Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Five)

I was struck by a lacoona on p.128 where you start to distinguish your concept of world-building from transmedia storytelling. I wanted to see if I could get you to spell out more fully your distinction here, since you stop rather short in the text. Throughout, you place a strong emphasis on Trek as a television series, even as you discuss the feature films in relation to the television franchise. Yet we might also point at various moments in its history to key roles played by the novels, comics, games, and other extensions of Star Trek, suggesting that while there is a distinction between world-building and transmedia extension, in this case, the Trek world was built up across multiple media. Thoughts?

First, let’s say that, given our focus on Star Trek as television we decided that we simply could not deal with the whole franchise because that would have precluded us from dealing with television Star Trek in the depth that we wanted to. Showing yet again that there’s always more to say about Star Trek, there’s still a book to be written about the franchise and transmedia storytelling (although Derek Johnson does have many interesting thinks to say about this in his book on franchises).

Second, it’s important to recognize that while we tend to associate world building with multiple texts, any fiction, even a short story, has to engage in world building. To draw again on narrative theory, a fiction has to establish its relationship to the ‘real’ world – its proximity to or distance from an historical ‘reality’. It then has to construct a credible world based on this proximity or distance. So for example, in a novel about the Napoleonic wars, like War and Peace, Tolstoi can inject fictional characters into a real historical setting and the presumption is, that with the exception of those characters, everything else will match the ‘historical reality’.

Fantasy fiction, precisely because it’s more distant from the ‘real’ world, has to work harder at world building, establishing the key differences between its world and the world we know. Star Trek began building its distinctive future world in its very first episode, introducing audiences to the military organization of the Enterprise, future technologies and the like. Even had the series ended there a corner of the Star Trek world, albeit a very small one, would nonetheless have been constructed. But in Star Trek’s case the world building continued over more than seven hundred television episodes and over other media.

We’d want to make a basic distinction between world building, which can occur in a single medium, either in a short story or over 700 plus episodes of a television show, and transmedia storytelling, which we would argue by definition has to involve two or more media. Maybe if all the worldbuilding is done within one medium we need a new term – we used ‘extended seriality’ to refer to the Star Trek television shows’ worldbuilding.

This is the kind of one-medium world building that takes place in comic books; so, for example, the Batman world has been undergoing construction and refurbishment and some degree of demolishment since 1939. Even though various comics titles contribute to this world building it still takes place in one medium. Anthony Smith has a very good chapter on the Bat-world’s continuity strategies in the reboot of The Many Lives of the Batman, Many More Lives of the Batman, which Roberta co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (it will be out next year with BFI Publishing). Picking up on Bobby Allen’s analysis of soaps, he argues that the writers construct both syntagmatic and paradigmatic seriality as they seek to satisfy dedicated readers and keep casual ones happy, introducing a subtle continuity that the latter will recognize but which won’t baffle the latter.

Transmedia storytelling raises problems of coordination and integration and consumer behaviour that single-medium, and sometimes single-authored, world building doesn’t. One of Roberta’s doctoral student’s, Matthew Freeman, is just finishing a terrific dissertation on the pre-convergence history of trans-media storytelling. He argues that world building is one of the factors, together with characters and authors, that hold transmedia worlds together to a greater or lesser extent. So we would see world building as a necessary condition for, but not coterminous with, trans-media storytelling. But, as Sherlock Holmes would say, ‘these are deep waters, Watson’ and we can either stop here or engage in a protracted discussion of media industries and of narrative theory. So we’ll go on to the next question.

Your focus on the future of Star Trek in the conclusion focuses almost entirely on official television production, yet you could argue that Trek does exist in a Post-Network era in the form of various fan-produced web-series on the one hand and the J.J. Abrams produced feature films on the other. How might we extend your arguments if we incorporated these two forms of textual production into the mix?

Yes, once again those are topics that we couldn’t really address within the scope of the book, although they are of course important, since at the moment its only in the Abrams and fan films that Star Trek exists on the screen (other than the endless reruns of the various series all over the channel spectrum that is –and of course in games which should also be given some consideration). Looking at these texts raises very interesting questions about who and what is Star Trek.

Considering the Abrams films and the fan films would require addressing in more detail than we did in the book issues of authorship and branding. It would also require considering issues of canonicity, which we didn’t touch on in the book except somewhat indirectly in terms of Roddenberry’s conception of the Star Trek world. In terms of the feature films, you’d have to think about whether or not these are seen as part of the ‘official’ canon because of the change in perceived authorship. We make an argument in the book concerning the importance of the Roddenberry brand to Star Trek television even years after his death. But has this continued now that Star Trek no longer exists as television?

Roberta’s doctoral student, Leora Hadas, has a forthcoming piece in Cinema Journal (“A New Vision: J. J Abrams, Star Trek and Promotional Authorship”) in which she analyses the tensions between the Roddenberry and Abrams brands in the publicity for the Star Trek films. Her conclusion, as we remember it, is that relatively little attention was paid to Roddenberry and for the most part only in sources specifically directed at the fan base.

The whole point of the reboot was to bring in new viewers, who might not even know about Roddenberry and Paramount doesn’t seem to have had much concern for the core fan base in that regard (even though Roddenberry’s name features prominently on the posters for the first film and in the credits for both). And, if we may be permitted a personal observation, we think that Abrams has gone so far off-brand that he’s turned Star Trek into Star Wars, just another space-opera, spectacle-filled blockbuster. We’d be interested to know whether this is a perception shared by the fans.

Must admit that we’ve only watched snatches of the fan films, but we would suspect that they are much more ‘faithful’ to the established television canon than the Abrams films, as indicated by their efforts to incorporate writers from the original series. So it seems that further commercial exploitation of Star Trek has to be predicated on drawing in new viewers, which means downplaying authorship and canonicity, while the fans have much more of an attachment to the canon. In that sense, it may be the fan films in which for some of us the ‘real’ Star Trek lives on.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

 

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Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger Davies (Part Four)

A key tension on any television series is that directors come and go but actors tend to develop a stronger ownership of their characters over time. To what degree have Star Trek actors been able to shape the characters they play?

In the book we point to this key tension as one of the primary determinants of the actors’ agency. Over the course of a long-running show they tend to take ownership of their characters, partly because no one else, including the writers, really does.

Part of this comes from the natural tendency that actors have toward wanting more screen time, so if they are powerful enough they can lobby for this. But it also comes from professional standards, which gets back to the question about a good script. The actors believe in consistent characterization, having their characters engage in actions and speak dialogue that they believe flows naturally from previous representations of the character.

In the book, we have a long quote from Patrick Stewart about his input in to the last TNG film, Nemesis, in which he says that he changed the script to make it more consistent with his vision of the character. But he also pointed out that not all actors can do that. As we argue, there’s a hierarchy of agency within any ensemble cast with the stars usually having more control over their characters than secondary cast members. And in Star Trek, the captain had more control than anyone which leads on to your next question.

While fans have often been drawn to secondary characters, there are strong television logics which work to insure the centrality of the Captains to our experience of the series. What are some of the ways that these television production logics re-assert themselves?

Herman Zimmerman, production designer on all the post-TOS series told us when we interviewed him that originally the TNG bridge was oval, with “a big oval conference table.” But that didn’t work, because “it didn’t give the captain precedence. And one of the things that Gene was really regretting, but then he realized that he had no other choice, the star of the series had to be the captain. He wanted every one of the crew members to be the star . . . but always the captain has to have the last word, and the captain has to have the bulk of the action or the audience is confused.”

Even in shows with large ensemble casts, like TNG, it seems that, to become a bit theoretical, there has to be a focus of narrative alignment, a character whose perspective guides viewers through the narrative or with whom they can ‘identify’. That’s tricky because, although both Murray Smith and Jason Mittell write about narrative alignment, they do so from a somewhat formalist and cognitive perspective. There’s no empirical audience research that we know of to back up the claim.

However, it certainly seems that television writers believe that there has to be a dominant focus of narrative alignment. One of the beauties of a long running series is that it does have the space to focus occasionally on secondary characters. But we would hypothesise that in any long running show from TNG to ER to Lost to Madmen, many episodes will be ‘star-centric’ with the remaining spread among the secondary characters. The only real exception that we can think of to this rule is The Wire which initially set up McNulty in a way that made it seem he would be the central character and then strayed away from him in the second season. In The Wire Baltimore was the main character in a way but this is the exception that proves the rule and we can’t think of another example of this strategy.

And of course not just the logics of television but the long-established logics of Hollywood centre around the star system, that gives some actors higher billing and more money than others. As we detail in the book, this became a point of contention between William Shatner, who because he was the Captain thought he was the star, and Leonard Nimoy, who very quickly became an audience favourite.

I generally respect your decision to bracket off the study of Star Trek fans from the study of the production process. I was struck, though, reading your chapter on character that this was somewhat problematic, and pleased that you added a brief, but important, discussion here about the ways character operates somewhat differently in fan fiction from on the aired episodes. That said, while it is true that we do not yet have a very conceptually rich way of talking about television characters, much work on Star Trek fandom has argued that it is very much a character-centered approach to understanding the series, hence the charge sometimes made against fan fiction that it is moving from space opera to soap opera. What might we learn if we brought together your production studies approach to how the creative team thought about the Star Trek characters with a more audience-centered approach on how fans conceived of these same characters?

That was another of those pragmatic decisions intended to keep the book from becoming a multi-volume series. Certainly no disrespect was intended to the fans who are such an important part of the Star Trek phenomenon, but you and others have devoted many pages to them and Trekkers are undoubtedly the most studied of all fandoms. And we ourselves talk about how the fans of the original series may have helped to push the networks towards a more nuanced understanding of their audiences.

As we’ve already said, the writers we interviewed very much stressed that they had a character-centred approach to their writing so in that sense they are to some degree aligned with fan fic writers. There are of course fans who take other pleasures from the Star Trek world, enjoying the technologies or the space battles for example, but for the most part they don’t seem to write fan fic although they might produce blueprints of the starships.

We think it would be, in Spock’s word, ‘fascinating’ to do a systematic study of the television writers’ approach to the characters versus fan fic writers. As you say, one of the key distinctions is genre, particularly when it comes to shipping in all its marvelous variations. Television soaps, which are fundamentally about relationships, can spend endless amounts of time on characters’ romantic entanglements, but other genres can’t do this. When Deep Space Nine started to have lots of romantic pairings, some referred to it rather scornfully as DS90210. Shifting genres can alienate audiences, as we saw many years ago when Twin Peaks began as a murder mystery but became supernatural in its second and final season in a shift that seems to have driven viewers away.

Also extensive exploration of characters and their relationships can, as we say in the book in the bit that you’re referring to, potentially undermine the stability of the series format. The example we give is that of the TNG episode ‘Chain of Command’ in which Picard is captured and tortured by the Cardassians. The second episode’s conclusion very quickly deals with Picard’s post-traumatic stress because he has to be back in command of the Enterprise in the next episode. But numerous fan fics deal with his recovery, particularly in terms of his relationship with the doctor, Beverly Crusher. But the television show can’t divert from its basic format of space exploration for several episodes of psychological and romantic drama that removes the Captain from the bridge. The Captain has a narrative function that he must continue to fulfill.

The different treatment of characters in the shows and in fan fic also relates to the point that we made above about an ensemble cast in which secondary characters have always to remain somewhat secondary in terms of their screen time.

There’s a good episode of Voyager called “Timeless” set fifteen years ahead of the present time line. Chakotay and Harry Kim managed to escape Voyager’s destruction and have spent the intervening years trying to find a way to undo the past. In those fifteen years Chakotay has acquired a girlfriend who helps them in their quest. Although we’ve not checked, we’d bet dollars to donuts that there are lots of fan fics filling in that narrative ellipsis and detailing the romance. But the television writers couldn’t devote time to that story not only because Chakotay is a secondary character, albeit an important one, but also because they would have had to stop telling stories about Voyager’s quest to get back to the Alpha quadrant in order to deal with events in a hypothetical future timeline.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Marie Messenger Davies (Part Three)

You raise some important points about the stability of Star Trek as an ongoing franchise over more than 18 years of production. How did this stability and predictability impact the creative process behind the show — for better or for worse?

Star Trek was very atypical in its 18 year run particularly with regard to the fact that many of the same people, like executive producer Rick Berman, stayed with the show throughout those years. As you imply this stability had its upsides and its downsides.

With regard to the first, one of the most significant upsides was that it gave the producers the chance to create one of the most extended and complex fictional universes of all time, on a scale that, with perhaps the exception of Doctor Who, no other television program has achieved. And, as we discuss in chapters five and six, this led to some very ingenious world building, with producers, many of whom had been fans of the original series, harking back not only to TOS and TNG but in the post-TNG shows to all the previous series. This results in a degree of what’s come to be called fan service that can only be achieved within a vast canon. The creative process was stimulated by this and resulted in some very memorable and for fans emotionally satisfying episodes like TNG’s “Relics” which brings back the beloved Scotty.

But as Ron Moore pointed out to us when we interviewed him, the producers also had to be careful not to cater to fans too much and not to give in completely to their own fannish instincts. Had they done so they would have been writing fan fiction and not a television show aimed at millions of viewers.

Indeed, Stephen Moffat has been criticized for too much fan service in the most recent series of Sherlock, so it can negatively impact a show’s reception and perhaps exclude new viewers. We don’t think this happened with Star Trek, but it did become increasingly difficult for new viewers to enter such a complex universe.

Enterprise was meant to reboot the franchise by being less connected to the complicated backstory, but ironically, it became the most self-referential of all the series. The successful Star Trek reboot, the one that did attract new viewers, took place in cinema not on television and without the involvement of anyone who had made the television series. By contrast Doctor Who has successfully rebooted on television both honouring the backstory and managing to draw in new viewers. But maybe that’s because it did so precisely by drawing on new voices like Russell T Davies and Steven Moffat. You didn’t ask us about Doctor Who, but one of the reasons that there is always more to say about Star Trek is that as a case study it raises issues that are ongoing in terms of current productions.

Stability also had an upside with regard to the production process, one that we document in the book using interviews with many of the practitioners working on the show. As they constantly told us, the Star Trek production team was a ‘family’ that had worked together so long that they communicated by way of a creative shorthand. This both facilitated the smoothness of the production process and undoubtedly led to some very good episodes.

But that ‘family’ depended on having people at the top who were good managers. Michael Piller, now sadly deceased, joined TNG in its third season, after two seasons of upheaval, turmoil and some pretty bad episodes. He drew together the current writing staff and brought in new voices. But Brannon Braga seemed to be unable to do the same thing for Enterprise, one of the factors that we speculate could have contributed to its failure.

Reflecting in retrospect on the book, we perhaps should have made more of the downside. The producers told us that one of the problems with the failed Enterprise was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write Star Trek. But maybe what they meant was that they couldn’t find writers who knew how to write the long-established version of Star Trek that they themselves had helped to form.

Many fans and some academics have critised Berman and his fellow executive producer Brannon Braga for exploiting Star Trek simply for profit and not caring about Roddenberry’s vision. Our interviews did not lead us to this conclusion and we strongly refute this opinion in the book. However, in hindsight, perhaps it was not only Braga’s less than excellent management skills but the failure to incorporate new voices and new ideas that made Enterprise for the most part an inferior retread of the previous series.

You write about “Roddenberry’s Box” and the ways that founding concepts about what constitutes a Star Trek story have both enabled and constrained future creative contributions. What are some of the ways creative talent has negotiated in and around that Box through the years?

As we discuss in the introduction of the book, and at a number of points throughout, Roddenberry has become a ‘brand’ – the only name associated with television Trek to be given a credit in the new movie franchise. As such he represents both commercial value, but also something more intangible – what Kerry McCluggage referred to as a ‘vision’, and what writers sometimes referred to, using the more restrictive metatphor of a ‘box’. McCluggage told us:

“You do try to factor that [the Roddenberry vision] in, because that’s part of the appeal of Star Trek. He had an optimistic view of the future. He had a whole notion of how the Federation would evolve, and the Prime Directive, and things that are key elements in the show and values that are inherent in the show. In exploiting this property on a commercial basis, you really do find yourself going back to that, thinking, How does this fit in with the original vision of the show?”

Which is all very well, for the CEO, but for a writer the ‘vision’ and its strict rules could raise practical problems of narrative structure, not to mention a tendency for the ‘vision’, paradoxically, to generate conflict among the production team.

The two writers who specifically referred to the Roddenberry Box were Michael Piller, and Ronald D. Moore and they gave us specific examples of how they worked both within it, and around it. Piller described Roddenberry’s strict insistence that in the 23rd century (the period of TOS), “there wasn’t a lot of conflict between the characters because with the disappearance of want, poverty, disease, people were out pursuing a better quality of life;” this caused arguments among his writing team, who felt that conflict was necessary in a drama.

He described how he got round these strict rules in TNG’s ‘The Bonding’ [3:5] by using Gene’s insistence that in this advanced era of humanity nobody grieved when someone died, as a hook to develop a more interesting story. “The freakiest thing you’ve ever seen . . . a kid that doesn’t cry when his mother dies” enabled Piller and his team to bring forward an underdeveloped character, Counsellor Troi, to “strip down” to the underlying emotions of the bereft child. This was a good example of writers’ resourcefulness in being able to kill different birds with the same stone – giving Marina Sirtis a more satisfying role, which she had wanted, as well as solving a narrative problem arising from the restrictions of the ‘vision.’

Piller described how the Roddenberry Box suited him, and it became, to some extent, “ the Piller box”. Ron Moore, the author of “The Bonding”, also described arguments over the fight between the Picard brothers in a TNG episode he wrote – a two parter called “Family” [4:1 and 4:2]. On this occasion, Piller and Berman were able to prevail over Roddenberry and to leave the fight in – despite the fact that Roddenberry didn’t want it. These discussions are described more fully in Chapter 2 of the book, ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and also in a chapter by Máire: “Quality and Creativity in TV: The Work of Television Storytellers,” in Quality Television: American Contemporary Television and Beyond, ed. Janet McCabe and Kim Akass (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007), 171–84.

You describe how the creative talent on the series tends to stress the importance of “good scripts” in triggering the production process. What are some of the traits they associated with a “good” Star Trek script?

First, let’s address this question from a more general perspective. Judgments as to good and bad have been largely dodged by people within media and cultural studies, because of the influence of theories of cultural relativism. As we told you, we did try to come to grips with questions of quality in a chapter that didn’t make it into the book, both because the book was getting too big and because we didn’t manage to resolve the debate to our own satisfaction. But since producers, critics and audiences all continue to make value judgments it’s important that academics address this issue. And in doing so, it’s vital to listen to what practitioners have to say about their own value judgments, even though they might believe in them implicitly and find them hard to articulate.

That being said, in terms of Star Trek, perhaps surprisingly in light of its genre, the writers and others’ evaluation of scripts depended on criteria that were established with 19th century literary and dramatic realism. Perhaps primary among these is what you might call fully developed, rounded or psychologically motivated characters whose motivations contribute to story development. Several of our interviewees, especially Michael Piller, emphasized the importance of character above all.

So a good script might be one that advanced a character’s arc through giving him a dilemma to grapple with and resolve. Piller told us that the fan favourite “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter in which Picard gets assimilated by the Borg is really more about first officer Riker’s decision to take his own command or stay with the Enterprise.

A good script could also explore the ongoing relationship between two characters. Good characterization, consistent with the previous establishment of the character, we think, was the overarching criterion determining whether a script was good or bad. Scripts would also have to be like the proverbial ‘well-made’ play or for that matter, classical Hollywood film, setting up and resolving enigmas and wrapping up everything neatly at the end.

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Maire Messenger (Part Two)

You discuss Star Trek as in some ways a transitional text between the models of the mass audience and the least objectionable programming which shaped the early network era and the model of the niche or segmented audience which would inform the multi-network or post-network era. This seems closely connected to your idea that the series is both representative and exceptional to the television practices of its time. So, what was it about Star Trek which encouraged networks and producers to think differently about television audiences?

In our chapter 1, on Star Trek and television history, hopefully we make it clear that during the network era, the networks and producers didn’t really ‘think differently’ about TV audiences, even though there’s obviously evidence that audiences were already ‘niche-ing’ themselves by becoming active fans. Star Trek fans certainly did this, although they didn’t affect the network’s decision to cancel the show. In terms of the industry’s attitudes, it’s only with hindsight that we (and other writers on Star Trek) have been able to see that what saved the show/franchise during this era was the beginnings of a ‘niche’ audience when it was sold to Kaiser Broadcasting for syndication.

In 1967 Kaiser syndicated it at 6 pm against the news on other channels, calculating that this would attract ‘young males.’ We describe the ‘faint signals’ of the future of specialized audience targets on pp 45- 46. Star Trek fans were the elusive 18-25 age group and they were even prepared to ‘march in the street’ to try to save their show. But NBC at that stage cancelled it because success was still primarily measured in mass numbers. To some extent it continued to be and still is – Enterprise failed in 2005 because it didn’t get high ratings, other shows still fail for the same reason.

But as we point out, ‘eras’ don’t neatly stop and give way to the next one; there’s always overlap and even in the fragmentary downloading world of today, the ‘mass’ audience has continued alongside ‘niches’, who are of course, components of the ‘mass’.

We collected a lot of information about audience behavior in 2002; Mike Mellon, the head of audience research at Paramount gave us masses of material, wonderful breakdowns of demographics within the Neilsen ratings, and Paramount’s own qualitative research. But this kind of information tends to be ephemeral and because our book was written over such an extended period of time, anything we said about particular audience figures would have been outdated.

We also had some audience research of our own – questionnaire and interview data collected at different cultural venues, and we’ve referred to some of it in other writings (see references in the bibliography), but again, we decided it didn’t quite fit the shape of the book in its final version. But we certainly do think that audiences are important and interesting, and Star Trek audiences especially so.

You write at the end of the book, “Without Roddenberry, there may have been no Joss Whedon, J.J. Abrams, Chris Carter, or whoever else may follow in their footsteps.” So, what role did Roddenberry’s self-promotion as a producer/author contribute to the contemporary concept of the show runner?

It’s always hard to make historical connections across time, so not sure that we’d want to argue for direct causality here. What’s needed is an historical study on the rise of the showrunner in US television from about the 1970s onwards, including key figures like Norman Lear and Aaron Spelling. That book would have to account for all the other changes that were going on during those decades, particularly the shift from the classical network era to the multi-channel era that began to put the emphasis on named producers as a way of distinguishing content in a much more competitive environment.

That being said, you’re really asking two different questions here, one about the role of the showrunner within the industry and one about the role of the showrunner as a publicity mechanism.

With regard to the first, that’s something that the book waiting to be written would need to engage with. While Roddenberry functioned like a modern showrunner in that he was both producer and writer (although he actually wrote relatively few of the Star Trek scripts), how many of his peers did the same? And while he seems to have exercised the same degree of overall control and oversight that his successors now have, did his contemporaries have that same degree of control and oversight? In other words, were there producers in the classical network era whom we would want retrospectively to dub showrunners aside from Roddenberry (and probably Rod Serling)?

And we shouldn’t forget of course, that a lot of the people with whom Roddenberry worked, particularly Herb Solow, resent the extent to which Roddenberry attempted to co-opt all the credit for Star Trek. One of the most important arguments in our book is that a good television show requires the input of a lot of talented people. Roddenberry presented himself as Star Trek’s sole auteur but there would have been no Star Trek without Solow, associate producer Robert Justman, and all the others who worked on the show. But, today at least, it also seems to require a named individual to serve Foucault’s author function – to market the show.

We think it’s easier to make an argument for Roddenberry having served to some extent as a template for subsequent showrunners with regard to their publicizing themselves and their shows as opposed to the specific production tasks he undertook. In the classical network era, this self-publicity was most unusual, not really necessary and probably resented to some extent by NBC.

In that era, it was assumed that most shows, let alone their producers, would not really stand out much from the pack. That’s because the three networks were content to divide the mass audience between them, airing ‘least objectionable programming’ the goal of which was to keep people tuned into the same network throughout the evening. Shows were associated with networks, rather than with named individuals, except for their star actors of course.

But Roddenberry showed that it was possible to engage in a discourse of artistry and authorship that distinguished him and his show from the pack. And as you say somewhere, viewers, fans particularly, are culturally inclined toward a belief in auteurism, a single guiding voice that creates meaning throughout a programme’s episodes.

In Roddenberry’s case, as we discuss, that guiding voice became elevated to ‘Roddenberry’s vision’, a utopic notion of the future associated with him and with Star Trek. In that regard, we can’t really think of a single one of today’s showrunners who have had quite the same cultural impact, probably because the field is much more crowded; there’s much more content and many more people producing it. And of course, in the tele-fantasy genre Roddenberry got there first.

Fans may refer to the ‘Whedon-verse’ and critics may characterize aspects of Whedon-produced or directed texts as ‘Whedon-esque’ but that refers to a certain style and tone rather than a complete world, which is what Roddenberry is associated with. The more we think about it, the more we think it might be the case that being in a sense a man out of time, a post-network showrunner in the classical network era, Roddenberry was actually a one-off. But that’s a hypothesis that needs to be tested with empirical research.

One could also argue that Star Trek’s appeal to its intellectual pedigree — from the science fiction writers like Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, or Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote for the series, to its ongoing references to Rocket Scientists and Harvard/MIT students in describing its audience, helps to establish the contemporary concept of “quality television.” What qualities were ascribed to Star Trek in its heyday and to what degree do these anticipate or contrast with the “complex narratives” and “novelistic characters” associated with today’s quality dramas?

That’s a whole book in itself. In one of our earlier drafts there was a whole chapter called ‘Is it any good? The quality of Star Trek.’ Looking at this discarded ‘quality’ chapter again, I see we offer a number of definitions of ‘quality’ and address the question of ‘is it any good’? in a number of ways. We look at academic definitions of ‘good’ e.g. Charlotte Brunsdon’s: ‘[it’s good] in terms of its closeness to already-‘legitimate’ cultural forms, such as theatre or literature. Secondly, it is seen to be good because ‘it poses a privileged relation to ‘the real’’. In our discarded chapter we argue that Star Trek meets both of these criteria. We also discuss ideological interpretations of ‘good’ – is it sensitive to minorities, and to the representation of race, gender and general ‘otherness’? – the subjects of a very great deal of writing on Trek. And we particularly quote our production interviewees on their definitions of ‘quality,’ such as Michael Westmore comparing his work on alien makeup with that of Star Wars, which he described as ‘a real cheap job.’

We also discuss a couple of individual episodes that we thought were ‘good.’ Much of this material got lifted and dispersed to other chapters in the final version of the book: the craftworkers and writers’ views on ‘good’ appear in Chapter 2,’ ‘Art, Commerce and Creative Autonomy’ and Chapter 3, ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production’. Textual aspects of quality are woven into the textual chapters at the end of the book on worldbuilding and character, where the ideology question is also addressed – here, mainly by arguing for Trek’s ‘heteroglossic’ characteristics. The best of Trek, such as the TNG episode, ‘The High Ground’, offers ambiguity not clarity, enabling diverse interpretation, which again, is a traditional literary criterion of quality.

Because Star Trek has been such an enduring show, it ought to be possible to make comparisons between it and other ‘high quality’ TV shows contemporary with it over the years, for example at Emmy awards. But, as several of the writers pointed out, Trek has never been honoured by its peers in this way. Berman was indignant that Patrick Stewart never got an Emmy for his performance as Captain Picard. Ron Moore told us how he suppressed his Trek work in his resume because he thought it wouldn’t be taken seriously and Patrick Stewart had similar reservations about foregrounding his Trek work, proud as he was of it.

The craft workers, on the other hand, have received multiple awards over the years, thus highlighting the division between ‘above the line’ and ‘below the line’ positions in the creative hierarchy – a division which we argue, in our book, is somewhat artificial in terms of how the final product gets produced. Everyone has to pull together: the line producers Merri Howard and Peter Lauritson, who had to make sure everything ‘gelled’, and came in within budget, were particularly enlightening on this aspect of ‘quality.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Why Star Trek Still Matters: An Interview with Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies (Part One)

The book recently published by Roberta Pearson and Máire Messenger Davies might well have been titled The Making of Star Trek, but that title was already taken, by none other than Gene Roddenberry, who published the book as part of his campaign to promote and protect the series in the 1960s. Instead, they called their book, Star Trek and American Television.

As far as I can tell, no other academic has had the degree of access to the “above the line” and “below the line” workers who helped to create Star Trek as these two did. And, as a result, we have never before had such a rich account of its production process and of the ways that Star Trek fits within larger trends within the television industry. They do not set out to demystify Roddenberry’s original book, precisely, but the effect is to shift the focus away from the notion of Roddenberry’s authorship onto the collaborative process by which television is produced. Roddenberry certainly has a central role here, as will be clear from the frequency with which his name surfaces in the following interview, but they also direct attention onto the many collaborators who helped to shape that original “vision” and onto the many who have carried forward Star Trek‘s legacy to the current day.

Anyone who knows me knows how central Star Trek has been to my life on so many levels. I have myself written two books in which Star Trek plays a key role. But in recent years, I have declined many invitations to say or write more about Star Trek because I was skeptical that there was much more that could be said.

Pearson and Davies proved me wrong: there are new insights and new historical details on every page of this book. Star Trek and American Television is the kind of book that could only be written now — now that we have some historical perspective on the ways that this iconic series fit within the evolution of television as a medium, looking forward in some ways to developments in terms of ideas about franchising, world-building, and audiences, that are only being fully realized today.

As an interviewer, I am bit rude to these authors (both old friends), pushing them to speak about topics that are just on the margins of the book, getting them to revisit the decisions they made about what to include or develop in depth. My bet is that as a reader, you will appreciate some of the insights I got them to scoop up off the cutting room floor here. But at the end of the day, I agree with most of their editorial decisions. This book works because they focus on Star Trek as a television series, not as a cult phenomenon, not as a fandom, not as a transmedia franchise. Dealing with Star Trek as a television series encourages us to look upon it in a new way and at the same time, to use its history to shed light on the possibilities of television as a medium.

This five part interview will constitute my last posts for this blog in 2014. I need some time to refresh myself, to get more interview questions out to authors, to focus on finishing up some of my own writing projects. But, I think you will agree that this exchange ends the year on a highpoint.

I’ve known Pearson for most of my academic career. Our overlapping interests has led to us working together in many ways through the years. And I have a great appreciation for what she has contributed to our understanding of popular heroes (including The Batman and Sherlock Holmes) and cult media. Through her, I’ve also gotten to know her co-author, Davies, who has produced a great deal of important work on children’s television and the notion of quality as it relates to popular media. So, I am delighted to share with you their reflections here on “the Making of Star Trek” and so much more.


Many readers may be skeptical –as I was initially — that the world needs another book on the Star Trek franchise. So, let’s tackle that right away. What are people going to learn from this book that they do not already know?

As we explain in the introduction and opening chapters, of all the myriad books that have been published on Star Trek, we believe that none of them has effectively dealt with its core status as ‘a television show’ (William Shatner’s description of it, to us, in our interview with him.) On p. 9 of our book, we discuss the Star Trek entry in Oxford Bibliographies by Dan Bernardi and Michael Green, which lists the following categories of academic literature on the subject of Star Trek: ‘reference works and bibliographies; anthologies; fandom; popular culture; critical race studies; gender studies; sexuality studies; religion; technoculture; and nationalism and geopolitics’. It doesn’t list television studies.

In this book we are writing as television scholars, not fan scholars, nor sci-fi scholars, nor national geopolitics scholars, and we are admirers of the television show but we’re not – (and we’re really sorry about this word, I don’t know how it happened, after all our careful proof reading) – ‘Trekkies’ in the sense of being the kinds of fans who attend conventions, write fanfic and the like.

So, as our research proceeded, our question became: why didn’t anyone write about Star Trek as television because the programme is a really terrific case for examining the history of American television.

The project started life as core material for a teaching module on ‘Television, Culture and Society’ on the undergraduate course TV, Film and Journalism at Cardiff University. Because we were both keen on the show, and wanted to teach about it, we decided to adapt the TV, culture & society module to enable us to use Star Trek as a case study about television: the course included lectures on television production; TV history; TV economics; American /British contrasts; aesthetic and narrative aspects; TV audiences. The book went through various incarnations since we began the project in 1999, losing some cherished aspects of our original module on the way (including a big chunk about audiences – not just fans, but audiences, Nielsen data etc.) But we never lost sight of the fact that we wanted to talk about Star Trek as television, and that was our selling point to UC Press back in 2000.

The other unique aspect of it, we believe, is the interview material. We were lucky to be helped by Patrick Stewart to gain access to so many Paramount workers, from executive producers to make-up artists to actors to set builders to writers to craft workers, during our visit to Hollywood in 2002, funded by a grant from the British Academy. We think that the insights these interviewees gave us don’t appear to the same extent in other literature on Star Trek, partly because our research questions focused very specifically on televisual aspects. In particular, because we talked to people who were working together as we met them (on the TV Enterprise and the film Nemesis at the same time), there were constant references to, and plentiful evidence of, their interdependence as a working team. Collaboration and co-operation emerged as key components of how a TV production is put together, which was one of the main questions we were pursuing.

We were privileged to meet these people at work, and it was as industrial workers (very hardworking workers) that they came across, not as showbiz luminaries. This was one of the most illuminating and paradoxical revelations of the Star Trek phenomenon as we observed it. It has been such a valuable financial property within a huge global, capitalistic corporation but what we saw was its socialistic way of working.

One of our most revealing interviewees on this aspect was construction co-ordinator, Tom Arp, head of his Local trade union, who’d been working on the show for 14 years, and told us ‘the people on this show pretty much work together as a family’. (All the Star Trek workers we spoke to were unionized). In one of our discarded passages, we wrote about how interdependence and collaboration, rather than conflict and individual heroism, are essential narrative tropes, particularly in the female-dominated Voyager (see e.g. the episode, ‘One’). If the whole team doesn’t pull together, the ship is doomed – the experiences of the working production team often seemed to be reflected in these kinds of ‘socialistic’ storylines, which we suggest, is one of the enduring aspects of the Roddenberry Utopian ‘vision’ (see more comment about the ‘vision’ below). Interdependence between different levels of above and below the line workers is discussed more fully in our chapter on ‘The Craft Workshop Mode of Production.’

Roberta Pearson is Professor of Film and Television Studies at the University of Nottingham in the UK.  Much of her career has been devoted to studying major cultural phenomenon or icons, such as Star Trek, Batman, Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.  She was the co-editor of The Many Lives of the Batman, now being rebooted as Many More Lives of the Batman, co-edited with William Uricchio and Will Brooker (coming out with the BFI next year).  She’s also written several essays on Shakespeare’s cultural status and has recently been involved in a collaborative project on digital Shakespeare.  Her next project is on Sherlock Holmes for a book tentatively titled I Hear of Sherlock Everywhere: Transatlantic Sherlock Holmes. The book will deal with issues of authorship/canonicity, intellectual property, cultural distinctions, media franchises and lots of other topics currently at the forefront of debates in the field. For a preview see ‘A Case of Identity: Sherlock, Elementary and their National Broadcasting Systems’ in Roberta Pearson and Anthony N. Smith, editors, Storytelling in the Media Convergence Age: Exploring Screen Narratives (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015) as well as ‘Sherlock Holmes, a De Facto Franchise?’in Lincoln Geraghty, ed., Popular Media Cultures: Writing in the Margins and Reading Between the Lines (London: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2015.She’s been a Star Trek fan (in terms of watching and enjoying the tv programmes) since the original series’ first run so writing the book was indeed a labour of love. But she was a Sherlock Holmes fan even before that, so her academic career seems to be progressing backwards, like Benjamin Button.

Máire Messenger Davies is Professor of Media Studies and Director of the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster. Her first degree was in English, from Trinity College Dublin – hence an interest in storytelling. She’s a former media professional – she worked as a journalist in local newspapers, magazines and radio for many years – hence her insistence on the importance of hearing the producers’ points of view. After having four children, she did her PhD in psychology as a mature student researching how people learn from television – hence her interest in audiences, particularly young audiences. Her own young audience shared many happy hours watching Star Trek TOS in the UK. On moving to work at Boston University in the US, from 1990-1994, the family were there at the height of TNG‘s greatest era and became firm fans. Using Star Trek as a case study to teach about TV, Culture and Society seemed an obvious way to freshen up a rather hackneyed core module at Cardiff University, alongside Professor Pearson, and this led – eventually – to Star Trek and American Television. Her other books include Television is Good for Your Kids (Hilary Shipman, London  1989, 2001); Fake, Fact and Fantasy (Mahwah NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 1997);  Dear BBC: Children, television storytelling and the public sphere (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Children, Media and Culture, (Open University Press, 2010).

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Three)

Paul, you make a case in the book for curation as a “media literacy imperative” in an age of participatory culture. How are you defining curation and what has made it such an urgent skill? And again, how can we think about curation in relation to the ideas of teaching about media and teaching through media you discussed above?

Paul: In a paper I recently published titled, Exploring Curation as a Core Competency in Digital and Media Literacy Education, I contextualized curation as:

The word curate derives from the Latin root Curare, or ‘to cure.’ To curate, historically, has meant to take charge of or organize, to pull together, sift through, select for presentation, to heal and to preserve. Traditionally reserved for those who worked with physical materials in museum or library settings, curation today has evolved to apply to what we are all doing online. The preservation and organization of content online is now largely the responsibility of the individual in highly personalized information spaces. This has created a need to understand how individuals choose to pull together, sift through, organize, and present information within these spaces.

I think there is an urgency to curation, at least now with some semblance of free choice online, largely because young people can design their own engagement with information with more choices and diversity than they ever have in the past. At least in terms of strict content and platform. In an age of filter bubbles, search algorithms, sponsored content, and endless aggregators trying to personal and define our information needs, I think it’s an imperative that we teach ability to organize, sift, sort and continuously recreate the type of content diets that we want and need.

As a result, I think curation becomes a core competency in media education today. From issues of access, values, identity, assessment, sharing and express, we must continue to ask how these are situated in the context of engagement with me, but also use of media. These involve social and informal information sharing and consumption, but also in civic spaces. Curation has been decentralized from the few to the many. Knowing how to effectively navigate, use and create strong media is, I argue, an essential skill for all citizens in digital culture.

Your book offers a survey of the ways media literacy is practiced in a number of distinctive countries and regions. What do you see as the most significant continuities across these various contexts? Where do you see the most significant differences emerging?

Paul: Of course the unique approaches to media literacy pedagogy and practice emerge from different educational, political, cultural and social properties of a specific society. In our book, we tried to find a nice balance of media literacy scholarship and practice to highlight. We sought voices from the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, so we could show what’s similar and what’s unique. The similarities all rest on the aim to engage young people in competencies to critically analyze media. The more traditional model of media literacy approaches, if you will. That’s to a large degree because in places like Lebanon and Hong Kong, media literacy is still emerging as a pedagogical concept. As a result, they are still finding their footing in terms of how to implement and build media literacy as a skill set for their youth. Luckily, they have a wealth of information, content, and experience to choose from, so they’ll be scaling up rather quickly.

Most importantly, I think the differences that emerge in this space are embedded in socio-cultural practices that reflect media systems and government control. In places that have arguably less “free” media systems, media literacy is not so much about expression and voice as it is nuanced consumption. In places where political dissent is vibrant, media literacy is embedded in more narratives around corruption, propaganda, and civic inquiry. Interestingly, most forms of media literacy practice and pedagogy around the world are embedded in formal communication practices, and not many about information or participatory spaces. By that I mean that most media literacy approaches from emerging parts of the world focus on more traditional media literacy content (news, political speeches, ads) and less in newer cultural spaces (fan clubs, social networks, and so on).

I think, overall, the trends will continue to move to a more similar place, because a lot of research, pedagogy and practice are now being shared. And more media literacy scholars from around the world are meeting at conferences, publishing together, and doing more work alongside each other in general.

Many ideas about “21st Century Learning” stress the kinds of skills needed for performing well in the classroom and the workplace. Where do notions of civic or citizen-related skills fit into these models? In what ways might media literacy be understood as an effort to bring about social change?

Paul: This is a great question, and one close to my heart. I’ve just published a new book titled Media Literacy & the Emerging Citizen, that explores the role of media literacy in civic life. This is more about social change than formal pedagogy. I would argue, however, that pedagogy is at the center of long term civic engagement and social change, it’s just not explicitly made known. I think media literacy has a lot of growing to do in the social and civic change space, and that’s an area where we need to grow the field. Our book takes this topic on briefly with a chapter on citizenship by Frank Gallagher of Cable in the Classroom, but most of the work is pedagogically centered. I’d personally like to see media literacy be the civic education of the future.

Perhaps that’s the next book :-)

Some have been skeptical of the need for media literacy education in schools because so many youth are “digital natives” who grew up with the technology and are more adept online than most of the adults around them. The Harvard Good Play project has found that most youth lack mentors who can talk with them about the choices they make as participants in online communities. And, of course, access to technologies and to meaningful experiences online are unevenly distributed across the culture. What roles might formal media literacy education play in addressing the digital divide and the participation gap?

Belinha: As I stated previously, I think the term “digital natives” is loosely used to correlate with “digital savviness,” and that’s a concern because most of the time it isn’t true. Just because we have a generation of students who have grown up with technology does not make them adept at being online. Most students I see in schools working online tend to not go past the first page of any search results, and then turn around to the teacher and say they can’t find anything on their given topic. Just because a teen can find their way through their social network does not mean that they can search for viable, truthful, or accurate information. In fact, that is evenly distributed across the line when we are looking at how youth engage with each other online and they make some major social gaffes. What I mean is that we are looking at two different problems. There is the technology component which drives how students interact with each other. There is also the adolescent maturation point where that part hasn’t caught up with the part of themselves which is engaged in an online community. They need social skills that transcend face-to-face to online. The digital divide isn’t just about technology, it is about interrelations and lack thereof. We have a generation of students who have not learned how to interact as people. They have allowed the computer to be their voice without actually having a history or a background to that voice. The mentorship that they need is in bridging their knowledge of themselves with the knowledge of how they want to be represented. Media literacy education provides them with opportunity to understand representation and what that means on a worldwide scale. It helps them to consider multiple viewpoints and not the singularity of one –themselves.

Given the lack of formal media literacy education in many American schools, media literacy creeps in around the edges, through, for example, the work of librarians or museums and institutions or churches. What roles can these organizations play in ensuring wide access to core media literacy skills?

Belinha: I think these places offer opportunity- creative opportunity for engagement which is not offered in schools as much. Besides being places which are considering the innovators and the creators of educators, museum and libraries are providing resources that would not be accessible elsewhere. They are offering classes and opportunities with new technologies because they are reaching a very public platform. Libraries in particular tend to have an open-door policy when it comes to engaging with students or other patrons. They hold up the ideas that censorship is not acceptable. They provide patrons with books, databases, and the most current materials which may oftentimes not be available in schools. They have become the house for children whose parents can’t afford certain technologies including the basics of infrastructure such as Wifi. They already offer production classes. Why not infuse those classes with media literacy? Asking key questions as students work to get them to think more deeply is important. Helping students to problem solve, consider multiple points of view, or even understanding real-world questions related to money and power. It doesn’t have to formal, but sure put it up on a sign that teaching and learning in the structure of a museum or library is done with through the guide of media literacy education.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha S. De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part Two)

Many of our earliest understandings of media literacy took place around the particular properties of broadcast media, especially television, but in some cases, before that with radio. How did those assumptions inform prevailing models of media literacy? How are those ideas being rethought as we deal with the very different properties and processes associated with networked computing?

Paul – I think media literacy has long been concerned with the the skills and dispositions needed to effectively engage with information in daily life. The outcomes around access, evaluation, comprehension and production–in essence critical thinking and critical expression–have long been applied across traditional platforms and integrated into new digital spaces. Back when film, radio and television first emerged as mass mediums, media education typically treated their pedagogy as teaching about the way that these mediums work more than deconstructing the content that they delivered. As the mediums grew more diverse and complex, there was a need for media literacy to become more critical. This coincides I think with the increasing centrality of commercial culture in media and the need to actively respond with educational initiatives.

Media literacy is still largely emerging from the “mass media” era, and I think the traditional protectionist model of media literacy is prevalent in some of the work being done, particularly in the health and advertising spaces.

The emergence of connective technologies and networked computing has led to a re-imagination of how we understand media literacy in terms of identity, community, engagement, and agency. While we still need to have foundations in media literacy education around critical analysis of media texts, it’s become equally if not more vital to apply new competencies around curation, appropriation, remix, collaboration, spreadability and production that the web now affords. Media literacy needs to leverage the connective capacity of the web for civic value, and I think that’s at the core of where media literacy is headed. Not abandoning the past, but simply using our foundations for more applied and responsive participation.

Why do you think there has been such resistance in the American educational system to fully incorporating media literacy skills into the curriculum when there has been much more widespread take up in other parts of the world? What can/should we be done to shape public policies so that they reflect the needs of students and the realities of educators in a world where more and more of our core practices are conducted through networked communications?

Belinha: At the policy level, they don’t know us. We don’t have a large body of research to support our ideas. Policymakers tend to like the research and the numbers. Yet, if we actually talk to them about what we say is the value in media literacy education, they most definitely get it. Part of what drove this book was that idea that there are a number of us who talk about it at different levels–academic, schools, libraries, advocacy organizations, non-profits, etc; each group speaking of the value of media literacy, but not necessarily with each other. Moreover, there are a number of organizations who work with policymakers who continue to promote media literacy education throughout their work such as the Aspen Institute, the Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI), and the Cable Impacts Foundation. In particular, every year for the last five years I have attended the FOSI conference which is a two day event in Washington DC where many people who work in government appear and listen to the conversations on digital safety. Each year, I hear people discuss or bring up media literacy and the need for media literacy education and then the conversation appears to end. There are meetings by invitation only to the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SEDTA), but I don’t know how many people are represented there who focus on media literacy education other than perhaps the Cable Impacts Foundation.

Media literacy education as a dialogue comes very close to policymakers, but then stops before entering the door. The conversation at the government level has deemed to fall into digital literacy which is more about digital technologies and the need for schools to be equipped with more of it. Yet, the discussion of literacy as a critical approach to teaching about digital technology, not heard much. In the book, I addressed the opening that the Common Core State Standards provided schools with its not clearly defined look at media literacy. I offered it up for discussion as an opportunity versus a problem because I believe when we break something down too much we limit the capacity for instruction. That being said, media literacy education still needs to be discussed in the policy documents, but where is it?

Internationally, I think there has been a better acceptance of it at the policy level because it was introduced with the concerns with television and such. For years, I would have said that the Europeans, and the Canadians were ahead of us with media literacy education, and then the Internet hit us all simultaneously and that generated another conversation regarding media literacy education which was inclusive of all these new technologies. Yet, here again there is the worry as expressed best by David Buckingham in the UK that the rhetoric of today may actually be problematic for media literacy education. That it has become so saturated with the discussion of digital technology, digital footprints, and digital infrastructure that the capacity for understanding and learning has been set adrift by good intentions. However, at least in the UK and in the EU, policymakers talk about it and welcome the idea of growing this type of literacy. And, they demonstrate this further positive appeal by providing government resources to develop curriculum and ideas.

Several of your contributors make the case that media literacy means teaching about media and not simply teaching through media and that the goal should be to incorporate “critical production” rather than simply a focus on production practices. I agree, but the distinctions being made here between doing and thinking may not be fully adequate to a culture of participation, where many are arguing that “making” or “tinkering” or visualization or simulation or games each represent distinctive modes of thought and not simply tools and practices. Would you agree? If so, has there been a shift in what it might mean to teach about and through media?

Belinha: I think I allude to what you are suggesting here earlier. Sometimes ‘critical production’ is very individualized. I do believe that when students are “tinkering” and “making” that they are processing and making some key decisions as to what is useful to them and what is not. Does that mean that they have gone far enough? This is where there tends to be some push back. Watching someone craft together a presentation at any grade level there is a certain amount of thought going into that product. Is this the right picture? Does this mean what I want it to say? Depending on the level of the learner and the maturity of the producer, you can see a growth in thinking when they disengage with themselves and consider the audience. Many times that isn’t a step that is complete at for example the middle school years, but that is a step that can be seen later. Not for all, but for some. When I see this type of work happening in schools, I am mostly surprised by the people who are either overly surprised and pleased by very simplistic pieces of work by students or stumped that their students aren’t as media-savvy as they expected them to be.

When I work with future teachers, I always remind them that just because students are engaged in their technology doesn’t meant that they are critically thinking. Or for that matter, that they even know how to produce or create? There is an overall assumption because this generation has the most technology that they are in fact technology literate. Neither is true. Many students know what they know, but not much else. For example, they know how to play an online game or participate in social networks, but that doesn’t mean that they can work within some basic platform tools such as word documents or presentation tools. Yet, they can move quickly through various programs once they have been taught and they can create given the time. They just don’t tend to have many opportunities to do so at school because of the regimented curriculums. Outside of school, they may have more opportunity, but once again they tend to stick to what they know and are most comfortable.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Media Literacy in Action: An Interview with Belinha De Abreu and Paul Mihailidis (Part One)

Earlier this term, I ran a lengthy conversation with Tessa Jolls, the the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy. We discussed some of the core, underlying concepts behind the Media Literacy movement and considered their potential relationship to the work being done by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative. Today, I am happy to be sharing with you some reflections on many of those same issues from two of the Next Generation leaders of the Media Literacy Movement.

Belinha S. De Abreu, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University, currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council. Paul Mihailidis, an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College, is the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. Together, they have edited an important new anthology, Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Approaches, which offers us a snap shot of Today’s media literacy movement.

The table of content reads like a who’s who of the most important doers and thinkers around the world, including Julian McDougall, Tessa Jolls, Neil Anderson, David Buckingham, Erin Reilly, Eric Gordon, Sonia Livingstone, Frank Gallagher, David M. Considine, and many others. The book shares cutting edge research and words of wisdom from founding figures, offering us insights into the struggle to get media literacy in the curriculum and what happens when we do.

I am just getting to know Abreu and Mihailidis, but what I’ve seen so far impresses me greatly, including the thoughtful and substantive responses they offered to my interview questions here. Enjoy.

In his opening chapter, Julian McDougall describes media literacy as an “unfinished project,” while David Buckingham’s foreword suggests that “we are unlikely ever to arrive at a point where we can all sign up to a single definition and prescription for media literacy education.” What are some of the reasons why media literacy as a field seems so unsettled and unresolved — is it simply that the media landscape itself has changed so rapidly over the past few decades? Is it that media literacy advocates see the movement as addressing very different problems that stem from their own rather different perceptions of the role which media plays in our lives?

Paul: I think there are a confluence of reasons for the continued struggle of media literacy to find a cohesive foundation and concrete direction. Firstly, media literacy education has cast a wide net, perhaps intentionally but also because the movement and it’s core principles advocate for outcomes like critical thinking and critical engagement. These mirror outcomes for a lot of pedagogy. And while useful, they often lack direction or application. So we see spaces like digital media and learning, news literacy, civic literacy, science literacy, information literacy, and more, all find more coherent and concrete homes, funding, and support. At the same time, media literacy tries to claim a part of all these spaces. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. But rather it makes it difficult to grow in a cohesive way. I think of it as: If media literacy tries to be everything related to literacies, it will at the same time be nothing.

Stemming from this, I do see media literacy advocates, scholars, and educators using the term to advocate for their projects and approaches to how they understand media’s role in daily life. Many apply the term to their work in discipline-specific areas, while at the same time, others come into media literacy with their own perceptions of what it should do, and because media literacy has such a broad purview, there isn’t a conceptual grounding from which such uses of the term can be sorted, sifted, and understood.

Perhaps, however, what McDougal and Buckingham are alluding to is something that they may think of as positive. That media literacy can be an agile and adaptable movement provides greater space to engage in pedagogical and scholarly dialog where it is meaningful and related.

I think personally media literacy will continue to struggle as a cohesive disciplinary space without more conceptual agreement, directional engagement, and scholarly recognition.

In the late 1990s, Bob McCannon, a teacher at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico and leader of the New Mexico Media Literacy Project, noted that “Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons– and shoot in!” Is this still the case? Have we found better ways to work through differences between competing visions of media literacy?

Belinha: I don’t think we are circling the wagon any longer, but I do think we still suffer from a bit of a complex regarding who we are in the field. We are still somewhat confused about the term that we use to describe ourselves —Certainly there continues to be a discussion about whether we are a field or a movement, but frankly does it matter? What it comes down to is that we are talking and we are talking to each other. More and more, I see conversations that push the limit of what we do and question approaches. You had one of those such conversations in your blog recently with Tessa Jolls which really tried to go through the layers of conversations from the DML perspective and the media literacy perspective. I appreciated the line that you used about “people talking past each other.” Your blog and other conversations, I believe brings about more dialog as long as we can keep egos out of the way. They happen at conferences all the time — all over the world. The best conversations seems to happen at the most unexpected times with people who you didn’t think you had a common language when in fact it is there. Media literacy is an active engagement of thinking and if it happens from various groups then it is growing the dialogue.

My one concern which actually takes us a step back from Bob McCannon’s statement is that those who lay claim to media literacy as a body of work tend to not have a history of what that means. They don’t seem to know the Len Masterman’s, David Considine’s, and even David Buckingham’s who have generated some of the best thinking and most in depth work in the field whether it is through their research or through their development of future educators at the school or academic level. Even to the wider audience of people who have been in media literacy whether through their different organizations such as the Alliance for Media Literacy in Canada or Cary Bazelgette out of the UK, these people and organizations have had longevity in the field, yet they tend to go unnoticed at times.

Renee Hobbs’ “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” sought to map some of the core fault lines in the field. You are coming in more than a decade later to similarly lay out some of the core strands in the media literacy movement. Which of Renee’s debates are still active? Which if any have been resolved?

Belinha: Fault lines is a very good depiction of some of the cracks in the media literacy movement. Perhaps, we could even say that those cracks have been broken into factions although this may be where the argument starts to go adrift. My point is that if we keep bringing up the same issues or problems over and over again, we tend to not generate any movement past these ideas. The debates of the past could still be held up and do. People who are protectionists in the movement are still there, but there are just as many who are saying that teaching and learning are more important. Banning and censorship don’t seem to resolve what worries parents or other protectionists groups which is how to make the media less important in children’s lives.

Our mediated worlds have shifted drastically since the time that Renee Hobbs wrote that piece. Producing media which was conceptually thought to be a part of media literacy education has shifted with the fact that many students are already media-makers because technology has made it accessible. Is that media literacy? Are children/teens being critical, conscious producers of media? In most cases, the answers would be “no.” Does that mean that they fall away from the ideals of media literacy? I would say they miss the mark in some points especially when it comes to evaluation or discernment. However, they may argue that they did evaluate and did discern. We just don’t like their conclusions. What I value most in the debated questions that Hobbs proposes is the commentary that “all points of view are heard, respected, and accommodated.” I think here is where we are starting to see some headway. As a group of individuals who are interested in media literacy we do disagree, we do challenge, but we also like the engagement. Whether one method is better than the other will always be its own debate, but we can still find a middle ground to work together which makes those fault lines just a bit smoother.

Belinha S. De Abreu, Ph.D., is a Media Literacy Educator and Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Technology at Fairfield University. Her research interests include media literacy education, new media, visual and information literacy, global perspectives, critical thinking, young adults, and teacher training. Dr. De Abreu’s work has been featured in Cable in the Classroom and The Journal of Media Literacy. She is the author of Media Literacy, Social Networking and the Web 2.0 World for the K–12 Educator (Peter Lang Publishers, 2011) and the co-editor and author of Media Literacy in Action: Theoretical and Pedagogical Perspectives (Routledge 2014). She currently serves as the Vice President for the National Telemedia Council.

Paul Mihailidis is an assistant professor in the school of communication at Emerson College in Boston, MA, where he teaches media literacy and interactive media. He is also the Associate Director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, and Director of the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change. His research focuses on the nexus of media, education, and civic voices. His new book, Media Literacy and the Emerging Citizen (2014, Peter Lang), outline effective practices for participatory citizenship and engagement in digital culture. Under his direction, the Salzburg Academy on Media and Global Change, a global media literacy incubator program, annually gathers 70 students and a dozen faculty to build networks for media innovation, civic voices and global change. Mihailidis sits on the board of directors for the National Association of Media Literacy Education. He has authored numerous books and papers exploring media education and citizenship, and traveled to around the world speaking about media literacy and engagement in digital culture. He earned his PhD from the Phillip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Introducing the Critical Media Project: An Interview with USC’s Alison Trope

 

As always, this blog is deeply committed to media literacy education — in all of its many formats and approaches. I started the fall with my exchange with Tessa Jolls about the ways networked communication has or has not changed how we understand media literacy. Next week, I am going to share an interview with Belinha De Abreau and Paul Mihailidis, the editors of  Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedogogical Perspectives. This week, I want to share with you a vital new resource for critical media literacy instruction, a data base of several hundred segments from all kinds of media, which can be used in teaching critical perspectives on race, gender, sexuality, and identity.

The Critical Media Project has been developed by Alison Trope, a cherished colleague in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, working with a team of our graduate and undergraduate students. There’s more about the process by which the project emerged in the interview which follows. As Trope explained recently in another interview with Diana Lee for the USC News Office, ““If we can understand how our own race, gender, sexuality and class are being represented in the media, it can help us understand how these messages feed into how we live our lives and how we interact with each other. If we can learn to decode the messages, we can be better equipped to dismiss them or challenge what we’re being fed. The more active we are as consumers of media, the better.”

The archive’s selection of materials is diverse — ranging from commercials to comedy segments to news reports to clips from reality television programs. To illustrate the wealth of the collection, I am going to scatter some segments across the interview, most of which come up under the heading, “Mixed Race” or in honor of Obama’s decision last week, reflect the politics of immigration.  I have thoroughly enjoyed browsing through the collection in pulling together this post: they are well curated, carefully selected  by people who are deeply informed about issues of identity construction within contemporary culture and who has an eye towards what kinds of clips might constitute “teachable moments” in the classroom. If you go to the site itself, Her team’s commentary is designed to spark but not exhaust critical discussion around these media elements.

In the interview which follows, Trope takes us behind the scenes, sharing how the project emerged, what she seeks to achieve, and how you and your students might get involved.

 

What motivated you to create the Critical Media Project? How do you see it as contributing to the larger movement towards media literacy in American education?

 

I’ve been interested in media literacy since I was in graduate school. I primarily studied cinema and television, but was particularly drawn to the ways media studies could productively intersect with museum studies—specifically how media was and could be exhibited in the context of museums. I wrote a book (Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood) that examines the way Hollywood (via films, characters, studios, stars, etc.) has been imagined and put on display in a range of exhibition contexts, including museums, theme parks, DVD box sets and Internet sites. In my teaching, I want my students to understand the relationship of the text to the context, whether that be exhibition context, industrial context, or socio-cultural context. We can look at media or any cultural object on its own, but the broader context provides relevant meaning and resonance.

The Critical Media Project was loosely inspired by my regular use of media as a subject and object of teaching. It was more directly inspired by an invited talk I gave on mixed messages about gender, sexuality and representations of women in the media. After the talk, which was attended largely by parents and supporters of a local Planned Parenthood chapter, a few attendees asked whether the type of instruction I offered was available in high schools. It was not only the content they were interested in; it was the presentation—media rich and full of examples that were imbricated in everyday popular culture. At the time, I suggested it was likely up to the individual instructor, and surmised it might be difficult for many instructors to spend the time to find and scaffold media-rich lessons, given the curricular structure and testing standards most high school teachers must adhere to.

The question nagged at me. What kind of barriers did teachers face with regard to implementing media and media literacy in the classroom, and what kind of resources could help them? The presentation I gave that day could easily fit into a social studies class discussion of feminism and women’s rights, or a human development class on gender norms and expectations. The Critical Media Project was inspired by those questions. I wanted to create a site that didn’t simply “school” teachers in how to “do” media literacy. Rather, I wanted to provide them with the texts and resources—the actual media—that could be put in the context of their own curriculum and further framed by discussion questions designed to elicit critical analysis among their students.

This site differs from many other media literacy sites in two key ways. First, it is media-rich—with over 250 media artifacts embedded into the site and ready for teachers to use. Second, the site tackles a specific topic—identity—and asks us to think about the way all facets of identity (for example, race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class) are shaped by the media. Rather than taking media representation at face value and accepting what has been internalized or normalized through media conventions, the site asks us, through each media artifact, to question those representations and their broader social, cultural and political implications.

Such questioning is particularly important in the media saturated environment in which we all live. Students are coming into classrooms having engaged for years in exhaustive and casual media practices. They consume traditional and digital media across a multitude of platforms, and produce content using a variety of media production tools. It’s worth noting that much of the content they consume and produce is about identity. It’s about figuring out who they are, who their friends are, what they like to do, what their tastes are, etc. For young people, in particular, a critical perspective on identity is crucial during key developmental stages when they are gaining new life experiences and learning to define, navigate, and negotiate their online and offline identities.

What criteria did you use for the selection of materials for the archive?

 

Much of the material comes from my own “library”—media I’ve collected over several years of teaching. Other media comes from USC Annenberg PhD students, who suggested media as well as contributed annotations to the site. (I’m lucky to have such generous students, who follow a variety of blogs and sites, and regularly send me new things to look at and incorporate into my classes). The other contributors were undergraduate students in a 2012 class I used as a lab space to brainstorm and develop the site. The class was divided into different identity groups and tasked with gathering media and developing skeleton curriculum for each assigned category.

As my project manager, Garrett Broad, and I narrowed the selections for the site, we had a few criteria in mind. We strove to choose media that could stand on its own (without a lot of contextualizing). We also wanted to use media that clearly said something about at least one of the identity categories featured on the site, thereby facilitating its incorporation into a broader curricular context. (An offhand or oblique comment by a character or a judge on a reality show might not make the cut).

We did not shy away from media that was challenging or might be uncomfortable for users/viewers. In fact, we embraced nuanced and complicated texts, knowing that we provide scaffolding through the brief annotated descriptions. In some cases, we also provide “critiques” of media examples.

The critiques are used to call attention to social or political issues that might have been left out of the actual media example, but are nonetheless relevant to its interpretation. For example, a clip from America’s Next Top Model features a photo shoot in a Hawaiian sugar cane field in which the contestants are asked to transform themselves to embody two distinct racial groups. The critique for this clip comments on the way that Tyra and Jay gloss over Hawaii’s history of colonialism and cultural domination and the way in which the racial transformations via hair and makeup could be read as blackface. The critiques are designed, therefore, to highlight the complicated ways in which a media example can be interpreted, and to provoke further discussion about broader issues it may invoke.

Your central project here seems to be to focus on the roles which media play in shaping our — collective and personal — sense of identity. What theoretical models have informed your perspective on identity?

Much of my own background in film and television studies was informed by cultural studies. To that end, the work of Raymond Williams, and the notion that “culture is ordinary,” frame much of my teaching and is the foundation of the Critical Media Project. I urge my own students to consider the value and resonance of everyday popular culture, particularly media. And, I hope the Critical Media Project, through its very existence, highlights the value of such texts in the context of broader identity issues.

The site’s focus on identity and identity politics is also firmly rooted in a cultural studies perspective, which asks us to not only consider the social and cultural construction of identities, but also how those constructions are imbricated in ideologies and structures of power. Our gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and class can play a critical role in determining the kind of social, political and economic power we have, how we attain that power, and how we use it. In the context of media, much power comes from visibility and agency (in the media product as well as behind-the-scenes). Such analyses of power lead to productive discussions of inequity and prejudice, ultimately raising important social justice issues.

Do you have a particular pedagogical model in mind as you think about how these materials might be used in the classroom?

The site’s approach draws theoretically from critical pedagogy (and its connections to cultural studies), which works to frame critical thinking, and the learning that comes out of it, in the context of social change. The primary goal is to change students’ perspective on media and its role in shaping their own identities as well as the meanings they ascribe to identities more broadly. Following the lead of writers such as Henry Giroux and Douglas Kellner, the site focuses on critical media literacy—interpretation as well as production and dissemination of content that can challenge dominant ideologies and play a pivotal role in fostering a multicultural, democratic society. The Critical Media Project’s focus on identity and the politics of identity speaks to social justice issues and the larger historical, sociological and political context revolving around them. The site is further designed to spark discussion and to engage students in critical praxis, thereby underscoring the participatory and communal ways in which meanings are made and, further, can make change in the classroom and beyond.

We often hear of the rigid nature of much public school curriculum and the difficulty teachers have introducing innovative materials while adhering to standards. The Critical Media Project is designed to work in the context of pre-existing curriculum and the general principles set forth by the Common Core as they broadly relate to applied critical thinking. The media on this site can be viewed as texts—akin to, if not worthy of comparison with, traditional texts read in an English Language Arts curriculum. It can be used to illustrate a lesson in social studies or history tied to civil rights, or to highlight and make sense of the racialized narratives or sexual politics tied to a particular current event. It can be used in the context of health and human development classes to foster discussion around lines between sex, gender, and transgender identification. Ultimately, the site is designed to be flexible and to work with teacher and student interest and curricular requirements.

 

How might readers who want to contribute to the project get involved? 

The site is a work in progress and we’d like to continue to build and expand on the catalogued media, in large part by crowdsourcing from potential contributors. We aim to regularly post current and relevant examples on Facebook and Twitter (@critmedpro), where we have recently included media tied to the events in Ferguson, MO as well as this summer’s viral “#Like a Girl” campaign distributed by the feminine hygiene brand, Always.

 

Potential contributors can email media to criticalmediaproject@gmail.com. We also welcome full annotated contributions, following the format on the website (with description and discussion questions). In the “class activities” section of The Critical Media Project, there is an assignment that educators can use to solicit contributions from their students. We also would be interested in piloting the site in a classroom or school, working with individual or groups of teachers, their curriculum, and students to facilitate using The Critical Media Project.

We are always looking for current and fresh examples! Please share this resource with others and send feedback.

Alison Trope, Clinical Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, teaches a range of classes on media, popular and visual culture and is the author of Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood. She directs The Critical Media Project (www.criticalmediaproject.org), a web resource that facilitates the teaching and understanding of identity in the media. 

 

Where Fandom Studies Came From: An Interview with Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson (Part Three)

Your definition of fan culture emphasizes “a specific amateur infrastructure for its creation, distribution and reception,” yet this infrastructure is part of what may be shifting in an age of Kindle Worlds and Wattpad. How should the study of fan fiction respond to those shifts? You seem ready to deal with the shift from printed zines to online distribution, not to mention a range of different kinds of online distribution practices (of the kind that Gail De Kosnik discusses in her forthcoming book). Are there some changes that would be so dramatic that they would fundamentally alter our understanding of what fan fiction is?

KB: Louisa Stein’s and my “Limit Play” (2009) discussed the vital importance of interfaces to the actual fan works themselves. One of the examples is LiveJournal role-playing games, a form of fan fiction but also an interactive performance. Recently I’ve been looking at Storium, a storytelling RPG that doesn’t come from the media fan perspective but rather a gaming approach, where the storytelling is basically how you play and succeed.

Likewise, Francesca Coppa’s (2006) argument about fan fiction as a type of performance effectively argues that we write fic in part because we can’t make films. Since then, however, vidders have begun using digital tools to manipulate footage into creating their own images (just like constructed reality vids have done for a while now). In other words, fan fiction is already interactive and multimedia and collaborative and all these things. As long as fans create texts about their favorite characters and universes and plot lines, we’ll probably continue to call it fan fiction and will continue to study it.

The issue with commercial platforms is actually less one of interfaces and technology as it is of profit and community. Karen and I have always foregrounded the role of community for fan fiction—while we obviously wouldn’t exclude, say, drawer fic from fan fiction, we’d consider it more an exception than the norm. We instead believe that our approach to fan fiction should include the community that produces, disseminates, and receives these artifacts. Given the social community structure of fandom, we cannot simply divorce fan fiction from its context and equate it with other forms of derivative creativity. Karen, in fact, has argued in regard to Kindle Worlds that “if you define fan fiction as ‘derivative texts written for free within the context of a specific community,’ then this isn’t that”. Interestingly, Jamison (2012) argues that Fifty Shades loses something when taken out of the context of mutually influential Twilight human AUs (and human BDSM AUs), an observation that reflects Woledge’s close textual study of fan turned pro fic (“From Slash to Mainstream,” in Fan Fictions and Fan Communities). The lines are obviously murky, but again, however interesting the border cases are, the fact remains that they only gain importance because we endeavor to properly define fan fiction.

KH: In a word, no. Fan fiction—the thing itself—connotes written texts, regardless of platform (zine, LiveJournal post, Tumblr entry, Wattpad post). I imagine there will be some Next Big Technological Interface Thing that fandom will rush toward, just the way that Tumblr caused much of fandom to leave LiveJournal, but the platform is independent of the writing, and the writing won’t stop. Further, technological considerations don’t seem to be adding all that much to what we’ve been seeing. It’s less sheer novelty and more old wine in new bottles.

When the Internet came along, everyone thought threaded stories, sort of like the old Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood, would be a Thing, but they never caught on. Likewise, it’s easy to embed illustrations, but to my eye, they evoke the hard-copy zines of yore to me, albeit with more color—occasional images, often by an artist who is not the same person as the text’s author.

The things I like best about technological tools are, first, the ability to comment, which basically takes the old SF zines’ Letters of Comment section and appends it to the item in question, which really helps build the fan community; and second, indexing, categorizing, and tagging, which makes it far easier to find texts of interest.

I’ve been doing work on World War II–era SF zines, which involves a lot of cross-zine discourse among relatively few players, and it’s amazing how little has changed. I could thread these in a LiveJournal-hotlinked post with dates and everything. I am always excited to see what new toys technology comes up with; but I would not be surprised if the shiny new toy was used to create a new mode of expression for an existing activity. Wattpad’s great innovation, for instance, is to have text in little short bursts that are ideal for reading on phones. That resulted in (created? self-selected to?) a particular kind of writer and writer.

Kristina cites my blog post about Kindle Worlds. I like the definition of fan fiction that I make there. The element of “community” is the most important. (We can argue about “free.” Suffice it to say that if it isn’t, it had better be a solution created by and for the community.) If I write a story for Kindle Worlds, then it would be work for hire (under monetary terms that most freelance writers would not accept), not a gift written for my fandom.

Kindle Worlds used the term fan fiction in its initial marketing (it no longer seems to use this term) as a shorthand for marketing purposes that targeted potential writers and readers, but the texts are derivative stories written as work for hire, with great limitations placed on what can be written—no overt sex, no crossovers, no death of major characters, that kind of thing. These limitations are no fun for lots of fan writers.

Kindle Worlds also seems to be struggling. The Daily Dot, for example, notes that Kindle Worlds seeded one World by commissioning a pro writer, Neal Pollack, to write for it, which hints at quantity and quality issues; and a post at Bustle addresses Kindle Worlds’ failure to catch on. The Bustle directs us to Rebecca Tushnet’s legal article about Kindle Worlds and fair use, which is a must read.

What could be changing is the meaning of the term fan fiction. I’m seeing a linguistic shift whereby the term’s connotation is broadening to mean “any derivative work,” not “a derivative work written by a self-identified fan within the context of a fan community, often as an item of exchange, and often for free.” I object to this broadened definition because the division conflates fan activity within a specialist community with nonfan commercial activity, and I personally value the distinction.

The study of fan fiction (used in its classical limited sense) will continue to address the ways that the interface affects the classic rhetorical situation of author–text–reader, as criticism always does; it will address concerns of power, gender, race, and class, as it always had; and it will continue to apply to fan fiction theories from various disciplines. Thus work on fan fiction will be ultimately evolutionary, not game-changingly disruptive. I’d personally like to see the focus on fan text rather than fan fiction, because it connotes a far wider range of fan expression: vids, artwork, comics, poetry, whatever.

Feminist and queer studies perspectives were key in defining the field of fan fiction studies, and rightly so, for many reasons your book does a good job of describing. Yet, there was from the start a serious neglect of what fandom studies might learn from critical race theory. Today, there is still a remarkable shortage of work which deals with racial politics in and through fandom. I know as editors you have been actively concerned about some of the silences around race, so I wanted to get your perspective on how those structuring absences have impacted our field and what might represent some generative approaches for re-engaging with those topics today.

KH: TWC published a special issue in 2011 guest edited by Robin Reid and Sarah N. Gatson on Race and Ethnicity in Fandom . I’d direct you particularly to the editorial and to Mel Stanfill’s essay. Fans are also intensely concerned with issues surrounding race. The huge Racefail imbroglio in 2009 is a good example. But I’m not seeing a lot of scholarly work being done on the topic in fan studies, and we’ve had bad luck with TWC when we’ve tried to solicit contributions in that arena, including a poor showing under open calls for submissions, an inability to directly solicit, and a guest editor of a proposed issue related to the topic of critical race theory pulling out. Right now I’m liking work on the topic done by fans, particularly for race in comic book depictions and race-based film-casting issues. I would love to see some of that formally theorized in an academic setting, but until then, check out Racalicious.

The absences have left a vacuum in the field that skews perceptions of fans as comprising primarily middle-class white girls and women (if media) or as middle-class white boys and men (if gaming or comics). Nonwhite concerns are perceived as outliers.

Further, I worry that white scholars don’t want to address the issue, in part because they have no lived experience and thus they feel inauthentic, and in part because they don’t want to be attacked. Yet of course scholars of color ought not shoulder the topic solely themselves. One important thing to do to generate more criticism and thought may be to reconfigure the Other oppositional binary: if a fan is an Other and not-white is an Other, than the fan of color is doubly Othered. How can this potential estrangement be turned? How is it useful? I’m also a big fan of cutting to the chase in any topic by assessing the power dynamics, what I call following the money. Why is it important to the white majority for it to retain and apportion their authority? What is at stake? How can that authority be usefully challenged?

KB: One of the more amusing things for me as an interdisciplinary scholar is the way different departments canonize different pieces by the same writer. Mention Deleuze in media studies, you get Cinema I and II. In English you’ll see a lot of references to Anti-Oedipus and Mille Plateaux, whereas in philosophy Difference and Repetition or even his books on Kant and on Nietzsche would be considered his central work.

Likewise, we have embraced “Encoding/Decoding” in fan studies without ever fully engaging with the fact that Stuart Hall, in fact, was not only a founder of the British Cultural Studies but also of BLACK British Cultural Studies (that was the name of the 1996 reader where I consciously read Hall for the first time). This is a really long way of saying that mostly US, mostly white, mostly middle-class fan scholars have done much better at addressing concerns of gender rather than race or class in the notorious trifecta. Given the overlaps between gender and queer studies (and possibly the larger number of GLTB acafans), we have done much better with queer issues than with race. Maybe a generative mode would be overlapping/applying critical race theory with gender or queer studies.

A fan review called the Fan Fiction Studies Reader “whitewashing” and commented that they’d like to see bell hooks write on fandom. Anyone’s response would be: ME TOO! bell hooks may have other things she wants to write about, but it behooves us to address this huge gap, both as a topic in our own essays and by creating an infrastructure that invites a focus on race as a dominant framework. I hope, though, that an increasing diversification, more awareness, and an (ever so slowly) changing media landscape may allow us to address these issues more. As always, acafans who are teaching the next generation of students must give them the context, background, and tools to help fill these gaps.

As you note, there have been significant shifts in the politics around gender and sexuality since the 1980s and 1990s. There have also been factors which have made fans and fan cultural production much more visible in the mainstream of the culture. In this context, what is still transgressive about fan fiction? In what senses might we still see its production as a kind of resistance to dominant values and institutions? Or is resistance still a useful frame for thinking about what fans do?

KH: The resistance paradigm is definitely falling among scholars, although it’s still useful. Much work has been done on how fan fiction is not subversive but actually reinforcing of dominant values and institutions. Fan-written mpreg and curtain fic, for example, may be read not as critiques of traditional marriage, setting up house, and having children (even if it’s the man getting pregnant) as they are genderswapped or all-male reproductions of the trappings of middle-class life.

However, if the content of fan fiction isn’t necessarily truly subversive and resistant but rather affirmational of traditional institutions, its locus of power may be: unauthorized, in conflict with The Powers That Be. One reason that Kindle Worlds is interesting to discuss right now is that Amazon is attempting to get rid of resistance by providing a paid, controlled, circumscribed outlet—one with a built-in community and fan base to drive sales.

This isn’t to argue that all fan fiction is ultimately nontransgressive or can be read as such. Of course that isn’t the case. But the unequal power relations reside less in the text than in the opposition between a minority gift culture and a majority commerce culture.

KB: Fan fiction scholars (all of us included) have probably done the practice—if not the field—a disservice by focusing so much on resistance, opposition, and transgression. Obviously there are real political, cultural, and academic reasons for picking one example over another, for foregrounding the more literate pieces of fan fic or the more transgressive ones, but generalizing is thus often problematic, because we picked the text for its exceptional rather than representative value. But the question is whether that minimizes these stories’ value.

There always are a huge number of stories that make us feel good and happy, and that may not all be that progressive. (In fact, if one only knows fan fiction through the lens of academic discourse, reading the examples described by Lamb and Veith’s essay in our reader may indeed sound strange.) But I’d argue that if you go to any fandom tag on AO3  or Fanfiction.net, you will find that many of the stories with the most kudos and comments are exactly like that—comfort fic. On the other hand, the stories that often get discussed or cause controversy are those that transgress, whether thematically or politically. Coppa wrote about asexuality fic in Sherlock (2012), for example—a subgenre that fandoms don’t really have.

Conversations on Tumblr are often politically transgressive, questioning cultural values and challenging cultural norms. Not all of it translates directly into fic, but some of it does. Head canons for most characters may include characters who are intersex, asexual and/or a-romantic, disabled, aneurotypical, DFAB or DMAB, genderqueer, or mixed race. All of these are identities not previously well articulated or represented in fan fic, and clearly it is important—and, we’d argue, transgressive—if not to culture than at least to the text to explore them.

If the value is as much in the process of production as it is in the end result, if the transgressions are in the conversations surrounding it as much as they are in the fic itself, then the continued critical engagement with media texts remains as important as ever. Thus, while fan fiction may not be as resistant in terms of cultural values any more as it may have been, it becomes ever more important as a form of resistance in terms of economic and labor issues. Given that we’ve already talked about Kindle Worlds, fan fiction is transgressive now more than ever.

Whether it’s E. L. James publishing “pornography for women by women, with love” and topping best seller lists everywhere, or hundreds of OTW and AO3 volunteers providing a free not ad supported interface to share ALL THE FANFICS (RPF, explicit and all!)–fandom remains a way for people who are not mainstream and center to write back to the text. If their version becomes popular, all the better. Ideally, at some point, there may be no more need for oppositional readings anymore on a larger culture scale. But just looking at the debates surrounding a potential Black Widow movie, it is clear that day hasn’t come yet.

Kristina Busse has been an active media fan for more than a decade. She has published a variety of essays on fan fiction and fan culture and is, with Karen Hellekson, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures</em>.

Karen Hellekson (karenhellekson.com) is, with Kristina Busse, founding coeditor of the academic journal <em>Transformative Works and Cultures.</em> She has published in the fields of alternate history, science fiction literature, and fan studies.