This material was first presented as the SCIS Oration at the ASLA XX Biennial Conference held in Adelaide, South Australia in 2007. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Australian School Library Association Inc.
This is a refereed paper as it appears in ACCESS, vol. 22, no. 3, 2008, pp. 19-28.
An impossible passion: young people, contemporary popular culture and reading
By Karen Brooks
Karen Brooks is an associate professor of media studies at Southern Cross University, a columnist for The Courier-Mail and a social commentator on national television and radio. She has written five young adult fantasy novels and is also the author of the non-fiction work, Consuming innocence: popular culture and our children, which was published by UQP in 2008.
From the outside looking in, whether as educators, carers, professionals, parents, grandparents or members of the public, young people today appear to be experiencing a multitude of challenges – familial, social, educational and, above all, personal. While these types of concerns are not specific to this socio-historical period, there is an awareness that the changes wrought by technology, combined with the allure and abundance of visual culture, makes the complexity of life in the new, globalised and digitised millennium a greater challenge for contemporary young people than for previous generations. As Moe the barman from The Simpsons exclaims, the ‘modern world has a swishifying effect on kids today’. But it also has exhilarating and conflictual ones, not just on young people, but on adult culture as well. How society feels about young people is largely determined by how they are represented and imagined in popular culture (Giroux 1997) and how they discuss, interact with and value these same forms. What I mean by popular culture is the various media – such as television, films, advertising, music, fashion and the Internet – that people engage with on a daily basis and which are laden with ideologies and commercial messages. Popular culture also includes books and the act of reading: in other words, a variety of textual experiences. Many individuals tend to think of books, reading and popular culture as mutually exclusive terms yet reading, more than ever, is an integral part of contemporary mass culture. As Sharon Lamb and Lyn Mikel Brown note:
Books aren’t the only thing children read ... they read the backs of cereal boxes and sexy plotlines on the cover of magazines at the checkout line. After a time, notes from friends and bathroom graffiti are likely to make more of an impression ... than anything [a] teacher assigns. Web sites, magazines and popular series books ... offer junky brain food (2007, p. 156).
While most teachers know that reading takes many forms in the new millennium (forms which require the tools and skills of critical, visual and traditional literacy), many still tend to view much of popular culture as either innocuous or useless and as wasting time that could be more appropriately spent reading books (McDougall 2007), books that adult culture deems worthy. In other words, some educators still regard popular culture and reading as binary oppositions that compete with each other for students’ attention (Brooks and Williams 2007; Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006). On the one hand, there are films, TV, digital games and the Internet (Heroes, Summer Heights High, Transformers or Bratz: the movie, Halo 3 and YouTube) and on the other, the forms that are more familiar and that are regarded as having educational value, such as books (Great expectations, Mill on the floss, The god of small things, 1984, and Looking for Alibrandi) and films (Blade runner, Radiance and The piano). While the value of conventional, book-told stories and some of their artistic and narratively dense film counterparts (as syllabuses around the country will attest, such as those in senior secondary SOSE, English and media studies) is acknowledged, and many teachers long to introduce students to the timeless messages contained therein and use them as foundation stones upon which future learning can be built, students are often portrayed and discussed as being lured by their more attractive pop culture foils (Brooks & Williams 2007), and to their intellectual and social detriment. Reading, in the form of conventional narratives, seems to have become an impossible passion – one that takes a back seat to the exciting world of blockbuster movies, celebrities, brands, iPods, YouTube, computer graphic imaging and continuous stimulation. Within the education system, however, it seems that popular culture (in its broadest sense) is the impossible passion; one that many educators feel has no legitimate space in pedagogy. There is a sense that educators can no longer compete with this banal new world and that they should not have to either. But the reality is that if teachers want to develop within students ‘multimodal literacy skills crucial to life it the twenty-first century’ (Gardner 2007, p. 93), then not only do they have to familiarise themselves with the ‘social landscape of teenagers’ (Gardner 2007, p. 93), but with their popular culture consumption as well. Contemporary educators need to understand the very significant role that famous names and faces, brands, Internet sites, technologies and fads play in identity formation at the individual, familial, social and school levels.
In order to examine this relationship between popular culture, young people and reading, a psycho-social context needs to be created. Young people identify both with and through popular culture and are able to create a sense of self and a range of different identities in reaction and relation to these entertaining, seductive and, in this day and age, essential mediums.
It is, therefore, incumbent upon educators, to be informed about the current popular culture landscape, examine how young people interact with and are represented by it, and attempt to understand the influence it can wield before turning it to pedagogical advantage. Without knowledge of its pervasiveness and importance to young people, it is easy to underestimate and even dismiss its role – but this is to the teacher’s detriment as young people, so-called Generations Y and Z, take all of this very seriously. I am, therefore, going to firstly, discuss those who are euphemistically referred to as Generations Y and Z and what is meant when young people are labelled this way, before providing a broad framework in which to situate and, hopefully, better understand the role of this impossible passion of popular culture (including reading) in young people’s lives.
The Y to Z of generational (in)difference
While other labels tend to come and go, it is Y that is used most frequently to describe the generation currently in high school, university and experiencing the first few years in the workplace. Generation Z is generally the term used to describe the children of Xers – the current babies, children and tweenagers – and also existing students (Grose 2005; Huntley 2006; Salt 2007).
According to various studies and books, Generation Y is not only the largest but also the most unchurched youth generation in history (Huntley 2006; Patterson 2007). These young people, aged from 16 to 25 were born into a world where, in First World countries at least, technology dominates the social and professional landscape and popular culture is a familiar language and aesthetic. Set to inherit the world and then some, it is, as Rebecca Huntley notes in her book The world according to Y, important to understand this generation, as the future of the older generations depends on them. Denoted variously as optimistic (Huntley 2006), apolitical (Crawford 2006), materialistic (Patterson 2007), technologically savvy (Patterson 2007), coddled (Crawford 2006) and as ‘delaying the responsibilities of adulthood’ (Grose 2005, p. 15), they are also described as ‘the most educated-minded generation in history and are more optimistic about life and work than their predecessors’ (Patterson 2007).
In other words, Generation Y and the subsequent generation, Z (born after 1991), or any other can be represented in a number of ways, depending which specific agenda or meaning is being conveyed. Labels, however, are always contextual and, as such, rich in socio-cultural and temporal connotations as well as ‘considerable prejudice’, as Kate Crawford notes (2006, p. 14). Simply through sharing a common birth period and the socio-cultural conditions that dominate (which can span decades), individuals are collectively assigned an appellation and understood as sharing sets of characteristics. Not only are the boundaries used to define a generation arbitrary, they collapse any notion of gender, cultural, racial, ethnic, ideological, economic and even geographical difference, uniting incredibly diverse beings on the basis of birth dates and attributing to them common beliefs and attitudes. Often stereotypical and cliché-ridden, these labels, in a metonymic gesture, are only a small part of what defines an individual within a group, and yet this label ultimately stands in for the whole. But as a young reader of Brisbane’s Sunday Mail wrote:
I am 15, and found the article ‘Secrets of a teen tribe’ unsettling. I must defend my generation. You can’t sum us up based on hair extensions and spray tans. Adolescence is a time for change, mentally and physically. No matter how much communication is taking place between parent and child, there is always something that is not fully understood or shared. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to tell parents not to try and feel overwhelmed by this rebellious phase, to build trust, let their kids know you’ll always be there for them and genuinely listen and take an interest ... (Wanckel 2007, p. 68)
Young people, whether they are denoted as X, Y or Z, are complicated, diverse and more than their biology or chronology. They are shaped and moulded by numerous psycho-social factors, including their education – within and outside a school system. What needs to be considered is not only how problematic these labels are but the fact that in using them, adults are actually contributing to a crisis of understanding young people and enhancing a generation gap that, while inevitable in some regards, does not need to be so wide.
One of the most productive ways of bridging this gap is by taking a genuine interest in the popular culture that young people consume on an everyday basis. The reason for this is evident: alongside formal education, popular culture and ‘20th and early 21st century’s corporate-produced children’s culture has replaced schooling as the producer of the central curriculum of childhood’ (Steinberg & Kincheloe 2004, p. 11). In order to understand how teachers can best provide meaningful educational experiences that develop deep and lifelong learning skills, it is necessary to develop ‘a language of language of pleasure and criticism’ (Giroux 1999, p. 110) in order to critique popular and corporate culture and embed them in the curriculum, not as separate units or modules, but as an integrated part of the overall educational experience. As Henry Giroux notes: ‘Teaching and learning the culture of the book is no longer the staple of what it means to be literate’ (1999, p. 111).
Mainstream education, however, has, to a degree, resisted acknowledging the power and pleasure of popular culture and the influence it has on young people. Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe believe that:
The gulf between childhood schooling and children’s lives out of school grows wider in hyper-reality. As more and more of their learning takes place in leisure activities out of school, particularly in edutainment, schools are increasingly perceived by children as anachronistic and quaint. Schools and too many educational experts seem all too disinterested in the ways children use technology for recreation, communication, relationship and community building. Educational and political leaders often seem more threatened than amazed by children’s accomplishments in computer technology and forms of technoliteracy and knowledge production (2004, p. 42-3).
What is patently evident is that mainstream education can no longer afford to ignore popular culture – on the contrary, it must be embraced in order to bridge the gap between contemporary pedagogy and young people’s real and virtual world experiences and turn those to teachers’ advantage. The question is, how can this be accomplished? The first step to effectively utilising any medium is through familiarity and recognising its pervasiveness and popularity. This can be achieved by examining consumption patterns and the effects these have on young people’s sense of self.
Cybertots and computeens: having a google
Young people today are born into a visual world filled with TVs, CDs, DVDs, computers, mobile phones (depending on when, the size of a remote or pinkie), the Internet, World Wide Web, blogs, Facebook and YouTube. They live in a time where words such as cyberspace, SMSing and Google are in the dictionary. They wear iPods and MP3s, have mobile phones glued to their fingers and ears, build a treehouse in MySpace, upload clips (sometimes of themselves) on YouTube, and are more likely to have a friendship with someone they’ve never physically met (Brooks 2008).
They are also born into a world where girls shave their legs and pluck their eyebrows before puberty; where dyeing a child’s hair (male of female) is as common as plaiting; where piercings on all parts of the body are birthday presents and so, more often than not, are tattoos. Gossip about celebrities, stars and the lifestyles of the rich and famous is a form of social catnip and for specific, knowledgeable individuals, can accrue them status and influence within peer groups. The way a young person looks and a sense of style (even refusing to adopt one) is an invitation to be judged and consequently included or excluded. What a young person owns and wears (which does not always reflect their socio-economic background), how fashionable they are, the brands they flaunt, how adult they appear and their knowledge of popular culture trends gives them a privileged position within their social hierarchy. I call this resistance conformity. That is, the illusion that young people ‘are fashioning for themselves a unique identity carved in their own self-image, when in reality they are simply donning a prefabricated corporate and cultural mould’ (Brooks 2006).
Even so, young people these days are much more in touch with the visual and technological culture around them than many adults in their lives, engaging and processing it with an ease that astonishes (Eakle and Garber 2004). They acquire digital literacy informally, through electronic games, play, and observation, something which, according to Begona Gros, educational institutions do not sufficiently take into account (2007). Reciting slogans and wearing them while surfing the ’Net and listening to the bubblegum pop of the latest Idol winner or the angst of Lily Thom, young people can swoop to levels of triviality and mimicry that is mind-numbing and, in the same breath, start discussing politics, environmental issues, divorce rates and Third World poverty. Information about anything and everything is literally a mouse and microsecond away. Assaulted by images, words and ideas, young people appear to adapt. This can be alarming for adults who perceive that, ‘contemporary children’s access to commercial kinder-culture and popular culture not only motivates them to become hedonistic consumers but also changes the nature of their relationship to adults’ (Steinberg & Kincheloe 2004). Teachers, particularly, have borne witness to these changes. In the past, educators were the gatekeepers of knowledge and accordingly respected. The introduction of affordable personal technology has seen the democratisation of information and the erosion, to a degree, of the teacher’s role and authority. While kids may appear ‘savvy’ and able to deal with the images and ideas that assail them (many of which are very adult), they do not necessarily possess the cognitive skills or wisdom to contextualise and manage them. Through familiarising themselves with the popular culture that young people engage with and understanding its importance in their lives, teachers can restore their roles as facilitators of knowledge and address this cultural and educational revolution in productive ways.
We live in a mediated world
The degree to which popular culture is actively consumed is intense. The favourite pastime of 98 per cent of children aged 5 to 14 years is watching TV or DVDs (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006). Seventy-one per cent of the same age group also plays computer or other electronic games such as Playstation or Gameboy. Most Australian boys and girls spend about two hours a day in front of the TV, which matches studies done in the US (Rideout & Vandewater et al. 2003). This averages to 10 hours a week. This doubles when they co-view with their parents and trebles in families with more than one child (Hardy et al. 2006). The statistics conclude that children watch an average of between 19 and 20 hours each week (Sargent 2006). That is before the time spent in front of a computer or electronic games (four hours) or on the phone is considered. In comparison, about three-and-a-half hours a week are spent on reading for pleasure and homework (Sargent 2006; Australian Bureau of Statistics 2006).
Technological advances and the forces of globalisation mean that never before have television, film, magazines, advertising, music and other cultural forms such as food, fashion and brands had the power to persuade, seduce, shape, control and manufacture imaginations and identities: not just of children, but of adults as well. Popular culture, in all its myriad ways, surrounds and inundates everyone with visions, ideas, facts and fictions about ourselves and the world – whether it is on buses, trains, in hospitals, schools, cinemas, shopping plazas and even private homes.
Research from the US claims that young people are bombarded with more than 40,000 commercial messages a year on television alone (Linn 2004; Palmer 2006), and they are requesting brands as soon as they can talk (Linn 2004). Corporations are lodging themselves in young people’s psyche and establishing a loyal fan base on which future spending can be built. As Martin Lindstrom, the author of the book, Brand child (which is basically a highly problematic marketers’ guide to capturing the lucrative tween demographic) states: ‘Brands have become an integral part of the way tweens define themselves’ (2004, p. 13). Brands, logos, toys, clothes and other stuff, and everything they represent in kids’ lives, define their world and, as they get older, their friendship groups as well – particularly in the playground. According to New Internationalist magazine, an ‘international marketing survey (which included Majority World countries such as India and Brazil) found that half of urban 8- to 14-year olds thought that their clothing brands described who they are’ (Williams 2006, p. 20). Lindstrom quotes an 11-year-old girl who declares: ‘I love brands. Brands are my life. Brands not only tell me who I am, but also protect me from problems with others in my class’ (2004, p. 196). This child is not alone in uttering these sentiments – they are shared among her peers and by those in other age groups (Quart 2003).
As educators, it is important to understand what is there to work with and within. Teachers must try to comprehend the role of brands, logos and visual media in young people’s lives so they can not only incorporate these material objects and the ideas they convey in classroom praxis, but equip their students with the tools to make them literate readers of corporate and popular culture and consumers who can make informed choices. Accessing and using the popular culture young people interact with on a daily basis is one means of ensuring this occurs; linking contemporary forms to familiar historical ones to reveal an ongoing relationship and dialogue is another way (more on this shortly). Utilising various forms of digital technology, such as multimedia, the Internet, electronic games and advertising, and teaching students to both comprehend and critique these, is essential. Steinberg and Kincheloe believe that in doing this, school ‘becomes less an institution of information delivery and more a hermeneutical site – a place where meaning is made, understanding and interpretation engendered’ (2004, p. 32).
Information and communication technologies (ICT) have revolutionised not just education, but social and cultural relations as well. Whereas young people are mostly excited and unthreatened by ICT and the increasing role it is playing in lives, so much so they are often referred to ‘clickerati kids’ (Eakle & Garber 2004, p. 356), adults are mostly suspicious and very cautious about it, particularly when it comes to the younger generations. Despite the fact that washing machines, vacuum cleaners, microwaves and countless other time-saving or entertainment-based technological devices are welcomed into homes, including the TV, an ambivalent relationship with computers, the Internet, mobile phones and electronic games still exists – especially in the classroom. We are now able to communicate with friends, business colleagues and strangers on the other side of the world (or over the divider) in nanoseconds through the Internet or with mobile phones; we can get information about almost anything with only the touch of a button; we can be entertained and stimulated by games and a variety of data streams by professional and amateurs. Modern lives have never contained so many options. Yet so many adults remain mostly negative about these amazing gadgets and the alternative perspectives and opportunities they offer, even within educational settings. As Sternberg, Kaplan and Borck note:
Today’s students are living at a time when technological innovations are increasing at a pace never before seen ... in the form of cell phones, Internet-connected computers, portable music and video players, and more. [While some] schools are well equipped with a variety of technologies for use by students ... these technologies may not always be used in ways that significantly benefit learning (2007, p. 416).
Understanding the role of digital technology and virtual reality in young people’s lives helps educators grasp how to effectively locate and use it within the curriculum; to decide how ICT can, indeed, benefit learning.
Instead of gathering at the local shopping mall, park or even someone’s home and occupying the same physical space, tweens and especially technocompetent teens (and many older people too) are opting for the Web and meeting their friends there. For those with the technology, know-how and inclination, this space offers the Internet consumer, especially those between 15 and 35, a central, cohesive point from which to process personal information sharing and the opportunity to engage in some online socialisation.
The web has also become a new public private testimony. The blog (weblog) has become a form of confessional where anyone and everyone spills the beans on their work, relationships, schoolteachers, parents and themselves. Henry Jenkins describes them as ‘more private and personal than traditional journalism, more public than diaries’ (2006, p. 179). Newspapers encourage readers to blog about articles and respond to columnists; celebrities, scientists, secretaries, soldiers, mothers, fathers, lovers, everyone, it seems, blogs. Why should young people be any different? Their growing popularity undermines the idea that reading and writing are dying. They are not; it is just the way we do these things that is changing.
What makes cyberspace an attractive place to be in a world that most often criticises and invalidates our tweens and teens and tells them they are not as smart, polite, kind or socially conscious as previous generations is the fact that in the cyber realm, they are legitimated. More than that, they are taken seriously and have a voice that is listened to – whether it is through their pictures, videos, written word and revelations or because of something as simple as finding their tastes in popular culture shared with another user.
Henry Giroux sums up the excitement young people feel about the Internet when he writes that:
... popular culture is not just an enormous site of contradiction but also a site of negotiation for kids, one of the few places where they can speak for themselves, produce alternative public spheres and represent their own interests. It’s also one of the most important sites for adults to learn how childhood identities are produced, how effective investments are secured, how desires are mobilised, and how learning can be linked to progressive social change. (2000, p. 13).
Teens (and some tweens) are not only building treehouses, they are building a sense of themselves as individuals and trying on a variety of identities for size. Kids are not given much credit for all that yet adults are fiercely protective of them and talk loudly about their rights. In cyberspace, recognition comes in other significant forms. Young people get to tell their stories, explain who they are and how they came to be in a particular personal and cyber-realm. In virtual reality, there is always someone who will listen. It only becomes a concern when the adults in their real life will not or cannot.
It is not just the endless opportunities for friendships and information that virtual reality can offer that makes it so appealing. Playing electronic games and listening to a personalised music selection via MP3s, as well as corresponding online, young people are also able to create private spaces within the public world of home, school and life. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but through these mediums, tweens and teens are able to contract the world into their own shape and time and interact with it on their terms, shutting off the outside world and concentrating on something that makes them feel in control for a change. Able to manipulate two, three or more pieces of technology at once, they divide their attention, communicating with their voices and fingers, sharing and being intensely private at the same time. Our teens are not only accustomed to performing like this, they prefer these multi-interactions that traverse public and private domains. It is hard for adults to understand this, particularly when the music is loud, the game violent and colourful and the site laden with images and chatter, but the attempt needs to be made. A number of adults tend to judge how young people do their school work, study, chores, relax or switch off by their pre-technology or quite primitive standards and find the young person’s choices wanting. Some adults compare and decide the choices students have available to them (which are numerous) or are making are not as good as the choices they made. It is not worse for young people, it is just different.
Instead of accepting that the world is different now and getting excited by the educational possibilities being offered to our students, some educators couch so much of their language about the changes that technology has wrought in terms of good or bad. This is true particularly when the apparent influence and power it has over young people is taken into consideration. There are teachers and parents bemoaning the fact that kids sit in front of screens, have phones or iPods, or that their language skills are deteriorating because of SMS and e-mail (Brooks and Williams 2007).
Sonia Livingstone explains this dichotomy, stating that through technology ‘optimists foresee new opportunities for democratic and community participation, for creativity, self-expression and play, for the huge expansion of available knowledge, thereby also supporting diversity, difference and debate. Pessimists lament the end of childhood, innocence, traditional values and authority’ (2002, p. 2). These polarised views are matched in some teachers’ attitudes as well. One study found that although there was acceptance and employment of classroom technologies, ‘55 per cent of survey respondents believed that “there is too much emphasis on computers to the detriment of other areas that would improve learning”’ (O’Haire, quoted in D’Silva 2006, p. 17).
Fortunately, not all educators feel this way. Karen Bonanno notes that, ‘teacher librarians/library media specialists have embraced information and communication technologies (ICT) as a means to extend the information literacy skills of learners’ (2002, p. 225). This is something teachers have to do because, as Wendy Steadman Stephens acknowledges, ‘digital applications are moving from being novel to becoming indispensable’ (2007, p. 70). In other words, these forms are ignored at the educator’s and student’s peril. Nonetheless, there is research to show that resistance to incorporating the popular culture of new technologies and new forms of literacy and reading still exist.
A study of 15 experienced high school teachers in Victoria by Cope and Ward in 2002 suggested that ‘teachers with “inappropriate” or unfavourable perceptions of learning technology failed to integrate technology in their classrooms’ (D’Silva 2006, p 17). Others believe that ‘too few teachers use ICT to make the investment worthwhile’ (D’Silva 2006, p. 15). The reasons for the reluctance to fully embrace technology are numerous and sometimes outside the control of those who can use them best. High costs, inadequate time to prepare and train teachers in hardware and software and their classroom relevance, fears of what inclusion signifies in terms of what may be excluded, as well as concerns over educational outcomes and assessment are all paramount and legitimate (D’Silva 2006). But these must be addressed and, where possible, overcome.
What is sometimes forgotten, amid debates and anxieties about the degree to which ICT should be integrated into contemporary curriculums, and whether or not it will somehow ‘supplant teachers or more traditional forms of reading instruction’ (D’Silva 2006, p. 16), is that educators control this. They decide if, when and how much ICT is incorporated in the learning environment – is it simply a matter of hardware and basic software that enables the student to complete assessment, or is the ICT a learning facilitator? That is, does the student search the ’Net looking for information to enhance knowledge of a specific subject, Googling, using Wikipedia, and particular CD-ROMs or other programs? Or, does ICT become part of the assessment process in that the student uses a program such as PowerPoint, builds a blog, makes a movie, designs an animation, creates an avatar in an online environment, or communicates with other students outside the classroom and across the globe to build understanding? The possibilities are, literally, endless and the options are only limited by infrastructure, budget, equipment and imagination.
So where do teacher librarians and libraries specifically fit in to all this? It is often teacher librarians who initiate conversations about the role of ICT and, concomitantly, popular culture, in both society and the school curriculums (Steadman Stephens 2007). While ‘these technologies are seen as both a facilitator and a medium of literacy teaching and learning’ (Sternberg, Kaplan & Borck 2007, p. 419), and the library is acknowledged as a place and service that can help students become better learners (Scott & Plourde 2007, p. 420), there is still resistance to the inclusion of ICT and doubts about its educational efficacy, in the sense of ‘deep knowledge’ (Todd, quoted in Kenney 2006, p. 5).
This is why it is more important than ever for teachers/librarians to both understand this technology, the significance of it in young people’s lives and familiarise themselves with its capabilities in order to incorporate it into the learning experience. Wendy Steadman Stephens acknowledges the potential of these Web 2.0 technologies to education and literacy specifically when she writes that:
Podcasting, blogging and wikis – are easy to use and don’t require local software installations ... school librarians need to leverage their school’s investment in digital infrastructure and equipment to teach students everything from copyright restrictions to developing a more nuanced understanding of critical literacy in online environments (2007).
By incorporating these popular sites into the curriculum, not only do students become part of a larger dialogue that can traverse classrooms, school settings, cultures and even the globe (Steadman Stephens 2007), they also allow ‘students to make connections that move between virtual and RL (real life)’ (Steadman Stephens 2007, p. 70). And it is mainly within the library space that students ‘safely and with supervision, experience a range of digital communications’ (Steadman Stephens 2007, p. 70). In order for ICT experiences to be educationally meaningful, they need to grow beyond the physical space of the library and extend into the classroom as well. Scott and Plourde argue that if students are to succeed in the Information Age, ‘teacher librarians must work in collaboration with teachers and administrators. They must help students move from information retrieving to deep understanding and knowledge-based outcomes defined by curriculum standards’ (2007, p. 420). This can only occur when traditional teaching practices join new ones (Sternberg, Kaplan & Borck 2007): that is, when popular culture, books and reading collide.
Young people are entering a world where literacy is no longer confined to the written word but includes ‘rich, multilayered texts [that] demand multimodal literacy skills of their readers... these media can include visual, auditory, textual and spatial ways of making meaning’ (Gardner 2007, p. 93). According to an International Report on Literacy Research in Australia (2004), ‘regardless of skill level, all of the teachers viewed ICT, and computers in particular, as having enormous potential for literacy development’ (Eakle & Garber 2004, p. 356). Whether in front of a screen, comic book, film or TV show, or the pages of a book, educators understand that reading, which encompasses a range of critical skills, is occurring.
The role of books in contemporary reading praxis has not changed; it is adult notions of what reading entails that have undergone a paradigm shift. Books and popular cultural texts such as films, TV shows, Internet sites, magazines and comic books do not need to be in an either/or relationship with conventional literacy practices. It is not a case of one or the other but all forms of reading being incorporated into the curriculum in a variety of ways. Nonetheless, educators are still wary about the content of what young people are reading these days, particularly when the forms are unfamiliar, such as graphic novels, magazines and comics. But perhaps their concerns are misplaced.
For example, the focus should be what Sherman Young refers to as the anti-book. Young defines the anti-book as one ‘that is not meant to be read the whole way through, nor will they make any lasting contribution to book culture. But they sell’ (2007). He cites Steve Waugh’s biography, the CSIRO total wellbeing book and the cleaning book Spotless as examples. In a provocative article published in Harper’s Magazine in 1991, Tom Engelhardt makes the claim that ‘reading may be harmful to your kids’. Engelhardt decries the number of books associated with licensed characters, movie spin-offs and general commercialism. He worries that children’s books and reading had come to be an extension of ‘listening, viewing playing, dressing and buying’ – in other words, an extension of shopping (Engelhardt 1991, p. 55-62). In her book, Buy buy baby: how big business captures the ultimate consumer: your baby, Susan Gregory Thomas reports one publishing sales executive who claims that ‘the only time a child drives a book purchase is when the book features a licensed character’ – but what the child has actually been drawn to is not the story, but the brand (2007, p. 177). Commercialism, not popular culture per se, has ruined the sanctity of the book.
This, however, is the point at which the circle joins: where traditional reading practice meets popular culture – in the story books that feature licensed TV and film characters and their undeniable commercial attraction. They not only appeal to young people, but to adults who, when the book is borrowed or purchased, reassure themselves that, at least the kids are reading. What they are reading and how it will impact upon them becomes an issue. It is important to recognise that some stories will never intellectually nourish, nor are they meant to – they are the fairy floss, the Paris Hiltons, of the literary world. Fortunately, there are also those that will always outlast, outwit and out-survive their superficial counterparts and these are usually the timeless tales that explore what it is to be human beyond clothes, success, brands and a film tie-in. Young people will indulge in reading-lite, such as Dolly, Cosmopolitan, the ubiquitous Disney versions of tales, a Pirates of the Caribbean novel with Johnny Depp’s picture on the front, but they will also be drawn with gentle and enthusiastic guidance, through these same audio-visual tie-ins, to Jane Austen’s Pride and prejudice, the stories of King Arthur, Tolkien’s Lord of the rings and many other classic stories. Students need to experience the junk-food equivalent of books and reading in order to appreciate haute cuisine. Their diet must be varied.
Unless books are written by J.K. Rowling, Andy Griffiths or Neil Gaimon, or the latest favourite or peer-group sensation, it seems that teachers encounter resistance. Yet by using popular culture and digital technology together with knowledge of and appreciation for the literary canon, teachers can not only engage students and intervene in established and perhaps limited reading practices, but also instil in them a passion for books and reading.
When used correctly, popular culture is a teacher librarians’ Aladdin’s cave – it is a treasure trove. By starting with the contemporary popular cultural form the students know and appreciate best, teacher librarians can propel students on an imaginative and intellectual journey that will introduce them to whole new worlds. For example, the film Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone is a familiar way of introducing young people to Jane Austen’s classic text, Emma. It is the same story, told in the argot, forms and tropes with which students identify. There is also the film version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Capture their minds in the present, by viewing and discussing the films and then invite them to explore the past – to source the original story upon which the films or TV shows are based – in other words, the novel. Ask them to compare and contrast the different narrative versions: how the characters look and speak, the setting, the discourses and themes. How different were the films from the book? Then, invite them to find other films, novels, TV shows and even computer games that use the same or a similar plot and enjoy the deconstructive process all over again. Discussion threads on a school’s intranet can be uploaded and students can be invited to blog over characters or any other aspect of the text/s; teacher librarians can communicate with students in character as Emma (or any other fictional character, male or female for that matter), critiquing gender and sex roles as well. Teacher librarians can facilitate all this and contribute to meaningful social debates about classic and pop culture texts through a variety of digital technologies.
For students who love action and adventure, I would use one of the X-Men movies and comics to excite and engage them before familiarising them with one of the many teenage-friendly novels about alienation, difference, fitting in, angst and anger, such as Does my head look big in this? by Randa Abdel-Fattah or Wogaluccis, by Jose Montana among others. Both the films and the books explore what it is like to be marginalised and made to feel like an outsider on the basis of looks, cultural background or faith. The TV series, Heroes, explores similar issues, as do the Greek myths, art, the poetry of Bruce Dawe and Sylvia Plath, and the music of many young artists such as Green Day, Wolfmother and Bjork.
In this day and age of environmental concerns and issues around corporate, political and cultural responsibility, it is easy to enthuse the students not simply about reading, but creating their own stories that explore possible global futures. Using movies such as An inconvenient truth, The day after tomorrow, and the multimedia program, Afterworld (available on TV, online and on mobile phones), and encouraging students to read articles from New Scientist, National Geographic and Australian Geographic, and then novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The road or, for younger readers, John Marsden’s Tomorrow, when the war began series, entire terms can be dedicated to reading, viewing, sourcing and creating narratives about the world and the future and in a range of genres: from essays, magazine and newspaper articles to graphic novels, creative answers, photo essays and virtual responses.
The Cinderella story, which has been recast for every generation and culture since it was first told in ancient China, can be used to explore the construction of gender throughout history and, by using the Grimm brothers’ version and contemporary remakes of the fairytale, such as The princess diaries, Maid in manhattan or Pretty woman, or even reality TV shows such as What not to wear, Trinny and Susannah Undress, Extreme makeover or The bachelor, representations of masculinity and femininity, social expectations of gender in society, the transformative powers of dress and the ideologies surrounding appearance can be exposed and explored.
It is a matter of establishing the themes and discourses, identifying the ways these are explored in each of the texts, and the way the different forms (and genres) might impact upon these while still in the classroom (in the first instance at least), before asking students to respond using a range of appropriate and accessible technological forms – written, visual and aural (such as MP3s or podcasts). All of these should work together to enrich readings and enhance understanding of the texts while also making the pedagogical process relevant and engaging.
Every genre is at the educator’s fingertips in a multitude of forms. Exciting students about books and reading, if it is done correctly, has never been easier. Digital technology and other popular cultural media such as music and the Internet can be used to create stimulating and relevant learning environments, creating Giroux’s hermeneutical site.
If a teacher librarian is not comfortable or able to commence with visual or digital media, then appropriate young adult novels that acknowledge the importance of popular culture and ICT in young people’s lives can also be sourced. Traci Gardner (2007, p. 93) addresses an ongoing problem for under-resourced libraries and classrooms that identify the need for ICT in the curriculum, but lack the financial means of providing this. She argues that the genre of what she calls, ‘Internet literature’, that is, novels that reflect the social and digital worlds of the students, ‘creates unique opportunities to explore the social landscape of the teenager’s world while developing the multimodal literacy skills crucial to life in the 21st century’ (Gardner 2007). In other words, books that blend a variety of styles by incorporating blogs, e-mails, journal entries, text messages (and in the familiar, truncated language of users), can also appeal to the digi-kids of today.
Popular culture is a continually shifting territory where identities are fashioned and refashioned accordingly. By keeping abreast of just who and what is educating young people and, more importantly, what they are learning in the process, teachers can not only intervene where necessary but make worthwhile and very influential contributions. We can turn young people from commodified objects into consuming subjects and empower them to make both wise and not-so-wise consumption choices. All we need to do is invite the Paris Hiltons of this world and all that they represent, into the school grounds and suggest they come up and see our collection.
Contextualising and drawing value from both traditional and successful pedagogical practice and interfacing this with what young people enjoy and are familiar with in terms of contemporary popular culture and digital technology is a way of preventing not just the library, but the curriculum from losing its meaning as a foundation stone in a young person’s lifelong journey of learning. Combining old and new, traditional and modern, classical and post-modern, means that teacher librarians can turn the impossible passion of popular culture into a passion of limitless possibilities that incorporates successful and insightful reading strategies that can be deployed both inside and outside the classroom – yesterday, today and tomorrow.
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