Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Three)

 

There has been quite a bit of controversy surrounding the role of comedy news programs such as the Colbert Report and The Daily Show, with skeptics expressing outrage that young people may learn more about world events through such comic sources than from traditional journalism. Yet, you argue that Will Rogers performed similar functions for Americans in the 1920s and 1930s. How might these contemporary programs fit into a longer tradition of using comedy to work through change in American society?

Jon Stewart’s show uses a series of “senior correspondents” representative of women (Samantha Bee, Olivia Munn), Indians/Muslims (Assif Mandvi), black women, (Jessica Williams), black men (Larry Wilmore; Wyatt Cenac), that satirize the notion of any one person(s) as representative of any of these ethnic/racial/religious groups.

If you look at Laurence Sterne, Jonathan Swift, and Voltaire for example, satire as political critique has been with us. The sociopolitical has a long history in comedy since commedia, Roman Comedy, and Old Comedy of Aristophanes. The significant difference is that with global media platforms, this form of satire in the early twenty-first century, is accessible and readily available to anyone who can understand the English language, and has access to a computer or i-phone. It cuts across class, race, and gender lines in a universal way. And this “danger” that holding the “news” media’s feet to the fire has become a critique of American society and culture and its intervention around the globe, makes the mainstream news media afraid that they are irrelevant and only representing the interests of the corporations that own them and the advertisers who pay the bills. Therefore this satirical critical humor, as with Will Rogers and Fred Allen before them, keeps the media in check in the way that journalism was meant to at the turn of the twentieth century.

Personally, I am not a twenty-something or even a thirty-something, and I still get my news from Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. They are more scandalized and critical of the corruption of government, corporations, bigots, racists, and homophobes, than any legitimate “news” outlet. They also cover topics that the news media simply won’t. If news is tied to corporate profits then that will dictate what is considered newsworthy, and there goes freedom of the press and the public’s right to know out the window. Comedy only works when it expresses the freedom to satirize and comment on world affairs. It gets at the truth as Larry David and Ricky Gervais have noted.

 

You write in The Comic Offensive about the ways that Dave Chappelle was almost crippled by the fear that many whites were laughing at his comedy for the “wrong reasons” and that he was helping to keep alive a tradition of the black minstrel which many associate with earlier moments of racism. Is this necessarily a trap which contemporary black comics have to confront? Are there elements of the Minstrel tradition that can be reclaimed to allow other kinds of voices to be heard?

When I ran the New Theatre in Boston (we produced the work of playwrights and performers of color) in the mid-1990s, I went to The Strand Theatre in Roxbury to see a “chitlin” circuit show starring Laurence Hilton-Jacobs, who played the character of “Freddie Boom Boom Washington” on the 1970s sitcom, Welcome Back, Kotter. I was amazed at how the audience embraced the minstrel aspects of the show from racial and gender stereotypes, horny old men, lazy and indigent black men who could not take care of their children etc., and how the audience did not reject these stereotypes as offensive but the predominantly black audience of 2,000 or so brought the house down with laughter and call and response that a director/playwright colleague and friend, Lois Roach, said would happen.

I think blackface/whiteface comedy is quite powerful and anything that incendiary should still be used in comedy since it crosses the line of what is “acceptable” and that is what comedians claim they want to do if they are effective. So, if it offends, so much the better. Context is everything. As Spike Lee observed in Bamboozled corporate interests and the pursuit of fame and fortune has reduced black performers and sports figures to enact minstrel-like behavior are very clear representations of how minstrelsy is embraced in order to make money even today. So comedians have more control over the use and misuse of minstrelsy by enacting it. Dave Chappelle’s brilliant commentary on racism in which he portrays a black man who is a white supremacist – because he is literally blind to his own skin color – is still one of the strongest commentaries on how absurd and superficial racism really is in the end. If you “look” white you will be treated differently than if you “look” black. Again context is everything.

Since 9/11, we have seen more and more comics coming from the American Muslim community, seeking to use laughter as a means of challenging existing stereotypes and gain mainstream acceptance. What do you think these performers might learn by looking more broadly at the relationship between immigration and comedy in the American tradition?

Intolerance of immigrants is shockingly similar to the early twentieth century with the influx of over 13 million southern and eastern European immigrants. The rhetoric toward middle eastern (particularly Muslim) and Mexican and Central American refugees and immigrants, has replaced the southern and eastern European xenophobia of the early twentieth century but otherwise the condemnation of “amnesty” and “they will take away our jobs, our women, and our American dream” and that “real Americans” will be somehow denigrated and degraded by the influx of this new generation of immigrants is still very much with us. Identifying ethnic and racial groups as “all the same” is debunked when we see comedians take on race and ethnicity and religious identity as fluid and not fixed. The global world and mixing of race and ethnicity is creating a new world in which the younger generation is witnessing these borders and definitions as being fluid and more integrated. I think 9/11 put the US back into the rest of the world as not being separate from, but as part of, what makes human beings part of a global village. Tragically it takes an act of terrorism to bring Americans into the global community but it also was necessary in order to confront the notion that the “enemy” is subjective depending on where you stand.

Assif Mandvi of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart relates stories of always being cast in the role of Muslim terrorists in Hollywood (he was born in India and is a US citizen for the record), but in comedy he can confront this stereotype by satirizing the racial types that the willfully ignorant and bigoted take seriously. Mandvi in the New York Times has said “I’ve always said I’m the worst representative of Muslim Americans that’s ever existed, because I’ve been inside more bars than mosques. But I recognize this has nothing to do with me. There are very few people representing the moderate American Muslim voice on television, and I happened to fall into this thing. The fact that I get to do it is an unbelievable blessing for me.” (New York Times, April 20, 2012)

Comedians through their humor connect all of us when they “put it over.” We are all in on the joke, and those who don’t “get it” will always be offended, because their xenophobia, bigotry, and racism has been exposed. To finish with a comic callback, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

Comedy Is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part Two)

You spend a good deal of time discussing the Marx Brothers, who remain perhaps one of the best known of the comedy teams to emerge from the Vaudeville stage and go to Hollywood. What might contemporary audiences be missing when they watch the Marx Brothers’ movies if they do not understand their roots in vaudeville?

 

Since my late teens when I became aware of the Marx Brothers I have always enjoyed their movies and their perspective of the underdogs who get the better of those in authority. As a working class kid from New Hampshire, I was inspired by the fact that they could break down the doors of the powerful and elite by mocking them and creating chaos in the halls of respectability; a place I never thought I certainly could ever access or influence personally.

When I started to research the Marx Brothers more in depth as performing artists, I became aware that many of their plots and gags were taken directly from their twenty-plus years in vaudeville. They had not made their first picture until they were in their early forties. This was a revelation to me. The Marx Brothers movies were translations of the vaudeville stage and the Broadway musical revue on film. Not films in and of themselves, but stage shows and routines that had been honed and crafted over many years on the road on the third-tier vaudeville circuit.

The seemingly improvisational feel of the films was not improvisational at all. But they made it seem as if it were happening in the moment for the very first time, and I think this still resonates with me each and every time I watch these films. How fresh, accessible, and alive they feel in that relationship between audience and stage (that notion of “putting it over” as mentioned before), seen in the asides that Groucho makes to the camera as if he were talking to a live audience. This still works for me and that feeling of the servants putting it over on the masters even after I know that it was well rehearsed and staged over many years of their careers, always amazes me.

Once the Marx Brothers let go of the formality of their vaudeville act in the 1910s of a singing and dancing act, and started in on their special brand of comic subversion through making nonsense out of authority and the rules of upper-class decorum, then they began to thrive as a comedy act both on stage and screen.

 

The status of women in comedy remains a controversy today, despite the fact that female comics have been disrupting gender roles on stage since at least the turn of the last century. What would we understand about today’s female clowns, such as Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, if we traced their roots back to the “rank women” of the early vaudeville stage?

The notion that female comedians are somehow dirtier and more obscene simply because they are women is still an issue in contemporary comedy. In my book The Comic Offense From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy (2014), I cite an incident that Tina Fey writes about in Bossypants (2011), Fey’s memoir, when she recalls a story in which fellow Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler was in a meeting with a predominantly male group of writers and cast members, doing a “dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’” comic bit. Jimmy Fallon, the de facto male star of the moment, mocked Poehler for her crudeness saying, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.” According to Fey, “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.”

This notion that Poehler was offending her fellow male comedians simply because she was a woman telling an offensive story is ironic given the fact that this is what the male comedians admire in each other; the notion of crossing the line.

A female student of mine who is studying comedy and wants to be a comedian, was shocked that Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007 an article titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The institutionalization of comedy by men in the early twentieth century was an attempt to marginalize women as comedians and comic writers in a self–created “boys’ club.” And this “boys club” is alive and well today. Hitchens thought women didn’t have to be funny because women didn’t need to attract men, and humor according to him, was necessary for men to attract women. Of course this is overly simplistic and Victorian in its outlook on male/female relations (not to mention the fact that it discounts lesbians entirely), but it persists in the twenty-first century.

And although Tina Fey was the first female head writer in the thirty-nine year history of Saturday Night Live, she is still the only female head writer in their history even after her leaving the show eight years ago in 2006. Personally I think men are threatened by funny women since they appear to relate it to masculinity and some kind of mating ritual. Admittedly humor is attractive, but certainly men are attracted to funny women, and women are attracted to funny women as well, no?  

I think the main problem is that women being considered “dirty” or “obscene” or “crossing the line” somehow puts them in the category of being what the turn of the twentieth century reformers saw as “rank ladies.” Mae West, May Irwin, Marie Dressler, Eva Tanguay, and Kate Elinore were seen as “tough girls” who were too aggressive physically and verbally and lacked the demur refinement of middle-class women of “respectability.” Sex jokes in particular somehow signaled to the primitive male mind that women are sexually available and promiscuous, and ultimately morally bankrupt. And this brings us back to the virgin/whore binary that women still can’t seem to shake.

 

The vaudeville tradition fed film and television comedy for generations, but there are few if any performers with roots on the variety stage who are still working today. Today’s clowns come from the standup circuit, Improv comedy troops, and television sketch comedy programs. In what ways do these newer forms of comedy mirror the traditions of earlier forms of popular entertainment?

It was very surprising to me when I was researching these books that the techniques used all the way back to the commedia dell’arte of the sixteenth century Italy have always been inspirational to comedians. Comedians sincerely study and are influenced by performers from comedy history. There is a real respect for the craft and for those comedians who came before them.

The term slapstick itself, as an actual noise maker that emulates the slapping and punching associated with Punch and Judy puppets, was used in silent film shorts – giving it the name slapstick comedy – and of course is still used in the comedy films of Judd Apatow and Mike Judge – look at The Hangover franchise as a prime example. But just the notion of pain and getting into trouble as being funny, watching someone slip and fall or get hit by various objects as in the Three Stooges, never seems to get old.

Also the idea of improvisation—of being in the moment and making jokes that can be tailored to the audience is fascinating to me and embraced by comedians. You can change the jokes according to who is in the audience and whom you want to offend (or not) as the case may be. This is very important to the notion of “putting it over” as well. Knowing your audience and what is “killing” and what is “dying.”

The stage is the only place where this immediate response and in-the-moment improv is possible. Even though there are improv television shows, they can be edited (and are certainly) after the fact in case there is anything said in the moment that offends or satirizes advertisers or the television network. SNL and other “live” shows have that two-three second delay just in case someone crosses the line. You can’t censor or edit a live performance, or let me correct that, you can shut it down, or stop the act, as in the case of Lenny Bruce, who was literally arrested onstage, but that in itself made a statement that couldn’t be edited from the minds of the audience.

The notion that comedy is and was dangerous, and threatening to authority figures, governments, corporations, and the ruling classes, is truly what connects the vaudeville generation to contemporary standup and improvisational comedy. To paraphrase Moliere who has been quoted as saying about his incendiary play Tartuffe, which the Catholic church of the seventeenth century was attempting to ban and threatened to imprison its author, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”

 

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post. He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen

Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part One)

Last spring, I was asked whether I might be willing to blurb a book called The Comic Offensive, From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy. This was something of a blast from the past for me! My  dissertation book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, was also focused on the ways that vaudeville had influenced other forms of popular comedy. My story remained focused in the 1920s and 1930s, where-as Rick DesRochers has brought the vaudeville tradition into the 21st century through the imaginative pairings between different comic performers – for example, Will Rogers and Stephen Colbert or the Marx Brothers and Larry David — in order to show how certain styles of comedy have persisted over time. DesRochers contends that 20th century American comedy has always allowed the expression of critical and often minority perspectives before a more mainstream audience.

Since reading The Comic Offensive, DesRochers has shared with me his other new book, The New Humor in the Progressive Era, which provides more of the historical context for how this style of comedy emerged and what roles it played in the early 20th century.

The two books, together, complete a historical framework for thinking about popular theatrical performance and humor across the span of the 20th century, the ways it differed from 19th century predecessors, the ways it responded to social, political, economic, and technological change, and the ways that it has often challenged the way the culture saw itself. DesRochers does all of this in a fashion that is grounded in original source materials, including perhaps the fullest discussion to date of the theatrical work of the Marx Brothers before they went to Hollywood, and is presented in a vivid, engaging, style that would be highly accessible to undergraduate students.

I invited DesRochers to do an interview for my blog, and I am delighted to share it with you today. His substantive responses, his reflections on comedy — both past and present — should give you plenty to think about and may even provide some encouragement to seek out comic performers who might have escaped your attention before. I hope you will enjoy the experience of forgotten laughter.

 

What was “New” about the “New Humor”? How did it differ from more established traditions of humor and comedy in American culture?

The playwright and librettist Edward “Ned” Harrigan, co-author of the popular Mulligan Guard series of light comedy revues, warned in 1900 that “there’s been a great change in the sense of humor in New York, the great influx of Latins and Slavs—who always want to laugh not with you but at you—has brought about a different kind of humor. Vaudeville historian Albert MacLean Jr., called this notion of Harrigan’s “the new humor.” What was “new” about the new humor was that it challenged Anglo-American authority and the belief that the ruling classes’ notion of highbrow culture could be made fun of and even defied. You could laugh at the abuses of authority and Anglo-American dominance, as well as with the attempts of southern and eastern European immigrants trying to assimilate into the Anglo-American way of life. The irony of this xenophobia of Harrigan’s was that the Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants were discriminated against in the very same way only two decades earlier, and now Harrigan, along with Tony Hart, was affectionately writing musical revues that featured those same Irish immigrants that were once perceived as morally inferior and culturally lowbrow.


The contemporary version of the new humor can be witnessed in the work of comedian and writer and co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David, when he discusses with Ricky Gervais, “We all have the bad thoughts. We just think them and don’t say them. But the bad thoughts are funny.” In Dave Chappelle’s comedy, being offensive through the new humor becomes necessary to create meaningful conversations that cannot happen otherwise. His interview with James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio concludes with “I’m a comedian, man. That’s how I look at the world. . . . The only way to know where the line is, is to cross it. What is life if nobody’s crossing the line?” This notion of crossing the line by laughing at authority and mocking hegemonic ideology and culture was known as the new humor. The new humor is still very much with us in the work of Chappelle, Larry David, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Louis C. K., Sarah Silverman, and Jon Stewart.

One of the ways that the New Humor pushed back against older standards of taste and decorum was through its emphasis on emotional immediacy, on provoking overt displays of emotion from the audience. You devote a chapter to the concept of “putting it over.” What did that mean to the vaudevillians? What kind of relationship did they seek to establish with their audiences?

“Putting it over” was the comedians’ way of saying that they had a connection with the audience, and that their comedy was getting over the footlights as a form of dialogue between audience and performer. You could put it over by singing, dancing, telling jokes, playing comic characters, or combining any number of these performance skills, but the real talent lay in understanding how the comedian related to the audience and made them feel as if they were complicit in the subversive nature of humor. I am very interested in the vaudeville notion of “putting it over” as a way of getting jokes across to audiences as a coded way of telling the audience that they are in on the jokes, and share something that the world outside the theater isn’t in on. This is very much in the spirit of the sixteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte where servants like Arlecchino would “put one over” on their masters like Pantalone, not just to make fun of them, but as a means of survival. If I can trick the master out of food and money, and at the same time make him look like a fool all the better, and there are those in the audience going through circumstances. In The New Humor in the Progressive Era (2014), I see it as a class conflict where comedians from impoverished immigrant backgrounds were able to make a living by putting over their act and therefore making money to survive, and in some cases actually rise to the upper classes (at least economically) themselves.

You argue that vaudeville humor “brought unconventional ideas and the rejection of conformity to middle-class audiences, who were sheltered from and fearful of new concepts, cultures, and ethnicities at the beginning of twentieth century America.” What were they afraid of and how was comedy used to address their “bogeys”?

I think the central fears or “bogeys” – a term I appropriated from Walter Lippmann – were very much centered around the idea of keeping the working poor in their place; to stifle creativity, innovation, and radical sociopolitical notions of equal opportunity for all, at bay. By insisting that the underclasses conform to middle-class standards of morality –  for example, women get married and take care of children; school as a place of assimilation and conformity to middle-class Anglo-American values of patriotism and duty to ones superiors; and simply fear of sex and other vices that the middle class felt the new immigrants brought with them from their presumably “uncivilized” peasant backgrounds –the middle class could stem the bogeys that the new immigrants were trying to take their jobs and their daughters away from them through infectious immoral behavior. The idea of “association” – in other words who you associated with – would influence you in either a good way with strong middle-class values, or in a bad way through vice and sin that was perpetrated on the comic stage. The bogeys of “foreignness” still permeate the US today; the fear of immigrants from say Mexico and the Middle East.

The rhetoric of Vaudeville’s promoters emphasized the notion that they were offering “refined entertainment,” yet it is not hard to find contemporary critics who were shocked and outraged by what they saw being performed. You cite, for example, an American Magazine author who proclaimed that Vaudeville had “done more to corrupt, vitiate and degrade public tastes in matters relating to the stage than all other influences put together.”  This has led to debates about the cultural status of variety entertainment during the period. How have you approached this question?

I think the idea that Lawrence W. Levine promotes in Highbrow Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) and David Savran more recently put forward in Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (2010) about the 1920s jazz era, that there was a real effort on the part of cultural critics like Sime Silverman at Variety or later George Jean Nathan with the canonization of American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill to create an American stage literature that rivaled that of the Western European theater, influenced cultural critics as tastemakers to consciously create a consciously “highbrow” theatrical culture in the US. Therefore the critics and upper-class patrons of the performing arts promoted forms of American culture that would emulate and be considered of cultural significance, especially on the stage through plays as literature that has still remained with us to the present day. Popular entertainments were considered by critics and progressive reformers alike as leading to degeneracy, immorality, and ignorance of the value of high culture with vaudeville in particular. The idea that the unwashed masses would be corrupted by simply being in the presence of vaudeville comedians, jazz musicians, and musical theater performers, was something to reject and ultimately correct through the fine and performing arts like ballet, symphonic music, and plays. Ultimately “refined” vaudeville was promoted by mangers and entrepreneurs like B. F. Keith, that took “high class” acts from the legitimate theater, opera, and classical music to include in vaudeville bills in order to “clean up” vaudeville; this was known as “the Sunday School circuit.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post.  He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen 

The Problem of Peter Weir

My friend,  John C. Tibbets, described to me recently the challenges he has faced in getting people to pay attention to a new book he has published about the important international filmmaker, Peter Weir, and it is a plight many doing work in film studies might recognize. Research on new media can sometimes seem more sexy, more urgent, than work on more established media. But that does not mean we should not pay attention to more established art forms, the impact they have in our lives, and the creative and philosophical expression they enable. Film studies was my first love and every time I teach a film class, I fall back in love with that medium all over again. And Tibbets’ guest post here is a reminder of how many great experiences I’ve had at the cinema thanks to the work of Peter Weir.

 

 

WEIR WITH KU CAP

 

 

THE PROBLEM OF PETER WEIR

By John C. Tibbetts

University of Kansas

 

Despite the recent Criterion release of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the name Peter Weir seems not to be on very many lips these days. Yet, mention this film, along with The Truman Show, Dead Poets Society, and Master and Commander, and the man’s name comes up readily enough. It seems that Peter Weir has committed the unpardonable sin of taking too much time between films; worse, he has told me in a recent letter that he has no immediate projects in mind. Perhaps at age 68 he prefers to enjoy a well-deserved retirement. . . or just enjoy the luxury of taking his own sweet time before embarking on another project.

Only fourteen films in 38 years. Must we conclude that his four-year absence since The Way Back has engendered a kind of anonymity that renders him irrelevant to today’s film enthusiasts and scholars? Do we repeat the charge, “But what have you done for us lately???” Certainly it is true that my new book, Peter Weir: Interviews, published this year by Mississippi University Press, has garnered many enthusiastic readers so far, but has been ignored by critics. reviewers and journalists. Do we blame the book or the man? As David Thomson admits in his Foreword to the book, “He does not seem like a movie director. . . He has stayed away from the busy world of reputations while building the unquestioned status of one of the great directors at work.”

We might as well quench our interest and enthusiasm for other directors who have committed a worse sin, who have quit the public sphere because they, well, because they died. What use for yet another volume on Hitchcock and Hawks, Minnelli and Mann? Why another Life of Kubrick, who made far fewer films and took his own sweet time between them?

No, I must admit I am baffled at what seems these days a public neglect of the name Peter Weir. Add another riddle to the prevailing mystery that surrounds his best films.

Unless I deserve some of the blame. During my sojourn in Australia, while interviewing Weir, his cameraman Russell Boyd, and colleagues at the National Film and Sound Archives in Sydney, I discovered and attempted to reveal a man far more interesting in his own way than the riddles he propounds in Hanging Rock, The Last Wave, and The Truman Show. I encountered a man behind his mysteries who is deeply humane, modest, and articulate about his life and work. His modesty is all too real: “I am only a jester with cap and bells,” he told me, “who goes from court to court.”

I repeat, must his recent inactivity consign his name to the dustbin of film history? Or can we hope, at the very least, that his work, like the grin of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, will stay on after the rest of him has disappeared?

 

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 John C. Tibbetts is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film & Media Studies at the University ofKansas, where he teaches courses in film history, media studies, and theory and aesthetics. He is an author, educator, broadcaster, as well as an artist and pianist. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Multi-Disciplinary Studies (Art History, Theater, Photography and Film).

As a broadcaster and journalist and scholar he has hosted his own television show in Kansas City, Missouri; worked as a news reporter/ commentator for CBS Television (KCTV) and National Public Radio; produced classical music programming for KXTR-FM radio; written (and illustrated) ten  books, more than 200 articles, and several short stories.  

His most recent books are Peter Weir: Interviews and Douglas Fairbanks And The American Century.  
Other books include  The Gothic Imagination (Palgrave Mcmillan, 2011), Composers in the
Movies:  Studies in Musical Biography 
(2005, Yale University Press), Schumann: A Chorus of Voices (2010, Amadeus Press), and the three-volume American Classic Screen (Scarecrow Press, 2010).

His current radio series are The World of Robert Schumann (currently being broadcast worldwide on the WFMT Radio Network) and Piano Portraits (A 17-episode series of interviews with world–class concert pianists). 

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

Tessa:   I like kicking the tires with you.  And I appreciate your independence of thought and your creativity, both hallmarks of a top R&D approach.  I’m happy to do potato salad and barbecue with you anytime!!  You have always been a man of your word and you have truly worked toward mutual understanding and lived your outreach and support for the media literacy field.

I confess, I am still challenging myself (and you) to think more about representation.  I take your points but I am thinking, thinking….for example, with your abstract art and lightbulb examples from earlier comments:  I don’t believe there is any “pure information,” as McLuhan characterized it.  Constructions always come from somewhere or from someone, and that automatically implies choices by the constructor on what to share or what not to share, what color to make the painting or the light…these decisions are driven by past experience or emotion or whatever intent there may be since there is always context to decisions.  The final product — the art or the lightbulb — is a construction based on these decisions and representative of these decisions. And there is context around the construction that affects the audience’s perceptions about the construction itself.  So for example, the lightbulb has shape and color and we may look at a single bare lightbulb hanging in a room from the ceiling very differently than we may look at a cluster of lightbulbs flashing and spinning like a disco ball from the ’80’s.

But neither do I think that the intent behind construction needs to be cynical or purely transactional just because there is no “pure information.”   I embrace the idea of a gift economy (digital or not) that you raised, and I illustrate this, ironically, with the idea behind MasterCard commercials that distinguish between the dollar value of a bicycle and the priceless value of parents riding bicycles with their children. Profit and power (with the word power used in the sense of having agency and a worldview, ideology or influence)  in themselves have no value. It is in the application and points of view around profit and power that individuals and society value them as beneficial or not. A case in point might be a Facebook campaign designed to encourage people to ride bicycles in a charity fundraiser to help eradicate breast cancer.  A beneficial use of profit and power, right?  But this entire scenario earns a different value if the Facebook page is a fraud, which represents a different author’s intent. Cynicism assumes the worst; our goal is to encourage skepticism through questioning.

I digress.  These are topics for the barbecue.  On the Core Concepts:  thank heavens you wish to uphold them and amend them in your own words and continue to refresh them rather than upend them!  (I like what you said about questioning them and we agree on that, too.)  I totally enjoyed your commentary on the Core Concepts because you have a broad and deep understanding of media literacy and it shows.  And though you see why I lamented that the Core Concepts weren’t included in your 2006 white paper, I want to emphasize that your 2006 white paper is a gift to our field, and we both agree that we need a paradigm shift in education (built on strong foundations).    This is why I am delighted that the Aspen Institute published an important policy report this year called Learner at the Center of a Networked World. This report calls for media and social/emotional literacies to be at the center of our education system — the paradigm shift that we have both been calling for.

And I totally understand your bristling at the idea that the Core Concepts and questions have taken on a “one true way” dogma.  Independence of mind is what the Core Concepts help inspire; I do NOT take issue with questioning.  In fact, what you cited in the your 2006 white paper was CML’s Five Key Questions for Deconstruction, that were designed in 2002 to introduce a pedagogy which is useful in teaching but not immutable or comprehensive.  The Questions pose a way to learn to apply the Concepts through a process of inquiry.  There are LOTS of questions that should be asked — but the Five Key Questions are a thoughtful way to begin inquiring.  In 2006, CML had not yet developed its Five Key Questions for Construction/Production, and so rightfully, a critique of the Deconstruction Questions in the 2006 report was that they were passive and  geared toward media consumption only.  Thank you!  This critique was helpful and CML now has an updated framework (developed in 2007) for critical analysis and inquiry based on the Five Core Concepts called Questions/TIPS (Q/TIPS):

Q_TIPS screenshot

 

Q/TIPS can be applied anywhere and anytime, to any content or any academic subject. Q/TIPS can be applied to construction projects or to any media message – digital or not — and in CML’s experience, students are highly engaged in the process.   Like having students bounce balls to learn about physics, students can undertake projects, and identify, label and learn the Concepts/Questions as they construct their projects or interact. In this way, students learn process skills experientially while they also acquire vocabulary for common understanding about media literacy.  Practicing over time helps students internalize the process and to be able to quickly apply the framework to analyze and evaluate their work and that of others, looking at both the construct itself and at the context surrounding it. “Content, in Media Education, is a means to an end.  That end is the development of transferable analytical tools rather than an alternative content,”  Masterman advised. Now, along with the theory and skills called for in your white paper, media literacy offers empowerment for people  on a scale that has never truly been available before, since our education system has focused primarily on content knowledge in a print-based world.

You mentioned that “to be scalable and sustainable we need to move beyond the culture of early adopters/adapters and reach teachers who will need more basic materials, more fully developed practices, in order to bring these ideas into their classrooms.”   We have long struggled with the issue of bringing the theory to the people in a way that is accessible, adoptable, sustainable and measurable in the education system, while still being credible theoretically.  This is why I have said that the Core Concepts are a base for understanding theory and the the Key Questions are a pedagogical practice. We want teachers to see that yes, they CAN get started to teach media literacy.  Q/TIPS is one of many approaches.   But in providing education resources and teacher training that can be replicated and scaled at the level we need, issues of consistency inevitably arise, because while we are trying to encourage understanding and training, we are also trying to measure effectiveness, and to increase vocabulary and communication on media literacy — globally.

While I realize that the theory is always evolving — and that is a positive!  — we also need some stability in how we approach media literacy theory in teacher training and program implementation. Otherwise we can never gain any traction to be able to scale, and we are always starting over again in trying to sustain media literacy basics into the pre-K 12 system. You mentioned that “CML’s Core Concepts and especially the Key Questions provide a framework that can serve as a template for designing classroom activities,” and I can say that we developed this framework with exactly that approach in mind.  I also must note that Q/TIPS is only one element of CML’s approach to media literacy, but it’s fair to say that it is central to our work, along with what we call the Empowerment Spiral of Awareness, Analysis, Reflection and Action.  And  I see no conflict whatsoever in joining your work with ours.   We welcome opportunities to work together and partner. 

There are rays of hope in the education world for media literacy’s being more accepted and understood.  The Common Core State Standards are hospitable to media literacy education.  National organizations such as the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards have called for media literacy education.  Reports such as the Horizon K-12 Report and the Future Workskills 2020 Report cite media literacy as important, and of course, the new Aspen Institute report I already mentioned, Learners at the Center of a Networked World, is outstanding. The more that media literacy is is cited as part of public policy initiatives, the better.

Our challenges are to continue the R&D,  and to explore the new horizons that are continuing to open up, while at the same time institutionalizing media literacy education.  It is my hope that our field can agree on some fundamentals and continue to fill in the substantial existing gaps so that we have a firm foundation for making progress with our education system.   Clearly, these explorations and conversations are essential for securing media literacy for future generations. Thank you for all you do, Henry.

 

Henry: Back at you, Tessa. I really loved discovering that you had taken some of the critiques in the white paper and used them to expand/retool your core questions. This is the kind of back and forth between research and practice that we’ve been talking about.

There is probably an interesting conversation the field should be having about how what we call participation may be more than consumption plus production or what it might mean to think about production as a collective rather than personal practice, but I think the recognition that today, in many cases, we are producers of the messages being discussed rather than consumers is an important step in the right direction.

 

In any case, I should have clarified much earlier in this conversation: we still live in a world where media produced by others exerts a very strong influence on our lives; Broadcast media institutions and practice still shape the media environment and we need to critically engage with their products now as we should have all along. But, we look at those products differently in a networked culture where we collectively have an expanded communication capacity including some ability to shape media production and circulation and some ability to push our concerns into a larger, many-to-many conversation. We look at them not as fixed texts, but as something to which we may respond, something we may appropriate and remix, something we might need to challenge and disrupt, etc.

 And notions of construction (and the choices and constraints that it implies) remain core to what it means to be media literate in this world. See, for example, Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Networks: “What institutions and decisions are considered ‘legitimate’ and worthy of compliance or participation, what courses of action are attractive, what forms of interaction with others are considered appropriate — these are all understandings negotiated from within a set of shared frames of meaning.” or consider Chris Kelty in The Participatory Culture Handbook, “‘Participating’ in Facebook is not the same thing as participating in a Free Software project, to say nothing of participating in the democratic governance of a state. If there are indeed different ‘participatory cultures’ then the work of explaining their differences must be done by thinking concretely about the practices, tools, ideologies, and technologies that make them up. Participation is about power, and, no matter how ‘open’ a platform is, participation will reach a limit circumscribing power and its distribution.” And so, a model grounded in participation requires an informed and literate community: neither Benkler nor Kelty is explicitly advocating for media literacy, but for me, these arguments make media literacy a central element in any effective system for educating future citizens.

Now, back to the debate about representation. This last go around produced an “Ah Ha!” moment for me. I think part of the problem here is that neither of us are defining our terms and thus we are speaking past each other. So, a little time with a dictionary suggests where some of the confusion may be coming from. I am drawing on representation, first and foremost, to refer to a specific set of functions media may perform having to do with the depiction — the re-presentation — of something that exists in the world. This draws on such preferred definitions as “a painting, sculpture, etc., that is created to look like a particular thing or person” or “an artistic likeness or image.” So, an abstract painting by definition does not depend on its “likeness” to anything that exists in the world and a lightbulb is defined by what it does, perhaps what it allows us to see, but not by what it depicts — at least in most cases.

I also noted that the term representation has a political meaning and that the power of representation in media literacy, for me, has to do with the blurring boundaries between the two: when we depict a group, often in a stereotypical fashion, through media, we exert political effects because we impact the ways they are perceived by others, we shape what this group stands for, and so we are always locked in a struggle over representation. Representation, thus, is never simply about depiction or likeness; it always carries connotative meanings which need to be critiqued if we are going to understand the meaning or effects of a media message. Indeed, it is this layer which makes it a message in the first place.

I am not a hundred percent clear on how you are using this term, but my sense is that you are adopting a more expansive definition, such as this one from my dictionary, “something (such as a picture or symbol) that stands for something else.” This is what I might call signification, which is a much broader concept than representation in the ways I am using the word.  By that definition, you are right that an abstract painting could “stand for” the state of mind of the artist, even if it does not offer a “likeness” of anything that exists in the world.

So, if you told me that Media Literacy always involved construction and signification, we might come closer to agreement, where-as I would want to insist that there are many other functions that media can perform that are not best described in terms of producing a likeness. In many cases, representation is an appropriate word in either sense, but not always, and I am often interested in those functions of media that are not reducible to representation in that sense.

This is a great example of how lack of communication can create friction between different groups which are working for the same cause. As we shift between theoretical traditions, we often end up using the same words to mean different things, and so we read statements outside of their original meaning or context. I am hoping that a more open exchange between ML and DML researchers might diminish some of the misunderstandings and mutual misperceptions which exist between them. I think we’ve made a great start with this conversation, and I hope we can find other ways to expand the discussion in the future.

 

Tessa:  A start for sure!  Although I note that such conversations really start with attitudes of openness and mutual respect and the sense of common purpose that you noted earlier. The intellectual pursuit of knowledge is always exciting, but we must have common ground, emotionally and knowledge-wise, to communicate.

I agree with your AHA! moment — our vocabulary stands in the way sometimes.  Yes, I use representation in a very broad sense. Your word “signification” is an excellent one and more descriptive of the situation we were describing with the lightbulb, for example. I embrace signification!  But there’s another aspect at work here: there are different purposes behind using different vocabulary words.  A researcher may need to be precise to the nth degree; a practitioner may need to be only as precise as the situation calls for in introducing and then expanding on and exploring a concept or idea. Kindergartners may require a different vocabulary than high school students. Expandable words like representation, which can be interpreted from a more concrete level to a more conceptual level, are very useful words in an educational setting. Ultimately, for those who wish to push the boundaries of an exploration, expandable words lead to other more precise words. (Thank you for turning to a dictionary!)

And yes, I agree that we are sometimes using the same words for other things. The word mashup comes to mind:  some people may call a mashup making a collage, or some people may call it scrapbooking.  What is different here? And how important is it?   And so we confront the slippery slope — but in most cases, it is the effort of trying to confront together that is what counts, because we are aiming toward a higher purpose.

It is in this spirit that the field should definitely have the conversation you suggested about “what we call participation may be more than consumption plus production, or what it might mean to think about production as a collective rather than a personal practice.” You have been raising those questions and they are highly important ones.  And when we say field, we are saying BOTH the ML and DML communities, which I believe are the same overall community with the same overall purpose: media literacy education.  My mind is racing with ideas and and I am fueled with enthusiasm as I think about coming conversations for the field. I will only note that the reduction in cycle times between information exchanges has revolutionized the world we know, which has given us the urgency so needed to propel media literacy forward. Thanks to technology, we the people have more power, and our challenge is to exercise it wisely.

An informed and literate community is the basis for finding this wisdom, as you said.  And we can’t say it often enough:  media literacy is a central element in any effective system for educating future citizens.  I welcome working together towards this global imperative!

 

THAT’S ALL, FOLKS

 

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.

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

TESSA: First and foremost, I totally agree your statement that there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions and frameworks as we work through what, if anything, is different in the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced — that is the essence of R&D.  But my caution is that R&D’s purpose is not to reinvent the wheel or throw the baby out with the bathwater (to use cliches that are also representations!) — it is to build upon what has come before, expand it and sometimes upend it.

My other caution is that pedagogy and practice generally fall well behind in teaching the new theories engendered through R&D —  your example of the state of the pedagogy at the time your wrote your white paper is certainly accurate! And this earlier pre-occupation with mass media in the practice was well behind the R&D of that time, because people like Masterman,  Barry Duncan and Kathleen Tyner had long envisioned media literacy education as going beyond mass media deconstruction and production. Definitely media literacy, in your words, should have “an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.”  The cycle times between R&D ideas being discovered, disseminated, adopted and practiced are shrinking but still discouraging.

 

But theory and practice are two different arenas, and media literacy has NOT been taught. This is a major problem for R&D because this pedagogical omission has made it difficult for even researchers to distinguish between what is new and what has come before, and what is important to query as a foundation, and what is not.  So, for example, you are rightly questioning the role of representation — “about whether representation can stand in for the totality of the communication process,” as you said.   I agree, that is a highly important question to me as a person interested in R&D.  But just because researchers may be asking that question, does it mean that Pre-K-12 students shouldn’t be learning about representation and its role in media literacy?  Should we deny students learning about an idea that we ourselves have gained wisdom from?   I ask these questions as a person interested in both R&D and in pedagogy and practice. In the case of whether representation should be discussed in media literacy education, I happily agree with your saying “Absolutely!”

 

These basic questions of course lead to others:

  • How far into the R&D questions do everyday people want to go?
  • What might be useful and accessible to people in understanding their everyday relationship with media?
  • How much can people reasonably take in as they explore media literacy in formal and informal settings (keeping in mind that everyone is on a continuum in terms of their learning and their desires and abilities to understand and apply ideas).
  • How might teachers be taught to help students explore these ideas?

 

We must also note that while we are primarily addressing construction and participation, media literacy concerns itself with other arenas, which include:

  • The media diet (how much media users use and produce, what content, what quality, etc.)
  • Safety, privacy and security
  • Intellectual property use, copyright, etc.
  • Identity and consumerism
  • Issues like health, news, privacy/data and citizenship
  • Various frameworks like Paulo Freire’s empowerment spiral of awareness, analysis, reflection and action
  • Media effects
  • Media reform

But for our discussion, I think exploring the vocabulary and media literacy ideas around construction and participation may be most useful, since you agree with the idea (minus my inclusion of representation) that I stated earlier, “Construction must take place before participation is possible.”  As noted earlier but worth repeating, construction is a HUGE idea since even the universe and culture and our brains are constructed (though there’s lots of disagreement and speculation through the ages about who or what may be responsible for this phenomena).  But for those of us who like to understand how things are constructed, how they work and why they might be compelling for human beings, there are deconstruction processes that we can apply to the internet or to a fashionable dress.  There are MANY frames through which to explore construction, but in our case, we are exploring human relationships with media constructions and I agree with you that having relationships with media means engagement with media, and by extension participation with other human beings, directly or indirectly.

 

I like your (and Lisa Gitelman’s) example of a telephone call.  Using our construction vocabulary, a phone call is a construction that is facilitated through media, that has an audio “construct” or “text” that may or may not be captured in print or recorded  (I would also argue that the verbal and audio texts represent the callers at that moment in time) and that requires participation by humans who go through the process of constructing the call. I agree that other elements may be communicated between the parties besides words — the voice itself is a medium — the timber of the voice, the volume of the voice, the pacing of the words also provide evidence that may lead to inferences about emotion and other contextual elements surrounding and influencing the call.    Besides being a construct unto itself, the call has other outcomes — perhaps a decision about some action to be taken, like going to a movie,  or perhaps the callers feel more emotionally bonded — or maybe more emotionally distanced from each other.  After the call is completed, if we could roll back time or see a text or better yet, hear a recording, we could step back to formally analyze or deconstruct both the textual and contextual elements present during the call. We could see what media literacy elements are at work during the call and use this knowledge to construct another call differently, if we choose. On an informal level, people highly skilled in deconstructing messages automatically deconstruct calls — consciously or unconsciously — as they construct and engage using the telephone, and they interact accordingly to achieve their purposes in initiating the call.  High media literacy skills also call for high emotional and social literacy skills. — we need to “read” the whole context of the mediated experience while we are also constructing it.

 

With this scenario in mind, each of the Five Core Concepts of media literacy for media construction apply to this interpersonal communication/construction — the phone call:

 

CML’s Five Core Concepts of Media Literacy

 

1.  All media messages are constructed. (the construct or the call itself, using telephone media technology)

2.  Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules.   (the “protocols,” terms or social norms such as “Hello” that Gitelman refers to;  the characteristics of telephone technology; and characteristics and use of the voice)

3.  Different people experience the same media message differently.  (each person will have different perceptions about the call  — or groups may or may not arrive at a consensus)

4.  Media messages have embedded values and points of view. (the “framing” of the call — what is included and what is excluded in the construct)

5.  Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power.  (the purpose of the call, with the caller exercising agency or power to achieve a purpose such as close bonding)

 

By necessity, I am being brief and I acknowledge that there could be many parsings in this example (a strength of media literacy education is acknowledgement that while people have individual skills, their understanding is often enhanced exponentially through participation with others).

 

CML’s expression of the Five Core Concepts are rooted in work by Masterman and Canadian media literacy pioneers including Barry Duncan and John Puengente in the 1980’s.  They are as relevant to telephone calls and mass media as they are to new media.  These concepts describe how media — any media — operate as a symbolic system.   When your white paper was published in 2006, I wondered whether these Concepts needed to be expanded. And from some of your comments here, it sounds like you are also questioning when you said ”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.”  Your white paper certainly was groundbreaking and quite descriptive about new media literacy skills needed. Unfortunately, these Core Concepts — which have served as a foundational frame for media literacy in numerous parts of the world — were not cited in the 2006 white paper and this may be continuing to cause confusion and unintended consequences, even now.

 

As researchers and developers in the field, we must constantly test the Core Concepts to see whether they are still universally valid and descriptive of all forms of media.  It is this basic description of a global media system at work that distinguishes media literacy from other communications fields, and they provide a rallying point around which institutionalizing media literacy becomes possible.  The Core Concepts capture the fundamental understanding that has long been missing in our culture and in the Pre-K-12 +++ education system (I might add that I have spoken to many graduate students who have no idea about what the Core Concepts are or how to apply them, which is highly disappointing and also telling). The Concepts provide the basis for pedagogy that can be built around them. It is important to emphasize this distinction between describing how media operate as a symbolic system — the theoretical description of media embodied in the Five Core Concepts — and how individuals and groups use and experience the media — the practice, the skills, the applications of the theory. There are many frames, especially in the pedagogy and practice arenas, that may apply and further media literacy.

 

Before he died in 2012, the great Canadian pioneer Barry Duncan (founder of the Canadian Association for Media Literacy), called for action in his 2010 Voices of Media Literacy interview:

 

“You get all of these competing literacies, and that is not a bad thing…but there needs to be a way to bridge these and that has not successfully happened. Critical pedagogy has a lot to offer…I want to see (it) having a major role in bringing the key ideas both of traditional media and new media — of bringing them together and making all of these things as meaningful in the curriculum. The so-called convergence and the culture of connectivity — all of the new directions — all of that has to be reconciled with the traditional. And if we do a good job at that we will be successful.

“If you look at the … Key Concepts — there are groups out there that are doing some aspect of it. But the danger is that the richness of the aesthetic, ideological, commercial — if they are not explored then we leave the major things out of the model(s) that are needed … to acknowledge the complexity.”

 

 

Henry: First, let me say how artful I think you were at showing how the core concepts of media literacy apply to the telephone call. I would not disagree, though as I said before, I am not sure that they capture everything that is going on there. We’ve, for example, found it very generative to look at our NML skills alongside the research on emotional intelligence, which has helped us to really focus on the interpersonal and affective dimensions of social media, and there are issues about social norms around privacy and disclosure, which can be characterized in terms of conventions of communication, but perhaps not, of representation per se. So, I am always going to be the guy who kicks the tires.

Part of what I admire about the Core Concepts — and there is much to admire here — is that they represent a compromise or coalition between different generations of theorists and activists who were advocating media literacy. I have always loved the quote from Bob McCannon, which Renee Hobbs shared in her “Seven Great Debates in the Media Literacy Movement” essay: “Whenever media literacy educators get together, they always circle the wagons– and shoot in!”

If we look closely, we see in those core concepts aspects of semiotics (“All media messages are constructed,”) McLuhanism (“Media have embedded values and points of view”), film appreciation (“Media messages are constructed using a creative language with its own rules,”) British Cultural Studies (“Different people experience the same media message differently”) and Critical Studies (“Most media messages are organized to gain profit and/or power”). As a political document, a truce of sorts, it is brilliant. As an intellectual document, it also is incredibly valuable as a starting point for defining media literacy and explaining why it is an essential set of concepts for our times.

 I would personally qualify or modify some of these phrasings — for example, my work stresses the collective dimensions of meaning-making rather than the individual and for me, the focus on “different people” rather than “different audiences” here tends to focus more on idiosyncratic interpretations (always good as conversation fodder) rather than socially-embedded interpretations. I would argue that as forms of social and mobile media become more central to the field, we need a broader array of different motives to consider beyond power and profit or we will end up with a very cynical (rather than skeptical) understanding of the role media plays in human relations.  You turned to social bonding above in addressing what happens when we look at telephone calls, and it is important to think about those dimensions of digital culture that function more like a gift economy than like commodity culture. I might add something that stressed the ways that media mediates different kinds of social relations between people who participate in its exchange, which might cover much of what I was arguing for above in terms of pushing beyond representation as a category or I might stress the ways that media impact each other in a more systemic way, which is to my mind at the heart of what I call comparative media studies. These are areas where we have seen new theoretical breakthroughs since the five core concepts were formulated. I would describe such questioning as aimed at renewing and refreshing the core concepts, not overturning them. But, as a starting point, sure — great concepts and ones that should ideally inform our work.

 

I am sorry that you felt the exclusion of the core concepts in the white paper may have led to such unintended consequences. I can see your point and suspect you may be right. At the time, I had imagined the white paper being read by people who already were immersed in the ML movement, but I had not anticipated how many others would come to ML work through that document. And that goes back to your larger statement that ML skills are still NOT being taught in schools, so how can we take them as granted in the subsequent work we do. I had meant for our statement to be that we needed traditional literacy, media literacy, technical skills, and research skills NOW MORE THAN EVER, but that there were ALSO now other skills we should be working to achieve and that this document was primarily identifying what those skills were, why they were important, and how they should be taught. This goes hand in hand with my sense that what we need is a paradigm shift and not simply adding a few more things to an already crowded curriculum.

 

You are right that educational practice will mostly lag behind research, except in this case, we’ve discovered that teachers have recognized the need to respond quickly to the changes they were seeing in young people’s lives, that many of them were hungry for research that addressed the impact of digital media, and that there have been large numbers of early adapters and adopters out there who were ready to respond to the call. What the DML movement is now recognizing is what the ML movement understood all the time: that to be scalable and sustainable we need to move beyond the culture of early adopters/adapters and reach teachers who will need more basic materials, more fully developed practices, in order to bring these ideas into their classrooms. We need to turn the early recruits into mentors for other teachers, but even this, will not make media literacy something that is embedded in the educational system as a whole.  In our own work, we are seeing the best way to achieve that goal is to work with people who have much more experience working in schools than we have, and so we find ourselves exploring partnerships with groups like Facing History and Ourselves, the National Writer’s Project, Project Look Sharp, or your organization. Your Core Concepts and especially your Key Questions provide just such a framework which has been adapted easily as a template into the design of classroom activities, which can be used by teachers who are not necessarily interested in designing and developing their own lesson plans or even delving too deeply into the theoretical nuances. This would seem to be the point where these worlds are going to rejoin again.

 

You raise a key point above when you suggest those of us who are doing advanced research and development sometimes take these core concepts for granted, forgetting how hard we worked to achieve this understanding, or how empowering it was when we did.  My worry is that within the ML world, rather than being under constant revision, as you suggest above, these core concepts and questions have sometimes taken on the quality of articles of faith and on a knee-jerk level, that makes me bristle, since I was raised a Southern Baptist and have worked hard since to clear my mind of any and all kinds of  “one true way” dogma. I’ve certainly felt pressure to swear allegiance to these collective statements, and I have resisted doing so, not because I disagree in any fundamental way with this framework, as my comments above suggest, but because I want to be free to test, challenge, and question the core tenants of a field as the media environment changes.

The minute these become a set of answers rather than a set of questions, the ML field starts to rigidify and part of what is exciting about the DML efforts is that they are bringing new energy, new passion, and new intellectual curiosity into this space as they sort through competing ideas about how schools should prepare young people for participation in the new media landscape. So, we can expect more pushing and pulling on the basic frameworks that come before us, but that puts a burden on those of us in the DML world to learn and understand that work, and I would agree there are many who have not become familiar with those concepts. My co-authors, Tara McPherson, Jane Shattuc, and I wrote in the Introduction to Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, about another field — cultural studies: “If change in the academy has often been likened to an oedipal conflict in which the sons and daughters kill their parents in order to make room for their own accomplishments, we are hoping for something closer to a family reunion where squabbles may surface but where a strong sense of community and tradition is reaffirmed over potato salad and barbecue.”  I am hoping our exchange has made some progress towards that kind of mutual understanding here.

MORE TO COME

 

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 Two)

Tessa:  I found myself nodding yes Yes YES! as I read your response. The law of unintended consequences always follows any meaningful action — and some of our discussion falls into that category and Henry, I applaud your action and know that your intentions are the absolute best.  Most importantly, we agree on the primary goal of media literacy education:   as you said, media literacy requires a fundamental paradigm shift in ways to teach all subjects.  Media literacy education— whether it is high tech or low tech — primarily concerns itself with teaching and learning the conceptual underpinnings beneath contextualizing, acquiring and applying content knowledge.

 

Learners gain content knowledge through using their media literacy skills — and these skills are applicable to any content anytime, anywhere on a lifelong basis.  Sometimes this process has little or nothing to do with technology, although I will note that access to technology in the U.S. Is widespread:  in our experience at CML, in the poorest communities in the U.S., cellphones and applications like video games proliferate, but these technologies are frequently barred in the classroom.

 

This changed education paradigm is a radical shift in cultural and education systems where formal learning worldwide has traditionally been confined to content silos whose subject matter is warehoused in physical textbooks and dumped into students’ heads. Since these traditions have dominated since Gutenberg’s invention of the press, they are rooted deeply in our culture.  “Mastery” is no longer the goal for education; constant improvement on a continuum of learning is what we are seeking, while recognizing that some will inevitably be more skilled than others in various domains.  As Len Masterman, a professor from the University of Nottingham and a media literacy visionary, said his his Eighteen Basic Principles in 1989, “…you can teach about the media most effectively, not through a content-centered approach, but through the application of a conceptual framework which can help pupils to make sense of any media text (this includes media texts created by users and software “texts”).  And that applies every bit as much to the new digitized technologies as it did to the old mass media…The acid test of whether a media course has been successful resides in students’ ability to respond critically to media texts they will encounter (or create) in the future.  Media education is nothing if it is not an education for life.”

 

We at CML like to say that thanks to technology, the content is infinitely variable, plentiful and available, but that the media literacy process skills of “learning how to learn” and to be critically autonomous are the constants that learners need to practice and employ and constantly improve — and because of the lack of understanding and training of both teachers and learners, these skills are scarce.  It is going to take more than a village to institutionalize media literacy education. Policy initiatives, coalitions, professional associations, researchers etc. will all play a vital part in realizing this global imperative.

 

Which brings me to the point that being media literate, undertaking research and development, teaching media literacy, and institutionalizing media literacy are widely divergent roles which require various degrees of media literacy knowledge and skills. Who needs what knowledge when, and for what purpose?  Masterman noted that …”media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded). The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us and what we represent to others through media).”  Researchers who explore the vanguard of media literacy — such as you and many of those who are part of the DML community — may have a different goal for media literacy education than preschool teachers. Yet each is in the business of sharing knowledge about media literacy  and helping youth and adults to understand and to be able to describe and navigate symbolic media systems — whether these systems are technology-based or not. I do not see conflict — I see coalescence.  Common understanding fuels coalition-building — which is highly desirable and needed!

 

To grow media literacy education at the pre-K-12 level, we need to have pedagogy that can be replicated, measured and scaled.  Only then will media literacy be common knowledge rather than privileged information.  Some of the basic components for achieving this goal have already been developed in ways that fit with new curricular approaches — highly encouraging.  And in the meanwhile, it is also encouraging to note that media literacy education has survived through the grassroots for many years, because some early adopters recognized its importance and refused to abandon their first-hand experience with its benefits and promise (anyone who is interested in this evolution may want to check out CML’s Voices of Media Literacy Project, which features 20 media literacy pioneers active prior to 1990).  Yet in spite of these past efforts, we are at the beginning of the beginning, although Marieli Rowe, president of the National Telemedia Council and I have joked for years that “media literacy is just around the corner.”  So far it’s been a very long block to walk!!

 

Henry: There’s no question in my mind that the work we are doing today would not be possible without the work of the kind of media literacy pioneers you have been documenting and it is an enormous service to capture those voices and their memories of the early days of the media literacy movement while it is still possible to do so. There has been a tendency for those people who have jumped into this space in the wake of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning initiatives to forget this history, to see these projects as a new beginning, and as a consequence, we are losing much wisdom, not to mention the opportunity to forge a stronger alliance with those veterans who have much experience in the field of this struggle. This is why I have made a point of remaining connected to NAMLE and serving on the editorial board of the Journal of Media Literacy to make sure those links remain strong.

 

Once we wrote the white paper and turned our attention to developing our own curricular resources, our first major project, which became the book, Reading in a Participatory Culture, sought to bridge between the literary practices of the 19th century (those which gave rise to Moby-Dick), the traditions of the media literacy movement, and today’s remix practices, whether those associated with hip hop or digital media; we wanted to help teachers to understand the differences between plagiarism, fair use, and remix, and we wanted students to think not only critically but also creatively about the many different kinds of texts they encountered in their everyday lives as readers and writers within contemporary culture. Our goal was not about promoting new media per se; we wrote that we hoped to raise a generation which had a mouse in one hand and a book in another. And the approach we took was comparative to its core, seeking to identify connections across media as well as differences.

You are right to say that technologies are becoming more widely available (and thus, one case for teaching media literacy is that we need to help young people think critically about tools and practices that are very much part of their everyday environments.) We certainly still are finding cases where young people lack access to these technologies — or meaningful access — outside the classroom, so that having twenty minutes of restricted access in a public library does not equal the unlimited, anywhere-anytime access enjoyed by other youth. But, we are also finding other inequalities in access to skills and knowledge, mentorship, networks, etc. which result in gross inequalities of opportunity between different youth — this is what we called in the original report, the Participation Gap, and this also is why it is so vital to incorporate media literacy experiences, including experiences working with new media technologies, into every institution that touches young people’s lives, but especially through schools.  MacArthur’s original focus was on spaces of informal learning, which was an important first step, but increasingly, the DML folks are focused on “connected learning,” which emphasizes  building a more fluid set of relations between home, out of school, and in school practices. All of this is why I have shifted from talking about “a participatory culture” to “a more participatory culture” to stress the work which still needs to be done in insuring equity of opportunity.

 

Yes, schools often block access to the technologies which young people use outside of school: for some, this is not a problem, since they see value in a low tech learning environment. But, for me, the bigger issue is that they are blocking ways of knowing and processes of meaning-making which young people are using outside the classroom. In many cases, we’ve wired the classroom and hobbled the computers, cutting them off from any and all forms of participatory culture and learning practices, blocking social media, dismissing Wikipedia, stigmatizing games, and rejecting YouTube and other video sites. All of this means that we are not addressing the consequences of those tools through our teaching and thus losing out on opportunities to help young people develop more meaningful and ethical relations to these platforms and practices.

 

The one phrase here which gave me some pause was your term, “Critically autonomous.” On the one hand, yes, of course — the goal is to get youth to think for themselves, to critically analyze the messages which they receive, to question authority, to be skeptical of motives from other communicators, and to ask probing questions. This goes to the heart of what we both mean by media literacy. But, at the same time, I have called for a recognition that media literacy is a “social skill” having to do with the ways we interface with each other, how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. I fear that our schools place too much emphasis on the autonomous learner and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. This is perhaps a key way in which the new media literacies differ — we are focusing on notions of collectivity and connectivity more. Our emphasis on participation begs the question, participation in what? I’ve made this a key concern in some of my own recent writings, but the answer necessarily involves something larger than the individual, or it is by nature not participation.

 

Tessa: Hmmmm…you raise a lot of compelling points. I appreciate your exploring the question of “participation in what?” Maybe there are no set answers to this question — maybe our role in media literacy education is to help increase the capacity of participants to participate effectively in whatever they choose to engage with?

 

I certainly agree with you that media literacy is a social skill in regards to how we relate to each other and how we participate collectively within the activities of a networked society. Relationships are — and have always been — central to media literacy and media literacy education. First and foremost, through media literacy we explore our relationship with media itself. We engage with media and given its pervasiveness in our lives, divorce is not an option!

 

In understanding our media relationship, we come to see that there are relationships between the text, the audience and the producers/participants, and as technology has offered increased capacity for interaction and world-wide connectivity, that relationship becomes more and more dynamic and expansive. At the same time, our media relationship affects our very identities as individuals and as affiliative groups — we have private selves (what goes on inside), public/representational selves (how we extend and represent ourselves to others alone or as a group/entity) and what I call “commercialized” selves (that allow marketing and/or ideological elements, such as branding or big data, define who we are or whom we affiliate with and whom we are seen to affiliate with). These notions apply to individuals as well as organizations or groups.

 

I agree with you, that schools emphasize individual autonomy and not enough emphasis on how we create and share knowledge together. (And I believe that higher education is the tail that wags the Pre-K-12 dog in this regard — SAT scores and college admissions departments reward individuals). But sharing is not a new idea — sharing has been part of enlightened media literacy pedagogies for many years. I quote Masterman’s 18 Basic Principles again because — well, he is my master (and I am continually wowed to see how his words resonate through the years): “Media Education is essentially active and participatory, fostering the development of more open and democratic pedagogies. It encourages students to take more responsibility for and control over their own learning…”

 

As technology has enabled the classroom walls to break down through more connectivity, good media literacy pedagogy becomes more and more feasible — and desirable — in both formal and informal settings. “Underlying Media Education is a distinctive epistemology” Masterman wrote. “Existing knowledge is not simply transmitted by teachers or ‘discovered’ by students. It is not an end but a beginning. It is the subject of critical investigations and dialogue out of which new knowledge is actively created by student and teachers.” This dialogue arises in many contexts, not just the formal classroom. And as you said (and it can’t be said enough!), we have a moral and economic challenge in our society to insure that these opportunities are widely and equitably available.

 

Because of the lack of education system imperatives to teach media literacy and to encourage critical autonomy alone and through groups — rather than to meet fill-in-the-bubble testing deadlines — it is difficult at best to deliver media education in a credible and evidence-based way.  Often, media researchers have no clue about what pedagogy is or how school systems work — and it is for this reason that we often say that media literacy is more about education than about media.  The education imperative is paramount:  the promise of the technology in putting power into the hands of the people is squandered if people don’t have the critical thinking skills and complementary new media skills to use technology wisely and to amplify benefits from its use.

 

But then the questions become, what skills are necessary and how do we help people gain media literacy skills?   Your 2006 white paper outlined new media skills that are needed — play, performance, simulation, appropriation, multitasking, distributed cognition, collective intelligence, judgment, transmedia navigation, networking and negotiation.  These are sophisticated skills that are highly suited to the technology and the digital world that enables their use. They rest on the basic foundations of media literacy skills that are usually  missing for students, or that are taken for granted by media researchers who may already have a conceptual understanding of media representations, deconstruction and construction. However — and yes I repeat myself — this basic foundation is absent in American education systems.  Quite simply, teachers cannot teach what they do not know and what the system has not valued.

 

And so we — as educators and as citizens —  have skipped teaching and learning an enormous media literacy underpinning for new media  as well as for non-digital media like the logos on shirts, the billboards, the theater plays, the food packaging, the school posters.  And this lack of understanding of basic media literacy concepts translates from the playground to the Twitter feed.   And as you said, Henry, it also robs researchers of a rich base of knowledge that should inform their work  Yet it’s important to have unity as a field so that we can gain traction and scale our work in a significant way amongst the general population — to translate the Research & Development (R&D) into awareness and actions of use to citizens nationally and globally.

 

This translation goal has been the Center for Media Literacy’s (CML’s) mission since its founding by Elizabeth Thoman in Los Angeles in 1989 (and with CML’s predecessor organization the Center for Media&Values springing from Thoman’s work beginning as a USC Annenburg graduate student in the late 1970’s).  I applaud your work and that of others, to operationalize and to “package” these powerful media literacy ideas and practices into pedagogy and curricula available for all of our citizens and youth — so needed! We must always keep in mind that we are trying to reach and inspire millions of people and so our task is enormous — but other movements, such as the environmental movement, provide us with inspiration and hope for fulfilling our mission.

 

In the meanwhile, we have a foundation to lay, with an expanded repertoire of media literacy skills that are needed in the 21st century (thanks to your groundbreaking work). What are the media literacy fundamentals that have been so neglected these past decades?

 

Earlier I noted that Mastermanfocused on priorities for media literacy education by saying: ”Media are symbolic sign systems that must be decoded (and encoded)… The central unifying concept of media literacy is that of representation (what is represented through media to us, and what we represent to others through media).”

 

He went on to say, “Without this principle, no media education is possible. From it, all else flows.”  This idea is as relevant to today’s media as it was to the media of Masterman’s time.

 

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.

Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Last year, I was happy to share the translations of some of my blog posts on transmedia into Spanish done by Mike Morell / Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morell. You can see them here. Mike has returned with another translation — this time of my Transmedia 202 post. If you want to see the original in English, you can see it here. Thanks, Mike, for all of your efforts to make some of these ideas more widely accessible in the Spanish speaking world!

 

 

1 de Agosto de 2011

Transmedia 202: Reflexiones adicionales

Por Henry Jenkins

Translated by Miguel Bernardo Olmedo Morrell

El vídeo de arriba fue grabado por Scott Walker durante una de mis presentaciones en la Comic-Con de San Diego, en la cual hablé acerca de algunos de los puntos más controvertidos que ha habido alrededor de la definición de transmedia durante los últimos seis meses, más o menos. Me he mantenido, en su mayor parte, alejado de estas conversaciones, aunque puedes encontrar un muy buen resumen de estos debates aquí.

Me he estado centrando en otros proyectos, y también me he interesado más en las formas que toman estas discusiones, en lugar de intentar intervenir en ellas directamente, pero durante el verano, en varios campos, he estado en un tira y afloja con mis propias definiciones para intentar capturar mi propia concepción cambiante de qué es lo transmediático, especialmente porque estoy preparando una clase renovada sobre el entretenimiento transmediático en la USC. Hoy voy a intentar poner por escrito parte de este pensamiento aún en evolución con la esperanza de que ayude a otros a aclararse en este tema.

Gran parte de estas cuestiones están cubiertas en el vídeo introductorio, así que, si eres de los que procesan mejor el contenido audiovisual que el escrito, siempre tienes esa opción. He escuchado algunos rumores de que Jenkins iba a mostrar una “nueva definición” de “transmedia”: la verdad es que el cambio que propongo no es ni de lejos tan dramático, tan solo propongo algunas clarificaciones y rectificaciones en las definiciones. Esta definición aún cubre, más o menos, a lo que me refiero como narración transmediática:

La narración transmediática representa un proceso en el que los elementos integrales de una obra de ficción se esparcen sistemáticamente a través de muchos canales de distribución con el propósito de crear una experiencia de entretenimiento unificada y coordinada. Lo ideal es que cada medio proporcione su propia contribución original al desarrollo de la historia.

Así pues, considera lo que sigue como Transmedia 202, en honor a mi post anterior, Transmedia 101.

Dado el elevado nivel de gente que ha adoptado (¿y se ha aferrado, incluso?) lo transmediático, no nos debería sorprender que:

  1. Diferentes grupos de personas están definiendo un concepto aún emergente de forma diferente con diferentes propósitos para públicos diferentes en contextos diferentes.
  2. Algunos de aquellos que hablan de transmedia están menos sumergidos en los escritos y pensamientos anteriores de lo que sería deseable y por tanto pueden empañar en cierta medida el concepto.
  3. Algunos grupos están fuertemente motivados a expandir o difuminar el alcance de la categoría con el fin de autopromocionarse y alcanzar sus propias metas.

Así pues, empecemos desde el principio con el tema de la convergencia, que describo en mi libro Cultura de la Convergencia como un paradigma de pensamiento sobre el momento actual de cambio mediático, uno que está definido a través de la división en capas, diversificación, e interconectividad de diversos medios. La convergencia está en contraste  con el modelo de Revolución Digital, que asume que los medios antiguos se verían sustituidos por los nuevos medios. Ciertos aspectos de este modelo de convergencia están dando forma a las decisiones de los productores de medios, publicistas, tecnólogos, consumidores y creadores de normas, y por tanto la convergencia tiene muchos aspectos y consecuencias diferentes.

El concepto de transmedia, usado por sí mismo, tan solo significa “a través de diferentes medios”. Transmedia, a este nivel, es una forma de hablar de la convergencia como un conglomerado de prácticas culturales. Ten en cuenta que Marsha Kinder, en Playing with Power, escribía sobre “intertextualidad transmediática”, mientras que yo fui de los primeros en popularizar el término “narrativa transmediática”. La narrativa transmediática describe un tipo de lógica para pensar sobre el flujo de contenido a través de distintos medios. También podemos pensar en marca transmediática, representación transmediática, ritual transmediático, juego transmediático, activismo transmediático, y espectáculo transmediático, como otro tipo de lógicas disponibles. El mismo texto puede interpretarse desde distintas lógicas. Así, por ejemplo, podrías tratar a Glee como una narrativa transmediática en la que seguimos a los personajes y sus circunstancias a través de distintos medios, pero, más a menudo, las estrategias transmediáticas de Glee enfatizan una representación transmediática, ya que sus canciones se pueden encontrar en Youtube, iTunes, conciertos en vivo, etc., que podemos consumir conjuntamente para dar sentido al fenómeno Glee.

Hay gente que piensa que transmedia es una forma de expandir una marca: yo más bien diría que expandir una marca es algo que puedes hacer transmediáticamente, pero cuando hablo de narrativa transmediática, este no es el foco central de mi interés. Me estoy centrando más bien en las formas narrativas emergentes que aprovechan el flujo de contenido a través de los medios y las redes de reacción de los fans.

Alguna gente argumenta que transmedia es tan solo otro nombre para el franquiciamiento. Esto consiste en una estructura empresarial de producción mediática que tiene una larga historia y que, a través de dicha historia, ha intentado mover iconos y marcas a través de canales mediáticos, pero no necesariamente en un intento de extender la narrativa en formas que expandan su ámbito y significado. La mayoría de las franquicias mediáticas anteriores estaban basadas en la reproducción y redundancia, pero las obras transmediáticas representan una estructura basada en un desarrollo más a fondo del mundo narrativo a través de cada nuevo medio. Si quieres consultar una buena guía de la historia y las prácticas del franquiciamiento, espera atento al próximo libro de Derek Johnson, que ha estado investigando este tema en profundidad.

Gran parte de este franquiciamiento se ha establecido a través de los permisos de concesión, que dificultan el que los productores mediáticos añadan o cambien cualquier cosa más allá del texto primario. La narrativa transmediática auténtica es capaz de emerger a través de estructuras que fomentan la co-creación y colaboración, pero, tal y como apunta Johnson, cuanto más se mueva un productor mediático en esta dirección, mayor será el desafío de coordinación y consistencia.

A veces he hablado de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión como de algo fundamental para entender estos cambios. Básicamente, la adaptación toma la historia en un medio y la cuenta de nuevo en otro. Una extensión busca añadir algo a la historia ya existente al trasladarla de un medio a otro. Christy Dena desafía esta distinción tan clara. Las adaptaciones pueden ser altamente literales o profundamente transformativas. Cualquier adaptación representa una interpretación del trabajo en cuestión y no simplemente una reproducción, con lo que todas las adaptaciones, en mayor o menor grado, añaden nuevos significados al abanico que ya tiene la historia original. Tal y como señala Dena, los cambios entre medios significan que nos enfrentamos a nuevas experiencias y aprendemos cosas nuevas. Trasladar Harry Potter de un libro a una serie de películas conlleva pensar mucho más profundamente en qué apariencia tiene Hogwarts y, por lo tanto, el director artístico/productor de diseño ha expandido y extendido significativamente la historia en el proceso. Quizá sea mejor pensar en la adaptación y la extensión como parte de un continuo en el que los dos polos son tan solo posibilidades teóricas y en donde la mayor parte de la acción tiene lugar en algún punto intermedio.

El tema que pretendía abordar al hablar de la distinción entre adaptación y extensión es la comprensión aditiva, un término prestado del diseñador de juegos Neil Young, para referirse al grado en que cada nuevo texto aumenta nuestro conocimiento de la historia en sí. Así, la novela gráfica Falling Skies es una precuela que nos habla de la desaparición del hermano intermedio y, por tanto, ayuda a mostrar el trasfondo de los motivos que mueven a los personajes de la serie de televisión Turner. En este caso, la comprensión aditiva toma la forma de historia de trasfondo, pero la misma novela gráfica también nos ayuda a comprender mejor la organización del movimiento de resistencia, que podemos ver como parte del proceso de construcción del mundo ficticio. La mayor parte del contenido transmediático sigue una o más de las siguientes funciones:

  • Ofrece una historia de trasfondo
  • Delinea el mundo
  • Nos ofrece la perspectiva de otros personajes sobre las acciones que ocurren
  • Profundiza la interacción de la audiencia

Me ha resultado perturbador encontrarme con escritores que quieren reducir el concepto transmedia a la idea de múltiples plataformas mediáticas sin ahondar más profundamente en las relaciones lógicas entre dichas extensiones mediáticas. Así pues, si tienes que llevarlo a la práctica, es muy importante que tengas una definición que determine cuántos medios se pueden emplear, pero para mí, como académico, este no es un punto central. Cuando pensamos en definir lo transmediático, pues, debemos volver a las relaciones entre medios y no limitarnos a contar el número de plataformas mediáticas. Así pues, de nuevo, imaginémonos un continuo de posibilidades.

Podríamos empezar con la noción de serialidad. La serialidad implicaría el desarrollo de una historia a través del tiempo, normalmente a través de un proceso de despedazamiento (crear pedazos significativos de la historia) y dispersión (dividir la historia en entregas interconectadas). Un concepto central de este proceso es la creación de una historia con gancho o cliffhanger que motive al consumidor a volver para conocer más de la misma historia. Históricamente, la serialidad ocurre dentro del mismo texto.

Así pues, hemos visto a la televisión americana evolucionar con el paso del tiempo desde estructuras muy episódicas (más o menos autoconclusivas) a estructuras mucho más serializadas. La mayoría de programas, sin embargo, combinan elementos episódicos (una trama procedural que se puede resolver en un solo episodio) y seriales (la evolución de la relación entre personajes, una mitología que se desvela, una trama mayor en medio de la cual los episodios individuales funcionan como capítulos). El cambio hacia la serialidad en la televisión americana juega un gran papel en preparar al público para la narrativa transmediática. La mayoría de las historias transmediáticas son muy seriales en estructura, pero no todos los seriales son transmediáticos. Así, Bones, por ejemplo, es un drama parcialmente serializado que, en su mayor parte, permanece en un solo medio.

Pero podemos pensar en ejemplos en los que hay un movimiento entre textos o a través de estructuras textuales dentro del mismo medio. Describo esto en términos de “intertextualidad radical”. Así, por ejemplo, los universos DC y Marvel crean docenas de títulos que se ven como interrelacionados. Los personajes se mueven a través de ellos. Las tramas se desarrollan a través de ellos. Periódicamente, puede haber sucesos que se extienden a través de múltiples títulos, y parte del placer de leer algo como Marvel Civil Wars reside en ver el mismo evento a través del punto de vista de distintos personajes, que pueden tener perspectivas diferentes sobre lo que está pasando. Asimismo, Battlestar Galatica se desarrolla a través de varias series de televisión, mini-series, y películas autoconclusivas. Si Battlestar se limitara a un solo medio, la televisión, entonces sería otro ejemplo de intertextualidad radical. Pero, debido a que Battlestar extiende este proceso para incluir webisodes [episodios en la red] y cómics, que se entienden como parte del mismo continuo, decimos que se trata de una historia transmediática.

Así pues, llamemos a este nivel superior multimodalidad — un término acuñado por Gunther Kress para hablar de cómo el diseño educativo trata sobre las affordances [acciones posibles] de distintos medios instructivos, pero Christy Dena las aplica para hablar de narrativas transmediáticas. El punto central aquí es que los distintos medios requieren distintas formas de representación – así pues, Linterna Verde presenta apariencias distintas en los cómics, una película, un juego, o una serie de televisión animada. Cada medio tiene distintos tipos de affordances – el juego facilita formas diferentes de interactuar con el contenido que un libro o una película. Una historia que se desarrolla a través de distintos medios adopta modalidades diferentes. Una franquicia puede ser multimodal sin ser transmediática – la mayoría de aquellos que repiten los mismos elementos básicos de la historia en cada media formarían parte de esta categoría. Para mí, una obra necesita combinar intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad con el propósito de tener una comprensión aditiva para ser una historia transmediática. Por ello, reducir el término “transmedia” a “una historia a través de distintos medios” no logra más que distorsionar la discusión.

Hasta ahora, nada de esto implica que se deba usar ningún medio en particular para que algo se convierta en transmediático. Uno puede construir un sistema transmediático de alto calibre (una gran película taquillera o programa de televisión y sus extensiones) o un sistema transmediático de bajo calibre (una película de bajo presupuesto y/o independiente, un cómic o serie en línea que sirva de trampolín para algo que pueda incluir representación en vivo o narración oral…). Algunos han intentado argumentar que los videojuegos son un componente central de lo transmediático, pero no quiero priorizar extensiones mediáticas digitales sobre otras formas de práctica mediática.

Por este motivo, es posible encontrar antecedentes históricos para lo transmediático que anteceden a las redes computarizadas y el entretenimiento interactivo. No me preocupa la novedad de lo transmediático. El empujón actual de ello ha emergido gracias a los cambios en las prácticas de producción (moldeadas por la concentración mediática, en algunos casos) o prácticas de recepción (la emergencia de la Web 2.0 y los medios sociales), pero también procede de la emergencia de una nueva comprensión estética de cómo funcionan los textos populares (moldeados en parte por el alzamiento de los geeks y fans a posiciones de poder en las industrias del entretenimiento).

Las opciones disponibles para un productor transmediático hoy en día son diferentes a aquellas disponibles hace algunas décadas, pero aún podemos señalar a los antecedentes históricos que experimentaban con nociones de creación de mundos y estructuras narrativas modeladoras de mitologías en formas que pueden incluir tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad. Desde este punto de vista, se podría decir que Frank L. Baum (en su enfoque en la creación de mundos a través de distintos medios), Walt Disney (en su enfoque en creación de marcas a través de medios) y J.R.R. Tolkien (con sus experimentos en intertextualidad radical) son los antecedentes de las prácticas transmediáticas.

Asimismo, he defendido que Obama es una figura tan transmediática como Obi Wan. No quiero decir con esto simplemente que nuestra vida diaria se guíe a través de múltiples plataformas mediáticas, aunque esto sea cierto. También quiero decir que tendemos a conectar estas piezas de información dispersas entre sí para formar una historia, que la historia que construimos depende en qué extensiones mediáticas nos basemos (Fox News vs. The Huffington Post), y que hay arquitectos que buscan coordinar y construir un abanico de significados que se adhieren a esa historia. En este sentido, la historia de Obama, construida a través de su campaña, incluye tanto intertextualidad radical como multimodalidad.

Cuando escribí Convergence Culture, me centré en la discusión transmedia sobre The Matrix, al tiempo que incluí una barra lateral que trataba sobre The Beast como un Alternate Reality Game [Juego de Realidad Alternativa]. Asumía que los ARG son transmediáticos, y que en ese campo es donde han ocurrido algunos de los debates más acalorados en los últimos años.

El modelo transmedia basado en Hollywood asume una historia contada o un mundo explorado a través no solo simplemente de múltiples medios, sino también de múltiples textos, que se pueden vender al público separadamente y que representan múltiples puntos de contacto con la marca. (Debe resaltarse, para aclarar mi definición, que no importa realmente si el texto forma una sola narración o múltiples historias situadas en el mismo mundo, ya que, en la práctica, la mayoría de las narraciones transmediáticas incluyen múltiples líneas argumentales que se pueden dispersar de distintas formas a través de las distintas entregas). El modelo ARG, sin embargo, asume que distintos medios pueden contribuir a una sola experiencia de ocio. Así pues, es más probable que hablemos de The Beast, I Love Bees, o The Lost Experience como textos completos por cuenta propia (así como, en los tres casos, como parte de franquicias de ocio mayores). Cada grupo tiene motivaciones diferentes a la hora de trazar líneas que distingan e integren estos dos modelos. Es importante entender qué están intentando conseguir cada uno, pero no me resulta tan importante definir en profundidad uno u otro modelo. Tan solo pienso que este es un espacio que merece un trabajo conceptual más profundo que el que ha recibido hasta ahora. Ambos podrían participar de mi  énfasis en la intertextualidad radical y multimodalidad y ambos pueden ser prometedores para alcanzar una mejor comprensión.

Otro debate que merece la pena observar aquí tiene que ver con el tema de la participación del público en el desarrollo de la propiedad transmediática. Estos debates se pueden resumir en dos puntos centrales. El primero tiene que ver con las diferencias que muestra en Convergence Culture entre interactividad y participación. Para mí, la interactividad tiene que ver con las propiedades de la tecnología y la participación tiene que ver con las propiedades de la cultura. Evidentemente, en la práctica, ambos pueden aparecer en el mismo texto. Así, por ejemplo, un juego de ordenador enfatiza la interactividad y, por tanto, experiencias de entretenimiento preprogramadas. La cultura fan tiene altos índices de participación, ya que los fans toman los recursos ofrecidos por un texto y los empujan en todo tipo de direcciones que no son ni preprogramadas ni autorizadas por los productores.

Cuando la gente afirma que la interactividad es un elemento central de la experiencia transmediática, me gustaría asegurarme de que están usando el término de la misma forma. Podemos imaginar un abanico de diferentes relaciones que los fans puedan tener con la propiedad transmediática. En un extremo estarían las prácticas de caza y recolección para encontrar las piezas de información dispersas y averiguar cómo se pueden juntar entre sí para formar un todo con sentido. En el otro extremo, podemos tener el jugar a través del nivel de un juego, superando diversos obstáculos, matando jefes, y recolectando objetos. Pero también podemos pensar en distintas formas de representación de los fans—desde el fan fiction hasta el cosplay— que son más participativas y abiertas y menos dependientes en las elecciones de diseño de los productores transmediáticos.

El segundo punto tiene que ver con la dicotomía continuidad vs. multiplicidad. La mayor parte de las discusiones sobre lo transmediático ponen un gran énfasis en la continuidad—asumiendo que las narraciones transmediáticas requieren un alto nivel de coordinación y control creativo y que todas las piezas tiene que estar cohesionadas en una narrativa o mundo consistentes. Ésta es una práctica bastante difícil de llevar a cabo a través de las múltiples divisiones del mismo equipo de producción, y resulta difícil para los fans contribuir directamente al desarrollo de una narración que pone un gran énfasis en la continuidad. De hecho, muchos proyectos que afirman emplear “contenido generado por los usuarios” lo hacen en formas que protegen la “integridad” de la continuidad a expensas de permitir múltiples perspectivas y una participación más abierta. Hacen que el autor o algún agente designado se convierta en un árbitro de lo que se considera canónico. Por otra parte, hay formas de transmedia producida comercialmente que celebran abiertamente la multiplicidad que surge de ver a los mismos personajes e historias contados de formas radicalmente diferentes. Este centrarse en la multiplicidad nos deja abierto un espacio para que veamos medios producidos por los fans como parte de un proceso transmediático mayor, incluso si entonces queremos intentar aclarar cómo diferentes elementos se marcan como canónicos o alternativas de los fans.

Siento que esto haya acabado volviéndose tan complicado, pero creo que parte del problema surge de que mucha gente está buscando fórmulas simples y una definición que sirva para todos los casos, intentando así delimitar lo que se considera como transmediático. Pero aún estamos en un período de experimentación e innovación. Nuevos modelos surgen a través de prácticas de producción y debates críticos, y necesitamos estar abiertos a un amplio abanico de variaciones de lo que significa el término transmedia en relación a distintos proyectos. Escribí en Convergence Culture que las prácticas de convergencia, en el futuro previsible, no serán más que soluciones torpes, intentos hechos con prisas para conectar distintos medios entre sí, mientras intentamos averiguar qué está pasando y qué funciona correctamente.

No existe ninguna fórmula transmediática. Transmedia se refiere a una serie de elecciones que se hacen acerca de cuál es el mejor enfoque para contar una historia particular a un público concreto en un contexto determinado conforme a los recursos disponibles a unos productores concretos. Cuanto más expandamos la definición, más rico será el abanico de opciones que tendremos disponibles. Esto no significa que debamos expandir lo transmediático hasta el punto en que cualquier cosa pueda valer, sino que necesitamos una definición lo suficientemente sofisticada para tratar con todo tipo de ejemplos totalmente diferentes. Lo que quiero excluir de esta definición son los proyectos “típicos” que no están explorando el potencial expandido de lo transmediático, sino que están simplemente adhiriéndose la etiqueta transmedia en las mismas prácticas de franquiciamiento que llevamos viendo durante décadas.

Para promover conversaciones sobre este tema, por favor enviadme vuestras preguntas, críticas, y otros comentarios a hjenkins@usc.edu, e intentaré responderos en futuras publicaciones.