In this post I want to provide some pedagogical reflections on my use of Occupy Wall Street in my Intro to Media Criticism class. I’m still mulling over a lot of this, so these thoughts are, as always, partial.
Motivation for this assignment
Ultimately, my teaching philosophy is that my job is to equip students with skills to engage in productive critique as they interact with media and popular culture after they leave my classroom. This translates to my constantly asking students to practice applying the theories and methods of critique to contemporary examples. Usually this means showing clips in class and having them reflect on how the theories and methods I’ve taught them can illuminate the text at hand. This time, it meant leaving the classroom and bringing their personal experiences of a “media event” to bear on their analysis of news coverage. My hope is that in the future, students will be able to use their memory of this activity as a reference point when encountering news stories, and will evince an awareness that what they are seeing in the media are necessarily representations of reality that may not correspond to the experiences of people actually involved in the events depicted.
I would have also liked to use students’ first-hand experiences of and reactions to the protests themselves as a case study about how ideology shapes what frameworks and discourses we can even bring to bear on our experiences of reality. In other words, ideology isn’t just present in news reports, its present in our heads before we ever see the news. Thus even if we see something for ourselves, we cannot escape the ideological frameworks that allow/encourage us to interpret reality in particular ways. This is a trickier point to make, since it forces people to call into question their own deeply held beliefs. Also, while the theory involved in such a lesson would certainly be relevant to the content of my course, I didn’t want to spend too much time with this particular example. As ripe for interrogation and analysis as “common sense” views about radical political dissent are, I am cognizant of the fact that the issue may be a bit far outside of students’ own interests and experiences. I do think discussions of Occupy Wall Street could be productively used to teach concepts of ideology, hegemony, and discourse in very deep and personal ways. But I was wary of spending too much class time focused on this example, lest students lose sight of the fact that these theories can and should be applied to media texts that are less overtly “political” in topic.
Students received full credit for this assignment simply for turning something in. This is partly due to the fact that I termed it an “activity” which my syllabus says are graded based on whether students are present in class and complete the assignment, not on whether or not they arrive at “correct” answers. There is an ethical dimension to assigning grades this way as well – I wanted there to be no confusion as to whether my own opinions and political positions on the protesters or the media coverage of them would influence the grades assigned. Based on my experience in the classroom over the past 7 years, students tend to skew their responses on assignments like this toward what they think professors want to hear. When this pushes them to learn course material and accurately summarize and apply it, this is a great thing – of course professors “want to hear” that their students have learned something! I’m less comfortable when I suspect that students are claiming to espouse particular political opinions as a way to endear themselves to me. And so, I don’t want to set up a situation in which students feel their grade on this assignment reflects the degree to which they were able to align themselves with a particular opinion of the protesters. Of course any professor who teaches from a political position (and this is every professor, whether they are explicit with their students about their position or not) has to strive for some sort of objectivity when assessing student learning (and, it should be noted, the burden will be borne more intensely by faculty whose politics diverge from mainstream, hegemonic ideologies, because their politics will be visible as such rather than taken for granted as common sense by the majority of students). This is thrown into sharper relief when the topics and theories we teach are directly linked to political struggles, as when, for example, I teach feminist perspectives in a class on gender and media and my students are aware that I myself identify as a feminist.
Anyway, this is all to say that an assignment like this could be controversial if it is not carefully framed as an opportunity to apply media theories, versus a recruitment to the protest cause. I also want to reiterate that students were not required to attend the protest in person (and some ended up having scheduling conflicts that prevented them from doing so). I offered them the alternative assignment of comparing non-mainstream/first-person coverage (usually in the form of videos posted to YouTube by participants) with mainstream coverage. These students necessarily engaged in a different kind of analysis, but one that was still productive and relevant to the course.
I would have liked to ask my students to write a more formal paper using materials we have read on television news and ideology. I think their written responses would have been more carefully supported with theories from the class had this been the nature of the assignment. I do balk at requiring students to write formal papers about specific texts though – nearly every assignment I give asks students to choose texts and topics that feel personally relevant to them. I do this not only because I want students to be interested in the work they are doing for class, but because I want to stimulate them to continue the work of media criticism after they have completed my course (as I discussed above). By giving them the opportunity to practice media criticism on texts they actually willingly engage with, I think that my assignments more closely simulate the kind of critique I hope they will do in the future. With this assignment, they did not get the choose the text – I required them to write about Occupy Wall Street stories. As much as I personally find these stories compelling, I can’t be assured that my students will too. The concern is doubled when one takes into account the political charge of the story. I want there to be no perception that I am “forcing” students to be politically engaged, let alone to take a particular stance on a political issue.
So the question is, was this assignment successful at giving students the opportunity to 1) demonstrate their knowledge of the ideas presented in the assigned readings; 2) engage in theoretically informed critique of mediated news coverage; and 3) practice critical skills they can use in future encounters with media texts?
I think the answer to all of these questions is a qualified yes. I did find that many students approached the assignment purely as a personal reflection on their encounters with the occupation site, rather than a comparative analysis of news coverage of the occupation. Had the assignment been a longer, formal paper and not an “activity” I probably could have steered them away from taking this approach, and there would have been more concrete incentive to bring their writing into conversation with the assigned readings, which dealt with ideology and news. I do think this was a useful exercise though, and based on a few conversations I’ve had with students in the weeks since, they have retained some of the insight they gained by doing it. Will they approach future news coverage with the same critical eye this assignment asked them to? I can’t know. But I think at the very least they will be able to draw on their class experiences when consuming coverage of the Occupy movement, and considering the significance this story is gaining on a national scale, that is no small thing.