Reducing the World's Suck with Henry Jenkins

Photo: Deney Terrio

USC Professor Henry Jenkins is a hard-core fan with hard-core fans.

I should know. I'm one of the audience members who stalked him at a conference a few years ago after his keynote, hoping to have a conversation about a paper he'd just published at the time. It was an argument for a whole new way of thinking about literacy. Reading, writing, and understanding words on a page won't cut it anymore. In a digitized world, Henry says young people need new skills that go way beyond basic composition and comprehension. Skills like play ("the capacity to experiment with one's surroundings as a form of problem-solving"), collective intelligence ("the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal"), and transmedia navigation ("the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities"). 

Henry's ideas about literacy were formed out of his academic training for sure, but he also draws from a more personal source--his own fan identity. I crossed paths with Henry again this year at another meeting about digital culture and learning, and this time I cornered him (via follow-up email) to talk more about the relationship between fandom, literacy, and scholarship.

Why fans make better scholars

Henry: Fandom taught me how to read television. Television is a challenging medium for critics. A long-running television series may run on for 100-200 hours of content. Academic critics don't typically work on that scale. It isn't like reading an individual novel or watching a single film. For a time, academics would choose episodes almost at random for close examination in the classroom, feeling that any given episode might represent the series as a whole. Fans have always insisted that each episode contributes something vital to the life of a series: even when television series were largely episodic, they look for the connections across episodes, and now that television is more serialized, they are very good at tracing how characters grow over time and anchoring that growth to specific transformative moments in particular episodes. They do some of this work as individuals, but they do more of it as a community of readers, who compare notes, pool knowledge, and thus can deal with the scope and complexity of rich television narratives. As critics, they are so far ahead of either academics or journalists in terms of dealing with television as television.... Fandom describes a creative lifestyle, not a subservient relationship of worshipful awe before some creative artist.

So what does fandom have to do with literacy?

Henry: Fans are people who actively engage with the content of the culture around them and often use it as resources for their own cultural productions. Many of them write original stories or songs about the shows they watch; some make art or costumes; some edit vids or produce film parodies or do podcasts or develop websites or engage in a broad range of other expressive practices. They do so in a context that encourages their participation and where they often get benign and sometimes constructive feedback on their work. In short, they are part of a literacy community that supports their growth as writers, critics, and artists and provides a distribution network for their work.

Our schools at best struggle to provide these same resources and experiences to students; fandom offers these resources in a context of shared interests and playful pedagogy, and it does so for people of all ages, not simply school children...Right now, education assumes that anything worth knowing should be taught to every student. We should know the same things, and we should structure what happens in the classroom to prepare us for a standardized test, which tries to make sure we all know the same things. But in the kind of community I've described above, value gets produced because we all know different things.

Reducing the world's suck

Henry wants digital culture researchers to use what they do to "reduce the suck" in the world. I wondered how Henry knows suck when he sees it.

Henry: For me, suck consists in imposing your tastes on someone else by cutting them off from participating in meaningful activities. Right now, our schools do that all the time. Mark Twain told us to never let schooling get in the way of our education. Yet, for too many kids it does. And the first standard of education should be to above all, do no harm. So, for me, when school computers block sites having to do with Herman Melville's great American novel because Moby-Dick contains the word, Dick, they introduce a certain amount of suck into the world. When schools use technology to spy on their students rather to open the world to their investigation, that's suck, no matter how you cut it. And when kids are classified as "dangerous" because they are emo or gamers or..., then again, there goes the big suck.

Post-Columbine testimony revisited

Speaking of dangerous youth, I wondered if Henry's thinking about the relationship between entertainment, media, and violence had changed since he testified before congress more than ten years ago after the Columbine killings.

Henry: I wish I could say yes, since it seems shallow to say you haven't rethought your position. So, let me put it this way, nothing has led me to challenge my initial perspective that media violence does not cause real world violence, that playing video games is not going to turn a normal child into a killer, or that the best way to rid the world of aggression is to ban violent entertainment. Where my views have changed is that I once accepted as given that there was something called "media violence" and now, the idea that this constitutes a meaningful category seems to me increasingly ridiculous. Our culture tells many different kinds of stories about human aggression and tragedy; those stories carry a range of different meanings and emotional resonances. Some of them involve direct representations of violence. Some of them involve physical or emotional or social violence. Yet, the idea that we can lump all of those varied representations together, count them, and assume we've said something meaningful about our culture is silly in the extreme. And I would say the idea that we could construct meaningful art by excluding discussion of these themes, which are so central to human experience, seems also far-fetched. I certainly think it is a problem that violence is so often depicted in banal, formulaic, meaningless, and heartless ways. My goal would be to encourage more meaningful representations of violence. But it depresses me that ten years of actively challenging the myths around media violence has done little to change the way the public thinks about these issues. We have to assume that people are deeply invested in the myth of media violence and that it serves some larger function in the way our culture operates.

And finally: the myth of videogame addiction

Henry had more to say about myths when I asked him about what he might say to families (like my own) who don't know what to do when their kids retreat into videogames to an extent that the parents feel like they can't reach their children anymore.

Henry: Well, I would be asking as much about what [the kids were] escaping from as I was concerned about what [they were] escaping into. I think media addiction per se is largely a myth. But I do believe that retreating from the world into a game, cutting yourself off from friends or family, may be a manifestation of depression. I know that for many kids what happens in the game is more meaningful, more emotionally rewarding, more gratifying that anything they experience at school. I know that for many kids, who feel disempowered, playing the game may offer them a sense of empowerment. For kids who feel unsafe, the game may offer a sense of security. For kids who feel alone, the game may offer a chance to interact with others. For kids who feel bored, the game may be challenging and enlivening. When we know what the game is providing that is absent from their lives otherwise, we can then assess whether the problem lies in their heads, their environment, or their games.

What's more...

You can find outtakes from Henry's interview on Youth Radio's site, including his take on the term "digital native," whether the digital divide is history, and how schools need to change. Tomorrow, I'll post my interview with computer scientist and literary artist, Professor Fox Harrell, who's been developing an app inspired in part by a combo of eBay's rating system and W.E.B. DuBois's concept of "Double Consciousness" from The Souls of Black Folk.


  1. Just a very quick reaction: His description of fannish literacy/scholarship sounds like my near-decade in grad school (1966-75) in pursuit of a lit degree. Many of my friends and colleagues–and some of my teachers–approached the world in pretty much the way Jenkins sees as fannish: playful, encyclopedic, and disrespectful of borders. Maybe things have changed in the thirty-some years, but I’ve always suspected that the best and most flexible scholars have a bit of the fan in them. (And of course there’s the narrow-focus-expert kind as well–and fandom has its share of those, too.)

  2. Technology has far less to do with it than intel and apple would like you to believe.

    Prior to the advent of compulsory education, many (most?) of the worlds most creative people had far less formal “education” than most of us do these days. Details and elaborations:

    “The Underground History of American Education”

  3. ok what the education system is not delivering is the discovery process, the ability to discover by observation, education this days is about exercising your memory.

    we need to retake past values and integrate them to our day to day life. like living in balance with nature. I had it with market wrapped meat, I want to know/kill/clean my chicken/beef before I eat it, once you know that you should go and get higher education.

    We live a sterile life, we send our kids to school because is easier than if we have to raise them so they go and they get programmed to comply within the given context, there is no room for parallel thinking because many people just don’t know what to make of it.

    then we go to work and come back everyday, to feed the machine (pinkfloid flashback meat machine), without time or energy to devote to the real things on life, meaningful relations with all around us.

  4. I agree with you, Josefrancisco, on the “programming” aspect as well as the lack of “parallel thinking”, due to noone knowing how-to. I like that you mentioned these because, while I doubt any one long-lost educational golden age, it can be so much better than it is. The problem’s just so big it’s hard to even lay it out sometimes, let alone try to start fizing!

    I’m involved with adult literacy and writing tutoring. Daily, I see the aftermath of the proto-teach to the test philosophy, the long-standing lack of regard for lower-income schools, or the general institutional disregard for literacy skills and the humanities (which used to be/were supposed to be the disciplines that encouraged them!)

    Point is, it’s frightening. Whether it’s something “benign” as writing skills, which can be improved with practice, or (at its saddest to me) a bone-deep sense of “I can’t/I won’t/I’m not supposed to do this” – “this” ranging from reading a book, a newspaper, writing a resume, etc. Half my job is unpacking the psychology of low-literacy before we start reading a page!

    I still have to really delve into Jenkin’s paper, so this is based off a light skim and my working life – but technology and media literacy is grand, but it’s not enough. I think he does acknowledge this at least once – something about adding the basic “reading/writing” skill sets to the new, shiny ones he’s explaining.

    The only real problem I have with work like this, despite the fact I do personally like it, is that it seems to inspire people who may not *get* (or don’t want to get) the issues at the heart of low literacy to “throw computers at the problem”, instead of getting their hands dirty addressing the social/environmental factors before having their students blog and make videos.

    Ah, there’s the wordy grad student’s 2 cents :) I feel better now!

    1. I think basic literacy is implicit in media literacy, especially with the internet. Yes, it’s full of awful writing and grammar, but at least it’s full of writing. You really can’t make use of the internet to get information or interact meaningfully without a functional level of literacy.

      Most educational attempts to use new technologies are, frankly, completely boring. The lack of engagement and understanding from many public schools is underscored when schools block YouTube or social networking sites from their computer labs. You could think of these media as a “distraction,” or as both a tool for traditional literacy and an important area of literacy in themselves. Yes, I learned reading and writing and mathematics in school. But if I didn’t have an understanding of computers and their uses both for business and fun, I wouldn’t have gotten the job I have as an adult. Fun is serious business, and the ads people view while searching, shopping, and interacting online pay my bills. Socializing online supports peoples’ personal passions and hobbies, and students with a passion are the ones who truly learn. Even if they’re memorizing hundreds of Pokemon cards, they’re learning, and they can learn even more from the activities they care about if educators support it.

  5. Very very difficult to overcome the “I’m not
    supposed to be thinking” meme.

    Trying to get a 10 year old to start going
    beyond memorizing the lesson – wow, what happened
    to us? She won’t even start! It’s like the teacher
    must have threatened them with some kind of punishment
    if they ever think for themselves.

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