Rationalizing Exuberance in Youth Media Education

July 19, 2007


Some thoughts that will be developed more fully in my forthcoming book, with Vivian Chavez, called Drop That Knowledge, about youth, learning, and media culture:

It is an especially exuberant moment in 2007 with so many new digital outlets for youth voices and citizen journalists contributing to and shaping public debate in seemingly unprecedented ways. Until recently, much of the research on young people’s relationship to media focused on their patterns of consumption, with media literacy pitched to prepare young people to analyze and critique adult-manufactured news, entertainment, and advertising. Even when scholars have taken pains to frame consumption as a creative act, still the emphasis has traditionally centered on how young people digest, interpret, and subvert other people’s creative output, not on their own. More recently, the balance has shifted, as communications and cultural studies scholars in particular are enthusiastically tracking the impact of dramatic transformations in digital culture and technology and the advent of Web 2.0. Mobile devices; wireless access; sites for user-created content, comment, and distribution; and cheap production tools have launched an explosion of youth-made media. Through offerings including blogs, fan fic, mix tapes, and digital videos, young people write, picture, and game themselves into being.

Traditionally, non-profit organizations like Youth Radio have acted as gatekeepers for young people to high-cost equipment, professional expertise, and distribution outlets (Buckingham, Burn, & Willett, 2005). If young people working on their own can now find cheap tools, professional production values, and significant audiences, what’s the point of youth media organizations? Should adults just get out of the way?

Youth media organizations remain crucial for a number of reasons. They provide a platform for collective activity that builds and broadcasts a critical mass of youth voices. They offer opportunities for sustained youth involvement, with escalating opportunities for leadership and advanced skill-building. They act as advocates and allies for young people and liaisons to networks of opportunity for broadcast, policy impact, jobs and higher education. Perhaps most importantly, they engage young people who are otherwise marginalized from digital privilege. Young people whose perspectives are distorted, neglected, sensationalized, or outright ignored by mainstream media find themselves on the wrong side of what Henry Jenkins (2006) calls digital media’s “participation gap.” Digitally marginalized youths bear the brunt of today’s acute challenges, even in a time of exuberance: pressures within the education system that box out any pursuit that doesn’t translate into standardized measurement; a heavily re-regulated and rapidly consolidating mainstream media restricted more and more by corporate interests and government sanctions (Klinenberg, 2007); and significant obstacles that make it very difficult for young producers to convert media savvy into concrete opportunities in education or employment.

Never has it been easier nor harder for young people to reach audiences. Never have non-commercial outlets experienced more pressure and threats to their survival—including the very digital platforms many of us regard as promising spaces for independent expression and collective social action. Never has there been a greater need for young people to have a say in the public debates and decisions affecting their lives and social worlds. And never has there been a stronger imperative to make sure that young people can connect to the kinds of tools, networks, and experiences they need to formulate and disseminate something worthwhile to say.

Authorship vs. Intelligence

July 13, 2007

One more thought about this idea of collective intelligence (see prior two posts, and forgive my lapse in writing…just settling back in after a week away).

Reflecting back on what I’ve written on this topic, I sense that I may have been conflating collective authorship with collective intelligence. There are a whole host of practical and conceptual issues that come up when multiple authors jointly create a single work–a scenario that almost always defines media-making projects. How do participants negotiate conflict and critique? What conditions are in place to ensure reciprocity and some measure of fairness in terms of who does the heavy lifting when it’s time to deliver, and who gets credit? Once the story circulates, who “owns” the production? These are serious and sometimes daunting questions that youth media producers have to pose, answer, and re-think with every project.

But they may not be exactly the questions that cut to the heart of collective intelligence, which isn’t so much about joint production as it is about shared knowledge, not so much about who deserves credit for the product, but how various minds/bodies/imaginations inform and derive “smarts” from the process.

It’s hard to find a more fraught concept than intelligence in the education literature. Scholars like Howard Gardner decades ago refuted the idea that individuals possess fixed and measureable levels of intelligence narrowly defined, and yet America can’t quite seem to let go of this view. And so I’m wondering what the notion of “collective intelligence” as a property of “new media literacies” contributes to debates about intelligence in a more general sense. For one thing, when I reflect on my own creative methods as both a writer and producer working together with youth and adult colleagues, I can see how “intelligence” can be displaced from the people in the room to the project underway, to the literal and metaphorical “space” or “site” that takes shape throughout the time it takes to complete a given piece of work. If that’s true, it makes me wonder what happens to that collective and perhaps temporary or contingent intelligence once the group disbands or the project ends?

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?

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.

“Spreading” Youth Media

May 7, 2007

MIT professor Henry Jenkins and his colleague Joshua Green say we’re moving into an era of “spreadable” media:

Jenkins: “Spreadable content is designed to be circulated by grassroots intermediaries who pass it along to their friends or circulate it through larger communities (whether a fandom or a brand tribe). It is through this process of spreading that the content gains greater resonance in the culture, taking on new meanings, finding new audiences, attracting new markets, and generating new values. In a world of spreadable media, we are going to see more and more media producers openly embrace fan practices, encouraging us to take media in our own hands, and do our part to insure the long term viability of media we like.”

The youth media field has been feeling the effects of “spreadable media” as a dawning cultural and industrial reality for some time. The instinct to repurpose and circulate stories across all sorts of scrappy (in the best sense of the word) and established outlets is second nature for young people who know how to make and move their messages to maximize audience reach. At Youth Radio, a recent example is Anyi Howell’s series about racial profiling as a rite of passage for black men in the U.S.–a story he put out in various forms (some FCC-friendly, others not) through MySpace, iTunes, National Public Radio, KPFA, community events, and print (the latter an article he wrote about his specific methodology for spreading the story).

That said, as Youth Radio’s News Director Nishat Kurwa pointed out at a recent editorial meeting here, the idea of spreadable media poses some specific challenges for youth media producers… especially its invitation for fans to remix and rebroadcast pre-produced stories at their whim. Jenkins uses the example of Stephen Colbert to illustrate this fan practice. Comedy Central invited viewers to cut up and re-edit Colbert’s interview with a U.S. congressman, making the raw footage available online-a brilliant way to disrupt journalistic authority by handing over the power of the final edit.

Here’s Jenkins:

“So, at a time when other producers are sending out cease and desist notices to shut down mashups of their content, Colbert is encouraging you to re-edit and recontextualize incriminating statements from his show (and believe me, what made the sketch so funny when it first aired was the whole series of potential meanings behind seemingly innocent statements once he planted the idea in your head.) Of course, none of this has stopped Viacom from trying to get Colbert Show segments removed from YouTube in what is surely a classic example of a media company speaking out of both sides of its mouth at once.”

That all sounds great. But here’s the thing…it still implicitly positions young people in the fan spot, media superstars like Colbert as the original makers viewers can now mess with by re-editing their segments. It’s a whole different deal when the person telling the story in the first place is young and in many ways marginalized from big media production. Let’s say that young person is sharing an extremely personal story. Let’s say she’s worked for months and months to stir up the courage to disclose something about her life. Or let’s say he’s negotiated painstakingly with collaborators to craft a narrative they all feel fairly represents their shared story. Or let’s say the organization she’s working with to tell the story has a youth development mission. And let’s say it’s taken a whole lot of strategy and work to guarantee that for once, young people and not some adult spokesperson on their behalf have final editorial say over what they want to express through media and how they want to tell it.

Under these conditions, the idea of “locking” a final version of your story, rather than inviting others to have at it, can hold serious appeal. Especially when we know how the stories of marginalized youth have been persistently distorted by the press and public.

None of this is to say “spreadable” stories or media that invites the public to go to town in the remix is not the way to go. It’s only to raise the question… assuming Jenkins is right, that “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” is it ever possible that the spread itself can kill the story?