Monday, June 8, 2009

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

***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."

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.

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