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":
- Issues of power are enacted in classrooms.
- There are codes or rules for participating in power; that is, there is a "culture of power."
- The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who have power.
- If you are not already a participant in the culture of power, being told explicitly the rules of that culture makes acquiring power easier.
- 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.