Q-and-A with Henry Jenkins: "The mud wrestling media maven from MIT"

By Kirstin Heinle
Student Writer

Henry JenkinsMedia guru Henry Jenkins (pictured) recently began his post as the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Arts at the Annenberg School after spending more than a decade at MIT. Touted as one of the leading scholars on media and popular culture, Jenkins shared his reasons for joining the Annenberg family, divulged his top movie and TV choices, and explained the latest rumors about his mud wrestling past. This interview is part of a series of Q-and-A's with USC Annenberg faculty.

What's keeping you busy this semester?
HJ: I do so many different things. I'm teaching two classes. I'm teaching "New Media Literacy" and "Transmedia Entertainment and Storytelling," which is really about what's happening to the entire entertainment industry right now. The borders and boundaries between media are just breaking down at a dramatic pace. TV now is blending into the Web. But more than that, what we're seeing is that the relationship between TV and the Web has expanded. The integration of media across different platforms is what we're talking about. Everyone is sort of thinking about this pull of telling a story from across media.

Talk a little bit about your work with the MacArthur Foundation.
HJ: The MacArthur Foundation launched a 50-million dollar initiative four years ago to really study informal learning through digital culture outside of schools. I wrote the white paper that launched that initiative and laid out the framework for what we mean by "new media literacy"—the set of skills and competencies that people need to engage in participatory culture.

How are you applying what you found to real life?
HJ: I formed this group called "Project New Media Literacies," and now we're partnering with a school system in Rio de Janeiro to bring about a large scale of reinventing of teaching methods in new media. Over the next three or four years, we are going to teach every teacher in Rio to think about digital literacy. They are going to take the materials we developed as their prototypes and help them develop their own content that's appropriate for Brazil.

Your work discusses "participatory culture." In a nutshell, how would you define that?
HJ: Participatory culture is a culture where the general public actively creates and circulates media and is involved in online communities. And by now, most young people are creating and sharing media through their hobbies or fandoms. Through their connections to popular culture, they are actually acquiring skills in social organizing and public expression that potentially spill over into the public sphere, like the Obama campaign.

What's your ultimate goal?
HJ: I want to create a world where more people are able to participate in expressing their ideas through media. That's the essence of what I mean by participatory culture. I'm also very dedicated to getting ideas out of the university and into the larger public dialogue. I want to use digital media to change the way intellectuals engage with the public.

Why did you choose to move from MIT to USC Annenberg?
HJ: It's complicated, but this is the place where all the pieces are. I think that there's a vision here at the leadership of Annenberg that really captured my imagination. For someone who never likes to be put into a disciplinary box, this is the biggest candy box I've ever been turned loose with.

When you were growing up, what did you think you'd be doing as an adult?
HJ: The interesting thing is that my seventh grade term paper was on the history of cinema. My father always said I rewrote that term paper for the rest of my life. I thought about being a stand-up comedian. My interests were across media platforms, even at six, seven and eight, but I could never figure out what medium I liked best. Now I'm just someone who plays with all different types of media.

Let's get serious for a minute. What are some of your favorite TV shows?
HJ: Historically, the TV show that engaged me the most was Hill Street Blues, but Star Trek certainly has to go on that list. I would say that Twin Peaks was a show that really captured my imagination. There are so many current shows that I really love. Lost and Heroes are definitely big on the list, but so are a lot of reality. I've never missed an episode of Survivor in the whole run of the series. I love Project Runway and So You Think You Can Dance.

HJ: Citizen Kane was probably my all-time favorite. But I also love things like Aliens. I'm a big enthusiast of Tim Burton. I think Gangs of New York is one of my favorite movies of the last four or five years.

When you're not catching up with your DVR, what do you do for fun?
HJ: All of my hobbies involve consuming media. My wife and I are both fans. I mean that in the literal sense that we go to Comic-Con and we go to Harry Potter conventions. We read fan fic and all of that stuff and have for most of our lives. I would say that's probably the most important hobby I have.

Lastly, what is this about you and your wife mud wrestling?
HJ: For 14 years I was housemaster at MIT and they have an annual party that started with mud wrestling. The university was going to shut it down and my wife and I said, 'Oh it's perfectly safe and family friendly. We do it ourselves.' (Which we hadn't.) Then we got put on the spot and went and mud wrestled and students loved it. We did it for about 10 years running. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article about me and called me 'the mud wrestling media maven from MIT.' It was something we did for the students.

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