Project New Media Literacies: Moby-Dick and Reading in a Participatory Culture

Moby Dick

More than half of all teens online generate their own content, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. So MIT’s Project New Media Literacies (NML) is helping teachers in New England use Moby-Dick as a model to show teens how they might create and circulate media, rather than just consume it.

NML has produced a Teacher’s Strategy Guide using, in part, the original Moby-Dick and a 2007 theater adaptation, Moby-Dick: Then and Now. Herman Melville’s classic (and, to many, classically impenetrable) novel thus serves as the starting point for teaching kids teamwork, brainstorming, and resourcefulness–skills expected in a participatory culture.

Why Moby-Dick?

“When people first hear about this strategy guide, their first question is often, ‘Why Moby-Dick?'” says Jenna McWilliams, NML’s Curriculum Specialist. “It’s one of those books that carry a lot of cultural baggage–it’s known as a long, difficult, and boring book.”
McWilliams says the perception in fact makes Moby-Dick an ideal text.

“Kids learn that this skill of appropriation isn’t new at all. Melville appropriated a variety of sources, and the resulting novel is an incredibly skillful remix that integrates snippets of travel narratives, philosophical works, and scientific texts with retellings of Bible stories, informational chapters on the science and lore of whaling culture, and material from dozens of other sources.”

NML Research Director Erin Reilly puts it in matter-of-fact context for teachers.

“Kids have this incredible energy and enthusiasm, but it often just disappears as soon as class starts,” Reilly says. “We want to help teachers put that energy to use in the learning process.”

A Partnership Between NML and New England Schools

Half a dozen schools in New England have signed on with Project New Media Literacies to use the Teacher’s Strategy Guide, which is broken into four units that suggest different ways to investigate the text, including a traditional study of literary devices, a more challenging examination of adaptations, and even an exploration of the cultural and historical pressures that might have contributed to Melville’s choices for Moby-Dick.

But Reilly is quick to describe NML’s work as a partnership, not some sort of expert consultancy.

“Teachers are the ones putting our research into action,” she says. “They’re not somebody looking for an outsider’s blueprint.”

As such, measuring success for the project will itself be collaborative: the schools will help NML streamline the Teacher’s Strategy Guide, will develop rubrics for each of the guide’s sections, and will sit down for interviews with NML researchers–interviews that will include direct feedback from students.

Reilly, McWilliams, and their colleagues at NML see this as an opportunity for kids to develop their sharing, collaboration, and appropriation skills and apply it to other traditional texts. Their aim is to have this approach address, for other kids and other texts, the growing “participation gap” between those with easy access to technology and those without.

“We want to ensure that all students participate in new media literacies,” Reilly says, “not just those with technology at their fingertips.”

Andrew Whitacre

About Andrew Whitacre

Andrew directs the communications efforts for CMS/W and its research groups. A native of Washington, D.C., he holds a degree in communication from Wake Forest University, with a minor in humanities, as well as an M.F.A. in creative writing from Emerson College. This work includes drawing up and executing strategic communications plans, with projects including website design, social media management and training, press outreach, product launches, fundraising campaign support, and event promotions.


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