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Summary: Henry Jenkins’ “Why Heather Can Write”

In the chapter “Why Heather Can Write” Henry Jenkins shows the conflicting reactions, shifting positions and novel alliances which have resulted in the wake of a participatory media culture where content crosses multiple platforms and reaches diverse audiences. To highlight “the competing notions of media literacy and how it should be taught,” Jenkins uses the story of Heather Lawver, a home-schooled 13-year-old who launched The Daily Prophet, a Web-based school newspaper operating within the fictional world of the Harry Potter novels (Jenkins 177). In opening the wiki, Lawver had pedagogical as well as social aspirations. She not only wanted to promote a love of reading and the development of writing skills by having kids compare initial versions with her edited ones but also to provide a platform where the community of Harry Potter fans worldwide could share their passion. Another benefit which emerged was that through the creation of a fantasy character, kids seemed to be fashioning stories where they could explore issues confronting them in their real lives.

Reaction to Heather’s wiki from educators acknowledged its potential for learning. Many saw the value of what education professor James Paul Gee calls “affinity spaces” – spaces which offer participants opportunities to contribute their skills, interests and expertise and to expand their knowledge by learning from the community of peers they are interacting with. Librarians in the real world offered imaginary lectures on the muggle life of the Potter books and educators from four continents collaborated in the development of on-line curricula modeled after academic subjects and topics in the Rowling books. Literacy experts acknowledged the role that “enacting, reciting, and appropriating elements from pre-exiting stories,” which is the premise upon which fandom websites are built, plays in the formation of cultural literacy (Jenkins 187). Many also recognized that the skills Jenkins outlines as necessary for full participation in convergence media culture such as the pooling of knowledge in collaborative enterprises were better developed in the Daily Prophet than in traditional classrooms.

Reactions from another group heavily vested in children’s education – the Christian right – was mixed. Some in the fundamentalist Christian camp posited that, in an increasing secularized world, any gains in literacy and learning afforded by the Harry Potter books and social media sites were negated by children’s appropriation and enactment of non-Christian values. More progressive fundamentalists saw engagement with the Harry Potter books and the cyberspace platforms dedicated to them as providing opportunities for children to interpret and evaluate media culture from within their own Christian framework. Groups within this ‘discernment’ movement promoted computer games as spaces for debating moral questions and defended the use of on-line formats such as live action role-playing games by “believers” as a way to mold cultural materials after their own belief systems.

The response of corporate media to Harry Potter fandoms was also fraught with inconsistencies as players negotiated notions of ownership in a convergence media culture where the boundaries between producers and consumers of media content were no longer clearly demarcated. Fan reaction to Warner Bros “cease and desist” orders to webmasters who posted what they deemed “inappropriate or offensive content” connected to their newly purchased Harry Potter film franchise caused the company to reevaluate its position and develop a more collaborative policy towards the creative endevours of young Potter fans. The controversy also pointed to the failure of current copyright legislation and fair use policies to protect the output of general members of the public rather than legitimated classes of users such as journalists and academics.

What is interesting in the Harry Potter wars is not only the appropriation of the very media being critiqued, but the positioning of various groups and their use of social media to voice opposition or to support their own goals. In order to overturn the school board ban of the Harry Potter books prompted by the Christian right, 18,000 people joined the Muggles on-line campaign organized by teachers and parents. The campaign later spawned kidSPEAK, an organization which created on-line forums where kids could share their views regarding censorship. Activist groups such as the HP alliance, who had an objective far removed from censorship or the value of fantasy in literacy development, promoted the fantasy elements in the books and worked with on-line Potter inspired news sites to increase awareness of the genocide in the Sudan.

Clearly Jenkins piece is more than a discussion of the struggle over how literacy should be taught and who should control it; it is an example of the power of new media to influence our understanding and structuring of learning in the real world and it illustrates that boundaries between genres, platforms, and distinct groups of users are no longer straightforward. We now inhabit a new landscape where rules, possibilities and affiliations are being constantly negotiated, reformulated and extended – the one thing that is certain is that an increasing number of users are harnessing the incredible potential of new media to distribute their message.

Works Cited

Jenkins, Henry. ” Why Heather Can Write.” Convergence Culture:  Where Old and New Media Collide.  New York:  New York University Press, 2006. 175-216. Print.

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