sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘Project New Media Literacies’ Category

sometimes i forget that i’m a gay lady.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2009

Most of the time, it really doesn’t come up. Every once in a while, I get a lecherous/evil look when I hold my girlfriend’s hand in public; every once in a while, when I’m deep in argument with a male friend or colleague, I or my ideas are brushed off with such a patronizing, cruelly dismissive tone that all bets are officially off. (I like to keep friends for as long as possible, but when I lose one, this is usually why.)

But most of the time, it doesn’t come up. This is mostly because I’m wicked smart, hardworking, and ambitious–and I exhibit all of these traits in ways that enable me to play on the winning team.

By “the winning team,” I mean members of what Jim Gee calls the “dominant Discourse.” Gee differentiates “little ‘d’ discourses” from “big ‘D’ Discourses,” which, he explains,

are ways of behaving, interacting, valuing, thinking, believing, speaking, and often reading and writing, that are accepted as instantiations of particular identities (or “types of people”_ by specific groups, whether families of a certain sort, lawyers of a certain sort, bikers of a certain sort, African-Americans of a certain soft, and so on and so forth through a very long list. Discourses are ways of being “people like us.”

A dominant Discourse, for Gee, is the one that aligns most closely to a culture’s dominant groups. In America, we might say broadly that the dominant group is white, middle- to upper-class straight men, and that they adhere with the least amount of trouble to our culture’s dominant Discourse (because it aligns with the least amount of trouble with them). It’s hard, but not impossible, for outsiders to learn (or fake) this Discourse, which is why it’s mainly but not always rich white straight men at the top.

I may be gay, I may be female, and I may have blue-collar roots, but I learned the dominant Discourse early and well. It helps that I’m white, college-educated, and proficient in the finer details of language acquisition and communication. I may have to work extra hard to break into the first string, but I’m doing well enough to get to play–and being second or third string on the winning team is better than being even the star player on the team that (almost) always loses.

I spend so much time thinking and writing about how unfair it is that my team always wins that I forget sometimes that the dominant Discourse of which I am a part does not always work in my best interests either. It’s why I’ve spent so much time worrying about whether my work at Project New Media Literacies exhibits a latent racism without giving a thought for how it may exclude the voices of non-mainstream women and queers. After all, the Teachers’ Strategy Guide I’ve discussed here and here may or may not fail in offering authentic avenues for the voices of ethnic minorities, but we should be just as concerned about how our work marginalizes the voices of women and, even more problematically, in this case, the voices of gay, lesbian, and transgendered scholars, writers, and artists.

I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy thinking of myself as marginalized in any way. I suppose I don’t particularly enjoy the thought that some of the actions that have led to my “success” have worked against my own best interests. I like the American narrative that we can all, every one of us, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps–though interestingly, that idiom was originally intended to suggest an undertaking that’s literally impossible to accomplish.

And part of me wants to step away from what’s good for me and work toward what’s good for all. Here, I rely on what Jim Gee identifies as two conceptual principles governing human discourse. (I’m citing the language from the second edition, instead of the more recent version, of Social Linguistics and Literacies, for reasons I’ll identify below). Here are the principles:

First Principle
That something would harm someone else (deprive them of what they or the society they are in view as ‘goods’) is always a good reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) not to do it.

Second Principle
One always has the (ethical) obligation to (try to) explicate (render overt and primary) any theory that is (largely) tacit and either removed or deferred when there is reason to believe that the theory advantages oneself or one’s group over other people or other groups.

Gee believes that these two principles are so fundamental to ethical discourse that all human beings would, assuming they understood them, accept them both. I agree, and I believe that my work, and the work of anybody working in any aspect of learning or education, is to use these principles to govern all discourse, all research, all engagement with learners and institutions. This is, to sum up an argument I’ve made more than once on this blog, the social justice work of the media literacy movement. Researchers engaging with elements of participatory culture are especially well-poised to break down and reshape the valued practices of new social spaces, to rework the hierarchy that keeps landing rich white straight men at the top.

Though Gee reworks the language, if not the basic sense, of these key principles in his most recent edition of Social Linguistics and Literacies, I greatly prefer the earlier edition. It’s fiery, it’s angry, and the chapter outlining these key principles ends with flagrant courage. After contending that any human being would have to accept the above principles as true, he writes that

failing to live up to them, they would, for consistency’s sake, have to morally condemn their own behavior. However, I readily admit that, should you produce people who, understanding these principles, denied them, or acted as though they did, I would not give up the principles. Rather, I would withhold the term ‘human,’ in its honorific, not biological, sense, from such people.

In the third edition, Gee continues to assert that if someone refuses to accept these key principles, the argument “runs out,” but he ends the section with this limp handshake:

An unexamined life isn’t moral because it has the potential to hurt other people needlessly.

I kinda want the old Jim Gee back–the one who wasn’t afraid to withhold the title of “human” from someone who refused to accept his ethical principles. Backing off from a fight, if that’s what Gee’s doing here, isn’t doing anybody any favors.

Posted in bigotry, education, gay rights, Henry Jenkins, human rights, Jim Gee, participatory culture, politics, President Obama, Project New Media Literacies, public schools, racism, schools, social justice | 3 Comments »

on multiculturalism and diversity (or lack thereof) in the media literacies movement

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2009

***UPDATE, 5:30 P.M. 6/8/09***
This conversation was picked up by LiveJournal user Ithiliana, who takes up this issue from the perspective of a queer feminist scholar focusing on women of color (as she clearly explains in her blog, “if you tell me I am being reverse sexist, you will be banned”) in “Appropriation, New Media, Currriculum, a Whale of a Post.”
***OK END OF UPDATE.***

This morning Henry Jenkins posted a response to my response to Liz Losh’s response to Project New Media Literacies’ presentation of its Teachers’ Strategy Guide: Reading in a Participatory Culture. In his post, Henry argues this:

[Multiculturalism] is not a question we ignore in working with these materials. We are trying to bring these issues front and center in the language arts classroom, just as we are trying to get teachers to engage with new forms of creative expression — including remix in hip hop and techno — that build upon materials borrowed, snatched, stolen from the culture and put to new uses. We see these ethical concerns as central to our definition of appropriation which stresses “meaningful remixing” of existing cultural materials, just as we are also introducing issues around fair use, copyright, and creative commons. I am proud of the work our team has done in this area. It’s certainly not above friendly fire and constructive criticism. And if our presentations of these materials don’t do justice to the nuance and care with which we treated these issues, then we have some more work to do.

In support of his argument, Henry cites materials we included in the “Expert Voices” section of the curriculum. He highlights material we included from Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who is, as Henry explains, “an African-American play(wright) and director, who has staged a contemporary, multiracial version of the classic novel.”

Here’s a snippet of what Ricardo said (the rest is available at Henry’s blog):

When I came in contact with the new media literacies, many of the concepts were new to me, like the fascinating concept of remixing and appropriation. That’s an incredible choice of words to use in this new field: appropriation. I have spent much of my creative life trying not to appropriate things…..

So when I came across the word “appropriation” in the new media literacies I thought to myself, I’m a product of a black culture where so much of what we’ve created has been appropriated and not necessarily for our benefit. The great jazz artists were not necessarily making money off of jazz. The record companies were making money. Our dance forms, our music, our lingo, all of those things have been appropriated many, many times and not necessarily in a way in which we profited. So when I saw the term used I had a lot of concern about it. I still have a lot of concern about it, because does that mean that everything is fair game whether or not you understand its value? Can you just use whatever you want because it’s out there? Before you take something and use it, understand it. What does it mean to the people? Where was it born? It doesn’t mean that it’s not there to be used. It’s like music in the air: it’s there for everyone to hear it. But don’t just assume because you have a computer and I can download a Polynesian rhythm and an African rhythm and a Norwegian rhythm that I don’t have a responsibility to understand from whence they came; if I’m going to use gospel music I have a responsibility to understand that it’s born of a people and a condition that must be acknowledged.

In expanding on what Ricardo says, Henry writes that

the decision (to focus on Moby-Dick) was inspired by the growing body of scholarship which looks at Moby-Dick as a representation of the whaling ship as a multicultural society where sea men of many different ethnic, racial, and national backgrounds came together and worked towards a common goal. As Wyn Kelly, my collaborator, points out in our guide, Melville does not depict a world without conflict but he is honest to the multiracial composition of 19th century American culture.

The focus was also inspired by the imaginative and transformative interpretation of the book constructed by our creative collaborator, Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, and his passionate belief that Moby-Dick and some of the other classics taught through schools have something to say to current generations of readers and offer resources through which minority students can make sense of their current experience. Certainly there is an ongoing debate about which novels should be taught in schools, but the result of that debate should not simply be the replacement of Melville by Morrison. Ideally, both would be taught in dialogue with each other so that we have a richer understanding of how debates about race run through the American literary tradition and ideally, multiculturalism doesn’t just shape which books we teach but also how we teach them. Someone like Pitts-Wiley can teach us to read Moby-Dick through new eyes and in doing so, help us to better understand what it means to live in a multicultural society.

I absolutely agree with everything included above, and I largely agree with the arguments Henry sets forth in his post. Our effort in designing the Teachers’ Strategy Guide was to highlight and grapple with the issues of race and culture around a canonical text like Moby-Dick, and as Henry writes, “if our presentations of these materials don’t do justice to the nuance and care with which we treated these issues, then we have some more work to do.”

Where I think the new media literacies movement is faltering somewhat is in how it works to address these issues–mainly, that the movement is primarily populated by members of what Jim Gee calls the dominant Discourse of our culture. We’re mainly white, mainly middle- or upper-class–and while our intentions are good, there’s something a little…icky about the fact that we’re the ones guiding conversations about multiculturalism. In designing the Teachers’ Strategy Guide, we worked, it’s true, to include the voices of people like Ricardo and Rudy…but we served as the spokespeople for them, the filters of their words. We made the final decisions about what to include, and how to include it, and which pieces of what they said, did, and wrote mattered most to our work.

This isn’t intentional, of course. I can’t help being a white kid from suburban Detroit. (Even coming from the 313 doesn’t make me less white, less suburban–I mean, just look at me over there.) I can’t help that I care about and want to grapple with racism and multiculturalism despite my whiteness. But in the best-case scenario, I’m grappling with these issues alongside a variety of thinkers, writers, and practitioners who come from multiple ethnic, cultural, and economic backgrounds.

Despite its best efforts and a lot of headway in this aspect, the media literacy movement–at least, the part of it that works at the intersection of new media and education–is still struggling to attract people from these backgrounds. Until we can find authentic ways to authentically open up conversations that include and integrate multiple and diverse voices, our good intentions will fall short.

Posted in academia, education, Henry Jenkins, literature, Moby-Dick, participatory culture, Project New Media Literacies, racism, schools, social justice, teaching | Leave a Comment »

things i’ve done for a living

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 5, 2009

because I subscribe to the “list” approach to blogging, because I subscribe to Jim Gee’s notion of “shape-shifting portfolio people,” and because it’s high time for a short, self-absorbed post. Or, at least, for a self-absorbed post that’s also short.

This is the list of things I’ve done for money, some of which I’ve also done for love.

key:
unionized employees
defunct
things i’ve also done for love
awesome
lame
n/a

  • blogger [the guardian]
  • curriculum specialist [project new media literacies]
  • outreach coordinator [project new media literacies]
  • billing coordinator [vca south shore animal hospital]
  • receptionist [vca south shore animal hospital]
  • adjunct instructor (composition, literature, creative writing, business
  • communications) [suffolk university, bridgewater state college, newbury college]
  • groundskeeper [city of fort collins, colorado]
  • graduate research assistant (composition, creative writing)[colorado state university]
  • writing tutor [colorado state university writing center]
  • administrative assistant [colorado poet laureate]
  • telephone operator [quest diagnostics]
  • reporter (sports, education, local politics)[holly herald, fenton independent,
  • spinal column newsweekly]
  • assistant director local nonprofit [public interest research group in michigan]
  • groundskeeper [city of grand rapids, michigan]
  • used book purchaser and seller [barnes & noble]
  • cashier [meijer, inc.]
  • receptionist [dean of students office, grand valley state university]
  • fast food employee (4 hours) [mcdonald’s]

Posted in awesome, blogging, jobs, lame, Project New Media Literacies, sports, teaching, zombies | 1 Comment »

on answers that question the wrong claims

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 3, 2009

An engagement with some interesting critiques of Project New Media Literacies
I’m the kind of person who’s paranoid about having something stuck in her teeth or toilet paper trailing from her shoe, so I always appreciate friends who are willing to point these things out to me. As a member of Project New Media Literacies, then, I’m grateful for the impetus of blogger and author Liz Losh in pointing out places where our hem appears to be showing.

Liz, a self-described friend of NML who attended our recent conference, Learning in a Participatory Culture, admits to “hesitation” when it comes to criticizing NML. But, she explains, pointing out a faux pas is the responsibility of a good friend. She writes:

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.

It’s her duty, then, she argues (and I agree), to offer up her critique of NML’s conference. “And if I’m wrong about this criticism,” she writes, “I’ll look forward to the NML telling me that I have spinach in my teeth.”

I’ll go this far: Liz, I think you’re wrong about this criticism, but not wrong in the critique. Your arguments point to significant weak spots in the new media literacies movement in general, spots that will need fortification as NML and projects like it move forward. In other words, we need friends like you to keep us honest.

But before I get to that, please permit me a moment of self-defense.

On NML’s stance with re: schools
Reflecting on the conference, Liz writes that:

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.

This criticism seems unfair, and I say that as a core member of the NML team that spent two years designing and piloting a teachers’ strategy guide for use in the formal ELA classroom. Liz perhaps misinterpreted my opening presentation, in which I used this quote from Clay Shirky as a launch point to argue for the value–indeed, the very necessity–of working in schools to support innovative teachers:

“[W]e are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organizations.”

As I explained in my presentation, we work from the assumption that this quote is not only inaccurate but also unfair to the role of good educators throughout history. “We work from the assumption,” I said, “that it’s not true that all innovative practices are happening outside of traditional institutions.”

Indeed, we know that historically, teachers have always been on the cutting edge of identifying and engaging with innovative resources and practices, and this is no less true with the emergence of new media. What often stands in the way is not teacher intransigence but the whims of administrators and politicians, which means our job is to find ways to not only support innovative teachers but to work for change at the policy level as well.

Far from refusing to engage with institutions, I believe that schools–as the only compulsory learning environment we have–offer an essential venue for working to narrow the participation gap that prevents many young people from engaging with participatory practices and cultures in authentic, productive ways.

Here was my slide on this from the presentation:

Liz is absolutely correct to point out that “institutions provide structures of civic permanence that foster ongoing and stable citizen participation in communities.” In my view, however–and please note that I speak only for myself and not for NML as a whole–the type of ongoing and stable citizen participation that’s fostered by schools, at least schools as they currently exist, is in some ways almost worse than no structure of civic permanence at all. Schools are designed to socialize (inculcate) learners into a value system that benefits our culture’s dominant social group: Middle- and upper-class whites.

Educational researcher Lisa Delpit, whose work has focused on how schools undermine and devalue the abilities of cultural minorities (mainly black children), identifies five aspects of what she calls “the culture of power”:

  1. Issues of power are enacted in classrooms.
  2. There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a “culture of power.”
  3. The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power.
  4. If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.
  5. Those with power are frequently least aware of–or least willing to acknowledge–its existence. Those with less power are often more aware of its existence.

(These principles come from Delpit’s book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom. It’s a scathing critique of the school system’s role in furthering the interests of the dominant culture and oppressing those who do not agree or do not know how to play by its rules.)

I believe, deeply and honestly, that integrating new media literacy practices into the classroom is a matter of social justice. In a culture that increasingly values the kinds of practices enabled by computers and connectivity, we fail our learners and our culture if we resist offering these experiences to students who don’t have access to and support for engaging in participatory practices via technologies in their homes. Indeed, I think I carry even more of a social justice agenda than almost any of my coworkers at NML. Just today I was mocked at a staff meeting for using the word “hegemony” one too many times. So any time I’m accused of supporting the status quo, I automatically get my hackles up.

Yes, it’s true that school provides cultural stability. But it’s not necessarily true that the stability school offers is what we need. In my view (and again, I’m speaking for myself and not for NML as a whole), it’s high time we threw the institution of school into disarray. There is a deep, deep need to work within institutions, is what I’m saying–we’re in agreement there–but not in support of the institution as it currently exists.

On racism and classism
In fact, Liz herself points to exactly this issue in her critique of our decision to work with traditional curricular content (Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick). In doing so, we’re heeding Henry Jenkins’s call to be “conservative in content so we can be radical in approach.” Liz’s concern is that focusing on traditional materials

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.”

If this is how we have presented ourselves, then we have failed utterly to communicate our rationale. Working with conservative content, at least in this case, allowed us to get a foot in the door of the traditional classroom. Working with culturally valued materials gives us space to offer, at our best, revolutionary approaches to the material in question. It gives us space to help learners develop metacognition about what they’re required to read, how they’re supposed to read it, and why the powers that be might like it that way.

I’m worried that we have also failed to adequately convey the impetus behind working with that word “multidisciplinarity.” In our view, a participatory culture enables–indeed, necessitates–communication across traditional disciplinary boundaries, and we need to equip learners to find ways to communicate with people across multiple disciplines, instead of simply focusing on “what good literary scholars do.” This in no way negates the need for a multicultural approach; in fact, it serves to complicate the issue further by adding a new layer to the definition. It’s not “multidisciplinarity rather than multiculturalism”; it’s “multidisciplinarity as another part of multiculturalism.”

Where the Spinach is
If I disagree with Liz’s criticisms of the message Project NML has attempted to convey, this is not to say that I think she’s precisely wrong in the critique she brings to our work. As she points out (and as Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, a playwright and collaborator on NML’s Teachers’ Strategy Guide–over there on the right–also asserted at the conference), appropriation has often been used as a tool by the more powerful to steal from the less powerful.

This is what Liz calls the ‘Vanilla Ice Problem’:

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…. 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.

Liz offers up a performance by a white nerdcore rap artist, MC Lars, as an example; Lars himself has addressed this issue in various ways, both in his music and in interviews (including this interview with Henry), so I won’t address it more here except to acknowledge that this particular issue is complicated, fraught, and thorny.

The larger point, though, is well taken. Our goal in focusing on appropriation and remix practices is to get at the heart of what makes the social revolution so possible and so exciting: new media affords new opportunities to transform a canonical work; new opportunities to transform and to participate in a cultural conversation about what’s meaningful; new opportunities to speak and to be heard. In glorifying the remix practices made possible by new media technologies, our project (and media literacy projects in general) can overlook the dark side of this social practice, and thereby fail to equip learners with strategies for addressing this issue.

A second critique, and in my view by far Liz’s most important point, is this:

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.

If I read this right (and I’m not a hundred percent positive I am), the critique is that we’re not putting our money where our mouth is. We say we align with the “fail and fail often approach” that’s intended to foster creative, potentially subversive thinking but in practice we present “challenges” that are easily conquered. In other words, we offer the “rhetoric of success” but mask it with the language of approved failure.

There is a struggle, I think, within the hearts and minds of many who work at the intersection of media and education. We want all learners to see how much “fun” participation can be (and by “fun,” I mean how kids describe a tough game of tag that leaves them sweating, panting, and drop-dead exhausted: fun), and we want participation to foster a healthy sense of outrage, an interest in and desire for taking down the status quo. I wonder if both are always possible; if both are ever possible simultaneously. Perhaps greater minds than I have worked this out; I don’t know. I do know, though, that it’s something that we struggle with every day, in designing and presenting materials that we hope will be both fun and educational, in the revolutionary sense of both terms.

As readers of this blog know, I’m a huge fan of the social revolution. Clay Shirky writes that “it’s not a revolution if nobody loses”; he adds that it’s not a revolution if everybody loses, either. In my view, everybody loses if we fail to get the tools, mindsets, and skillsets of the revolution in the hands of every learner; everybody loses if we give up on the spaces where we can provide access to these things; everybody loses if this revolution, like so many revolutions before it, is won by the members of the dominant Discourse that has guided so much of our thinking, our action, our will and reason to act.

Posted in Clay Shirky, education, Henry Jenkins, literature, Moby-Dick, nerdcore, new media, participatory culture, Project New Media Literacies, public schools, racism, schools, social justice, social revolution, teaching | 3 Comments »

sadhappy, anxiouscalm: on career transitions

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 1, 2009

Today is the first day of my last month at my day job. For almost two years, I’ve been a team member of Project New Media Literacies, an educational research project based at MIT. It would be a lie for me to say that every minute was exciting, fun, and exhilarating; anyone who’s done this kind of work knows that it’s often exhausting, frustrating, and stressful.

That’s because to do educational research well, you have to care, and you have to care deeply. And this means facing some difficult realities: That the institution of education is deeply flawed in some important and fundamental ways; that educational innovations are often stymied by policy issues and bureaucratic red tape; that most of the time, educational research–even at its most valuable–has a minimal impact on education as a whole.

My work at NML has focused largely on the formal classroom setting, the educational environment that–because of its compulsory nature–offers the greatest opportunity for closing the participation gap that limit some learners’ ability to engage with participatory culture in a meaningful way. I’ve had the chance to talk with some of the most amazing, dedicated teachers I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet, and I’ve gotten to sit in on some of their classes. I’ve seen the everyday miracles they pull off, often thanklessly, without acknowledgement from students, parents, or administrators. Some of these teachers have explained to me what they’d like to do, if they didn’t have to deal with state-mandated standardized tests and the policies and curricula intended to boost student scores on these tests. I’ve heard teachers explain which ideals they’ve had to give up on, how they’ve become more cynical or realistic about the impact they can have.

So we’re back to burnout, exhaustion, and stress: This is the story of the educator who cares.

I leave NML equipped with a more complete understanding of the complexities and challenges of working in education. I leave knowing I did my best work but wishing I could have done more. I leave more confident in my own abilities but less confident in the possibility for real, lasting transformation of formal learning environments.

And yet I leave NML to begin doctoral study in education.

Despite, or maybe because of, my frustration, I have come to believe that schools are the most important institution America has for working toward social justice. This is where the participation gap is most obvious; this is where class biases–and the racism, sexism, and accompanying approaches to teaching and learning–are simultaneously most apparent and most insidious, and therefore most essential to confront.

I’ve been writing obsessively here at sleeping alone and starting out early about what I’ve started calling the social revolution. By this term I mean to suggest that we are immersed in fundamental changes to our society that are so rapid, so deep, and so transformative that we can’t yet even say exactly what this revolution will yield; but we know that a new social order is emerging out of the emergent tools, technologies, and practices of a participatory culture.

In fact, as one of my colleagues pointed out, even NML has trouble defining “participatory culture.” He argues that while we have little trouble explaining what participatory culture allows for, we struggle to explain what it actually is.

He may be right on this, and he may be wrong. It is true, however, that we don’t yet know what valued social structures, practices, and dispositions will emerge out of the participatory practices enabled by new media. In fact, it may be that one of the features of a truly participatory culture is a constant destabilization–perpetual overthrow–of dominant values, mindsets, and skillsets. Christopher Kelty calls this a “constantly ‘self-leveling’ level playing field.” Wouldn’t that be scary and at the same time so very neat?

This is the struggle of our society, and one that John Dewey pointed to back at the end of the 19th century, when he proposed development of a laboratory school where educators could try out new approaches to teaching and learning. In setting forth a series of arguments about new ways to think about knowing and cognition, he conceded that

[i]t is… comparatively easy to lay down general propositions like the foregoing; easy to use them to criticize existing school conditions; easy by means of them to urge the necessity of something different. But art is long. The difficulty is in carrying such conceptions into effect—in seeing just what materials and methods, in what proportion and arrangement, are available and helpful at a given time…. There is no answer in advance to such questions as these. Tradition does not give it because tradition is founded upon a radically different psychology. Mere reasoning cannot give it because it is a question of fact. It is only by trying that such things can be found out. To refuse to try, to stick blindly to tradition, because the search for the truth involves experimentation in the region of the unknown, is to refuse the only step which can introduce rational conviction into education.

Beginning this fall, I’ll be a graduate student in the Learning Sciences program at Indiana University. The transition makes me simultaneously sad and happy, anxious and calm. Bring it on, says hegemony. I can take you.

It’s already been broughten, says revolutionist cat, playing hegemony off.

Posted in academia, assessment, education, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, Ph.D., Project New Media Literacies, public schools, schools, social justice, social revolution, teaching | 3 Comments »

headline: Hillary Kolos brings the awesome. Awesomeness ensues.

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 31, 2009

One of my favorite young media scholars is Hillary Kolos, a graduate student in MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Program. Because I have had the great, great luck to get to work with her over the last year as part of my day job, I’ve had the joy of watching her blossom as a thinker, writer, and media scholar.

Recently, Hillary had a personal essay posted to Henry Jenkins’s blog. The piece, “Bouncing Off the Walls: Playing with Teen Identity”, focuses on her experience with gender and identity play through a consideration of how she decorated the walls of her bedroom as an adolescent. The piece is a gem. One tantalizing snippet:

As a teen, I used many resources to play with new identities. Fashion ads served as inspiration. My walls were a place to exhibit them. I did also, on occasion, leave my room where I had other experiences that helped shape the woman I am today. But having a space of my own to play and then reflect was very important to my process of identity formation. What seemed like goofing off at the time was actually a process of exploring who I thought I was at the time, as well as who I thought I should be.

My experience in my room is one of countless examples of how teens use their available resources to explore potential identities through play. This kind of play can happen in private, but often young people use media to capture their experiments and share them with others. In this way, they can gauge reactions and refine their performances. I used my walls to reach a limited audience, but today teens can easily reach millions of people online and receive feedback instantly on how they represent themselves. It will be interesting to see the new possibilities, as well as the new concerns, that emerge as teens use new resources to play with their identities online.

You can find the rest on Henry’s blog here. As I mention in the title of this post, the piece is filled with awesome and well worth the read.

Posted in academics, awesome, creativity, feminism, graduate school, Henry Jenkins, joy, MIT, new media, Project New Media Literacies | Leave a Comment »

why you should invite me to your next party

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 28, 2009

(hint: because I will entertain your guests with talk of the social revolution)

I was at a party last week when someone asked me what I do for a living. I used the opportunity to engage in what, in retrospect, may have been an ill-timed impromptu pronouncement about the status of the social revolution.

It turns out I’ll need to rethink how I use that phrase “social revolution,” at least in mixed company, because a tubby drunk man wearing a confusing hat walked up to me and tried to steer the conversation toward war atrocities.

“You can’t tell me,” he bellowed, “that the atrocities that are happening during the Iraq War are any different from the ones that happened during World War II. It’s just that we have more media coverage now.”

As I wrote in an earlier post, this is what I’ve decided to call the Space Odyssey mistake. This particular kind of error is explained by Clay Shirky, who describes a scene from 2001 in which

space stewardesses in pink miniskirts welcome the arriving passenger. This is the perfect, media-ready version of the future–the technology changes, hemlines remain the same, and life goes on much as today, except faster, higher, and shinier.

Lately I’ve been finding Christopher Kelty’s notion of a “recursive public” useful in thinking about what, other than hemlines, have changed. As Kelty describes it in Two Bits (available for download, online browsing, and modulation for free online),

A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

More to the point, a recursive public is a group of people who exist outside of traditional institutions (governments, churches, schools, corporations) and, when necessary, use this outsider status to hold these entities in check. The engagement of these publics goes far beyond simply protesting decisions or stating their opinions. Kelty, writing about geek culture as a recursive public, explains it thus:

Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.

This is precisely the difference between 1945 and 2009. It’s not just that we have more media coverage but that, as Shirky proclaims, everybody is a potential media outlet–everyone has the potential to join a recursive public, whether impromptu or planned.

In fact, the notion that we can all engage in reportage is perhaps a bit too simplistic, at least until we can adjust what we mean by “journalism.” When Facebook users joined up in opposition to a change in Facebook’s terms of service and successfully pressed administrators to rethink and reword the terms of service agreement, that was the work of a recursive public, loosely banded and easily disbanded once their purpose had been achieved (if necessary, they will quickly gather again in their virtual space and just as quickly disband). We don’t recognize this as journalism, often don’t even recognize it as civic engagement–but for those who joined this Facebook knotwork, it’s certainly some kind of engagement. And what could be more civic-minded than fighting to define the uses of a public space?

The atrocities of war are approximately the same (though, as always, new technologies mean new modes of torture and murder). What’s different is the following:

All in all, it was a good party. Near the end, someone produced a Donald Rumsfeld piñata. We were going to hoist it up and smash it, but it seemed kind of…irrelevant.

Posted in Clay Shirky, collective intelligence, Facebook, journalism, new media, open source, participatory culture, President Obama, Project New Media Literacies, social justice, social revolution | Leave a Comment »

our rock stars are not your mother’s rock stars

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 17, 2009

I saw this video for the first time yesterday while watching the season finale of “Fringe” on Hulu.

Our rock stars, the commercial explains, aren’t like your rock stars.

Let me tell you a story: In my day job, I work with media scholar Henry Jenkins. Last year, I was sent to the South by Southwest Interactive Festival, where Henry and Steven Johnson were scheduled to hold a discussion at the front of an enormous room, which filled up fast. As Henry and I were chatting before the event, a woman walked up to Henry and girlishly asked, “would you mind if I got a picture of me standing next to you?”

“Sure,” said Henry, as if this sort of thing happened all the time. (I later found out that it does.)

Here’s Henry Jenkins:

What I like about the Intel commercial is that it points to an interesting characteristic of our culture: that when people are as immersed in a field as the Intel employees of the commercial clearly are, they have their own set of rock stars who aren’t like “real” rock stars. Well, at least they don’t look like rock stars. But they do share certain common features with pop icons: They are generally very, very talented; they have achieved something we fantasize about; and they are famous among people who care about their field.

I’m going to come clean and admit that I have my own rock stars, and I suspect that many of my readers do too. Here’s the deal: After I list my rock stars, you have to list yours. But make sure to identify your field, so we can all know how and why these people are superstars to you. I chose to stick with 3 because I didn’t want to look like some sort of crazy groupie, though of course I could go on.

Jenna’s Rock Stars
field: education / new media / participatory culture / technology / creativity
1. Educational researcher, games expert, and social justice theorist Jim Gee
2. Technology writer Clay Shirky
3. Insane genius philosopher Bruno Latour

Your turn.

Posted in awesome, celebrity, Clay Shirky, creativity, Henry Jenkins, joy, new media, participatory culture, Project New Media Literacies | 4 Comments »

Awesomeness: Project New Media Literacies’ spring conference: Learning in a Participatory Culture

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 5, 2009

There was awesomeness going on at MIT this weekend, as my colleagues and I at Project New Media Literacies put on a conference called Learning in a Participatory Culture.

If you’ve never planned a conference before, I can’t say I recommend the experience–though when one goes well, as this conference did, the stress and exhaustion that pile on top of you in the lead-up suddenly turn into a fair trade-off. All day, my coworkers and I got to be surrounded by the smartest educators and educational researchers ever, and we got to hear them say all kinds of insanely awesome things.

As part and parcel of the pure awesomeness of the day, I scored two key personal / professional victories: First, I slam-dunked an opening presentation on design and development of Project NML’s Teachers’ Strategy Guide, garnering not one, not two, but three separate thumbs-ups from the people I most hoped to impress: My sensei Dan Hickey, my boss Henry Jenkins, and my close, close friend, colleague, and fellow Fireside Moonbat Katie Clinton. I only wish Katie had received more recognition for her contribution to the project–somehow, I’ve been given her share of the credit and I want to find a way to put it back where it belongs.

I’ve included a QuickTime version of my presentation below, though it admittedly loses something without the audio. I’ll see what I can do about adding the audio in once we have it processed from the day.

A second key victory was in getting a back channel going, via a #NML09 hashtag on Twitter, for the day. We had set up a TweetGrid and the hashtag going into the conference but had no specific plans for supporting and integrating the technology, but before I gave my opening presentation I offered up a quick tutorial on how to Tweet using hashtags and my colleagues and I spent the day monitoring and engaging in a rapidfire Twitter conversation that extended participation in really nice ways. As the man Henry Jenkins himself said to me midway through the day, the fact that we didn’t need to plan for or organize participation in social media but that it worked anyway when the tools and the energies were in place proves something important about the nature of participatory culture.

This is the artifact of my tutorial:

Finally, I want to shout out to all the participants who made the conference such a roaring success. Energy, enthusiasm, and engagement were high from beginning to end. I don’t have the words to articulate what an amazing experience it was.

Posted in assessment, awesome, Dan Hickey, Henry Jenkins, MIT, Moby-Dick, participatory culture, Project New Media Literacies, public schools, schools, social media, social revolution, teaching, Twitter | Leave a Comment »