Henry Jenkins Finds a New Audience in Hollywood


11.24.09 | imageThe L.A. Times profiles University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins, who recently joined USC after 20 years of teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he directed the Comparative Media Studies program.

“I spent the first 20 years of my academic life at MIT in the midst of the digital revolution, and I thought it would be fascinating to spend the second 20 years in Hollywood, observing the other side of the equation,” Jenkins, now officially the provost’s professor of communication, journalism and cinematic arts, tells the Times.

Larry Gross, director of the school of communication at USC, says that media studies scholars often have “a kind of contempt for the audience,” but Jenkins “is someone who views the audience as active participants and creative participants, who don’t simply accept what is happening to them.”

Times writer Zachary Pincus-Roth describes Jenkins’ work on how audiences engage with media through the Internet, fan fiction and video games, and the reach of his scholarship is other areas:

A seminal transmedia moment for Jenkins came in a scene in “The Matrix Reloaded,” when “The Kid” has a conversation with Neo (Keanu Reeves) that is rather cryptic—unless you’ve seen the Kid introduced in “The Animatrix,” a series of animated shorts.

Jenkins acknowledges that transmedia has its challenges. Does it exclude moviegoers who just want their films to begin when they enter the multiplex and end two hours later? What if some people watch the TV show first and the webisode second, when the reverse would be much more gratifying? And can the satisfaction of piecing together these bits of storytelling ever measure up to the simple pleasure of watching the hero defeat the bad guys? “It may be that you try some interesting stuff,” Jenkins says, “but at the end of the day, our grandest ambitions aren’t going to be realizable.”

Jenkins’ study of audiences goes beyond pop culture. His other class this semester is on new media literacy, an area where he applies what he knows about audiences to improving education.

“A kid learns 200 Pokemon characters and their relationship to each other, and the schools are saying kids can’t possibly learn the pantheon of Greek gods,” Jenkins says. “Many kids in America have a richer intellectual life outside of school than they have inside.”

Jenkins is working with the MacArthur Foundation to create curricula that would improve new-media literacy. In one of his pilot programs, for instance, students studied “Moby-Dick” by updating the novel’s Wikipedia page.

Spotlight recently wrote about the new literacies Jenkins has identified that children must learn to master in addition to the traditional literacy skills. Learn more about Jenkins’ project at NewMediaLiteracies.org. You can also check out his blog at HenryJenkins.org.



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