Crash Course Q&As: Dr. Henry Jenkins

Dr. Henry Jenkins shares unique perspectives on how schools and communities can look toward the future.

When you ask Dr. Henry Jenkins what he studies, the answer seems to be just about everything. Officially, he is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California, but as he puts it, his work is “even more scattered than that might suggest.”

Before USC, Jenkins spent 20 years at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he created and co-chaired their comparative media studies masters program. Through that program, he helped launch a series of initiatives around a multitude of topics: game space learning, new media literacy, and civic media and political participation, just to name a few. He’s continued that work at USC, where he’s more recently focused on civic participation for young people. But the throughline of Jenkins’ last 30 years of research is his work on fan communities—many of which are online.

Much of your research has focused on gaming and game design. What lessons could schools learn from that field, especially right now?

I was at a presentation at the National Archive a year or so back where they paired a game designer with some constitutional law scholars. They were talking about the U.S. Constitution as a game design: a rule system for arriving at new decisions, and innovative content that had to be “patched”—or updated to fix a problem—a number of times while in process. They referred to the amendments as “patches,” or updates to the Constitution. The Constitution itself has remained nimble and strong, but it has changed over time to fit our country’s needs.

I think that analogy is a really valid one. The game designer has to imagine a set of rules for future participation that anticipates as many problems as possible, but then has to revise and update it along the way as new or unnoticed problems emerge. And it has to win the consent of the players to those rule changes. Every time you change the ruleset, you advantage some players over others. Some get angry and leave the game, but others come to you because of the shifts in rules. It’s about an ongoing negotiation between the designer, the technology, and the player to solve problems as they emerge, so the problems don’t get so far out of hand that they drive people away. Doing nothing is not an option if you’re running a multiplayer gaming system and problems are emerging. You have to be decisive.

You can imagine substituting that player language for student, teacher, or parent, and the same thing would be true of the school, especially in the current moment. It’s going through unanticipated crises that destroy normal operation and require iterative design. You have to continue to make decisions, find the problems, hunt out the bugs, fix them, do it over and over until you arrive at a better system.

You've also done a lot of work around fan culture. More and more, we're seeing the media industry invite fans to create their own content online — how can schools use that same strategy?

If we had talked about this 10 years ago, I would’ve said that the media industry was doing a terrible job with this. They were shutting down fan websites and going to war with fanfiction writers—and in the process, alienating their core constituents, the people that were most dedicated and committed to their products. The gaming industry came out in front of this by encouraging mods—actual alterations to the game’s code. They realized that if someone creates a playable mod, everyone who wants to play that mod has to buy the original game as well. That built greater loyalty, not less. Allowing people to use their imagination and think creatively around your output intensifies engagement.

Today, Hollywood uses engagement as maybe its most important currency. They recognize that the more media options we have, the more the audience is fragmented. They want loyalty from the most dedicated fans. They have come to recognize that those fans spread the word and build the infrastructure of the community and keep people involved.

Research suggests that the average fan brings as many as 20 other viewers to a television show because of their enthusiastic engagement with it, their participation. They discuss it at the office, and everyone at the office has to watch that show to be a part of the water cooler conversation. That led the industry to begin to hire people from the fan community, to help them understand internally what the community’s concerns were and to bring that into the tent. It led them to do more outreach to the fan community, but also helped them recognize that there needed to be spaces where they didn’t go—fan spaces for conversations they didn’t control.

So what does it mean to bring the equivalent of fan ambassadors into the school and to have spaces where discussions take place that don’t involve you? For some of the tensions to be worked out before they reach your level? I know that’s scary—it’s scary for entertainment producers, and it would be scary for a principal to know the community was gathering and debating and building on one another without knowing what was going on. But sometimes the community solves its problems before they reach you. You don’t have to be in the center of stress every moment for every discussion.

How do you think schools can work with their communities to innovate for the future?

I would encourage them to think about what we call the civic imagination. This comes from my work on fan activism, and broadly defined, it starts with the premise that before we can build a better world, we have to imagine what a better world might look like. We have to imagine ourselves as capable of making change, and we have to understand the community of people around us: those who share our concerns and those whose experiences are radically different from our own. We have to imagine what a process of change looks like. These are things we think that lead to constructive change—not just anger, but in fact, saying, How do we build something better that serves the needs of our members?

Through a group at USC called Civic Paths, we’ve been working on workshops with communities of all levels that help people come together, imagine the future together, and do world-building. Basically, we trying to fix real-world problems using tools of speculative fiction, which imagines worlds which are slightly or even vastly different from ours in various important ways. World-building is a longstanding practice in speculative fiction which invites you to see the entire system of the world and the interconnections of its parts, and use thinking about the future to address concerns of the present. We’ve done those workshops in a variety of contexts: with teachers, with the water control boards of Southern California, with mosques and churches in the American South, with Freedom Schools for Dreamer kids. It seems to systematically work to get community members thinking constructively.

We often ask people to imagine an ideal world of 2060. The process of imagining the world together gets people articulating their hopes, their aspirations, their anxieties, their fears, what they want to carry with them from the present, and what they want to change. We see the communities that do these workshops grow stronger together in the process, especially if there’s people on the ground that continue after we leave but are working to build the community inside that process.

I could imagine principals and school boards and so forth doing that with stakeholders within their own communities, finding ways to develop a vision forward. That’s desperately needed in the current context, where all we can see is more doom and gloom for the foreseeable future.

A pandemic is too valuable to waste as a way to reimagine a path forward, to develop insights of what a better system looks like on the other side. If I was running a school at the moment, I would be building that constructive process of thinking together about what the future might be—not just how I make the school work well now, but also what would be a better school for the future, knowing what we know now about some of the issues that we’re facing.

To learn more about the civic imagination, check out Practicing Futures: A Civic Imagination Action Handbook by Civic Paths team members Gabriel Peters-Lazaro and Dr. Sangita Shreshthova.


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