Saturday, May 02, 2009

Is a Hero Nothing But a Sandwich?

It's easy to understand how closing keynote speaker Henry Jenkins received a standing ovation from the assembled teachers at the New Media Literacies conference. Clearly Jenkins has earned their respect for his outreach efforts and seemingly inexhaustible programmatic energy. Of course, many MIT watchers are speculating about the future of the NML project when Jenkins makes his transition to the West Coast next year.

Jenkins opened by arguing that "t-shirts understand where passions lie," a sentiment probably shared by my colleague Julia Lupton, who has given entire lectures about these everyday torso messages, although she might argue that as much of the story of a given t-shirt is written on its label as on its front. Jenkins pointed out that on that day he was wearing a t-shirt commemorating the end of his time as an MIT house master that combined his own familiar bearded image with an iconic skull from Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, thus representing two new media literacy skills: "appropriation" and "negotiation."

He began the body of his talk with the story of "Peter," whom he described as engaged in "normal adolescent identity play" that involved social networks, the sharing of digital photography, an ability to connect to the adult world, and a tele-coccooning relationship with a significant other. Then he revealed that "Peter" was "Peter Parker" and that the young person in question, whom he depicted as deeply invested in new media literacy practices, would be actually best known by his secret identity, Spiderman. As Jenkins observed, it is perhaps no accident that comic book superheroes often needed to be reporters" because they needed to be oriented within "flows of information." Now Jenkins suggested that because "ties to the newspaper as an established medium are breaking down," this superhero connectivity can be provided by access to computers that facilitate intergenerational "interest-driven networks." He added that he didn't like the terms "digital natives" or "digital immigrants," because "in the real world they are touching each other in meaningful ways."

Of course, Brenda Laurel recently pointed out that in the post 9/11 world heroism has its complications and that it isn't necessarily an aspiration for all, but Jenkins argued that superheroes offer a good way to understand "participatory culture and apprenticeship" that involves "acquiring skills and ethical principles" when parties circulate, connect, create, and collaborate. Jenkins also identified a persistent "participation gap" unfortunately at work, because "not every kid in America" is "empowered" by the skills, knowledge, and cultural experience that serve as the "new equivalent of the 'hidden curriculum,'" which -- like the advantages that children gained from exposure to opera records, museum visits, and political conversations -- privileged certain learners over others. Thus, Jenkins asserted that it was particularly important to "emphasize skills not technology" and even focus on cultivating "habits of mind" rather than time clocked in front of a computer screen.

Jenkins also emphasized the civic dimension of the New Media Literacies project and cited Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone as a critical text for understanding the larger aims of the group's initiatives. He asked, "What sense do we make of World of Warcraft guild?" Then he answered his own question by noting to the experiences of Chilean senator Fernando Flores, who is also an avid WoW gamer. And yet, he complained, too often educators and students are "boxed in by educational accomplishment" as a focus, as in the case of a recent TIME issue on "How to Build a Student for the 21st Century," a blueprint that seemed to ignore the pyramidal structure that Mimi Ito identified in her MacArthur-funded work on Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media. At the top of the pyramid, where more rarefied activities associated with "geeking out" are located, Jenkins claimed was the place of being a superhero. After introducing policy wonks Raum Emmanuel and Bobby Jindall on a slide, Jenkins argued that young people should "geek out for democracy" by taking up the national or local call to be "geeks for democracy" or "geeks for the city." From MyDebates on MySpace to JK Rowling's partnership with Amnesty International at the HP Alliance, Jenkins showed some of the forms that this geekdom could take. By pointing to another TIME cover about "Why Young Voters Care Again," Jenkins asserted that Obama's status as a "transmedia candidate" who allowed himself to be appropriated and remixed energized a generation that had become passive in the post-civic association age. To drive his point home, Jenkins asked, "If Obama can be a transmedia candidate, can we be transmedia educators?" His answer: "Yes we can." "Each of you in this room is a superhero," he insisted later, and the assembled group represented a collective of educators "beginning to come together as a community." Just as students learn to build projects and trade code, teachers "play to learn and learn to play" by trading and remixing curricular materials.

However, Jenkins also offered a more pessimistic message about the state of the civic mission of schools that expressed his concerns about how educational institutions had become "more restrictive" about the "use of expressive tools" and thus were occupied with "containing participatory culture" rather than nourishing it. At one point Jenkins exclaimed, "We are losing ground!" According to Jenkins, the children of Putnam’s bowlers had lost the cultural message about civic engagement. As evidence of this phenomenon, he noted the dropping membership of the Boy Scouts, where he gained his first public speaking experiences and where he eventually earned the rank of Eagle Scout. (I have to point out that Facebook friends and new media personalities James Kotecki and John Battelle also share this distinction, and that I have my own connections to scouting as well.)

In particular, Jenkins mourned that access to Wikipedia, Facebook, and YouTube was often blocked in schools and libraries, and he made the analogy between this conduct by school administrators and the censorship of student newspapers documented by the SPLC. In their strange interpretation of "in loco parentis," schools were often "acting out of fear rather than out of knowledge." To illustrate the problem, he showed a cartoon with the caption "by banning YouTube in schools we put bullying back where it belongs." (This blockade is deeply ironic, because during sessions, participants had said that "if a picture was worth a thousand words, a video is worth ten thousand words" in the classroom.) Jenkins reminded the group that filtering software often stymied the very form of education that would be essential for participatory learning. However, he explained that the NML's Learning Library was one way to allow pedagogical video into schools that blocked YouTube, but he despaired about other filtering technologies. As an example, he observed that results related to Moby Dick were often filtered out, because these systems have the "maturities of sixth graders."

He also indicated that teachers could encounter moments of "crisis of authority" in which the expertise of pupils exceeds that of the teacher. And that similarly when asked to participate in the adult public sphere, students might have to face "their responsibilities as communicators" when their questions or comments "don't sound so good." And he insisted that immersive digital experiences could have social consequences if participants retreat to coccooned spaces like the facetious WoW Pod on display at MIT where the player was equipped with a chair/ toilet/ hot plate module. Finally, he urged some skepticism about Web 2.0-driven hype, since "Web 2.0 is a business model," and thus "Learning 2.0" could only offer a similar emphasis on consumerism. These forms of corporate-driven Internet consumption were profoundly detached from the long, rich history of participatory culture that Jenkins recounted, which included personal printing presses from the middle of 19th century through which teenagers had participated in debating the Civil War and radio stations run by schools during the tumultuous teens and twenties. As Jenkins explained it to his public, the New Media Literacies Project should not be confused with "a four-year-old business plan out of Silicon Valley."

Update: Jenkins presents his own summary of his talk here and here.

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