Friday, September 26, 2014

Embrace the Remix, Cultivate Creativity

I love being in a place of learning! Yesterday, we had the good fortune of meeting with Dr. Henry Jenkins, a media scholar from the University of Southern California. He sat in on our Teaching First Year Composition Practicum and spoke with us about the ever-changing role of media and technology in our lives. He writes about participatory culture and digital media.

As educators, it is our task to keep up with the times while maintaining academic standards. We need to make our information relevant in order for it to matter to our students.

Dr. Jenkins explained to us that a lot of educators and academics he meets find it difficult to incorporate new technologies into the classroom, and they are baffled by his willingness to embrace them.

“Yes, it's true,” he told us. “I learned how to think in graduate school. But I have also kept on thinking since then.” I thought that was a profound statement that speaks to many people’s reluctance to flow with the changing times. Rather than hold back the tide, Dr. Jenkins leans into digital culture. After all, it's here to stay.

Dr. Jenkins reminded us that everything is a remix.  Even Melville was a master re-mixer of his time, shifting genres from chapter to chapter in Moby Dick. We may not see it this way now, but it was revolutionary for the time. So what did Dr. Jenkins do to get people reading this classic book? He asked them to re-write it. 

He calls this participatory learning: getting students engaged in a text by asking them to apply it to their world. What would the whale trade look like today? Who would Captain Ahab be? But what Dr. Jenkins is really promoting with this project is giving students the chance to pursue their own interests and passions. This is where we find the key to learning.

Unfortunately, our education system does not make writing accessible to the youth. As Dr. Jenkins remarked, “If we taught sex education like we do writing, we’d die out in a generation!”

But actually, according to Dr. Jenkins, this generation writes a lot. They just don’t think of it as such because it’s not writing in the traditional sense. Maybe it’s a blog post about the Jonas Brothers or a response on a World of Warcraft forum; the internet houses hundreds of different ways for people to connect and communicate with one another. Because this writing is not happening with pen and paper or in a classroom, does that make it any less valuable? And how can we bring the kinds of communications that happen naturally over the internet into the classroom?

I was intrigued by Dr. Jenkins' stance towards social networks and digital media as a learning tool, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom behind it (speaking of social networks, you can now follow The Restless Writer on Facebook!). Why not use a blog post or a Youtube video to explore the rhetorical situation? Instead of banning Wikipedia, how about analyzing how it works by tracing the history of a Wikipedia page? Digital culture can be a friendly point of entry for students to embrace learning and writing.  

According to Dr. Jenkins, and I agree with him, we should be moving towards a creative society, and anything that we can do to get people thinking and acting creatively is valuable.

As someone who has apprehensions about the internet and social media on the whole, I found his point of view fascinating. But what will happen to reading books? I asked him. The novel isn’t going anywhere, he reassured me. We need to keep in mind that communication is the key, without getting caught up on the particular mode of communication. There are multiple literacies, and each mode of communication serves a different purpose. How-to books, for example, are probably not as effective as how-to videos. On the other hand, novels as a self-reflexive form are valuable for conveying the "inter-states" of being. Novels ask a reader to imagine what a world looks like, while film asks their audience to figure out what the characters are thinking. They both require imagination, the key to creativity.

And so, fellow writers and friends, I’ll leave you with this last question: 
What does writing do that other technologies don’t?

Thanks for reading, and I hope you'll check out this short video with Dr. Jenkins!