Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fandom and the Public Sphere

In 2009, I talked with literary scholar Barbara Ryan about her ongoing project on Ben-Hur fans. She has been researching the political efficacy of Ben-Hur fandom and the complexities of the "citizen-audience," a term that has gained traction in media studies through the work of scholars like Richard Butsch, Joke Hermes, Toby Miller, etc. At the time, I wasn't fully aware of the specific ways that audience studies and citizenship studies had been intersecting, but now I'm starting to encounter this approach more broadly across both academic and professional fields.

The latest was a post by Peter Gutierrez last month on his Connect the Pop blog. Citing the ways that students' participation in online fandom might offer opportunities for learning not only "netiquette" and basic online safety but also civic engagement more broadly, Gutierrez offers K-12 students a "Digital Fandom Checklist" to help students think about the social contexts and commitments the shape their fandom. Given the strong, long-term, communal nature of fandom, Gutierrez notes, "Fans must take into account not just the short-term value of making a point or having the last word, but their long-term relationships with their fellow fans, both individually and generally, the latter insofar as they’re developing a reputation or history within fandom." He goes on to suggest that the particularly social framework of fandom can help students to begin to work out what it means to engage publicly with others in a democracy, especially around issues that are fraught with strong feelings, even tension.

Obviously, there is much much more to think about in terms of how media, audiencing, education, and civics have influenced one another, especially in different historical contexts of social transformation. But I like that Gutierrez has provided teachers, librarians, and students with a means to start analyzing and applying ideas emerging from the growing scholarship on citizenship and audience.

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