The field of media studies not only offers students a vital interdisciplinary lens through which to disentangle the complex relationship between culture, media, and power in our society, but also equips them with a set of tools to enact change within it. My teaching philosophy emphasizes the creation of spaces which students are empowered to test, adjust, and expand their theoretical understanding of media, culture, and society while also honing their production and writing skills. Specifically, I want students to leave my courses confident in their ability to: 1) understand cultural media theory, 2) critically consume and produce media texts, and 3) show resilience in the face of challenges.
Shifting Mental Models
In his book What the Best College Teachers Do, Ken Bain argues that teachers need to foster “a natural critical learning environment” in which students are encouraged to rethink their assumptions and grapple with new mental models of reality.[i] My job is to invite students into cultural studies and critical media theory in such a way that they aren’t overwhelmed, resistant, or confused. At the start of every semester, I take a few days to give a brief overview of media studies before launching into the specific focus of the course. This gives students a larger framework within which to understand our class, even if they have never taken a course in the department.
During the semester, I have students work through individual assignments and group activities aimed at making familiar objects or practices “strange.” My students have researched the historical context of a piece of mundane fashion, conducted autoethnographies of the beauty messages they consume daily, and kept a detailed media consumption log in which they had to think not only through how much time they spent in front of screens, but also through how convergence complicated distinctions in media forms. I also assign readings that relate to student interests and career goals to help them connect more personally to theory. In Sex and Gender in Popular Media, an aspiring comedy writer wrote a reflection about how their understanding of affirmative action and diversity initiatives shifted after reading a Cinema Journal article on race and gender in comedy writers’ rooms, because it helped connect a concept they had only heard debated in the abstract to a concrete reality they connected to. I will also often make students take a side in a debate to more fully understand various points of view and to clarify their own. In Media Literacy, for instance, to foster a critical understanding of technology and education, I staged a mock school board meeting in which they debated whether the district should provide students with tablets to enable learning.
A natural critical learning environment also invites student feedback and buy-in as to the direction of the course. I want my classroom to feel like a learning community in which students are active stakeholders rather than passive participants. To this end, I often meet one-on-one with students at the start of the semester to better gauge their learning style and needs. I also have students work in groups the first week of class to craft syllabus policies. Finally, I gather student feedback in surveys and reflections throughout the semester, discussing and implementing their feedback.
Merging Theory and Practice
Practical experience and creative production are necessary for grounding media theory and for giving students the tools to make social and cultural interventions through their own creative projects. I combine traditional pedagogical methods like research papers, essays and exams with projects that allow students to translate their theoretical understanding of the material into creative works meant to ground theory in their own experience.
In my Media Literacy course, students collaborated on, researched, and wrote grant proposals for fictional non-profit organizations designed to teach media literacy to a specific population. As both a TA and a summer instructor for Introduction to Popular Movies and TV, I helped to design the course’s final group video production assignment, in which students storyboard, script, shoot, and edit a 3-4 minute video that engages their knowledge of both form and representation. Finally, in several classes, I’ve assigned a 5-8-minute audio documentary on a course-related case study in which students interview peers, professors, and community members. These projects not only sharpen students’ writing and production skills, they also require that students translate complicated concepts for a wider audience and tie theoretical paradigms to real-world examples.
Teaching Resilience and Revision
Just as I strive to see my own setbacks– negative student feedback, struggles to get classroom discussion going, or student projects that don’t live up to my original expectations– as opportunities to improve, so too do I need create an environment in which my students see project critiques, low grades, and difficult readings as an integral phase of the learning process rather than roadblocks. I design assessments in which students can build on their knowledge over the course of the semester through feedback and opportunities for revision.
To this end, projects and papers are broken down into milestones students must pass to move forward. For instance, in my Sex and Gender in Popular Media course, students worked in groups to produce 5-8 minute podcasts by advancing through several steps: editing a one-minute practice interview, writing a topic proposal, reaching out to interview subjects, writing an annotated bibliography, and playing a rough cut for feedback. During each step, students had to revise their original research question and topic based on feedback from the previous step. In a Popular Culture class, students worked on a four-section final paper based on Julie D’Acci’s circuit of media model of analysis. Throughout the semester, students received feedback on rough drafts of each section, culminating in a heavily revised version as their final project. This allowed them more space to hone their research focus over the course of 16 weeks
My success in the above teaching techniques is evidenced by my frequent inclusion on the University’s list of “Teachers Ranked as Excellent,” and my being awarded the department’s 2017 Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award. Before graduate school, I thought teaching skills were innate; I have, of course, since found that the only way to be a better teacher is to practice, research and reflect. Through repetition and revision, I strive to create learning environments in which students become critical media scholars, consumers, and producers whether they are freshman or seniors, engineering majors or media majors.
[i] Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2011.