Sunday, February 21, 2010

Media Literacy: Taking advantage of critical moments to give students voice

As an instructor I have found that using pieces of popular culture, particularly ones my students immediately relate to, always generate student engagement. YouTube Clips, discussions of current FaceBook posting trends, and conversations of topics such as, ‘How musicians embody or subvert cultural values,’ are examples of such pop culture topics. As do many composition instructors I have spoken with about this practice, I move from the topic, to analysis, to asking ‘what observations can we make,’ to explorations of ways in which the observation could be structured into an essay. I recently attended a Liberal Arts Network Development Conference (Port Huron, 2010) presentation and discovered that there is a name for this practice: Spectacle Pedagogy. Underlying assumptions of this pedagogy are that the impact of our mass-media environment is constant and unavoidable. It makes sense then, as our student’s identities are embedded in this inescapable, ever-present culture, to embrace that culture and make it work toward classroom goals.

Also at the LAND conference was an ongoing discussion of the changing make-up of our students. Many seasoned instructors stated their belief that in the past five years the student population has changed radically—not just in terms of social or economic class, but also in terms of learning style, educational goals, and attitudes towards and preparation for college. While the new ever-evolving media is part of the reason for this change, there are additional factors. These factors include both internal, cultural, and external, institutional, barriers. Mike Rose’s book, Lives on the Boundary, is a vivid illustration of one man’s successful educational journey through these barriers. After describing how he overcame his own educational obstacles, Rose applies the lessons he learned about education and learning to his own work as a teacher. One of the dilemmas he encountered as a teacher is a dilemma that spectacle pedagogy seeks to address, that of connecting the curriculum to the student and the student to the curriculum. Specifically, he mentions that the curriculum was self enclosed. “While it did not prohibit the children from drawing on their interests and the events in their own lives, it failed to elicit creatively the tales and folklore and genres that were part of their various families and cultures.” (p 108-109) I believe that creativity he mentions is, or is directly related to, the type of critical thinking spectacle pedagogy seeks to generate.

The need to teach critical thinking in a relevant context is constant, while the type, nature, and needs of students today is changing. Despite the flexing of the student makeup, there are some commonalities that are useful to explore. Keith Gilyard, in analyzing James Berlin’s 1993 discussion of the post-Fordist economy, points out that the job market is shifting to place a greater emphasis on successful, collaborative creative thinking and excellent written communication. These needs spring not only from the new, global economy but also from the new—ever-changing—mass media. In order to participate and have a voice, students must connect with the world in a thinking, coherent way. If they cannot do so, they will be disenfranchised—silenced, and Gilyard suggests, underemployed. The mass media that influences students and is constant in their culture is the same mass media that requires them to think critically and write with purpose. These skills can be developed in composition classrooms by encouraging students to connect with content. Locating critical moments is one way to foster that connection.

In his discussion of identifying and making use of critical moments, Gilyard expresses the belief that social issue discussions need not be excluded to large events such as 9-11. Instructors who seek to introduce social issues into the classroom should do so. He proposes that, “Tentative yet rigorous examination and dialogic engagement are key forms of discourse despite the specific political concepts being addressed.” (Bloom, p 235). And later, “…embracing dialogic exchange and interrogating language are parts of a long tradition, a critical tradition, in the liberal arts.” (Bloom, p 235) As composition is part of the liberal arts, this encouragement and validation speaks to the need for composition instructors to embrace the opportunity to engage students with their own truths. According to the underlying assumptions of Spectacle Pedagogy, pieces of our student’s truth can be found in the components of our multimedia environment.

In their article, “Toward Critical Media Literacy,” Douglas Kellner and Jeff Shane present a definition for media literacy and put forth the idea that to be relevant education must include media literacy. They state that in our multimedia environment such literacy is more important than ever. Additionally, this literacy requires unique skills. “People need to critically scrutinize and scroll tremendous amounts of information, putting new emphasis on developing reading and writing abilities.” (p370) I would add in addition to reading and writing, media literacy requires critical thinking. Kellner and Shane do more than offer an awareness of media literacy issues, they call the educators to action, stating that it would be irresponsible to ignore the need for media literacy because students may be unaware of how they are being “taught” by forces such as the Internet and popular films. (p 370-372)

Media literacy has a natural tie with Spectacle Pedagogy in that it fosters the connection of student and curriculum while addressing the needs of today’s ever-changing student body. Spectacle Pedagogy takes advantage of that connection by utilizing critical moments to bring students into the larger educational community, thus validating that they are in fact part of that community. That validation in turn encourages students to develop and maintain their own voice.
Burdette, Curtis. “Utilizing Spectacle Pedagogy.” LAND: Port Huron, 2010.

Bloom, Lynn; Daiker, Donald; and White, Edward, eds. Composition Studies in the New Millennium: Rereading the Past, Rewriting the Future. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2003.

Rose, Mike. Lives on the Boundary: The Struggles and Achievements of America’s Underprepared. New York: The Free Press, 1989.

Kellner, David and Share, Jeff. “Toward Critical Media Literacy: Core concepts, debates, organizations, and policy.” Discourse: studies in the cultural politic of education. Vol. 26, No. 3, September 2005, pp. 369-386.

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