ABOUT HENRY JENKINS
The simple answer is:
Henry Jenkins is the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of nine books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture and From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture.
Until recently, Jenkins wrote a monthly column and blogged about media and cultural change for Technology Review Online. A longtime advocate of games culture, he currently co-authors a column with Kurt Squire for Computer Games magazine which seeks to promote innovation and diversity in game design. Jenkins recently developed a white paper on the future of media literacy education for the MacArthur Foundation, which is leading to a three year project to develop curricular materials to help teachers and parents better prepare young people for full participation in contemporary culture. He is one of the principal investigators for The Education Arcade, a consortium of educators and business leaders working to promote the educational use of computer and video games. He was also one of the principal investigators on collaboration with Initiative Media to monitor audience response to American Idol with an eye towards developing new approaches to audience measurement. He is one of the leaders of the Convergence Culture Consortium, which consults with leading players in the branded entertainment sector in hopes of helping them adjust to shifts in the media environment. Jenkins also plays a significant role as a public advocate for fans, gamers, and bloggers: testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee investigation into “Marketing Violence to Youth” following the Columbine shootings; advocating for media literacy education before the Federal Communications Commission; calling for a more consumer-oriented approach to intellectual property at a closed door meeting of the governing body of the World Economic Forum; signing amicus briefs in opposition to games censorship; and regularly speaking to the press and other media about aspects of media change and popular culture. Jenkins has a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism from Georgia State University, a MA in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has taught at MIT for more than 16 years, where he is also housemaster of Senior House dormitory.
Well, that didn’t seem so simple after all. For a somewhat more personal account of whom I am, read below.
The first thing you are going to discover about me, oh reader of this blog, is that I am prolific as hell. The second is that I am also long-winded as all get out. As someone famous once said (Thomas Jefferson, I think), I would have written it shorter but I didn’t have enough time.
My earliest work centered on television fans — particularly science fiction fans. Part of what drew me into graduate school in media studies was a fascination with popular culture. I grew up reading Mad magazine and Famous Monsters of Filmland — and much as my parents feared, it warped me for life. Early on, I discovered the joys of comic books and science fiction, spent time playing around with monster makeup, starting writing scripts for my own Super 8 movies (the big problem was that I didn’t have access to a camera until much later), and collecting television-themed toys. By the time I went to college, I was regularly attending science fiction conventions. Through the woman who would become my wife, I discovered fan fiction. And we spent a great deal of time debating our very different ways of reading our favorite television series.
When I got to graduate school, I was struck by how impoverished the academic framework for thinking about media spectatorship was — basically, though everyone framed it differently, consumers were assumed to be passive, brainless, inarticulate, and brainwashed. None of this jelled well with my own robust experience of being a fan of popular culture. I was lucky enough to get to study under John Fiske, first at Iowa and then at University of Wisconsin-Madison, who introduced me to the cultural studies perspective. Fiske was a key advocate of ethnographic audience research, arguing that media consumers had more tricks up their sleeves than most academic theory acknowledged.
Out of this tension between academic theory and fan experience emerged first an essay, “Star Trek Reread, Rerun, Rewritten” and then a book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Textual Poachers emerged at a moment when fans were still largely marginal to the way mass media was produced and consumed, still hidden from the view of most “average consumers” and as such, represented a radically different way of thinking about how one might live in relation to media texts. In the book, I describe them as “rogue readers.” What most people took from that book was my concept of “poaching,” the idea that fans construct their own culture — fan fiction, artwork, costumes, music, and videos — from content appropriated from mass media, reshaping it to serve their own needs and interests. There are two other key concepts in this early work which takes on greater significance in my work today — the idea of participatory culture (which runs throughout the Convergence Culture book) and the idea of a moral economy (that is, the presumed ethical norms which govern the relations between media producers and consumers.)
Textual Poachers and much of my subsequent work has been written from the perspective of an Aca/Fan — that is, a hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic (hence the current, provisional title of this blog). The goal of my work has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds. I take it as a personal challenge to find a way to break cultural theory out of the academic bookstore ghetto and open up a larger space to talk about the media that matters to us from a consumer’s point of view. This philosophy has governed my various stabs at journalism and public advocacy and they are what are motivating me to develop a personal blog.
Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide returns to this question of media audiences and participatory cultures at a moment where fans and fan-like activities are absolutely central to the way the culture industries operate. At all levels, the assumption is that consumers will become active participants but there is widespread dispute about the terms of our participation. We are seeing enormous experimentation into the potential intersections between commercial and grassroots culture and about the power of living within a networked society. At the same time, the media industries are struggling to keep up with these changes, issuing contradictory responses out of different divisions within the same companies. Convergence Culture was designed as a public intervention into this situation, trying to help both consumers and producers understand the changes which are occurring in their relationship.
Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers, my second new book, maps the transition between the world described in Textual Poachers and the world depicted in Convergence Culture: it reprints many of my key essays about participatory culture through the years, including early writings about fans and later writings which sought to respond to some of the moral panic kicked up by Columbine and claims that games and other forms of popular culture were leading young people to the brink of damnation.
It’s safe to say that neither of these books would have come about if I had not moved to MIT 16 years ago and found myself immersed in the vibrant digital culture of the past decade. I often claim that I am a walking, talking oxymoron — a humanist from MIT. But I think that my unique perspective as someone studying culture within one of the world’s leading technical institutions gives me some distinctive insights into the ways that culture and technology are reshaping before our very eyes.
Comparative Media Studies
One of my proudest accomplishments so far in life has been the creation of the Comparative Media Studies (CMS) graduate program at MIT. At its core, this program encourages students to think across media, across historical periods, across national borders, across academic disciplines, across the divide between theory and practice, and across the divides between the academy and the rest of society. Our goal is simply to train the next generation of leaders for industry, government, education, the arts, journalism, and academia to think in more imaginative ways about the process of media change. I like to joke that CMS is a program for people who could never decide what they wanted to major in. It is “undisciplined” in the best sense of the terms — my own sense is that the academic disciplines which emerged around the problems of the industrial age have outlived their usefulness in a networked culture and that we need to reconfigure the ways we organize and communicate knowledge to our students.
Central to the vision of CMS is the idea of “applied humanism.” MIT has applied math, applied physics, and applied chemistry so it made sense to me that there should be an applied branch of the humanities. Our goal is to take what we are teaching in our classrooms and give students a chance to apply it more pragmatically to think through some of the core challenges being faced out in the field as core institutions confront media change. With this in mind, we have launched a range of research initiatives which I will be writing more about as this blog continues.
Convergence Culture Consortium
The Convergence Culture Consortium is a direct outgrowth of the books coming out this summer. We wanted to bring together key thinkers from a number of different disciplines and universities who were interested in the kinds of social and cultural changes that were impacted the branded entertainment sector. We wanted to bring together leading entertainment companies, advertising firms, and key sponsors to create a dialogue about where media is going and how it impacts consumers. We are developing white papers on topics such as advergaming and product placement, transmedia storytelling and mobile entertainment, alternative reality games, and fan cultures, among other topics. And I get to go into places like Cartoon Network or the MTV Networks and lecture them about what they need to know about the fan communities I study.
Project New Media Literacies also grows out of the ideas in my most recent books. Here, the focus is on the educational challenges of making sure that every kid in America has the social skills and cultural competencies needed to participate in a networked society. According to a recent study by the Pew Center for Internet and American Life, more than half of all American teens have produced media and a significant portion have distributed that media content on line. We need to be aware of the challenges faced by both halves of that statistic — those faced by media makers who lack the traditional mentorship and apprenticeship into production practices and ethical norms which would have shaped previous generations of media makers (student journalists, for example) and those faced by those who are not yet making media — what we are calling the participation gap between those who have anywhere, anytime access and those who may only be able to go online on a library computer with limited bandwidth, filtered content, short work spans, and no capacity to store or upload what they create. This project argues that media literacy skills, broadly defined, need to be integrated into school-based and after-school programs, into adult education for parents and teachers, and into popular culture itself if we are going to fully address the challenges of this moment of media in transition.
The Education Arcade
The Education Arcade represents a systematic attempt to explore and experiment with the pedagogical potentials of computer and video games. I was one of the first humanities scholars in the world to write seriously about video games — not as a social problem but as an emerging medium of aesthetic expression and social experience. Through the years, my work on games has led me to consult with Purple Moon on the development of the girls game movement (and later to co-edit a book, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games), to run a creative leaders program for Electronic Arts, to become a key public critic of the media effects argument and the push to regulate games content, and to become actively involved in the design and implementation of “serious games.”
We have more new initiatives coming soon — including, we hope, some work on public policy and civic media. But these three initiatives illustrate the ways we are trying to fuse theory and practice through the program.
And of course, this just scratches the surface in terms of my academic interest. I began my career writing about vaudeville and early sound comedy (What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Anarchistic Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic). Through the years, I have written about WWF wrestling, Doctor Seuss, Lassie, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and a host of other popular culture works. This strand of my research is represented by yet another forthcoming book, The Wow Climax: Tracing The Emotional Impact of Popular Culture, coming out near the end of this year. And comic books are my current popular culture passion. I hope to write a book about genre theory and superheroes before much longer.
I never can keep my personal life separated from my professional life. This is what comes of being a fan/academic. Much of what I write about popular culture comes from an autobiographical impulse and also reflects the tastes and interests of my son, Henry, now in his mid-twenties, and my wife, Cynthia, who helped get me into fan culture in the first place. I also seek inspiration from not only the students I teach through the CMS program but also the students who live in Senior House, the dorm where I am housemaster. I expect all of these folks will be making appearances in my blog posts from time to time. My wife would no doubt tell you that it is symptomatic of my workaholic tendencies that I cram my personal life into the last paragraph of an overly long and overly detailed account of my life. The reality is that most of my work is deeply personal and my personal relationships shape everything else I do.
And Now a Blog…
This blog is frankly long overdue. I’ve wanted to have a blog for some time. I used to blog for Technology Review; we run blogs for many of the projects; and I’ve run blogs through several of my classes. But I have until now been reluctant to make the time commitment needed to make a personal blog work. Reread the account above and you will see the reason why I have been a little preoccupied. So I’ve blogged for other people; I’ve written about blog; and now I have my own blog.