Learning by Remixing

Henry Jenkins (subbing for Mark Glaser at Mediashift) writes an interesting article Learning by Remixing. He notes that re-mixing is a Western tradtion: that The Iliad and the Odyssey were remixes of other myths, that the Sistine Chapel Ceiling is a remix of Biblical stories, that Shakespeare's work is a remix of parts of other plays, and so on. However,

Despite the pervasiveness of these cultural practices, school arts and creative writing programs often remain hostile to overt signs of repurposed content, emphasizing the ideal of the autonomous artist. Yet, in emphasizing totally “original work”, schools sacrifice the opportunity to help kids think more deeply about the ethical and legal implications of repurposing existing media content; they often do not provide them with the conceptual tools students need to analyze and interpret works produced in this appropriative process; and they don’t teach them the relationship between analysis and production.

Today, I want to report on several interesting new experiments which involve students sampling and remixing in order to develop better media literacy skills. My MIT students often report that they learned how engines worked by taking machines apart and putting them back together again. Maybe students can learn how culture works by breaking it down into its basic building blocks and remixing them.

After reporting on those projects that value remixing, Jenkins concludes:

What each of these projects have in common is a hands-on approach to culture: they recognize the value of remixing as a means of mastering the core vocabulary of storytelling and representation. They value the kinds of creative expression which emerges when familiar materials get placed in unfamiliar contexts or get rethought through different perspectives.

Of course, though the digital environment places a new emphasis on understanding and responding to remixing practices, this is not a radically new idea. I was going through some of my mother’s things recently and stumbled upon a box of her school papers from the late 1930s. One of the assignments had been to rewrite Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf. As they say, everything old is new again.

Jenkins' position on "learning by remixing" meshes well with the building blocks in John Holland's model of complexity theory. Interactions of building blocks lead to the emergence of new building blocks at higher levels. In Hidden Order, he gives the example of quarks, nucleons, atoms, molecules, organelles, cells, and so on, to show the integration of building blocks at different levels. Holland writes:

We gain a significant advantage when we can reduce the building blocks at one level to interactions and combinations of building blocks at a lower level: the laws at the higher level derive from the laws of the lower-level building blocks. This does not mean that the higher-level laws are easy to discover, any more than it is easy to discover theorems in geometry because one knows the axiom. It does add a tremendous interlocking strength to the scientific structure.

I've wondered before what would be the building blocks that could lead to the various genres and concepts of writing. From classical rhetoric are candidates, such as stasis theory or the elements of pathos, ethos, and logos. More recently, Toulmin logic or Halliday's functional linguistics might be candidates. It's not that clear, however. Holland himself (Emergence, 1998) notes that poetry has a "looser framework" than physics when it comes to re-combining building blocks. Poetry's looseness, he says, "limits the possibilities for a cumulative structure," although not making it impossible.

Perhaps the levels are utterance (or word), clause, paragraph, and genre. I'm not sure how helpful using these levels would be in learning to write across genres. Gordon Wells (Dialogic Inquiry, 1999) tied Halliday's functional model with its concepts of ideational, interpersonal, and textual semantics to activity theory's levels of operation, action, and activity.

I've noticed that quite a few books on writing have similar sorts of questions. From stasis theory comes: What are the facts? What is the nature of the event? What is its value? and What should we do about it? From Deborah Meier's Habits of Mind: How do we know what we know? Who's speaking? What causes what? How might things have been different? and Who cares? (or So what?)

Quite close to the notion of Holland's building blocks are activity theorist Davydov's germ cell concepts in his "Ascending from the abstract to the concrete." This approach starts with students discovering primary general concepts in a particular discipline, investigating those concepts across particular contexts, and in the process retrace/recreate the process through which people developed the present day concepts.

These similarities across disciplines and theories suggest that human thinking runs along a few fundamental paths (this is not new), so perhaps the building blocks of any of those paths will be sufficient for students to learn and use in their writing in ways that help them transfer their learning to new contexts, whether to other classes or to future careers.

The key, however, remains remixing. In a fashion like the four bases of DNA that in various combinations lead to different species, composition might focus on a few building blocks that can produce a variety of genres across different contexts. Previously, I wrote about Graff and Birkentstein's book They say / I say. The book's goal, as they put it,

is to demystify academic writing by isolating its basic moves, explaining them clearly, and representing them in the form of templates. (p. x)

There are just two basic building blocks: "They say" and "I say". However, the permutations and recombinations are endless.