Who the &%&# Is Henry Jenkins?

The simple answer is:

Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He arrived at USC in Fall 2009 after spending the past decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory CultureHop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Cultureand From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games. His newest books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and Fans, Bloggers and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture. He is currently co-authoring a book on“spreadable media” with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. He has written for Technology ReviewComputer GamesSalon, and The Huffington Post.

Jenkins is the principal investigator for Project New Media Literacies (NML), a group which originated as part of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Jenkins wrote a white paper on learning in a participatory culture that has become the springboard for the group’s efforts to develop and test educational materials focused on preparing students for engagement with the new media landscape. He also continues to be actively involved with the Convergence Culture Consortium, a faculty network which seeks to build bridges between academic researchers and the media industry in order to help inform the rethinking of consumer relations in an age of participatory culture. And he is working at USC to develop a new research project focused on young people, participatory culture, and public engagement.

While at MIT, he was one of the principal investigators for The Education Arcade, a consortium of educators and business leaders working to promote the educational use of computer and video games. Jenkins also plays a significant role as a public advocate for fans, gamers and bloggers: testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee investigation into “Marketing Violence to Youth” following the Columbine shootings; advocating for media literacy education before the Federal Communications Commission; calling for a more consumer-oriented approach to intellectual property at a closed door meeting of the governing body of the World Economic Forum; signing amicus briefs in opposition to games censorship; and regularly speaking to the press and other media about aspects of media change and popular culture. Jenkins has a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism from Georgia State University, a M.A. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

 

Well, that didn’t seem so simple after all. For a somewhat more personal account of who I am, read on.

About Me

The first thing you are going to discover about me, oh reader of this blog, is that I am prolific as hell. The second is that I am also long-winded as all get out. As someone famous once said, “I would have written it shorter, but I didn’t have enough time.”

My earliest work centered on television fans – particularly science fiction fans. Part of what drew me into graduate school in media studies was a fascination with popular culture. I grew up reading Madmagazine and Famous Monsters of Filmland – and, much as my parents feared, it warped me for life. Early on, I discovered the joys of comic books and science fiction, spent time playing around with monster makeup, started writing scripts for my own Super 8 movies (The big problem was that I didn’t have access to a camera until much later.), and collecting television-themed toys. By the time I went to college, I was regularly attending science fiction conventions. Through the woman who would become my wife, I discovered fan fiction. And we spent a great deal of time debating our very different ways of reading our favorite television series.

When I got to graduate school, I was struck by how impoverished the academic framework for thinking about media spectatorship was – basically, though everyone framed it differently, consumers were assumed to be passive, brainless, inarticulate, and brainwashed. None of this jelled well with my own robust experience of being a fan of popular culture. I was lucky enough to get to study under John Fiske, first at Iowa and then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who introduced me to the cultural studies perspective. Fiske was a key advocate of ethnographic audience research, arguing that media consumers had more tricks up their sleeves than most academic theory acknowledged.

Out of this tension between academic theory and fan experience emerged first an essay, “Star TrekReread, Rerun, Rewritten” and then a book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory CultureTextual Poachers emerged at a moment when fans were still largely marginal to the way mass media was produced and consumed and still hidden from the view of most “average consumers.” As such, the book represented a radically different way of thinking about how one might live in relation to media texts. In the book, I describe fans as “rogue readers.” What most people took from that book was my concept of “poaching,” the idea that fans construct their own culture – fan fiction, artwork, costumes, music and videos – from content appropriated from mass media, reshaping it to serve their own needs and interests. There are two other key concepts in this early work which takes on greater significance in my work today – the idea of participatory culture (which runs throughout Convergence Culture) and the idea of a moral economy (that is, the presumed ethical norms which govern the relations between media producers and consumers.)

Aca/Fan Defined

Textual Poachers and much of my subsequent work has been written from the perspective of an Aca/Fan – that is, a hybrid creature which is part fan and part academic (hence the title of this blog). The goal of my work has been to bridge the gap between these two worlds. I take it as a personal challenge to find a way to break cultural theory out of the academic bookstore ghetto and open up a larger space to talk about the media that matters to us from a consumer’s point of view. This philosophy has governed my various stabs at journalism and public advocacy, and they are what has motivated me to develop a personal blog.

Convergence Culture

Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide returns to this question of media audiences and participatory cultures at a moment where fans and fan-like activities are absolutely central to the way the culture industries operate. At all levels, the assumption is that consumers will become active participants, but there is widespread dispute about the terms of our participation. We are seeing enormous experimentation into the potential intersections between commercial and grassroots culture and about the power of living within a networked society. At the same time, the media industries are struggling to keep up with these changes, issuing contradictory responses out of different divisions within the same companies. Convergence Culture was designed as a public intervention into this situation, trying to help both consumers and producers understand the changes which are occurring in their relationship.

Fans, Bloggers and Gamers maps the transition between the world described inTextual Poachers and the world depicted in Convergence Culture. It reprints many of my key essays about participatory culture through the years, including early writings about fans and later writings which sought to respond to some of the moral panic kicked up by Columbine and claims that games and other forms of popular culture were leading young people to the brink of damnation.

It’s safe to say that neither of these books would have come about if I had not moved to MIT twenty years ago and found myself immersed in the vibrant digital culture of the past decade. I often claimed that I was a walking, talking oxymoron – a humanist from MIT. But I think that my unique perspective as someone studying culture within one of the world’s leading technical institutions gave me some distinctive insights into the ways that culture and technology are reshaping before our very eyes. My recent move to the University of Southern California reflects my growing desire to see inside the media industries, especially as they are being forced to adopt new models of entertainment such as the transmedia storytelling I described in Convergence Culture. I spent two decades at MIT studying the digital revolution, and now I want to spend the next two decades trying to grasp its impact on Hollywood.

Comparative Media Studies

One of my proudest accomplishments so far in life was the creation of the Comparative Media Studies (CMS) graduate program at MIT. At its core, this program has encouraged students to think across media, across historical periods, across national borders, across academic disciplines, across the divide between theory and practice and across the divides between the academy and the rest of society. Our goal was simply to train the next generation of leaders for industry, government, education, the arts, journalism and academia to think in more imaginative ways about the process of media change. I like to joke that CMS is a program for people who could never decide what they wanted to major in. It is “undisciplined” in the best sense of the terms – my own sense is that the academic disciplines which emerged around the problems of the industrial age have outlived their usefulness in a networked culture and that we need to reconfigure the ways we organize and communicate knowledge to our students.

Central to the vision of CMS is the idea of “applied humanism.” MIT has applied math, applied physics and applied chemistry, so it made sense to me that there should be an applied branch of the humanities. Our goal was to take what we were teaching in our classrooms and give students a chance to apply it more pragmatically to think through some of the core challenges being faced out in the field as core institutions confront media change. With this in mind, we have launched a range of research initiatives which I will continue covering in this blog.

Convergence Culture Consortium

The Convergence Culture Consortium is a direct outgrowth of my recent books.  We wanted to bring together key thinkers from a number of different disciplines and universities who were interested in the kinds of social and cultural changes that were impacting the branded entertainment sector. We wanted to bring together leading entertainment companies and marketers to create a dialogue about where media is going and how it impacts consumers. We publish research and spark discussion on topics such as advergaming and product placement, transmedia storytelling and mobile entertainment, alternative reality games, digital/fan cultures, and changes in media consumption, among other topics. And I get to go into places like the Cartoon Network and lecture them about what they need to know about the fan communities I study.

Project NML

Project New Media Literacies also grows out of the ideas in my most recent books. Here, the focus is on the educational challenges of making sure that every kid in America has the social skills and cultural competencies needed to participate in a networked society. According to the Pew Center for Internet and American Life, more than sixty percent of American teens have produced media, and a significant portion have distributed that media content online. We need to be aware of the challenges faced by both halves of that statistic – those faced by media makers who lack the traditional mentorship and apprenticeship into production practices and ethical norms which would have shaped previous generations of media makers (student journalists, for example) and those faced by those who are not yet making media – what we are calling the participation gap between those who have anywhere, anytime access and those who may only be able to go online on a library computer with limited bandwidth, filtered content, short work spans and no capacity to store or upload what they create. This project argues that media literacy skills, broadly defined, need to be integrated into school-based and after-school programs, into adult education for parents and teachers and into popular culture itself if we are going to fully address the challenges of this moment of media in transition.

And Stuff

And of course, this just scratches the surface in terms of my academic interest. I began my career writing about vaudeville and early sound comedy (What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Anarchistic Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic). Through the years, I have written about professional wrestling, Doctor Seuss, Lassie, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and a host of other popular culture works. This strand of my research is represented by another book, The Wow Climax: Tracing The Emotional Impact of Popular Culture. And comic books remain a popular culture passion. I hope to write a book about genre theory and superheroes before much longer.

I never can keep my personal life separated from my professional life. This comes from being a fan/academic. Much of what I write about popular culture is driven by an autobiographical impulse and also reflects the tastes and interests of my son, Henry (now in his late twenties) and my wife, Cynthia, who helped get me into fan culture in the first place. I also seek inspiration from my students.

My wife would no doubt tell you that it is symptomatic of my workaholic tendencies that I cram my personal life into the last paragraph of an overly long and overly detailed account of my life. The reality is that most of my work is deeply personal, and my personal relationships shape everything else I do. Cynthia and I now live in downtown Los Angeles, where we have found that it is possible to have a lifestyle based more on walking and public transportation than on driving. We live in a beautiful art deco building that dates back to 1930 and on a street which is lined with the rotting remains of amazing movie palaces from the golden age of Hollywood.

And Now a Blog…

Well, actually, at this point, the blog has been running for almost four years. We’ve had an amazing ride so far. This blog is a place where I share my thoughts about many contemporary developments and publish my works in progress. It is also a space where I showcase the work of my students at MIT and now at USC and give you a glimpse into the world where I live and work. And it is a place where I spotlight interesting work in the field of media studies which may be relevant to a readership that includes not only academics but also journalists, educators, industry insiders, policy makers, fans and gamers. You will see that I regularly run interviews with interesting people I encounter in the course of my research. I hope you enjoy what you see here. Sit down, take off your shoes and stay a while.