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9/25/2015

Researcher Examines How Affinity Spaces Motivate Teen Writers

Laura, a high school senior, is passionate about writing. Her passion doesn't always get fueled in the classroom, but does on fanfiction.net, an affinity website where like-minded writers can share and critique the new chapters they've written for such popular characters and shows as Harry Potter, Breaking Bad, and The Hunger Games.
 
Jayne LammersFor Jayne Lammers, an assistant professor of teaching and curriculum in the Warner School, Laura's example raises some important questions: What is it about these affinity spaces that motivates teens to write? And what can teachers of English learn from these sites and the teens who gravitate to them, in order to motivate young writers in their classrooms?
 
Lammers has studied participation in online affinity spaces for the last eight years. With doctoral candidate Valerie Marsh, for example, she has closely monitored Laura's writing at fanfiction.net—dating back to when Laura was in middle school—as an in-depth case study of one individual's use of an affinity space. The findings will appear in the next issue of the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.
 
With collaborators from other universities, Lammers has cast a wider net in an attempt to understand the appeal of these sites. With Sandra Abrams of St. John's University, for example, Lammers is developing a "theory of belongingness" to describe the aspects of socialization or membership that are as important in drawing young people to the sites as the actual affinity, be it writing or another interest.
 
With fellow researchers Alecia Magnifico (University of New Hampshire) and Jen Scott Curwood (University of Sydney), she did a linguistic analysis of the 118 reviews two young writers received from their peers after posting stories at fanfiction.net and figment.com. The reviews ranged from one word in length to 338.
 
Bottom line: "There's not a lot of substantive feedback in these reviews," Lammers said. "Very few identified a specific problem with the writing." In their article appearing in the current issue of Literacy, she and her co-authors argue that "the commonality of relatively thin praise under the guise of 'reviewing' in spaces like figment.com and fanfiction.net suggests that teachers' expertise is deeply needed in the difficult task of developing students' skills in writing, peer review, and critique."
 
Despite not appearing to provide rich writing feedback, fanfiction sites do offer:

  1. Easy online access to the sites, which in turn provide access to different readers and types of feedback.
  2. Anonymity, which allows young writers to take greater risks than they might otherwise.
  3. Established genre conventions, which means young writers don't have to put a lot of thought into creating new characters or backstory development.
Lammers and her collaborators would like to use the tools of data science to mine larger sets of data to analyze how young writers use fanfiction.net and other online affinity spaces, and how this might inform the writing instruction in traditional classrooms.
 
In the meantime, she and Marsh recommend that English teachers:
  1. Use a student interest inventory to help students connect to networked writing spaces, such as blogs or online writing forums.
  2. Design instruction that helps students become aware of the expectations and conventions within their networked writing space.
  3. Help students recognize how technology connects writers with a social audience—and how this can empower young people interested in advocating for change.
  4. Encourage students to use online venues as an optional way to share their classroom writing.
"Classroom literacy instruction must continue to evolve beyond a focus on 'college and career readiness,'" Lammers and Marsh write in their forthcoming article for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy. "Tapping into students' interests and connecting them to networked publics serves as but one way to make classroom writing instruction more relevant to students' lives."
 
(Featured in the September 25, 2015 issue of Research Connections)
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Media Contact: Theresa Danylak
tdanylak@warner.rochester.edu
585.275.0777; 585.278.6273 (cell)

Tags: affinity spaces, english education, Fanfiction, Jayne Lammers, literacy, online affinity spaces, research, writing instruction