Joyce Valenza posted a link to Jen Hunter’s insightful review of Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the English Classroom. Hunter is a student in Joyce’s social media course at Rutgers and the review is part of a larger website related to the reading of the book. Go read it now and be prepared to buy the book when you’re done. I did.
I am looking forward to reading the book even though I can’t imagine reading Moby Dick with any students, much less the challenging population described in the book. It almost makes me want to head back to the high school classroom, a place I haven’t been since the beginning of my career in the ice age before digital media:
Edited by new media literacy scholar, Henry Jenkins, and Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, the book describes how the two came to collaborate with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, who had been teaching young men in a juvenile detention center not only to read Moby-Dick, but also to care about it and make sense of it in the context of their own lives through a stage production called Moby-Dick: Then and Now. This collaboration sparked a study in which NML strategies were applied in English classrooms to teach Moby-Dick, and more importantly, to empower students to claim ownership of their authority and participate in the wider conversations happening around them.
The section of the review that struck me was the notion that incorporating popular culture to help students grapple with traditional literature is somehow a lowering of expectations for those students:
Without ever saying it explicitly, the text seems to imply that while students can learn to read, find relevancy in, and enjoy Moby-Dick, educators need to reframe their expectations of their students, which might be interpreted as lower expectations as opposed to simply different expectations.
Hunter goes on to discuss how Jenkins’ addresses this concern:
Jenkins defends the use of popular culture in the classroom when he says, “It should not be seen as a means of entertaining students or holding their attention, but rather as a means of respecting their existing expertise and helping them to acquire core skills they will need to meaningfully participate in this new and emerging media landscape” (location 1071). While all of the authors advocate for the development of the kinds of skills that educators may associate with traditional literacy and scholarly inquiry, they suggest that there needs to be a gradual building to that level, particularly for at-risk youth.
Respect for our students’ experiences when they are different from our own is a powerful concept. I am, in no way, lowering expectations for contemporary students when I suggest that not every child needs to grapple with Shakespeare in the original. Or, as Jenkins and his colleagues demonstrate, plunge into Moby Dick without some kind of preparation. I may question if getting through Melville is a good use of time but if it really does provide the students with a confidence and sense of authority, then the time will be well spent.
The book is one my Kindle and may rise to the top of the TBR list. I’ll let you know how it goes.