Media Literacy & Higher Education

One of the things I love most about teaching sociology and humanities courses is the ease in which I can incorporate video clips into my classroom. Teaching introductory courses means that I often have students who are relatively indifferent about the subject matter – or, in the case of my Women’s Studies courses, those who want me to know how very not interested they are in the topic. Being able to tie in scenes of television shows or films they love helps to bridge the gap in discussing the topics that can be difficult for some to grasp (or just hard to talk about). It helps to be able to show a clip or documentary and discuss the content using those characters or situations as examples. We can move away from “my cousin did xyz” or “I have a friend who’s a lesbian and efg” while still giving people space to share their own experiences if they feel it’s helpful.

In many of these courses we talk about the prison system, sexual assault, the garment industry, etc. and these topics can be hard to discuss! One of the most effective ways I’ve found for talking about these issues is through comedy – and shows like “The Daily Show” and “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” help immensely. When John Oliver shows the scene of the director of prisons failing to produce the measurement of a solitary confinement cell, the (horrifying) humor of it helps students deal with the uncomfortable nature of the topic and creates an on-going “bit” in the classroom where suddenly I have a room of 20-30 students who can tell you the size of a solitary confinement cell. Would I have the same result through a simple lecture or reading? While that may not be the focus of our class, those students will leave my classroom at the end of the semester and hopefully, if I’ve been effective in my job, they can productively participate in a conversation about how problematic solitary confinement is in the United States.

Larger conceptual examples would be a clip from “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” featuring correspondent Jessica Williams discussing sexism and sexual harassment in Congress (and in the workplace in general). Williams goes on to discuss street harassment and that her “walk to work is not there for you to comment on” – and for weeks I have students refer back to that clip. This isn’t to say they don’t engage with the classroom texts of course, however viewing these clips in class is a different way to learn. It also helps to reengage students who may be completely overloaded with hundreds of pages of readings and dozens of pages of writing each week from multiple classes.

Students learn in so many different ways and I firmly believe that taking academic, hard-to-grasp concepts and pointing to an episode of “The West Wing” as a commentary on Islamaphobia and extremism, for example, can help them hang onto the concepts in a more immersive way. Who says a relevant documentary isn’t just as effective (if not more so) than the professor at the front of the room? The professor’s role shifts to a facilitation of said documentary, but that’s okay and, for some students, necessary. Within feminist pedagogy (and feminism in general), it’s about letting others speak and to provide space for voices who lived the experience… and without the ability to bring in guest speakers every single week, turning to documentaries where people tell their stories is amazing! The goal of my classes is application, not regurgitation. I want them to see the world and say “this meme is classist and problematic” or understand the enormous power behind women’s studies courses being offered in Afghanistan and critically engage with the media telling that story from MSNBC to FOX News to BBC America. Being able to challenge the way a story is framed, can help them avoid reactionary feelings that can lead to destructive commentaries. Media literacy is necessary!

If what I have to say is wrong…

“I really feel if what I have to say is wrong, then there will be some woman who will stand up and say Audre Lorde was in error. But my words will be there, something for her to bounce off of, something to incite thought, activity.” – Audre Lorde in Conversations with Audre Lorde

This Audre Lorde quote has always been my favorite. It’s such an empowering message:  “… my words will be there, something for her to bounce off of, something to incite thought, activity.” Since leaving school I’ve struggled to find my own voice in writing, because I expect everything I write to be perfect. Rationally I understand that as to not be possible – all writers go through editorial processes and make changes to their work. What I love about this quote from Lorde is that she uses her voice, her writing, to inspire others. She is less concerned with the correctness of what she writes (or the perfectness of what she writes) than she is with just… writing. My interpretation of this quote – and anything else of hers that I read and teach or discuss – is doing exactly what she proposes in this quote. I may not understand, fully, her meaning or her words, yet what she says allows me to speak. Her writing provides a mode of conversation and lecture in the classroom that, by design, is meant to be interpreted and discussed.

I think this quote speaks well to the work of (Third Wave) Feminists whose work becomes viral in mere hours thanks to the Internet. I think the fear of going viral – of becoming the butt of a joke, a meme, etc. or victims of harassment – can be paralyzing for some, while others lean in to the anxiety (or ignore the anxiety) and put themselves out there. These are the individuals I admire. The ease of which Internet “trolls” are able to harass or intimidate people for simply talking about something they observe or experience has changed the game. I strongly believe in providing words to “bounce off of, incite thought, activity” but the violent rhetoric is not, I’m sure, what Lorde had in mind. More voices need to speak out and make their thoughts, observations, analyses heard! The question looms, however… how can we create space for some to speak while not placing them on a platter and serving them up to the trolls of the Internet? How can we find new ways of supporting those who are speaking their truths and giving voice to the voiceless?