Jenkins Returns

Thursday, March 6, 2014
5:15 - 7:15 PM


Legendary former MIT professor and housemaster Henry Jenkins, now at the University of Southern California, returns to the Forum for a conversation about his time at the Institute and the founding of CMS as well as his path-breaking scholarship on contemporary media. Forum Director David Thorburn, Jenkins' longtime friend and colleague, will moderate the discussion.


Henry Jenkins is Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California. He taught at MIT from 1990-2009 and was the founding director of the Comparative Media Studies program at the Institute. He has written many books on film, popular culture and media, including Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (2008).

David Thorburn is a professor of Literature and Director of the MIT Communications Forum. He is the author of a critical study of the novelist Joseph Conrad and many essays on literature and media. Among his publications: Rethinking Media Change (2007), co-edited with Henry Jenkins. 


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[this is an edited summary, and not a verbatim transcript]

By Jason Martin Lipshin, CMS '14


Photos by Greg Peverill-Conti

The first Communications Forum event of the spring kicked off by welcoming back Henry Jenkins, the renowned media studies scholar and co-founder of the Comparative Media Studies program. The night’s talk focused on Jenkins’ influential and wide-ranging scholarship on popular culture and digital media, while also providing a heartfelt take on how he saw this scholarship in the context of his life and career.

David Thorburn, Director of the Communications Forum, began by asking Jenkins to reflect on his upbringing and how it helped to define his later work. Jenkins replied that long before he was an academic studying popular culture, he was a fan of comics like Walt Kelly’s Pogo. Jenkins had fond memories of his mother cutting up and reappropriating Pogo comics for her scrapbooks and similar recollections of his grandmother as a “remix artist, a quilter in Appalachia.” But when he came to graduate school to study media, Jenkins recalled being disappointed by the existing theoretical frameworks for understanding popular culture. He found that existing theories often characterized pop culture audiences as passive and often lacked respect for the efficacy and complexity of pop culture practices. But when he read Raymond Williams’ essay, “Culture is Ordinary,” Jenkins remembers hitting a turning point. The essay spoke to him because it argued that pop culture could not be written about from the perspective of the detached, objective observer, but must instead be written about “from the inside.”

Thorburn then asked Jenkins to reflect about his time at MIT. Jenkins replied that the Institute affected his career and personal life in multiple ways, but that one of his proudest contributions was his role as housemaster of Senior House. Senior House is a dorm on MIT’s campus that is known for its anarchist culture and experimentation with identity. Working with a community often stigmatized by other MIT students as well as the school administration, Jenkins felt it was important to help foster and support this community by treating them with the respect and dignity that they deserved. Jenkins said that it was his training in cultural studies that especially solidified his commitment to respecting the culture of Senior House. He is extremely proud that Senior House continues to flourish and mentioned that it has one of the most well attended alumni events in the greater MIT community.

In addition to his work with Senior House, Jenkins also pointed to the legacy of the Comparative Media Studies program as his other main contribution to the Institute. He acknowledged the difficulties of establishing a media studies program in such an environment, calling it a “fundamental contradiction” to be a humanist at one of the most important technological institutions in the world. But in another sense, Jenkins argued, being a humanist at MIT holds immense potential. It provides the space to mix theory and practice, and to apply humanistic ways of thinking to problems plaguing media and technology industries in the real world. Citing the kinds of graduates CMS produces, Jenkins said he was proud to have laid the groundwork for a program that has fostered the next generation of leaders both within academia and industry. It is a commitment, he says, that was incubated at MIT and which he has tried to replicate at his new home, the USC Annenberg School for Communication in Los Angeles.

Thorburn closed out the panel by asking Jenkins to discuss a recurring theme in his career: media in transition. Jenkins mentioned that this idea is manifested in many domains, but that television is a place where these growing pains are especially visible. The Lizzie Bennet
Diaries, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in the world of social media, is just one example of how what counts as “television” is being changed fundamentally. Mixing live webcam footage with Twitter and videos, the Lizzie Bennet Diaries reimagines a classic older text by dispersing it across multiple media channels. Jenkins predicted that transmedia phenomena like this, helped along by the lower barriers to entry afforded by web production and distribution, are producing a turning point in the history of television. These phenomena question whether the “text” (contained and authorially produced) is the right frame for thinking about current forms of collaborative and multiplatform media expression.

Q + A

Ian Condry, Professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures, asked Jenkins to elaborate on the relationship between politics and participatory culture. He was especially interested in the question of crowdsourced production and exploitation and asked Jenkins whether online media producers should be paid for their crowdsourced efforts.

Jenkins pointed to his work with the MacArthur Foundation’s Youth and Participatory Politics Network as an example of an organization that is researching these questions. On the positive front, Jenkins believes that youth movements in a variety of sectors are using various media and storytelling techniques (often filtered through the lens of popular culture) to bring their message to a wider public. He cited youth movements using the iconography of The Hunger Games to make issues surrounding labor rights in the fast food industry more accessible to a general audience. However, following up on a comment by Thorburn, Jenkins conceded that conservative groups like the Tea Party are also using popular culture and participatory media to spread their message.

Regarding the question of free labor, Jenkins admitted that the problem is incredibly complex. In the book Spreadable Media, Jenkins and his co-authors contend that the question can be framed as the tension between a gift economy and a commodity culture. For instance, when an artwork that is produced within the context of a gift economy is suddenly appropriated and sold as a commodity by a large corporation, Jenkins argues, that is what we call exploitation. At the same time, Jenkins is unsure whether simply compensating producers of online content for their efforts is the right solution. Simply throwing money at the problem will do nothing to heal the breach of acceptable social norms that has occurred in the translation of a gift into a commodity. 

Wyn Kelley, Senior Lecturer in Literature at MIT, asked Jenkins to talk about libraries as institutions in transition. While libraries are increasingly putting their collections online, Kelley wondered what would become of libraries as physical spaces that perform vital social and civic functions.

Jenkins brought up the Chicago Public Library’s new media center as an example of the ways that libraries might utilize digital technology without losing their value as brick-and-mortar spaces. Jenkins pointed to the fact that although the CPL has increasingly put much of their collection online, library patrons of all ages and backgrounds continue to use the physical library space both to check out books, but also use the Internet, etc. Jenkins also underlined the importance of librarians as mentors in helping young people to gain access to knowledge. Jenkins said that just as he is worried about the possibility of libraries without books, he is equally troubled about the idea of libraries without librarians. 

Jason Lipshin, graduate student in Comparative Media Studies, asked about the relationship between media theory and media production in graduate education. He was specifically interested in how this idea informed the original vision for the CMS program and whether there were any other institutions or departments that were also committed to this vision.

The question reminded Jenkins about MIT’s seal, which displays a man with a book and a man with an anvil, supposedly illustrating MIT’s motto, mens et manus, or mind and hand. However, Jenkins recalled that although both men are on the seal together, they are not facing each other. With CMS, Jenkins said, the goal was try to get these two men talking to each other. Working with Professor William Uricchio, Jenkins said that the original vision for CMS was to recognize the value of working with your hands and to bring this emphasis on production into conversation with historical and theoretical perspectives on media change. While part of this impetus was governed by the question of preparing students for jobs in industry, Jenkins contends that the vision was also much broader than that. By creating humanities-oriented research labs and situating them within the MIT context, Jenkins said that CMS attempted to create thought leaders who are able to think about media critically and then make interventions in the real world.

Rogelio Alejandro Lopez, graduate alumnus of Comparative Media Studies, had a question about the relationship of humanists to the public sector. While the night’s conversation has been dominated by the relationship between humanists and the media industry, Lopez wondered if Jenkins had any thoughts on how students trained in media studies can go into non-profits, activist groups, etc.?

Jenkins acknowledged that there has been much less discussion of this dynamic, adding that CMS’ focus has been thinking about the relationship between humanists and the media industry. However, Jenkins also contended that CMS alumni have a long tradition of working in public sector positions, from art curatorships to educational reform groups to policy think tanks. He also underlined that CMS has partnered with many public sector organizations like the Knight Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation. In doing so, Jenkins said he hoped CMS would create a fluidity of conversations across the boundaries of industry, academia, and the public domain.