C Is For Convergence: How the Cookie Monster Reformed Canadian Health Care

A few weeks ago, Glenn Kubish, an Alberta-based reader of this blog, wrote to me to share a remarkable story about the power of grassroots media and participatory culture. Like a typical U.S. yokel, I had no idea what had happened up in Canada, but was blown away by the story he told and asked him to share it with the other readers of this blog. Kubish is currently working on a thesis which explores more fully the implications of these events, and would be happy to receive insights or suggestions from you fine folks. With this in mind, I’ve included his contact information in the bio which follows this piece. For now, sit back, grab some cookies and milk, and read what happened.

C Is For Convergence!

by Glenn Kurbish

It’s fairly widely known that Canadians are passionate about health care and the state of hospitals, so what happened to the man who used to run Alberta Health Services (AHS) shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise.

What was surprising was the role played by the Cookie Monster.

Welcome to my astonishing introduction to convergence culture.

You may not have heard of CTV Edmonton (the local television station in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, where I used to work as news director) or Stephen Duckett (who used to work as president and CEO of Alberta Health Services, the government agency that oversees all aspects of health delivery in this province), but you have heard of the Cookie Monster, and I guess that is part of the point. But first, the facts.

On the morning of November 19, 2010, we did what we in the broadcast news craft always did to start the day. We met around around a table and behind a door to discuss story ideas and decide the shape of the evening news. Emergency room wait times was again a big issue that day, as hospital leaders from around the province were themselves meeting around a table and behind a few sets of doors at a downtown hotel. Their goal was to establish new standards for care and admissions.

The center of attention was Stephen Duckett. As he left the meeting, he was met by our reporter, who asked if she could ask him a question.

Actually, my words won’t do justice to the 2:14 encounter. Some 337,000+ others took a look at it on YouTube.

Summary: Duckett wouldn’t answer conventional media questions because he was:

a) eating a cookie,

b) still eating a cookie,

c) interested in eating his cookie,

d) of the opinion that the media should not question him, but, rather, go to a news conference at which an underling would speak about the day’s discussions,

e) crossing the street, and

f) eating his cookie.

Dubbed the Cookie Affair and Cookiegate, that piece of video made it to the highest office in the province. The Alberta premier told the legislature, “I think everyone in Alberta watched and saw the offensive comments. I’ll just leave it at that.” Of course, he didn’t leave it at that; he fired Duckett later that day.

And, as it turned out, Albertans did more than just watch and see the video. They posted thousands of comments in that new public square, the YouTube rectangle. Some found fault with the media:

Damn! Let the man eat his cookie! #$#$ media! Would you even had to bother him if he was sitting in the toilet?!? (SpiderQED)

Others defended the reporters’ tack:

what a F**ing jerk. He is just so rude, so inconsiderate…They were asking him questions about the state of Alberta’s healthcare, something he is responsible for. (maymonk)

And, predictably, others responded by playing some version of the Sesame Street card:


(It is fascinating how one 61-lettered, upper-cased, misspelled word gets the message across, complete with a moving image, with audio, of The Cookie Monster!)

And while many responded from their various perspectives, some recreated the video, using the video of the Duckett-media encounter as their own raw material in remixes that drew tens of thousands of views. Take a look (and tell me if you don’t smile at the editing touch at :50!)

Here’s another creative, autotune remix effort

And here’s one that combines contributions from mass media current and past (Sesame Street‘s Cookie Monster, NBC’s The Apprentice, CBS’s Hee Haw) to make a grassroots media case against Duckett.

All of this news and reaction dominated front pages, tops of newscasts, radio call-in shows, chat forums, political blogs, Twitter and Facebook pages. TV Tropes picked it up. I’m Eating My Cookie badges popped up.

For his part, Duckett, a day after the video was posted on YouTube, responded, conventionally, with a letter to the media, which ended:

Most regrettably, I did not convey what I deeply feel, which is the greatest respect for the difficult challenges our health care providers face every day, and their innumerable achievements, and what those challenges and achievements mean for our patients and their families. When I got back to my desk I finalized and uploaded a blog which conveys my feelings in my words.

The blog was seen by AHS staff, but what struck me at the time was what strikes me now as I hit the keyboard letters, and that’s how weak written words can be — especially up against the Cookie Monster! Admittedly, that’s not a new insight. Here, Lawrence Lessig in Remix makes the same point: “My favorite among the remixes I’ve seen are all cases in which the mix delivers a message more powerfully [emphasis added] than any original alone could, and certainly more than words alone could.”

But it was a new insight for me as a news director and for the newsroom I managed, even though the superior power of the image and the sound over the word was the price of admission into the TV news industry. This was different. It’s not that our station’s question-asking and video-recording sparked subsequent debate, because that was routine. It was that the media we produced in this case became the primary material for others, and not so much to produce their opinions as much as to express their opinions by producing their own media.

This, for me, was new territory where, in the words of Henry Jenkins, “old and new media collide, where grassroots and corporate media intersect, where the power of the media producer and the power of the media consumer interact in unpredictable ways.”

It is surely the case that Duckett, an erudite and by many accounts friendly and caring citizen, was caught unaware not some much by the pitch of his opponents’ attacks — he was, after all, no stranger to public and political criticism — but by the strange key in which it was composed, allowing notes from , well, muppets. Of course, this is my speculation, but it seems reasonable on the evidence that Duckett simply did not see the convergence culture moment he became trapped in and, ultimately, a victim of.

The evidence is admittedly indirect, but his retreat into the written word, and his wife’s subsequent written defence of her husband’s actions suggest, at the very least, a discomfort with the mashup tools arrayed against them.

“Alberta,” wrote Duckett’s wife in a letter the following month published in the capital city’s broadsheet newspaper, “will not find a more passionate defender of publicly funded health care.

“In retrospect…was it too flippant? Probably.”

This is all very reasonable. And it would have been very reasonable for the most vociferous of Duckett’s critics to debate the statistics around emergency room admissions and treatment versus the targets for the same. Just like it was very reasonable for Duckett, who was bestowed by the University of Bath with a Doctor of Business Administration degree in Higher Education Management, to remind reporters that a news briefing on those very questions would take place within the half hour. (I should note that our news station also covered that news conference).

But all this talk of reasonableness only makes Stephen Duncombe’s voice louder and his argument more insistent. In his 2007 book, Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics In An Age Of Fantasy, Duncombe chastises progressive leaders for hitching their star to the rationalism wagon.

Appeals to truth and reality, and faith in rational thought and action, are based in a fantasy of hte past, or, rather, past fantasy. Today’s world is linked by media systems and awash in advertising images…We live in a “society of the spectacle,” as the French theorist-provocateuer Guy Debord declared back in 1967.

Keep in mind the mediasphere that grew around the Duckett Cookie episode as Duncombe briefly surveys the work of cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who found in the mysterious human capacity for metaphor a radical admission that hard information, rationality, reasonableness are not enough. These categories and metaphors, he argues, allow us to “translate hard information and direct experience into a conceptual form familiar and comfortable for us.” He continues:

[P]rogressives need to think less about presenting facts and more about how to frame these facts in such a way that they make sense and hold meaning for everyday people.

Quite apart from whether you are in the progressive chorus, this is a solid stage on which to build a case for what really happened in the Duckett Cookie episode. Those who used the tools of spectacle, including raw material culled from pre-existing media and a laptop edit suite, have heard Duncombe’s admonition. Says Duncombe in a chilling remark: “Those who put their trust in Enlightenment principles and empircism today are doomed to political insignificance.”

As I continue to study this episode, and ask you for any thoughts or directions on finding and picking the theoretical fruit it contains, it is worth sharing a few provisional conclusions:

  1. It was not the bloggers nor the twitizens nor any other member of the new media who played the pivotal role of being in place to ask Duckett the questions and record his answers. The conventional media may indeed face a threatening business model, but we are not yet in the new world where public figures are directly asked questions by those other than the conventional media who have the resources (time, money) to do so.
  2. The Duckett Cookie episode is unthinkable without the contributions of mass media (Sesame Street) and the gamble, not much of one, that viewers of mashed up videos would immediately understand the Cookie Monster text.
  3. Laughter and ridicule remain potent politcal weapons. I am not the first to point out that once a public figure is ridiculed, he or she cannot be taken seriously.
  4. None of this would have happened if one unconventional decision was made in our conventional newsroom, and that was to post the raw video to YouTube in the first place. Why did we do this? For many reasons, including the feeling that the usual packaging of a television news story (heavily edited, 1:45 in length, reaction clips) did not serve our viewers in forming opinions about the issue.
  5. In convergence culture, the Cookie Monster matters.

Glenn Kubish is working towards a Master of Arts in Communications and Technology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where his final research project will analyze what happened in the 2:14 of video and in its sharing across social media. He can be reached at glenn.kubish@gmail.com

Announcing Transmedia Hollywood 3: Rethinking Creative Relations

UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television,


USC School of Cinematic Arts &

USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism


Transmedia Hollywood 3: Rethinking Creative Relations

April 6, 2012, USC

Conference Overview:

As transmedia models become more central to the ways that the entertainment industry operates, the result has been some dramatic shifts within production culture, shifts in the ways labor gets organized, in how productions get financed and distributed, in the relations between media industries, and in the locations from which creative decisions are being made. This year’s Transmedia Hollywood examines the ways that transmedia approaches are forcing the media industry to reconsider old production logics and practices, paving the way for new kinds of creative output. Our hope is to capture these transitions by bringing together established players from mainstream media industries and independent producers trying new routes to the market. We also hope to bring a global perspective to the conversation, looking closely at the ways transmedia operates in a range of different kinds of creative economies and how these different imperatives result in different understandings of what transmedia can contribute to the storytelling process–for traditional Hollywood, the global media industries, and for all the independent media-makers who are taking up the challenge to reinvent traditional media-making for a “connected” audience of collaborators.

Many of Hollywood’s entrenched business and creative practices remain deeply mired in the past, weighed down by rigid hierarchies, interlocking bureaucracies, and institutionalized gatekeepers (e.g. the corporate executives, agents, managers, and lawyers). In this volatile moment of crisis and opportunity, as Hollywood shifts from an analog to a digital industry, one which embraces collaboration, collectivity, and compelling uses of social media, a number of powerful independent voices have emerged. These include high-profile transmedia production companies such as Jeff Gomez’s Starlight Runner Entertainment as well as less well-funded and well-staffed solo artists who are coming together virtually from various locations across the globe. What these top-down and bottom-up developments have in common is a desire to buck tradition and to help invent the future of entertainment. One of the issues we hope to address today is the social, cultural, and industrial impact of these new forms of international collaboration and mixtures of old and new work cultures.

Another topic that will be addressed is the future of independent film. Will creative commons replace copyright? Will crowdsourcing replace the antiquated foreign sales model? Will the guilds be able to protect the rights of digital laborers who work for peanuts? What about audiences who work for free? Given that most people today spend the bulk of their leisure time online, why aren’t independent artists going online and connecting with their community before committing their hard-earned dollars on a speculative project designed for the smallest group of people imaginable–those that frequent art-house theaters?

Fearing obsolescence in the near future, many of Hollywood’s traditional studios and networks are looking increasingly to outsiders–often from Silicon Valley or Madison Avenue–to teach these old dogs some new tricks. Many current studio and network executives are overseeing in-house agencies, whose names–Sony Interactive Imageworks, NBC Digital, and Disney Interactive Media Group–are meant to describe their cutting-edge activities and differentiate themselves from Hollywood’s old guard. Creating media in the digital age is “nice work if you can get it,” according to labor scholar Andrew Ross in a recent book of the same name. Frequently situated in park-like “campuses,” many of these new, experimental companies and divisions are hiring large numbers of next generation workers, offering them attractive amenities ranging from coffee bars to well-prepared organic food to basketball courts. However, even though these perks help to humanize the workplace, several labor scholars (e.g. Andrew Ross, Mark Deuze, Rosalind Gill) see them as glittering distractions, obscuring a looming problem on the horizon–a new workforce of “temps, freelancers, adjuncts, and migrants.”

While the analog model still dominates in Hollywood, the digital hand-writing is on the wall; therefore, the labor guilds, lawyers, and agent/managers must intervene to find ways to restore the eroding power/leverage of creators. In addition, shouldn’t the guilds be mindful of the new generation of digital laborers working inside these in-house agencies? What about the creative talent that emerges from Madison Avenue ad agencies like Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, makers of the Asylum 626 first-person horror experience for Doritos; or Grey’s Advertising, makers of the “Behind the Still” collective campaign for Canon? Google has not only put the networks’ 30-second ad to shame using Adword, but its Creative Labs has taken marketing to new aesthetic heights with its breathtaking Johnny Cash [collective] Project. Furthermore, Google’s evocative Parisian Love campaign reminds us just how intimately intertwined our real and virtual lives have become.

Shouldn’t Hollywood take note that many of its most powerful writers, directors, and producers are starting to embrace transmedia in direct and meaningful ways by inviting artists from the worlds of comic books, gaming, and web design to collaborate? These collaborations enhance the storytelling and aesthetic worlds tenfold, enriching “worlds” as diverse as The Dark Knight, The Avengers, and cable’s The Walking Dead. Hopefully, this conference will leave all of us with a broader understanding of what it means to be a media maker today–by revealing new and expansive ways for artists to collaborate with Hollywood media managers, audiences, advertisers, members of the tech culture, and with one another.

PANEL 1 (9:15-11:15): “Realigned Work-Worlds: Hollywood/Silicon Valley/Madison Avenue” Denise Mann, moderator

This panel seeks to capture the unruly, still unfolding, wild wild west moment of cultural-industrial conversion taking place in both virtual and real-world workplaces as Hollywood looks for top-down solutions to engaging with consumers where they live–online. Once the dominant players in the content industry, Hollywood today is having to look as far away as Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue for collaborators in the 2.0 space. Many in Hollywood are trying to bridge the gap between the old and new ways of doing business, describing their operations as “Silicon Valley startups within a big media company.” Disney is buying out the founders of social experiments like Club Penguin, Togetherville, and Playdom in order to reinvent their family business for the connected generation. In each instance, Hollywood’s old guard is having to rely on a new generation of entrepreneurs from the tech and geek communities to teach them how to navigate the 21st century.

Break: 11:15-11:30

Panel Two (11:30-1:30): “Creative Economies: Commercial vs. State-Based Models”

Henry Jenkins, moderator

In the United States, transmedia production has been often coupled with issues of promotion and branding, because of the ways that production is funded in a Hollywood studio or network television models. But, around the world, in countries where there is strong state support for media production, alternative forms of transmedia are taking shape, which are governed by different imperatives (cultural, educational, artistic). How has transmedia fit within the effort of nation-states to promote and expand their creative economies? What can commercial media producers learn from these alternative models and approaches? How might these developments further expand our understanding of what transmedia is and what it can contribute to the language of storytelling? What are the advantages and disadvantages of creating transmedia content under these different kinds of creative economies?

Lunch (1:30-2:30)

Panel Three (2:30-4:30): “Working on the Margins–Who Pays for Transformative Works of Art?” Denise Mann, moderator

The independent film industry isn’t working any longer–so says powerful indie producer Ted Hope, who now advocates for using transmedia entertainment models that allow media-makers to engage directly with fans, and in the process, rethink old production, marketing, and distribution patterns that no longer make sense in the 21st century. A new generation of media-makers, actors, writers, directors, and producers are taking concrete steps to reinvent bottom-up entertainment for the contemporary, connected, tech-savvy audience. For some independent-minded creators, the best way to connect with today’s self-aware audience is by creating a self-mocking, self-reflexive web series like The Guild or Dr. Horrible. For others, the best way to engage with the audience is by creating collective works of art via star-driven companies like hitRECord or Funny or Die. The impulse behind each of these works of collective intelligence is to take art out of the rarified world of crumbling art-house theaters, museums, and galleries and put it back into the hands of the masses– creating an immersive, interactive, and collective works of transmedia entertainment, made by and for the people who enjoy it most.

Break (4:30-4:45)

Panel 4 (4:45-6:45): “Creative Intersections: How Comics Fit into the Transmedia Ecology”

Henry Jenkins, moderator

By many accounts, the comics industry in the United States struggles to survive, with mainstream titles facing declining readerships, despite some growth in the sales of independent graphic novels through bookstores. Yet, the comics industry has never played a more central role in the entertainment industry as a whole, with comics seeding more and more film and television franchises, and with comics performing important functions within larger transmedia projects. So, how can we understand the paradoxical status of the comics industry? In what ways are these other media outlets helping to subsize the production of printed comics? What kinds of advantages does content audience-tested through comics bring to other media industries? Why have so many television series sought to extend their narratives through graphic novels in recent years? As comics are brought to the screen, what do the producers owe to the fans of the original material as opposed to new viewers who may have little to no awareness of the series’ origins in comics? What lessons might transmedia producers learn from the larger history of extended universes and intertexuality within comics?


Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communications, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of 15 books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture (1992), Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2006) and with Sam Ford and Joshua Green, Spreadable Media: Creating Media and Value in a Networked Culture (Fall, 2012).

Denise Mann

Denise Mann is Associate Professor and Head of the Producers Program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film, and Television. Her most recent book is Hollywood Independents: The Postwar Talent Takeover (Minnesota, 2008). Previously, Mann co-edited Private Screenings: Television & the Female Consumer (Minnesota, 1992) and has published articles on television and consumer culture in a range of journals. Mann served as an associate editor on Camera Obscura, a journal of feminism and film theory, for six years.

Speakers include:

Ivan Askwith

Ivan Askwith is Senior Director of Digital Media at Lucasfilm, where he oversees strategic and creative direction for the wide range of online, mobile, social and cross-platform initiatives that make up the digital presence of Star Wars, Lucasfilm, and the company’s other properties. Previously, he was the Director of Strategy at Big Spaceship.

Morgan Bouchet

Morgan Bouchet is Transmedia and Social Media Vice President of the Content Division of Orange and is Director of the Orange Transmedia Lab . Orange is a brand of France Telecom, the main telecommunications company in France (and one of the world’s largest). Bouchet joined France Telecom in 2000, developing content experiences and Vod products before moving to transmedia and social media. Prior to France Telecom, Bouchet was manager of the New Media division of FKGB, a French entertainment marketing company.

Angela Chen Caplan

Angela Cheng Caplan is the President and CEO of Cheng Caplan Company, Inc., a boutique literary/talent management and production company based in Los Angeles, California, representing Academy Award nominated filmmakers, best-selling book authors, Pulitzer Prize winning journalists and world famous comic book creators such as Brian Wood

Katerina Cizek

Director Katerina Cizek is an Emmy-winning documentary-maker working across many media platforms. Cizek directs the National Film Board of Canada’s Highrise series on residential skyscrapers. For five years, she was the National Film Board of Canada’s Filmmaker-in-Residence at an inner-city hospital, in a many-media project that won a 2008 Webby Award, a Banff Award, and a Canadian New Media Award.

Sara Diamond

Sara Diamond is the President of the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) University, Canada’s “university of the imagination.” Prior to her presidency at OCAD University, Dr. Diamond was the Artistic Director of Media and Visual Art and Director of Research at the Banff Centre, where in 1995 she created the Banff New Media Institute (BNMI) and led it for 10 years. Dr. Diamond holds a PhD in computer science and degrees in new media theory and practice, social history, and communications from the United Kingdom and Canada.

Christy Dena

Dr. Christy Dena is the director of Universe Creation 101, an organization that creates and consults cross-media narrative development. As a transmedia analyst, she collaborated with colleagues Tim Kring, Nokia and The company P on Conspiracy for Good, a Digital Emmy-nominated alternate reality experience (2011 Digital Emmy-nominated alternate reality experience. Another recent project includes curating and co-organizing Transmedia Victoria, an industry conference and workshop for the Australia Council of the Arts. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Sydney, a postgraduate diploma in Creative Writing from University of Melbourne, and a B.A. in Visual and Performing Arts from Monash University.

Nick De Martino

Nick De Martino is a media and technology consultant and was Senior Vice President of Media and Technology at the American Film Institute for 20 years before retiring in 2010. Under his direction, AFI and Apple Computer developed the first training lab for Hollywood filmmakers, the beginning of many collaborations with high-powered technology companies (that also included Adobe, Intel, and IBM, among others). The Los Angeles Business Journal named De Martino a leader in technology twice, and in 2006, the Hollywood Reporter and the Producer’s Guild of America’s New Media Council ranked De Martino #3 in the “Digital 50” which recognizes digital innovaters.

Jennifer Holt

Jennifer Holt is Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. She specializes in the areas of media industry studies, film and television history, and media policy. Her current research looks at regulation and policy in the era of digitization and convergence. She is the co-editor of Media Industries: History, Theory, and Method (Blackwell, 2009) and author of Empires of Entertainment (Rutgers UP, 2011), which examines deregulation and media conglomeration from 1980-1996. She is also the Co-Director of the Carsey-Wolf Center’s Media Industries Project.

Ted Hope

Ted Hope has produced Academy-Award nominated independent films such as 21 Grams (2003), The Savages (2007), and In The Bedroom (2001). Three of his entries to the Sundance Film Festival have won the Grand Jury Prize: American Splendor (2003), The Brothers McMullen (1995), and What Happened Was.. (1994). In the early 1990s, he co-founded Good Machine, an independent film production and distribution company that went to become Focus Features. Currently, Hope works from his New York-based indie production house, This Is That, which he co-founded in 2002. He is the recipient of the 2009 Vision Award from the LA Filmmakers’ Alliance as well as the Woodstock Film Festival’s Honorary Trailblazer Award.

Gareth Kay

Gareth Kay is Chief Strategy Officer of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners, an ad agency based in San Francisco. He joined GS&P as the Director of Digital Strategy in 2009. Prior to joining GS&P, Kay was Head of Planning at Modernista!, where he oversaw the strategic direction of all accounts including Cadillac, HUMMER, Napster and (RED). Gareth began his career in the UK and worked at TBWA, dfgw and Lowe. Gareth serves on the boards of Boulder Digital Works and the VCU Brandcenter, and sits on the Google Creative Leadership Council.

Katherine Keller

Katherine Keller is a “Founding Tart” and the current Culture Vultures

Editrix at Sequential Tart. She is married to Ralph Mathieu, owner of

the Eisner nominated Alternate Reality Comics. (Yes, she married her

neighborhood comic shop owner.) In her day job she works at the Lied

Library, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is passionate about

comics, pop culture, fandom, and open access publishing.

Joe LeFavi

Joe LeFavi, is a transmedia producer and brand strategist who launched consultancy Quixotic Transmedia in 2010. His company provided the transmedia strategy for Immortals (2011), Relativity Media’s highest grossing film. He has also collaborated with I am Rogue, Lionsgate and Crest Animation. In addition, his company has published motion comics for Platinum’s Cowboys & Aliens, numerous titles for Archaia such as Immortals and Johnny Recon, and over 100+ titles for The Jim Henson Company, which includes their line of Archaia graphic novels.

Jordan Levin

Jordan Levin is founding partner and CEO of Generate, a management and cross-platform production company in Los Angeles. Levin is best known for co-founding the WB, where he where he helped develop a distinctive brand of young-skewing shows (Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and served as the youngest-ever network CEO.

Sheila C. Murphy

Shelia C. Murphy is an Associate Professor in the Department of Screen Arts & Cultures at the University of Michigan. Murphy is also the author of How Television Invented New Media (Rutgers UP, 2011). She received her B.A. in Art History from the University of Rochester and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Visual Studies from the University of California, Irvine. From teletubbies to cybernetics, television to “convergence,” net.art and hacking, her interest lies in visual discourse of and cultural rhetoric about how, why, when and where we use computers and incorporate them into our everyday life.

Jose Padhila

Jose Padhila is a Brazilian filmmaker and producer. His credits include Bus 174, Elite Squad, and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a trilogy that explores corruption and brutality in Brazil. Elite Squad won the Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2008, one of Padhila’s many filmmaking awards. Upcoming films include Robocop, Words with Gods and Rio, eu te amo.

Mike Richardson

Mike Richardson is the current president of Dark Horse Comics, a comics publishing company he founded in 1986, as well as the president of Dark Horse Entertainment, which has developed and produced numerous projects for film and television based on Dark Horse or other licensed properties. Dark Horse publishes many licensed comics, including comics based on Star Wars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Aliens, Predator, Mass Effect, and Conan; the company also publishes creator owned comics such as Frank Miller’s Sin City and 300, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Paul Chadwick’s Concrete, and Michael Chabon’s The Escapist.

Mark Verheiden

Mark Verheiden is a writer for comics, movies, and television. He is a co-executive producer for the television series Falling Skies for DreamWorks Television and the TNT Network. Verheiden was also a writer and consulting producer for Heroes and a a writer and co-executive producer on the television series Battlestar Galactica. Verheiden’s introduction into writing comics came in June 1987, when he penned The American, which was published by Dark Horse Comics. Verheiden has written many series for Dark Horse based on both the Aliens and Predator series of films.

Mary Vogt

Mary Vogt is a costume designer who has been Emmy-nominated for her work on Pushing Daisies (2008). She was the costume designer for the Men in Black movies, Batman Returns (1992), Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007), and the 2010 Tamil (South Asian) science fiction blockbuster, Endhiran (Robot).

Watch here for further speaker announcements.



Eileen Norris Cinema Theatre, USC Cinematic Arts Complex, Los Angeles


The USC School of Cinematic Arts is located at 900 W. 34th St., Los Angeles, CA 90007. Parking passes are available for Parking Structure D (PSD) for $8.00 at Entrance Gate #4, located off Jefferson Blvd. at Royal Street (east of Hoover Street). The School of Cinematic Arts is down 34th Street (heading away from Figueroa) from the Parking Structure. To view a map of the Parking Structures and Entrance Gates, visit http://web-app.usc.edu/maps/

Conference Pass (includes admission to all panels and reception)

General Public: $40

Faculty/Students: $10

(Valid university ID required at check-in)

Purchase Tickets here

Processing fees may apply.

All sales are final.

Extra Event: Teaching Transmedia

As more and more colleges and universities are teaching courses in transmedia enertainment, crossmedia design, and convergence culture, Transmedia Hollywood wants to invite people interested in exchanging resources or trading experiences to gather for a special “birds of a feather” meeting at the Annenberg Innovation Lab on the eve of the conference — April 5 — at 7 pm. If you want to come, drop me a note at hjenkins@usc.edu

Inventing the Digital Medium: An Interview with Janet Murray (Part Three)

You suggest a broad range of design fields as important for addressing the core properties of digital media. I know you’ve thought a lot about the process of educating designers. Do you imagine expanding the curriculum so that all designers know at least something of these various fields or do you imagine building multidisciplinarity into the design process through collaboration across various expertise?

I do think that designers should know about all the contributory fields – such as visual design, human computer interaction, industrial design, computer science, media studies. These fields overlap one another and each one is already drawing on multiple other disciplines, so even those with a more narrow training have had some exposure to other disciplines. For me, the key thing is that we should understand design as a collective process of inventing a common medium – that all of these practices should be seen as contributing to a common design palette of conventions that are available for use by any application. For example, we can’t think of information design as separate from game design, because game mechanics can be very useful in explaining complex systems, and information visualization can be very useful in offering an overview of a complex multiplayer world. The more we think of every artifact we make as occupying this larger potential design space, the more strategies we have at our disposal for making expressive, coherent digital artifacts.

But we need a way to unify these different approaches, which is why I suggest that we think of the digital medium as having four characteristic affordances (the procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial) so that we can understand the role of each of these contributory disciplines in helping us to maximize these affordances.

Of course curriculum decisions are always influenced by local configurations – by what departments are more open to change or to collaboration within any particular university. Digital Media is being taught in many departments, and degree programs are proliferating so rapidly that we seem to have a new faculty ad to post to our PhD students every day. My hope is that Inventing the Medium will make it possible for more people to teach digital media design from a wider range of disciplines. I’m hoping that humanities and arts faculty will be able to introduce the technical issues using the book, and that computer science and engineering departments will be able to use it to integrate media-oriented design questions into their teaching. And I’ve made an extensive Glossary in order to encourage professionals from varying disciplinary backgrounds to share a design vocabulary.

You write that “media expand the scope of our shared attention.” Yet, the issue of attention remains a central one for critics of digital media. What relationship do you see between this idea of “shared attention” and the competing claims by Steven Johnson that “Everything Bad is Good For Us” and Nicholas Carr that “Google is Making Us Stupid”?

I think that Steven Johnson is right – more complex storytelling (as in the change in serial drama that he charts in that book) makes us smarter. And I see the digital medium as supporting more complex cognitive forms, not only story-telling forms, but also representations of the world as replayable simulated systems, so that we can look at how the same situation can be configured in multiple different ways, or how multiple causes can contribute to a single event. I thank that Nicholas Carr and other dystopian chroniclers of the digital era are correct in identifying the distracting effect of information overload, but they mistake the immediate situation for something that is intrinsic to digital culture. Right now, we have a growth in the quantity and variety of information that we can encode and deliver – a big growth spurt in inscription and transmission – but a lag in the conventions of representation that make information coherent. Google is making us much smarter in exactly the way that external media representation has always made us smarter: the new encyclopedic affordances of the digital medium lets us offload information that we no longer need to carry in memory, and to share information with one another that we no longer need specialists or personal contact to access. Google makes all this encyclopedic information retrieval on demand. Of course it is not as refined as we need it to be, but it has already made it orders of magnitude easier to find an address, identify an author, check on professional affiliations, etc. So it is absurd to say that internet resources reduce our ability to focus.

Now, it may be the case that people are less patient with self-indulgent prose, that people are less willing to submit to the long-winded authorial voice, to enter the trance of reading a longer work. But in some cases that may mean that we can convey the same information in more concise terms. For example, I needed to express the argument for Inventing the Medium in book form, but now that I have laid it out, I would love to make an ebook that segmented the same information in smaller chunks and allowed for multiple navigational paths.

Your book makes a strong case for medium specificity, critiquing the over-reliance on “inherited structures” from “legacy media.” Yet, others have made the argument for media impurity, seeing real value in the cross-polination of different traditions and practices. And in your earlier work, you often saw such borrowings as necessary to help people make the transition into a new medium. So, how might designers think about when elements borrowed from other media are enabling or retarding the growth of digital culture?

Borrowing is a necessary feature of design. But designers should be aware of the provenance, the origins, of design features and think about the function they serve separately from the medium in which they live. For example the front page of a newspaper and the headlines on the page are very useful conventions for conveying a common understanding of what is news in a short time. But the sound bite and display behind the news anchor, the scrolling headlines at the bottom of the screen, the magazine cover, are similar conventions, and they all relate to the core cultural task of taking in diverse summary information in an efficient manner. If we are making a news site for the web, or for a mobile device, or for some future platform that operates from a chip in the corner of special glasses, we would have to think about the purpose served by the aggregation of headlines on the front page, and consider what we want to merely borrow the legacy conventions (or the web conventions when they become digital legacy) and what we will need to reinvent.

I don’t believe that the digital medium is wholly new and separate from cultural history–quite the contrary. But I do see the need for designers to borrow, invent, and refine the appropriate conventions of the new medium in a way that is mindful of how earlier customs reflect earlier limitations (such as column size and page size and the fixity of paper) that we need not reproduce.

You focus here primarily on the work of designers. But, as you know, the digital has brought about a more participatory culture where lots of everyday people are designing and producing media. How do their “untrained” and “unprofessional” design decisions contribute to the process of inventing the medium?

That is a great question and of course one answer is that I rely on you, Henry, to tell me about that!

But I don’t think designers can abdicate responsibility. It is our job to invent the conventions that scaffold popular invention. For example, the status line and hash tag are incredibly powerful organizing conventions, which then make possible the inventive uses (such as professional convention commentary, fan commentary, political organizing, even ironic pseudo-hashtags) that we value on a viral success like Twitter. People need a coherent structure in order to share focused attention and pool their creativity.

Janet H. Murray is an internationally recognized designer and media theorist, and Ivan Allen College Dean’s Professor of Digital Media at Georgia Tech where she also directs the Experimental Television Laboratory. She holds a PhD in English from Harvard University and was a pioneer of digital humanities applications at MIT in the 1980s and 1990s, moving to Georgia Tech in 1999, and serving as Director of Graduate Studies in Digital Media from 2000-2010 during which time she led the redesign of the MS curriculum and the founding of one of the first PhDs in the field. She is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Free Press, 1997; MIT Press 1998), which has been translated into 5 languages, and is widely used as a roadmap to emerging broadband art, information, and entertainment environments, and Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2011). At Georgia Tech, her interactive design projects include a digital edition of the Warner Brothers classic, Casablanca, funded by NEH and in collaboration with the American Film Institute; the Interactive Toolkit for Engineering LearningProject, funded by NSF; and a series of prototypes for the convergence of television and computation, created in collaboration with PBS, ABC , MTV, Turner, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent, and other networks and media companies. Murray is an emerita Trustee of the AFI and a current board member of the George Foster Peabody Award. In December 2010 Murray was named one of the “Top Ten Brains of the Digital Future” by Prospect Magazine.

Inventing the Digital Medium: An Interview with Janet Murray (Part Two)

You describe the digital as still an “immature medium.” What would constitute a mature medium and what steps would still need to take place before the digital can reach this state?

Well, movies are a mature medium – we don’t think about the devices by which the story is told – the placement of the camera or the acting style: all of that has become conventionalized and made transparent to the viewer and at the same time it affords the practice of virtuosity, of invention of the new within a stable expressive range of conventions.

And some parts of digital expression are more mature than others – web page design is pretty stable for example. But it is easy to think of changes in the inscription or transmission layer that will make current web design obsolete. For example, if 3D screens become the norm we might enter a period of exploring and refining some of the established film techniques – we can see that happening in Scorsese’s Hugo for example, but all within the recognizable conventions of a Hollywood movie. But if 3D screens become the norm for interactive environments, then we will have to develop a whole new set of conventions for navigation along the Z axis, and we will see a rearrangement of archives into 3 dimensions (think of the tables of iTunes songs) and this will inevitably make us more eager to use gestural interfaces to reach in and grab things or send them hurtling back and forth. The disruption in inscription of a 3D screen would not just lead to 3D shooter games but to new genres and formats that would organize information and experience in ways that we cannot predict until we start messing with it. So this openness to disruption is a symptom of an immature medium.

What is the case for seeing the computer as a medium as opposed to a delivery mechanism for a wide array of different kinds of media formats and practices?

That is what I asked myself to prove in Chapter 3 of Hamlet on the Holodeck. It is a medium because it has its own affordances, particularly the procedural and participatory affordances that we recognize as “interactivity.” But that does not mean that we can’t think about videogames as a medium within the larger digital medium, just as newspapers are a medium within the larger print medium.

As McLuhan pointed out, the content of any new medium is an older medium, and Bolter and Grusin are right to call attention to “remediation” as a cultural phenomenon that is always going on: we are always transposing conventions from one medium to another.

But when we treat the computer as merely a wire for sending down packages of video or print in imitation of legacy formats then we are missing out on new expressive opportunities and often reinscribing the limitations of older physical structures.

For someone trying to make money in the short term from legacy properties then creating a DVD of a movie or streaming a TV show or an electronically delivering a PDF of a “book” seems like a win. But designers should think beyond this: they should ask what we are communicating with these legacy formats – what stories we are telling, what concepts we are explaining — and then consider whether we can serve the same purposes in more powerful ways by drawing on the affordances of computation. For example, maybe it is time to replace all the physics text books with manipulable system models. Or to go back to a project you and I worked on at MIT some years ago, wouldn’t it be better to teach film studies in a digital environment where you could access any film at multiple levels of granularity, comparing multiple examples of the wipe or dissolve? If we think about the digital medium as just a way of reinscribing the print-era text-book or other legacy media formats we will deprive ourselves of new strategies for expressing, sharing, and understanding human experience.

Though you write near the end about the importance of creating “more expressive machines,” Hamlet on the Holodeck‘s concern with expression often takes a back seat here to issues of functionality and transparency. Does this suggest that you think the kinds of debates you used to have with Sven Birkerts and others have been resolved? Are you personally less interested today in the issue of whether the digital can be art or literature?

No, I am still interested in art which is one of the primary ways of exploring the expressive qualities of a new medium – of stretching the clay, so to speak — and there are many expressive examples in the text, such as Camille Utterback’s work, which I admire tremendously as well as a section in the last chapter on playfulness as a design strategy.

But the book does engage the nitty gritty conceptual work of shaping something in digital form: how to abstract experience into coherent procedures and structured documents, how to think about loops and metadata as the raw materials for expressive practice. To my mind, you must understand the specific materiality of the medium – the plasticity of code and data structures – in order to exercise creative power as a designer. That doesn’t mean that everyone has to write their own code on every project, but you have to understand how to shape the bits in order to have a wide enough understanding of the design space. If you don’t understand how code makes meaning then you can’t imagine a wide enough range of possibilities to be a strong designer.

As for Sven Birkerts — I was happy to see him announce that the journal he was editing was moving to the web just a few years after our debate. He was one of the first to express a kind of nostalgia for print, which I can sympathize with – I’m very fond of books and have just written a very fat one. What I still don’t sympathize with is the notion that there is a hierarchy of media, so that anything in print is somehow better than anything on TV or in the digital medium. But Sven was very poetic in evoking the joy of print, which people will likely continue to do as we become more aware of media forms because of the changing landscape.

You rather quickly dismiss the concept of “transmedia” or “crossplatform” storytelling from your focus here. Yet, I know you have been working with the American Film Institute on various projects to think about the computer as a “second screen” in relation to film or television. What insights might you be able to share from this work with my readers who are interested in transmedia issues?

My etv group has been an important focus of my own research since I came to Georgia Tech. It assumes a convergence platform that combines everything we love about TV with all the affordances of the digital medium. This is what I predicted in HoH in 1997, and described in chapter 9. The home TV is converging with the computer, the game platform, and the telephone which is now a video telephone. The tablet has become a useful second screen and is very well positioned to replace the remote control. Our prototypes address these possibilities. For example, we assume that TV series are stored in an archive that is navigable across episodes and across series. Then we ask, what kinds of connections will viewers want to make? So we do prototypes that connect two American history documentaries that explore the Cuban Missile Crisis from Castro’s perspective and from Kennedy’s. Or we show how a long-form story arc, like Graham Yost’s masterfully controlled Justified season, can be made clearer to viewers by scene-specific synchronized visualizations that do not distract them from the unfolding story.

I like your categories of transmedia very much and I know the term has been very energizing within the entertainment industry. I particularly like your calling attention to the need for a consistent storyworld across media instantiations. I have picked a friendly quarrel with the term “transmedia” on my blog and I am taking up the same issue in a keynote at Euro iTV next August, calling for a process of “transcending transmedia. ” Instead of interactive environments as separate media from television, I want to encourage people to think about more complex storyworlds that integrate the affordances of the digital medium, such as documentaries that are indexed for multiple paths, or dramatic series that come with the ability to follow a single thread across multiple episodes or seasons, or fantasy dramas that support investigation and sharing of clues to mysterious forces without a sense of leaving one medium and entering another one. I’m more interested in the integration because I think that more complex storytelling is a human resource. It holds the power to make us smarter and more empathetic.

In the interest of continuing this “friendly quarrel,” let me add a few thoughts about Janet’s arguments about “transmedia” as a purely “additive” concept. She is in some senses rehashing arguments she made two decades ago against the concept of “multimedia,” which she argued was like “photoplay” a transitional term which described our limited understanding of how media could be integrated together and that as better design principles emerged, we would see a richer deployment of the affordances of the digital, which included new understandings of the properties of once distinct media. I agreed with her then about multimedia, and still do despite the resurgence of the concept as a result of the iPad’s appeals to more integrated media experiences (perhaps, a second stage in the integration process). I am less certain that transmedia is a transitory term in this same sense. Here, I see the gaps between media as a feature and not a bug. For me, transmedia is about creating meaningful layers, where much of the pleasure and agency is in making connections across texts and deploying them as resources in an ongoing social conversation. The gaps between different extensions encourage a more active engagement, accounting for the recurring interest in transmedia across the entertainment industry as Hollywood seeks models for what engagement-based content looks like. I do believe we will see more and more integration of the functions of transmedia as more and more content comes to us through digital platforms, but I also think something vital will be lost if all of the content becomes instantly available to us in a more integrated fashion. This is the moment where transmedia changes back into multimedia (which for me is media across multiple modalities but within the same platform). The result will be to make the layered texts associated with transmedia more popularly accessible, but potentially at the expense of the hunting and gathering (not to mention the social exchange and collective interpretation of content) which has made the transmedia model so effective at mobilizing buzz and participation around media properties. Janet anticipated some aspects of transmedia with her discussion in Hamlet on the Holodeck of the notion of “hyperserial.” The key concept here is “serial.” Transmedia is a kind of seriality. Serial fictions have a distinct aesthetic and economic function, which would not be achieved by simply integrating all of the elements into a mega-text, and I think the kinds of seriality represented by transmedia will have value even when it becomes technically possible to more fully integrate the extensions. My five cents worth.

Inventing the Digital Medium: An Interview with Janet Murray (Part One)

I first met Janet Murray when I arrived at MIT almost 25 years ago. At the time, she was working on her book, Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, while I was working on Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Murray, along with the members of the Narrative Intelligence Reading Group, was an early guide for me to the emerging realm of digital culture and helped to shape my thinking in ways that I will never be able to fully acknowledge.

A few years later, Murray and I worked together, along with Ben Singer and Ellen Draper, to create The Virtual Screening Room, the prototype for a fully interactive digital textbook for studying film analysis. In many ways, what we constructed together using Hypercard was more advanced than anything we’ve seen so far coming out of the realm of e-books, with hundreds of clips on command from almost as many movies to illustrate core concepts in film editing.

Shortly afterwords, she left MIT for Georgia Tech, while with William Uricchio, I took over the leadership of our newly created Comparative Media Studies Program. We’ve remained in touch through the years, with Murray always proving to be a wonderful thinking partner, sometimes affirming, sometimes challenging my own thinking, and always overseeing cutting edge projects which stretched the affordances of digital media in the service of expanding human expression or more fully realizing its pedagogical potential. We’ve both found ourselves under attack for being “narratologists” in the famous “Ludologist” debates, and sharpened our own thinking about games as a medium in the process. I was delighted (well, for many reasons) when the British magazine, Prospect, identified both of us as among the top thinkers for the digital future.

Murray recently released her long-awaited new book, Inventing the Medium: Principals of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. On one level, the book is a textbook designed to help designers in training develop a fuller, more robust understanding of digital media, one which builds productively on principles she first outlined in Hamlet on the Holodeck, but which also reflects on the past decade plus of developments as many once cutting edge practices have now become normalized and routinized within digital media. This book captures some of the thinking she did as the chair of her program at Georgia Tech, which remains one of the most forward thinking about new media platforms and practices.

On another level, the book is a theory of media — especially of media change — with a strong emphasis on the intersections between technology and culture. I was delightful to see how much more deeply Murray had read and thought about media theory since the first book, and in the process, she is pushing all of us to think more deeply about what it might mean to consider the digital as its own medium rather than as a delivery system for multiple media or what it might mean to think about the local choices made in digital design as contributing to a larger evolution of that medium. Murray’s writing has shifted in a more technical direction than her first book, which was very much an argument for why humanists should engage with new media production and critique, but she remains very much a humanist at heart, who sees digital media as making vital contributions to our contemporary culture. Inventing the Medium is an epic accomplishment, one which we will all be mining for years to come.

In this interview, Murray reflects about the larger conceptual framing of the book, what it has to say about the nature of media change and the role of design in constructing contemporary culture. Her thoughtful and engaging responses to my questions should provoke further reflections about the state of the art in digital design.

Your earlier book, Hamlet on the Holodeck, has been described as an experiment in speculative poetics, in that you were reading early signs of what kind of affordances digital media would offer for human expression. Inventing the Medium now has several decades of experiments and innovations to draw on. How did this change the way you approached this project?

When I sat down to write Hamlet on the Holodeck (HoH) I challenged myself to prove what I believed from the day my students at MIT showed me Eliza and Zork – that this was the beginning of a new medium of expression that could be as rich as print or film. To do that, I had to step back and say what were the equivalents of the material affordances that made film a new medium and not just a way of recording plays or acting out novels. So I came up with the formulations in Chapter 3 of HoH which is probably the most widely read part of that book – that the equivalent of cutting the film and changing the focus of the lens, etc. for cinema was the procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial affordances of the computer as a medium of representation.

At that point my interest was just in talking about these 4 properties as affordances for storytelling, but it immediately became clear to me in my work as an interaction designer, leading educational computing and (what would now be called) “digital humanities” projects that talking about these affordances and the aesthetics of interactivity and immersion that come out of them was a great way of focusing design teams and conceptualizing key design choices.

So the new book picks up that focus on the design process itself, and it looks beyond narrative to see the design of any digital artifact – any device, web page, app, archive, based on electronic bits and running code – as part of a common enterprise that I call “Inventing the Medium.”

So the new book grows out of the previous one, but it also reflects the very different experience I’ve had since moving to Georgia Tech in 1999 where I served as Director of Graduate Studies (2000-2010) and where I established and continue to teach courses in interaction design, game design as a cultural practice,,and interactive television for students go on to work for all the major players in digital media from Apple and Ideo to Disney Imagineering, Electronic Arts, and Zinga, to Turner Broadcasting, Showtime, DirectTV, and AOL to Google, Amazon, and IBM and so on. Working in this community of diverse creative abilities, brought me much closer to the concrete design challenges of commercial world than my work at MIT. And my contact with all those companies, as well as my work with the American Film Institute as a Mentor and Trustee throughout the heady changes of the 2000s gave me a first-hand look at how productive change can be nurtured or thwarted within a community of practice. . .

So the short answer to your question is, my core ideas from 1997 have proven quite useful despite the profound disruptions and exhilarating inventions of the past 15 years because my experience at MIT from the 1980s through 1990s anticipated a lot of the challenges that hit the wider society later. And the principles I’m always trying to teach my students and that I did my best to put down in Inventing the Medium (ITM) should last over the next several decades of change, because they are not about how to design for any particular platform, but about how to approach the digital design process itself so that decisions you make today will align with the trends of lasting innovation and solutions that you arrive at in the context of today’s gizmos can teach you something and inform choices that you will make as a designer in the unknown future environment.

You describe this book as documenting “the collective cultural task of inventing the underlying medium.” In what sense is this a cultural as well as a technological project? To what degree do you think designers are aware of their impact on the future of a medium as opposed to the pragmatic issues of designing an App?

In my own teaching I encourage designers to have a kind of double consciousness, sort of short-term and long-term. The short-term consciousness involves serving the immediate users – and the more specifically we can think about them the better – and honoring the constraints of the immediate task, which can mean using a specific platform or limiting functionality in some way. But another part of their mind has to be fixed on the horizon, on the immediate work as part of a larger cultural task, that draws on media conventions from the past that have made for coherent communication, and that creates a foundation of conventions that will make for ever greater coherence going forward.

I have identified design in this book as a cultural project but I think there can be a whole bookshelf or Kindle folder full of books elaborating on that idea, and taking other aspects of our understanding of human culture as starting points for understanding digital design. For me, the key cultural task is the creation of media conventions – the equivalent of the headline, the byline, the chapter division, the cinematic establishing shot or 180 degree rule – the organizing conventions that allow us to build greater complexity and expressivity into the rituals by which we share our understanding of the world and our empathy for one another.

The cultural task I have in mind is meaning-making. I think this is the same task that babies undertake and early humans must have undertaken in clapping hands in imitation of one another, in pointing to something to direct attention to it, in intentionally clapping hands in synchrony with another person. These are the the radical cultural primitives, and language, drawing, writing, print, photography, and now computation are all ways of expanding our ability to clap, to point, to think together and synchronize our minds and our behaviors.

You draw on some of the same core concepts here as in Hamlet on the Holodeck. Which ones have had to be rethought the most to reflect the actual changes which have taken place?

Well if I were writing HoH again I would have to make changes, and I intend to do something like that for my next book – sort of a Return to the Holodeck (!) But Inventing the Medium is really a matter of taking the same ideas deeper, and so I see it as continuous with HoH.. The main change is that just as I had to think deeply about the affordances of the medium for HoH in order to think about interactive storytelling as a special case of digital affordances, for ITM which focuses on digital affordances as the basis of a design process, I had to think much more deeply about what a medium is. In HoH I took “medium” for granted. For ITM I had to think about whether what I was claiming about a medium was true for other media. I actually had another 50,000 words about this that I had to cut out and condense into parts of the Introduction, Chapter 1, and the last chapter on the Game Model, because it slowed down the main argument about design too much to go into it. But I am writing more about that in other places. I gave a talk about it for the MECCSA in the UK and I’m going to be writing that up for an article in Convergence.

I have two main insights about what a medium is that I can state briefly here. One is that any medium is composed of three parts: Inscription, transmission, and representation. (I define all this in the book and summarize it in the Glossary which is also reproduced on my blog ) . The other is that the most productive paradigm for designers in thinking about a medium, to my mind, is the paradigm of focused attention.

And actually this paradigm, come to think of it, came indirectly from one of the most dramatic reactions to HoH, which was the hostility (which you received as well) from the ludologists who were trying to set off a place for Game Studies separate from what they thought of as the “hegemony” of “narratology.” I found it very useful to my thinking that they foregrounded games as its own communicative and representational genre. This led me to think about the place of games in human culture, and I realized in reading Michael Tomasello and Merlyn Donald, neither of whom talk about games explicitly, that the experience of focused attention and “theory of mind” that the cognitive folks think of as distinguishing us from our primate cousins, is really the pleasure we find in synchronizing our behavior with one another – which is the essence of games.

For me it was a particularly illuminating moment when I read in Merlyn Donald’s work the statement of how much human culture could accomplish without first inventing language. This was amazing to me as a hyperverbal person of course. But then it was illuminating to my thinking about what a medium is. And it led me to think of focused attention as the key to the design of a new medium.

Janet H. Murray is an internationally recognized designer and media theorist, and Ivan Allen College Dean’s Professor of Digital Media at Georgia Tech where she also directs the Experimental Television Laboratory. She holds a PhD in English from Harvard University and was a pioneer of digital humanities applications at MIT in the 1980s and 1990s, moving to Georgia Tech in 1999, and serving as Director of Graduate Studies in Digital Media from 2000-2010 during which time she led the redesign of the MS curriculum and the founding of one of the first PhDs in the field. She is the author of Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (Free Press, 1997; MIT Press 1998), which has been translated into 5 languages, and is widely used as a roadmap to emerging broadband art, information, and entertainment environments, and Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice (MIT Press, 2011). At Georgia Tech, her interactive design projects include a digital edition of the Warner Brothers classic, Casablanca, funded by NEH and in collaboration with the American Film Institute; the Interactive Toolkit for Engineering LearningProject, funded by NSF; and a series of prototypes for the convergence of television and computation, created in collaboration with PBS, ABC , MTV, Turner, Intel, Alcatel-Lucent, and other networks and media companies. Murray is an emerita Trustee of the AFI and a current board member of the George Foster Peabody Award. In December 2010 Murray was named one of the “Top Ten Brains of the Digital Future” by Prospect Magazine.

Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part Three)

Becky, you looked at Harry Potter fan culture as part of your involvement in the Digital Youth Project. What insights did you gain there about fandom as a site of informal learning and how did they feed into this current project about Harry Potter in schools?

The research I did with Potter fans for the Digital Youth Project focused on understanding interest-driven participation and was primarily concerned with media makers–podcasters, fan fiction writers, artists, and so on. Key to the way we on the Digital Youth Project understood interest-driven participation was an element of independence from school curricula or conventional status hierarchies; the practices we examined were things that young people seemed to pick up on their own rather than embarking on them as part of a class project or because of shared interests with friends from school or their neighborhoods. (Of course, we found that interests rarely develop completely independently. There is usually a person/persons or shared experience that kick-starts interest-driven participation.)

Working with fans was an amazing experience and extremely helpful for understanding learning in “informal” sites. I put “informal” in quotes here because one of the most interesting things I found working with fans was just how much organization, dedication, and expertise go into fans’ practices. The rules and hierarchies of fandom are different from those that dominate school or the paid workforce–in general, more inclusive, less concerned with traditional markers of status (like age), and a bit more flexible–but I they certainly have a structure and logic to them. Some of the teens I interviewed in my research spent as much time producing podcasts, maintaining websites, or writing as they would if it were a full-time job. Others balanced Potter activities with others at school, such as working on the yearbook or school newspaper, mixing and matching the practices and skills involved in each activity to create their own style of production.

My fandom research fed into Teaching Harry Potter in a number of ways. Most importantly, it’s how Cathy and I met and became colleagues and friends! (We just happened to sit next to each other at the closing feast at E7–a Potter camp for families we describe in the book–and, as they say, the rest is history.) Beyond that, having seen numerous, diverse examples of rich learning and motivation for participation emerging around the Potter series helped me better understand and describe what was (and what could be) happening in schools. As readers will see in our chapters on technology and “imagining more,” we believe that learners (regardless of the setting) have specific needs and rights that can be addressed through thoughtful, careful resourcing and approaches to teaching and learning. Further, we believe that civic participation and a commitment to social justice are essential to meaningful learning and participation–something we learned from our friends at the Harry Potter Alliance and various Wizard Rockers. (More on that in a minute.)

One of the challenges I faced in shifting my focus to the school based research was not setting up a dichotomy of interest-driven fan practices versus what was happening in classrooms. Certainly, the students in Andrew, Allegra, and Sandra’s classrooms had a different kind of shared reading experience than did many of the fans I worked with, one that was not independent from school but rather prompted and scaffolded by their teachers and shared with their classmates through specific assignments and classroom activities. This doesn’t mean that it was inferior to what the fans were doing–just different. As we worked on Teaching Harry Potter, I think I came to a better understanding of how powerful school experiences can be for introducing and supporting interests on one hand–and just how treacherous it can be for teachers and students alike if schools do not allow for experiences that can lead to exploring deep interests.

You close the book by imagining what a more perfect school structure would look like and what it would mean in the lives of the kids you studied. Can you share some of that vision?

We use the image of the Mirror of Erised–the powerful magical mirror that allows one to see his/her deepest desires–to frame our discussion of what public education could (and should) look like. Although multiple reveals from the Mirror are not canon, we take four glimpses into the mirror to see the following things:

Expert teachers engaged as leaders and trusted professionals: as the featured teachers’ stories reflect, opportunities to exercise agency, make decisions about curriculum, and be creative in one’s teaching are not always available to teachers. In our ideal vision of schooling, this situation would be different and teachers would be not only allowed to teach in the ways they feel are best for their students, but encouraged and supported in doing so.

Universal access to technology and new media learning tools: in the book, we described some of the ways that schools use educational media and technology as similar to using the Polyjuice Potion–using technology to disguise bad pedagogy, resulting in those technologies being used in insignificant and spurious ways. Instead of continuing to “Polyjuice” technology and new media, we’d like to see schools learn how to adopt and integrate them in ways that support robust, student-driven learning.

Emphasis on Experiential, Student- Driven Learning: We want to see students and teachers working side-by-side on projects that matter to them. As we mentioned earlier, there is a strong social justice component to the Potter series that has been picked up by various groups within the fandom, the Harry Potter Alliance in particular. The HPA is a great example of experiential learning, as its campaigns focus on getting young people out into the world to enact change. While we recognize that not every student nor every teacher will have the same commitment to social justice, we value the notion of experiential learning–whether that is in relation to world events or mathematics–and wish for more equitable access to such experiences.

Authentic Tasks as the Central Form of Student–and Teacher–Assessment: in our final look in the Mirror, we see one outcome of the above-mentioned emphasis on experiential learning–an educational system that does not rely on standardized assessment and scripted curriculums. Instead, both teachers and students are assessed in ways that are sensitive to their particular needs and that encourage confidence in future practice.

These four elements are certainly not the only positive changes we can imagine for schools, but they represent a significant start. They also represent a turn toward a more caring, trusting, and loving educational system. After all, it is the power of love, not magic, that is the most important lesson Harry has taught us.

Catherine Belcher works with LA’s Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe’s University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).

Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part Two))

One of your teachers faced pushed back from students that the Harry Potter series were books for white kids. Perhaps many readers are thinking the same thing. Yet your title stresses their value for the “multicultural classroom.” So, what do the books offer for children of color? How does this approach to “multiculturalism” differ from approaches which seek to match students with writers from the same ethnic and racial background?

In the book, we talk about what we mean by “multicultural” education (all the students and teachers in Teaching Harry Potter are of color and therefore bicultural, meaning they negotiate their home and school cultures on a daily basis) and what we believe, and have seen, the Potter books contribute to the educational process within these settings. The first thing we question is the idea that the “whiteness” of the books negates their use in multicultural classrooms. The nature of the books themselves – their complexity and Rowling’s willingness to take on difficult and contemporary issues such as racism, genocide, classism, and difference – make them uniquely valuable, and each of the three teachers illustrate this to great effect in their accounts.

We discuss three features that make the Potter books central to the teachers in our book: Harry’s status as a “newcomer” to the Wizarding world – to which Sandra’s largely immigrant students relate, a normalization of difference – utilized to great effect by Allegra with her special education students, and the opportunity for multiple interpretations of the text – particularly useful for Andrew’s students, but employed by all three teachers. Again, teacher capacity and quality are paramount here. We’re looking beyond a base reading of the text; the quality of the approach, interaction and reading experience makes all the difference. One can certainly read Harry Potter simply as a book about white kids in an English boarding school. None of the Teaching Harry Potter teachers took that route – which one might call the dark and easy path. Instead, they challenged their students to use Harry Potter to help them tackle difficult social topics and academic exercises, and to do this with the belief that there was definitely something in Harry’s story they could use to help them grow as learners and people.

It’s also important to note that we firmly believe in access to literature from multiple arenas; classics and books reflecting a diversity of authors, including those matching the students’ background, are vitally important for young readers. But access to a particularly valuable popular work like Harry Potter is important because of its accessibility and all it has to offer. On another level, it is also important because so many white, middle to upper middle class kids DO have ample access to Potter and other popular series at home and at school. In many ways, building students’ reading confidence, helping them discover that yes, they too can tackle a book of this length or “that style,” whether they end up feeling it is ultimately for them or not, is the most valuable accomplishment.

What’s striking about the teacher stories running through the book is the degree to which each adopted their instruction to the particular needs of their students, finding the Harry Potter books to be a highly flexible resource in that regard. How does this customization and remixing process differ from the standard ways that schools are thinking about curriculum in this age of No Child Left Behind?

Finding space for customizing/remixing curriculum was one of the biggest challenges the teachers in our book faced. By not following the standardized curriculum, they were doing something subversive–and, as their stories reflect, they often had trouble getting support from administration and colleagues. Despite the challenges they faced, however, each of the teachers featured in the book did a beautiful job of adapting Potter for their classrooms. Whether we are talking about Sandra, who read the book in Spanish with her ELL students, Allegra, who used the audio books to support her special education students’ particular needs for reading support, or Andrew, who approached the book as an accessible gateway to challenging AP content, it is clear in each teacher’s story that the needs of her/his students were primary influences on the decisions made around reading the books. In talking with the participating teachers, it seems that the rich stories in the Potter books provided unique opportunities for discussion, analysis, and connection with students’ lives. Moreover, just the experience of reading an entire popular book together–as opposed to the excerpts and readers associated with the standardized curriculum–appears to have offered opportunities for deep, meaningful learning.

This kind of responsive teaching is radically different from the standardized curricula commonly found in schools, not because teachers prefer standardization (although some certainly must), but because standardization is thought to be more efficient and its results more easily measurable. As we discuss in more detail in the book, most current policy initiatives reward efficiency and demand accountability–and neither reward nor require responsiveness, flexibility, or creativity. All of this adds up to a demoralizing and frustrating culture for teaching in which teachers’ expertise is put to the side in favor of standardized content and methods. Fortunately, the teachers featured in Teaching Harry Potter pushed back hard against these negative forces, instead focusing on how they could provide meaningful learning opportunities for all of their students, even when reading Potter meant working around (and/or subverting) the prescribed reading curriculum–and taking considerable criticism from colleagues and supervisors for doing so.

While each teacher had his/her own approaches to customizing the reading/learning experience, Allegra’s story stands out as particularly salient to the topic of adaptation/remixing. A creative and dedicated teacher, Allegra wanted to support her students’ developing reading skills and practices and felt that multimedia tools like the series’ audio books could supplement the instruction and assistance she could provide for students one-on-one as well as to the class as a whole. As they worked through the first Potter book, Allegra’s students moved fluidly between the printed text and multimedia by reading along with the audio books. The highly-engaging audio books provided students with a model for fluent reading as well as created a situation in which students could focus more attention on listening to and comprehending the story rather than struggling to decode every word themselves.

Allegra’s story also stands out in relation to adaptation because Allegra was working with special education students. As discussed in Allegra’s chapter, Harry Potter is a great book series for use in special education for a number of reasons, a key one being the prominence of “difference” as a theme in the series. All Hogwarts students are special in that they have magical abilities; some (like Neville) require more support for learning than others (like Hermione), and others (like Harry) seem to benefit from an alternative, customized curriculum. As Allegra notes in her chapter, seeing varied, positive representations of difference was beneficial to her students.

Harry Potter‘s status in the literary canon is still being debated and many teachers may see it as “mere popular culture” and not sufficiently literary to bring into school. Given the choices they face in schools with a diminishing focus on reading in any form, what’s the case for why we should teach Harry Potter and not say Animal Farm?

Why not both? Granted, the limitations you speak of do exist and districts, schools and teachers must make increasingly difficult decisions about what to include, there are creative ways to include popular books in the curriculum. Andrew, who is the high school AP English teacher in our book, never actually reads complete Potter books with his students. Instead, he uses key excerpts from both the books and the movies to support teaching particular literary aspects. In using these regularly, his students gain a sense of the stories and many end up reading the books on their own. Sandra does read one book a year with her students, but it takes a great deal of planning to make it work, including framing her rationale for using the books. The key for all three of the teachers in our book is a set of very clear goals for their students around using Harry Potter. They don’t just read Harry Potter because it’s fun or the teachers like the books.

Each teacher uses the texts or movies to teach specific points in the curriculum, encourage habits of mind, or build stamina around reading. All three share the goal of building their students’ confidence as readers; because Harry is accessible and also smartly written (it links to so many literary traditions, for example) each teacher uses it to catch his/her students by surprise – eventually each class realizes they’ve engaged the story, understand it, can connect it to other stories and text, and can discuss its merits and/or weaknesses, in many cases using high level academic language, as in the case of Andrew’s AP English class. His students would certainly be primed to critically examine Animal Farm, for example. They hold a “literary confidence” not necessarily present previous to discussing/analyzing Potter.

The debate around including popular texts in school curriculum will certainly remain a constant, especially since debates around which “classics” to include in English courses seems never ending. But there is certainly a current wave of coolness around reading – prompted by Potter and sustained by such series as The Hunger Games – that if recognized, harnessed, and used could serve to help students connect to the “classic” texts that have actually influenced a great deal of popular works.

How do we measure the success of these teachers’ attempts to use Harry Potter to engage with their students? And why do you think that school systems are so slow to recognize and reward this kind of success?

Measuring teacher success – successful teaching – is probably the biggest educational debate right now. The growth over time data we talked about above is one example of how teachers are increasingly measured by one of the few types of hard data that are produced by teachers and schools en masse. Otherwise, the criteria for “success” becomes more objective and therefore difficult to define and evaluate in large numbers. In the book, we include a list of 9 “shared commonalities” – characteristics the Teaching Harry Potter teachers hold in common that we believe serve as the basis for (and evidence of) their success. One of these does include standardized test scores, but that serves more as one criteria, not the central identifiable aspect of the teachers’ success. To our mind, these commonalities are identifiable and clearly contribute to student success. However, we spent time talking with the teachers, getting to know their philosophy and role in their respective schools. It took time to identify the roots of their success, something schools and districts don’t have a lot of to work with.

We also hold a particular view of what it means to be a successful teacher. For example, we believe popular culture and media are valuable in school and consider wise and appropriate use of them with students a mark of great teaching. Many would disagree, however. We could spend a long time arguing our point, which we’ve done, actually, and still not have any kind of consensus on the issue, let alone on how to measure what using popular culture successfully would look like. This is one of the major obstacles faced by each of the teachers in our book, they had to constantly justify their use of Harry Potter books and media and in some cases were actually allowed to use the books because of their successful testing records. So, in the end reading Harry Potter with one’s students became the reward for the kind of “success” that could be easily and “objectively” measured – and that’s where school districts and policy makers live right now.

Catherine Belcher works with LA’s Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe’s University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).

Teaching Harry Potter: An Interview with Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr-Stephenson (Part One)

Catherine Belcher and Becky Herr- Shepardson’s Teaching Harry Potter: The Power of Imagination in the Multicultural Classroom is quite simply one of the most powerful and engaging books I’ve read about American education in a long time, and I strongly recommend it to the full range of people who read this blog — those who are fans, those who are teachers, and those who care about the future of learning.

Teaching Harry Potter tells a powerful story about the current state of American education, one which contrasts the enthusiasm many young people and educators feel towards J.K. Rowling’s remarkable book series and the constraints which No Child Left Behind-era policies have imposed on how reading gets taught in the classroom. Reading this book produced powerful emotional responses–an enormous respect for the teachers described here who are battling to engage with their students in meaningful and timely ways and despair over some of the obstacles they must overcome in doing so. There’s much to be optimistic here in the ways these teachers care deeply enough about their students to take intellectual and professional risks and much that is disheartening about the ways that the system crushes opportunities that all recognize are valuable but which do not fit within the formal “standards.”

The two writers move back and forth between a nuanced reading of J.K. Rowling’s books which considers how they represent the value of education, detailed accounts of what teachers have been doing with the books as they adapt them for a range of multicultural classes, and big picture considerations of educational policy and pedagogical practice. You can learn more about this book and its authors on Teaching Harry Potter‘s official website and on the authors’ blog.

The following is the first installment of a three part interview with the writers, during which they use Harry Potter to pose some powerful critiques of what’s working and what’s not in contemporary American education.

Let’s start with the question that frames your introduction — Why Harry Potter? What does this book series help us to understand about the contemporary state of American education?

We chose to use Harry Potter to explore American education because of the powerful things the series has to say about teaching and learning. Even though the magical school system in the Potter books more closely resembles British schools (and, one might say, a particular, nostalgic view of British schools) than the American public schools we discuss in our book, we saw important parallels between how issues such as childhood and adolescence, power (both political and personal), knowledge, literacy, and even media and technology were discussed in the books and how they are discussed in contemporary education. For example, teachers we have worked with have often discussed the challenge of balancing students’ informational needs with the school district’s desire for “safety” (which can mean anything from approved book lists to highly-restrictive firewalls on school networks); a similar theme is evident in Harry’s interactions with Dumbledore and other Hogwarts faculty who struggled with questions about how and when to share information with Harry and his classmates.

The Potter series also reminds us of the importance of looking carefully and closely at situations–as things are not always what they seem to be at first glance–and of the importance of listening to alternative narratives. Both of these things seem particularly salient in relation to the state of contemporary American education, which, when viewed as a whole, seems very much like a lost cause. Looking closer, however, it is apparent that there are great and creative teachers, committed administrators, communities dedicated to supporting their schools, and students who, when given the resources they need, do extraordinary things. It is unfortunate that these stories are so often drowned out by discussions of standardized policy and procedure, as they are important reminders of what is possible. The exclusion of the Harry Potter books themselves, or the “strangeness” of including them in school reading lists, speaks to this as well. The assumption that they are simple children’s books belies so much of their meaning and potential.

Further, we love the spirit of learning in Harry Potter: students taking ownership over their own learning and teaching one another; reading books from the restricted section of the library; finding secret passageways to Hogsmeade. Hogwarts students seem to have a sense of autonomy, adventurousness, and wonderment that we wish for all students.

A few pages into the book, you have already framed it as a defense of teachers. Why do teachers need defending? Why do they deserve defending?

Teachers, great teachers, definitely need defending in today’s climate. We realize that not all teachers are created equal, and that there is a great need to improve teacher preparation, hiring policies, evaluation, and retention in public schools, particularly in large, urban school districts. However in the book, we talk about how the current climate around accountability, measuring teacher quality by test scores, and the role of teacher unions in protecting ineffective teachers has created a situation where the voices and needs of high quality teachers are being drowned out. Can we really afford that? We felt it vital to draw attention to the work of passionate, highly skilled teachers, to make the counter argument that they exist and are indeed out there – and that they are innovative and current in their approach. We also thought it important to highlight the tensions these teachers deal with in trying to continue their work and grow as creative professionals under the current political climate.

We also believe it is important to discuss the fact that there is more than one way to talk about good teaching. Most of the public discussion today centers on measuring teachers in some manner, usually through their students’ test scores, which in many ways make sense since those are the one set of hard, “objective” measures available. Scores also provide a quick and easy answer. But good teaching is about much more than test scores – as is evidenced by Sandra, Andrew and Allegra. We are straightforward about the fact that their students do indeed test well, but we don’t focus on that particular aspect of their work. What becomes clear in these three teachers’ accounts is that they do much more than test preparation in their classrooms. They work – and often struggle – with making their pedagogy more nuanced and layered as they strive to offer a richer experience for their students. It is also important to note that they work with urban, and/or high poverty students of color, who are more often “test-prepped” and remediated than their suburban counterparts. Do teachers such as these, who believe in their students and work against the grain to offer them a rich literary experience deserve defending? Yes, most definitely. The task is figuring out how to balance that need within a system that currently throws all teachers into the same pot, regardless of their track record with students.

Harry Potter is a series of books about education. What insights might teachers take for their own pedagogical practice from studying the various teachers and administrators depicted in the book?

One of the most important insights teachers might take from the characterizations of teachers and administrators in the books is an understanding of how students perceive them. The Hogwarts faculty members are, by and large, portrayed as archetypes: Minerva McGonagall (stern and confident), Severus Snape (bitter and cruel), Remus Lupin (caring expert), Gilderoy Lockhart (inexperienced and self-absorbed), Albus Dumbledore (wise sage), and so on. Because readers only learn about the teachers through Harry’s experiences with them, we spend much of the series not knowing much about them, their backgrounds, or their motivations. Teachers in the series–like many teachers in American schools–knew much more about their students than vice versa. While we’re certainly not advocating that teachers give up all rights to privacy, we do think that it’s important to be aware of the fact that most students navigate schools with a very incomplete picture of who their teachers are as people–and that this lack of information can serve as an impediment to connecting with teachers, even those who are very skilled and willing to act as caring mentors.

For the teachers we profile in Teaching Harry Potter, the Potter books provided a way to share a bit of themselves with their students by sharing a piece of media about which they were passionate. Now, not all of the featured teachers were die-hard Potter fans (though several definitely would describe themselves that way), but all enjoyed the books, identified their value for their students, and went to great lengths to share the books in their classrooms. Their dedication to brokering access to the books for their students and to creating engaging reading experiences that recognized students’ different needs and desires is admirable.

Another thing that teachers might take from the Potter series is the value it places on experiential education–that is, teaching and learning that is grounded in students’ real lives, that gets them up, out of their seats, and interacting with one another as well as with people outside of the classroom. Take, for example, Professor Lupin’s lesson on defeating Dementors with the Riddikulous spell–this exercise challenged students to use magic that was extremely relevant to their lives at that moment and, although the lesson itself was loud, rambunctious, and risky, it was also highly effective in teaching students a spell they could immediately apply outside of the classroom.

Moves toward standardization of curriculum are generally moves away from experiential learning, as experiential learning needs to be connected to specific contexts, moments in students’ lives and in the schooling process. It takes a great deal of creativity and bravery for teachers to privilege this kind of learning in the classroom, especially in the current educational climate in the U.S.

Catherine Belcher works with LA’s Promise, a nonprofit organization focused on improving schools and empowering neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. She currently serves as the Director of Teaching and Learning at West Adams Preparatory High School. She earned her Ph.D. from the School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, where her work focused on Latino educational history and language access. She then served as a new teacher supervisor at St. Joe’s University in Philadelphia and as an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at Loyola Marymount University. A lifelong educator, Catherine taught social studies at both the secondary and middle school levels, and has served as a mentor, lead teacher, and curriculum designer. She has presented on the use of Harry Potter in educational spaces at several conferences, including Enlightening 2007, Azkatraz (2009), Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). Catherine lives in LA with her husband and 11 year old daughter, a Potter aficionado in her own right who proudly displays the Ravenclaw banner in her room, although some days she joins her mom in the Gryffindor common room so they can talk books and dare each other to try eating the grey Bertie Botts Beans.

Becky Herr-Stephenson is a media researcher focused on teaching and learning with popular culture and technology. She earned her Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in 2008. She has been a part of several organizations and projects aimed at informing and inciting innovation in education, including the Digital Media and Learning Hub within the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Currently, she is working as a Research Associate with the Annenberg Innovation Lab through a partnership between USC and the Cooney Center. She is a co-author (with Mizuko Ito and others) of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media (2009, MIT Press). Becky has presented papers on Harry Potter and youth culture at a number of conferences, most recently, Infinitus (2010) and NAMLE (2011). She lives in Los Angeles and is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her first child, who she hopes will be sorted into Ravenclaw (not Slytherin).

Comics from the 19th to the 21st Century: An Interview with Jared Gardner (Part Two)

Your book contributes in important ways to recent efforts by a number of comics scholars to reconsider Frederic Wertham not simply as a public crusader against comics, but as perhaps the first critic to take comics seriously as a medium with its own aesthetic and reading practices. What do you think more recent work about comics as a medium might learn through this reconsideration of Wertham?

Wertham’s demonization by comics history makes a certain amount of sense, even as it often requires gross oversimplification of his important if flawed book. More troubling to me has been Wertham’s virtual erasure from the history of media studies. In histories of the field, if he is mentioned at all, it is only as a McCarthyite bogeyman, which couldn’t be further from the truth. This is, after all, the same man who would write the first study of fanzines, the first psychologist to set up a free clinic in Harlem, and a passionate defender of “juvenile delinquents” against a judicial system he saw as destructive and often unfair, especially for those coming from underprivileged backgrounds.

In the end, Wertham’s mistake was an honest one–one originating with his fierce commitment to his patients and his willingness to take comics and his patients’ interpretations of them as seriously as they did. Unlike almost any other “expert” witness from the period (the other exception, on the other side of the debate, would be Lauretta Bender), Wertham really took comics very seriously indeed–and recognized their unique hold over the imagination of readers. He understood the ways in which the form made demands upon readers to work to fill in the gaps and spaces–between panels, between word & image–in the process leading to imaginative investments that he found both fascinating and terrifying. Where he went wrong was in imagining that it was the publishers’ intention to “seduce” young readers into this intense relationship with comics in order to produce a generation of weak-minded consumers primed for the exploding consumer marketplace of the 1950s (in this way, he is much closer to Adorno than to any of the other contemporary critics of the comic book). He did not yet understand that it was the form itself that uniquely generated this intense and collaborative relationship between reader and creator.

One thing that surprised me as I read the book (and frankly thrilled me) was your ongoing emphasis on the relationship between fanzine publishing and the history of comics. What functions have comic fanzines played through the years?

This was perhaps the biggest surprise for me as well, and one that ended up guiding a lot of my research and thinking over the past decade. I early on noticed that long before the emergence of anything we might call a “fanzine,” the earliest comics creators began their careers imitating their favorite cartoonists and came to New York or San Francisco with a portfolio in hand of their best examples–and often made their first sales peddling some of this fan work work on the streets. Many of us read a remarkable novel or see a special film and think: “Hey, I want to do that!” But the concentrated labor involved in plotting and writing a novel and the technical and financial logistics involved in making a movie (at least until fairly recently when we all have movie cameras in our pockets) discourage all but the most determined and fanatically inspired.

Comics however have always invited audiences to pick up a pencil and try it themselves: from the earliest days of the form creators and publishers have encouraged readers to send in their stories, their sketches–even offering how-to guides for drawing favorite characters. The fanzine phenomenon in comics began with scrapbooks in the 1920s: readers clipping their favorite serial strips from newspapers and assembling their own collections of what would otherwise be an ephemeral medium. Scrapbook clubs developed around the most popular strips, and readers often sought out the mediation of the cartoonist himself to help them track down missing installments.

In a way, the history of comics is the history of fan art and the fanzine. Walt Kelly describes himself endlessly peddling versions of Percy Crosby’s Skippy before he finally found his way to Pogo. Siegel & Shuster’s Superman began as fan art, growing out of their shared love for the newspaper comic strip action hero and the new world making possibilities opened up by the early science fiction pulps. And of course the majority of the cartoonists we associate with the underground movement of the 60s began making fanzines.

And this is what ultimately brought Wertham to fanzines toward the end of his career. If Seduction of the Innocent was all about the dangers posed by the intense interactive experience of making meaning out of comics, Wertham’s research on fanzines told the other side of the story he had not acknowledged in his earlier work: of the ways in which comics summoned readers to become creators themselves.

Of course, Wertham could fairly safely celebrate fanzines in the 1970s, when their role in the creation of underground comix was clear for all to see. In fact, in the early 1950s, Wertham and other opposed to comics were targets in some the earliest publications to explicitly define themselves as comics fanzines–especially those devoted to EC, such as Bhob Stewart’s pioneering EC Fan Bulletin. Bill Gaines, the publisher of EC, liked the idea of Stewart’s fanzine so much he essentially borrowed the title and the format for his own official fan club publication. But while Gaines intuitively understood the importance of nourishing a deep and interactive relationship with his readers in a way no one in comic books had or would again until Stan Lee in the early 1960s at Marvel, Gaines somehow completely missed the opportunity to summon those fans into action through their various local fan clubs and fanzines until it was far too late. Many historians of the form suggest it was simply denial on the part of Gaines and other publishers as to the seriousness of the forces being arrayed against them. But I suspect it had more to do with the lack of seriousness with which they took their own readers and their fan publications, at the end of the day–even as EC which prided itself on its loyal readers.

In the end, of course, the publishers lost (all except a small handful who were poised to profit on the newly mandated “safer” content), but the fanzines continued, with more fanzines devoted to EC emerging after the demise of the comic book company than existed during its lifetime. And the fanzines carried the energy, community, and possibilities of comics across the deadzone of the Code era and into the new frontiers of underground, alternative, and independent comics in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

I was especially interested in the emphasis in your account of contemporary comics on themes of collecting. As you note, many key comics creators have been collectors not only of comics but also of other ephimeral media, especially of other print culture, from post-cards to pulp novels. What influence has their collecting practices had on the themes and style of their books?

Collecting and OCD! As someone who has more than a touch of both in my genes, I suspect it is one of the things that first attracted me to the form.

Art Spiegelman suggested once that he learned the disciplines of the form–arranging a complicated assortment of often mismatched symbols and signs in a contained space–from his father, a Holocaust surviver, who had taught him how to pack a bag quickly. Comics is the art of the suitcase: never enough space for all that needs packing. And that surely is part of the attraction of cartoonists to collecting (and interesting, again remarking on the negligible distance that separates creators from readers of comics, the same is famously true for comics readers as well). But it is also the art of leaving out and leaving behind. So collecting, the fantasy of completion, of not having to leave anything behind, is perhaps also a necessary salve to the daily sacrifices of cartooning.

Late in the book, you use the concept of the “database” taken from digital media to describe the structure of some recent comics. To what degree do you think the works of artists such as Chris Ware have been influenced by the model of digital media? Did you get to see the interactive comic Ware published recently through the McSweeney iPad app?


I am fairly certain that Ware would deny any influence from digital media, even as I see his iPad experiment as precisely the kind of work we need more of to make the transition of comics into digital platforms a productive one. Like so many of his contemporaries in alternative comics, he has been fairly outspoken in his skepticism about computers and digital utopias, despite using many digital tools himself in his own work. And yet, it is impossible to look at something like this page from Jimmy Corrigan and not see it as a powerful visual representative of what Manovich and others call the database aesthetic. Here, Ware is describing the work two simple panels from a comic require of a reader, fanning out on the page the range of choices and systems from which the reader will make determinations (in the blink of an eye and/or obsessively, repetitively over time) as to how to fill in the gaps between and bring the story “to life.” I can’t help here but see something like Peter Greenaway’s Tulse Luper Suitcases, where Greenaway leaves on the screen the ‘leftovers’ from earlier takes, screen tests, and narrative pathways not taken.

Of course, the difference is important, and perhaps it gets to the heart of the difference between comics and film, even film at the hands of the man who is arguably the Godfather of the database aesthetic in cinema. Ware’s focus here is on the work of the reader–the database of association, assumptions, memories, icons and signs with which the reader works to activate the comic. Greenaway’s ambitious and highly interactive Tulse Luper experiment can offer on the screen the visible outlines of the database from which he drew in making the film. I am going that one step too far that will get me in trouble with my film studies colleagues, I know, but in the end, film, at least as its developed in the western narrative tradition, offers far fewer spaces for agency and interaction on the part of the spectator. Comics, for better and worse, always have to meet the reader (and her database) halfway.

Comics from the 19th to the 21st Century: an Interview with Jared Gardner (Part One)

Jared Gardner’s Projections: Comics and the History of 21st Century Storytelling was the first book I read in 2012 and it was the ideal choice. Gardner makes an incredibly valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship within comic studies, tracing the history of American comics, from the early comic strips at the dawn of the 20th century, through new digital manifestations of sequential art, at the dawn of the 21st century. Projections combines critical analysis of key comics texts with close engagements with the history of their production and reception, making significant new discoveries around figures and events we thought we already knew, and expanding in important ways the canon of which comics justify our research. There are two elements here which are close to my own heart:

First, the degree to which Gardner consistently understands comics as a medium (not a genre) and one which has to be understood comparatively in relation to the other modes of communication at the same time, so comics are discussed in relation to photography, cinema, television, newspapers, books, games, and other digital media, and we remain attentive to patterns of cross-influence across their history.

Second, Gardner makes some significant discoveries about the role of comic fans at key junctures in the evolution of the medium which help flesh out forgotten chapters in the history of participatory culture. His chapter on comics in the context of collector culture touches on some of the same authors and themes I want to explore in my own book project on comics and material culture, so I was delighted to have someone with whom I could bounce some of my ideas about retroconsumption against.

In the following interview, we discuss the relations of comics to other media and the role of fans and collectors in comics history, among a range of other topics. This was an interview I had to do. I kept jotting down questions as I read the book, eager to engage with the author, who surprisingly I did not know, and learn more about the thinking which guided this project. I hope you will enjoy his thinking as much as I have.

The book’s subtitle, “the history of 21st Century storytelling,” frames your account of the evolutions of comics as a medium in relation to the present moment, which you characterize in the book’s conclusion as one of convergence and transformation. In what sense do you see comics as “21st century storytelling”? Is it possible that comics were also embodiments of 19th and 20th century storytelling at other moments of their evolution?

Absolutely! The title is in part an an appeal to scholars interested in narrative and media to take comics seriously as providing a century long history of engaging with transmedial and multimodal storytelling. Narrative theory has become increasingly interested in comics, particularly for the ways in which it complicates its traditionally text-based models and theories; but for media theorists comics often look decidedly “old media”–associated with forms (illustrated magazines, comic books, newspapers) that seem firmly rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is in fact precisely the adaptability of sequential comics since its full development in the late nineteenth century that has contributed to some degree to this association. Sequential comics first developed in the pages of illustrated magazines in the U.S. & Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the end of the century, the illustrated magazine was largely cannibalized by the Sunday newspaper supplement as pioneered by publishers like Pulitzer and Hearst, and as cartoonists moved over to this new venue their work was shaped by the new affordances of the weekly newspaper supplement: color, seriality, a larger and more cacophonous frame within which to tell their stories. As adventure comics in particular began to move into a new format in the 1930s–what would come to be called the comic book–the form again adapted, changing the ways in which it engaged with readers, told its stories, and explored the relationship between text & image, panel and page. So, as you say, comics have always found ways to adapt new media environments and to explore the possibilities of what we might somewhat anachronistically call an interactive, multimodal approach to storytelling from the 19th century on. One of the interesting questions with which I conclude is why, given this history, comics has been so very slow to adapt itself to digital environments in the 21st century.

Your conclusion really describes a crisis in the state of the medium, as comics may evolve away from printed form and become part of the digital landscape. What factors do you see speeding or slowing the dissolution of comics as a print based medium?

I do think comics as a medium are at a crossroads, but I am optimistic that comics will survive the translation into digital forms of production, distribution, and consumption–although what emerges on the other end will likely look as different from the comic book or graphic novel as the comics in the 19th-century illustrated magazine do when compared to those found in the Sunday newspaper supplement. So I guess I would not describe it as a crisis, but I do think that it is time for the best creators working in the form to step up and take more creative risks–and for some brave publishers to give them a safety net.

My biggest concern–and I have written about this probably too much in other venues–is that people involved in comics are understandably overwhelmed by the dramatic contractions of the traditional print mediums in which they have long worked and end up retreating into a kind of elitist stance, making expensive “art books” for an increasingly smaller, older and wealthier audience. That truly would be a crisis for comics, which is why I get anxious when I see, for instance, alternative cartoonists abandoning the traditional “floppy” comic book not for new digital platforms and possibilities, but for $20 hardcover comic books that have no hopes of bringing new readers and communities to comics.

But, I also understand the reluctance of comics creators–especially those who are established–to turn to new media platforms with their work. There are so few working models out there that demonstrate that comics creators, historically among the most exploited and underpaid of our modern storytellers, can hope to receive remuneration for their work on the internet. The big mainstream companies–especially DC and Marvel–are exploring digital distribution models both for the iPad and for personal computers, but for the most part these are simply bland digitizations of traditional comic books. And there is every reason to suspect that these digital comics will continue to diminish the viability of traditional comics stores and the communities they have enabled for the past forty years.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in the long run that the traditional comics store can or will survive the next twenty years, again with the exception of some well-placed boutiques. But as we see the loss of serial comics books and comic book shops, we see the loss as well of the spaces and the places for collaborative interpretation and shared ownership that is very much at the heart of comics. Certainly, this should be something the internet can find a way to replace, but I am not convinced that Disney (Marvel) or Time Warner (DC) have much interest in nourishing collaborative readers with a sense of shared ownership in their serial narratives. Which is why I don’t believe, no matter how much revenue the big companies are ultimately able to move through digital distribution networks (and so far the jury is out whether they can make much at all), that the model represented by platforms such as Comixology on the iPad or Marvel’s Digital Comics for the PC is one in which comics will thrive and grow as a form.

What we need are more creators ready to bring their best work to the internet in order to explore the possibilities of the digital environment: comics that break free from the limitations of the printed page–rolling out into an infinite ribbon or inviting new modes of navigation that open up the page to exploration in new dimensions and directions. But we also need new publishers ready to come in and create a place and a business model where this kind of experimentation can be rewarded and find new readers and new investments. Disney and Time Warner already largely see the comic book part of their business empires as loss leaders or promotional tie-ins for their Hollywood enterprises. We need instead a 21st-century Pulitzer or Donenfeld to imagine the business of digital comics in which a 21st-century George Herriman or Siegel & Shuster can thrive.

As you note, comics have never exerted so great an influence over the media landscape as they do at the present moment, yet they have rarely seemed so marginal as a medium in their own right.

In truth, in some way comics have less influence today than they have in the past century, despite their surprising visibility. Comics sales are down by any measure in almost every corner of the industry and the notion of a “comics scare” of the kind the nation experienced in the early 1950s is truly unimaginable today. The marketing and merchandizing of comics properties is up, of course, making a very few people wealthy and successful, but little in the vast majority of adaptations of comics on film suggests that Hollywood has any interest in learning from comics in terms of how comics have historically told stories and engaged with readers.

For better or worse, the current love affair between Hollywood and comics will likely cool, perhaps with this year’s Avengers, which has so much money riding on it at a time when audiences and critics are growing restless with the decade-long tide of comics movies that it seems almost doomed from the start (then again, I loudly proclaimed the iPhone was going to be a flop, so I would not trust my powers of prognostication). And Hollywood has its own crisis to face, one which it has been kicking down the 3-D road for the past few years.

So while I am truly happy for any cartoonist who secures a retirement from a movie deal, outside of the success of scattered individuals I don’t believe the future of comics lies with Hollywood. But they may belong with film. Independent films like American Splendor and even the rare Hollywood production like Scott Pilgrim point to the possibilities of comics and film listening to and learning from each other in ways they have not since their shared origins more than a century ago, but Scot Pilgrim of course was accounted a failure by any Hollywood metric. The best hope for comics and film going forward is to create new sites of convergence where creative success and the bottom line will be measured outside of the blackbox accounting of Hollywood.

You describe in your Coda the shifts which have occurred in film viewing as a result of having ready access to a digital archive of favorite films which we can watch and manipulate as we choose. This access to comics starts earlier, yet there has also been a dramatic increase in comics reprints over the past few years. How has this effort to preserve and represent early comics influenced your decisions about where to place emphasis in this book?

I don’t think this book would have made any sense to write had it not been for what we affectionately call the golden age of comics reprints, a period of publishing that has seen long-lost newspaper comics and comic books returned to print. I am fortunate to have daily access to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum here at Ohio State, but until recently without such privileged access extensive reading in historical comics was virtually impossible. Of the comics I focus on extensively in the early chapters in the book–Happy Hooligan, Mutt & Jeff, Krazy Kat, Superman, Spider-man, R. Crumb’s underground comix, etc.–almost all are now available in accessible reprint editions. The big exceptions here were Sidney Smith’s The Gumps and Ed Wheelan’s Minute Movies, pioneering serial strips from the 1920s, but I am now working with the Library of American Comics to get one and possibly both into an affordable reprint edition in the near future. Of course, this “golden age” will end long before we recover all of our lost comics history. In the long run, what we really need is a vast digital comics archive of the kind that licensing and copyright laws makes sadly impossible to imagine at the moment.

There has been an ongoing debate between film studies and comics scholars about how much early comics influenced early cinema. How do you characterize the initial relations between these two mass media, which gained public visibility at roughly the same cultural moment?

In the end, though, I see less evidence than do others of clear influence on the level of the fundamental grammar. Cartoonists and filmmakers ultimately learned to tell stories in unique ways as they explored the unique affordances of their respective media. But there is little question that comics helped provide early film with both a model of “celebrity” with the remarkable national success of early comic strip characters such as Happy Hooligan and Buster Brown and with a clear model for how graphic narrative could provide an opportunity to make knowable the often overwhelming experience of modernity.

As I argue, however, there were ultimately lots of reasons–both economic and formal–for film to go its own separate way very early, and it did. Despite their shared origins, comics and film ultimately did not interact a tremendous amount for much of the twentieth century, all of which makes their convergence in the beginning of this century more interesting–especially as that convergence has extended well into its second decade now, a lifetime in term of the half-life of Hollywood film genres.

Jared Gardner is professor of English and film at the Ohio State University, where he also coordinates the popular culture studies program. In addition to Projections, he is the author of Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature (1998) and The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture (2012). He blogs (far too irregularly) for The Comics Journal and Huffington Post.