Media studies provides students not only an interdisciplinary lens through which to understand the complex relationship between culture, media, and power in our society, but also a set of tools with which to enact change within it. Thus, my teaching philosophy focuses on creating a classroom space in which students feel comfortable testing, adjusting, and improving both their writing and production skills as well as their theoretical understanding of the media. Specifically, I want my students to leave my courses with confidence in three key areas: 1) an understanding of cultural theory and 2) the skills with which to critically consume and create media 3) the resilience to overcome classroom 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 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 as a field 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.” In Popular Culture, we learn to read objects as texts by researching and analyzing the meaning and socio-cultural context of fashion objects like nose rings, sunglasses, or flip-flops. Choosing readings that relate to student interests and career goals also helps them make sense of theory. In Sex and Gender in Popular Media, an aspiring comedy writer wrote me an unprompted 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. I have also increasingly shifted the onus of sparking and leading discussion to the students, getting out of the way of their coming to insights on their own and trusting their critical process. For instance, I implement the fishbowl technique, whereby 4-5 students are chosen to sit in the front of the class and have a discussion amongst themselves, thus giving students a chance to more naturally converse without raising their hand and without my being the authority in the conversation. After the conversation, I contextualize, add additional insights, and invite the rest of the class can discuss the results.
Merging Theory and Practice
Having earned a Master’s in film and television production, I work to create opportunities for practical experience and production even in theoretical courses. Making media is one of the best ways for students to consume media more critically. Alternately, future media creators need to learn media theory and cultural studies to create work that breaks down existing power structures. I therefore 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 ground theoretical paradigms in real-world examples.
Teaching Resilience and Revision
Just as I’ve had to learn to see my own setbacks–like negative student feedback, a struggle to get classroom discussion going, or student projects that don’t live up to my original expectations– as opportunities, so too do I need create an environment in which my students see paper feedback, bad grades, and difficult readings as opportunities instead of dead-ends. I strive to create opportunities in which students can build on their knowledge over the course of the semester, revise papers, retake tests, and work through projects in steps.
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 my Popular Culture class, students work on a four-section final paper based on Julie D’Acci’s circuit of media model of analysis. Throughout the semester, they turn in rough drafts of each section, culminating in a heavily revised version as their final project. This allows them more time for revision and more space to develop a research focus over 16 weeks
I also build revision and feedback into the process through which I develop my curricula each semester. In the Spring of 2016, I began having students fill out informal feedback surveys five weeks into the semester, so I could explain unpopular decisions, fix student identified problems, and give students buy-in as to the direction of the course. To give students an even greater sense of ownership over the direction of the class, at the start of this semester’s Popular Culture class, I had students work in groups to brainstorm and make recommendations about class policies like reading checks, group projects, and classroom expectations.
My success in the above teaching techniques is evident in that I have served as the instructor of record for most of teaching assignments, have been included on the University’s list of “Teachers Ranked as Excellent” several times, and was recognized with the department’s Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching award for 2017. 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 and reflect. Thus, through repetition and revision I strive to create learning environments in which students become critical media scholars, consumers, and producers whether it’s a class of 15 students or 100, freshman or seniors, engineering majors or media majors.
[i] Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Harvard University Press, 2011.