Learning By Remixing
by Henry Jenkins, July 13, 2006
Tagged: art, children, education, remixing, teens
Mark Glaser is on vacation this week, and will resume blogging next Monday. We're happy to have Henry
Jenkins as guest blogger in his place. Jenkins is the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of twelve books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, which is coming out next month from New York University Press. Plus he recently launched his own blog, "Confessions of an Aca/Fan":
According to a 2005 study conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 57 percent of American teens who use the internet could be considered media creators. For the purpose of the study, a media creator was defined as someone who "created a blog or webpage, posted original artwork, photography, stories or videos online or remixed online content into their own new creations." Most American teens online have done two or more of these activities. 33 percent of teens share what they create online with others. 19 percent create new works by remixing content they appropriated from another source.
America's children are become media-makers: they are blogging, designing their own websites, podcasting, modding games, making digital movies, creating soundfiles, constructing digital images, and writing fan fiction, to cite just a few examples. As they do so, they are discovering what previous generations of artists knew: art doesn't emerge whole cloth from individual imaginations. Rather, art emerges through the artist's engagement with previous cultural materials. Artists build on, take inspiration from, appropriate and transform other artist's work: they do so by tapping into a cultural tradition or deploying the conventions of a particular genre. Beginning artists undergo an apprenticeship phase during which they try on for size the styles and techniques of other more established artists. And even well established artists work with images and themes that already have some currency within the culture. Of course, this isn't generally the way we talk about creativity in schools, where the tendency is still to focus on individual artists who rise upon or stand outside any aesthetic tradition.
Most of the classics we teach in the schools are themselves the product of appropriation and transformation or what we would now call sampling and remixing. So Homer remixed Greek myths to construct The Iliad and the Odyssey; Shakespeare sampled his plots and characters from other author's plays; The Sistine Chapel Ceiling mashes up stories and images from across the entire Biblical tradition. Lewis Carroll spoofs the vocabulary of exemplary verses which were a standard part of formal education during his period. Many core works of the western canon emerged through a process of retelling and elaboration: the figure of King Arthur goes from an obscure footnote in an early chronicle into the full blown text of Mort D'Arthur in a few centuries as the original story gets built upon by many generations of storytellers.
Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs often remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in emphasizing totally "original work", schools sacrifice the opportunity to help kids think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content; they often do not provide them with the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process; and they don't teach them the relationship between analysis and production.
Today, I want to report on several interesting new experiments which involve students sampling and remixing in order to develop better media literacy skills. My MIT students often report that they learned how engines worked by taking machines apart and putting them back together again. Maybe students can learn how culture works by breaking it down into its basic building blocks and remixing them.
Renee Hobbs, a 20 year veteran of the media literacy movement, recently launched a new website -- My Pop Studio -- which takes this premise as a starting point. The site targets young middle school and early high school aged girls, encouraging them to reflect more deeply about some of the media they consume -- pop music, reality television, celebrity magazines, and the like -- by stepping into the role of media producers. The site offers a range of engaging activities -- including designing your own animated pop star and scripting their next sensation, re-editing footage for a reality television show, designing the layout for a teen magazine. Along the way, they are asked to reflect on the messages the media offers about what it is like to be a teen girl in America today and to think about the economic factors shaping the culture that has become so much a part of their everyday interactions with their friends. As Hobbs explained during an interview posted on my blog:
Through remixing, people can generate new ideas. It can be a vehicle for people to comment upon the role of media and technology in society. Remixing can strengthen media literacy skills because it can deepen people's awareness of an author's purpose and context. Context is often not well-understood as a component of meaning. Through strategic juxtaposition and shifts in context, messages change their meanings. Remixing illustrates a key concept of media literacy: that meaning is in people, not in texts.
We are also embracing remixing as a central feature of the work we are doing through the New Media Literacies Project, a multiyear effort by the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and funded by the MacArthur Foundation, which seeks to identify the core skills which young people need to fully participate in the new media culture and develop instructional materials and activities designed to help young people master those cultural competencies. One of our first efforts, which we are calling a Transmedia Improv, was inspired by the Cantina sequence from Star Wars (though the practices we are modeling here can be applied to any story which has a rich and diverse set of characters. One instructor, for example, applied the same techniques to a nature documentary.) The scene brings together a diverse array of different alien creatures, each designed to provoke strong feelings in the viewer, but none of whom gets developed fully as a character within the unfolding story. We saw the scene as rich with unrealized narrative potential and thus a great starting point to get kids to think about the process of storytelling.
We've developed a workshop process where students select one of the alien characters featured in the sequence, develop their profiles and backstories which explain what brought them to the Cantina that day, improvise dialogue with their classmates, search the web for images that might help them tell their stories, and use PowerPoint or similar tools to create storyboards for a potential narrative. Students can create stories quickly and collaboratively using the cantina sequence as a starting point because they already have a shared fictional framework. Most of them already know the world of Star Wars, though many of them push and pull the characters in new directions. In the case of the mostly inner city middle and high school students with whom we've been working, Star Wars gets overlaid with images and themes from hip hop culture -- an unintended consequence of using a scene set in a cantina but one which creates a space to talk about the role of sex and violence in contemporary popular culture.
Along the way, participants learn how to use a range of different media tools -- the profiling functions of social network software, search engines, and PowerPoint, among them -- which they can use in the future to create their own original stories. At the same time, the activities motivate discussions about the craft of storytelling, getting students to think through issues of character, setting, conflict, and plot. The exercise encourages reflection about the role stereotypes play in shaping their response to the different characters. As the study guide we developed for the project suggests:
By using curious-looking, non-human aliens as the basis for character and plot development allows for conversations on gender, diversity and multiculturalism without having to talk about specific human races. By mapping these discussions onto other races from other planets, it allows students to express themselves in a non-threatening, broad way. It also allows students to examine the characteristics they mapped onto their individual aliens on the basis of appearance alone, such as Why do you think the character with the big head is
smart? or How do you think a 'spy' might look?
And finally, the exercise allows a context for talking with students about the ethics of appropriation, introducing them to the careful balance under our constitutional law between copyright and fair use. We want them to both understand the role which previous works play in inspiring artistic expression and also the importance of respecting the integrity of other artist's creative expressions.
Artist and filmmaker Juan Devis, has been working with the University of Southern California Film School, the Institute for Media Literacy, and the Los Angeles Leadership Academy, on a project which will eventually have minority youth developing an online game based on Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. During the first stages of the project, he has worked with the youth to heighten their awareness of the social and cultural space of their own local community -- a project which involves producing maps of their own neighborhoods, their landmarks, and the paths they take through them. As USC's Tara McPherson explains in a online discussion of these maps, "Rather than playing someone else's p.o.v. in a mass-produced video game, they're telling their own stories and mapping their own worlds. In becoming makers of media that matters - to them and I hope to you -- they just might access in their own lives the transformative promise of control that digital culture often sells to us in its slick and shiny packaging." The youth will build on these maps in the second phase of their project when they will be relocating Huck, Jim, and Tom's adventures into contemporary California. As Devis explained to me in an e-mail interview:
Huck Finn is an American "classic." It's a coming of age story, not only for the characters but also for the country. The majority of the young men and women that we are working with are immigrants from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. They have no clue about American history. History, U.S history, is dead to them, because they cannot visualize a relationship to it. Their relationship to the U.S - and I think this is true not only of immigrant kids - is defined in a high extent by popular culture. Huck Finn, then, becomes a bridge to the past... a bridge at seeing themselves part of a history, part of America.... The violence of the tales and literature (the media of the day) that Tom reads and re-works (remix as you may say) into fantasy, also have strong parallels to the way in which the youth of today, appropriate and define media in their own terms, to create a fantasy that is in sink with their own lives... mods for example, or mashups, are hugely popular among the students that I work with. We intend to use these "experiments" as part of the game... as some sort of meta-text and active deconstruction of popular media.
Devis drew a number of strong parallels between the experiences of minority youth in LA and the world depicted in Twain's novel -- including parallels between "crews" of taggers and the gang of youth that surround Huck and Tom, the use of slang as a means of separating themselves out from their parents culture, the complex experience of race in a society undergoing social transitions, and the sense of mobility and "escape" from adult supervision.
Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, the Artistic Director of Mixed Magic Theatre, has been working with students from Pawtucket area high schools to develop what he calls his "urban Moby Dick" project. Students worked closely with mentors -- artists, law enforcement officers, business leaders, from the local community -- to explore Herman Melville's classic novel together. Through a process of reading, discussion, improvisation, and writing, they are scripting and staging a modern version of the classic whaling story, one that acknowledges the realities of contemporary urban America. In their version, the "Great White" turns out not to be a whale but the international drug cartel. Ish and Quay are two members of Ahab's posse as he goes after the vicious force which took his leg and killed his wife. Through reimagining and reworking Melville's story, they come to a deeper understanding of the relationships between the characters and of some of the core themes about male bonding and obsession which run through the book.
What each of these projects have in common is a hands-on approach to culture: they recognize the value of remixing as a means of mastering the core vocabulary of storytelling and representation. They value the kinds of creative expression which emerges when familiar materials get placed in unfamiliar contexts or get rethought through different perspectives.
Of course, though the digital environment places a new emphasis on understanding and responding to remixing practices, this is not a radically new idea. I was going through some of my mother's things recently and stumbled upon a box of her school papers from the late 1930s. One of the assignments had been to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf. As they say, everything old is new again.