What about Credit in Collective Intelligence?

June 28, 2007

One of the most striking ideas from the National Media Education Conference for me was Henry Jenkins’ notion of “collective intelligence,” a concept he develops in his white paper that’s been making the rounds in youth media circles. Building on Levy, Jenkins says collective intelligence kicks in when…

“Like-minded individuals gather online to embrace common enterprises, which often involve access and processing information. In such a world… everyone knows something, nobody knows everything, and what any one person knows can be tapped by the group as a whole.”

This notion of collective intelligence resonates for me in lots of ways. My own personal youth media practice and research have always centered on learning environments that leverage collaborative thinking and making, and I often find myself trying to pull back the veil on individual accomplishment or exceptionality to expose all the joint work that takes place behind any meaningful production–whether through peer critique or collegial pedagogy or conversational production.

That said, I’m wondering if there are ways that “collective intelligence,” if embraced unequivocally (and certainly no one’s saying it should be, but you know how that can happen anyway…), just might sometimes work against youth producers… Jenkins used the model of Wikipedia to talk about the amazing potential of joint authorship and knowledge production, saying that Wikipedia culture allows “many different minds operating in many different contexts to work together to solve problems that are more challenging than any of them could master as individuals.” Can’t argue with the greatness of that.

But here’s one possible glitch. I find that some of the most important work we do at Youth Radio, even within our hyper-collaborative production method, is to secure individual on air credit for the organization and our youth reporters and artists. We take those radio “back announces” (when the host credits the contributor you just heard) extremely seriously. Lots of digital media scholars say the wisdom of crowds can prevail despite anonymity (and certainly the academic convention of peer review places a whole lot of stock in the freedom that comes with the absence of identification). But it seems like young people can’t always afford to be just part of a crowd, no matter how intelligent that collective happens to be, if they are to convert their media productions into concrete new opportunities in higher education and/or living wage work.

Jenkins offered a provocative response to this line of questioning. He said it reminded him of the observation that scholars started proclaiming the “death of the author” at the very moment when women and people of color started getting traction in academic departments and publishing.

So perhaps the issue I’m drilling down to here is: in youth media, how do we negotiate questions of credit in the spirit of collective intelligence?

When Radio Isn’t Enough

June 28, 2007

Last week, Youth Radio participated in the National Media Education Conference, sponsored by the Alliance for a Media Literate America, in St. Louis. Ayesha Walker and I presented a listening session called, When Radio Isn’t Enough, where we considered two ways that young people reach beyond audio airwaves to spread their most urgent stories:

1. by connecting their radio features to concrete social justice efforts, aiming not only to describe but also to dislodge inequalities.

2. by leveraging digital and social media’s proliferating platforms, integrating sound, image, live performance, and conversation to share information and inspire feeling and action.

Ayesha played her commentary, From Blacksburg to Bay Area, where she reflects on violence in her own city…Richmond, California. She says while the mass shooting shocked the nation, no one is shocked when young people die from gun violence in her neighborhood.

“The heartbreaking incident at Virginia Tech makes me think of the ongoing devastation in my own city…. A lot of people were horrified by the number killed at Virginia Tech—33–in the span of a few hours. Here we see that number killed in slow motion—shot to death on inner city streets each month…”

After producing the story, Ayesha worked with Dawn Williams to develop an online curriculum resource for Teach Youth Radio, where we offer lesson ideas and additional research and resources designed to encourage educators to use youth media content and methods in their classrooms. It was a chance to expand on her commentary’s themes and for Ayesha to draw other young people into her process and the questions it raised–e.g., the decision to go ahead with the broadcast just days after the Virginia Tech shooting even though some outside editors thought it was too soon to focus on anyone but the victims of that specific tragedy.

In addition to Ayesha’s work, we played other stories from Youth Radio’s archive that students had produced for local and national radio (commercial and public), iTunes, MySpace, our own website, and live community events–sometimes repurposing/remixing/reframing a single narrative to suit those various outlets and reach mass and niche audiences.

The work we presented at NMEC really drove home the positioning of the youth media movement at the very epicenter (battleground???) of what Henry Jenkins calls, “Convergence Culture”–where “old and new media collide.”

To be continued…

More questions to ask ourselves

June 23, 2007

In the previous post, I listed a few questions I often ask myself when I’m trying to decide how I feel about a media education project. Here are some more thoughts along those lines.

While young people produce powerful media in a range of learning environments, seems like there are certain conditions that especially engage young people in meaningful projects–and in many ways these features go beyond media-specific activities and apply to a range of contexts for production and storytelling. Young people engage their minds, imaginations, and passions when:

1. They participate in active learning and hands-on production.
2. They work towards real deadlines, with real audiences and outlets.
3. They know that their involvement in any given project doesn’t have to end when that project is complete, that they can stay involved, escalating their skills and intensifying their responsibilities.
4. They have final say over what they release into the world, but they have to listen, negotiate, and sometimes fight for their vision.
5. They find recognition for what they know and how they communicate, as ends in themselves and as means to engage with new conversations and discoveries.
6. Activities are industry relevant and linked to innovative formats and well-suited technologies.
7. Pedagogy balances peer teaching and youth-adult collaboration.
8. They can get where they need to be, their workplace is safe, and they’re not hungry.
9. Students and teachers connect their everyday work to goals related to equity and social impact.

Interrogating Youth Media from Within

June 22, 2007

More and more educators, scholars, and policy makers are recognizing the potential for media production to invigorate youth learning, and that’s obviously a good thing in my view. But the risk is, we can start convincing ourselves that just handing kids $10 disposal digital cameras from Walgreens or sending them out on the street with minidisk recorders will spark transformative learning experiences. If only it were so easy…

Youth Radio and the other youth media groups I’ve worked with and researched have helped me come up with a set of questions to apply to media-based learning experiences, as a kind of on-the-fly assessment process. Here are a few:

1. Does the experience provide young people with opportunities and skills to break conventions while still understanding the rules of the game?

This one’s informed by Lisa Delpit’s hugely influential literacy research. In Other People’s Children, Delpit writes about schools where students are mostly black and teachers are mostly white and female. I find myself thinking about her ideas across a range of different contexts. While Delpit acknowledges the value of teaching student writers to compose freely, fluently, and creatively, she also insists that young people need to understand the “codes of power” operating, often tacitly, inside any pedagogical context–codes that can become structures of exclusion even, or maybe especially, in so-called “progressive” classrooms.

2. Do young people play an active role in not only generating “raw” content, but also tailoring and delivering that content to existing and emerging audiences?

In The Fine Art of Teaching, David Trend writes about this one in a chapter that’s pretty old but still relevant.

3. Is the media production work contextualized within a larger ambition related to justice?

I don’t mean that every media project, or any media project, should necessarily push a pre-determined political agenda. Social justice work can entail opening avenues for expression for those whose experiences would otherwise be ignored, distorted, or used against them. Exposing hidden information, or simply sharing honest, uncensored, if unpopular or controversial perspectives, contributes to a fuller public discourse. The key move is to create conditions where young people can debate the fraught relationship between media and justice and position themselves as influential producers in that mix. Check out Beyond Resistance! by Noguera, Cammarota, and Ginwright, for a very powerful collection of essays raising themes along these lines.

Teach Youth Radio

June 12, 2007

To mark the end of the school year, it seems like a good time to post thoughts from educators who have shared their ideas for how to use Youth Radio materials in their classrooms and community-based sites. It is so excellent when we hear that educators, organizers, clinicians, and other folks are out there spreading youth media stories to new audiences, and using young people’s words to inspire student thought, debate, critique–and hopefully their own productions.

Mindy Faber shared some great thoughts for using stories from Youth Radio’s Reflections on Return series to spark student engagement. In that series, our newsroom profiles young U.S. troops returning from the war in Iraq. Faber, a media artist and educator whose work with youth was recently recognized with a Peabody award, uses a pedagogical approach called “interpretive discussion.” She says this method focuses on a key question that meets two criteria:

“1) genuinely concerns the group and 2) centers on a point of ambiguity or doubt. It should be debatable and not lead necessarily to an answer that the discussion leader or teacher has in mind but one that the group comes to on their own. In other words the discussion may end up with a deeper and more genuine question than the one originally posed. So the responsibility for youth to construct and evaluate arguments means a different type of classroom discourse and engagement.”

Faber says facilitators using this approach keep drawing student attention back to the text itself, insisting on specific references. What’s cool about applying this approach to youth-made media is, for once, the text students need to consider deeply, interpret, and interrogate is actually crafted by someone their own age. The hope, then, is that students exploring these finished pieces will see a path to telling their own stories and/or chronicling lives around them.

Faber offered two examples of “Interpretive Discussion” questions linked to Youth Radio’s Reflections on Return series, and I’m quoting her here, but I added the links:

Basic Question: Did the experiences in Iraq help these soldiers gain more control over their lives or do they feel less capable of making choices upon return?

Sample Subquestion 1: What does Jesus mean when he says, “It’s like you’re watching a black and white TV; you’re just not there?”

Sample Subquestion 2: When Brandon Coles says “Once you’re a soldier you are always a soldier,” does that mean he is powerless to change or he has made a conscious choice to be that person?

Sample Subquestion 3: When Abby Pickett says “the greenness and kind of luster that surrounds my youth is diminished and gone,” is this a sign of maturity and growth or a signal of sadness and regret?

Basic Question: Do these soldiers wish they were still in Iraq because their deployment gives their lives a higher purpose or because they need to be with those who understand them?

Sample Subquestion 1: What does Jesus mean when he says he “wished he was still in the military because his unit was sort of a bubble”?

Sample Subquestion 2: Why do you think Daniel wants to spend his last nights in the states with his fellow soldiers rather than his girlfriend?

Sample subquestion 3: What does Richard mean when he says, “You know, if you’d give me the choice, I would rather be deployed than not be deployed. In Iraq, I knew where I was” ?

Thank you, Mindy, for sharing these thoughts. Please know that it means A LOT to the young reporters and commentators at Youth Radio for their work to be taken seriously and expanded by educators and other youth.

Youth Radio in the SF Chronicle

June 4, 2007

Check it out! Youth Radio’s move to downtown Oakland made the paper:

“Early last month, having outgrown its shabby birthplace in Berkeley, Youth Radio packed up and moved to a space four times as large, and light-years ahead technologically, on Broadway in downtown Oakland.

But Youth Radio executives say in spite of the organization’s plans to double the number of young people it serves and vastly increase its audience in coming years, the organization’s core mission will remain youth development.”

Last week, the production department got our first introduction to the new studio set up, and Youth Radio graduate/associate producer Reina Gonzales recorded our first commentary in the space, which feels truly star-trekky, compared to our old spot. Tomorrow we’ll gather in our old digs to say a final goodbye.

The work continues…