“Decreasing World Suck”: Fan Communities, Mechanisms of Translation, and Participatory Politics

Hi, guys. I have been taking some much needed down time this summer, putting the blog on hiatus, focusing on other writing projects, and putting in motion plans for new content in the fall. As a result, I am only posting when I have some major news to share.

Today, I am releasing a report from the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group in the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. We are part of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and led by Joseph Kahne (Mills College). Our team is doing interviews with young activists, as well as field observations and media audits, to better understand the practices that have enabled successful networks and organizations to draw youth into greater political and civic participation. Our previous reports have included case studies of the DREAMer movement and Students for Liberty; a report on civic learning within the Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children; and a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures focused on the concept of fan activism.

This week, we are releasing “‘Decreasing World Suck’: Fan Communities, Mechanisms of Translation, and Participatory Politics,” which shares insights about the Harry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, and the Nerdfighters. The report is written by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, an Annenberg PhD Candidate, who is doing her dissertation research on this topic.

We’ve written here about the Harry Potter Alliance before, so let me share a little of what she has to say about the Nerdfighters:

The Nerdfighters are an informal group, revolving around the YouTube channel of the “VlogBrothers,” two brothers in their thirties. John Green is a best-selling young adult author and Hank Green is a musician and entrepreneur, though both now engage in a wide variety of online projects. Inspired by video artist Ze Frank, the Green brothers launched the “Brotherhood 2.0” project in 2007, in which they pledged to cease all text-based communication for a year and keep in touch through publicly accessible vlogs (video blogs). In their vlogs, the brothers adopt the “talking head” format, facing the camera and chatting with the audience (and each other). Over time, they developed an elaborate repertoire of made-up jargon and inside jokes, which encouraged others to join their exchange. In 2007, YouTube featured Hank’s song “Accio Deathly Hallows” (calling for the release of the seventh Harry Potter book) on its front page, greatly increasing their visibility. The main focus for this case study is the community of Nerdfighters—the predominantly young followers of the VlogBrothers.

The name “Nerdfighter” emerged from one of the Greens’ vlogs; John encountered an
arcade game called “Aero Fighters” and mistook its name for “Nerdfighters.”. The brothers’ followers adopted the term to describe themselves, and the VlogBrothers address many of their vlogs to Nerdfighters or “Nerdfighteria.” The Greens define a Nerdfighter as “a person who, instead of being made of bones, skin and tissue, is made entirely of awesome.” Over time, the Nerdfighter community reached significant proportions—the average Vlogbrother video has over 250,000 views.  The “barriers of entry” to Nerdfighteria are kept low. As the VlogBrothers quip: “Am I too young / old / fat / skinny / weird / cool / nerdy / handsome / tall / dead to be a Nerdfighter? No!! If you want to be a Nerdfighter, you are a Nerdfighter.”

Based on their sense of agency and their real-world engagement, Nerdfighters go beyond being a mere “audience” to the VlogBrothers, and can instead be conceptualized as a “public.”

The pronounced goal of Nerdfighters is to “decrease world suck.” When interviewed, John Green explained that, to him, this goal is:

Very much at the center of Nerdfighteria and I don’t think that there really is a community without that commitment to decreasing world suck or, as Hank likes to say, “increasing world awesome”. I don’t think there’s a community without its values.

As the VlogBrothers enigmatically define it, “World Suck is kind of exactly what World Suck sounds like. It’s hard to quantify exactly, but, you know, it’s like, the amount of suck in the world.” This broad definition leaves much space for individual Nerdfighters to interpret what “World Suck” (and decreasing it) means to them. Examples cited in interviews have ranged from personal acts, such as being a good person or cheering up a friend, to collective acts that fit within existing definitions of civic engagement. For example, Nerdfighters are very active on Kiva.org, a non-profit organization enabling individuals to make small loans to people without access to traditional banking systems.Kiva.org features communities of lenders, and Nerdfighters are the largest community on the website with 34,773 members, topping “atheists, agnostics and skeptics” (23,795 members) as well as Kiva Christians (10,652 members). For several months, Nerdfighters ranked highly in the amount loaned, with a total of $1,771,025 disbursed. The Nerdfighters also support Project for Awesome (P4A), an annual event in which members are encouraged to create videos about their favorite charity and non-profit organization and simultaneously post those on YouTube. The first year the project was launched, its goal was to take over YouTube’s front page with videos of charities and non-profits for one day. In the 2012 P4A, Nerdfighters uploaded hundreds of videos and donated impressive amounts of money to the “Foundation to Decrease World Suck” (a non-profit created by the VlogBrothers). Nerdfighters could then vote on which charities should receive the donation. Finally, Nerdfighters decrease World Suck by collaborating with the Harry Potter Alliance.

 

In particular, Kligler-Vilenchik is interested in what she describes as “mechanisms of translation” where-by these groups tap into the passions and social ties that bring these networks of fans together and providing means by which they can be connected to debates around social change and public policy. In the course of the report, Kligler-Vilenchik explores the strategies by which these groups deploy elements of their content worlds as analogies for thinking about political issues; the ways they encourage their supporters to actively produce and circulate media content, sometimes in the service of their larger campaigns; and the ways that they provide a social environment that encourages people to reflect on politics and which provide varying degrees of support for diverse perspectives. These kinds of fan groups are only one model of the ways that participatory culture might build the scaffolding needed to help young people enter into their new roles as politically-engaged citizens, and we are eager to see other case studies identify a range of other mechanisms that fulfill these bridging functions.

You can read the full report below.

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Scofield Clark (Part Three)

Your book is full of evocative phrases and concepts. One of my favorite is that of “emotional downsizing.” When and where does “emotional downsizing” occur and what does it tell us about the context in which contemporary parenting occurs?

I used the term “emotional downsizing” to talk about parental expectations regarding family life and how media fit into these expectations. This comes up in a specific example about a mother who talks about how she wishes that her family could do more activities together, but they don’t due to the time pressures they face (the parents have demanding jobs and the teen and preteen children have school, activities, and for the younger child, time in child care rather than at home). The mother wished that they could engage in different kinds of activities together – like hiking or playing board games together – that would require them to be “unplugged.” Yet sometimes, the pressures of everyday life meant that she needed to lower her expectations about what was realistic and possible. This is how “movie night,” while not a preferred activity for this mom (and for many of the parents I interviewed), became nevertheless a positive instance of “family time.” Doing something together, even if it’s a less parentally approved activity, is still worthwhile and sometimes it’s the best we can do in what can be an exhausting schedule of family life. Parents therefore lower their expectations of an “ideal” family activity, or engage in emotional downsizing, coming to see the up side of engaging in mediated activities together.

Incidentally I discovered after writing my book that I use this term in a way that differs from sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s use of it, although I refer to her work on family life throughout my book (e.g., I use her term “emotion work” to talk about what parents go through when justifying the decisions they make in relation to emotions rather than rational decision-making). In her book The Time Bind, Hochschild uses the phrase “emotional downsizing” to refer to what happens when parents assume that their children need them less than they do, which is followed by “emotional outsourcing,” or leaving children in the supervision of hired caregivers. I observed both of these, but I wanted to highlight how television, movies, YouTube sharing and other mediated leisure activities – often discussed as less desirable than other activities – come to be part of something that family members view positively as “family time.”

At a time when many of us are writing about the values of “connected learning,” your book offers a “reality check.” What kinds of obstacles or challenges do you see in trying to create richer educational opportunities for youth through the informal learning sector or for connecting what takes place in the home with school-based learning?

That is a great question. U.S. families across the economic spectrum are so busy these days, whether that’s due to work and activities in the best of situations, or due to the chronic health issues, doctor’s visits, and inconvenient transportation and work schedules that tend to be part of the most challenging family experiences. I love the ideas involved in connected learning: the interest-powered, peer-supported, and academically oriented learning principles and the production-centered, openly networked, and shared purpose design principles. But I do see two key issues.

First, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is in the interests of the young people themselves. This is obviously the point of developing case studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of learning in places like Quest2Learn and the Digital Youth Network. These will demonstrate that connected learning helps young people develop skills and literacies they will need to survive in education and beyond.

But secondly, both parents and young people need to see how connected learning is consistent with their goals as a family. How can programs of connected learning give parents opportunities to share their values and life experiences with their children? How can programs of connected learning help young people to feel that their experiences and perspectives are valued by their parents? Of course, connected learning isn’t a “program” so much as an approach, but parents may need to see specific programs in order to recognize how it is that their child’s school wants them to engage and will value their life experiences and familial goals in the process. I think that embracing a family-centric approach will move “connected learning” out of the headspace of “homework” or “youth after school activities” and into the space that I think the connected learning innovators want to go, which involves strengthening bridges between home and school life.

While the book is primarily descriptive of a range of different models of parenting in the digital age, you end with some normative advice about the ways parents might improve upon the quality of experiences they have with digital and mobile technologies. What philosophical commitments govern this advice for you?

I wanted to avoid giving very specific advice about hours spent in front of screens or with mobile devices. Instead, going back to your first question, I wanted parents to be able to think about the “parent app” that best fit their own situation and needs. For me, I think my primary philosophical commitments are to the inherent worth and dignity of every person and to the interconnectedness of all people and living beings of nature. I believe that we each need relationships of trust, mutuality, and compassion to survive, and we each have responsibilities to act in ways that foster those relationships. Maybe this is especially so in our primary relationships with our families. So I wanted to end the book with some suggestions rooted in the idea that all of us share a desire for meaningful relationships of mutuality and respect. I have a longer list in the conclusion, so here’s the edited version:

1. Be clear and fair about expectations regarding digital and mobile media, but be willing to change as children grow older and their needs change
2. Model the behavior you want, which includes prioritizing time together
3. Let children take the lead in teaching you about their media lives

But I also didn’t want to lose sight of the fact that for a lot of people, our experiences are related to and limited by not just what we can choose to do, but our cultural and social environment. So, I wanted to propose that collectively parents can work with others to shape an environment that better meets our desires for trust, mutuality, and compassion.

Thus, in relation to the bigger picture:
1. Change the situation for young people
2. Change the media to change the culture

As I write at the end of the book, the digital and mobile media that are so much a part of our lives may seem inevitable, but the particular forms they take and the organizational patterns governing the industries that make and distribute them are not. It is up to us to choose how these media will fit into our collective lives and how they will shape the lives of our children and families in the future.

 

Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Scofield Clark (Part Two)

Another core theme running through the book has to do with different experiences and expectations about media depending on the economic class background of parents. How would you characterize those differences?

I describe two different ethics that guide family approaches to digital and mobile media: an ethic of respectful connectedness, and an ethic of expressive empowerment. I’m really building on a lot of work in sociology of the family in this area (see, e.g., Annette Lareau and Allison Pugh as well as Roger Silverstone, each of whom looks at how family economics shape everyday experiences). The term “ethic” is meant to signal that there are guiding principles that help parents and young people determine a course of action in relation to communication practices. I use the phrase “Ethic of expressive empowerment” to refer to those families that seek to use the media for education and self-development, and the phrase “Ethic of respectful connectedness” to refer to those families that want to use media in ways that honor parents and reinforce family and cultural ties.

The differences are most stark at the extremes. The ethic of expressive empowerment can lead parents to think of their children as in need of constant guidance and oversight. When parents assume that they need to ensure the most empowering activities and the most appropriate forms of expression for their children at all times, they can rather easily slip into using technologies for covert helicopter parenting.

On the other hand, parents who are very concerned about the ways that technology use might undermine respect for parents can be drawn to a sort of “tough love” approach, using their children’s social networking accounts to engage in publicly humiliating their children as a means of demanding respect, or being quite restrictive and “strict” about technology use.

Most parents fall between these two extremes, but each approach seems in some ways related to class-based ways of thinking about risk and technology. Upper income families in my study worried that their child might miss some opportunity that would secure their ability to compete in the increasingly merciless economic environment, and this drives the desire to oversee appropriate uses of time spent with technologies (and hence also supports covert helicopter parenting). Lower income families worry about their children’s futures as well, but because many in my study had experienced the failures of society’s institutions, they place more trust in close relations – which is why undermining respect for one’s closest family members can be so threatening (and why engaging in a “tough love” response of public humiliation or strong restrictions on technology seems appropriate).

I wanted to outline these different approaches not so much to tie one or another specifically to class, but to highlight the idea that not all families have the same concerns about how technologies are playing a role in the lives of their young people. I think that many of us in education tend to embrace an ethic of expressive empowerment and so we see the positive potential in technologies. But I wanted offer some clues as to how counselors, educators, and parent advocates might discuss technology and its risks in family life in relation to differing ethics that frame a family’s course of action.


You try to challenge and complicate prevailing myths about cyber-bullying. What advice do you have for parents who are concerned that their children may be being bullied?

First of all, parents need to resist the urge to jump in and “save” the child. Ultimately, our goal as parents is to raise children who have resilience. We parents need to see ourselves as resources who can help our children solve their own problems. We do this when we talk with them about different strategies of response and tell our own stories of how we respond when we feel bullied or harassed.

Of course, some incidents escalate beyond what a young person might be able to address on his or her own.

I’ve been doing another study specifically on cyberbullying among teens, and one of the things I’ve found is that teens don’t like the term “cyberbullying.” “That’s what happens to younger kids,” as several high school students told me. They prefer the term cyberharrassment, which suggests the seriousness of the issue.

And so I also really like Common Sense Media’s approach to cyberbullying and in my book I echo what they suggest. It’s important for parents to encourage their children to stand up, not just stand by when they witness such harassment, and it’s equally important for those who are victimized to seek sources of support so that they are standing with others in response to the perpetrator.

You acknowledge throughout the book that some of your findings push against your own values as a parent. What would be some examples where you were forced to question your own assumptions about good parenting?

Even though I think of myself as someone who loves to spend time with my children, writing this book made me realize that this often comes into conflict with my sense that part of being a good parent is balancing work and home life appropriately. When it comes to children, there’s really no balancing or multitasking, there’s just the attention you can focus on one thing or another at any given time. In other words, if I really want to spend time with my children, I’ve got to put away my laptop and phone. And I’ve also decided to be much more intentional about spending time doing media-related things with them. Fortunately, we all like the Just Dance 2 DVD we received from a grandparent over the holidays!

In your discussion of teen’s online play with identity, you introduce the concept of “interpretive reproduction.” Can you explain this concept and discuss what it helps us to see about teen’s strategies for using social media?

Sociologist William Corsaro introduces the term “interpretive reproduction” as a way of challenging our tendency as adults to think about children in terms of “socialization,” or in terms of what they will become in the future rather than in relation to what they are doing presently. The term “interpretive reproduction” describes the process that young people go through as they interpret and then innovate as participants in society. They’re not just internalizing and absorbing culture; they’re actively contributing to how it is changing, even as they’re doing so in relation to existing social processes. I used this term as I was trying to sort out what was “new” about the context of digital and mobile media in teen identity work, and what was pretty consistent with the way teens had been engaging in identity work for a long time.

I think the term helps to remind parents that parenting is a process that involves not only parental intentions but also the creativities of young people as they respond to their environments. As parents it’s easy to feel nervous about the fact that we can’t control a lot of what happens in new media environments. I think it’s helpful for parents to look for patterns that relate to what came before, so that we can see that young people are using these new media to address needs that have remained remarkably similar from their generation to ours. At the same time, for sociologists interested in the role of media in social change, it’s important to see that the innovations of young people do matter. They are contributors to culture, which is why it’s important to look at their practices not just in relation to parental intentions but also in relation to how the collective uses of technologies among all generations are changing our social lives.

 Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

Raising Children in the Digital Age: An Interview with Lynn Schofield Clark (Part One)

A few posts back, I shared with you my interview with art historian Amy F. Ogata, author of Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Ogata was nice enough to discuss with me her thoughts on the ways contemporary ideas about the digital child might have been informed by the thinking of the postwar era. Today, I want to push us to think even further about the nature of childhood and parenting in the digital age. My interviewee is Lynn Scofield Clark, author of the 2013 book, The Parent App: Understanding Families in the Digital Age.

The Parent App builds upon a rich tradition of work on the intersection of media and the family, going back to early work in this space by writers such as James Lull, Roger Silverstone, and Ellen Seiter, as well as more recent work by scholars such as Sonia Livingstone in the UK or the Digital Youth Project in the United States. Clark is clearly familiar with this literature,  but she also pushes well beyond it — not simply because of her central focus on digital and mobile technologies, but also because she is so attentive to the shifting conditions — economic, social, technological — which impact the lives of American families today. There is an admirable balance here between the broad view — an account of significant shifts in the relations between work and family — and a more focused attention to the specific narratives of the individual families she describes.

She has a particularly nuanced concern for notions of class, as they operate on much more ambiguous terms in Amercan culture than in the British tradition that informs her work. She helps us to understand how the choices which parents make about their children’s access and use of new media technologies are strongly shaped by class — in the literal sense, in terms of access to technologies, time, space, and cultural capital  and in the more figurative sense, in terms of very different ideologies of parenting that determine what value families attach to different kinds of activities within and beyond the home.

She is a gifted ethnographic storyteller: each segment offers a vivid portrait of the people involved, the choices they are making, the impact of the those choices on their lives, and the contexts within which these choices get made.  She does an admirable job here at moving between descriptive and normative agendas, being clear about her own stakes as a mother in researching and understanding how decisions get made about media in the context of family lives.  She makes it clear that some of the choices parents make clash with her own norms and expectations as a mother, but she looks at each of her subjects with sufficient sympathy and empathy that she can explain why these choices make sense to them, and she also observes that stricter regulation does not always result in estrangement between parents and children.

All told, this is important work, especially at a time when a growing number of scholars in the Digital Media and Learning field are seeking to understand the learning ecology — the ways that informal and participatory learning opportunities outside of school may become part of a “connected learning” system that supports children’s educational growth. She clearly understands the stakes behind this work, but she also brings a healthy dose of realism to the conversation, noting that even middle class parents who may buy into the ideology of participatory learning often do not devote much time to enhancing or contributing to these kinds of opportunities for their off-spring. She also offers us some insights into why lower income families suffer from diminished opportunities — not simply because of constraints on resources, but also due to hostility from others in their immediate environment towards certain goals or norms  they might associate with social striving and upward mobility. Clark finds that even professional, college education, upper middle class parents often lack the skills and knowledge to meaningfully mentor their sons and daughters about their online lives; she finds that even in close families youth often involve themselves in activities behind their parent’s backs, circumventing rules designed to protect them from exposure to risks. She suggests that parents still look upon their relationship to new media primarily in terms of regulating exposure, limiting time, and managing risks, much more than creating and sustaining opportunities.

What do you mean here by “parent app?” How does the title speak to parents’ expectations about the ways that digital and mobile media devices are impacting their relationship with their children?

I used the phrase “the parent app” in a tongue-in-cheek way, as in, “wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were an app that could provide parents with an answer to every possible dilemma that emerges in relation to parenting and technology?!”

The title also plays with the film title, “The Parent Trap,” in that I found that parents do often feel trapped, or at least overwhelmed, by the fact that they think that their children are growing up in a digital culture that they may not fully understand and to which they think they have limited access. This parental anxiety drives us as parents to want some neat-and-tidy way to address technologies in family life. So, I used the title to signal that mine *wasn’t* going to be a straightforward “advice” book, because I really believe that every parenting situation is unique and therefore I think it would be impossible to create such a book, let alone an app, that would address what is a constantly changing situation.

What I wanted to create was a book that was more like the kinds of conversations I participate in with parents and, less officially, with research friends, when we share stories and try to make sense of what they mean for our unique situations and dilemmas. So, the book itself is very story-driven in terms of its approach. My hope is that the stories help parents consider their own situations and to then build our own “apps.”

Throughout the book, you are attentive not only to what teens and adults say about their relations to and through these media, but also the contexts in which your interviews were conducted. In what ways did both teens and parents use the interview process to deliver messages to other family members?

We all live in such busy times that in U.S. families, it’s pretty easy to focus on the immediacies in our conversations with one another. The interviews for this book gave parents and young people a chance to sit together and discuss something important, and that in itself often made for a positive experience. The interview experience allowed parents to reinforce the message of how important it is to value the time we can spend listening to one another. Of course, this means that the parents who feel “too busy” to talk with their children didn’t participate in the interviews, and I believe that this skewed the sample somewhat. But it also gave the study a chance to explore what happens when those families that do prioritize being together actually focus attention on the sometimes-contentious issues that arise in relation to digital and mobile media.

Risk is a central theme running through the book. How do parents and youth understand the “risks” of networked communications in different ways? Why are we as a culture so often pre-occupied by these risks and so often disinterested in the potential value of teens online lives?

In the U.S. we live in a culture of fear, as sociologist Barry Glassner has argued. In my book I discuss the role that the news media have played in relation to appealing to this fear, which in turn contributes to our sense of risk. TV news in particular highlights unusual yet poignant occurrences that their viewers will find troubling – they have to do this because they need to appeal to the lucrative audience of young parents in the 25 – 40 age category in order to stay on the air. So stories about children and Internet-related concerns, while important, receive attention that tends to magnify the sense of risk in a manner that’s disproportionate to the actual risk.

I found that even though parents and teens voiced many of the same fears about potential risks that you see in the news, young people in their teens and preteens tended to recognize and know how to avoid the most-publicized risks, such as predators and encounters with strangers. The preteens and teens in my study were concerned about risks that they related to identity: what you might call dissing, drama, and disregard (or being ignored). This is consistent with a lot of research that’s been done by Pew Internet & Microsoft’s danah boyd (who spoke of “drama” as a word teens prefer to describe what adults might call cyberbullying).

I think you’re right, Henry, that many parents are pre-occupied with potential risks and less interested than they might be in the value of their teens’ online experiences. Parents tend to see safety as their first order of business, so I guess that orientation isn’t surprising. Yet as digital and mobile media become more integrated into family life, parents are coming to see the benefits of such media, particularly in relation to parental goals of enhancing family connection in a time that’s characterized by our sense that we’re busier than ever.

Lynn Schofield Clark is Associate Professor, Director of the Estlow International Center for Journalism and New Media, and Interim Chair of the Media, Film, and Journalism Studies department at the University of Denver.  In addition to co-parenting two teens, she is author of The Parent App: Understanding Families in a Digital Age (Oxford U Press, 2012), From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural (Oxford U Press, 2005), and co-author with Stewart Hoover, Diane Alters, Joe Champ, and Lee Hood of Media, Home, and Family (Routledge, 2004).  She teaches qualitative research methods and journalism courses, and is currently involved in a community engaged youth participatory action study of news and story-sharing among high school aged recent immigrants to the U.S..

The “Creative Child” Meets The “Digital Native”: An Interview with Amy F. Ogata (Part Two)

You write extensively in the book about the design of playrooms, suggesting that there is a shift in terms of children’s access to physical space within the home during this period. What factors led to the shift and what were the prevailing ideas about the design of play spaces for children?

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Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking not only about playrooms and playhouses of the domestic sphere, but also public schools and museums. In the single-family dwelling, the shift I am trying to trace is the growing belief that children, whose numbers exploded in the U.S. after World War II, needed their own spaces and that these were not just utilitarian leftover spaces but rather specially designed to promote their imaginations. In architect-designed houses, there were often playrooms on the plans. Even in builder houses, there were special places indicated for children’s activities. One of the main ideas was that children should have “correctly” outfitted spaces. The American Toy Institute commissioned a series of model playrooms to house numerous toys and make playing indoors attractive. Others, such as the anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that children should be left alone in their bedrooms to think and develop their own ideas. Isolation is one of the themes but proximity to the rest of the family, especially the mother, is also written into some of these houses. And the making of a “creative” home environment was stated in magazines and guidebooks as an expectation of postwar parents.

As you note, there was a dramatic increase in the number of children’s museums across this period, as well as a changing philosophy about what forms of creative engagement such museums should support. What has been the lasting impact of these ideas on current museum practices?

The form children’s museums take today is, in part, a result of the enduring notion that the sensory encounter of objects will enhance learning and stimulate new thoughts. Children’s museums as a type were not new, but they did increase very quickly during the Baby Boom. And while early museums emphasized nature study, their postwar versions were more likely to ask the child to experience something, whether it was being under a city street or climbing through a giant molecule. In the case of the Exploratorium, which was never specifically a children’s museum but engaged lots of children, visitors were encouraged to experiment with perception. Several museums I discuss look very different today–the Exploratorium, for example, has just moved to a new facility–they now attract a much younger child than museums in the 60s and 70s, and many of the exhibits are less open-ended or they go straight for entertainment, emphasizing dramatic play over, say, studying waves in a ripple tank. I think the most long-lasting aspect is the general belief that children should be active in the museum space.

It seems to me that some contemporary efforts to develop alternative kinds of spaces for children and youth still owe a great deal to the design approaches of this era. I was hoping I might get you to comment on what someone from the 1960s would recognize or find strange about two contemporary educational spaces for children? The first is the YouMedia Center at the Chicago Public Library

Sounds like a great space and in some ways it resembles the kinds of open school ideas of the late 60s and 70s. In that age, the push for large open spaces and team teaching was promoted as an answer to a teacher shortage, and to enable use of “teaching machines” and media (in that day it was film, television and sound recording), and a way of engaging children in hands-on projects, like producing TV shows for their schools. While architects thought that the spaces they created would ensure that teachers and students behaved in certain ways–smaller classrooms would encourage small group instruction, larger spaces might promote collaborative projects, moveable furniture would lead to flexible spaces–however, that didn’t necessarily happen. YouMedia is obviously not a space where core subjects are taught on a daily basis, but instead is an auxiliary space for exploration after school, perhaps more like the Exploratorium or the Brooklyn Children’s Museum as it was a long time ago. There, children and teens could operate machines, mix soils in a greenhouse, graffiti a concrete wall, or retreat to read in a library housed in a leftover gas tank.


The second is the Los Feliz Charter School for the Arts. Again, what commonalities and differences do you see between the ideal creative spaces of the 1960s and this school?

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This is another great example of the ways that progressive educational ideas are resurgent, however, this is a charter school with access to the kind of private funding that is not available to regular public schools that depend on tax revenue. The schools I discuss were all publically funded (some were in extremely wealthy neighborhoods and others in poor rural areas) and aimed to accomplish some (but certainly not all) of these same learning objectives. Many of them were small and have been changed over the years. It seems that the Los Feliz school has tried to use space to encourage curricular outcomes. Like some schools in the postwar era they have given over far more teaching space to projects like art, music and drama. Increasingly these are the subjects that are getting squeezed out of the public school day by constant budget cuts, emphasis on standardized testing, and in places like New York City, by demands on limited space. The sentiment that one teacher in this video conveys–that they are not trying to turn out artists but rather confident, well-balanced people–echoes exactly the discourse on creativity in the postwar years. The notion that creativity is a lifelong benefit that will eventually help children become competitive in the workplace has also found its way to college campuses. I don’t mean to sound skeptical of creativity itself (I am an art historian!), but I think that the schemes we adopt to instrumentalize it reveal that we lionize creativity as a cultural myth at moments when we feel insecure.

Amy F. Ogata is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City. She is the author of Art Nouveau and the Social Vision of Living. Her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The “Creative Child” Meets the “Digital Native”: An Interview with Amy Ogata (Part One)

 

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The Post-War American family turns out to have been a much more complex phenomenon than our stereotypical images of Leave It To Beaver might suggest. The Baby Boom generation, invested in critiquing the values of their parents, left us with an image of the era which is highly conservative, ideologically repressive, emotionally sterile, and materialistic — there’s some truth to these cliches, of course, but there was much more going on. In particular, there was an attempt, coming out of the Second World War, to embrace a conscious project of designing and developing a new generation which would be free of the prejudices of the old, which would be capable of confronting global problems and making intelligent decisions about the Bomb, which would be democratic to its core and thus resistant to future Hitlers, and above all, which would be free of inhibitions which might block their most creative and expressive instincts.

I’ve long been fascinated by this period but rarely have I seen it written about with the depth and insights that Amy F. Ogata brings to her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America. Ogata brings a design/art history perspective to bear on the period, telling us more about the ways that ideas about children as expressive beings helped to inform the design of toys, playspaces, schools, libraries, museums, and other public institutions, and beyond that, she offers some glimpses in how these ideas about creativity helped to shape children’s books, television, and other popular culture texts. I came to the book for the insights that it might give us into the children’s media of the 1950s and 1960s, but I left with a much more immediate sense of how a deeper understanding of how ideas about childhood during that period might speak to our present concerns. As I wrote as a blurb for the book:

At a time when the news media is again concerned about a crisis in American creativity, schools are cutting funding for arts education, major foundations are modeling ways that students and teachers might ‘play’ with new media, and museums worry about declining youth attendance, Designing the Creative Child makes an important intervention, reminding us that these debates build on a much longer history of efforts to support and enhance the creative development of American youth. I admire this fascinating, multidisciplinary account, which couples close attention to the design of everyday cultural materials with an awareness of the debates in educational theory, public policy, children’s literature, and abstract art that informed them.

So, the following interview is designed to explore those points of intersection between the “creative child” as imagined in the post-war period and the “digital native” as conceived in the early 21st century. As a careful historian, Ogata was careful to make some nuanced distinctions between the two, yet she was open to exploring the ways that these older concepts about childhood might still be informing some of our current discussions about digital media and learning.

You open the book with a quote from Arnold Gesell who writes that “by nature” the child was “a creative artist of sorts….We may well be amazed at his resourcefulness, his extraordinary capacity for original activity, inventions and discovery.” This formulation reminds me of contemporary formulations of children as “digital natives” who “naturally” know how to navigate the online world. What do you see as some cornerstones of this belief in the “creative” child? Is the goal for adults to facilitate and support this creativity or to get out of the way and avoid stiffling it?

This is an interesting analogy and one I had not considered. Gesell is articulating a sense of surprise and admiration, and it resembles how we speak about children navigating digital devices. What the concepts of the “creative child” and the “digital native” share is an essentialist belief that children are somehow “naturally” inclined toward certain expressions or activities, and it is very hard to support these kinds of overwhelming generalities. Moreover, while we might praise the “naive” and untutored, behind these sentiments I also detect both a patronizing quality and a sense of loss or regret on the part of the adult. The idea of the creative child is one invented by adults and, as I argue, it serves many different interests, from toy manufacturers to art museums, Cold War ideologues to serious scientists.

The cornerstone of the idea of the creative child is that he or she possesses “natural” insight that comes out in play. Another related belief is that childhood creativity is a fleeting quality that has the potential to provide future gains for the child, her parents, and the nation. Because the idea of nurturing creativity in children was so widespread (and such a big business) after World War II, we tend to understand children’s creativity in limited, usually positive terms and we expect it to take certain forms. This, perhaps, is where the creative child and digital native part ways, given the lingering popular suspicion around children and the digital environment (the belief that kids might get themselves or others in trouble). In the historical case I outline, it is a parent’s responsibility to facilitate a child’s creativity by providing toys, amusements, and spaces for play. But the public was also invested in some of these notions, evident in new public schools, spaces for exploration such as museums, and in art education programs.

What connection existed between the ideal of the creative, expressive child and the growing consumer culture of the post-war period? What kinds of products were able to attach themselves to this particular construction of childhood?

The consumer dimension was a powerful one and has become even more so today. It’s hard to escape the rhetoric of creativity if you’re shopping for toys or games, or other things like clothing and schools. The child’s block, the cardboard box, and crayons were some of the most romanticized and widely prescribed amusements of the postwar age. In addition there were some objects, created by architects and designers, which were deliberately arty and were sold specifically as creativity toys.

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Magnet Master was a magnetic building toy designed by Arthur Carrara and developed as a product of the Walker Art Center. There were no instructions or diagrams because, the museum reasoned, children didn’t need them and would do better on their own. The Philadelphia architect Anne Tyng developed a building toy she attempted to market under the idea of stimulating children to build and explore. Charles and Ray Eames’s 1950s paper toys were similar but used different materials and were more widely available and for a longer time. But other products, once so ubiquitous, have now completely disappeared. The simple indoor fabric playhouse that draped over a card table is gone, in part because people no longer have those standard-sized card tables.

To what degree was the ideal of the creative child bound up with particular experiences of class, race, and gender? This is, was the expressive child more likely to be middle class, white and male, or did these writers offer a more multicultural understanding of what constituted creativity?

CPlaythings1The figure of the creative child in this historical era is extremely middle class, but not exclusively male and not exclusively white. In the early 1950s, white children are implied in the toy ads and housing schemes, by the early 60s, this is still dominant but less so. Creative Playthings placed ads in Ebony, for example, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum’s 1970 renovation was very much designed with the local Crown Heights neighborhood in mind. The creative child is a construction that aims to overlook difference while simultaneously selling exclusivity. This is one of the paradoxes of the idea. Creativity is described as something that all children are supposed to possess “naturally,” but at the same time parents and teachers are told that it needs careful tending and stimulation, usually through specific kinds of toys and materials.

What role did television play in promoting and supporting this concept of childhood creativity?

 

 

Television was of course a central force for the representation of childhood in postwar America and had a role to play in helping to create the specific figure of the creative child. I spend most of my book describing material and spatial forms that do this work, but there are several programs that also had an important role in the making of the idea. Winky Dink, which asked the child to “finish” the story by drawing on a special screen affixed to the TV itself, is an obvious example for harnessing the child’s agency, but the character who, I think, best represents the image of the postwar creative child is Gumby.

Gumby’s energy and imagination are represented in the many physical forms he takes, and the way he and his sidekick Pokey move in and out of stories, eras, and places. His exuberant inquisitiveness sometimes brings havoc upon himself and his family, but this is of course resolved before the end of the program. The way creativity is constructed on television and in children’s books emphasizes the positive and tends toward happy endings.

Often, across the book, it seems that children’s imaginations are linked to various forms of abstraction. What was the relationship between childhood and the modern art world during this period?

You are right about this. Abstraction is one of the recurring motifs of the designed objects and spaces I discuss. Frank Caplan, who was one of the founders of Creative Playthings, believed that undefined shapes and unpainted forms would help to stimulate a child’s imagination. The company sought out artists to design toys and playgrounds to enhance their business and for cognitive developmental reasons, but also because they were genuinely interested in the links between modern art and design and objects for children; they collaborated several times with the Museum of Modern Art. This occurred at a time when abstract painting and sculpture was gaining prestige in both the U.S. and Europe, and had a propagandistic role in the Cold War. However, the twinning of abstraction and a child’s imagination (evident in forms like children’s drawings) is an older idea. Early twentieth-century European modernists deeply admired the representational strategies of children’s art. This notion comes back with new vigor in the “Creative Art” education curriculum that asked pupils to express their experiences rather than copy models. There was, then, a demand placed on children to be creative, and often abstract.

 Amy F. Ogata is associate professor at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture in New York City. She is the author of Art Nouveau and the Social Vision of Living. Her new book, Designing the Creative Child: Playthings and Places in Midcentury America was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press.

There She Blows! Reading in a Participatory Culture and Flows of Reading Launch Today

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Today marks the release of not one but two closely related New Media Literacies publications. The first is a new print book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom, which is being published by Teacher’s College Press in collaboration with the National Writing Project. I have not seen the completed book yet myself, but we are told that they will starting shipping copies as of Feb. 22.

The second is Flows of Reading, a digital book, which I have developed with Erin Reilly,the Creative Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab, and Ritesh Mehta, a PhD candidate in the Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication here at USC. Flows of Reading is online and freely accessible, so check it out here.

This project started back when I was at MIT and these two release represent the culmination of more than six years of work. We tell part of the story in the opening chapter of the book, which you can read here. Here’s an excerpt:

 

At first glance, playwright, youth organizer, and community activist Ricardo Pitts-Wiley might seem like a peculiar inspiration for a book about digital media and participatory culture. Although Pitts-Wiley is enthusiastic about the potential of new media, much of his work is distinctly low-tech.  He writes and produces remixed versions of such classics as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a traditional venue: the community stage.

 

But something magical—something participatory—happens on that stage. First, his plays’ universal themes are seasoned with immediacy, with issues that resonate with his community. His play Moby-Dick: Then and Now, for example, intermingles the themes of Captain Ahab’s obsessions, his fatalism, his willingness to place his crew in peril, with contemporary urban gang culture. In Pitts-Wiley’s retelling, Ahab becomes Alba, a teenaged girl whose brother has been killed by a “WhiteThing” a mysterious figure for the international cocaine cartel; she devotes her life to finding, and killing, those responsible for her brother’s death.

In Moby-Dick: Then and Now, Pitts-Wiley chose not simply to revise the story, but to incorporate aspects of Melville’s version in counterpoint with Alba’s quest for vengeance. As the young actors pace the stage, telling their story in contemporary garb, lingo, and swagger, a literal scaffold above their heads holds a second set of actors who give life to Melville’s original tale. The “then” half of the cast are generally older and whiter than the adolescent, mixed-race “now” actors. The play’s meaning lies in the juxtaposition between these two very different worlds, a juxtaposition sometimes showing commonalities, sometimes contrasts.

Reading in a Participatory Culture reflects an equally dramatic meeting between worlds. Project New Media Literacies emerged from the MacArthur Foundation’s ground-breaking commitment to create a field around digital media and learning. The Foundation sought researchers who would investigate how young people learned outside of the formal educational setting–through their game play, their fannish participation, “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” (Ito et al. 2010). The goal was to bring insights drawn from these sites of informal learning to the institutions—schools, museums, and libraries–that impact young people’s lives. Right now, many young people are deprived of those most effective learning tools and practices as they step inside the technology-free zone characterizing many schools, while other young people, who lack access to these experiences outside of school, are doubly deprived because schools are not helping them to catch up to their more highly connected peers.

Project New Media Literacies—first at MIT and now at USC–has brought together a multidisciplinary team of media researchers, designers, and educators to develop new curricular and pedagogical models that could contribute to this larger project.  Our work has been informed by Henry Jenkins’ background as a media scholar focused on fan communities and popular culture and by the applied expertise of Erin Reilly, who had previously helped to create Zoey’s Room, a widely acclaimed on-line learning community that employs participatory practices to get young women more engaged with science and technology. Our team brought together educational researchers, such as Katie Clinton, who studied under James Paul Gee, and Jenna McWilliams,  who had an MFA in creative writing and teaching experience in rhetoric and composition, with people like Anna Van Someren, who had done community-based media education through the YWCA and who had worked as a professional videomaker. Flourish Klink, who had helped to organize the influential Fan Fiction Alley website, which provides beta reading for amateur writers to hone their skills, and Lana Swartz who had been a classroom teacher working with special need children, also joined the research group.  And our development and field testing of curricular resources involved us in collaborating both with other academic researchers, such as Howard Gardner’s Good Play Project at Harvard, with whom we developed a casebook on ethics and new media, and Dan Hickey, an expert on participatory assessment at Indiana University. We also worked with youth-focused organizations such as Global Kids, with classroom teachers such as Judith Nierenberg and Lynn Sykes in Massachusetts, and Becky Rupert in Indiana, who were rethinking and reworking our materials for their instructional purposes, and with scholars such as Wyn Kelley who had long sought new ways to make Melville’s works come alive in classrooms around the country.

Reading in a Participatory Culture is targeted primarily at educators (inside and outside formal schooling structures) who want to share with their students a love for reading and for the creative process and who recognize the value of adopting a more participatory model of pedagogy. Our approach starts with a reconsideration of what it means to read, recognizing that we read in different ways for different goals and with different outcomes depending on what motivates us to engage with a given text.  Literary scholar Wyn Kelley, Theater director/playwrite Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, actor Rudy Cabrera, and myself, writing as a fan and media scholar, each describe our complex and evolving relations with Moby-Dick, and encourage teachers and students to reflect more about their own experiences as readers. We use the idea of remix as a central concept running through the book, exploring how Pitts-Wiley remixed Moby-Dick, how Herman Melville remixed many elements of 19th century whaling culture, how other artists have remixed Melville’s work through the years, and what it might mean for students and fans to engage creatively rather than simply critically with literary and media texts. Along the way, we provide a fuller explanation and assessment of what worked as we moved towards a more participatory culture oriented approach to teaching classic literary texts in the high school classroom.

Here’s a few early responses to the book:

“In Reading in a Participatory Culture, Media Studies meets the Great White Whale in the English Classroom. This book is one of the most exciting and breathtaking works on English education ever written. At the same time it is must reading for anyone interested in digital media, digital culture, and learning in the 21st Century.”
— James Paul Gee, Mary Lou Fulton Presidential Professor of Literacy Studies, Arizona State University, and author of The Anti-Education Era

 ”An inspirational approach to democratizing the cultural canon and restoring classrooms to expansive educational purposes grounded in a participatory ethos. It explains in clear, accessible, and practically informative terms the New Media Literacies philosophy of reading and writing to prepare today’s students for the world they must build — together, collaboratively — tomorrow. Reading in a Participatory Culture provides rich descriptions of experiences and perspectives of readers and writers, teachers, and learners who understand Moby-Dick as itself an instance of cultural remix and, in turn, a living creation to be remixed by all who take delight in it — especially those who can come to take delight in it by being introduced to it as part of their education.” – Colin Lankshear, Adjunct Professor, James Cook University, Australia

 

Flows of Reading takes this process to the next level. We have created a rich environment designed to encourage close critical engagement not only with Moby-Dick but a range of other texts, including the children’s picture book, Flotsam; Harry Potter; Hunger Games; and Lord of the Rings. We want to demonstrate that the book’s approach can be applied to many different kinds of texts and may revitalize how we teach a diversity of forms of human expression.  We look at many different adaptions and remixes of Moby-Dick from the films featuring Gregory Peck and Patrick Stewart as Ahab to MC Lar’s music video, “Ahab” and Pitts-Wiley’s Moby-Dick: Then and Now stage production to works that evoke Moby-Dick less directly, including Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan and Battlestar Galacitca‘s “Scar.”

We share videos produced by the Project New Media Literacies team dealing not only with Moby-Dick but a range of cultural practices, including cosplay, animation, graffiti, and remix in music, but we also share many other clips, including a great series of videos on fan bidding produced by the Organization for Transformative Works and others produced by the Harry Potter Alliance. Altogether, there are more than 200 media elements incorporated into Flows of Reading.

 

We share classroom activities which were part of the original curriculum and we share “challenges” produced using our new PLAYground platform.  The PLAYground platform is designed to allow teachers and students alike to produce and share multimedia “challenges” and to remix each other’s work for new purposes and contexts. Think of it as Scratch for culture rather than code. In this case, it allows us to take the participatory pedagogy approach to the next level: this is not simply a book or a multimedia experience teacher’s consume; it is a community of readers within which they can participate and we are creating a space where they can make their own contributions to this project.

This digital book was built using Scaler, a project of the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture at USC, and we are sharing the clips through Critical Commons, another USC initiative, which is intend to promote fair use of our shared culture for academic and creative purposes. We see this project as one which fuses traditional approaches to literature instruction with ideas drawn from Cultural Studies and Media Literacy, and we hope that the project provokes others to think about what can be learned at the intersection between high and popular culture.

And we also are using this project to explore how a classic work by a “dead white male writer” can contribute to multicultural education. Pitts-Wiley argues that Moby-Dick is already a multicultural work: as he explains, “everyone was already on that boat!” but we also show many different strategies for bringing alternative perspectives to bear on the book — from a discussion of how artists and critics have responded to the absence of well-developed female characters in Moby-Dick to an exploration of contemporary Maori culture inspired by what Melville tells us about Quequeg’s background. Along the way, we consider everything from the history of white appropriation of black music to the ways that Japanese and American subcultures build community and identity through cross-cultural borrowings.

Finally, we have some sections which deal directly with the representation of violence in literary and popular culture texts, recognizing that anxieties about media violence are concerns that teachers regularly must confront in their classrooms.  We hope that you will check out Flows of Reading and even more so, we hope that it offers practical models and resources that educators may use to remodel how they teach Moby-Dick and other texts in their curriculum.

This project remains a work in progress. There are still some elements we hope to add or fix in the coming weeks, but it is now open to business, thanks to the hard work of Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, and the other members of their team. (See the acknowledgements section in the digital book itself.)

Check it out. Participate. Spread the word. Share your insights with us.

What’s All the Fuss About Connected Learning?

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation released a significant new report, Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, which should warrant the close attention of my regular readers, especially those of you who are strongly invested in thinking about the nature of education within a networked era. The report comes more than six years after the launch of the Digital Media and Learning initiative and represents an important re-assessment of what’s working and what’s not as institutions at all levels have responded to the changes which are impacting our information environment. The authors of the report include some of the most important American and British thinkers about youth, new media, and education:

Mizuko Ito…Kris Gutiérrez…Sonia Livingstone… Bill Penuel…Jean Rhodes…Katie Salen..Juliet Schor…Julian Sefton-Green….S. Craig Watkins 

The report is sobering in its acknowledgment of some of the real challenges confronting us, especially in its focus on the growing inequalities in terms of access not simply to the technological infrastructure but to the skills and opportunities required to meaningfully participate in the new media environment:

Despite its power to advance learning, many parents, educators, and policymakers perceive new media as a distraction from academic learning, civic engagement,and future opportunity. Digital media also threaten to exacerbate growing inequities in education. Progressive digital media users … are a privileged minority. There is also a growing gap between the progressive use of digital media outside of the classroom, and the no-frills offerings of most public schools that educate our most vulnerable populations. This gap contributes to widespread alienation from educa- tional institutions, particularly among non-dominant youth. Without a proactive educational reform agenda that begins with questions of equity, leverages both in-school and out-of-school learning, and embraces the opportunities new media offer for learning, we risk a growth in educational alienation by our most vulnerable populations….

This report is skeptical and hard-nosed, challenging some of the optimism which has fueled previous work in the Digital Media and Literacy tradition, raising concerns about what is happening to those who are being excluded from meaningful participation. The authors raise alarms about how all young people are impacted by an educational process which gives them few chances to pursue their own passions and interests within a regime of standardized testing and a fragmented media environment where children have much greater access to highly commercial sites than to those which speak to them as citizens and learners.

The report raises these issues while also recognizing the very real educational opportunities DML scholars have identified when we look at those communities which have proven rewarding for a growing number of young participants, communities which have a shared ethical commitment to encouraging and scaffolding their participation. The authors believe something valuable is taking place in many corners of the web (and in the context of young people’s everyday engagements with media.):

Young people can have diverse pathways into connected learning. Schools, homes, afterschool clubs, religious institutions, and community centers and the parents, teachers, friends, mentors and coaches that young people find at these diverse locales, all potentially have a role to play in guiding young people to connected learning. Connected learning takes root when young people find peers who share interests, when academic institutions recognize and make interest-driven learning relevant to school, and when community institutions provide resources and safe spaces for more peer- driven forms of learning.

Examples of learning environments that are currently integrating the spheres of peers, interests, and academic pursuits include athletics programs that are tied to in-school recognition, certain arts and civic learning programs, and interest-driven academic programs such as math, chess, or robotics competitions. These connected learning environments ideally embody values of equity, social belonging, and participation. Further, connected learning environments are generally characterized by a sense of shared purpose, a focus on production, and openly networked infrastructures.

The report is skeptical, not cynical. It asks hard questions precisely so we can empower meaningful change. The authors do not fall prey to the paralysis which consumes so much academic writing, but rather they offer a number of concrete recommendations about what new kinds of educational structures and practices need to emerge. What I admire most about this report is this movement between critique and advocacy, between analysis of existing problems and the willingness to find concrete solutions. I have admired these pragmatic qualities in many of these authors individually in the past. See, for example, my previous interviews with Mimi Ito, Craig Watkins, and Sonia Livingstone, about their research.  

The report includes rich case studies, demonstrating the kinds of experiences some youth have enjoyed through joining the Harry Potter Alliance, enrolling in New York City’s Quest to Learn School, or participating in the after school offerings of the Chicago Public Library’s YouMedia Center. Such projects illustrate what happens when everything comes together. Here, for example, is a bit from a sidebar written by Sangita Shresthova and Neta  Kliger-Vilenchik, two researchers from my Civic Paths team at USC’s Annenberg School, dealing with the learning culture which has grown up around the Harry Potter Alliance:

Although fun and social in nature, involvement in HPA pushes young people to connect their recre- ational interests to social and political issues that they might not otherwise be familiar with. Because HPA turns its attention to many issues, ranging from net neutrality to fair trade and voter registra- tion, this forces participants to study up in a range of new areas. Almost every campaign is accompa- nied by a period of learning about the new issue and making sense of it. Chapter leaders will often educate the group on a new issue. Participants also talk about how involvement in HPA helped them see the political messages within Harry Potter. One chapter has gone as far as opening a 6-week study group on “Harry Potter as a tool for social change,” discussing links between the narratives and real-world issues. In other words, HPA is a site of hybridization and translation between political and fantasy-centered frames of reference.

Coincidentally, Andrew Slack, HPA’s Founder and Leader, also released a new TED talks video last week, which is a wonderful illustration of the HPA approach at work.

Here, Slack is very much in his element, speaking to a room of youth, giving himself over to his inner fan boy, and at the same time, encouraging critical media literacies and informed engagement with social issues. You also get a sense here of how Slack and others in his organization are moving beyond a focus on Harry Potter fandom and seeking to demonstrate how we might learn from a range of popular media and literary texts.

Such educational opportunities are exciting — they have sustained my own enthusiasm over the better part of a decade now — but they are not in and of themselves enough, not as long as many young people lack the kind of adult mentorship which might help them to identify meaningful online experiences or make connections between what they are learning in these communities and the demands of more formalized education.

The heart of the report seeks to identify design principles which might address these concerns:

Our hypothesis is that in order to develop these cross-cutting repertoires of practice, young people need concrete and sustained social networks, relationships, institutional linkages, shared activities and communication infrastructures that connect their social, academic, and interest-driven learning. It is not enough for young people to have knowledge “in their head” and expect that they can apply it appropriately and effectively in varied settings on their own. They need caring adults, supportive peers, shared cultural references, and authentic ways of contributing to shared practices in order to mobilize their skills and knowledge. In contrast to the voluminous literature and research on cognitive and individual models of transfer, there has been very little work that looks more ecologically at the relational, infrastructural, and institutional settings that undergird effective translation and transfer between formal instruction and varied practices.

I can’t begin to do justice to this report. You need to read it yourself, and then, we need to launch some serious conversations about its implications for our own practices.

 

Once You Open Your Laptop…: Final Exam

For the past week, I have been sharing insights and materials from my Technology and Culture class last semester. As I described last week,  we had explored how to integrate transactional memory, collective intelligence, and participatory culture practices into the design and implementation of the class. We built collective problem solving into the class from day one, gradually formalized student’s membership into teams which would acquire skills at working through challenges together, and culminated the term with a collective final exam, which would demonstrate what these teams could do when they pooled knowledge and worked together under deadline pressure. What follows is the exam, exactly as it was presented to the students. We are offering it as an example to help other educators think about how they might redesign their teaching practice to encourage students to be more effective at producing and sharing knowledge through online networks.

 

Teams should select three (3) of the following four (4) questions to address on the exam. Collectively, you should strive to answer the questions as fully as possible. Be sure to address each part of the question.

Responses to three (3) of these questions should be emailed to your TA no later than 3:30 pm on Wed. Dec. 5.  Please be sure to list all of the members of your team who participated in responding to these questions and also identify any other people or resources you consulted with in preparing your answers.

1. In his short story, “To Market, To Market: The Re-Branding of Billy Bailey,” Cory Doctorow presents both a celebration and a sharp critique of pervasive marketing and advertising in the 21st century.  Through Billy’s character development, and his interactions with Mitchell McCoy and Ronnie Ryan, Doctorow touches on many of the larger contemporary debates around “spreadable media,” advertising’s most recent “creative revolution,” and the current state of the music industry.

Through an analysis of specific quotations and overall themes in “To Market, To Market,” write an essay that answers the following questions:

  • How does Doctorow present “the power of youth” in advertising?  How does this representation of young people relate to the various roles that youth may take in the consumption, creation, and spread of contemporary media messages?
  • How might the practices Doctorow depicts represent a logical next step in the evolution of the advertising industry’s relations to its consumers which Prof. Jenkins described in his lecture?
  • Does Doctorow portray advertising positively, negatively, or a combination of the two?
  • What tensions exists between “identity” and “industry” in the world of music among different players (specifically fans, artists, and record label representatives)?  How does Doctorow illustrate the ways that “identity” and “industry” converge and diverge?
  • What assumptions does the story make about the ways consumer’s choices are influenced by those made by other consumers? What might be other ways to discuss the role of consumers in contemporary culture?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings (besides “To Market, To Market”), with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

10/29 “How Does Media Spread?”
11/12 “What Will Be the Future of Advertising?”
11/14 “Are Pirates a Threat to Media Industries?”

2. In the United States, women are currently the majority of registered voters, and vote in larger numbers than men.  In addition, the 2012 election ushered in a record number of women elected to the Senate.  However, issues directly related to women’s rights (e.g. reproductive health, equal pay) were infrequently discussed in the recent presidential election and debates.

Two sets of political memes in 2012 focused very specifically on women’s equality issues:

“Texts from Hillary” (http://textsfromhillaryclinton.tumblr.com/)
“Binders Full of Women” (http://bindersfullofwomen.tumblr.com/)

Through an analysis of EITHER “Texts from Hillary” OR “Binders Full of Women,” address the following questions. Based on what you’ve learned from earlier discussion section activities, trace the flow of these meme across at least three (3) online communities:

  • Which groups most readily embraced this meme?  How did these memes connect to ongoing discussions within these communities?
  • What kinds of commentaries do these memes make about gender inequalities and power?  How are these commentaries made using elements from popular culture?
  • Find responses to these memes from mainstream journalists. Do they see these kinds of participatory political practices as enhancing or detracting from meaningful political discussion?
  • Did the meanings associated with these memes change over time as they moved across different online communities? If so, how?
  • How open was this meme to expressing alternative ideological perspectives?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings, with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

10/24 “What Roles Do New Media Play in American Politics?”
10/29 “How Does Media Spread?”
10/31 “How Generative are Online Communities?”

3. Recent readings have focused on hopes and fears for the printed word, as well as the way narratives can extend across various media.

Describe how your group sees the format of two (2) of the following literary genres evolving over the next ten years: comic book, class textbook, religious tome, science fiction novel, technical manual, children’s picture book, newspaper or news magazine. Be specific in terms of the contexts in which they will be used, and by which communities. Keep in mind that communities are also always in flux. Address the following questions:

  • Which traditional functions of these publications are best served by print? What might digital publication offer that would create new value as compared to print-based counterparts?
  • Cite examples of current digital publishing in this space.  In what ways are these experiments are offering new affordances and demonstrating new relationships to the reading public?
  • What economic factors might push publishers to adopt digital publication, even in those cases where there is not “value added” features?
  • What aspects of these traditional publishing genres are being served by grassroots producers and online communities?
  • What concerns might critics, such as Sven Birkerts or Nicholas Carr, raise about the movement of these functions into digital media?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings, with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

10/31 “How Generative are Online Communities?”
11/26 “Is Print Culture Dying?”
11/28 “Has Networked Communication Changed the Ways We Tell Stories?”

4. Trace the rise of “Web 2.0″ and which of its components can still be seen in today’s web.

  • How was it a new paradigm? What are its key defining traits?
  • Cite several examples of exemplary Web 2.0 companies and the ways they relate to their consumers.
  • Discuss the relationship of Web 2.0 to other key concepts from the class, especially participatory culture, collective intelligence, and circulation.  What aspect of participatory culture are absorbed into Web 2.0 practices, what remains outside of commercial logic, and what are core sources of tension between Web 2.0 and these more grassroots practices?
  • Drawing on critics of Web 2.0, including Geert Lovink and Jenkins/Ford/Green, discuss what concerns people have raised about these emerging corporate practices. Which of these criticism do you agree with and which would you refute or qualify?
  • Does the current incarnation of the web facilitate discussion, self-expression and civic engagement?

To support your claims, use at least five (5) class readings, with at least one (1) reading being from each of the following three (3) different days of class readings:

11/5 “Have There Been Twitter Revolutions?”
11/7 “What is Web 2.0?”
11/14 “Are Pirates a Threat to Media Industries?”

Once You Open Your Laptop… Activities from My Technologies and Culture Class (Part Two)

These next activities mark the shift towards graded group work in the class. By this point, the students are working in permanent teams and these activities are explicitly presented as practice runs towards the final exam.

Week 10 Tracking Viral Success (Henry Jenkins)

Each video on YouTube has a story. While it can be hard to trace the origins of some of these videos, each was posted by someone, for some reason. Most reflect ongoing conversations within particular subculture communities. Each may inspire comments either as written texts or response videos. And each may travel from YouTube to other communities through social networking tools. Teams should choose one example from amongst those which have spread the furthest and gained the most hits. Select from one of the following:

Gangnam Style
Call Me Maybe
S**t Girls Say
Someone I Used to Know

Your team’s task is to help us to  better understand where it came from, how YouTube users responded to the video (find at least two remix/response video), how it spread beyond its original community, and how mass media responded to the video’s sudden popularity .  Here are some steps which members of your team can take to get the information they need to answer this question.

  • Start with Youtube itself. Look at the video and the information that surrounds it.
  • Read the comments section on the YouTube page and see how people there responded to it.
  • Check to see if there are more than one versions of the same video on Youtube. You might also broaden your search to look at other common video sharing sites, such as Vimeo.
  • On Youtube, look for videos which responded to the original.  Or other related videos which surface alongside it and may help give us clues about its context.
  • Use a search engine to track references to the video on blogs or news coverage of its spread. See if you can find out anything about who produced the video and why.
  • Allow time to write out your answer using googledocs. You may want to take notes as you go so if you run out of time, we can at least trace the steps you took and what you found, before you consolidated your responses.

Your final response should include an evaluation of how such current theories as “viral media,” “Memes,”  and Spreadable Media might have addressed the specific patterns of production, circulation, and response you have identified.  Try to draw on at least three readings in a meaningful way. You will be evaluated based on the amount of research performed, on the quality of the analysis you offer, on how you build off concepts from the readings and the lectures to help frame your analysis (including, ideally, direct references to specific readings), and on how well you understanding the nature of the new communications environment.

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Activity for Week 11: Kickstarter as a Web 2.0 Company (Andrew Schrock)

Kickstarter is a website for “crowd funding,” a way to finance creative and technical projects where small amounts of money are pledged with no guarantee of success, similar to a benefactor model spread across many parties. Projects must not be for charity, finite, and rewards should be intrinsically related to the project. Project proposals are reviewed by Kickstarter for adherence to guidelines, and funding is given only if projects meet their goal. About half of approved projects got funded in 2011, for an average funding rate of 46%, over a million pledges, with an average pledge of $86. The most popular projects are Film/video and music, although Technology has a larger average amount for successful financing.

 

Your assignment today is to summarize and contextualize a successful Kickstarter project, as selected from the list on the next page. Your tasks should include:

 

 

Your response should first be descriptive: tell us a story of who these people are, what their project is, and why you think this project succeeded over others. How does the project speak to particular communities through rewards and the video pitch? Second, you should draw on the readings from class to discuss the role Kickstarter played in the team’s personal / professional lives, and how crowdfunding operates in the larger funding ecosystem. Are they amateurs or professionals? How does Kickstarter serve as an alternative for established modes of funding, recall earlier models, or reinforce criticisms made of “web 2.0”? Were there controversies or discussions of this project on news sites and discussion forums? Be sure to employ concepts from at least three readings from this week.

 

List of Kickstarter Projects

 

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Week 12 Intellectual Property in the Music Industry (Rhea Vichot)

 

William Fischer, in discussing the role of technology within the contemporary media landscape, envisions an alternative system for artists to be compensated for their work.

Utilizing either the role you were assigned in lecture on Wednesday or, if you choose, one of four roles below:

 

  • Artist
  • Record Label
  • Intellectual Property Law Firm
  • Fan

 

Analyze FIscher’s Alternative Compensation system through one of these perspectives. In doing so, be sure to reference at least three other readings. What are the advantages and disadvantages to such a system for the specific role you are writing as? How does this model address piracy and does it do so to the satisfaction of your role? What is the role of advertising in this alternative system? What changes would you want to make to Fischer’s recommendation based on our readings and discussions?

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Week 14 Mapping Transmedia Worlds (Meryl Alper)

Transmedia storytelling, as defined by Prof. Jenkins, “represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”  Each medium contributes something unique to the world of the story.  Images, characters, stories, and songs travel between different media platforms, shaped in various ways by both corporations and consumers.

 

Your team’s task is to choose a media franchise, physically map how individual texts stand alone but also contribute to a larger transmedia story, and answer some questions on how your transmedia franchise reflects larger historical, cultural, political, and economic factors.

 

Choose one (1) of the following global transmedia franchises (and just a few texts to consider for each – there’s many more for you to map than the examples listed listed here):

 

1. Harry Potter (J.K. Rowling, Pottermore, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter)

2. Wizard of Oz (The Wiz, ruby slippers, L. Frank Baum, Wicked)

3. The Muppets (“Sam and Friends,” Cookie Monster and Rowlf in IBM commercials (e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJVU-7WinQc, Jim Henson, movies and movie trailers, “Sesame Street,” http://www.muppetsmahnamahna.com/)

4. Batman (Why So Serious? ARG, Batman Live, live-action and animated TV series)

 

Mapping (Approx. 20 min.)

 

Your group will receive a marker, a large piece of white paper, and a pack of Post-Its.  On the Post-Its you’ll write out different textual elements (e.g. for Harry Potter, on one Post-It you might write “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (The Movie)” and on another, you might write “Platform 9 ¾ in London’s Kings Cross Station”).  You’ll “map” the Post-Its onto one of the sheet of white paper, and use the marker to draw connections between the elements.  “Map” is a loose term and there’s no wrong way to do this – it doesn’t have to be neat and pretty, but should reflect connections and distance between elements.

Questions (Approx. 30 min.)

After the mapping exercise, your group should then answer the following questions.  In your responses, please meaningfully incorporate material from Prof. Jenkins’ book chapter, his blog post you were assigned, AND at least one of Nick DeMartino’s blog posts from this week:

1) How does the franchise engage different types of transmedia logics?:

  • Storytelling (e.g. recurring minor characters like Boba Fett in Star Wars, story arcs across texts like Kermit and Miss Piggy’s relationship)
  • Branding (e.g. iconography like the Ruby Slippers in Wizard of Oz, consumer goods)
  • Rituals (e.g. holiday movie viewings, Harry Potter movie premieres, Super Bowl commercials)

2) Explain how one of your Post-It note “texts” relates to specific trends impacting the entertainment industry at the time of its creation.

 

3) Identify who owns one texts in your transmedia franchise (e.g. The most recent Muppet movie was produced by Disney, not the Jim Henson Company, because Disney now owns the Muppets).  How does media concentration play a role in transmedia?

4) In his “Transmedia Storytelling 101” post, Prof. Jenkins writes, “Transmedia storytelling is the ideal aesthetic form for an era of collective intelligence.”  Based on your experience working collectively during the second half of the semester and in today’s section, why or why not do you agree with that statement?

Next Time: Final Exam