On a cross-country plane trip recently, I had a chance to read a new book: Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom, by Henry Jenkins and Wyn Kelley, and I have to say that once I started I just read straight through. If you haven’t read it, take a look!
The message of this book is one I embrace: that we live in a time when reading and writing are social and collaborative through and through. As Jenkins puts it,
So, what does it mean to teach canonical works at a time when so many young people feel empowered to become authors and to “broadcast” themselves to the world…? One implication is certainly that they should focus greater attention on what it means to be an author, what it means to be a reader, how the two processes are bound up together, and how authors exist in dialogue with both those who come before and those who follow them. In this context, young people learn how to read in order to know how to create; the works they consume are resources for their own expressive lives. They seek to internalize meanings in order to transform, repurpose, and recirculate them, often in surprising new contexts (47).
The authors further argue that reading is participatory and collaborative, and that students can be most engaged in reading if they are using the reading for “their own expressive lives.” The major illustration of this claim has to do with remixing Moby Dick, which is just what Ricardo Pitts-Wiley did when he was invited to work with a juvenile detention facility. There he introduced young men to Melville’s classic text, asking them to “write and perform a story about a character of their choice.” One young man chose Ahab, who was just returning from a drug-dealing trip he carried out for his boss, WhiteThing. Another young man chose Ishmael, about whom he wrote “Ishmael was a Navy SEAL who was so high strung they kicked him out of the U.S. Navy.” As Pitts-Wiley says, “it’s a brilliant description.” Eventually Pitts-Wiley wrote a play based on the work of the students, casting it and performing it, and along the way these students read Moby Dick six ways to Sunday.
One of the most fascinating sections of this discussion concerned Pitts-Wiley’s reflections on the ethics of appropriation. What was his responsibility to Melville and his text? What was his responsibility to the youthful Hip Hop culture he was also drawing from? As he says,
In remixing, I am concerned with questions of who has access and opportunity to appropriate things. If you’re media savvy, if you’re on the access side of the digital divide, you have access to unlimited knowledge. But does that mean that you know how to use that knowledge and you are respectful of its source? (58).
These are the kinds of questions we should be asking our students as they begin their own processes of reading-to-write, of remixing and producing mashups, of reading in order to release their own forms of creative expression. I can hardly wait for classes to begin so I can see what my students will have to teach me about this way of thinking about reading in a participatory culture.