An Interview with Author Jennifer Burek Pierce



1. Please tell us a bit about Nerdfighteria and your impetus for writing this book.

Nerdfighteria is a community with origins in media created by John Green and his brother Hank.  Early on, this community was compromised of readers of John's novels and Hank's environmental blog, and viewers of their shared YouTube channel, Vlogbrothers.  Now the community is broader and more diffuse, because the brothers create more and different media, because the community creates its own media, and also because of the community's values.  The Official Nerdfighter Lexicon describes Nerdfighteria as "The place where Nerdfighters hang out .... anywhere where awesome is being done, and world suck is reduced."  This focus on community engagement, on how we improve the world around us, is as integral to Nerdfighteria as media.

There is so much interest in books and stories in Nerdfighteria, and I see a community of readers within its boundaries. Yet relatively little has been written about either Nerdfighteria or the work of John Green.  While the Green brothers and the community itself produce content prolifically, aside from book reviews and author interviews, there's not much critical commentary or scholarship that looks at this really distinctive and enduring community.  For those interested in how reading changes across time and place, Nerdfighteria represents a truly compelling group of readers and thinkers.  The fact that so many of its exchanges and commentaries are online, and therefore ephemeral, creates for me a preservation impulse, too.  If we're going to discuss the history of books and reading in the 21st century, we need primary sources that inform and ground that work.

2. We live in a time when digital learning is becoming a central focus and teachers are relying on new media for safe, healthy connection and instruction. How does your book fit within this current move, and how do you see your research informing the future of education?

One thing that emerges from the book, read in the context that was emerging as the last pre-publication editing was taking place, is that a community of learners with good, warm, consistent leadership and meaningful bonds can foster learning and pursue other meaningful goals in a digital environment.  Good outcomes don't just happen.  Planning, as well as conversation and exchange of ideas, is essential to this work.  It's not just information delivery -- it depends on communication.  It also depends on the skills and contributions of multiple participants, not just the most visible or recognized leaders -- in other words, it doesn't mean that a teacher needs to take on every single responsibility or role in a digital context.   

To offer a few examples -- both the comments on YouTube videos, as well as community members' decisions to make content in response to Hank and John's media, reveal a back-and-forth between creators and audience.  The brothers have been involved, too, in creating other educational media, whether The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, or Crash Course videos that are available to supplement classroom-based learning.  I would observe that while the brothers might be the most visible face of this content, other people are involved in researching, writing, editing, and producing this material; livestreams have moderators as well as hosts.  This media and this community suggest that if there's a commitment to dialogue and a sense of shared interests and goals, people can learn together online.  It also suggests how much work it is, how many people's contributions are essential to a high-quality digital environment. 

I think we sometimes look at clever, high-energy new media productions and think they've come about effortlessly, because they can seem so spontaneous.  The reality is that what we see on social media platforms, whether content or community, reflects real commitment, knowledge, and effort.  Also, I would argue that as we think about the future of learning in a world where we rely on digital media, a central lesson from the work of Hank and John Green, and Nerdfighteria more broadly, is we can't forget that people in the midst of much else besides our digital activities are the audience for what we create and share online.  Online media may be important and influential, but we have to consider what's happening in the here and now of people's lives, too.  Or as Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut once put it, "There's only one rule that I know of, babies — 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'" 

3. What are some questions that might drive educators (and others) to seek out your book?

People who want to understand the how and why of recreational reading will find testimony to the idea that books very much still matter -- passion for books endures.  People who want to know more about what it means to read, what people see in books and take away from them, will see that discussed.  I offer some ideas about what we've long called reader response, how that manifests today.  People who are concerned -- or just curious -- about young people's use of new media platforms and what that can mean for literacy and community might find my discussion disproves some of the ready assumptions about those dynamics.

Underpinning all this are ideas about the internet, about the online spaces where people meet to discuss books and tell stories, and how we need to think about them as places.  Classical rhetoric and other fields refer to agora, a public place where people came together as a community for a whole range of purposes.  In a sense, then, people who ask "What ever happened to the days when people used to gather and discuss?" can see one answer to that question -- shared gathering spaces still exist, if somewhat differently.  I'm referring here to a much older concept, but it's also another way of thinking about the problem expressed and explored in Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone (2000). 

  4. You contend that digital experiences do not undermine engagement with reading (and I wholeheartedly agree). What does the ideal digital classroom look and sound like?   

To invoke a bit of jargon, I think it's polyvocalic -- we don't hear just one voice there.  Whether we rely on videos or podcasts made by others to bring someone else's perspective and expertise to a subject, whether we encourage learners to share their ideas and questions, a digital classroom has to be more than one-way, one-voice delivery of information.  (Side note:  librarians can help educators find the voices that can enrich their digital classes.)  Giving students a chance to hear one another's questions and thoughts can be so powerful in modeling inquiry and problem-solving.  Also, though, there have to be moments of quiet, of pause.  We need to create space for reflection and wonder as well as expression.  I think that the digital classroom should involve synchronous and asynchronous elements.  While some of us have students in different geographic locations and time zones or students with different family and personal commitments, even if students live in proximity, asynchronous activities can allow them time to reflect, rather than rushing to be on the same page or to complete their inquiry within a time-limited period.  It's a bit messy, not perfectly neat or conventionally bounded.  Is that time consuming?  Certainly.  Asking ourselves what the benefits of our usual classrooms are, and how we can draw on those elements, while looking for what is possible in a new, mediated sort of space is worth doing, though.    

5. Where can we go to learn more about your research (and this latest text)?

The press's site for the book is here (https://www.uipress.uiowa.edu/books/9781609387181/narratives-nerdfighters-and-new-media), and I'm sometimes on Instagram (jburek) and Twitter (@TheTobstersMom) with bookish thoughts ... but also my cats.  

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