The term “pedagogy” essentially denotes the different ways in which people teach. Academics investigate the theories and methods of teaching in educational sites. Public pedagogy scholars believe that learning isn’t restricted to a formal educational setting like a school or a university. They research how popular culture and mainstream media can also act as educational sites (Biesta, 2012; Khoja-Moolji and Niccolini, 2015; Sandlin et al., 2013). Scholars believe that the ways in which popular culture represents people and issues both reflect and shape dominant ideologies and stereotypes (Giroux, 2004; Rossing, 2015; Wright and Wright, 2015). Popular media narratives privilege the experiences of some groups and exclude countless others. This plays a powerful role in influencing how people – from both dominant and marginalised groups – think about themselves and others.
“You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.” – Junot Diaz(Donohue, 2009)
But public pedagogy isn’t all about the negatives. Learning frequently occurs in unexpected places in unexpected ways. There are some public pedagogy scholars who believe that audiences aren’t completely passive and there are plenty of opportunities to resist these dominant narratives (Sandlin et al., 2011; Sandlin et al., 2013; Savage, 2010). According to Giroux (2004), educators can train students to critically analyse the media and culture they consume as well as produce their own cultural products which challenge dominant representations and stereotypes. However, a critical pedagogue isn’t always necessary to put these processes into motion. The feminist strand of scholarship disregards this individualistic notion of public pedagogy where a single educator or public pedagogue is responsible for transferring resistant skills and knowledge to the public (Sandlin et al., 2017). Instead, these scholars believe in a more collaborative and dialogic process where people don’t simply receive knowledge but can also contribute their own expertise. As Savage (2010) points out, people can be agents in their own education and can create knowledge through their interactions with each other.
The internet is an example of these alternative sites of pedagogy. Here, people can create and share knowledge by talking to each other in informal, everyday contexts (Kellner and Kim, 2010). Scholars argue that it’s important to study the educational potential of these spaces and the ways in which they influence people’s understanding of the world (Burdick and Sandlin, 2010; Chun, 2018). However, as Dennis (2015) and Feria-Galicia (2011) caution, participating in social media spaces doesn’t necessarily guarantee empowerment or resistance. Many people use these spaces to reproduce stereotypes and oppressive language. You don’t have to look for all the alt-right blogs, videos, and podcasts out there – even venturing into the comments section of posts and articles provides enough evidence of misogyny, racism, and xenophobia.
At the same time, people belonging to marginalised groups also create alternative media as a form of counter-storytelling to write against the dominant narratives about them (Quayle et al., 2016; Rossing, 2015). Chun (2018) discusses Black Twitter where black social media users congregate on Twitter and creatively use the platform to resist oppressive ideologies. Latinx academics Carrillo and Mendez (2019) explore the role of their podcast Block Chronicles in disrupting assumptions and stereotypes about their communities. While these can be empowering experiences, practising public pedagogy online as someone belonging to a marginalised group can be risky. As Morrison (2018) and Ringrose (2018) describe their own experiences, women and people of colour are targeted disproportionately on the internet. Nevertheless, social media platforms allow people from marginalised groups to come together to engage with culture, create knowledge, promote alternative viewpoints, and humanise marginalised experiences (Dittmar and Annas, 2017).
THE FANDOM STORY
Rossing (2015) considers artists, writers, performers, and other cultural workers as pedagogues with the potential to create alternative discourses. I believe this can also include fan writers, artists, and cultural commentators. Fans engage with their favourite texts in multiple ways. Booth (2015) positions fandom as “the classroom of the future” where fans critically engage with their favourite media texts outside institutionalised educational settings. Online fanfiction websites act as sites of pedagogy where participants develop multiple skills through their active participation in the community, re-reading of the source text, reading other fan texts, and interactions with each other (Black, 2009; DeLuca, 2018; Lammers, 2013). Fans use fan texts to negotiate cultural representations, seek information, and develop interpretations and judgements. Curwood (2013) situates their interpretations within the larger social, cultural, political, and historical contexts which they inhabit and respond to. There is no educator teaching fans what or how to think. Thus, fandom can act as an informal social learning space.
Online fan communities enable members to engage in collective intelligence, a concept popularised by Pierre Levy (Levy and Bononno, 1997; Levy, 2013). As Henry Jenkins (2006: p.4) describes it, “None of us can know everything; each of us knows something; and we can put the pieces together if we pool our resources and combine our skills”. Fans encounter new ideas and interpretations through collaborative meaning-making processes. When fans of popular culture texts use new media technologies to write and share their own media online, they exemplify participatory culture (Jenkins et al., 2009). Participatory culture envisions literacy as communal rather than individual. Fan spaces also bring fans in contact with diverse groups they otherwise wouldn’t have encountered. Negotiating diverse communities and differing perspectives is an essential component of collective intelligence (Jenkins et al., 2009).
But not everybody can take advantage of this potential. The participation gap refers to the social, cultural, geographical, political, and financial factors which restrict access to online participation (Jenkins et al., 2009). While online communities can provide opportunities for disempowered populations to make their voices heard, participation still requires certain kinds of privilege. People have unequal access to technology, information, skills, and opportunities. Consequently, the ability to make their perspectives heard is available to a relatively small number of the world’s population (Gounari, 2009). This restricts the diversity of ideas in online spaces and reinforces existing inequalities. Technology can empower but it is not inclusive to all segments of the population.
I’ve grown up on the internet. I first began accessing it intermittently as a thirteen-year-old in a cyber-café in Mumbai and then more regularly when my mother got us a computer a few years later. I began using it to read news, theories, and fanfiction about the Harry Potter books – all of which hadn’t been released yet. Since then I’ve used it for a range of things – personal, social, professional, recreational, and political. Because I spend so much time on the internet, I’m well acquainted with the cesspool of vitriol it hosts. While this often fills me with despair, I’m still optimistic about the internet’s potential – mainly because of the significant role it’s played in my own life.
My favourite thing about the internet is the sheer amount of things it’s allowed me to learn [I’m a Ravenclaw through and through]. I’m a voracious reader of books and of the internet. My formal primary, secondary, and undergraduate education often left me under-stimulated. But the internet allowed me to fill in the gaps. I used it – and continue using it – to learn new things in different ways. The internet has allowed me to learn from people whose lives and perspectives don’t mirror my own – people from both dominant and marginalised groups – often within the context of fandom. For me, learning has always been a communal activity which requires inputs from others. With this project, I want to draw on my own experiences and explore the under-theorised public pedagogy potential of online spaces, specifically of fan podcasts.