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MIT Better World

By Joelle Carson

CMS.621 Fans and Fan Cultures


Edward Schiappa, John E. Burchard Professor of the Humanities (Fall 2023)


CMS.621 Fans and Fan Cultures, a communication-intensive elective in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, examines media audiences—specifically, fans—and the subcultures that evolve around them. Students examine the different historical, contemporary, and transnational understandings of fans and explore products of fan culture, i.e., clubs, fiction, “vids,” activism, etc. Readings place these products within the context of various disciplines. Students consider the concept of the “aca-fan” and reflect on their own “fannish” practices. The term “aca-fan” describes individuals who primarily identify as academics and also identify as fans. Henry Jenkins, the former MIT professor who created CMS.621, embraced the term and used it to describe himself.


“I truly believe the structure of our society is built on fandom,” says Skipper Lynch ’26, a physics major. In the fall 2023 session of CMS.621, Lynch’s written and oral presentations explored fan phenomena as recognizable as Scooby-Doo and as niche as The Magnus Archives horror podcast. “I see fan culture as a powerful tool for social engineering, which goes hand in hand with the other forms of engineering at MIT.”

Fans and Fan Cultures uses a lens of popular culture to investigate connection: to peers, family, society, and one’s self. As a communication-intensive course, it hones students’ writing and presenting skills while applying critical communication theories:

  • Cultivation Analysis: asserts that high-frequency television and internet users are more susceptible to media messages and the belief that they are real and valid.
  • Social Learning Theory: proposes that learning that occurs through observation, imitation, and modeling is influenced by factors such as attention, motivation, attitudes, and emotions.
  • Uses and Gratifications Theory: sees media users as active agents who choose media to satisfy given needs as well as social and psychological uses, such as knowledge, relaxation, social relationships— unlike many media theories that view users as passive.

Most class time revolves around student presentations and discussion of three major projects: an oral history based on an interview with a person over age 50, an autoethnography about one’s own fan experiences, and a normative assessment of a phenomenon in current or recent fan culture.

Edward Schiappa, the John E. Burchard Professor of the Humanities and former head of Comparative Media Studies/Writing, jumped at the chance to resurrect the course in 2021. He taught it in fall 2023, and other MIT instructors sometimes take up the mantle. The popular course was originally created and taught by former MIT professor Henry Jenkins, a pioneer of fan studies. Jenkins’s book Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, originally published in 1992, is a foundational text for the course and for the field of fan studies.

“I’ve found that students really like to learn about media studies—even the drier empirical research on media effects—if they learn about it in the context of popular culture,” Schiappa says. “Fan experiences are about more than just having fun. They are often important vehicles for learning about oneself, and for connecting with like-minded individuals.” Students like Lynch also gain a deeper understanding about human behavior and how media ripples through cultural identity.

Fandom throughout the years

“Though fan cultures are discussed more and can spread more easily thanks to the internet, the importance and impact of fans is nothing new,” says Schiappa. “Decades before Beatlemania, for example, stars like Frank Sinatra attracted huge mobs of fans.

The biggest difference in the 21st century is a matter of scale. One can participate in fandom with the click of a button.” Students learn this firsthand in their first assignment—to interview a person over the age of 50 about their fandom experiences.

Sabrina Hu ’25, a computer science and media studies major, chose to interview her mother for the project. “I was nervous that I wouldn’t have much content to work with, but I was very wrong,” Hu says. “My mother nostalgically recounted her favorite childhood movies—I specifically wrote about Xiao Hua from 1979—and why she loved them so much, given the national and cultural context of growing up in China.” For Hu, the results of the interview assignment went beyond her presentation: “My mom grew up in China, and she and I have always had a language and cultural barrier. Talking to my mother about her fan experience helped me understand why she thinks the way she does, and we were able to grow closer through this assignment.”

The personal nature of each project and changing tides of culture ensure that subjects are never the same in each semester, but one fandom will always remain on the syllabus: Star Trek: The Original Series. “Much of what we study with respect to fan culture is a result of fan activities in response to Star Trek,” Schiappa says. “Fans of Star Trek did not originate the idea of a conference, but they took ‘cons’ to a new level. They also practically invented what we now call cosplay by coming to cons in costume.”

Meaningful analysis

Students draw parallels not only to each other’s fandoms, but how they affect their worldview at large. “One of the central themes of the class was that everything we watch has some sort of message it wants to convey to us, implicitly or explicitly—even children’s television,” says student Emily Ruben, who is cross-registered from Wellesley College. “My final project was on the political allegories in the show The Legend of Korra and how political messaging in pop culture can subtly influence our political beliefs. CMS.621 always had me thinking deeper about the media I consumed.”

Self-examination and relating to others in a classroom context, however, is also an eye-opening experience for many students that flows into other areas of their lives and studies. “What we were learning in class was directly applicable to me and the people around me,” Hu says. “It was so fun seeing everyone get excited about sharing a fan experience and relating to each other in that way.”