The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Three)

Henry: I really appreciate the work the CML does in translating research into awareness and action, in trying to build a more sustainable and scalable movement for media literacy. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a researcher, I am deeply committed to translating our research into language that can be broadly accessible and providing resources which can be deployed within important conversations; I see this blog as part of the work I try to do to broker between different groups of people who should be talking to each other.

My team through the years has done a fair amount of applied work with educators, trying to get our materials out in the field. We’ve come to the same conclusion you have that media literacy is at least as much about rethinking education as it is about rethinking media. We found very early on that developing resources were never enough unless you also helped to train the teachers who would be using those materials. This took us down the path of developing and running teacher training programs in New Hampshire and California, and then publishing a series of white papers which dealt with what we saw as best practices in fostering participatory learning, practices that both dealt with how to integrate the new media literacies into school curriculum but also how to couple them with progressive pedagogies that are very much in line with those that Masterman describes above — pedagogies that are very much informed by thinkers such as Dewey and Freire. See, for example:

 

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/play-participatory-learning-and-you.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/12/shall-we-play.html

http://henryjenkins.org/2012/09/designing-with-teachers-participatory-approaches-to-professional-development-in-education.html

 

We are back in the trenches again with the latest phase of our work, this time emerging from extensive research (interviews with more than 200 young activists) about the political and civic lives of American youth: We’ve now built an archive featuring videos produced by young activists around a range of causes, many of them appropriating and remixing elements from popular culture, many of them using tools and tactics associated with participatory culture. This time, we are testing these materials in collaboration with the National Writing Project, and working with their teachers (as well as the organizations we study) to develop activities and lesson plans which might allow educators to integrate our materials and insights into their teaching. One thing we’ve learned through the years is that our core strength is ultimately in cultural theory and research and thanks to my move to USC, coupled with media production capacities; we have some understanding of core pedagogical issues; but we do better working hand in hand with classroom teachers to develop the actual activities that make sense in the public schools. And we count on the power of various networks — including both the Media Literacy Movement and those folks involved with the DML world — to get word out about what we’ve created. This is why I place such a high priority in building partnerships which can help us work together to achieve our shared goals.

 

The issue of whether representation remains the core of contemporary media literacy is a complex one, it seems to me. Representation is a powerful principle, one which helps to explain the ways we use media to make sense of ourselves and our lives, and it remains very pertinent in a world where we are encouraging young people to develop a stronger sense of their own public voices, to tell their own stories, to create their own media. Looking critically at existing representations, thinking ethically about the choices they make as they create their own representations as media producers remain core to any understanding of media literacy, but young people are also participating in media which are more focused on social exchanges and personal interactions in which the creation of texts is secondary to the cementing of social bonds.  If we were developing media literacy in response to the telephone rather than television, would we be asking different questions, have different priorities?

 

Representation is itself a process, to be sure, but we also often use it to refer to a product or text: a representation. The disciplines which do much of the heavy lifting on media literacy education — especially language arts but also arts education — tend to focus heavily on texts, and so as the term representation gets translated into their vocabulary, it is not surprising that it comes to circle around texts. This focus on texts can lead us to think in terms of readers and writers/producers but not in terms of participants in an ongoing communication process. And this is a key reason why my vocabulary tends to place a greater emphasis on notions of participation than on notions of representation.

 

TESSA:  Ah…and so down the rabbit hole we go. And we are going on a slippery slope because as you said, it’s complicated.  I’m enjoying the ride!

Which universe are we describing? The physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive on a local and physical level — the world that surrounds us with physical media like logos and traffic signs and billboards and movies and music and candy wrappers — or the alternative global village or digital media that we access only through the assistance of hardware and software media like the internet in general or Instagram or Facebook or games?  In each case, the media are man-made, which means that men (and oh yes let’s be sure to be inclusive and say women too) construct these media messages and devices. Construction always calls for decisions on the part of the creator(s), who sets the initial limits and boundaries through which we may experience his or her creation — media construction, whether digital or not, is a physical representation of the creator’s intention.

So fundamentally, construction and (implicitly) representation must take place before participation is possible.  And participatory culture (whether we participate online or off) is both an input to and an outcome of construction/representation — and the fusion constantly changes the nature of and the expression of the construction, which always has emotional, social and cultural implications. There is a chicken-or-egg quality to the cultural issues and their intersection with media, but it can also be argued that an individual’s mind and group culture itself are also constructions/representations.

But back to media…As an example, let’s think about video games.  The games are media constructions and they provide a software “box” in which players operate, and this software box is constrained by the hardware platform.  The creator of the game designed the game intentionally — to share a worldview and/or to profit from game purchases. Players engage with the game text itself and interact with each other to experience the game in a myriad of ways — visual, verbal, social, emotional — and often players invent new ways of experiencing the game through mods or hardware and they amplify their experiences together.  But because the construction itself is constrained, there are inevitably frames and experiences that are included and excluded.

So much depends on how we parse the world we live in!  But at the same time, to take a scientific approach towards media literacy, we need boundaries and concepts that define and describe a specific field of inquiry — that of media, in this case. While the cementing of social bonds through media use may be a primary goal for youth or adults, media are still the means toward an end, while also acknowledging that digital spaces (constructions) multiply possibilities for and the nature of social engagement exponentially.

I agree with you, Henry, that the focus on the word “texts” — because of its traditional association with physical media — generally limits people’s perceptions about participating in an ongoing communication process that digital media enable.  In today’s context in the global village, the notion of text expands so that “text” may become the entire “box” that encompasses the digital world itself, and the cultural representations within the box and outside it. We now have the physical world and the digital world and their intertwining and as Steve Jobs famously espoused, we need to “think different.”

 

Henry: Your phrase above, “construction and (implicitly) representationmust take place before participation is possible,” hints at the core hesitation which I am trying to flag here. I absolutely agree on the term construction in this sentence and with your discussion of the many different ways that construction takes place on the level of technological constraints and socio-cultural conventions. I have always been drawn to Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media: she argues that a medium is a technology that enables communication and also a set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around the technology. She writes, “Protocols express a huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships. So telephony includes the salutation ‘Hello?’ (for English speakers, for example) and includes the monthly billing cycle and includes the wires and cables that materially connect our phones…And protocols are far from static.” These features change over time, work differently in different cultural contexts, and are influenced by the other media that intersect with them at any given moment. So, our models of different media and of the media ecology have to be very nimble to respond to those transitions. But, all of this can be described in terms of the construction of media messages, audiences, and contexts. I would just expand contexts to include not simply forms of production but also the terms, the social norms, that shape our participation.

 

However, I do have some questions about whether “representation” can stand in for the totality of the communication process. We might start with the distinction art critics might draw between representational and abstract art: surely, an abstract painting is a media text, but does it fall under the category of representation. Sure, in an abstract or “implicit” way, such a painting represents the artist’s vision  but at some point, we need to agree either that representation is not the only thing going on here or that the word representation has been stretched so thin that it no longer serves a useful purpose.  So, I would absolutely agree that representation is an important concept to draw into discussions of media literacy, especially given the links between representation (as a mimetic process) and representation (as a political concept) so that we can speak of the struggles of marginalized groups to gain media representation as a struggle that impacts their power in society.

 

But, if we go back to my earlier question about what would have happened if media literacy had taken shape in response to the telephone rather than radio, film or television (depending on which strands we are discussing), we should think about the properties of the telephone (as Gitelman invites us to do here). We do not talk about telephone calls as texts — unless of course we are talking about transcripts or recordings of them. We might ascribe to phone calls a broader range of motives besides power and profit. We do not talk about telephone calls in terms of authors and readers — but rather in terms of participants. There are certainly all kinds of representations involved in telephone calls — from Goffman’s performance of self in everyday life to the narratives we are recounting with each other — but we might well argue that the call allows for communication that operates on other levels and that perhaps the most important thing going on through the call is the establishment of interpersonal relations between the participants. When we say to each other, “I just wanted to hear your voice,” we are speaking about the telephone call as something much closer to pure expression — like the abstract painting — than representation (in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan argued that the light bulb was a medium of “pure information”). Not quite, of course, which is why this is complicated.Yes, there is interpretation involved in the telephone call and definitely construction. In no sense do I mean to imply that the telephone call is somehow transparent. But the media literacy skills we need to understand the telephone call may focus much more on the social relationships being performed and the ways they are embodied through Gitelman’s protocals than they have to do with any notion of texts or audiences which seems to go hand in hand with representation as it is being discussed here.

 

As we turn towards digital media, some of it does generate texts in the classical sense of the term — a podcast or a YouTube video or a blog post, though it matters that these are forms which we can directly engage and respond through the same medium to the same audience and that these tools enable many-to-many forms of communication. Some forms and uses of digital media are much more important because of the communication processes they enable than they are in terms of the product of that communication — text messaging, for example, or Twitter, come to mind, as having more in common with the telephone than with television. So, what I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.

 

I know in doing this I am edging back towards the idea that you are obejecting to, the idea that media literacy has historically been framed in terms of mass media literacies — and this is somewhat unfair on the conceptual level. Yes, media literacy covers a broad array of different media in theory but the fact remains that if I went to a media literacy conference at the time that our white paper was first published, the over-whelming majority of talks would have centered around various forms of mass media, including film, television, advertising, and print based media, with some noteworthy exceptions. What gave Media Literacy its urgency throughout most of its history was the pervasive role of television in American culture just as the digital is what gives new media literacies their urgency. When I looked at the production projects being proposed, most of them were modeled on the public service announcement, itself a product of the one-way communication practices of broadcast media, rather than the kinds of dialogic production practices we are finding on Youtube or Tumbler. I like Jessica Clarke’s term, “public-moblizing media”, which stresses a different dynamic between those participating in these media exchanges.  This has changed dramatically over the past decade, we are seeing more work done on the participatory dimensions of media, we are seeing more projects that involve remix practices, though there is still a tendency to think about media in terms of texts rather than process, practices, or to use your word above, relationships that are being mediated through various kinds of communication technologies. Organizations like NAMLA have more than caught up with the changing media environment, but I would argue there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions as we work through what if anything is different about the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced.

The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part One)

Tessa Jolls has been a long-time advocate of media literacy education in the United States and around the world. I was honored to be able to attend an event last year at which she was presented with the Jessie McCanse Award from the National Telemedium Council in recognition of her lifetime commitment to fostering media literacy. Jolls was one of the very first media literacy advocates to welcome me to the field and to rally behind the work of our New Media Literacies initiative. Since 1999, she has been the President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, where she has pushed hard to develop some shared principles and core questions that might inform a diverse array of media literacy initiatives, and where has shown consistent flexibility and vision in redefining media literacy for the 21st century.

Thus, I was troubled when she told me that she was seeing the Media Literacy movement and the Digital Media and Learning communities talking past each other, often failing to recognize and grab onto moments of potential collaboration. We decided it would be helpful to have a public conversation together which explored some of these issues. Our hope in doing so is that we can expand this discussion to include other media literacy/DML leaders and find ways to be more effective at working together around common concerns.

Across this five part exchange, we talk through core assumptions guiding our work, including dealing with the relationship between research, pedagogy, and practice, the importance of construction and representation as concepts in media literacy work, and how media literacy principles do or do not change as they confront new technologies and new environments. We both throw ourselves — heart and mind — into these e-mail exchanges this summer and we both learned plenty in the process.

 

Henry: When I and other researchers from MIT wrote the 2006 white paper, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, we were very aware of building on the foundations of the Media Literacy movement as it had taken shape in North America over the prior several decades.

 

We made a number of gestures across the paper, which were intended to pay tribute to what had been accomplished, to signal the continuities as well as differences  our vision for the “new media literacies.” For example, early in the paper, we emphasized that the newer skills and competencies we were identifying built on the foundation of traditional print-based literacies, core research skills, core technical skills, and media literacies. We wrote, “As media literacy advocates have claimed during the past several decades, students also must acquire a basic understanding of the ways media representations structure our perceptions of the world; the economic and cultural contexts within which mass media is produced and circulated; the motives and goals that shape the media they consume; and alternative practices that operate outside the commercial mainstream….What we are calling here the new media literacies should be taken as an expansion of, rather than a substitution for, the mass media literacies.” (20).

 

Later, in the document, we do challenge whether some of the core frameworks of the media literacy movement have been adequately framed to acknowledge and take account of instances where young people are themselves producing and circulating media, rather than consuming media produced by others, but these were intended as fairly local critiques in recognition of the need to continually re-appraise and reframe our tools to reflect new developments and new contexts. This same passage flags what we saw as some of the core virtues of those same conceptual frameworks: “There is much to praise in these questions: they understand media as operating within a social and cultural context; they recognize that what we take from a message is different from what the author intended; they focus on interpretation and context as well as motivation; they are not tied up with a language of victimization….One of the biggest contributions of the media literacy movement has been this focus on inquiry, identifying key questions that can be asked of a broad range of different media forms and experiences.” (59)

 

If we flash forward to the current moment, it seems that there remain many mutual misunderstandings between advocates for media literacy (who come from these rich traditions) and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.

 

I am hoping we can use this conversation as a means of clearing the air and clarifying our mutual perspectives around these topics. I had felt at the time and rereading it now, I still feel, that it was very clear in signaling my enormous respect for all who have come before in promoting media literacy and Tessa, you have been an early and key supporter of my efforts. So, it troubles me to hear of some of the misperceptions you’ve encountered. Can you share with us some of the things that concern you?

 

Tessa:  I remember well the excitement that I felt when you published your white paper in 2006 (Confronting the Challenge of Participative Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century) — it was (and is!) a profound and significant examination of the new media emerging from the technology advances of our time, and a document that contributed great advances to understanding media literacy skills needed in our society.   Personally, I’ve always embraced your work because I see the added-value to the field and how it builds upon and is compatible with what has come before, and I’ve been puzzled as to why there seem to be rifts when it is far more beneficial to acknowledge our commonality and to leverage it to gain traction in the bigger world of education. Now is an excellent time to reflect and to see “where we are now” and where we might go.

 

I agree with you, that there are mutual misunderstandings between media literacy advocates who have long practiced in the field and newer researchers who have entered the field through the Digital Media and Learning tradition.  Maybe part of the friction comes simply from the words “new media literacies.”  By definition, what is not new is now old — and in our society, being “old” is often considered neither attractive nor cutting edge nor fashionable nor relevant.  But we need to continue to challenge and confront.   When you issued your white paper, It was like you were the town crier shouting, “The British are coming! The British are coming!”  Yes, the internet had arrived, along with (and these were cited in the report) Friendster, Facebook, MySpace, message boards, metagaming or game clans…Twitter was yet to come, as well as Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram and and and….

 

But in response to your challenge — beyond a small group of media literacy advocates and academic researchers and some concerned parents — most people in the education world particularly were saying “Why should we fight? and  “If it’s so important, where are all the troops?”  Thankfully, the fear surrounding using the internet, the need for tools of discernment — and the genuine opportunities that the internet and social media present to empower people — have helped instill in the public more of a sense of urgency that has propelled renewed interest in media literacy education.

 

BUT because media literacy education has been ignored and neglected in schools through the years, there was no foundation laid for why media literacy is important, for its foundational concepts and for how to deliver the pedagogy (more on the foundation needed later).  There were few if any troops to call on to be able to deliver media literacy education — very few had been taught, and no one could then teach it on the mass scale that is needed.  And efforts to penetrate the education system in the U.S. meet with resistance since the system itself is based on a 20th century approach emphasizing content knowledge over process skills and a factory model that is incompatible with the collaborative networks and new curricular approaches needed today.

 

One response to the frustrations of dealing with the education system was — and is — to put technology in the hands of the youth and have faith that they will figure it all out.   Using the technology approach, the iPhone is the “school” and anyone who uses it adeptly is the master and anyone over 30 is, well, handicapped at best.   New technologies enable this approach because now, hardware and software are available and production has been democratized — everyone is a producer, a collaborator, a distributor and a participant.  While experiential and project-based learning is truly exciting and an important component of media literacy, it is not synonymous because the outcome of the technology approach is often limited to technical proficiency without critical autonomy. Whether using an iPad, a pencil or a videocam, pressing the right buttons is important but not enough!   This is where many media literacy advocates, including myself, feel that the train has left the station because some researchers, educators and parents, too, think that just learning to use the technology is enough (they probably don’t know about or have access to  alternatives) and they pursue technology projects with no credible media literacy components.

 

Henry: What’s in a name? Nothing but headaches, it would seem.

 

MacArthur was pretty committed to the phrase, New Media Literacies, so we worked hard to try to figure out what kind of meaning to attach to it. We grappled with the issue of whether the emphasis should be the New Media Literacies, the New Media Literacies, or the New Media Literacies. I did want to signal continuities with the Media Literacy movement, so it did not seem altogether a problematic term, but I was also worried about the connotations you describe here. This is one reason why I was so explicit that we were not leaving behind traditional literacies, media literacy, research skills, or technical skills, but that what we were describing were an added layer or an extension of each that now needed to be factored into our consideration of what an ideal curriculum looked like. I did not want to imply that these skills were entirely new — many were things we should have and some of us had been teaching all along — nor were they exclusively about new media per se. We’ve always insisted that these were not technical skills but rather social skills and cultural competencies, and that these were things that can be taught in low tech or no tech ways (and should be, rather than waiting for low income schools to catch up in terms of their technical infrastructure before introducing these literacies into the curriculum.) Despite having spent much of my career at MIT, I have worked hard to avoid any and all forms of technological determinism.

 

Still, there’s some power to attaching yourself to the digital revolution rhetoric (as well as many pitfalls) insofar as it provides some urgency to the message, but ultimately I frame these skills in relation to the idea of a participatory culture rather than in terms of digital change. This is also why I have had reservations all along about MacArthur’s phrase, Digital Media and Learning, since it implies that we are interested only or exclusively in digital media, and that has never been my focus. Keep in mind both that I wrote the white paper in the wake of writing Convergence Culture, which was all about “Where old and new media collide,” and that it emerged from the context of the Comparative Media Studies program, which studied the interplay across media. We find that when we do workshops for teachers and students, they often anticipate that technologies are going to be much more central to our work than they are. Our first task is always to achieve that shift from a focus on technologies to a focus on culture.

 

I share your concern that in many cases, we are now bringing technologies into the classroom as if doing so would substitute for a more comprehensive approach to media literacy. As Liz Losh notes in her recent book, the focus on technology turns media education into something that can be sold — like getting whole school districts to buy iPads — and can be purchased from the school budget, rather than something which as the white paper suggests, should require a fundamental paradigm shift in the ways we teach all school subjects.

 

That said, I got into some trouble with the original white paper in reducing the rich kinds of conceptual models that surround, say, the Computer Club House movement to purely technical skills comparable to penmanship.  (Sorry Mitch) Most of the work which gets presented at the DML conference is about the fusion of hands-on technical processes, whether tied to hacking, games-based learning, the Maker movement, etc., with rich conceptual frameworks which are intended to allow people to understand at a deeper level how the constraints and affordances of digital media impact the world around us. To me, this is a kind of media literacy, though less tied to notions of representation or messaging than previous kinds of media literacy work has promoted. If one does not displace the other, they certainly can co-exist within a more comprehensive model which considers the nature of platforms and programming alongside the questions about who produces which representations for which audiences with which motives. 

In many ways, what we were trying to do with the white paper was to build a coalition which would include people interested in engaging with new media platforms and practices, people committed to promoting media literacy, and teachers seeking new ways to animate the teaching of their disciplines. Where our work has been successful, we have brought together these interests. Such an approach has tended as you suggest here to pull media literacy advocates into more active engagement with notions of media change and new technologies, but it also has the intent to draw people who want to teach using new technology to confront the participation gap, the transparency issues, and the ethical challenges we identify in the white paper and through doing so, to pull media literacy more actively into their teaching practice.

 

MORE TO COME

Tessa Jolls is President and CEO of the Center for Media Literacy, a position she has held since 1999. She also founded the Consortium for Media Literacy, a nonprofit which provides research and a monthly newsletter publication. During her tenure at CML, she restructured the organization to focus, grow and change, preparing to meet the demand for an expanded vision of literacy for the 21st Century. Her primary focus is working in partnership to demonstrate how media literacy works through school and community-based implementation programs.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part Four)

You describe in the book some of the kinds of “media skirmishes” that take place in the family around conflicting representational ideologies about what should be recorded and what should be shared. How do these conflicts differ from, say, earlier moments when children and youth objected to having their pictures taken? Does the presence of an online audience change these dynamics in a significant way?

It has often been assumed that kids do not think through the publication of their media while responsible parents do. I did not find such neat age-based divisions in my research. Some kids were quite savvy about what it meant to be posting things of themselves online and they did not always wish to do so. Kids did not always agree with their parents’ more public video blogging philosophies.

In addition, I have observed many instances in which parents posted images of their children in unflattering terms, and they often did so when kids were so young they did not have any sense of “choice” or understanding of what was going on. There is a point over time at which kids do become more knowledgeable and it is possible to talk about having a meaningful choice about what goes online.

However, rather than see media responsibility as solely age-driven, my book talks about mediated dispositions, and how different individuals have varying levels of interest in being in videos, for tolerating risk, and for circulating their image widely. Because mediating human images is potentially damaging and permanent, I hope that people will take away a sense of the importance of talking about choices within families.

Hopefully, people will take media skirmishes seriously, not only as a rite of passage as children grow up, but more generally as a form of collaborative media in which people negotiate different representational ideologies over the recording and circulation of human images.

 

You note that being “self taught” is a value strongly embraced by many youth included in your study and link this value back to hacker culture more generally. You write in the book’s conclusion, “scholars in informal learning should investigate why being self-taught is an important value, what is meant by this term, and under which circumstances being self-taught is productive.” What kinds of provisional answers does your book provide for these questions?

 Performing a technical identity in many facets of U.S. culture often includes a fierce allegiance to being self-taught. Reading historical accounts of hackers and talking to today’s engineers reveals a logic behind wanting to have hands-on experience with a technology. Experts want to be able to understand a technology in a fundamental way, to manipulate and achieve mastery over it.

However, interviews that I conducted revealed that being “self-taught” carries with it many connotations, not all of which are helpful for encouraging informal learning or peer-to-peer mentoring. The term tends to vary widely and should be unpacked in particular contexts. For example, for some technologists, being self-taught means it is okay to examine online tutorials and manuals, while for others, such activity is anathema.

The term self-taught cannot be taken for granted, but should be explored more fully whenever it is used, especially in research projects on informal or self-directed learning. Kids who try and maintain what they think are appropriate technical identities by eschewing tutorials may actually complicate their learning. Should their self-actualization be sacrificed on the alter of an assumed tech-savvy identity based on being “self-taught”? In an effort to appear technical, kids may risk self-sabotaging their efforts to improve by rejecting valuable resources.

Moving forward, a key challenge will be to find ways to encourage kids to take advantage of available resources. Otherwise, we might see deepening technical divides that are based not only on traditional identity variables, such as class, but also on nuanced interactions and cultural values, such as technical identity performances. Eschewing resources, perhaps unnecessarily, would be tragic given the digital resources that are available to boost digital literacies and technological skills. Being “self-taught” has many connotations, and not all approaches to being self-taught are equally effective for everyone.

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

Kids on YouTube: An Interview with Patricia Lange (Part One)

Not long after I launched this blog, I featured an interview with Mimi Ito and the graduate students from USC and Berkeley who worked with her on the Digital Youth Project. One of the first projects funded by the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative, this project did a large scale,multi-site ethnography to try to understand mechanisms of informal learning and the contexts where young people were encountering digital media. From this research came the now classic typography of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out” to describe different modes of engagement in and through networked technologies, a framework which has now informed everything from the design of public libraries to the development of curriculum.

Looking retrospectively, Ito and her co-P.I., the late Peter Lyman, had assembled and shaped a team of some of the top digital scholars of their generation, as becomes clearer as they have begun to publish their solo works. I was lucky enough to have gotten to know many of them through their work on this project and to have maintain contact with them through the years, watching them develop their own distinctive strands of research.

Later this month, Patricia Lange, one member of the Digital Youth team, publishes her first solo book,  Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies. I recall having her interview me for her video blog after one of my very first meetings with this group; she later shared with me a rough cut of a documentary she produced about the culture of video-blogging, and more recently, she’s shared drafts of the chapters for what has become an outstanding book about how childhood and parenting is playing out differently in an era of video sharing and other forms of participatory culture.

Patricia Lange’s Kids on YouTube raises important issues about the ways that our current participatory media practices intersect contemporary family life and help to shape the ways that young people form their sense of themselves and the world around them. Through vividly drawn accounts of the roles which media-making and sharing plays in the lives of particular families, Lange convincingly demonstrates why these activities matter in terms of fostering new literacies, enabling new social relationships, and sustaining new forms of civic engagement.

Lange has immersed herself into this culture of video production and sharing, asking core questions, and making contributions to central critical debates around participatory culture, connected learning, the risks and rewards of online publishing, the hacker ethos, gender and technology, and the development of young citizens, all of which she speaks to in the course of this extended interview.

 

We first met through your work on the Digital Youth Project. Looking backwards, this project’s report, Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out, has proven to be a landmark in the emergence of the Digital Media and Learning movement. Reflecting backwards, what do you see as the legacy of this project and what impact did it have on your own intellectual development?

The Digital Youth Project was a joint effort between teams of researchers at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Berkeley who were interested in studying informal learning in digital environments. Participating in the Digital Youth project was truly an honor. I am deeply grateful to the MacArthur Foundation, and to Mimi Ito and Peter Lyman, whose vision about reformulating education through informal learning inspired the research. I think the Digital Youth Project reinforced the benefits of teamwork in conducting contemporary research in digital environments. The researchers came from many different backgrounds, and that brought advantages and challenges. But it was interesting to compare the findings of numerous projects operating under one research umbrella.

Media ecologies are complex and shifting, and it is instructive to know, are the findings gleaned by studying any particular set of technologies or websites limited to those sites, or are there patterns that reach across different theoretical lenses, methodological approaches, technological platforms, and research populations? This amazing project gave us the opportunity to explore those questions in a way that is more difficult when researchers are conducting separate projects on their own.

It was also quite exciting to see our research applied to the design of educational efforts such as the YOUmedia after school space in the Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago. Drawing on the findings of the Digital Youth report, the YOUmedia space acknowledges the way that youth engage in varied ways with media and technology.

Our report found that kids’ engagements range from casual, socially-motivated encounters to highly-geeked out ways of making media. Recent reports in the media seem unaware of how academics contribute to the design and improvement of everyday spaces and processes. I am proud of this implementation of our research and I am hopeful that these and other spaces that draw on our research may facilitate the kinds of educational change that many of us in the field of informal learning are trying to re-imagine.

The project began by focusing on the rubric of “digital youth.” At that time, it was obvious that kids and youth were growing up with a range of technologies that even the younger members of the team did not have access to in their own childhoods. However, as the project progressed and was completed, it became quite clear that “digital youth” were quite a varied bunch. Not all digital youth were created equally. While operating under this rubric, the research also simultaneously challenged it, which I think is also an important legacy of the project.

My project on YouTube pushed back on conceptions of “digital natives.” It became apparent that kids exhibited vastly different media dispositions with regard to how comfortable they felt sharing videos of themselves to the world. Further, my analysis of how people perform affiliation to technologies showed dramatic variation in terms of family background in technical expertise, kids’ interest in technology, and professional aspirations.

Terms such as “digital natives” imply that all kids are equally well versed in all technologies, and such was not the case in my study. In the same household, an older brother may be far more technically-oriented than a younger brother, and in some cases, it was technically savvy parents who encouraged kids to develop video blogging skills. Yet, not all kids adopted their parents’ enthusiasm for messing around with computers and creating videos. Some kids’ outright rejection of their parents’ video interests severely challenge the concept of kids’ digital autochthony. Not all kids emerge into the world ready to make videos in a seriously geeky way, and making that assumption is problematic for creating strategies to nurture diverse youth’s digital skills and interests.

I also observed bifurcated technological skills. Some kids even saw themselves as being so much more expert than some of their peers that it was difficult to mentor their less tech-savvy friends. They did not even share basic technical vocabulary, which led to a break down in informal learning opportunities. Wide gaps in technical abilities in kids urge us to question and challenge how ageist rubrics obscure the investigation of important nuances that could be instrumental in improving informal learning dynamics, which are not guaranteed to work simply because they occur among peers.

For me, one of legacies of the Digital Youth Project was to show the advantages of challenging and even pushing back on initial research rubrics, and questioning their assumptions. The project reinforced the idea that it is advantageous to ask critical questions about any research paradigm one is operating under at a given time. Rather than wait till the project is over, it is reasonable to keep an open-mind as research is being conducted. I believe the project models how it is possible and desirable to step back, even during the research process, and question a rubric while simultaneously contributing to it in a fundamental way. These kinds of self-reflective questions are challenging but ultimately healthy.

 

In your introduction, you challenge some of the established categories we use to talk about these forms of productions — including the notion of “amateur”, “grassroots,” and “Home Mode Media.” Instead, you propose a category of “personally expressive media.” What do you see as some of the limits of these more familiar categories? Why do you put such an emphasis on “personal expression”?

Years ago, Robert Stebbins (1980) wrote extensively about how “amateur” and “professional” categories are not as neatly divided as they are often assumed to be. Although he was writing generally about amateurism and professionalism and not media creation, his lessons apply in the video realm as well. We need to dust off our Stebbins and reacquaint ourselves with his ideas! Failure to do so risks aligning researchers with media discourses that seek to minimalize so-called “vernacular” accomplishments.

During my investigation, I saw a kaleidoscopic of media ontologies. In other words, videos came from many different people with a variety of backgrounds and skills. For example, I interviewed a former television producer, Ryanne Hodson, who was a champion of video blogging. She believed that making videos was another type of literacy that people should cultivate in order to spread their message. What status should her video blogs have?

She was quite literate in professional media production, but her personal blog was not operating in a professional context. She had control over her own video blog which was not produced under the auspices of traditional media institutions.

How should we categorize the work of teenagers whose family members had attended film school, or had family members who had a television show on a local cable access station? Are these creators operating in some kind of vernacular innocence? No they are not. I found that the amateur/professional divide became slippery and not particularly helpful for understanding people’s phenomenological experiences of their mediated moments of video creation.

“Home mode” is another category that is often misunderstood in research. When anthropologist Richard Chalfen (1987) initially introduced it, he was attempting to address a gap in the anthropological record on everyday media. Many people tend to wildly over-generalize anything they see on YouTube as “home mode,” because it was made at home or with friends. But home mode referred to a specific type of intimate media that was made for a relatively small group. People who made the media knew who were in the pictures and vice versa, generally speaking.

But examining his work more carefully shows that Chalfen bracketed out anyone who was trying to distribute his or her media to widespread audiences. He specifically stated that he was not interested in media created in camera clubs, or in academic settings, or by anyone else with aspirations to become more knowledgeable about making media. His research had an important theoretical purpose; it made sense to study everyday media makers at home who did not have professional or even advanced amateur aspirations.

But the people studied under the Digital Youth project, and in my study of Kids on YouTube varied tremendously with regard to their goals, skills, and what I refer to as their media dispositions. Some of them loved making videos with a passion, while others found it simply odd to make videos to show to the world. Some people may have captured home gaffes and put them online with the intention of becoming a YouTube partner and trying to make money with their “innocent” videos.

Rather than attempt to adjudicate complex questions of amateur/professional media ontologies using arbitrary criteria, I found it more useful to see this media as a form of personal expression that might shift status within and across attention and money-making economies. A video maker’s status might also depend upon their dispositions and future desires with what they hoped to gain by making media.

My research goal was to find some way of talking about media with complex or ever-shifting ontological statuses in ways that did not pre-judge videos. Such divisions are often used to minimize so-called vernacular abilities and elevate professional statuses, a binary discourse which simply does not theoretically hold when analyzing media made by so many different people, who often have direct experience of or are influenced by knowledgeable mentors in professional media-making contexts. Exploring how and to what degree people were able to develop skills to convey their personal message seemed to be a far more fruitful project.

 

 

Patricia G. Lange is an Anthropologist and Assistant Professor of Critical Studies at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco. Recognized as an expert in studies of new media and YouTube, her work focuses on technical identity performance and use of video to creatively express the self. Her new book (Left Coast Press, Forthcoming, 2014) is called Kids on YouTube: Technical Identities and Digital Literacies, which draws on a two-year, deeply engaged ethnographic project on YouTube and video bloggers to explore how video is used in informal learning environments. She also released her ethnographic film, Hey Watch This! Sharing the Self Through Media (2013), which was recently accepted for screening in Paris at Ethnografilm, an international film festival showcasing films that visually depict social worlds.Hey Watch This! provides a unique diachronic look at the rise and fall of YouTube as a social media site, and offers a poignant look at how YouTubers envision their digital legacies after their deaths. At CCA, she teaches courses in anthropology of technology; digital cultures; new media and civic engagement; space, place and time; and ethnography for design. Prior to joining CCA, she was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. More information may be found on her websites:https://www.cca.edu/academics/faculty/plange and patriciaglange.org.

Participatory Poland (Part One): Participatory Poland — An Introduction

This past May, I received an email from Agata Zarzycka, Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University:

“We are writing to you on behalf of a team of academics and doctoral students from the Department of English Studies, University of Wrocław, Poland, inspired by your words from the foreword to the Polish edition of The Convergence Culture, where you wrote about your specifically American focus and range of experience, but also about the impossibility of ignoring the mutual exchange between medialized cultural movements across the world. You also mentioned your potential interest in supporting a dialog between participants and commentators of American and Polish popular culture, which has encouraged us to ask for your opinion about the general concept and the possible collaboration potential of the combined didactic and research-oriented project aimed the cultivation of ”new media literacies” among high school students – an enterprise that, to the best of our knowledge, no one has yet ventured to launch in the academic context. “

I was well aware that there was growing interest in my work there: the very first translation of my work, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, was into Polish and I shared this account of a visit my wife and I made to this country several years ago in this blog: Part One, Part Two, and more recently, I featured a report by Polish researchers on the intellectual property struggles in their country. There are dramatic cultural changes taking place in Poland, which has also been a key pillar in the Creative Commons movement.

As our correspondence continued, and as they shared with me the curriculum they were developing, I was impressed by the thoughtfulness with which they were seeking to translate some of my ideas about participatory culture and new media literacies for the Polish academic setting, but I challenged them to think even more deeply about what the concept of participatory culture might mean in contemporary, Post-Communist Poland, and about what kinds of lived experiences Polish students might be having with these practices.  After all, part of the goal is to have students bring their own expertise and passions into the educational setting. In response, they launched a remarkable project, which brought together key scholars and aca-fan from Poland, to write a series of overview essays describing different participatory practices in their country. I was blown away by this response, and even more so, by the depth and richness of what they produced. I am very honored to be in the position to share these reports with readers around the world via this blog.

I hope you will learn as much from the Participatory Poland series as I have, and I hope that it will inspire scholars in other countries to consider producing similar accounts of what participatory culture might mean in their national contexts. I would love to see proposals from elsewhere which might fill similar gaps in our understanding of traditional and contemporary cultural practices.

This first piece, broken down into two installments, provides the context through which to understand this series, an account of the dramatic cultural and political changes which have impacted Poland over the past few decades.

PARTICIPATORY POLAND: AN INTRODUCTION

 

Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak

Department of English Studies

University of Wroclaw

Poland

 

 

THE SCOPE AND GOALS OF THE REPORT

This essay introduces the “Participatory Poland” report: a series of essays in which Polish aca-fen analyze several branches of Polish participatory culture and try to locate their specificity by considering the historical context in which it has so far developed. While we are aware that the factors involved in this phenomenon are numerous and complex enough to become a material for at least one book, which makes our Introduction selective and imperfect by definition, we have attempted to characterize the background for the discussions to follow in the subsequent blog entries and show their shared relevance as facets of the contemporary “participatory Poland”.

Undoubtedly, a groundbreaking feature of the Internet-boosted participatory culture is its globalized character, resulting in what Henry Jenkins calls “pop cosmopolitanism” (Fans 155-156) and providing common cultural and civic “languages” connecting people from all over the world. Because of that, however, we find it even more interesting to see how the “local color” of fan-based practices can be shaped by the heritage of national, historical and political factors that are seemingly detached from the fandom community, whose traditions, in their most influential form, have originated in the English-speaking, and specifically American, cultural sphere.

In Poland, the emergence of fandom as we know it was belated by several decades. Nevertheless, the cultural and social potential for participatory entertainment proved powerful enough to quickly bring about a whole spectrum of movements that continue to evolve. The preliminary edition of the report is composed of close-ups on just a few samples from various parts of that spectrum: speculative fiction as the core inspiration for the contemporary participatory culture; historical reconstruction as a movement closely connected to the local context; role-playing games as a form of entertainment which, once adopted by Polish practitioners, have proved flexible and responsive to various, more or less nationality-dependent activities; comics as possibly the most directly subversive and politically involved phenomenon; manga as an example of a genuinely foreign factor that has become a noticeably nationalized element of the participatory landscape in Poland; and finally bra-fitting, which, while inspired by prosumerism rather than fandom activity, constitutes one of uniquely successful Polish grassroots movements. While participatory culture is most often associated with digital media or fandom centered around cult pop cultural works, its crucial aspects as defined by Jenkins et al. in Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century (2009), underline also other aspects of participation – the collectivity of the experience, the appreciation of the input of others, the experience of belonging to a community supporting the activity, and the development of a grassroots organization based on more experienced participants introducing and guiding newbies etc. (Jenkins e. a. 7). Thus, although not all movements discussed in the report can be traced back to fan activity inspired by some originally offered official material, they share those features of participatory culture that make it a prominent phenomenon in the sphere of contemporary civic activism.

 

POLITICAL AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT

 

The boom of most movements explored in this report could be observed either in the 1990s – the first post-communist decade in Poland – or in the young capitalism of the first decade of the 21st century. In the U.S., the time between the 1960s and the end of 1980s, though far from peaceful in terms of social and political issues, brought a natural growth and formation of core fandom phenomena which together with the digital media revolution were to bring participatory culture to the level of a new cultural paradigm that we experience now: J. R. R. Tolkien’s writings spiraled up to the status of cult texts, reinforcing on their way the development of role-playing games; movies and TV shows such as Star Wars and Star Trek triggered large-scale fan communities; and the comic-book underground flourished. In Poland, the growth of popular culture in the same period, though enjoying some highlights, especially in the 1970s, was marked and limited by political and cultural isolation from the rest of the world, oppression, poverty, political infiltration and resistance, propaganda, censorship and fear. Obviously, this is not to say that American fandom developed in a socio-political void. It was the post-McCarthyist reaction that implicitly led to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, fuelled by the hippie movement and accompanied, among others, by a boom of American interest in Tolkien. Fandom-related phenomena and cultural practices have on a regular basis been scrutinized for their supposed moral harmfulness and psychological threats, as exemplified in the 1950s by the famous Senate activities inspired by Fredrick Wertham with regard to comic books in the 50s, the Bothered About Dungeons and Dragons activity in the 80s, or the post-Columbine media panic leading to Henry Jenkins’ 1999 intervention in defense of Goth and gaming cultures in Congress in 1999. In 2010, a politically loaded TED performance of Lawrence Lessig, who considers the copyright issues in the Internet remix culture from the perspective of Right – Left conflicts, underlined the political dimension of contemporary fandom-related practices on the structural level (http://www.ted.com/talks/lessig_nyed.html).

Still, regardless of the unquestionably dynamic bonds of American participatory culture with broader social and political contexts, one of the factors that make the growth of similar movements in Poland significantly different is the position and functions of grassroots and otherwise informal collective activity in general. Two stereotypical images of community actions as shaped throughout the socialist period might be compared, however remotely, to the American distinction between grassroots and astroturfing. On the one hand, the so called “czyn społeczny” (subbotnik) practice in frames of which communist authorities forced people to carry out unpaid work for the “common good,” as well as the general pressure on the society to manifest fake enthusiasm for the imposed ideology, negatively affected the concept of collective activity and laced most such initiatives with a political undertone unwanted by the participants. On the other hand, it is exactly through the more or less spontaneous grassroots resistance movements as reflected by the very name of “Solidarity” that the most serious and effective campaign against the regime was waged until its successful conclusion in 1989. In the social reality so heavily conditioned by one or another aspect of the nationwide political conflict, it was difficult to set up any kind of shared activity that would not have to, at some point, position itself somewhere in its spectrum. That is why the discussion of the development of Polish participatory culture necessitates historical contextualization.

The 1945 intervention of the Soviet army in Poland resulted in the establishment of the communist government, which in turn meant that the country soon became a socialist state following the Soviet model. Poland, or rather the People’s Republic of Poland, as it was officially known from 1952 to 1989, remained under that influence until 1989 but open social opposition to the communist rule existed throughout the period, assuming a variety of forms and guises, including initiatives inspired by popular culture. In the late 1940s and early 1950s Poland had its share of Stalinist rule, such as strong censorship, ideological manipulation and persecution of the Roman Catholic Church. A short interval of “thaw” came after Stalin’s death in 1953 and resulted in bloodily quenched worker protests in 1956. In October that year Władysław Gomułka became first secretary of the PZPR (the Polish United Workers’ Party), proclaiming that Poland was to follow the Polish way to socialism, defined by the specificities of the country’s traditions. Nevertheless, the years 1956-1980 were marked by a progressing economic crisis and the growing dissent on the part of the Church, workers and the intelligentsia.

Of particular importance in that period was the Warsaw Pact of 1968 (a mutual defense treaty between communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe during the Cold War), students’ protests against the lack of intellectual and cultural freedom in March 1968, and widespread strikes in shipyards and factories on the Baltic coast in 1970. In 1970 Gomułka was replaced by Edward Gierek, whose idea to assuage social discontent was to introduce moderate liberalization and boost the economy by massive borrowing from the West. The latter resulted in another crisis, the increase in food prices and social unrest. Simultaneously, the Helsinki Accords in 1975, the growing influence of the Catholic Church under the leadership of Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, and the papacy of Cardinal Karol Wojtyła (1978) as well as his visit to Poland in 1979, culminated in the formation of Solidarity, the free national trade union. Solidarity’s growing membership and its unrelenting opposition to the regime on the one hand and the pressure of the Soviet Union on the Polish government to deal with the turbulent situation on the other led to the declaration of Martial Law in December 1981 by general Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Everyday life became difficult. The borders were closed and travelling in the country was drastically limited. Moreover, curfew was introduced between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Also numerous Solidarity activists were imprisoned without court sentence, and Solidarity itself was officially dissolved. Nevertheless, the communist regime was weakening. In 1989 the Polish Round Table was formed as a forum for discussions between the government, Solidarity and other opposition groups. The first democratic elections took place in summer 1989, sweeping communism away, and the Catholic intellectual Tadeusz Mazowiecki became prime minister. The post-communist era in the history of Poland began.

Unfortunately, despite the triumphant victory of democracy and capitalism over communism, for many Poles the transition from the predemocratic Poland to a liberal economic system, democracy, as well as the integration into the European Union, has proved difficult and disillusioning. As Leszek Koczanowicz puts it,

[c]ommunism in Poland as well as in other European countries led to the total absorption of the public sphere by the state apparatus. Communist ideology adapted almost the whole field of traditional thinking, reformulating it in collective terms. In the fight against “bourgeois” ideology, stress was put on the deficiencies of the concept of individualism as a useful tool for understanding and organizing social reality. Instead, communist ideology proposed a collective solution which was embodied in the idea of the Communist Party. (43)

Therefore it is no wonder that the mentality of Homo sovieticus – a type of a human being who is enslaved by the system but who is also glad to have his or her basic needs satisfied by it (Tischner 125) – cannot be smoothly replaced by a radically new national identity stemming not only from the sense of responsibility for oneself but also from a conscious exercise of one’s civic and personal freedom in a plural society. Simultaneously, as Elżbieta Matynia points out, Polish social and cultural life remains to be shaped by the romantic salvational paradigm of Poland as torn by foreign powers (153-154). For Matynia, its most significant elements are “the general preoccupation with history” and “the recounting of a heroic past”; the idea of a persecuted nation, typically linked with the Catholic religion; and “in the absence of a satisfying reality, a life within symbols and allegories, a community of the spirit, nurtured by family memories of the resistance experience and shared by each generation” (154).

Bartłomiej Radziejewski identifies a unifying and potentially more empowering root of Polish traditional rebelliousness in the “Sarmatian spirit” echoing the nobles’ democracy of the 15th and 16th century, which affirmed individual independence and the distrust of government (n.p.). Throughout the 1990s, however, a radically different, but equally influential element of Polish post-totalitarian mentality has developed in the form of “communist nostalgia” (Koczanowicz 8), which stems from people’s sense of uncertainty in the new political situation. As Koczanowicz comments, Poles “who got used to living in circumstances defined by communist bureaucracy came to feel lost in the new situation of market economy” (8). Moreover, as he continues, for many the previous system was ideal just because it was predictable and secure, as well as enabling people to assume a clear moral stance (8): “Freedom became for most of them [people] too much of a burden” (52).

One of the most recent phenomena shaping contemporary Polish identity is post-post-communism, which could be defined as a sense of anxiety about “losing identity in the face of globalization, immigration, and the power of international institutions” (Koczanowicz 149). Hence, as Koczanowicz argues, Poles desire the restoration of traditional values on the ideological level and the strengthening of the role of state perceived “as a system of organizations” (149).

As can be concluded, Poland in the first decades of the 21st century is to a large extent driven by the longing for the past. As Koczanowicz explains, “[t]he social time of the Polish society (the ontology of expectations) is predominantly colonized by the attitude toward the traditional national and religious values. People imagine that traditional values should serve as a point of reference in the changing social reality for the long time” (150-151). The significance of such philosophy and past-oriented sentiments may be expected to decrease in the relatively younger generations of today’s 30- or 20-year-olds, not to mention teenagers. Still, the unease connected with the lack of a coherent and optimistic alternative, combined with the general challenges of existence in the late capitalist reality, are reasons why the imprint of the socialist period remains relevant.

In terms of Polish participatory culture development, the experience of socialism not only induced the fundamental fandom initiatives with a subversive undertone, but also inspired some politics-focused initiatives. A spectacular example of the political employment of participatory techniques is Orange Alternative movement.

 (MORE TO COME)

 

Dr. Agata Zarzycka is Assistant Professor of Literature at the Department of English Studies, Wrocław University. She has authored a monograph on role-playing games, Socialized Fiction: Role-Playing Games as a Multidimensional Space of Interaction between Literary Theory and Practice (2009). Her other publications deal with role-playing games, fantasy literature and participatory culture. Her current research project is devoted to Gothic influences on popular culture. She is also interested in remix, game studies, fandom and subcultures, as well as broadly understood speculative fiction.

Dr. Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak is Assistant Professor of Literature and Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture at the Department of English Studies, Wroclaw University, Poland. She has published a monograph on Salman Rushdie, Rushdie in Wonderland: “Fairytaleness” in Salman Rushdie’s Fiction (Peter Lang 2004). She has also published articles on Salman Rushdie, Angela Carter, fairy tales, YA fantasy, and Polish children’s literature, for example in Folklore and Marvels & Tales. She co-edited Towards or Back to Human Values? Spiritual and Moral Dimensions of Contemporary Fantasy (Cambridge Scholars Press 2006), Considering Fantasy: Ethical, Didactic and Therapeutic Aspects of Fantasy in Literature and Film (ATUT 2007), and Relevant across Cultures: Visions of Connectedness and Earth Citizenship in Modern Fantasy for Young Readers (ATUT 2009). Her research interests include children’s literature and culture, reader response, utopianism, ecocriticism, and intermediality. As Director of the Center for Young People’s Literature and Culture, she organizes and coordinates numerous creative workshops and courses for children and young adults. Since 2012 she has been on the editorial board of Filoteknos: Children’s Literature-Cultural Mediation-Anthropology of Childhood, the first Polish academic journal in the field. In 2003 and 2004 she was awarded the Scholarships of the Foundation for Polish Science for young scholars. Her expertise was recognised internationally in 2004 through the Study Fellowship at the International Youth Library in Munich and in 2013, through Kosciuszko Foundation Fellowship and Fulbright Senior Advanced Research Award to work at the Institute of Effective Education and the Department of Childhood Studies, at Rutgers University.

A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I’ve been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville’s novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don’t have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project’s national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how “learning through remixing” can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?”

 

Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville’s City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

Is School Enough?: Forthcoming PBS Documentary

If you live in the Los Angeles area, I invite you to join me for what promises to be an exciting screening and discussion on Sept. 5 of Is School Enough?,  a new documentary, produced for PBS, which deals with the concept of “connected learning” as it has been articulated by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Details are below.

If you do not live in Southern California, I would encourage you to check online here and see when and where this documentary might be airing in your area. Here’s a preview of the film.

Many of you will already know New Learners in the 21st Century, which aired a few years back.  You can check out this film online here. For my money, this is probably the best film produced on the new forms of learning that have emerged within a networked culture, one which explains why these approaches matter to educators, researchers, students, and parents, and one which moves far beyond the usual focus on “risks” and “dangers” that have dominated some other PBS documentaries on these topics. I was proud to have been included in the New Learners documentary and even more excited when the filmmaker, Stephen Brown, consulted with me about this new production. I was able to help connect him with the incredible work being done by the Harry Potter Alliance, which becomes a key segment of Is School Enough?, and I ended up being a talking head featured in this film. Indeed, I get the Aaron Sorkin-like final speech summing up the vision as a whole. :-) I’ve seen the film when an earlier cut was screeened earlier this year at the Digital Media and Learning conference, and I am looking forward to joining this discussion at USC.

 

SCA Events

IS SCHOOL ENOUGH?

Make Reservations »

September 5, 2013, 7:00 P.M.

The Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108, George Lucas Building, USC School of Cinematic Arts Complex, 900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007

Cinematheque108, The Pearson Foundation, and PBS invite you and a guest to a special screening of

Is School Enough?

Followed by a panel discussion with Stephen Brown, Producer/Director of Is School Enough?; Henry Jenkins, Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts, USC; Juan Devis, Public Media Producer, KCET; Sujata Bhatt,  Founder and Lead Teacher, the Incubator School, Los Angeles; and Abby Larus, Member, the Harry Potter Alliance and student at Duke University.
7:00 P.M. on Thursday, September 5th, 2013
The Ray Stark Family Theatre, SCA 108
900 W. 34th Street, Los Angeles, CA 90007
FREE ADMISSION. OPEN TO THE PUBLIC.

Released to PBS stations on September 3, 2013.

About Is School Enough?

While policy-makers and educational experts try to determine the best “system” for delivering a world-class education to tens of millions of students across the country, many young people are finding their own ways of expressing themselves, pursuing interests, and participating in communities that are both on and offline. Largely unmediated by school and teachers, these young people, without really being aware of it, are connecting how they learn with what they care most about. Too commonly, young people are asked to solve problems in the classroom that have no relationship to the real world or relevance to their lives. Memorization and the measurement of what we know is the final basis for evaluating a students’ success; moreover, it’s the final evaluation of a teacher’s success as well. But in what ways do we ask our students to apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to something that’s happening in the world outside of it?

In what ways do we reward the authentic learning and work that young people do that is not validated and evaluated by our educational institutions? In this highly connected world that is powered by what we need when we need it, is school really enough?

Designed for parents and educators inside and out of the classroom, Is School Enough? – a one hour documentary – examines how young people are using everyday tools – including today’s digital ones – to explore interests, connect with others, solve problems, and change the world around them. It is a call to action that moves the discourse away from how do we fix schools to how can we support, sustain and galvanize learning by helping students solve problems in their everyday lives.

Is School Enough? is a production of tpt National Productions, in association with Mobile Digital Arts. Not rated. Running time: 60 minutes.

Visit the Official Website: http://www.pbs.org/program/school-enough/

About the Guests

Stephen Brown, Producer/Director of Is School Enough?

Stephen Brown is President and Executive Producer at Mobile Digital Arts. Mobile Digital Arts uses film and video production as a way to showcase and advocate for innovative educational practices, digital media programs, and 21st century approaches to learning. Brown produced Reborn, New Orleans Schools, a feature documentary about the school reform movement after Hurricane Katrina; A 21st Century Education, a series of twelve short films about innovation in education; and Digital Media and Learning, eleven short films profiling the work of leading researchers, educators and thinkers on the impact that digital media is having on young learners. Mobile Digital Arts’ production – Digital Media, New Learners of the 21st Century – aired nationally on PBS in February 2011. He is also producing an on-going series of films with the OECD about the world’s best performing educational systems. Brown is currently the General Manager of the New Learning Institute for the Pearson Foundation.

Henry Jenkins, Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California

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

Juan Devis, Public Media Producer, KCET

Juan Devis is a Public Media producer, whose work crosses across platforms – video, film, interactive media and gaming. His work, regardless of the medium is often produced collaboratively allowing for a greater exchange of ideas in the production of media. Devis iscurrently the Director of Program Development and Production for the largest independent television station in the United States, KCET. Devis has charted the stations’ new Arts and Culture initiative, Artbound, consisting of a television series, an online networked cultural hub and the creation programmatic partnerships with cultural institutions in Southern California. In addition, Devis has spear headed a new slate of series that are either in production or development, some of these include the Presidential Japan Prize Winner Departures, Live @ the Ford among others. For over a decade, Devis has worked with a number of non-profit organizations and media arts institutions in Los Angeles serving as producer, director, educator and board member. Some of these include: The City Project – Outpost for Contemporary Art – PBS World – LA Freewaves – OnRamp Arts – Center for Innovative Education – Los Feliz Charter SchoolFor the Arts.

Sujata Bhatt,  Founder and Lead Teacher, the Incubator School, Los Angeles

Sujata Bhatt is the founder of the Incubator School, an LAUSD-Future is Now Schools, 6-12 pilot school that opened this August aiming to launch the entrepreneurial teams of tomorrow. Inc. reimagines the traditional school day as a mix of individualized computer-based learning and deep, collaborative engagement via design thinking, real world problem-solving, and game-based learning.  The schooldraws upon Bhatt’s 12 years’ experience working as a Nationally Board Certified teacher in a Title 1 school in LAUSD as well as her background in education reform, technology, and startups. She has developed ‘big picture’ educational policy as a Teaching Policy Fellow with Teach Plus and with Our Schools, Our Voice, and Future is Now Schools. She has written on education reform in The Los Angeles Times, The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Education Week, Eduwonk, and The Impatient Optimist. She also serves on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center @ Sesame Workshop’s Games and Learning Publishing Council and is a member of the founding team of Outthink Inc., a startup that produces gamified science iPad apps.

Abby Larus, Member, the Harry Potter Alliance and student at Duke University

Abby Larus is a second-year student at Duke University. She’s been involved in the Harry Potter fan community online since middleschool, when she began working with the Harry Potter Alliance, an organization that encourages civic activism by relating real world problems to the issues in the Harry Potter books. Abby started her work with the HPA as a Chapter Organizer, applying the HPA’s campaigns locally in North Carolina. She later became a volunteer on the organization’s communications staff, before taking on the role of Assistant Campaign Director. Abby has since transitioned to a position outside of the HPA, where she is the Associate Director of Logistics for LeakyCon, the largest annual Harry Potter fan convention. But she hasn’t forgotten her roots – a portion of LeakyCon’s proceeds go towards the HPA every year.

About The Pearson Foundation

The Pearson Foundation is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that aims to make a difference by promoting literacy, learning, and great teaching. The Foundation collaborates with leading businesses, nonprofits, and education experts to share good practice; foster innovation; and find workable solutions to the educational disadvantages facing young people and adults across the globe.

More information on the Pearson Foundation can be found at www.pearsonfoundation.org.

About Cinematheque108

Cinematheque108 is an alternative screening series sponsored by the Critical Studies Department at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. The series offers a rare selection of events that highlight noteworthy experimental, documentary, and/or foreign films, many of which can not be seen anywhere else. Cinematheque108 is an educational forum that aims to expand understanding of alternative film and media. All screenings are free of charge and open to the pubic.

Check-In & Reservations

This screening is free of charge and open to the public. Please bring a valid ID or print out of your reservation confirmation, which will automatically be sent to your e-mail account upon successfully making an RSVP through this website. Doors will open at 6:30 P.M.

All SCA screenings are OVERBOOKED to ensure seating capacity in the theater, therefore seating is not guaranteed based on RSVPs. The RSVP list will be checked in on a first-come, first-served basis until the theater is full. Once the theater has reached capacity, we will no longer be able to admit guests, regardless of RSVP status.

Parking

The USC School of Cinematic Arts is located at 900 W. 34th St., Los Angeles, CA 90007. Parking passes may be purchased for $8.00 at USC Entrance Gate #5, located at the intersection of W. Jefferson Blvd. & McClintock Avenue. We recommend parking in outdoor Lot M or V, or Parking Structure D, at the far end of 34th Street. Please note that Parking Structure D cannot accommodate tall vehicles such as SUVs. Metered street parking is also available along Jefferson Blvd.

 

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.

T is for Transmedia…

T is for Transmedia from Annenberg Innovation Lab on Vimeo.

Today, the Annenberg Innovation Lab at USC and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center announced the release of “T is for Transmedia: Learning Through Transmedia Play.” The report is written by Becky Herr-Stephenson and Meryl Alper, under the supervision of Erin Reilly. This paper provides a much-needed guidebook to transmedia in the lives of children age 5-11 and its applications to storytelling, play, and learning. Building off of a review of the existing popular and scholarly literature about transmedia and children, this report identifies key links between transmedia and learning, highlights key characteristics of transmedia play, and presents core principles for and extended case studies of meaningful transmedia play experiences.

“We really have two goals for the report,” says co-author Becky Herr-Stephenson. “Our first is to get educators thinking about how they might incorporate transmedia play into activities, lesson plans, or projects. Our second goal is to put the design recommendations before media makers in the hopes that the principles will reinforce the good work people are already doing as well as encourage others to bring play and learning to the forefront of their transmedia projects.”

“T is for Transmedia” is embedded below and is also available for download here.

I know that this report is going to generate a lot of interest from the transmedia enthusiasts and new media literacy educators who constitute this blog’s most loyal readers, so to give you a taste of what to expect, I am sharing with you the introduction I contributed to this project.

There’s a Monster at the End of This Report

There is a monster at the end of this report (well, maybe there is, but you won’t know for sure until you turn all of the pages and read what we have to say).

But, it is telling that most of you probably recognize this phrase as a reference to a classic children’s book, written by Jon Stone, illustrated by Michael Smollen, released in 1971 just a few years after Sesame Street debutted on PBS, and “starring lovable, furry old Grover.” Much has been made of the ways that Sesame Street reinvented children’s television, embracing rather than running away from the properties of its medium, incorporating tricks from advertising, parodies of popular culture, songs and skits, into something which encouraged the active engagement of its young viewers. Yet, far less has been made of the fact that Sesame Street from the very start encouraged its young fans to follow it across media platforms – from television to records, books, stuffed toys, public performances, feature films, and much more. Certainly, the then-Children’s Television Workshop’s steps in that direction were cautious, given the anxieties many parents have about the commercialization of children’s culture. But, over time, much of the American public came to embrace those experiments in transmedia storytelling as part of what made Sesame Street such a powerful learning system. In a 2007 online poll, the American Education Association voted The Monster At the End of This Book onto a list of “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children,” and a few years later, the School Library Journal gave it a prominent spot on its list of the Top 100 picture books.

Part of what makes The Monster so compelling is that it is as reflexive about the nature of the printed book as a medium as Sesame Street was about our experiences of watching and learning from television. Reading this book becomes a kind of play as children scream with a mixture of fear and delight as we turn each page, wondering when the scary monster is going to appear, only to discover that it is “lovable furry old Grover” who is the monster we warmly welcome at the end of the book. Grover tries to do everything he can to block us from turning the pages, from tying knots to constructing brick walls, from begging to harranging us, yet the desire to read overcomes all of the walls he might try to erect. The children’s book has long been a site for domestic performance, as parents and children alike try out different voices, make sound effects, respond with mock emotions, to the pictures on the page.

This book had effects which go beyond the printed page: Grover emerges as an early fan favorite on Sesame Street as his personality took shape across platforms. When young people pick up The Monster, they already know who Grover is, they know his back story, they understand his motivations, they identify with what he is feeling, and as a result, there is an immediacy about our experience of this book.

Predictably enough, Monster has in recent years evolved into a digital book, an interactive experience children on their iPad. We certainly do not want to exclude adults from the fun – reading books together across generation is perhaps the most powerful way to foster a deeper appreciation of the pleasures of reading. But, Sesame Street has always understood that children do not enjoy equal opportunities to learn. Some children are left on their own while their parents work long hours. Some parents do not have good models for active reading with their children and look for prompts that might allow them to learn how to play and perform and speculate around the printed page. The experience of an e-book version of Monster will ideally supplement and scaffold the experience of reading the traditional picture book, not replace it, but it also adds a new layer to the ever expanding “supersystem” which constitutes the world of Sesame Street. So does The Putamayo Kids Presents Sesame Street Playground, a CD/DVD set which shares with children songs from the many versions of the program which have been localized to languages and cultures around the world, and video clips featuring the original casts in India, Mexico, Russia, or South Africa. And Sesame Street, the longest street in the world, just keeps growing.

Today, we might describe Sesame Street as a transmedia experience – that concept did not exist in 1971 when Monster was first published. Transmedia is an idea that has come into sharper focus over the past decade, having emerged from active conversations between academic researchers, creative artists, policy makers, fan communities, anyone and everyone interested in the future of entertainment and storytelling. Transmedia, by itself, means “across media” and it describes any number of possible relationships which might exist between the various texts that constitute a contemporary entertainment franchise. Marsha Kinder (1991), a media scholar who has written extensively about children’s media, coined the term, “transmedia,” to refer to the “entertainment supersystem” which had emerged around characters such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Muppet Babies, or the Super Mario Brothers, as personalities and characters that move across media platforms, encouraging their fans to follow them where-ever they appeared. In my own work (Jenkins, 2006), I extended her concept to talk about transmedia storytelling, which refers to the systematic unfolding of elements of a story world across multiple media platforms, with each platform making a unique and original contribution to the experience as a whole.

Monster at the End of the Book builds off what we know of Grover on television but it creates a new kind of experience that takes advantage of the distinctive affordances of the printed book, which is designed to be read aloud in the child’s bedroom or playroom. Follow that Bird expands upon the time we get to spend with Big Bird while watching the television series in order to flesh out his backstory, situate him within a quest narrative, and suggest how much he means to the larger Sesame Street community. Neither example builds on extensive narrative information that must be remembered across different texts — that would not necessarily be appropriate for younger viewers — but it does reward fans who apply what they learned in one context to each new appearance of the characters.

Each of these texts, thus, contributes something to our knowledge of this fictional realm, and each takes advantage of those things their respective medium does best. We want the depiction of Oscar or Cookie Monster or the Count in a Sesame Street game to be consistent with what we see on television, but we also want the game to provide us with an interactive experience that is only possible in digital media. By combining media with different affordances, we create a more layered entertainment experience. Or at least, that’s the theory. A good transmedia narrative uses these various cross-platform extensions to flesh out the world, to extend the time line, to deepen our familiarity with the characters, and to increase our engagement.

With an educational property like Sesame Street, transmedia does something else – it reinforces the learning both by encouraging us to reread and re-experience a particularly pleasurable narrative (something, as we all know, kids are often inclined to do with little or no adult encouragement) and because they are invited to connect together pieces of information across multiple installments. In his book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell (2000) describes the original Sesame Street as “sticky,” suggesting that young people become so drawn to its vivid characters that they keep coming back for more and in the process, these repeated encounters reinforce what they learn from its curricular design.

Transmedia encourages additive comprehension. We learn something new as we follow the story across media. This distinguishes it from cross-media, which refers to the use of these other media platforms as simple delivery mechanisms for the same old content. So, if we watch Sesame Street online or on a DVD and change nothing else about the content, that’s cross-media. We might also distinguish transmedia from multimedia. Multimedia might use multiple kinds of media – words, pictures, sounds, videos – which are brought together in a single package: so, in the old days, there might be a CD-ROM developed around Sesame Street, where clicking a button opens us up to a range of different kinds of media. In transmedia, there’s something powerful about how the reader is incited to search out dispersed content and reassemble it into a meaningful mental model.

In a hunting society, children learn by playing with bows and arrows. In an information society, they learn to play with information. That’s part of why we think transmedia learning is such a potentially transformative concept. A science fiction writer has to construct a world which can extend across media platforms, but there already exist many rich worlds – the world under the sea, the universe beyond the Earth, the ancient world, the people who live on the other side of the planet — which are central to our desired curriculum. Perhaps, the best way to learn about them is to explore their stories, their environments, across media platforms, much as we acquire a deeper affection for Grover through repeated encounters.

Like any other kind of storytelling, transmedia is something which can be done well or badly. You can be attentive to the possibilities of expanding a story in new directions or you can simply slap a logo on something and pretend like it’s part of the same franchise. Transmedia can be enriching or exploitative, can be motivated by the crudest of economic motives or shaped by the most cutting edge learning science. But, when transmedia is done well, it creates a deeply engaging, immersive experience, which multiplies the number of learning opportunities.

Young people do not simply consume transmedia narratives; rather, transmedia encourages playful participation. In my book, Convergence Culture (2006), I talk about attractors (things that draw together an audience) and activators (elements which give the audience something to do, especially in a network society, ways to interact with each other around the shared content). Narrative-inflected play is hardly new. Go back and reread the great children’s books of the 19th century. There’s Meg in Little Women developing a backyard game based on Pilgrim’s Progress. There’s Tom Sawyer in Mark Twain’s novel pretending to be a pirate or Robin Hood. There’s Anne, she of the Green Gables, who re-enacts the story of the Lady in the Lake. Each of these books remind us that children before the era of mass media actively engaged with stories told to them by adults and transformed them into resources for their own creative play.

In the 20th century, mass media displaced many traditional forms of storytelling, but children’s play with narrative remained meaningful as a way of trying on adult roles and expanding core stories that matter to them. And this is what this report means by transmedia play. Certainly, adults have some legitimate worries about commercial media “colonizing” their children’s imaginations, but keep in mind that the human imagination feeds upon the culture around it and children show enormous capacity to re-imagine the stories that enter their lives.

Transmedia encourages this kind of creative reworking. The scattered fragments of a transmedia story are like pieces of a puzzle; they encourage curiosity, exploration, experimentation, and problem solving. Transmedia’s process of dispersal creates gaps which require our active speculation: some call this negative capability. Transmedia processes show us that there are more than one way to tell story, that there is always more we can learn about the characters and their world, and that represents a provocation to imagine aspects of these characters that have not yet made it to the screen. Young people make these stories their own through their active imaginations. The stuffed toy becomes their avatar: they use it to work through their problems; they use it as a vehicle for their emotions; they project their own personality onto the plush or for that matter, they use it a a stand in for some other powerful figure in their life. For a short moment, as they are reading about or manipulating Grover, they become the monster, and again, that’s a valuable experience. The child psychologist Bruno Betellheim (1976) tells us that young people need to read stories which acknowledge the darker sides of life, because children know that they are not always good and they need resources for thinking through how they should respond to the things that frighten them in the real world.

So, there you have the core concepts of this report – transmedia stories, transmedia play, transmedia learning. Put them all together and something magical happens.

Transmedia is not the monster at the end of the book; it’s not something you need to be afraid of encountering. So far, we know more about transmedia in entertainment and branding contexts than in relation to learning. That’s not a reason to take off running down the street. That’s a reason for people who care deeply about insuring the most diverse learning opportunities for our children to take transmedia seriously, to try to understand how to link multiple media together to create new pedagogical experiences, to be ready to explore how we might play together around the materials of a transmedia franchise, to invite children to explore what it means to read a story across the borders and boundaries between different texts and different media. This report offers some rich exemplars of groups who are doing well by children through their creation of powerful and transformative transmedia experiences, and it offers some design principles so that educators and producers might generate more meaningful, even mind blowing, transmedia experiences for the coming generation.

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.