A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created). (Jenkins 1)
When Henry Jenkins describes “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture”, he offers the above definition. Jenkins is concerned with how modern literacy has been affected by New Media literacy practices, and what these changes may entail for teachers of writing and rhetoric. He makes an important and gentle claim about the value of using the internet as a format for allowing students to engage in a rhetorical culture “with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement”, in a setting in which they “believe that their contributions matter”.
Taken out of context, however, the above quote seems applicable to any number of venues for amateur artistic expression; the internet has simply provided a widespread and massively available context for such expression. It seems that any format for creation wherein students are given time and freedom to develop and express ideas, and to take time after development and creation to comment on or critique the creations of others, is a platform for participatory culture to emerge.
Although I appreciate Jenkins’s thorough and unassuming argument about the importance of taking digital literacies into account in a composition classroom, I wonder where our responsibilities to our students lie given this broad definition of a participatory culture. I am struggling with how to effectively convey this idea, so I suppose I will just have to offer the following example.
Every year in Thailand there is a festival called Loy Krathong. When I taught there, my students took a whole week during school to prepare for Loy Krathong by making the miniature floats they would offer to the water in return for fulfillment of their dreams. Teachers brought in palm fronds, orchids, jasmine flowers, and took time out of each class to teach students how to weave shapes and incorporate flowers in their creations, and gave them ample time to simply construct their floats.
At the end of the week, students had borrowed and lent ideas from each other and from teachers, and had produced some magnificent (and extremely varied, given the small number of materials the used) pieces of art. The teachers put their students’ floats on display, and students were given a whole day to examine each other’s pieces, talk about the floats, to consider why certain ones were more effective than others, and to make last-minute changes if they wanted. At nightfall, everyone in the “village” headed to the bay to light their candles, say their prayers, and hope their floats made it as far as possible to sea.
Jenkins’s article does narrow its focus to describe online literacy events, but the fact that “participatory culture” plays such a huge role in his argument still gives me pause. The kind of exploratory, guided creation, recreation, and criticism demonstrated by my Thai students’ participation during Loy Kratong still appears to me to represent a kind of participatory culture. If this assessment is even remotely true, then part of what Jenkins touts as the literary power of the internet is its ability to connect people, not just in through literacy, but also by artistic expression. The internet is an audio-visual-literary experience, not just a place to compose. If this is true, then I return to a lot of the discomfort I feel about techno-literacy practices. How does this effectively transform my job as a Composition teacher? How can I deny the artistic undercurrent of digital literacy practices, and how am I supposed to teach them when there are so many?
J. Elizabeth Clark discusses “The Digital Imperative” of including internet-based new-media technologies in our classes, citing specifically her success with “ePortfolios.” Unlike Jenkins’s piece, Clark launches a veritable attack on traditional, linear composition strategies, stating:
Myopic, Luddite fantasies of returning to pencil and paper, the disavowal of the role of technology in the classroom, and the supposition that technology is a passing fad are tired arguments now giving way to a new era of digital rhetoric where, more than ever before, people are becoming authors every day, constructing digital profiles, public commentary, and using publicly available resources to research and inform their opinions.
Clark’s position is extreme, and the more I read of her piece, the angrier I become, even as I return to it later. How can she vilify pen and paper without taking into remote account the fact that vast swaths of humanity exist for whom pen and paper are luxuries? Let’s head back to my classroom in Thailand, where I was lucky to have chalk for the black board, let alone paper, worksheets, or printed materials. The language lab was locked, collecting dust, because the technology in it was so precious they didn’t actually trust students to use it. Clark discusses her class, “How Fiction Can Change the World”, and I think to myself how wonderful it must be to conceive of a world so small that our Western perception of digital literacy is the only one that exists, with no reference paid to all the other possible cultural expressions of digital literacy, a world in which one Chinese student (and Clark’s only example of non-American literate uses of technology), had to actually come to America to become “literarily” liberated. What is so wrong with pens and paper if it is all a student has, and if he or she is lucky to have them at that? Should we continue to denigrate non- “new-media” technological literacies under adverse financial circumstances? Now who’s being myopic?
I understand that Clark is talking about a “first-world” literacy, but I would like her please to get off her technological high horse and get some real-world perspective. I love the idea of including visual literacy in my classroom, but I return to the question of what my job as writing teacher is. When Lawrence Lessig describes “Read-Write Culture” in his TED Talk, he provides hilarious examples of digital adaptations that combine music with visual aids and literary rhetoric. Do I have to teach these applications to my students because I am an American teacher? What if I want to return to Thailand?
By choosing to study composition, I’ve found myself standing on a critically entangled dialectical nexus of modern philosophy. Suddenly we are forced to return to the Phaedrus– how can art exist without structure? Where is the line between reading and writing- where does one start and the other end, and can one exist without the other? How is it possible that Literature and Composition studies exist in tension? How can Composition Studies not be a discipline, when it is essentially the platform of all disciplines? And now, how can old and new literacy practices exist in their individual paradigms without one another? Can we even begin to conceive of scope of possibilities for artistic and literary pursuits that the internet provides? These articles are trying to deconstruct a modern moment of transition, which seems a little ridiculous- surely we will only truly understand the implications of the move to digital literacy after it has been in more general effect for more than the two and a half nano-seconds of human literacy practice that it represents thus far.
Part of my opposition to these ideas is simply that I find the exhaustive array of possible literacy activities dizzying, and I don’t know where I need to be beginning with my students, who, by the way, don’t know how to punctuate their sentences correctly enough to convey clear meaning in some cases. I would love it if my job were that of “literary art teacher”, helping to navigate students through all the different possibilities for rhetorical expression in a plethora of new media forms. But is it, really? Or would my students rather just not sound like idiots who dangle participles left and right on cover letters for professional jobs?…“Covered in melted cheese, the rhetoricians devoured the pizza…” Meme that, J. Elizabeth Clark.