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Communities of Practice: intersections between learning, fan-fiction and the institution

Author: joe

Friday, 27 March, 2009 - 10:38

Yesterday I was in two unrelated seminars which struck me as having interesting resonances with each other. The first was a Learning & Teaching seminar I led about Communities of Practice and the challenges of pursuing a 'participatory pedagogy' in the constraints of an institution. The second was led by Richard Berger and Bronwen Thomas in the Narratives Research Group, who both talked about fan fiction and slash fic.

In the first seminar which I was leading, one of the I was key ideas I was trying to articulate was the issue of domains of knowledge: academics work within specific disciplines and subject areas; common sense tells us that those disciplines and subject areas are generally stable and fixed; and students expect teachers to act as gatekeepers or transmitters of that body of knowledge. In Situated Learning (1991), Lave and Wenger suggest moving away from a conventional understanding of such bodies of knowledge as stable and external, objective entities which can be transmitted unmodified from tutor to pupil; instead they suggest thinking about disciplines and the engagement with them by a scholarly community as a set of socially reproduced practices. Disciplines are continually constituted by the practices which communities engage in: reading, interpreting, discussing, participating, negotiating and renegotiating. Far from having a constant and fixed set of axioms which teachers repeat to students until the students have learned them, rather, the social practices of academic life are continually transforming the individual and intersubjective meanings that participants construct.

In the second seminar, Richard presented a historical overview of fan fiction, noting the features of intertextuality, variation, and the evolving nature of the participants; Bronwen conducted a "bottom-up" analysis of some of the activities and conventions which characterised the online fan fiction communities. Popular source texts become the site for participatory adaptations; the tensions between the 'authentic' text - that produced by the original author - and the variations produced by the fan community, are resolved in myriad ways: in some cases through legal means (copyright holders try to close such communities down), but more often through mechanisms which start to look much more like master / journeyman / apprentice relationships. New fan fiction authors contribute their efforts, get feedback, rework and improve their work, and in the process of doing so, become recognised and increasingly 'senior' members of the community. Mechanisms are evolved for deciding what is permitted - i.e. what variations are allowed to to be included, and what contraventions of the source 'storyworlds' are proscribed. Original authors (such as Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy) often give their blessing to these communities and sometimes even allow the 'authorised versions' of their work to respond reflexively to new variations in the ever-evolving fan canon - or what Jenkins call the 'fanon'.

In both of these domains there are some crucial features: the notion of canonicity (whether in terms of a clearly defined academic discipline, or in terms of a source text or storyworld) and the participatory practices and conventions which characterise the continual reproduction of that canon.

So, participation, and the learning and adoption of the norms of the community, generate the necessary social capital for participants to become trusted members of the community of practice. It would be interesting to see what sorts of commonalities and differences emerge in comparisons between the two different domains: do fanfic journeymen and masters have to be good at writing fanfic themselves, or can they acquire their position of trust through expert knowledge of the canon, or through the continually respectful and constructive writing of feedback? May academics rely on their past achievements of qualification or recognition, or must they continually reinforce and reproduce their status through continuous participation?

What seems more problematic, though, is how the respective canons in each of the domains are viewed. Lave and Wenger note that a community of practice is characterised by the often antagonistic processes of participation and reification. One might understand the pressure to maintain the integrity of the 'authentic' canon in the face of variations produced by fans as a contest between reification and participation - indeed L&W note that there is inevitably a competitive tension between long-standing members (refered to as 'old-timers') and the newcomers; the latter are destined ultimately to replace the former. Hence the 'old-timers' seek to maintain the integrity of the body of work they have striven towards, while newcomers exert an evolutionary pressure on that work which inevitably undergoes transformation and contestation.

In academia, however, I sense that the reverse is often the case: newcomers in the form of students, raised in the behaviourist hot-house of secondary schooling, and forced to commit to large investment and future debts, are resistant to the idea that academic disciplines might be reflexive, unstable, and more importantly, open to modification and reconstruction by their inexpert selves. Indeed, why would they be asked to pay such a lot of money for 'tuition' fees when 'tuition' is not the necessarily the high-road to the valuable commodity of knowledge? They expect lecturers to transmit considerable quantities of information and distrust the idea that they might learn as much from each other as they might learn from an academic expert. Those same lecturers themselves recognise the pedagogy of situated learning and actively encourage students to question and challenge the handed-down-ness of academic authority, being fully aware of the constructedness of their own expertise and of the discipline as a whole. Meanwhile, the institution itself imposes upon those teachers and students yet more behaviourist assumptions and structures. These take the form of VLEs into which tutor-created resources are fed for students to consume, the minimisation of social and embodied tutor/learner contact in favour of income-generating activities, and locking up contemporary knowledge advancement in the closed-access academic publishing industry which in turn perpetuates itself by persuading scholars that they must lock their knowledge up in the pages of their journals in order to acquire 'esteem'.

Lave & Wenger's model of situated learning makes clear that learning transforms not only the learner but also the subject to be learned. It seems ironic then, that this profoundly liberating and politically significant insight is often lost on learners and ignored by learning institutions.

Categories: learning, pedagogy, Jean-Lave, Etienne-Wenger, situated learning, communities of practice, community, practice, fan fiction, participation, canon,
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