In Search of Indian Comics (Part One): Folk Roots and Traditions

So far, my account of my trip to India this summer has centered on time spent in Mumbai (which was our home base) and its surrounding cities. I want to return to my travel narrative over the next few posts — first focusing on Delhi and later on some of the other cities in India we visited. My time in Delhi was especially preoccupied with trying to understand the current state of comics and graphic novels in India, given that many key artists and authors are based in that city. I am going to use the next few posts to share what I learned.

Parmesh Shahani from the Godrej Indian Culture Lab, my host, had arranged for a meeting at the Crafts Museum for lunch with a mix of some of the country’s top creators of graphic novels.  The Museum itself is a great institution. It showcases living crafts traditions from across the country. The museum is open air: you walk around and look at, for example, a massive display of terra cotta sculptures, wall paintings and carvings representing different traditions, and stalls where craftspeople are producing and selling their work. The Crafts Museum proved to be the ideal location for this gathering, since it allowed me to place contemporary graphic practices in India in the context of a much larger tradition of pictographic wall art from various local cultures.

The following are some examples of what these wall paintings look like: it is not hard to find here forms of local practice that display principles of juxtaposition and sequence, stylization and expression, and simplification and exaggeration, that could provide the cornerstones for more contemporary forms of cartooning, and indeed, as we will see, some contemporary artists are beginning to build upon these practices to create distinctive kinds of graphic practices. The mural below represents a Muriya painting from Bastar, Chhatisgarh.


Below, in red, are figures drawn by Warli artists, who come from Maharashtra.




Below is a mural representing the traditions of Patachitra artists from Odisha, which is striking because of its use of panel boxes, unlike almost all of the other folk art styles we saw.


And these are Gond paintings from Madhiya Pradesh.


Below are some of my impressions of a contemporary graphic novel, Bhimayana: Incidents in the Life of Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, which was inspired by Gond art.The story was written by Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand and illustrated by Durgabai Vyam and Subhash Vyam. Ambedkar was an important spokesman for the rights of the Dalits (or “Untouchables”), and this book deals with the politics of the caste system in India, attempting to bridge from historic events and struggles in the early 20th century with some of the still horrible conditions and prejudices confronting the Dalits today. As an American, I had a high school geography class level understanding of the caste system, but this was a really powerful account of how caste worked on the level of basic human needs, especially focusing on access to water and shelter, and it was chilling to read accounts of very recent incidents of violence directed against the Dalits by upper caste Indians, when they crossed informal lines about whether or not they can draw water from a particular pond, even though they had been granted basic human rights some decades before. Ambedkar sounds like a remarkable political leader, who the comic suggests has often been left out of many contemporary accounts of the country’s history, except insofar as he is credited with helping to write the nation’s constitution upon its independence from Great Britain.

As powerful as the content of the graphic novel is, what really blew me away was the visual style: it is unlike any comic I have ever read before (and that’s increasingly difficult to accomplish). The artists are Gonds, that is members of a tribal community in Central India, which maintain a very traditional culture, and have developed their own art style known as Digna. According to the explanation in the back of the book, the artists had never encountered graphic novels before and found some aspects of the form philosophically troublesome: “We’d like to state one thing very clearly at the outset. We will not force our characters into boxes. It stifles them. We prefer to mount our work in open spaces. Our art is Khulla (open) where there’s space for all to breathe.” We can understand this position better looking at the example above and this one below of their traditional wall art, where there are no formal boundaries between figures. And when you see these huge, intricately entangled, wall paintings, you get a fuller sense of how they have had to reimagine this style for the printed page.


An account of their art in the back of the graphic novel explains, “Tiresome photorealism was out of the question. Nor would the Vyams [Traditional bards and artists] offer cinematic establishment shots, close-ups or extreme close-ups (of tense hands, surprised eyes, furrowed brow), mid-shot, perspective, light and shadow, three dimensionality, aerial views, low angles, etc., that have come to constitute the muse-en-scene of graphic books. The same character might not appear similar throughout the book.”

Below are a few examples of the pages from Bhimayana, showing the ways  the artists  organize the page, beyond traditional grids, boxes, panels, and gutters.




Here they use blocks of texts to separate out two opposing groups of characters and hint at the segregation created by the caste system.



And from there, they decided to draw more on their tribe’s visual traditions, which include the use of different kinds of word balloons to symbolize the character’s moral philosophies often through analogy to different animal forms. The result is stunning, forcing you to rethink so many of the ways that comics in the U.S. functions as, in Scott McCloud’s terms, “an invisible art” because it relies so heavily on shared visual conventions.

For example, in the panel below, speech bubbles take the shape of birds, and appear “only for characters whose speech is soft, the lovable characters, the victims of caste — men and women who speak like birds.”


Some of the word balloons below have stingers and are “full of words that carry a sting. Characters who love caste, whose words contain poison, whose touch is venomous.”



In addition, you see a third kind of balloon here — one which depicts thoughts that occur within “the mind’s eye” — “words that cannot be heard but can be perceived.”



You can also see throughout the book the use of traditional forms of representation to depict more contemporary settings, so this image depicts the characters on a railroad train.


Here’s a link to a review of the graphic novel which appeared in Comics Journal. Like most of the books I discuss throughout this series of posts, it is written in English and is available through Amazon and other online bookstores, but does not seem to have penetrated very far into the comic shops of the United States. Part of my goal in writing this series is to call attention to work that has largely passed unnoticed by American comics fans.

MARG: A Magazine of the Arts devoted its December 2014 issue to “Comics in India.” I was struck by a series of images by Manjula Padmanabhan, who attempts to represent popular western comics characters, including Calvin and Hobbes, Archie and Veronica, Garfield,and Modesty Blaze, through the traditional language of Mithila paintings. As the artist explained, “I found it quite liberating to use a different standard of aesthetics to create these drawings, such as the checkered borders used for separating one scene from the next.”


This special issue includes a rather interesting discussion of the ways Indian comics are building on traditional arts practices, written by Vidyun Sabhaney, including not only visual forms (such as the wall art discussed above) but also performance traditions (such as puppetry). As Sabhaney explains:

“While in a comic image and word are both graphically represented to enact a story, these traditional storytellers perform images through oral narration and/or song.  For example — practioners of Bengali Patachitra (West Bengal) unfurl a scroll composed of sequentially arranged images and bring them to life through song. In the case of Chitrakathi (Maharshtra) a potha or loose collection of painted images is revealed page-by-page while the narrative is sung…Coming from a predominantly oral society, rarely do performers rely on any written text — in fact, most improvise the dialogues in the course of the performance. Every time a story is performed in these traditions, the telling is different, the artist being at liberty to develop the narrative as pleases him — within certain boundaries which are defined by the version of the epics that is traditionally performed.”

Sabhaney notes that the translation of these techniques for the printed page in terms of contemporary graphic storytelling projects raises a range of questions: “Is there anything to be learnt from these traditions? What is the role of the image in the telling of the story? How is the role of the image in a performance-based practice relevant to us?… Is the unique graphic novel format allowing for the emergence of new voices that have previously been unheard?”


A key point here is that the visual style is not only traditional, but the stories most often told are grounded in India’s mythological traditions, especially stories drawn from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and various local legends. These stories have long been expressed across a range of graphic forms. For example, below are two examples of art we encountered during our visit to the 13th century Konark Sun Temple in Odisha: the first shows the stone carvings, often highly erotic, found within the temple itself, the second a more recent painting depicting Jagaannath, who has a round, expressive faith, which in many of the drawings, seems a bit like a black-faced minstrel. He is often described as “Lord of the Universe” and especially characteristic of this area. He is one of many personifications of the god Vishnu.



At the gift shops around the outskirts of the Sun Temple, you can find many crudely painted versions of Jagaannath, as rendered on bottles or coconuts, suggesting that, like a good cartoon character, his face can be reproduced quickly, in a range of different contexts, and still draw a smile.

And here are a few more examples of the decorative dimensions of contemporary and classical Indian culture — on the one hand, pretty much every truck we saw in the country had hand painted patterns on the sides, and on the other, part of the experience of staying in a high class hotel in India is to see elaborate floating flower arrangements created afresh each morning.






One of the few things I knew about Indian comics prior to this trip was that they relied extensively on India’s mythological traditions. Perhaps the best known Indian comics, around the world, are the Amar Chitra Katha books.



Across several decades, this publishing house sought to introduce Indian youth to their history and traditions via comics, not unlike the Classic Illustrated books published in the United States. Altogether, they did stand-alone comics which told more than 384 stories and reached 86 million readers. These comics have been translated into an incredible 38 languages and thus have been widely read world-wide. Abhimanyu Das, one of my students at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, produced a thesis looking extensively at the ACK comics in relation to the role of graphic storytelling in developing a public culture in India.



The ACK tradition still exerts a strong influence on contemporary graphic novels in India — while they are often framed in terms of a critique of the traditional values embraced by the earlier publisher, it is striking how many of the graphic novels I encountered there still take as their core subject matter either aspects of the Hindu mythology or key historical figures. In America, the underground comics artist had to work through the legacy of funny animals and superheroes before they could tell a broader range of stories, often inverting or subverting the previous values expressed through such stories. Something similar is happening in India today, and we can see Bhumayana as a prime example of this process at work.


Next Time: The Political Dimensions of India Comics

Informing Activists: A New Video Series

From time to time, I’ve showcased here the work being done by my colleagues within the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network, headed by Joseph Kahne (Mills College). Today, I wanted to direct my readers towards a really rich set of resources recently produced by one of the network members, Jennifer Earl and her Youth Activism project team, and shared with the world via the Center for the Study of Social Movements at Notre Dame University.  I asked Earl to share with us some insights into what motivated this project and what it hopes to achieve:

The Informing Activists video series is a collaboration between the Youth Activism Project at the University of Arizona and Mobilizing Ideas, a premier blog about social movement scholarship.

Our mission in developing these videos was to connect social movement scholars, and the insights they have about how movements work, with the activists on the ground actually doing the social movement work.

We hope these videos can help individual activists understand some of the bigger processes and structures in which they are working, and use the research social movement scholars have produced to become better activists.

The series features top social movement scholars from around the world discussing how research in their area of expertise speaks to activists. Scholars describe what they know about how social movements work, and how activists might use that knowledge to be more effective at mobilizing for change.

Topics covered include social movement outcomes, participation and mobilization strategies, navigating political contexts, messaging and media, choosing effective targets and tactics, and dealing with repression.

Each video is framed as a question a young activist might have about what they should do to lead a successful campaign, so the video on framing is framed as “How do I talk about my cause?”

The intended audience of the video series is activists, particularly young activists, who are just starting out working on a campaign for change or who are trying to figure out how to improve an effort they are already involved in. The videos aim to help activists think through the kinds of decisions they will need to make as they mobilize, and provide guidance on how to make those decisions.


If you go to the Informing Activist website, you will find more than twenty videos, featuring some of the country’s leading scholars on social movements, addressing core questions about their research in terms that are designed to be applicable to activists working on a range of different causes. Each video is accompanied with a reading list identifying other sources where they can learn more about the research around this particular topic.  This is a first rate example of how public intellectuals can use new media platforms and practices to speak directly with groups who are involved in everyday struggles to change the world. Taken as a whole, these five-to-six minute videos constitute a master class on how to form a social movement in today’s media environment. Below are a few samples that speak to issues I thought were especially pertinent to those of us interested in understanding politics in relation to media and culture, but you need to go here to have the full Informing Activists experience.

Here’s Bert Klandermans from the University of Amsterdam explaining why people participate in social movements.

Here’s Lissa Soep shares some principles for how social movements should tap online media for their cause.

Here’s David Snow on how activists might best speak about their causes.

And here’s Deana Rohlinger (Florida State University) speaking about what activists need to know about the media environment.


One Conversation Begat Another: Howard Rheingold and Henry Jenkins

Over the last two installments, I’ve shared a short exchange between myself, Mimi Ito, and danah boyd, the three authors of the newly released book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. Today, I want to share the video of an interview I did with Howard Rheingold about the book. The video was originally circulated via the Digital Media and Learning blog, but I thought there would be people here who had not seen it.

Howard and I have been engaging with each others work for more than two decades. You can read the interview I did with Howard about his own most recent book, Net Smart: How to Thrive Online here, here, and here. Appropriately, Howard sent me his response to these questions on the very day that Mimi, danah, and I had sat down to conduct the exchange that became the foundation for the new book, so these interactions are completely stitched together in my mind.

Howard is an incredibly generous person, not to mention a generative thinker, who has been responsible for getting people thinking about such topics as virtual communities, smart mobs, and net smarts, through the years.

Henry Jenkins on Participatory Media in a Networked Era, Part 1 from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

Henry Jenkins on Participatory Media in a Networked Era, Part 2 from Connected Learning Alliance on Vimeo.

Now, that’s the end of the free stuff around the book I am sharing on this blog. Go and order a copy, and let us know what you think.

The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era (Part Two)

The following is the second part of an exchange between myself, danah boyd, and Mimi Ito, intended to mark the occasion of the publication of our book, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era, which is being released this month by Polity.

Henry: All three of us are finding ourselves collaborating more and more with quantitative researchers, so in what ways might the findings of more humanistic research help to inform the kinds of data we collect and publish about young people and their media use?

Mimi: I’ve enjoyed increasing collaboration with quantitative researchers over the years, and I find it a useful corrective to contextualize my local, in-depth cases with broader trends that you see in national surveys and the like. And the stories that we tell from a qualitative and humanistic lens are often taken up as ways of putting a human face to the numbers. At the same time, I find it very challenging for the qualitative evidence to punch through some of the underlying preconceptions that are often reinforced by large scale surveys. For example, what gets categorized as “making” versus “passive consumption” is culturally defined, and how a young person might answer a question of this sort doesn’t necessarily track to what adults conclude based on a set of survey findings. For example, one of the case studies our team did of fan fiction on Wattpad showed that young people don’t necessarily describe their publication and writing on the platform as “writing” or “reading” because it doesn’t conform to the genre expectations of what gets called reading and writing in school. Reducing consumption and production to a binary set of participation genres misses the fact that the majority of what kids do these days sits between these poles of activity. These are an outdated set of metaphors in an era where even “consumption” involves searching, querying, downloading, rating, and sharing of media. This more youth-centered perspective is harder to communicate than a raw percentage number coming off a survey.

danah: I recently read Sarah Igo’s The Averaged American, which was a brilliant reminder of the politics that underlie all discussions of data and research. I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by researchers of all stripes who are really passionate about moving past methodology and theory to work collaboratively to understand what’s at play. But I also realize how rare this is. All too often, research is produced, disseminated, and framed for political agendas. One of the things that I relish about the scholarly community in which we operate is that when we disagree – which we sometimes do – we’re able to challenge each other in a productive and constructive way. But I’m definitely struggling with the ways in which research is positioned to mislead and fear-monger, especially statistical and quantitative research.

Henry: I have been lucky to spend a good deal of time over the past six plus years interacting with the members of the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network, a multidisciplinary group trying to understand the political lives of American youth. This research is discussed throughout our book, but is also the focus of another book coming out early next year. The focus of the work on my side was qualitative and ethnographic, but we worked in conversation throughout with researchers who were using more quantitative methods, including large scale surveys. By doing this work collaboratively, some of my team’s framings — such as the emphasis on circulation as part of what it means to participate in the new media environment — found their way into the agenda of questions for the survey research and has resulted in important findings, suggesting that there has been a significant increase in young people spreading political news through their social networks and that this process is an important part of finding their voices as citizens. Such results would have been invisible if participation was defined entirely on the basis of media production, for example.

The challenge of this kind of work involves the development of shared vocabularies, which works better if everyone sheds some of the established jargon, and the recognition of conceptual differences. For example, throughout the process, we kept bumping up against the focus of some of our home disciplines almost exclusively on individual agents and the emphasis of other fields on various forms of collective agency (or social constraints on individual action). We’ve reached a point where we are all aware of these different methodological starting points, acknowledge them, and try to incorporate them into our analysis. But this worked because everyone came in with mutual respect and was able to take the time to listen and understand where we each were coming from in our research.

Mimi: On the qualitative/quantitative axis, the other interesting development is the rise of data analytics, another thing we discuss in the book, and something that has become the focus of danah’s work. While there are a lot of new risks associated with the big data movement, I do find it interesting that it has broken the methodological linkage between quantitative and reductive approaches. Big data is quite unlike the sequestered and reductive methods you see in traditional surveys and psychometrics, and is more like ethnography and fieldwork in the sense that it is “in the wild” and about capturing behavior in context. I’m still early in incorporating data analytics in my own work, but I am finding it a fascinating space to play in.

danah: Most people who hear about “big data” don’t realize just how nuanced you have to be to do analysis in this space. Asking questions of data – especially semi-structured and unstructured data – is extremely hard. Cleaning data is hard. Analyzing and interpreting data is hard. As a result, doing data science is often more art than science. But the iterative nature of working with complex datasets – especially highly dimensional networked datasets – is so refreshing. It allows you to look at a problem from a radically different perspective.

Because I started out in computer science and came to anthropology and qualitative methods later, I always felt as though I needed to convince people that I was a “real” ethnographer. In seeking legitimacy in a scholarly world defined by method, I often downplayed the different technical work that I used in my research. I did a lot of large-scale random sampling of MySpace and a lot of network analysis of different social media services. Although I published a few papers on Twitter and Friendster analysis, most of what I did when scraping and using technical tools to analyze data was to help me better understand what I was seeing in interviews and observations.

In all the hype around “big data,” I hope to see more integration of qualitative methods with statistical and machine learning methods because it’s amazing how these can feed into each other. The key with both is learning how to formulate a question and be reflexive about what you’re seeing and what you’re not.

Mimi: I feel the book does a pretty good job of giving expression to our different disciplinary dispositions and generational identities, and the methods we have brought to bear to our research. All three of us have studied overlapping and related topics and trends, but have different lenses on the phenomenon. The book reminds me a bit about the proverbial blind men and the elephant, but with a more positive outcome. When the three of us are in conversation I do feel like we are able to piece things together into a still imperfect, but somewhat integrated bigger picture.

danah: As we dive into this conversation, emulating the kinds of conversation that we produced for our book, what do you hope people get from reading our book?

Mimi: Writing this book as a three-way dialog was a new experience for all of us, and I’m really curious what people will make of it. Although it was challenging to work through a new genre of book writing, in a lot of ways the process mirrored how the three of us have actually worked together over the years, sharing partially formulated ideas, arguing with one another, and putting things out there in public for broader engagement. I’d love it if this book gave folks a window into this kind of dialogic knowledge production. I hope people leave with positive view into the way that ideas and theories are socially and relationally constructed as other people and the changing world pushes up against our theories and preconceptions. This kind of openness and flexibility seems to me critically important especially for those of us who take up topics like technology and youth culture which are very dynamic, require us to be methodologically innovative, and collaborate across geographic and disciplinary boundaries.

Henry: There’s lots of core insights to be found in the book about the themes and topics we all care about. This really was an honest period of reflection for all three of us, looking back on the past few decades of change in a networked society, trying to assess what we believe to be true and important, trying to qualify early claims both by us and others that may have simplified our understanding of the current situation. I was struck rereading the book about how much we had to say about inequalities in access and participation, a theme which seems urgent for us to address, but was sometimes pushed aside by our excitement on new and emerging opportunities and the amazing things young people were doing within their online communities. We each bring in examples of the kinds of communities which we’ve focused on through our research and the comparison across those cases is illuminating.

But, like Mimi, part of what I really value about Participatory Culture in a Networked Era is the ways the book may illustrate the power of critical conversations, even among people like us who start with somewhat similar positions. Our thinking evolves over the course of the book, as we listen to and respect what we learn from the others. We need more of this kind of academic dialogue — not reading papers to each other at high speeds at conferences, not throwing out messages in bottles (or journals, which can take even longer to reach their recipients), but in sitting down in real time, sharing thoughts, responding thoughtfully to others, and challenging established wisdom. I’ve recently been rereading a somewhat more contentious exchange between Cornel West and bell hooks about the role of the public intellectual and it has made me wish we had so many more scholarly works in this genre. What I’d love to see happen is for people to sit down with colleagues, across disciplines, across perspectives, with the book, and talk through together how they react to what we say there, or simply take the intersections of their own research trajectories as a starting point to see where this leads them. Such conversations do not happen enough.

danah: I think we’re all in agreement that the key value of this book is exposing how ideas become ideas.  I love “Advanced Reader Copies” or galleys of books because I like to be reminded of the imperfection that happens before we get a book in its completed state.  When I was first entering graduate school, everything about research seemed mysterious.  Ideas appeared to just come down on high and get magically polished by brilliant people. But as we all know, that’s not how scholarship happens.  It’s indeed socially and culturally constructed. More than anything, I hope that this book gives people an insight into the process and practices of research. This book is definitely the backstage of research into participatory culture and I hope it helps people see our work and struggles from a new light.

Henry Jenkins is Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California

Mizuko Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine

danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University

The Conversation Never Ends: Participatory Culture in a Networked Era

Over the next few installments, I am going to celebrate the publication of a new book — Participatory Culture in a Networked Era — which I developed over the past few years in conversation with danah boyd and Mimi Ito, both names that should be familiar to regular readers of this blog. For those of you who don’t know, Mimi Ito is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation chair in Digital Media and Learning, University of California, Irvine and danah boyd is a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, the Founder of Data & Society, and a Visiting Professor at New York University. All three of us have been part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative over the past decade.

The key word here is conversation. Literally, we started our book with the three of us sitting down in Mimi’s living room and having a several days long conversation about the intersections between our work, reflecting on the past several decades of digital and social change, considering what we know now that we couldn’t have known a decade ago and how this might force us to rethink some earlier claims about participatory culture, connected learning, Web 2.0, the new activism, fandom, and a wealth of other topics we hold near and dear. As we did so, we solicited questions through various social media, and we made sure to address as many of them as we could. And then, we worked through the transcripts, again and again, clarifying our concepts, refining our arguments, shuffling the pieces to insure greater clarity and accessibility. And the result is a book, which is being released this month by Polity Press.

danah and Mimi were ideal thinking and writing partners for this ride. It wasn’t easy since we are probably three of the busiest people we know and so coordinating time to make this work was challenging, and there were many points along the way when we almost pulled the plug. I am so glad we didn’t because I am very proud of what we produced in the end.

Here’s what danah had to say about the process of writing the book on her blog:

I couldn’t think of anything more awesome than spending time with two of my mentors and teasing out the various strands of our interconnected research. I knew that there were places where we were aligned and places where we disagreed or, at least, where our emphases provided different perspectives. We’d all been running so fast in our own lives that we hadn’t had time to get to that level of nuance and this crazy project would be the perfect opportunity to do precisely that…Truth be told, I never wanted it to end. Throughout our conversations, I kept flashing back to my years at MIT when Henry opened my eyes to fan culture and a way of understanding media that seeped deep inside my soul. I kept remembering my trips to LA where I’d crash in Mimi’s guest room, talking research late into the night and being woken in the early hours by a bouncy child who never understood why I didn’t want to wake up at 6AM. But above everything else, the sheer delight of brainjamming with two people whose ideas and souls I knew so well was ecstasy.

I didn’t want it to end, either, danah. There were times when our exchanges felt like a tag team with each of us adding to what the person before had said as we made common cause against shared frustrations in the discourse about, say, “digital natives.” There were times when our interactions were like Truth and Dare as we ended up pushing each other to spill the beans and address core criticisms of our work. And there are a few places where some fundamental disagreements surfaced — such as an exchange about Mimi’s term, Connected Learning, and my term, Participatory Learning — which people might not have recognized from the outside. I think this book poses more questions than we can address, but it is intended as a conversation starter, so literally, the conversation doesn’t have to end but may spark many subsequent exchanges with many more people. So, as they used to say on Saturday Night Live, “talk amongst yourselves.”

So far, the book has been enthusiastically received by Howard Rhinegold, who had most flattering things to say about the project:

My single strongest recommendation to you: if you want the best and latest evidence-based, authoritative, nuanced, critical knowledge about how digital media and networks are transforming not just learning but commercial media, citizen participation in democracy, and the everyday practices of young people, my advice is to obtain a copy of the new book, “Participatory Culture in A Networked Era,” by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. This book is the opposite of so much sound-bite generalization about “digital natives” and “Twitter revolutions.” Jenkins, Ito, and boyd seek to unpack the nuances behind the generalizations of digital media enthusiasts and critics alike, rather than to reduce them to easily digested phrases. And, they articulate their knowledge clearly. They not only know this subject matter as well as anyone on the planet, they know how to talk about it.

Here are a few more reactions to the book (these blurbs solicited by Polity, our publisher):

“Jenkins, Ito and boyd offer us all a wonderful gift in the form of this book — it’s as though one gets a chance to listen in on a great dinner party conversation between three brilliant scholars, reflecting on more than twenty years of trenchant scholarship on culture, play, identity, and the emergence of the digital world.”
John Palfrey, Phillips Academy

“These authors practise what they preach! To unlock the promise of participatory culture, Jenkins, Ito and boyd invite us to join their intellectual conversation as they puzzle over the dilemmas, insights and challenges of living in a networked era. This is an exciting way to engage with a fast-developing field of research, knowledge and experience.”
Sonia Livingstone, London School of Economics

“The idea of scholarship as dialogue is one that lies buried deep within the humanities. In the pages of this engaging and accessible book, Jenkins, Ito and boyd have brought the ethos of dialogue very much to the surface. Their conversation is an entirely apt technique for reflecting on what is by now a sustained history of collaboration on questions of informal learning, participation and power in the evolving digital media environment.”
Jean Burgess, Queensland University of Technology

In the spirit of keeping the conversation going, danah, Mimi and I had a new exchange via e-mail this past week, tackling a few recent concerns around participatory culture, as a way of sharing a taste of the book.

Henry: Last week, Common Sense Media announced a new report, based on a survey with 2600 tweens and teens, that they say depicts the current state of media usage in the United States. Among their findings are several which are likely troubling to one or another of us:

“Low-income kids lack access. Children growing up in lower-income homes are far less likely to have access to computers, tablets, and smartphones than their wealthier peers, but when they do have access, they are more likely to spend more time on their devices….

Social media use is big, but maybe not very enjoyable. Social media is an integral part of most teens’ lives (45% use “every day”), but only 36% of teens say they enjoy using social media “a lot” compared to 73% who enjoy listening to music “a lot,” and 45% watching TV.

Everyone can be a maker, but not many are. The vast majority of children’s engagement with media consists of consuming media, with only a small portion devoted to creating content.”

So, first, are these findings consistent with other current research you’ve seen? If so, should we be concerned about these findings? How do they fit within our own accounts of the ways media is impacting how youth learn and live today? And if these are indeed problems, what do we see as effective steps forward from these situations?

danah: Let me begin by tackling the middle finding on social media. When I interviewed teens, they repeatedly told me that they’d *much* rather get together face-to-face but then went on to cite all of the reasons that they couldn’t get together in person. It was deeply frustrating to them. They saw socializing through social media as less ideal than hanging out with their peers in person, but didn’t feel as though they had a choice. But that’s the comparison for them – social media vs. face-to-face. Music and TV are a totally different category and should not be compared to social media. Music and TV can be used socially (and you’ll often find teens listening to music or watching YouTube videos when then get together in person). They can also be used passively, to veg out at the end of a long day. As Henry often argues, there are active ways of consuming media, but the reality that I see on the ground is that there are many times when teens simply want to be passive consumers of media that makes them feel good. Then again, same is true for adults.

Mimi: I’ll jump in on the first finding and like danah also try to add some perspective on this that nuances the broad quantitative findings. Our team has also found important gaps in access and participation, but the differences are quite nuanced and aren’t about a straightforward “digital divide.” Access to computers, tablets, smartphones, and Internet connectivity don’t always go hand in hand, though privileged kids might have access to all of the above. One example is that we found that for low income teens in LA, they may have access to an Internet connected computer or laptop through shared device at home or at a library, but they but lack smartphone-based Internet access. What this means that they are not able to use mobile app based social media like Instagram and Snapchat. Many of the teens said they “don’t use social media” because they are not part of today’s dominant social media platforms. They use text messaging, and may dip into Facebook, because it is more accessible through shared devices like computers and laptops, but they are non-participants in the mobile social media space. And because these patterns tend to track along peer groups in schools, when they attended majority low income high schools, even the kids who did have smartphones were not heavy social media users because their peers were not part of the ecosystem.

Henry: I will tackle the final finding here. All of us have been excited at one time or another by the recognition that an expanding number of American youth have access to the means to produce media and we’ve contributed to projects designed to encourage young makers and hackers to find their voice and develop skills at producing new content. But, we need to recognize that participation in the new media environment can take many different forms and that measuring media making by itself creates a very high bar for mapping the public’s changing communication capacities. Making media may be a special event for many youth — part of a school project, for example — but contributing to the media environment in other ways may occur much more commonly. So, for example, we need to recognize that much more casual acts, such as forwarding or retweeting or otherwise spreading a piece of media content or signing an online petition may, in fact, have an impact on larger societal debates; often local acts of contributing to social media don’t count as “making” media, but do impact the local community where a discussion is taking place, representing forms of participation that would have been hard to achieve in another historical era. In many ways, forms of media participation have become so mundane and everyday that they do not “count” and are often taken for granted. Yet, when this broader range of activities are taken into consideration, it is clear that more young people are “participating” in the media environment than ever before and even if we narrow our focus to things like political and civic participation, there are signs of steady increases, and not just restricted to the “usual suspects” of white suburban middle class kids.

danah: One thing that bothers me about how we talk about media is that we tend to lump it all together. We treat TV as equivalent to video games, social media as equivalent to music. All because it involves electronics at some level. At best, we talk about passive versus active engagement but as y’all know, that’s fraught. I’m curious how y’all would break out different types of media so that people don’t always compare apples to oranges.

Henry: I would start by identifying specific functions and the choices people make about what media tools and platforms are the most appropriate ways of achieving them. So, in The Breakup 2.0, Ilana Gershon asks young people how they would “break up” with a romantic partner, and she gets a wealth of different stories that show choices people are making about when and where certain forms of media are appropriate and useful. Chris Evans, as part of the Youth and Participatory Politics Network research, has asked young people what strategies they would follow to address particular community problems. There, she can chart their movement across a range of different tools and platform, though she notes that many young people do not immediately think of digital media in this way, even though they use it often for other everyday functions. So, I would love to see research that asks about a) a broader range of forms and genres of participation and b) the range of tools and platforms used to achieve everyday social functions.

Mimi: I agree that it is very challenging to make general statements across media types and genres of participation in an era when the defining trend is towards niches and personalization of media environments. We talk about the various gaps and diverse genres of participation at some length in our book. I feel like in different ways, we have each taken on the challenge of adding some texture to blanket proclamations about “kids these days.”

Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Three)

What do you see as some of the benefits or pitfalls of “interactive hotspots” in today’s e-books? You discuss the difference between forms of interactivity which are there as independent sources of pleasure or as means of allowing the reader to feel some sense of control over the reading process versus those which are “on the plot” and reinforce key learnings.

As I was reading this section, I found myself thinking back to some of the very earliest Sesame Street segments, where they would do a countdown, ending up with a man carrying an armload of pies, who would trip and fall. How might we understand the pleasures and pedagogies of a moment like this in relation to today’s interactive books?

The research on ‘hotspots’ that we get into in Tap, Click, Read–including popular print ‘distractors’ in pop-up books– shows that emerging readers do not in fact benefit in developing key skills such as complex vocabulary development, comprehension and fluency. You can see the tradeoffs that often occur in a print vs. a highly (enhanced) interactive book experience in this experiment the Cooney Center carried out. That said, the interactivity associated with hotspots, as well as the comedy and musical interludes introduced by Sesame Street 2 generations ago are certainly a boon to engagement and extended learning when well deployed by knowledgeable adults. Our work with your group at USC illustrates the key prospects for moving beyond the more traditional framing of the advantages of print vs digital by creating a deeper understanding of the potential power of transmedia.

Throughout the book, there is some question of the concept of “screen time” which runs through much policy discourse on children and media. Yet, as you note, we use screens for so many different kinds of activities; there are so many different ways of engaging with screens; and we use screens in relation to many off-screen practices that lumping everything together into the category of screen time is more apt to be confusing than helpful. Meryl Alper in a recent MIT Press publication also considers what the anxiety about screen time means for families with disabilities where children rely on adaptive and assistive technologies that use screens for even the most basic daily tasks. So, surely there’s a need to shift the focus from how should we limit the amount of time children spend with screens towards what uses of screens are beneficial to children and how do we achieve a better balance in the range of different media practices they deploy. If so, are there some common sense answers to those basic questions we could provide parents?

We agree! It is time to strike the all encompassing term screen time from our vernacular–it just isn’t a helpful construct at all. The field of early learning is beginning to come around with recent guidance for educators and parents being much more nuanced and helpful. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center crafted a technology position statement in 2013 that stresses the importance of early educators using technology in developmentally appropriate ways.

And two recent statements–one from Zero to Three and the other from the American Academy of Pediatrics give much more direct and helpful guidance to parents, focusing more on the content, context and needs of the developing child. In fact in its recent statement The AAP hit the nail on the head when it wrote: “In a world where “screen time” is becoming simply “time,” our policies must evolve or become obsolete.” We need to address how learning can and should be happening in every place children congregate, regardless of the device.

Many of my readers are librarians, so I would be remiss if I did not ask you what roles librarians and libraries could and should play in the new literacy context you are advocating. Many school districts are cutting back on library staff, arguing that they are less important in an age when young people can find more and more information online. What arguments might librarians make to the contrary as they struggle to save their jobs?

We argue that librarians will become more necessary, not less, in the digital age. But as most know well, their jobs will need to adapt and we hope grow even more important. We came across several successful initiatives in public libraries that involved working with parents and educators inside and outside the physical library. The librarians had transformed themselves from being focused almost entirely on print books to being able to vet and critique digital media too, including e-books, apps, and videos.

In addition—and this is crucial—they were more than just curators. They were what we describe as “media mentors,” providing guidance to parents and teachers through workshops and one-on-one relationships with parents and teachers on how to use digital media in interactive storytimes and other moments of joint engagement with children.
This summer, the Association of Library Services to Children (an arm of the American Library Association) released a white paper on media mentorship that described how librarians for children and youth were uniquely positioned to take on this role. “A commitment to media mentorship in every library,” the paper’s authors wrote, “is a firm commitment to the full spectrum of being a supporter and champion of literacy.”

This kind of mentorship is a must for children from low-income families whose parents may be least likely to have the resources, time, or preparation necessary to learn how to use digital tools well and model that use for their children. The more that librarians can provide support and guidance to parents and teachers around the use of literacy tools and media, the more essential those librarians will be.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.

Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part Two)

Frequently, media and reading are pit against each other in what amounts to a zero-sum game. Time spent doing one comes at the expense of the other. Yet, you are suggesting that these do not have to be seen as opposing forces. How might they best work together?

You are right–the debate between technophiles and technophobes is driving us down the wrong road. In our book we talk about the need to find a ‘third way,’ that is using media and technology in the service of early literacy development. We call this concept readia. Let us explain.

In developing the thesis for our book, we had an abiding worry that our thinking about early literacy was locked in a time warp. While the science behind early reading development has never been stronger, our capacity to make progress has been constrained, we fear, by a large elephant in the room—the ubiquitous force represented by multiple forms of media in almost every young child’s life. We wondered: might that force be tapped in a more balanced and purposeful way? But we also knew that without pushing for better quality, and more access to diverse learning environments for low-income families, we might be deepening, not closing existing divides.

Just last week, early literacy activists may have gotten an unexpected ally in crafting a modern response: the American Academy of Pediatrics announced changes to its recommendations on “screen time.” For years the Academy has been telling parents to refrain from or sharply limit use of screen media. The new guidance takes a more realistic approach, acknowledging that even young children are using tablets and other technology every day, and that parents and teachers should use new tools more intentionally and collaboratively.

This is a moment perhaps where the important connections between media and reading can be brought to light among educators,’ parents, and in the public’s imagination. If guidance from professionals is more nuanced and evidence-based, we think it’s possible to escape the polarized debates between technology as harmful (it’s nothing more than distractor or electronic babysitter!) and technology as savior (apps will somehow fix everything). Our book documents research and innovations on the ground that are pointing to a third way. In short, let’s maintain a human-centric approach to early literacy by empowering and mentoring parents and educators to see their role as primary. But let’s also see technology as a powerful complement.

Our key takeaway: today’s toddlers — the class of 2030 — will still need to be able to read in the traditional sense. But they will also need a new blend of skills– to speak, listen, write, be able to discern an author’s motivation, and to look for evidence in books to inform their opinions. The new blend is something we refer to as “readia” — media in service of reading, and reading conducted via media of all kinds.

I have heard many parents and even some educators argue that we should keep digital and other media out of schools, that children get too much exposure to this beyond the school day, and that school time should be a time of quiet contemplation such as that traditionally associated with book culture. How would you respond to that argument?

First of all we do not advocate that very young children are left in front of a screen or that ambient use –”always on” media–is effective to promote the rich literacy skills that a developing child needs to get ready for a life of learning.

But keeping digital media out of school is a mistake. The argument works if you are a tech entrepreneur or highly skilled in scaffolding media and tech usage at home because you have the time to do so as a parent. But for a child who is growing up with limited means and parents who might be working 2 or 3 jobs, we need to create normative use of technology beginning in the preschool years. There is no reason at all that children cannot have both quiet and reflective time and be adept in the use of the modern technologies that can be a great ally in personalizing and globalizing their learning possibilities!

We should not be surprised that the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is deeply invested in understanding how children learn to read in a digital age given how much Sesame Street contributed to fostering a deeper understanding of how children might learn to read during the television era. So, what lessons from Sesame Street carry over into this new context and in what ways might we need to rethink that model for the age of networked, mobile, and interactive media?

The book explores the rich history of educational media, and imagines a new, more highly networked and mobile form of public media as a national asset that could be better positioned to connect home and school The origins of Sesame Street and other public media pioneers are the basis–in many respects– to understanding the impact of new technologies on young children. The book offers an analysis of the role that ‘joint media engagement’ (where adults and children learn from media together), might play if we were to intentionally design in-school and out-of-school literacy programs for such interchange.

Let us illustrate. Many of our peers (and we are of slightly different generations!) would sit together watching Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as “co-viewers” when their kids were preschoolers. The music or sketch comedy or wholesome life lessons appealed to parents who saw the benefits of engaging their children to “learn beyond the tube.” Research in the 70’s and 80’s showed that parents would often use the teachable moments and displayable skills they were co-viewing to later ask kids to point out the letters on a Stop sign or say numbers like ‘The Count would.”

Today’s kids and parents are still co-viewing, but our research indicates that there is less ‘intentional viewing’ of educational media: parents and kids are more likely to be watching telenovelas or American Idol together. But the ubiquity and mobility of interactive digital media make it possible to expand the reach of ‘learning together’ moments in a new way. For example, rather than constructing the “family hour of coviewing” that often took place in the 60’s and 70’s, today’s parents who understand the benefits of blending literacy and media experiences will spend ten-fifteen minutes in shorter bursts of activity scaffolding and guiding their kids learning in different settings–in the car or on a bus, at the grocery store, after a park or museum visit, to make a new discovery!

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.


Tap, Click, Read: An Interview with Lisa Guernsey and Michael Levine (Part One)

Too often, computers are pitted against books in the mythology of contemporary education reform. Computers are often understood as fundamentally transforming and disruptive technologies irreversible in their effects — for some, those effects are liberating — the magic box. For others, these devices are threatening — the reason why Johnny (or Mary) can’t read, the reason why we can’t have meaningful conversations with our kids. So, how do we move beyond these polarizing frames?

Tap, Click, Read: Growing Readers in a World of Screens offers us one compelling model for what a middle-ground response to these issues might look like. It’s authors Lisa Guernsey from New America and Michael H. Levine from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, are trusted voices on issues of children and media; they’ve done serious research and they’ve written about it in a public-facing way. They are very good at translating academic findings into something that can be processed by educators and parents who are concerned about the young people in their lives. They avoid alarmist or celebratory framings and get down to what’s working, and what isn’t, about the contemporary media environment. As this interview makes clear, we can no longer make simple decisions about how much screen time is okay for children when so many vital processes of the culture are now taking place within digitized environments. We can not lock down classrooms as computer-free zones in a world where many young people still lack access to both technological infrastructure and mentorship outside of school. We can’t easily separate out what it means to read printed texts from what it means to engage with digital media at a time when more and more of us are reading books on our Kindles and other tablets.

Tap, Click, Read makes valuable contributions to our understanding of what constitutes literacy in the 21st century, contributions directed at parents, teachers, policy makers, technology designers, and fellow researchers. If you fall into any of these categories, you probably need to engage with their arguments.

I am very happy to be able to offer some glimpses into their thinking through this three-part interview. And they were nice enough to provide a range of links to other cutting edge research in this space. So, don’t be afraid to follow one of those links, as long as you come back and finish reading the interview. :-)

If you want to learn more about this project, you should definitely visit their rich web site which also helps connect interesting parties to an array of different resources they can use to apply these insights or take action in support of educational reforms. So, in this case, read, then tap and click.

You begin the book with a very noble statement: “We cannot allow technology to exacerbate social inequality instead of opening more opportunities for everyone to succeed.” So, break this down for us. What do you see as the heart of the problem? Is the concern with access to technology per se or something more than that, whether understood in terms of literacies or mentorship or opportunity? And what might be some positive steps we can take — as parents, as educators, as a society — to address those concerns?

Great question! There has been a good deal of discussion about a “digital divide,” in education and youth development circles. Because the focus is often on hardware and software, we believe that this focus largely misses the mark. While equitable access to technology is still a worry, especially in the lowest income households, access to quality professional development, programs that train “media mentors” or provide opportunities for adults and children to engage jointly in media production is in our view a more important priority.

Recent work by scholars such as Susan Neuman and Vikki Katz on the phenomenon you first coined as a “participation gap,” are showing that children in their pre-school and primary years need engaged adults–parents, relatives and educators to provide normative experiences in the mastery of digital content and tools. In our book, especially in the concluding chapter, we lay out a series of action steps that parents, educators and communities can take to help prevent new divides. Among the most important ones are to invest more in community assets where technology can be more seamlessly connected to children’s natural passions such as libraries and afterschool centers. We also need a massive effort to prepare teachers of young children with the latest techniques to embed in their practice and centrally to invest much more heavily in high quality early learning and parent education programs.

Let’s start with a deceptively simple question: What do you mean by reading? What is it that we want young people to be able to do that they are not able to do under our current configuration of schooling?

Not simple at all!

Reading and more generally, “literacy” as a construct is getting more expansive with every passing year. Someone who is not steeped in early literacy research might think that literacy means reading print. But even the traditional definition of literacy has always meant more than that: It means reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Children need help in becoming skillful at all four of those skills and they can use media tools of all kinds to do so. And in addition, as children grow up in a world of information overload and constant messaging, they will also need to learn media literacy and critical literacy. Those two concepts are still relatively new in elementary education, but if you think about it, those ideas go hand in hand with teaching a child about what it means to be a writer or media creator and why it is important to look closely and ask questions about what a writer is trying to say.

A number of groups have done important work defining what a new set of 21st Century literacies and skills should look like for children and youth (The National Council of Teachers of English,The National Association of Media Literacy Educators, Asia Society and the Partnership for 21st Century Skills are among the best known groups). A common thread across the groups is that learning and knowledge development is now highly networked, socially constructed, and globally applied.

Educators of young students have always understood the need to consider the ‘whole child’s’ growth and development: a challenge moving forward is to prepare teachers to teach critical thinking and inquiry skills using new and old forms of media. Kindergarten teachers doing real-alouds commonly ask students “What do you think happens next?” But they do not always ask the corollary question that builds students’ media literacy skills: “How do you know? Where in the story do you see signs or evidence of what you suggest?

Often critiques of the impact of media on learning and reading make a series of normative assumptions, frequently grounded in norms of middle class, white, suburban family life. But you cite recent research which factors a more diverse range of families into the equation. What does this research change in our understanding? How might schools shift from seeing bilingual families, for example, in terms of the cultural assets they provide children rather than what are often perceived as “literacy deficits”?

This is a fundamental question that every educator and advocate for a more diverse and sensitive educational system must urgently ask. Both the Cooney Center through its Aprendiendo Juntos Council and New America through its Dual Language Learners Work Group have new research initiatives underway to delve into the deep cultural assets that reside within language learning communities and especially in the diverse families who have recently immigrated to the US.

In Tap, Click, Read we explore the overlooked assets that reside in both the language and culture of low-income Hispanic-Latino families as seen through the lens of contemporary research on the uses of digital media for learning purposes. We include findings from a national survey conducted by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and Stanford University on how Hispanic-Latino families define educational media use in the home, as well as an analysis of research by our team and scholars at Rutgers University on the role that national policies on low cost broadband access are playing in getting modern technology to low-income homes. Our book includes recommendations based on this research on ways to improve parent engagement programs, school-home links, media design, and new public-private partnerships to more effectively meet the needs of ELL’s.

And one of our key messages is that Spanish-speaking families have real strengths and assets to share with their children: By having conversations with them in Spanish about the world around them, they are building a base of knowledge and literacy that will make it easier for their children to learn English as well. This is the case, of course, not only for Spanish-speaking families but also for any family that speaks a non-English language at home. We should be helping families enable their children to become truly bilingual, not just in speaking but also in reading and writing.

Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative and the Learning Technologies Project in the Education Policy Program at New America. She leads teams of writers and analysts to tell stories, examine policies and generate ideas for new approaches to help disadvantaged students succeed. Prior to her work at New America, Lisa worked as a staff writer at The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She has also contributed to several national publications, including The Atlantic, The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Slate, and USA TODAY, and she is the author of Screen Time: How Electronic Media – From Baby Videos to Educational Software – Affects Your Young Child (Basic Books, 2012). She won a 2012 gold Eddie magazine award for a School Library Journal article on e-books and has served on several national advisory committees on early education, including the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on the Science of Children Birth To Age 8.

Michael H. Levine, PhD, is the founding executive director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. The Center conducts research, builds multi-sector alliances, and catalyzes industry and policy reforms needed to advance high quality media experiences for vulnerable children. Levine serves on the senior team at Sesame Workshop where he focuses on educational initiatives and philanthropic partnerships for the global nonprofit. Prior to joining the Center, Levine was Vice President for Asia Society, managing interactive media and educational initiatives to promote knowledge and understanding of other world regions and cultures. Michael previously oversaw Carnegie Corporation of New York’s groundbreaking work in early childhood development and educational media, and was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention and afterschool programs.


A Visit with Feminist Filmmaker Paromita Vohra

Today, I continue to share excerpts from my diaries during my travels across India. Consider each of these entries an impression – one slice through the complexity of contemporary Indian culture. My focus is often on the new — on popular culture and media change — but it is hard to separate out the new from older cultural traditions. I am no expert on India but I am trying to share here my evolving understanding of what I learned as I was guided through this rich and diverse country by my former student, Parmesh Shahani, director of the Godrej India Culture Lab in Mumbai. Today’s entry describes a visit to the home of an amazing activist and filmmaker whose work deserves to be much better known here, since it speaks to so many issues we discuss with our students. I know that I often struggle to find non-American examples to help students think about how some of these concerns play out in other contexts, and the videos embedded here are potentially great starting points for such discussions. I know I will be sharing some of them with my students once I get back into the classroom next year.

The big event of the day was a visit in the home of Paromita Vohra, who is a major cultural player here – a documentary filmmaker, an actress, a feminist and queer icon, a columnist for a major newspaper, a reality television producer, a comic book writer, and as it turned out, the perfect person to give me a master class on Indian popular culture and politics. We spent the afternoon around her computer, pulling up and discussing clips from her various documentaries, as well as my sharing some videos from the database of activist youth media we’ve been assembling around the By Any Media Necessary book. Paro, as she is called informally, is brilliant, thoughtful, warm and gracious, and down to earth in equal measures. You can get a sense of her from this video interview on gender politics I found online.

She also has a campy sense of humor and has performed a recurring cult role as Aunty 303 for a promotional campaign used by one of the television networks here.

We struck it off from the start and found many common interests.

For example, she was very interested in my early work on vaudeville and film comedy, and shared some reflections on popular theater traditions in India – specifically Parsi theater which she described as offering a series of “numbers” or specialties, a strong sense of improvisation and topicality, and a mixing of broad melodrama and even broader comedy. She traced how this eclectic mix of performance specialities fed into the evolution of the Bollywood (and other popular film genres in India) creating the unique mix of genre elements that we know today. But she also expressed concern that the popular Indian cinema was under much stronger pressure to adopt the linear three act structure used by Hollywood and she saw this change as having very negative effects on the culture here.

She blamed it in part on the Indian film industries response to globalization and the new generation’s sense of shame over some of the kitsch aspects of the Bollywood movie; she sees these films trying to break into film festivals or multiplexes with mixed responses and she sees increased co-productions with Hollywood partners dictating a closer adherence to Hollywood storytelling models. She also though saw these shifts as reflecting the pressure from the Hindu Nationalists currently in power towards what she sees as a monoculture – one true way to be Indian – as opposed to the contradictory, even incoherent, sprawl associated with the popular film traditions here.

Later, she talked a bit about bahurupia, a kind of clown, which traveled around the country, impersonating particular types, and seeing if they can fool the locals into believing that they are who they claim to be. I tried comparing it with Borat, which they felt was an interesting analogy, but they also pointed towards the Yes Men as another western counter-part to this kind of performance. This video is in Hindu, but it provides some pretty compelling images of a range of different local clowns at work.

She talked a bit about how all of these traditions had informed her own style and techniques as a documentary filmmaker: she likes to mix and match genres throughout her work, resulting in a more fragmented, nonlinear, and multivocal style of storytelling. She mixes a range of fictional and even musical segments into her documentaries, often drawing on popular culture genres to help frame things. For example, Unlimited Girls uses a fictional chatroom as a kind of greek chorus to explore a young woman’s struggles as she tries to engage with the contemporary feminist movement, but it also represents patriarchal responses to feminism through mock commercials (including one featuring a Vampire in a Superhero cape, who appears magically when teen girls start thinking about feminism to put them back into their place).

Where’s Sandra? explores a particular cultural type here – middle class, westernized, Christian, suburban girls (“Sandra from Bandra”) by combining interviews with Indian women named Sandra with clips from vintage movies where this type appears and more ironic musical numbers (including a spoof of “Look at Me – I’m Sandra Dee” from Grease).

In our correspondence, Ritesh Mehta, another of my former students from India, mentioned that he felt Persis Khambatta, an actress known to Americans for her performance in Star Trek: The Motion[less] Picture, was something close to a “Sandra” type in Indian films, despite her Parsi background. I was bemused since her introduction to America really played up her exotic, “alien” qualities rather than seeing her as someone who was highly westernized in her mother country.

Another of her films – Cosmopolis — deals with food politics in India, but is framed in terms of the mythological tradition as a battle between two Godesses – one who embodied “plenty” and food, the other “wealth” and “luxury.”

The film’s central topic concerns efforts by vegetarians to ban meat eaters from specific housing complexes or even from whole neighborhoods, much as we have child-free, pet-free, or smoke-free spaces in the United States. They argue that they hate the second hand smell of meat and that meat eaters bring their own shops into communities which are doing things the vegetarians find distasteful. She gave me DVDS of some of her longer films, including Q2P (the title took me a while to work out but when I did, it was brilliant) which deals with gender inequality in terms of access to public toilets in India.

Partners in Crime deals with copyright, piracy, and capitalism in the local film industry.

Morality TV and the Loving Jihad deals with the ways news focuses on moral rather than political issues in depicting cities and the ways street mobs end up acting out against people identified for their moral lapses.

We also spoke about her recent experience producing a nonfiction series (some would say reality series) for Indian television, Connected. Connected was inspired by an Israeli series of the same name and format. Basically, they identified a group of “average” Indian women of different generations and backgrounds and gave them a camera with which to document their lives over a year as they lived out some kind of transition – including getting jobs, moving, falling in love, getting divorced, and so forth. Then her team edited the footage to construct narratives. She described the process of watching all of these incredibly intimate videos each day and often trying to anticipate what would happen next for each of these women. She talked about the very different ways they approached the filming but also the way they became more and more saavy about what her team needed in terms of coverage in order to construct the program. This material has not been translated from Hindi yet so we could only really absorb the visual style and some moments she translated on the fly, but it seemed to be really interesting material I hope to learn more about down the line.

She is currently working on a range of projects, one exploring sex and sexuality in the lives of young women, and another dealing with “excessive” fans of older Indian film songs. As you can imagine, the fan culture theme led to some great comparisons between us, as she talked about these older fans who still perform the vintage songs for each other, collect all kinds of artifacts and older films, and are convinced that no good film numbers have been created since the 1950s. We shared some of our own experiences as being amongst the youngest people to go to Cine-Con each year and what we’ve learned about the older generation of film fans and collectors in the United States.

As the hours ticked by, we were joined for dinner by Anusha Yadav and Parmesh. Anusha has been master-minding what sounds like a great project – the Indian Memory Project – which has crowdsourced old photographs and the stories that go with them from hundreds of Indians, as a way of preserving and examining culture memory. She is also working on a project which will collect “love letters” across generations and across media – from handwritten notes to text messages.

This turned out to be a long, sprawling, evening marked by lively conversation and great food, and gave me yet another glimpse into the social life of artists and intellectuals in Mumbai.  Our session went from 4 in the afternoon until well after 11 pm, and we dropped off quickly once we got back to the room and are waking up slowly this morning.

As an added treat, and as another illustration of a camp aesthetic at work in contemporary Indian popular culture, I wanted to share this spoof of a classic Bollywood number, “Dreamum Wakeupum ” from the recent film, Aiyyaa. The clip was shared with me by the film’s director, Sachin Kundalkar, who I met at several of the Godrej India Culture Lab events. Listen carefully to the words, which are often nonsense — English phrases made to sound Hindi — as a play on the country’s language politics. As for what the dance number does to gender and sexual politics, well… In any case, this segment was too great not to pass along but I didn’t know where else to put it except at the end of this segment, given the focus on comedy and cultural politics.

Behind the Scenes at Indian Idol Junior



I have been running a series of blog posts sharing some of the experiences I had during a five week tour of India this summer, thanks to the hospitality of Parmesh Shahani and the good folks at Godrej India Culture Lab.  Since I have much to share, I have been breaking up this travel narrative with other segments, but I wanted to pick up again today with a segment describing what we saw when we were able to attend a taping of Indian Idol Junior. The following is adopted from my travel diary.

Today’s main event was a trip to Studio City, which was nearby, for a taping of Indian Idol Junior. We drove down meandering roads through Studio City, where there are a number of smaller studios, some of whom seemed to be shooting things on their front lawns, all involved in film and television production. My favorite because of the cultural incongruity was Swastick Studios, which used the local variant on the Swastika as its brand logo. (It is a traditional good luck sign in Hindu and other local religions, which the Indians have refused to cede to its 20th century associations.)

We pass through multiple levels of security and some degree of confusion before we find our way to the studio where they are shooting Indian Idol. We are the guests of the program’s creative director, who is a family friend of the woman who runs the media program at Sophia. We are immediately ushered upon arrival onto the sound stage and given a seat of honor.



The studio space is surprisingly small, even compared to its American counterparts.  Cynthia and I have never gone to an American Idol taping but we have been to a Survivor finale and to a taping of So You Think You Can Dance. A key difference is that both are taped lived before a very active studio audience.

Here, they are taping two episodes back to back on a Sunday which will air across the coming week: a result show is taped in the morning and aired last night; we are there for the taping of the performance competition (the top ten) which will air the following Saturday night.  Parmesh says this is required to accommodate the judges, one of whom Sonakshi Sinha is a Bollywood glamour queen, second or third generation superstar. So, we are directly in front of the performance space and we have a good view of the area where the contestants sit when they are waiting to go on, of the judge’s table, and an area where the parents of the contestants sit. And above us, there is a small ring of enthusiastic fans who cheer wildly during each segment. We seem to be sitting in an area for friends and family of the producers.


Before the production starts, we are able to watch the contestants mill about, getting last minute advice or touch ups from their parents. One of the contestants, who we will call Red Dress, was working the crowd and we posed for a selfie with her. She’s also playing up to the judges, bringing around a local sweet from her region and passing it out to the judges and the announcers, even the production grips, on the pretext that it is her birthday. As we observe her throughout the performance, it is clear that she is the one to beat in the competition – she’s got incredible vocal skills – but she also knows it, and she’s a bit of a prima donna, who tends to boss the other children around. She’s apparently been adopted by a number of Bollywood stars who tweet out their support around each episode.

The children are dressed in a wide array of clothes, some very westernized, some traditional, all brightly colored to pop on the camera. The songs they sing are Bollywood standards, and unless I am fooled by the less familiar patterns of these songs, they are much more challenging and vocally complex than the songs typically sung on American Idol. And we are dealing with contestants who range in age between 9 and 14-15. The stress on these contestants must be intense (We saw the tail end of last night’s result show when we got back to our quarters, and the contestant voted off weeped with enormous intensity.)

The conventions of the show are universal, so even without knowing a word of Hindi, we can follow more or less what goes on. But because this is taped, not live, there’s a lot of set up and primping between numbers. It’s also got a different rhythm with much more time devoted to the male and female hosts. The male host with fluffed up hair is the Indian equivalent of a baggy pants comic who performs broadly; his female counterpart – in a lime colored pants suit and high heels – also plays broadly but is a more reactive character. They do a lot of prop humor setting up each segment.

Then, the singer’s perform, always in one take, and near the end, the cameraman do a sweeping pan around them, pushing the camera almost into their face, and then, the judges judge.


The judges are speaking Hinglish – a mix of English and Hindi. Parmesh says that these elite Indians are used to speaking in English and their Hindi is not especially strong. In between takes, the judges are always on their cell phones, texting, but they are also getting made-up by their personal staff and they are brought food. We watch one of the judges plow through a meal of chicken and salad in about two minutes between takes, as if this was the only food he was going to get. We were amused that the judges have cups displaying their sponsor, Horlicks, a hot milk-based drink, in front of them, but we saw a staffer pour Coke Zero into each cup between takes.

Then, the contestant offers their pitch to the public – which moves between Hindi and whatever local language they speak. Indian Idol taps intense regional pride and rivalries, often with massive rallies and voting drives in local areas to insure that support gets directed towards contestants who are the source of enormous pride for parts of the country that are rarely represented on television.

There’s often also a segment involving one of the parents, full of stories of sacrifice and determination. The parents mostly come from working class backgrounds, often from rural areas, and so they may speak only their local languages, but they are coached to be able to speak in Hindi or English for the national television audience.

Finally, there may be some sketch involving the contestants and the judges which are designed to further define their characters. So, one of the contestants came out in a traditional tunic-based outfit, which the announcer rips away to reveal rocker clothes underneath, for what turned out to be a show-stopping, defining performance (perhaps the best of the night coming from a young man who had been in the bottom three in last week’s results). Another young boy pulls a lizard (or what we hope was a toy lizard) out of his pocket and sticks it into the hand of the female host who shrieks on cue and drops it on the ground. There’s a dance-off between the Bollywood Glamour Queen and the Female Announcer, both in high heels. A village boy shares that he misses playing marbles with his friends, so they bring out a blanket and marvels, and the male announcers and judges play marbles with him. I am not sure what use is going to be made of this material, since everything is running so much longer than an American show would, and Indian Television is if anything heavier on commercials than American broadcast television is. Taping this episode took a full four hours.

We all have our favorites. Despite her bossiness, I can’t help but root for Red Dress, just because she really has amazing vocal chops, and for the boy who transformed into a rocker, for much the same. But there is the “Drama Mama,” the youngest contestant, who dances – not especially well, but its more movement than most of the others; there’s a boy who wears a turban and traditional clothes; and a range of others. Right now, it’s 3 boys and 7 girls, so we are betting one of the girls goes home this week. She seemed flatter than the others; looked really dejected afterwards, and while the judges were kind, they were much less effusive than they had been with the other contestants. Our sense was she knew it was her turn to go, but we will have to wait till next Sunday to see the results.

We did watch the episode when it aired the following weekend. It was fascinating to see what made it onto the air. Having gotten rid of liveness, the program also got rid of any pretense of “real time.” The footage is tightly, almost abruptly, edited, with only the highlights of the responses aired. This helps to explain why they shot so much more than was aired. In the studio, everything seemed to be much slower than on the American version. On the air, much faster. It has that feel of cutting from highlight to highlight. Aesthetically, it is a very different experience of the program.


Most of the sketches I described ended up on the cutting room floor. They did use the segment of the village boy’s marbles game – which Parmesh did not think they would use because the judges were so bad at marbles, but this becomes the focus of the editing. They did not use what we saw as a more successful segment where the boy sticks a lizard in the hand of the female announcer. I wondered if some of those segments were shot for distribution online.

The soundtrack has also been juiced up – comic noises to prop up the mugging of the announcer, audience noises to amp up the responses of the somewhat meager studio audience, and especially a better sound mix for the performances than we heard in the studio. It’s hard to tell if they worked from the raw tracks or rerecorded the songs, which, of course, has serious implications for a singing competition.

They also had altered the sequence of the performances dramatically with the boy who rips off his traditional clothes and becomes a rocker as the starting point for the program and one of the first performances we saw ending up the broadcast. We’ve always suspected that American Idol structures their live shows based on who did the best job in rehearsal, but here, the actual editing of the content reflects this assumption as well.

If you’d like to read more about Indian Idol, check out this great essay by another of my former MIT students, Aswin Punathambekar, which deals with the local campaigns to support contestants as a kind of civic activity.