Each year Guilford College, where I work, has a three-week semester and then a twelve in the fall and that order is reversed in the spring. Though many have mixed feelings about it, I tend to enjoy the structure because I treat it as three-week experimental and experiential course. To me, it is a bit of a playground for things I wouldn’t necessarily want to do over a 12 week-long semester. The classes I have taught during these three-week sessions were designed specifically for this format and so far we’ve had a blast with lots of ways to interact, field trips, guests, and different types of projects, etc.
For my Religion and New Media class this spring it was no different.
What is Participatory Culture?
Participatory culture is a culture that arises as people shift from being “consumers” to “producers;” it signals a time when people become creators of the content they want to consumer often in ways that are both creative and form new communities.
People participate in the creation of content in New Media at least three ways: influencing the content that larger media companies make (consider the TV Show Arrested development going off the air and fans rallying to get another season made); participating in the fandom of their favorite fan objects (“cosplay”, writing fan fiction, sharing commentary and debating interpretations over social media, making fan interpretations of what has happened - what really happened to Eddie from Stranger Things? - mashing up various fandoms, joining in community oriented events like gatherings, online forums, discord servers, etc.).
Here’s how I tried to embody this within the class:
- I used Coda.io to create a participatory syllabus. This syllabus was online and had all the basic pieces already written out (course description, outcomes, academic integrity policy), but then there were other parts that the students built together during the semester. This included their assignments, their final project, and their presentations (they had three classes that they were responsible for the content of the class that day).
All other parts of the syllabus were highly interactive as well:
- A class wiki that was added to during the class
- A daily class schedule that had all the things we’d be talking about, readings, and even a “homemade Twitter-like app” for students to share updates and learnings complete with “Quaker sparkles” for likes. :)
- A media page that included PDFs, links to videos, audio, etc. Easily added to and linked to from other parts of the syllabus, making all the media in the class easily organized and quickly available.
- Having the very bones of the class be participatory in this way not only made the class really interesting and engaging (students said, I’ve never done anything like this before), it also helped to embody that participatory culture at the heart of a lot of New Media.
Take a look around the syllabus and see for yourself how we used it.
For those interested in this - I am leading a webinar tomorrow (Tuesday, August 2 at 1pm on how I build the syllabus using Coda).
RSVP here: https://bit.ly/3IZWD7d
Religion in New Media
We categorized religion and new media in one of three ways:
Direct references to religion within New Media (for example the ways in which a church or other faith community might uses websites, social media to “spread the word,” or a show like Fleabag (highlight recommended) having a main character that is a Catholic priest and portrays that role in a meaningful way);
to religion is understood as “secular expressions of religious-like themes, topics, morality, ethics, etc…The Apple TV show Ted Lasso
is one of the examples [of] a show that deals with themes like this but is not religious.”
And finally, Ritualistic forms of religion in New Media:
“Under the ritualistic form New Media
is not just the message, it becomes the practice, the liturgy, the tool, or extension of the self and community. There is a blurring of lines between the technology and humanity. Apps on our phones and computers now come with their own “communities,” discord servers, Twitter accounts, different levels of “supporters” who pay for the services.”
The mass-adoption of Zoom during the pandemic that became an overlay onto groups that allowed for community to continue to exist is perhaps another example.
This also reminds of me something Quaker Minister Peggy Morrison once told me when talking about how her meeting, Freedom Friends Church, engaged with New Media: she said, “[If I was forced to choose], I’d rather have a website than a meeting house.”
So What Can We Learn from Stormtroopers?
Third, fandom is a key link between New Media communities and religious communities
. We spent a good amount of time talking about fans in the class because understanding that fans are a kind of religious subject
of their fan objects. Here I am using “religious” in a broad sense rooted in a definition I first encountered from Wes Howard-Brook’s “Come Out of People” (see the class wiki here
Religio - the root of “religion” means the attitudes, beliefs, and/or practices that bind individuals together as a ‘people.’ Ex. Sports, Broadway, Birthday Parties. Academia, Zodiac Signs.
Fan objects today - whether that is a show like Stranger Things, folks in Stormtrooper cosplay (a mashup of “costume-play”, a beloved sports team, a book series like Harry Potter, or a favorite note-taking app like Notion, Obsidian, or Roam - can function like religio, that is, they work to bind people together through shared beliefs, practices, attitudes, and communities.
Seeing this does a couple of things.
First, it helps us see that we humans are prone to religio whether it is a one of the major religious traditions or more secular expressions. We all want belonging. We all want meaning. And we all create these things according to our own experiences and things we like.
When we talked about religio in this way it is much easier to become more empathetic towards religion in the narrower sense. We see that we have lots of religios in our lives.
Second, perhaps those of us within more traditional religious spaces can ask what can we learn from fan communities about strengthening emotional investment, building community, and creating more participatory environments in our communities.
A person who goes to the trouble to find and make or buy a stormtrooper costume, travel across the country to a Comic-con where they dress up and role play in their costume with others dressed up as their favorite characters may see funny to some - but looking a little deeper, how is this different that what we religious folks do with our religious clothing, conferences, favorite speakers on this and that topic, etc?
And yet, folks who participate in these fan cultures know their fan texts deeply, they are emotionally invested in their fandoms, they join in communities with others who feel similarly, they pour money and time and resources in to their belonging. All while so many of us in our respective religious communities struggle could only dream of this depth of love and investment that fans show to their fan objects.
What if instead of dismissing fandoms we looked at these communities as having things for religious communities to reflect and learn from?
- What things would you say you’re a fan of?
- What can you learn from your involvement, love, connection, around your fan objects that could shed light on things that could strengthen our faith communities?
- What are fans doing in areas you’re aware of that could offer important lessons to religious communities you’re apart of?