Know your Meme: Leeroy Jenkins (if you don’t know this meme, read on :)
“By convergence, I mean the flow of content across multiple media platforms, the cooperation of multiple media industries, and the migratory behaviour of media audiences who will go almost anywhere in search of the kinds of entertainment experiences they want.” — Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture
A while ago, in a galaxy far far away, I had an interesting conversation with a student (henceforth “Paul”) who had been asked to leave his class and work independently in another space. I was surprised to find out that it was English class. Surprised because I’ve never seen Paul without a book in his hand. I probed further and he explained: “the books we’re reading in class, they’re obviously really important, but I find them boring. I’m just not interested.” Like other disengaged students, Paul found himself distracted, off task and disrupting others in his class.
Instead of inquiring further into his disengagement in the chosen text, I chose to ask, instead, what did engage him. I asked what he was reading. He smiled sheepishly and held up his book. It was a novelization of first person shooter videogame. “Cool. What do you like about those books?” Paul explained that the stories had a lot of action, interesting characters and took part in a setting he enjoyed participating in – both as a reader and game player. He also told me that he wrote fan fiction (a form of writing not typically engaged as part of the English writer’s craft course).
There are millions of people like Paul reading, writing and engaging in fan fiction and cultural production. They demonstrate their fandom and investment in these communities via literacies of participation and mastery. In this they are masters of their (cultural) universe – just as English teachers are masters of the domain of English literature. And it is a form of vital cultural participation Henry Jenkins refers to as “convergence culture.” I’m going to refer to the works of cultural production celebrated therein as a kind of “convergence canon” (i.e., definitive memes, remixes, maker culture and other works).
This post, and the resulting unit I’m presently teaching, are inspired by Paul’s story and dedicated to those who are disconnected from a curriculum that doesn’t reflect their interests (or does so in a marginalizing way).
“Gateway” fiction or primary texts?
If you’re currently working as a teacher-librarian or following emergent literacies, the story above is no surprise. In fact, you are likely already using Graphic Novels and other popular/’alternative’ cultural texts to engage “reluctant readers” at your school. You get it. I’m really glad this is finally happening. But I see a few problems with the way we, as teachers and schools, are situating these literacies.
Transmedia is not adaptation
Programs like “Me read? No, Way!” aim to inspire “reluctant” readers to engage in reading via self selected popular culture, validating their interests while encouraging literacy. This is a great strategy as long as we don’t situate popular texts (graphic novels, fan fiction, non-fiction consumer content) as somehow sub-par to what we might deem “real literature.” All too often, teachers position alternative literacies as a kind of ‘gateway’ fiction rather than identifying these works as primary texts that are part of larger worlds and cultures their readers/fans inhabit and participate in. Or else they confuse “transmedia” with cross platform, safe with translations and adaptations of chosen texts into other formats (Hamlet, as a graphic novel). While these forms often serve to connect readers – via popular formats – this is not the same as transmedia storytelling (see Jenkins core concepts). Transmedia is all about the user/fan/learner located within an authentic affinity space creating works for and with peers – not teachers or the forced community space we call the classroom. Transmedia is also quite distinct from schooly production because it negates the central authority (teacher) as cultural “director” of the student’s creative expression (i.e., creative projects, products or processes devised by the teacher on behalf of the learner v. wholly driven by learners themselves).
It’s not enough to “accept” popular culture texts or define them as somehow “alternative” to the canonical curriculum. We need to find ways to incorporate these works into the curriculum that is just as meaningful and validating as our approach to the more canonical or critically acclaimed works. I’m not suggesting a binary either/or – that we ditch Shakespeare and teach Halo novels instead (as critics of the inclusion of multicultural literatures did back in the 80s…). It’s not merely a pedagogical imperative to do so either. bell hooks, author of “Teaching to Transgress“, suggests that popular culture is exactly the right place to start, not only as a means of critiquing the hegemony, but also a culture that many people invest with profound personal and collective meaning. When schools deny this – or situate it only in relation to critique – we simultaneously “nullify” the identities, cultures and experiences of learners.
Approaching popular culture: Mastery v. permission
If our starting point with popular cultural texts is critique, we’re already communicating bias. Don’t get me wrong, critical engagement and inquiry is at the heart of my own educational philosophy and is still a central priority for schools to empower active, reflective citizenship. Most popular culture is deeply inscribed with enormously problematic ideologies (of power, classism, corporatism, consumerism, sexism, racism and etc). That said, critique still shouldn’t be the starting point for engaging in popular texts – but open engagement. I’m asking that we think more like anthropologists than reviewers.
Some of us may not like or play first person shooter games – and for very good reasons. And I’m sure we could probably catalogue the reasons – I could! But one thing is certain: we will never fully understand why a young person engages a particular game if we don’t ask — or leave it to the mainstream media to do so. We will certainly not inspire learners to share, authentically, what they love about these texts if we are already communicating a bias (possibly even through our lack of knowledge in the form/text). Students pick up on these biases and frequently pander to them (because it’s what schools have taught them to do by denying their own interests and cultures – or situating their interests as secondary or non essential to the primary learning we deliver through the curriculum).
It’s not enough to “allow” students to read a Manga if we ourselves haven’t taken the time to do so – or convey a lack of interest or knowledge in the form. The message of “permission” curriculum communicates that there are two distinct curriculums: the explicit one that we teach and approve of and the stuff they consume. One of these is treated “seriously” the other merely tolerated. You know you’re probably delivering “permission” curriculum if you use words like “allowing” “letting” or “permitting” to describe your classroom practices.
In my view, teaching with the convergence canon requires us to engage directly in pleasure, play and creativity within those cultures. We need to begin with a context in which students are encouraged to engage and discuss the “pleasure” they take in a particular text is the first step in developing our own knowledge of that genre or culture.
A teacher who can reference a specific level of a video game or a cut scene is more likely to communicate a genuine investment in that text (yes, games as texts)that constitutes the same kind of literacy and “mastery” an English literature graduate conveys through similar referencing of definitive scene or trope.
“My kids play that game” is little like saying, of Jane Austin, “that was my mother’s favourite book.” What you’re actually saying is that you’re entirely unqualified to know or understand anything really vital about that text because you haven’t invested in it directly. Nobody wants to learn something from a person who merely “permits” engagement. We’re far more likely to listen to a teacher who conveys shared mastery or investment in that culture. What I’m asking teachers to do is to go a step further than permission curriculum. I’m asking them to engage in the cultures their students engage with as much interest or seriousness as they would engage a cultural work that appeals to them — and in doing so they will also possibly appreciate what it is like for the student to be asked to engage in cultural narratives that were not written with their age group or identities in mind.
I see the integration of transmedia as kind of continuum. Many teachers are presently at stage 2 and 3, which is great. But I am advocating that we move on to 4 and, especially, 5. And I think it’s a worthwhile challenge for myself and others who wish to engage in more meaningful pedagogy that reflects the identities, experiences and interests of our students by exploring their interests more directly.
1) Denial (that the form engages anyone or should)
2) Acceptance (that the form is actually meaningful to others)
3) Inclusion (acceptance and integration of the form into existing curriculum)
4) Participation (engaging the form directly as an object of study/pleasure/creative works)
5) Mastery (conveying/sharing knowledge of the form beyond initial engagement through varied and meaningful expression)
Teaching with transmedia: My own work in progress
I’m currently in the process of developing some transmedia curriculum to extend and redefine the English Writer’s Craft curriculum (secondary school). I’m doing so in an alternative school context and within a short time line so it’s somewhat limited. I’m hoping other teachers will expand on this unit – or build their own – as a means not only of developing our own literacies and mastery of convergence culture but also to make a legitimate place for it in the curriculum. Here is the unit (in progress) and unit blog (which has a few videos and notes about things we’re doing).
In the coming weeks, I will be writing a follow up to this post (the “why” of teaching transmedia) about the challenges and discoveries I made in the process of teaching this unit and whatever I learned in doing so (the “how” of teaching transmedia). I’m no “expert,” just a fan of the cultures and interests that excite many of my students and finding ways to celebrate those cultures as a meaningful part of my practice as a teacher.
My collected transmedia links - to videos, articles, essays and more