At the start of every new course I walk into a classroom of students and introduce myself as their guide – someone who is more familiar with the terrain than they are, but who wants to lead them to make their own discoveries. I believe that the goal of learning is not to become comfortable in our knowledges, but rather to acquire the skills to notice the familiar and engage the unfamiliar, because that is where intellectual discovery takes place.
Most of my students are prolific media consumers; and still, most of them have not yet thought about media as a complex central force in shaping our ideals, values, and identities. I want students to understand how mass media deliver more than entertainment or background noise but in fact shape our ideas about democracy, family, race, gender, individualism, and ourselves – that they impact the very ideas we think are worth having. To accomplish this I structure my courses on the main tenant of the sociological imagination: making the familiar unfamiliar. Central to this goal is revealing the processes that make the familiar feel not just comfortable but natural, unquestionable, and “right.”
A prime example of my approach is an exercise where I ask students in my Media & Representation class to ‘read’ me. This exercise demonstrates how we are all always engaged in encoding and decoding signs, which we use to determine how to interact with someone (or an institution, or a space, or a film, etc.) By inviting students to read me, I also begin to point out to them the ‘work’ of representation. For instance, how do they know I identify as a woman? Unless they ask me, they don’t know! So what makes them think they know? Reflexively they have already decoded many signs on my body, my dress, my posture, etc., and interpreted these as signifying ‘woman’ in American culture. I guide them to understand how this process really works by having them list everything they can see about me, and what each represents. When they feel confident that I display multiple signs that are used in our culture to represent femininity, I then ask them to list features associated with masculinity. When we have generated a robust list, I go through and check off all the qualities on the list I have, too. This allows me to discuss how we read not just the presence of signs but also the absence of other signs, as well as introduce the notion of ambiguity. While students readily identify gender signifiers, they falter on race. This provides an opportunity to introducing ideology and the attempt to fix meaning, which we will return to many times over the course of term. I assure them that I recognize they may have felt it was impolite to mention my race, or perhaps they already understood they can’t know my race without genetic testing (or asking me). But I emphasize that what is more likely is that we assume race isn’t encoded at all, rather it is “obvious.” I point out that in fact they all noticed not just my skin tone, facial features, and hair texture, but also my language, clothes, jewelry, etc. – all of which are signs we use to encode race. By not making the encoding and decoding process explicit, it serves to mask signifiers as “natural” as opposed to socially constructed. Finally, I prompt them to read my sexual orientation. As a researcher who studies bisexual representations, I direct students to think about how to represent an identity or idea that does not have its own existing cultural codes. This allows me to introduce the concept of dominant cultural codes and hegemony. This exercise not only introduces students to several foundational concepts in media studies, but also provides a model for students to start ‘reading’ media content, fostering their media literacy.
As evidenced, a core tenet of my pedagogy is scaffolding student learning of foundational theories, concepts, and tools. In the beginning of the term I introduce foundational texts and focus classroom time on lectures unpacking complex ideas, paired with class exercises that situate these ideas into current context. As the course continues, I pair foundational readings with contemporary articles, and shift from lectures to class discussions focused on making connections between the materials. In introductory courses, class discussions take place in small groups, with a final large group summary; in advanced courses groups of students are assigned to lead large class discussions each week. By breaking down complex ideas into incremental exercises – each one building towards the next – students gain confidence in each stage while gradually developing a mastery of the big picture, and ultimately putting those ideas into practice.
My approach to scaffolding student learning also includes writing, which I require in all my classes. I designed an incremental writing assignment which I use in all my media courses and scale according to course level. Using the principle of making the familiar unfamiliar, Media Observation Journals (MOJOs) are weekly journal entries that direct students to notice their media-rich environments (for instance: noting how many places they go in a day with a television on), collect media content (for instance: taking pictures of billboards on their way to class), and regularly practice analyzing content. MOJOs start during the first week of the term and entry requirements incrementally build every week to include the key concepts and tools they are learning. In advanced courses like Seminar in Media & Representation, student MOJOs are the foundation for their final Media Analysis Project (MAP). Midway through the term each student submits a plan for their final MAP; subsequently, their MOJOs shifts to focus explicitly on the content and tools for their MAP, providing them with weeks of practice and feedback. Their MAPs reflect a cumulative analysis of a media content piece of their choice, and can be submitted as a paper, a blog, video, or other chosen format. Through this process my students have submitted exceptionally sophisticated projects, several of which were included in student portfolios for graduate school.
The key to successful education is ensuring students don’t feel alienated from the learning experience – either online or in the brick and mortar classroom. I highly value integrating digital tools in all my classroom environments as it provides students with a variety of ways to engage. Providing multiple platforms for engaging affords students who would not usually speak up in a classroom a means for participating; mitigates against two or three outspoken students dominating class space; and creates more opportunities for all students to hear different perspectives or notice alternative views. This can be accomplished by implementing online text-based class discussions, video conferences, and specific hashtags for designated social media platforms, to name just a few of the multiple methods I employ depending on the course content and preferences of the students.
My pedagogical approach centers on engaging students in dynamic ways to examine media in ways they have likely never been asked to do before, and to scaffold their learning of this new material so they become more than just informed, but assured practitioners. I regard teaching as an extension of my scholarship; every time I enter the classroom – whether brick and mortar or digital – I consider it a space of great potential for intellectual discovery. I engage students in humanistic research that reflects a 21st century North American social-cultural landscape. Students leave my courses with a burgeoning sense of social consciousness and are equipped with the tools needed to become engaged and civic-minded professionals.