Sample Course: Critical Fan Studies Research Methods

Discipline: Rhetoric and Composition, Upper Level Undergraduate Course on Rhet/Comp Research Methods. Can be used across the disciplines with some adjusting.

Syllabus created by Cara Marta Messina, 2020

Table of Contents


The purpose of this course is to introduce methodologies and methods for researching online fan communities. While the theoretical framework and content of study in this course is focused on fandoms and critical fan practices, these methodologies and methods transfer to other areas and subjects of study, specifically digital spaces.

Theoretical Framework of Course

Fan studies has history dating back to the 1980 and 1990s, when scholars in media studies and beyond began examining fanfiction and fan practices. During that time, fan scholars (Joanna Russ, Patricia Frazer Lamb, Diana Vieth, Henry Jenkins, etc.) heralded fan communities as spaces of resistance, where fans—particularly marginalized folks—challenged the status quo reified in popular culture media. For most fan scholars, gender and sexuality was a central focus. The genealogy of fan studies is made transparent through Hellekson and Busse’s The Fan Fiction Studies Reader as well as numerous articles published in Transformative Works and Cultures, an open-source peer reviewed journal for fans + academics.

As fan studies has expanded over the years, though, it became clear that a critical intervention was needed, particularly around the representations (or lack thereof) of people and characters of color. In a recent Transformative Works and Cultures special issue, this huge gap is addressed, and it seems the field as a whole is moving to acknowledge issues around race is central to fan studies.

Fan studies’ politics reflect larger politics in fan communities and dominant cultural narratives, more broadly. In fact, fanfiction and fan works have become so popular that they are slowly becoming a part of dominant cultural narratives. While still usually in the margins, fan politics are fairly explicit when analyzing which fandoms, ships, and characters are most popular. White supremacy, the fetishization of queer men, and the marginal appearances of lesbian relationships are reflected in larger fan community patterns.

Course Goals

Setting up critical fan studies as our theoretical lens, we will then dive into research methods for examining critical fans’ composing practices. The goal of this course will be for you to come out with a strong grip on critical fans composing practices and an understanding of different research methods, forms of data collection and analyses, and presenting on research findings.

In this course, students will learn:


Participation (10%)

We will be learning and practicing research methods in every class. Almost every week, we will have a reading or two that demonstrates a form of fan studies research and a lab, which we will dive more into the actual methods and practice them. Participation may look different, from being in the class, to participating in discussions, to participating in labs. On the first day, we will discuss different modes of participation and come up with a list together.

Lab Notes (10%)

At the end of each lab, you will be asked to write a reflection about the lab and submit it for our next class. These reflections will give you an opportunity to think through the methods and tools we learned, as well as how you might apply them in your research project or beyond. There are 7 labs in total, so each lab note will be worth 1.5% of your total grade (except the first will be 1%).

Assignments (80% overall)


The assignments in this course begin at thinking through your own life and relationship to fandoms to help situate ourselves within different fan communities. Fan communities range from the traditional fans of cultural materials (television shows, books, movies, and games), to political fandoms, to sports fandoms, and beyond. By analyzing your own experience and fan journey, the assignments will then ask you to build a research project on critical practices in online fandoms. These online fandoms may be based on the communities to which you belong or another online fandom you are invested in.

Assignment 1: Your Fan Journey, Literacy Narrative

For this assignment, you will be writing a literacy narrative based on your experience in fandoms and fan communities. Everyone is a fan of something, even if these fandoms do not look like the traditional fandoms around popular culture that we talk about here. For example, you may follow celebrities or influencers on social media, participate in sports fan practices, or be a fan of particular hobbies or crafts. What have you been a fan of throughout your life? What has your participation looked like? Describe specific activities in your fandoms, and why those activites are part of the fandom.

Assignment 2: Critical Fan Research Proposal

Based on some of the forms of research we have learned so far as well as upcoming methods, write a proposal about the type of fandom research you hope to conduct for your third assignment. Specifically, how do the fan practices/communities/texts/genres you are researching reinforce or resist hegemonic cultures?

If you are interested in conducting a qualitative/quantitative mixed methods study, we will be learning some tips for data collection as well as how this data does or does not represent community norms. You can explore larger patterns in the community, which you may find in the analytics or through forms of data scraping or large data collection. How do these patterns reify or resist hegemonic cultures? Then, you will use more qualitative-based research methods, such as conducting a survey or interview, to examine particular textual choices made by critical fans that may conform or resist these patterns in the larger community. We will learn ways to collect data from Archive of Our Own and Twitter (using TAGs). We will also discuss ethical forms of data collection and analysis. Since we may be outsiders going into communities, we must take extra care when interacting with or speaking with different fans.

Assignment 3: Critical Fan Research Progress Update

Because research is a long and often difficult process, your third assignment will provide you with an opportunity to update me with what you have done so far. This way, you can be sure to start your data collection and potentially do some preliminary analysis. This genre is a bit strange, as updates and progress genres are not usually what we see when we read research articles. For this update, though, I want you to:

Final Assignment: Critical Fan Research Presentation and Paper

Based on your proposal, you will conduct your own research! Because it may take time to do some data collection, this will be your final assignment. Your final assignment will be both a presentation that you will present in the last week of class as well as a written paper due during finals week.

Course Structure

Fan Studies History (Weeks 1-3).

This section of the course will analyze the history of fan studies as well as our own fan studies history. By examining the trajectory of fan studies—the foundational principles of the field as well as who was originally excluded—you will understand why investing particularly in critical fans is important. This trajectory will also provide a space for us to talk about our own fan community practices and what we may do in the future to develop our critical consciousnesses.

Research Ethics (Week 4)

This section will explore research ethics, both institutionally-defined research ethics from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) as well as recommended ethical guidelines to follow when doing digital research.

Methodologies (Weeks 5-7)

A methodology is the overall theoretical and practical approach towards doing research. There are a ton of different methodologies across the disciplines, but we will specifically focus on community ethnographies and case studies. Each of these methodologies have particular purposes and focuses. Critical fan ethnography focuses on tracing community practices and may move across platforms, types of fan genres, and even fandoms. A Critical Fan case study, however, focuses more on individual writers to flesh out particular practices. We will look at examples from both methodologies. Some of the methods for data collection and analysis look similar, but the findings and discussion of the data will look different.

Methods of Data Collection and Analysis (Weeks 7-10).

After discussing methodologies more broadley, we will then dive into particular methods that we can implement. Methods usually include the process of data collection and analysis. We will discuss different types of data, how to collect that data, how to analyze that data, and finally which data types are appropriate for which methodologies. We will also look at particular tools that are useful for each method used.

Writing Lab (Week 11).

This last week before presentations are due will focus on providing you with time to develop your projects and ask questions based on the different methodologies and methods we learned.

Final Presentations (Week 12).

Present your findings to the rest of the class!


For a two-day class schedule.

Week 1


Defining Fan Studies.

Week 2

First Wave Fan Studies

How the Internet Transformed Fandoms

Week 3

Current Fan Studies Discourse

Current Fan Studies Discourse

Week 4

Research Ethics

Research Ethics

Week 5

Methodology: Critical Fans Ethnography

Critical Fan Ethnography Lab

Week 6

Methodology: Critical Fan Case Study

Data Collection Lab

Week 7

Method: Surveys

Survey Lab

Week 8

Method: Interviews

Interviews Lab

Week 9

Method: Data Analytics

Data Analytics Lab

Week 10

Method: Computational Text Analysis

Computational Text Analysis Lab

Week 11

Writing Lab: This last week will focus on going back through the methodologies and methods we learned this semester; you will also have time to work on your final projects in class.

Writing Lab

Week 12

Final Assignment Presentations.

Final Assignment Presentations. Final Assignment Due on (date).