Monday, October 21, 2019

Book Review: Writers in the Secret Garden (teachers, come here!)

If you are a teacher in general, but even more so a teacher who teaches students how to write, this book is for you.

Writers in the Secret Garden - Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis

Over the past twenty years, amateur fanfiction writers have published an astonishing amount of fiction in online repositories. More than 1.5 million enthusiastic fanfiction writers--primarily young people in their teens and twenties--have contributed nearly seven million stories and more than 176 million reviews to a single online site, In this book, Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis provide an in-depth examination of fanfiction writers and fanfiction repositories, finding that these sites are not shallow agglomerations and regurgitations of pop culture but rather online spaces for sophisticated and informal learning. Through their participation in online fanfiction communities, young people find ways to support and learn from one another.

Aragon and Davis term this novel system of interactive advice and instruction distributed mentoring, and describe its seven attributes, each of which is supported by an aspect of networked technologies: aggregation, accretion, acceleration, abundance, availability, asynchronicity, and affect. Employing an innovative combination of qualitative and quantitative analyses, they provide an in-depth ethnography, reporting on a nine-month study of three fanfiction sites, and offer a quantitative analysis of lexical diversity in the 61.5 billion words on the site. Going beyond fandom, Aragon and Davis consider how distributed mentoring could improve not only other online learning platforms but also formal writing instruction in schools.

Whether it's middle school, high school, AP classes, college, or university- it's really important to have an arsenal of information at your hands to get the best writing out of your students, and this is going to be a great tool. I am going to confess to you that as someone who reads a lot, and someone who reads a pretty diverse selection of books (though I have my favorites), I have been a person who rolled their eyes at the fanfiction websites. I first became aware of them during the Twilight craze, and I remember being so annoyed with people who couldn't think of their own idea for a story, they wait for a popular/successful one to come along and then change it up and that always felt kind of dirty. I didn't think it was quite plagiarism, but it felt like that really gray area. I once asked a friend who taught at a local university that if she had a student from last year turn in this great paper, and a student this year turn one eerily similar but enough differences that you couldn't say it was plagiarism, would you still accept it? She said she wasn't sure, and that's how I have always felt about fanfiction.

Until I read this book. I can absolutely see the other side of it.

In this book it really has four parts I consider the "meat" of the book: history, theory, ethnography, and data. That's me paraphrasing it but basically, that's what it is. I'm also going to note right now that if it sounds like I'm butchering this review, it's because I haven't read a scientific data backed book in years and my brain doesn't spin that way anymore so admittedly, some areas of this book were a bit much for me but if you are already into looking at best practices and methods of teaching, you will absorb this quickly as it is just under 200 pages.

I already kind of knew the basic history of fanfiction, but the theory of "distributed mentoring" was new to me and it was actually really interesting to read about. At first it sounded like the most horrific project of all time: a group project in which you all work together for a final product. (I hate these because as the smart kid it was almost always me only doing all the work and having to lie and say it was a group project.) The way people are using fanfiction to mentor each other (which is detailed in the book and would be kind of a cool classroom experiment especially if students didn't know whose work they were helping with, so instead of names, each writer was assigned a "code" to remain anonymous) is really fascinating.

Overall, this book was fascinating. I learned a lot about the world of fanfiction, more than what I knew. It turns out what I actually knew about it was less than 1% of what it actually is. I actually got through this entire book in a little over a day, maybe a day and a half, because it was so well researched and the idea that a person can improve as a writer within these fanfiction sites is equal parts obvious but also very surprising and cool. These are people teaching themselves how to do it, much like watching a YouTube tutorial on how to fix your kitchen sink, I suppose. I'm giving this one 4 stars because I think if you're professionally teaching students how to write, I think there are many ideas in this book that you can implement in the classroom easily.

A huge thank you to PR by the Book, The MIT Press, and Cecilia Aragon & Katie Davis for sending me a copy and getting me on this tour! This post contains affiliate links. 

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