What Can Teachers Learn from DIY Cultures: An Interview with Colin Lankshear and Michele Knobel (Part One)

Last time, I shared a chunk from my afterword for DIY Media: Creating, Sharing and Learning with New Technologies. There's plenty more where that came from, including a report on some of the core insights from our "Reading in a Participatory Culture" initiative. Over the next few installments, I am sharing an extensive and substantive interview with Colin Landkshear and Michele Knobel, the two editors of that book, which digs deep into the implications of DIY culture for contemporary education. Lankshear and Knobel are legends in the space of new media literacies, having authored or edited a series of first rate books, which explore how education is and should be responding to shifts in public access to the means of cultural production. I draw heavily on their collections and on their personal writings when I teach my New Media Literacies class at USC. One reason I feel such kinship with this dynamic duo is that they often ground their considerations of the nature of literacy and the purpose of learning through reference to field work they have done on Anime fans and their video production practices.

Like their other books, DIY Media brings together young and established writers looking at a range of digital media practices; this book is especially targeted at educators who want to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty mucking about with media. In some ways, this is a "How to" book explaining how to make podcasts or edit vids; in some ways it is a "why to" book explaining why these alternative media practices will change our understanding of what it means to be literate. The essays move from pragmatic advice to theoretical ruminations without ever missing a beat and will be incredibly useful to educators struggling to find their footing in these unfamiliar spaces.

In this opening installment, Lankshear and Knobel will explain some of the core premises which shaped the project. As you will see, we do not always agree, but we arrive at what I see as complimentary positions. One reason why I reproduced a chunk from my essay yesterday was to allow you to better understand the points of debate which emerge in the passages that follow.

What is the DIY Media book about?

It's an edited collection, and is an eclectic sampling of do-it-yourself media practices under current conditions of digital technologies and people's ideas about how these technologies can be used within everyday life, and how experience with engaging in such practices might help contribute to enhancing formal education. The authors address music remix, podcasting, photoshopping and photosharing, machinima movie making, stop-motion and flash animation, and anime music video practices. Each chapter begins by talking a little about cultural aspects of the practice it's addressing, and then provides a brief "tutorial" on how to get started technically and socially in that practice, before discussing some educational connections and implications.

The book is "eclectic" partly in the sense that it covers quite a spread of media practices. But it's also eclectic in terms of how "DIY media" is understood. In your Afterword for the book, Henry, you suggest a distinction between DIY/Do-It-Yourself and DIO/Do-It-Ourselves (or DIT/Do-It-Together) to reflect varying degrees of engagement in participatory culture, as you and colleagues so usefully have conceived it. So, at one pole, the concept of DIY media might involve an individual using the generous affordances of the internet (as well as drawing on face-to-face and offline resources) to learn how to create a music video or a stop-motion animation artifact, and to then get on with creating it. This might involve quite minimal participation in affinity spaces - let's say, acknowledging support given by others and reciprocating by making one's own knowledge available to others and, perhaps, posting the animation online. At the other pole, a full-blown DIO/DIT media practice as a full expression of participatory culture involves aficionados of a particular interest working together and in deeply collaborative ways to build a rich and deep affinity space - a kind of cultural community - in which the act of creating a particular artifact is not the end in itself but much more a part (and maybe a relatively insignificant part) of contributing to building the affinity. In this sense of DIO media practices, as we see them, a person's commitment to the space can take a number of active forms. They may participate directly in collaborative artifact production and promotion (such as can be found within the machinima community, for example). Just as importantly, a person can devote much of their energies to regularly visiting a site central to the shared affinity or interest, say, Animemusicvideos.org, and viewing recently uploaded videos, and commenting on them; following up favourite videos on YouTube and commenting there, too; following particular anime music video remixers' work across the internet; voting in viewers' choice awards hosted by AMV.org or other online entities; recommending favourite AMVs to friends; physically attending anime music video screenings at comic conventions; watching a wide range of anime in order to better appreciate anime music video remixers' work, and so on. They actually may be relatively little engaged in creating - albeit with input and support of others - their "own" media artifacts, but still be very much participating within this shared, collaborative affinity space.

The contributing authors in DIY Media cover most of this spectrum themselves as DIY media creators, and as editors we think that having a wide spectrum is important, since the main audience for this book is intended to be formal educators (teachers, teacher educators, teacher education students) and, hopefully, some parents/caregivers. For some serious fans it may be too goal-directed and "instrumental," although we hope that fans will read and interact with it because that interchange is essential for getting a sense of how to bridge the gap between the worlds of formal and less formal learning. Indeed, that role is already really nicely begun by your Afterword to the collection

Our own perspective on DIY generally, and DIY media specifically, in terms of our work as educators may be worth spelling out a little here: starting with the "D." All DIY work involves doing: some degree of producing and not merely consuming. There is still plenty of room for consumption, but when we focus on the "D" we are focusing on being producers. We believe this emphasis has particular importance for formal education, precisely because it is so powerfully and deeply immersed in consuming. In his wonderful and important attack on the disempowering effect of disabling professions, Ivan Illich referred to school as the "reproductive organ of the consumer society," and argued that once our imaginations have been "all schooled up" to accept "full time attendance at an obligatory curriculum" as the learning paradigm, people are ready prey for all the other manipulative institutions that dominate our social system and force us to use their services because they are the only ones sanctioned or authorized to "deliver" them. School learning becomes, in effect, consumption of subject knowledge organised into various pre-determined sequences, and with little or no opportunity to learn how to produce that knowledge in the ways that experts do. Instead, the production within schooled learning is pretty much limited to recycling consumed information within standardized essay writing formats or school projects. There is little opportunity for Doing in the sense involved in doing for oneself at any point on the DIY-DIO spectrum, which is based on creating use values for oneself and for others, in accordance with personal goals, interests and purposes.

The operating conditions of schooling increasingly are becoming as consumer-dominated for teachers as they are for learners. Competency benchmarks, standardized assessment protocols and tests, textbooks and resources, curriculum frameworks and reporting mechanisms are presented to teachers, along with batteries of "professional development opportunities" to consume information about how to enact the requirements imposed from above. Many teacher education students quickly catch onto this and are soon asking to be shown how to do this or that step-by-painful-step. In addition, many teachers are not at home with new technologies and are often reluctant to use them, or become anxious when confronted with getting up to speed - which is often "delivered" as a one-off professional development session that accompanies the arrival of some new technology in the school (Smartboards are a classic case of this kind of thing).

So, for us, the "D" in DIY, as we thought about it for the book, is about trying to challenge at least some of this massive emphasis on consumption/being a consumer within the teaching and learning roles found in formal education through the process of encouraging readers to get started in some digital media practices. In the process, readers who are new to these practices can introduce themselves to some of the opportunities for learning and engaging within the kinds of affinity spaces that have evolved around DIY-DIO media practices and that exemplify participatory culture.

As your book notes, the current moment of digital culture reflects a much older tradition of DIY media production. Can you share with us your sense of that history and what specifically digital media has brought to the kinds of DIY media communities being discussed.

Our take on the DIY tradition is quite literal and pragmatic. We note that as a term in popular use, "DIY" really only dates to the 1950s although, of course, the idea of communities of enthusiasts and others with a will to bypass what is produced for them and to produce their own versions for constituencies they identify with is, as you note in your Afterword, very much older. In some of our earliest published work, for instance, we looked at the determined efforts of working class people in early 19th century Britain to establish a press that would help further their pursuit of better economic and social conditions, through organizing en masse to win voting rights, the right to organize their labour in syndicates or unions, and to generate their own material for reading pleasure and edification. Such doing-it-for-themselves media, however, was scarcely an intrinsic pursuit. It was much closer to a matter of necessity, although it was certainly a major exercise in building affinities and affinity spaces.

In this book we are talking about DIY media in terms of digital entertainment and expressive media--animation, live action video, music video, music, spoken voice tracks, other artistic works--produced by everyday people to meet their own goals and personal satisfactions. Often, these goals and satisfactions are associated with fanship in some larger phenomenon and close affiliation with some social group. At the same time it often emerges out of opportunities to tinker with and explore the means for producing a media artifact of one kind or another. DIY media in this sense is very much characterised by people being able to produce their "own" media--whether it be radio-like podcasts, "original" remixed music, animated video shorts, music videos, etc.--by making use of software, hardware and "insider" skills, techniques and knowledge that were previously the domain of highly-trained experts who had access to specialised and typically very expensive media production know-how, resources and spaces.

Our view of DIY runs multiple strands together. One is the idea of a DIY ethic in the sense of being able to do things oneself that are otherwise the preserve of experts or professionals - a kind of self reliance that lends a measure of independence. Another is the idea that, when it needs to be, this "self reliant production" is nonetheless of good quality and standing. Sometimes a "folksy" look and feel is fine and apropos. But at other times a professional feel and finish is sought, and the proficient DIY creator can achieve that (e.g., furniture construction, intricate quilts). A third strand is the idea that for some DIYers a key purpose is to resist corporate, commercial, and consumerist values per se. We note the way in which the punk subculture that emerged in the '70s not only encouraged personal styles of self-presentation, self- expression, and identity work within self publishing, music creation, clothing oneself and making oneself up; it also - through fanzine, and later general zine publication - impacted the ways fans interacted with musicians, and touched bases with other DIY/DIO traditions by providing gateways to access for novices via zines that offered tutorials on a wide range of creative pursuits.

By comparison with your own position on DIO media, Henry, our view takes a shorter historical sweep, and tends to emphasize the use of tools/technologies, techniques and know how, and generating artifacts. We talk quite a bit about getting up to speed on production aspects and quality aspects, via interactions with others who share the same interest. But we do not emphasize the Otaku-like dimensions of the practices to any extent. We recognize them, but do not emphasize or prioritize them here.

What this means is that our sense of what digital technologies have brought to the kinds of media practices and communities being discussed in DIY Media is less "communitarian" and more "functional", "quality-oriented", and "informational" than a full on "participatory culture" approach involves. For example, we talk about the way these new technologies make it possible in principle for everyday people to produce artifacts that have the kind of sophistication that could previously only be obtained via very high cost infrastructure. We talk about the way networked technologies open up rich opportunities for on-demand or just-in-time learning: the idea that "google is your friend" when you need to know something. This includes cultural knowledge about "cool" and "quality" as well as technical knowhow. We talk about DIY media creators often having a good sense of relevant professional standards, although they will not always prioritize these. Sometimes, basic explorations of a new tool or technique are satisfying and sufficient. At other times, posting a video recording online of a friend riding a bike off a pier and into deep water has much more to do with maintaining social relationships within a friendship network than producing an acclaimed artifact. But we highlight the satisfactions and use values that can be gained from tapping the affordances of contemporary tools and (especially online) learning resources to produce professional-like artifacts and resources. Sophisticated tools are augmented by online how-to guides, dedicated open discussion forums where experts and novices alike can participate, help boards and blogs, user-created media content review and comment spaces, and ready access to what are regarded as exemplary models of the media artifact being created. Such resources make many elements of "professional standards" explicit and accessible to the everyday person (e.g., amateur anime music video makers committed to professional standards know that good quality AMVs don't include clips that are subtitled or have different image resolutions from one another, that they avoid clichéd transitions between clips, and so on).


Michele Knobel is Professor of Education at Montclair State University, New Jersey. Her research examines new literacy practices across a broad range of contexts. She is joint editor, with Colin Lankshear, of DIY Media: Creating, Sharing and Learning with New Technologies. They have also jointly edited A New Literacies Sampler and Digital Literacies: Concepts, Policies and Practices.

Colin Lankshear is an Adjunct Professor of Education at McGill University in Montreal, and James Cook University, in Cairns, Australia. His research interest is in sociocultural studies of literacy practices and new technologies. He is joint author, with Michele Knobel, of The Handbook for Teacher Research and New Literacies: Everyday Practices and Classroom Learning.

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