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Remixing Melville: Moby Dick Meets the Digital Generation

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In a traditional English class, a teacher might assign Herman Melville’s famous novel Moby Dick in small chunks. Students might complete their reading (or not), discuss major themes and perhaps write an essay at the end of the unit. But if a student never gets past the first few pages, the rest of that unit is lost.

It’s become a common refrain that traditional education isn't serving a generation of students whose lives outside of school are completely disconnected from what happens inside. But there are plenty of teachers working hard to make reading material relevant to students, including a team of researchers from University of Southern California Annenberg's Innovation Lab that includes Henry Jenkins and Erin Reilly. They've created a model of what they call participatory learning that engages students with materials on a personal level, often by incorporating different types of media into the classroom and offering varying points of entry to a text. Most recently, the team has put together a teacher’s strategy guide, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick in the English, Classroom and an interactive digital book, Flows of Reading, to provide models of their approach.


Moby Dick is a notoriously difficult book. “This book defeated me as an Advanced Placement kid,” Henry Jenkins said. He remembers hating the book, gritting his teeth to get through it and writing the worst essay of his high school career. That’s why he was so impressed by the work of the playwright Ricardo Pitts-Wiley who was teaching Moby Dick to incarcerated youth in Rhode Island, many of whom read below grade level.

Pitts-Wiley asked his students to reinterpret the novel in the context of their own lives. In their retelling Captain Ahab became a powerful drug dealer trying to avenge the death of his loved ones. His drug crew is forced to decide how far they’ll go for their charismatic leader. Together with his students Pitts-Wiley turned their re-interpretation into a play: Moby Dick: Then and Now. The students understood the themes when placed into familiar context and related to the character’s struggles when the story was no longer placed in an era and industry unfamiliar to them.

[RELATED READING: How Can Teachers Prepare Kids for a Connected World?]

Pitts-Wiley’s work correlates strongly to the research Jenkins has been doing on weaving more varieties of media into the classroom in order to make the learning experience more participatory, creative, multidisciplinary, and therefore meaningful to students. He teamed up with Wyn Kelley a Melville scholar from MIT, and a team of educational experts to design a curriculum around Moby Dick that would build in remixing, reinterpretation, and multimedia elements. They tested their new curriculum in six different schools.

“We want to raise a generation of kids who have a mouse in one hand and a book in the other,” said Jenkins. To do that the curriculum focuses on Melville as a master mash-up artist of 19th century culture; his book includes Shakespeare plays, the Bible, whaling culture and more. From there, the door is open for classes to discuss how remixed elements are allusions and what happens to a text when an author incorporates the work of others.

“Culture matters, history matters, the goal is to foster old fashioned close reading,” Jenkins said. A typical assignment might ask students to take one page of Moby Dick, highlight words they don’t know, define terms, draw pictures and share with one another. The idea is to focus closely in order to incite curiosity about the whole. And to let students creatively express their opinions and thoughts about the book, hopefully with a better understanding of what their own remixing might add to the broader cultural body of work around Moby Dick.

If this sounds a little messy and confusing – it is. That was the feedback teachers gave Jenkins’ team when they piloted these participatory learning strategies in the classroom. Teacher’s felt uncertain whether learning was taking place in this non-linear style. One teacher came to realize that if a student could get a purchase on the text anywhere, they understood how much more there is to learn about the book.

“That’s a different kind of learning outcome than we usually get when we convince people they've exhausted a book, that they've gotten it, when they've only touched it superficially,” Jenkins said. He sees the goal as both teaching something about Moby Dick in the moment as well as fostering a community of readers who know that reading Melville in high school English doesn't mean they've conquered it.

[RELATED READING: How Do We Define and Measure 'Deeper Learning'?]

“We may be romanticizing what people got out of Moby Dick in the traditional classroom,” Jenkins said. “This is just taking ownership over that and allowing students to pursue their passion and interests.” Piloting this curriculum Jenkins’ team found that it worked less effectively when teachers used it more traditionally. “The closer we got to traditional school, the more they shut down,” Jenkins said. “No curriculum is idiot proof. You have to get teachers who understand the participatory mindset.”

The other part of the project, Flows of Reading, helps encourage participation around literature and models an expanded approach to literacy and the reading and writing that make up the discipline. The digital book allows readers to follow hyperlinks, enjoy embedded video content, and add to an online space for related work. It broadens the model beyond Moby Dick and applies it to reading at all age levels from a wordless picture book to the Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings. It offers four pathways or ways to view a text.

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This pathway and assorted material address the idea that people read various kinds of textual content for all kinds of reasons. Reading a website may be different from reading a book, but they both require literacy and are appropriate at different points. This pathway explores how seemingly different kinds of reading might be more akin than they seem.

While the book encourages students to elaborate and create material based on parts of a text that speak to them, this section also discusses appropriate and respectful adaptation and remixing. It brings in the ethics of attribution and fair use.

This pathway discusses the various identities that each person brings to reading whether it is gender, ethnicity, specific experiences or anything else that shapes the reading process.

These are “the spaces where your imagination can go wild,” said Erin Reilly, who led the effort to create Flows. This pathway explores how to creatively share stories and layer upon the original.


Throughout the research and implementation of this project Jenkins and Reilly knew they’d need to think about assessment. They brought in Dan Hickey from Indiana University to help develop assessments that are immediate and happen as part of the learning process. The state standards are a minimum, Reilly and Jenkins maintain should be easy to reach if students are engaged. They insist that learning activities should be open and free -- a space for creativity; the reflection on that activity and how it ties back to the text is an area for worthwhile assessment.

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