning of the course subtly shifted our discussions towards a scholar-fan model as we began to more fully consider the place of Dickens in our own culture.

 This shift continued in our first discussion of Our Mutual Friend, in which one student attempted to make a positive case for Silas Wegg. He enjoyed the character immensely, and he wanted to think the best of Wegg. This unexpected support for a character the rest of the class found alternatively sleazy or incomprehensible became a running theme. As we began Great Expectations after mid-term, the fan discourse of “shipping” became more pronounced. Typically, character-shipping language revolves around fan support for certain romantic pairings. Yet, students began using the language of fan support most commonly used in Twilight fan communities to ship Bella-Edward or Bella-Jacob pairings, declaring themselves instead of “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob” “Team Pip” or “Team Lizzie” or claiming other characters, such as one student who wrote a blog post about being for “Team Joe Gargery.”

 

While students were not supporting particular character relationships, they were ardently invested in supporting specific characters. The phrased used most often was “being all in for” whichever character a student happened to feel particularly passionate about. “Being all in” was most pronounced in our discussions of Pip. Some students identified with the youthful Pip’s struggles to find his place in the world, choosing deliberately and consciously to ignore the older Pip’s narrative condemnations of his younger self. Other students found Pip frustrating and unlikeable, and they were puzzled by the support other students expressed for the character. One student wrote about still supporting Pip in spite of the narrative path Dickens sets: “Even as we question his behavior, and even when he gets older and we absolutely hate his behavior, we are still on his side. At least I am. I want more from Pip. I don’t want to be disappointed in his actions; I want him to do the right thing. […] Pip is more realistic than the completely pure and good characters, even though we love them too. Mostly I think we know that we should be for Pip because Joe is for Pip.”

 The blog assignment continued this work as it asked students to post three reflections during the course of the semester based on the assigned readings for the week, additional scholarly readings, class discussion, and their own research interests. Many of the postings reflected our in class discussions about character development, and we began to query both in class and on the blog what “being all in” for a character meant. This led to a particular question: what does such uncritical distance from characters in a text mean about our reading practices and the ways we discuss text? This discussion point made me much more aware of my own extra-literary positions. I was most decidedly not “all in for” Pip, a position the most ardent fans of Pip and Great Expectations in the class could not move me from, despite compelling arguments. I was, however, “all in” for the Boffins, a position that made me keenly aware of how my like for Mr. Boffin was inadvertently a spoiler for students: they suspected, rightly, that Mr. Boffin’s story couldn’t end badly if I liked the character.

Admittedly, not all students expressed interest in the ways that fan discourse shaped our understanding of Dickens. It did create a class dynamic where sometimes students struggled with the language of participatory culture, which the blogging assignment helped students overcome. It alone, however, would not have produced the kind of fan discourse that ran through the class. I have used a course blog in another major author class on Jane Austen, and while we discussed Austen’s cultural relevance for the twenty-first century, I feel the combination of serial reading, a print culture focus, and blogging created a pedagogical milieu conducive to fan discourse. Matt Hills, in his work on Doctor Who, posits that “the ‘fan’ versus ‘academic’ gridlock of false binaries” occludes the multiple ways that reading and discussing text from a scholar-fan or convergence perspective can productively resituate our understanding of how readers interact with texts. [ii] As Jennifer Hayward, author of Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera, claims, “…fan culture disrupts the boundaries between high and low.” [iii] Hayward goes on to argue that “One way to escape the need, so central to the habitus of academics, to evaluate and then canonize particular texts is to focus on function rather than ‘quality’: what do such texts do for their readers, what purpose do they serve in readers’ lives, what kinds of though processes, discussions, activities, and meanings do they enable?” [iv] While Hayward’s work is focused on fan responses to texts, such as Dickens’s novels, as they were being published, her point about reconsidering what texts do for readers and the reading practices they enable is applicable to the twenty-first century classroom.

While scholars tend to view fan responses to texts as less nuanced, considering the extra-literary as part of how we discuss texts requires us to ask different kinds of questions about texts beyond the purview of close reading. Fan responses ask readers to be participatory not distanced from text, moving beyond the classifications of texts as canonical/non-canonical or quality/popular. Teaching invites participation at its most fundamental level. As teachers, we craft discussion questions and avenues of inquiry so that students have the intellectual space to pose their own interpretations. It is not surprising, then, that the participatory practices of fan culture should find a place in the nineteenth-century literature classroom.

Lindsy Lawrence specializes in nineteenth-century British literature, with an emphasis on periodical studies, print culture, gender studies, and the work of women writers, including Elizabeth Gaskell and Felicia Hemans. She is Co-Project Director ofThe Periodical Poetry Index: A Research Database of Poetry in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, where she teaches a range of courses in British literature, gender, and cultural studies. Her PhD is from Texas Christian University. You can find her at lindsylawrence.wordpress.comand follow her on Twitter @lmltelegraph

 

[i] Lindsy Lawrence and Cammie Sublette, “Flip that Theory: Cultural Studies as a Foundational Course in the College Literature Curriculum,” Teaching College Literature <http://teachingcollegelit.com/tcl/>

[ii] Matt Hills, Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who in the Twenty-First Century (New York, NY: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2010), p. 1.

[iii] Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1997), p. 10.

[iv] Jennifer Hayward, Consuming Pleasures: Active Audiences and Serial Fictions from Dickens to Soap Opera (Lexington, KY: UP of Kentucky, 1997), p. 11.

 

 

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