Henry Jenkins' 20-year presence at MIT was formative for him and profoundly valuable for MIT. A year after his departure for USC, Jenkins returns to talk with long-time colleagues about his pioneering scholarship on digital culture, his work as the founding director of Comparative Media Studies, his experiences as a teacher and housemaster at MIT. His CMS colleague William Uricchio will moderate the discussion.
Summary [this is an edited summary, not a verbatim transcript]
“I hate this fucking place.”
With these shocking words, Henry Jenkins began to reflect on his time at MIT. It's an expression, he went on to quickly explain, with a long history at the Institute especially among undergraduates who say it with a mix of “masochistic pleasure, pain and pride.”
As Jenkins was composing his final blog entry from Senior House in July 2009, he entitled it “IHTFP” because it seemed a fitting descriptor of that crossroads in his life.
Every day, Jenkins said, there should be reasons to love MIT and reasons to hate MIT. If that tally gets out of balance too many days in a row, then it's probably time to leave. It's a set of calculations we live with as we think about what it means to be at MIT.
Jenkins never expected to end up at MIT. He's someone with serious math anxiety and so to end up at a place where all the buildings and classes are described by numbers is just one example of the weirdness he felt as a humanities person at MIT. The fact that he was welcomed here for 20 years is a tribute to the flexibility of the MIT culture, Jenkins said.
Jenkins went on to consider MIT from a variety of perspectives..
MIT as a mailing address.
As he was considering taking a position here, he asked himself, “Do I belong at MIT?” A faculty member at the time told him to try it and if it didn't work out it would be a good place to be from for the next place you go. But that views MIT as a place to be from rather than a place to be at. Anyone who’s been here for a while – especially among the non-technical faculty – has made their peace. That peace is reflected in the work they have done and the ways they have approached their work.
As someone who lived with MIT students, Jenkins knows they value and appreciate the humanities. He lived in the dorms and every dorm room had books in them. The books that survive in the cramped confines of dorm living, he continued, are books that have value. Some might be comics or graphic novels, some might be science fiction and some might be Middlemarch. He believes that treating MIT simply as a mailing address sells the students, the experience and the place short.
MIT as a bully pulpit.
Members of the MIT faculty have the ability to speak to the world. During his time at MIT, Jenkins was pushed onto world stages that he wouldn't have had access to had he not been at MIT.
This was made most clear to Jenkins when he wrote an email to the faculty and students recounting his experience testifying before the U.S. Senate after Colombine. He told them to feel free to share his letter with anyone they thought might be interested. Over the ensuing 24 hours, Jenkins received hundreds of emails from around the world, from individuals, from major newspapers and magazines.
The Communication Forum is a big part of having a place to address issues publicly, Jenkins said. The leadership of David Thorburn has made the Forum a place where industry, journalists, activists, artists and academics can come together and have conversations that matter.
MIT as a myth.
To struggle with the assumption that you can save the world with a laptop is part of what it means to be at MIT. This myth is what drives people at MIT to be workaholics. No one, said Jenkins, feels adequate about being at MIT. He was honored to be selected as a Doc Edgerton Scholar, describing it as a "badge of pride."
MIT as a community.
Looking out over the audience at the Bartos Theater, Jenkins said he was reminded of Fellini's 8 ½ with everyone from my life present in a surreal way. When Jenkins came to MIT he had never used the internet. He fell in with the Narrative Intelligence Group which blended technology and culture. Over time, he met extraordinary people in media. He discovered there were many faculty who were working on media but they weren't working together. This realization led to the creation of the CMS community.
MIT as a dream.
And Comparative Media Studies is a big part of that dream. Built from the ground up with William Uricchio, Jenkins called the effort to build CMS was "a shared hallucination." Jenkins said he was the thunder and Uricchio was the lightning. At a time when media impacts every aspect of society, said Jenkins, there is a great need for the humanities to play an applied role. To engage with the world from a humanist perspective is at the heart of what CMS was all about. This is something that was achieved – when it was at its very best – over the past ten years.
MIT has also been a bureaucracy.
One, according to Jenkins, that sometimes constrains rather than sustains the dreams and hopes that are brought to MIT. He went on to say that once things get so bogged down with fear of liability that risk is avoided, then something vital goes out of the Institute. How, he asked, can the bureaucracy be used to support and sustain the dreams of the students and faculty? This is a question he believes everyone at MIT needs to ask and struggle with.
One of the most amazing things to come out of MIT, he said, stealthily came out of the basement of the old Building 20. The Model Railroad Club built the first computer game. It wasn't done officially – and it probably broke a lot of rulesat MIT – but they did it and it changed the world. We all need to remember, he continued, that playing with technology is how we learn and how we grow.
MIT as a crossroads.
Coming out of graduate school Jenkins had two jobs before him: one at the University of Rochester where he could have focused on film and become a traditional historian, and one at MIT. He chose MIT and he describes that moment – the moment of making the choice – as a moment when his life changed. Everything he has done over the past 20 years has somehow been shaped by his relationship with MIT. MIT got under his skin and made him who he was.
He sometimes wonders what would have happened if he'd traveled that road not taken. When he announced he was leaving MIT, many people said they couldn't imagine him anyplace but MIT. It made him wonder if MIT was the only place he could fit in and found it to be an unflattering idea. Jenkins said he could imagine himself in other places, doing other things.
Jenkins concluded his remarks by saying he'd spent 20 years at MIT during the digital revolution – one of the most transformative moments for our society. Now, he went on, he has the potential to spend the next 20 years in Hollywood during the transmedia revolution and this is a powerful thing for him.
Following Jenkins' opening comments, moderator William Uricchio presented Jenkins with a number of questions.
Uricchio: There were differences in our relationship – me a historian, Jenkins focused on the present. Me focused on Europe, Jenkins on America. You'd think with these profound differences it wouldn't work, but it worked brilliantly.
Let's start with something I don't know much about -- your time in Wisconsin when you studied under two luminaries, David Bordwell and John Fiske. You worked with both. What did you learn from them? What did you bring to MIT?
Jenkins: It's been an interesting process. Fiske retired ten years ago, just walked away. Literally, he gave away his books and went to Vermont to run an antique store. It was about as emphatic an exit as possible. This year there will be an event in Madison – Fiske Matters – looking at John and his work that he will be attending. In advance of the event, his works are being reprinted and I was honored to be asked to write the introduction. Rereading his work now, it still speaks to me in powerful ways and I see how many of the strands of his work appear in my own. I was in graduate school during a pessimistic time in which media was the enemy. He was optimistic though; he believed that positive things can come from the effort to understand media.
Boardwell was really interested in understanding the style in media. For Boardwell, media style couldn't be separated from industry. He saw culture and commerce as completely intertwined. Understanding how media is produced is fundamental to understanding the nature and style of the media. He taught me to look for style in the most unlikely places – video games, wrestling. I wouldn't have done these things without Boardwell's influence.
Uricchio: Howard Rheingold has described you as the Marshall McLuhan of our age. I know that in terms of philosophy of the media you're at opposite ends of the spectrum – but there is some truth in this description. Terms such as “convergence culture” or “spreadability” or “transmedia” have caught on not only in the academic field but also in industry. There's a sense that you've managed to reach beyond the academy in a way that McLuhan did as well.
Jenkins: I don't think like McLuhan, but he was a role model for me. No one can speak for all media scholars as he could -- being the only one at the time. He took his ideas to -- and from -- any place he saw fit and chose to to interact with the public in ways that were new. Much of his content – which took new and different forms – can be viewed as proto-podcasts and blogs. He pushed his ideas out to the public through every channel. And he did it when it was hard – before the technology made it as simple as it is today. Now that it's easy, more academics need to be doing it. The academic world needs to be speaking and listening beyond the academy.
Uricchio: You spoke of academics needing to speak in a language that the world could understand. Did your time as a journalist influence that?
Jenkins: I was a journalist for six weeks at the Smyrna Georgia Neighbor News. It's funny today to be working with journalists at USC.
Uricchio: What was the tenure dance like here as a public intellectual?
Jenkins: What happens in the tenure process is a mystery. I always worked and wrote as much as I could. I was careful to build my reputation. I was one of the first academics to build his reputation in online communities. Those communities could make or break reputations. After my first book, the opportunities started coming in. Even things that make you shake in your boots are opportunities that ought to be taken. That was the case for me with Columbine. My advice is to take the unexpected risk. Make contact with new publics and new ideas.
Uricchio: What struck me as you spoke was not just the language but also the passion. Where does this come from for you?
Jenkins: We're revealing all of my sources. I am southern and was raised as a Southern Baptist. I don't speak like a southerner but I do write like one. That tradition comes through in moments of passion.
I don't dinstinguish between academic and vernacular theory. At CMS, we worked to bring in outside voices. Our students were not being trained to be academics but to be thought leaders. More than anything else – this thought leadership was critical. It's also critical that they be open to new ideas and listening for new connections; and then looking for ways to communicate across the silos that exist here at MIT and everywhere.
Uricchio: The high point for me every year was the admissions process. Sifting through the hundreds of applications to find the ten who would be the right mix for CMS. The story of CMS reminds me of the story of stone soup.
Jenkins: It's a kids' fable where everyone brings something to make the meal. The parts were scattered across MIT. Could we put them together to make them into something we couldn't do independently. This was the argument that allowed the creation of CMS. And – could we put it together in the heat of MIT.
During one of the last review meetings for CMS they asked whether we'd be offering a Master's degree of arts or science. Of course here at MIT it had to be science. We had to describe this thing that isn't just learning and theory but putting learned skills into action. This combination of theory and practice is what made CMS work.
The idea of just making things for the sake of making them – which happens at MIT – I don't have respect for that. You need to remember that you make things for people. The humanist and the technologist on the MIT shield have their backs together. If they could turn and talk to each other the results would be more powerful than what they could accomplish independently.
Uricchio: What do you see as your legacy and the program's legacy?
Jenkins: I think about Fiske and his influence on me. My legacy will be fulfilled by my students. They were people I had some impact on. This is why you teach; so that your students will do things that you weren't capable of yourself. We graduated 100 students in the past decade and to me that's extraordinary.
I feel pride in the work I did in defining and describing transmedia. Now it's being recognized and pursued all over the world. Once we described it, it allowed people to discuss it and question it. The people who have taken up this idea have largely been artists who wanted to find ways to share culture across media channels. Now, the industry is looking for ways to build something with economics behind it.
Another thing is the new media literacy work. This is not something many people pay attention to. We started seeing people in education reaching out to cultural studies to help understand the learning that happens in popular culture environments. We were part of the early push for educational games, media literacy, transmedia. We should all be proud of this work.
Uricchio: Now you're in California. You seem more relaxed. You're working with new industry communities. How is this influencing your thinking?
Jenkins: On the first day of class I walked past of group of blondes in sundresses smelling of fruity suntan oil and realized I wasn't at MIT anymore. At the bus top to get to USC there's one bus that goes to Disneyland and one to USC. But USC is my Disneyland. Media studies is a big deal out there. It's like being a computer scientist at MIT. I'm working with people in entertainment and journalism who are trying to figure out how they are going to work with media successfully. Every day walking onto the campus I pass a giant Felix the Cat. He's my trickster god.
An important question out there is how will we get great technical industry people to start thinking across media channels. I moved from the digital revolution to the transmedia revolution and am being called upon by the entertainment industry every day. I am not going to change the entertainment industry, but at USC we can collectively change media moving forward.
Following this conversation the audience was invited to ask questions.
Question: In this new world, a big challenge is how to compensate content creators. What are your thoughts?
Jenkins: This is a big issue. We're in a time of shift. People don't want to steal from artists but everyone is trying to figure this out. There is a moral economy; but during times of dramatic change, this economy breaks down. All the stakeholders are trying to legitimize their claims.
We probably need to change the relationship between the artist and consumers. In the future, it's not going to be the studios or the labels that drive things. It's going to be social relationships between the artists and consumers. We use the term piracy to describe a moral failure of consumers – but what we have is a business failure to meet demand.
Question: I'd like to hear more about the transition from a digital revolution to the transmedia revolution. People also talk about social media as a revolution.
Jenkins: Media has not brought about revolution. These are myths we create to describe change. The changes we've seen are the changes being driven by a culture that's ahead of technology. There have been other times the culture has retarded technology. These “revolutions” are gradual changes that suddenly become visible. The fact is we've hungered for connections and now social media has allowed us to carry our connections with us.
Transmedia seems to be transforming the way stories are being told. It's not so much a revolution but a transformation in how media and culture operate.
Question: Can you be specific and provide some good examples of transmedia and some of the worst examples?
Jenkins: The worst is when we just produce more crap. Hollywood already produces enough crap that we don't need to put it on more channels.
Done well, it strengthens the story. More information on the characters, a deeper immersion in the fictional world, back stories, the ability for us to create and contribute. Transmedia also lets us put the information together in new ways. It's not just about what industry does though – it's what it allows us to do. Culture is becoming more participatory.
Question: Journalism is in a weird space – are you thinking about the transmedia future of factual storytelling?
Jenkins: That's a good question. I'm teaching a civic media class this fall that combines journalism and film. I'm trying to get back to understanding the core function of journalism. We need to separate the ideas of journalism from newspapers. I want to understand what the future of journalism looks like, but I don't know the answer yet.
Question: You have spent so much of your career theorizing about participation. Now we have people who choose not to participate. What's the theory there?
Jenkins: We always have the right not to participate. We also need to offer the ability to listen to and amplify the smallest voice. Horton Hears a Who raises that question of the need for participation and the right of non-participation. If participation is required for the good of all, do you have the right to withhold participation? We need to think about these things.
Jenkins concluded the talk by reading from Dr. Seuss's The Cat in the Hat, a reading he had done annually at MIT for 18 years.
Prepared by Greg Peverill-Conti and Brad Seawell. Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti.