Saturday, May 02, 2009

The Vanilla Ice Problem

I'm the kind of friend who will tell you if you have something stuck in your teeth or if a zipper or bra strap is noticeably amiss. I expect that my friends will do the same for me, whenever I'm in a similar situation. In contrast, there are others to whom I would say nothing. For example, on the plane flying over to the Boston area, I saw a woman whose blouse had come open to expose her undergarments and a man who was trailing toilet paper on his shoe. I didn't say anything. These people were not my friends. We had no reciprocal understanding.

I consider myself to be a friend to the New Media Literacies project at MIT, which held its second annual conference today, and not just a superficial Facebook friend kind of a friend. My brother is a veteran public school teacher always hustling for technology and media support, and -- as I explain in the opening of my new book -- I got my start in the teaching profession in an after-school lab for K-12 students.

Certainly, the NML is one of the few groups in the country taking young people's information literacy seriously with a big-picture approach that entails doing real work about the value of critical thinking and creative production in the digital age, work that should have been done by government and the educational establishment if only federal, state, and local policymakers could avoid being distracted by panics about cyberstalking or cyberbullying from what should be their core mission.

NML director Henry Jenkins has been at the forefront of a number of advocacy efforts for digital rights in the classroom that emphasize well-documented evidence from large-scale research about the benefits of access to online social networks that sustain knowledge communities and the harm of arbitrary filtering and blocking technologies in schools and libraries.

The NML also supports talented young scholars like Talieh Rohani, who pursue educational initiatives while also maintaining their artistic careers. Based on my eavesdropping on participating schoolteachers' conversations, it seemed clear that the supportive environment of the NML encouraged them to try new learning techniques as well as new software.

This is why I find myself overcoming my hesitation to ask if certain kinds of remixing, recontextualizing, and mash-up might be problematic for multicultural classrooms, based on what I heard from the group's introductory overview for the day. For example, quoting Henry Jenkins' line that "by being conservative in content, we can be radical in approach" could be read as a defense of the conservative canon that has excluded many from literary recognition and their place in the historical record. This impression might be further supported by the group's assertion that they were emphasizing "multidisciplinarity" rather than "muliculturalism." (To be fair, in the same list the group also said that they were updating "close reading" with attention to "annotation" and "ornamentation," "allusion" with a focus on "appropriation" as an umbrella practice that included "meaningful remixing," and "structural analysis" with a cocentration on "finding & filling in gaps.")

Furthermore, although appropriation may be celebrated in remix culture, there may be some forms of appropriation that represent and potentially reify the exploitation of people of color and the repression of their calls for social justice. After all, even the most racist minstrel shows claimed to be appropriating aspects of black culture that white performers had observed. When Elvis and other white singers popularized material from the "colored" entertainment spectrum, the lack of compensation to the original creators of that music stung many black musicians badly.

This brings me to what I call "the Vanilla Ice problem." I believe that rap music presents a powerful form of social critique that often engages with controversial issues about police abuse, urban abandonment, narco-economics, and family disintegration. Rap music has also been appropriated by vacuous white performers, such as Vanilla Ice, who chant inane, innocuous lines to pap melodies in chart-topping hits. "Nerdcore" may not be as uniformly terrible as the output of Robert Matthew Van Winkle, and there are the occasional nerdcore lyrics that make me chuckle, but when the genre is further sanitized for classroom purposes by taking out the four-letter words of the kind that might be aimed at the MPAA and RIAA or the racial self-consciousness of "White Kids Aren't Hyphy" and "White Kids Love Hip Hop," I begin to wonder how much edu-rap has to offer, given its limited musical and poetic repertoire.

A case in point might be MC Lars treatment of the Ahab story of Moby Dick. I'm not saying a Moby Dick remix offends my sensibilities as a literary purist. A decade ago I saw the Laurie Anderson adaptation of Melville's classic text, and NMC researchers are right to point out, based on their collaborations with MIT literature instructor Wyn Kelley, that Moby Dick itself remixes stories and vocabulary from the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, from Paradise Lost, accounts of the fate of The Essex, and other whaling lore. But the comments on the MC Lars YouTube video for the Ahab song show many irritated listeners and indicate how derivative many consider his derivative work to be.

There are two more potential criticisms that I found myself having as the conference got underway.

1) In defining the scope of their work, the group was careful to emphasize their engagement with "learning" rather than "education," which they defined as being about "institutions." Yet it might be worth asking why institution should be a dirty word? I might agree that "generativity," "participatory design," "flexible and multiple uses," and "open content" may be worthwhile, but I also think that institutions provide structures of civic permanence that foster ongoing and stable citizen participation in communities. As Geert Lovink has observed, the pyrrhic organization of many artist and activist groups based in the Internet often makes them difficult to maintain.

2) In giving examples of their work with young people, the group showcased examples of what Ian Bogost has called "the rhetoric of failure": Darfur is Dying and Ayiti: The Cost of Life. Yet I might argue that this pessimistic rhetoric is fundamentally different from what the NML panel called "creating challenges" by creating a "fail and fail often" educational model that is designed to strengthen the individual rather than critique the system.

In other words, in appealing to philanthropic funders and school administrators, perhaps the group has done too much to de-emphasize the subversive character of Internet culture.

And if I'm wrong about this criticism, I'll look forward to the NML telling me that I have spinach in my teeth.

Update: Henry Jenkins responds here, and Jenna McWilliams responds here. Both postings are well worth reading for those interested in these debates.

As Writing Director of the Humanities Core Course, I'm a little worried about being depicted as dismissing texts that are written by "dead white male" authors, which Jenkins' scare quotes around the words may unintentionally imply. Nonetheless, these are thoughtful and respectful rebuttals that indicate serious engagement with this important cultural conversation about race, class, appropriation, and technology. I regret not knowing more about the critical race studies reading of Moby Dick that the NML was apparently promoting; perhaps they could do more to highlight a more nuanced approach to multiculturalism in their next conference.

As it that weren't enough, McWilliams also has a response to Jenkins' response.

Additional Update: More discussion is taking place at the Heart of the Maze.

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Blogger Jenna McWilliams said...

goldurn, this is a well argued post. As an inveterate blogger (and member of ProjectNML), I just HAD to respond. I'd love for you to check out my post:
Thanks for the thoughtful response to our materials!

6:54 PM  
Anonymous ithiliana said...

I am dropping a link to my LJ here because I find better discussion can happen in LJ.

I enjoyed your post very much. I do critical race theory (not specifically on Melville, but on American literature) and think that you make some very valid points! please feel free to join in over there (I've enabled anonymous commenting so you don't have to have a LJ, plus LJ takes OpenID!)

OPEN ID does not seem to be working (at Henry's either), so let's try Name/URL.

1:36 PM  
Anonymous ithiliana said...

Wow, the book looks fantastic!

*goes to buy and send to comp friends*

1:47 PM  

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