Curator’s note: the academia/fandom blow-up now known as #theoryofficgate has received attention from a number of sectors – fandom and fan studies, in particular. It was the impetus for discussions about research and teaching ethics amongst some fan studies scholars, and it even came up at at least one recent academic conference in that context. Here, learnfromthewintertrees offers a concise, and painstakingly linked, overview of what exactly happened and some of the discussions that ensued on tumblr.
if I’m missing something, or you feel you’ve been misquoted etc. you can ask / message me with links and suggestions (anon is on), admittedly I’m not omniscient and this is a rather tumblr-biased post but so many people were saying so many good things, I just had to attempt to get it all together.
Yesterday, waldorph wrote a post: So Your Fic is Required Reading: Hahahanope. In it, waldorph says that they’ve been receiving strange comments on a particular fic of theirs, Delilah, and say it’s what prompted them to write “a post about concrit and feedback earlier this week”. The comments on Delilah were “bizarrely tone-deaf, condescending, rude, and more than that, completely out of step and touch with all fannish norms”.
Turns out, it’s because Delilah is “required reading” in a class, but weirdly these students have been instructed to “leave a comment… which is more critical than constructive”. This came to light because one of the “teachers” stepped in (which you can see here) to explain the harsh comments and apologises “for any awfulness” it’s caused and admits that it “might have missed the target a bit”.
waldorph alerted the authors on the syllabus, giving them a link “with the professor information and contact details” leaving it up to them what they do. waldorph revealed the list to encourage the fan community to “leave some positive vibes on these works in particular”.
A quick google of a fanfiction class at Berekley revealed that this class is called The Theory of Fanfiction and is run by two undergraduates (Katrina Hall and Isadora Lamego) as part of a DeCal class. (The syllabus is available to view at the bottom of the page or alternatively here). There is also an article on DailyCal about it entitled Students explore erotica in fan fiction DeCal at UC Berkeley in which Van Tooke seems to imply there is a large emphasis on “kink”. Hall & Lamego appear to be fans themselves. For further information on what “DeCals” are, a recent grad explains here and a current student, brenhineseira, defends them here.
waldorph answers many asks about this; most people voice their horror and concern and nervousness for fan creators. waldorph agrees that “the entire situation is inappropriate within fannish culture”. Through these asks, it’s revealed that all of the students have AO3 accounts, but there are also a couple of fics on FFN, and that waldorph has emailed “these professors” letting them know how it impacted waldorph “personally”. erisedwild gets in contact to suggest writing in to DailyCal. A “Cal alum” says that Decal classes have to have a “faculty sponsor” and that person could be contacted. After some confusion, it comes to light that Oliver Arnold is the “staff advisor” in this instance. keriarentikai advises against getting involved: “our works are publicly available and can be read by anyone… freaking out on two people who pointed that out to a group of undergraduates doesn’t solve anything.”
waldorph repeatedly thanks fandom for their kind response, but asks people to be “respectful” and not “bully” the students as it’s “not their fault”. “Their hearts were in the right place, I think that they just didn’t think the course all the way through.” [x]
waldorph receives a message from a student in the class (name redacted) who is “really upset and embarrassed that we didn’t realize the potential for this kind of fallout”. They have another class soon and hope that “the teachers will address the problem”. The student agrees that “it’s absolutely inappropriate for strangers who don’t know to respect that to intrude on this space.”
The teacher comments on the fic again (although the account FiveMinutesTilBedtime has since been deleted) giving their “sincerest apologies”. For the time being the teachers have asked their students “to stop leaving reviews” (which has since be confirmed). The teacher asks for suggestions for improvement. Understandably, there are quite a few comments spanning from this, and they’re all worth a read, but I’d like to highlight Beatrice_Otter‘s comment that “a literature-studies approach does not generally include any contact with the author”** and PorcupineGirl‘s comment about the students who are expected to undertake “ethnographic participation in [the] subculture”. Kristina Busse gives some advice about how fanfiction can be used in the classroom and suggests the use of “informed consent” as in guidelines used by the TWC.
(**not in this comment thread, but related to this point, printedsoot sums it up quite nicely: “you don’t need permission to STUDY works that are publically available, but you DO need permission to accost the author in their own space.” there’s more on study methods below vvv)
ibelieveinthelittletreetopper points out the bias in the fic selection as there’s no Supernatural fic despite it’s large presence and waldorph also thinks it looks like “the stories collected were things the teachers have liked”. saathi1013, responding to an ask from trivia-goddess, suggests how the readings could have been chosen more wisely and points out a major concern in that fic can be “triggery as fuck” and should at least be mentioned in the syllabus if they are “mandatory” reading.
(btw amongst everything else, it’s generally agreed that the “fifty kudos” targets for the students to achieve, as outlined by the syllabus, is an awful requirement and an impossible standard that turns fandom culture into some kind of commodity.)
ivyblossom questions the wisdom of studying fic without context, “While stories might seem self-contained and individual, on some level each of them are part of a broader conversation among fans.” waldorph says something along similar lines in response to an ask, “[the students are] not reading this as part of the community, with all the implicit aspects that that includes… Without that knowledge, it’s impossible to interact with the text in a meaningful way.”
People are pissed at the enforced commenting as the students “have no guidance” and so are “just doing undergrad litcrit, which doesn’t fly!” deleted-scenes, “an academic who studies fanfiction,” comments that “to assume that fic wants/needs/should be treated as Literature is to subject it to standards that should be abolished, not extended.”
The lack of understanding about the community and culture, especially in a class led by fans, has seemed to anger a lot of people. theletteraescwrites a post about the private/public nature of fandom and the acceptance of it. mienuxbleu reblogs this, similarly fed up, and adds: “Fandom presumes knowledge and passion” and it’s not something you can understand unless you’re in it.
ivyblossom writes a post: Want to Engage with Fandom from the Outside? in which she offers some advice. unjapanologist reblogs this questioning the definition of “outsiders” as the “majority of academics who study fans are fans themselves.” They conclude, “this is not a problem of “outsiders” coming into fandom and being stupid. This is a problem of fans talking about fandom in a way that makes other fans uncomfortable.” ivy blossom clears up the misunderstanding as she was not “saying academics are outsiders to fandom” but that people ought to “keep an open mind, and pay attention when you’re in a place that’s new to you”.
Some say the class is pretty unethical. As saathi1013 puts it: “to pass this class, you are almost explicitly tasked to “go undercover” in fandom, and your success is measured by how well you can ape or predict fannish trends,” [x] suckitdomitian adds that it “has the feel of one of those really creepy anthropological studies from the 1800s” [x]. Even a student-led class should have to pass “a rigorous ethics test”. annejamison points out that there is a divide between “research primarily about works v. research primarily about people” and now the study of fans is not limited to social sciences it’s messy (clarified later). A current student writes in to say that this is not the “academic scandal fandom is making it out to be” as “those classes are widely acknowledged to be jokes – they don’t count toward a degree.” It is true that other fanfiction classes have been more tactful as one student from another class points out, and tea-and-liminality shares the concern that all “acafans” are being “lumped into the same category” when this “does not represent fan studies in any meaningful way” (she later writes a post relating to this topic). As coaldustcanary puts it, Theory of Fanfiction is a “glorified fanfic reading group” (which meshes with the earlier citied explanation of DeCals).
There’s some debate about whether to lock/delete/close down the fics.
There’s debate over whether fic authors should be notified if their work is included on a syllabus. One anon college professor says yes, saathi1013 has “misgivings”, and annejamison who currently teaches a course on fanfiction says she used to but doesn’t anymore and explains why. Anne also doesn’t require students to comment, tells them never to be “critical”, and to always bear in mind the context of the work. Most of her students are fans.
“I think that fic authors always take these risks, right? We’re writing in a public space. I think the thing to take away from this is that we have each other’s backs. This might happen to you, but there are hundreds, possibly thousands of people who are willing to be on your side and spread the word and make you feel safe in your own space.” [x]
EDIT 24/02: waldorph shares a “debrief for fandom” from one of the students in which it’s made clear that “the assignment to leave concrit has been completely discontinued.” They are all fans and can now read within their own fandoms so they “may have appropriate context and knowledge of source material”. The concern of “potentially triggering fic” was made clear to the class, and they hope to be “negotiating” the “Fifty Reviews” assignment with the facilitators.” All in all, as a class we corrected our methods of study, and hopefully will move forward without causing further undue agitation, stress, and hurt to the fandom communities.”
The story is covered by The Daily Dot, written by one of the fic writers on the syllabus: ”While most fanfic is published on easily accessible platforms, it’s often posted with the tacit understanding that it will only be read by its target audience.”
EDIT 25/02: A student reports the fallout, including that people have “emailed and harassed various Board members”. This prompts unjapanologist to speak in defence of academia and say that the fans in that class are “not the only fans who need to do some self-reflection and learning. And apologizing.” meeedeee reblogs with: An Open Letter to The Members and Instructors of the Theory of Fic Decal Class.
“Round-up: TheoryOfFicgate” ©learnfromthewintertrees, originally posted on 23 February 2015