One of my favorite things about being in grad school is getting to meet people. Through conferences, public seminars and video calls, I’ve gotten to meet amazing people, including quite a few authors whose work I’ve come across in course work. Within just the last two weeks, I’ve been able to talk with Dr. Johnnetta Cole (a post about that experience can be found here) and, this past week, Dr. Henry Jenkins.
I first encountered Henry Jenkins’s work as an undergrad in a required critical theory course for my Comparative Literature major at the University of Virginia. After stuffing my head full of Althusser, Freud, and Barthes all semester, I distinctly remember finally being able to breathe– I could finally read an article once and get the gist of it. Not only did I understand, I was enthralled by his discussion of fan culture. As an avid Tumblr user at the time, I didn’t know that there were people who studied and talked about communities in which I belonged. Jenkins was my key to understanding that not everything academic had to be dense and difficult to engage.
My second encounter with Jenkins’s work was just last semester in my New Media, Old Media class, in which we read Convergence Culture. As we read through case studies of collective participation through Survivor spoilers and political activism through Harry Potter, I found myself again utterly inspired by the clarity of Jenkins’s prose and the innovativeness of his ideas. My ideas were no longer an island. Through Jenkins I found a way to ground my work and a model for moving forward.
Getting to meet Dr. Jenkins in person, therefore, was quite an experience. Liz Losh, my professor and mentor through the Equality Lab, arranged for a group of us to have a private lunch with Dr. Jenkins, during which we had an informal conversation. The conversation produced questions such as how do you stay true to yourself as you pursue work as a scholar? How do you withstand disappointment and critique? Do you have any writing tips? All questions to which Jenkins had generous and “therapeutic” answers. He told us all writing is rewriting, encouraged us to write with colleagues and develop an online presence. He told us about his personal experiences with being openly and somewhat hostilely critiqued and encouraged us to take a high road– engage, cautiously, and look for points of commonality and misunderstanding rather than investing yourself in a counter attack. And most importantly, I think, he encouraged us to think of doing interdisciplinary work as “undisciplined,” in the best way. This means that we should not limit ourselves based on discipline but follow our interests as far as they take us, borrowing from whatever toolkits we have available, using whomever we find inspiring, to come up with exciting new ideas. Strictly following the rules of any one discipline will only get us so far. We are the intellectual entrepreneurs. We are the undisciplined.
That night, after the excellent lunch, I attended Jenkins’s public lecture in which he discussed the civic imagination, its functions and results. It was a multifaceted presentation which drew from a broad range of sources: from Foucault to Stuart Hall, Superman to J. K. Rowling, Black Panther to Ms. Marvel. In essence, the talk encouraged us, the audience, to think of the civic imagination as something that can help better the world: it can help us imagine a process of change, imagine the self as a civic agent, and imagine the experiences and perspectives of others. This is what helps us go out into the world and create better futures based on what we have imagined.
Dr. Henry Jenkins is a self-proclaimed optimist. It was refreshing to encounter someone so celebratory after learning to do nothing but critique for a year and a half. He’s inspired me not to give up on my ambition to become a public intellectual, because public-facing academics are what we need. He reminded me to think of the real root of the word that will become my career: professor, or one who professes. Knowledge is not mine to hoard but something which I profess. Now that is something I can believe in.