Teaching Visual/Material Culture with Pinterest

If you’re teaching a course that focuses on visual or material culture, there are lots of reasons to take advantage of the fact that the social media platforms college students are using these days are very visually oriented. I taught a course called Fashion and Power at NYU in which I used Pinterest to engage students with the reading material and to gauge their ability to apply what they’d read to real world examples. In this post I’ll share how I used Pinterest, including the details of the assignments, so you can see how you might use it (or a similar platform) for your own courses. I used Pinterest slightly differently in each of the two semesters I taught the course, so I’ll describe all the various ways I used it.

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Setup

I created a Pinterest account that was shared by all members of the class. Each student had the login and password, and we operated on the honor system. We experienced no problems with students abusing their access – no one deleted anyone else’s posts or anything like that. This certainly *could* have happened, but it didn’t. The key here would be to monitor the boards frequently enough so that you’d notice if a problem arose. It would be possible to do any of these assignments with each student having their own Pinterest account and creating boards to complete their assignments individually. Hashtags would be useful if you wanted to do collaborative curations as many of the assignments here involved.

One difficulty associated with all sharing a login was that the person who posted an image would not be explicitly identified – I got around this by requiring that people include their initials in their image captions. Sometimes students forgot to do this; for the first few weeks I reminded them that there were images that were not receiving credit because I couldn’t attribute them to anyone. After that the responsibility was on the student to inform me if they hadn’t received credit for something they’d posted. The other difficulty we encountered was that sometimes the platform would reject posts if too many people were trying to post at once, probably because it detected such activity as spam. This frustrated the students sometimes, but I don’t think it resulted in any major problems. I let students know that if they had difficulty posting they should just email me the content of their post by the deadline and then try again later to get it posted.


Three different assignments

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Weekly Boards
In one assignment, I created a board associated with each week of the course from the syllabus (each week had a specific topic and list of 3-4 readings). Students signed up in pairs for the week they were most interested in, and were responsible for curating images related to the reading material for that week. They had to populate the board with images before the class periods in question – this required them to do the reading ahead of time and also provided me with visual aids I could use during class if I chose to. The caption for each image had to explain its relevance to the reading, including the author and title details so that other students could follow along. (After the class periods each student from the curating pair was also responsible for writing a blog post that reviewed what was covered in class and made use of the pinned images.) I assigned grades for this assignment based on whether a minimum number of images were pinned, and the level of relevance the images and captions had to the course material.

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Personal Boards
In addition to the weekly assigned boards, each student had a personal board they could post to whenever they wished. Here they had much more latitude to explore images and objects in which they took a personal interest. The only content requirement was that they had to relate the images to one of the “keywords” around which I’d themed the course. I encouraged them to post photographs they took themselves to these boards (though I don’t recall many students doing so). Again, they were awarded points based on posting a minimum number of images (5 by the midterm, 10 total by the final) and their ability to explain the relevance to course material.

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Reading-specific Boards
The second time I taught the course I took a different approach, in order to complement the other assignments I had planned for the semester. This time around, I created a board for each assigned reading on the syllabus. Students could then post images to any board they chose at any time throughout the semester. The captions needed to relate the image to an idea from the reading and had to incorporate at least one of the course keywords. Students were not assigned to specific readings – I awarded points as they completed their pins over the semester. Each pin could earn from 1-3 points, based on how original the image selection was and how clear the explanation was connecting it to the reading and the course themes. Students could earn up to 50 points for this assignment. They would not need to pin for every reading, if they were doing quality captions and earning the maximum points possible per pin. The only limitation was that they could only do one pin per reading. I also required them to post by midnight before the class in which the reading would be discussed – this was to give me time to review their pins before I went to class. I found this very helpful for getting a sense of how well students had absorbed the reading; if there were a lot of pins with quality captions I could tell that the reading was popular and easy to understand/apply. A few students complained that the time deadline was too restrictive because they preferred to do the reading directly before class rather than a day in advance (I felt the pedagogical value of me seeing their pins before class justified the deadline so I didn’t adjust it). I was surprised to find the variance in participation on this assignment. Because I set it up so that it was basically impossible not to get the full amount of points (either through quality or quantity of pins posted), I expected everyone to get an A by the end of the semester. This was not the case though – in fact I would say the range of scores was broader for this assignment than for any of the others I’ve given. Ultimately I felt it rewarded effort and organization – those who kept track of their posts and got them done early in the semester ended up doing the best.

Caveats
One problem I ran into repeatedly was trying to get students to link to the sources of the photos using Pinterest’s “pinned from” feature. While Pinterest makes it possible to credit the sources of images, the technical and especially social norms of pinning on Pinterest do not emphasize this. It’s up to you how much you want to emphasize this, but I ended up not being too strict about it (compared with say, requiring them to provide image sources and URLs in their blog posts).

Obviously assignments that use Pinterest require some social media savvy on the part of students. The learning curve was steeper for some than for others, but I think eventually everyone got it. I spent some time during class walking through how to post to the boards, and I fielded questions as glitches came up. I was also available to assist students with the platform one-on-one, though no one actually availed themselves of this help–most of them turned to a friend or classmate for this kind of assistance if they needed it.

I would not use these kinds of assignments in an introductory, required course, the reason being that I don’t think it would be fair to expect students to master a social media platform like this in order to succeed in the class. In an upper-level topical course like Fashion & Power though, especially at a school like NYU, students self-select and the vast majority are already interested in and adept at using platforms like Pinterest. Arguably, too, if they are seeking a career in the fashion or fashion-media industries, they probably *should* have some experience with visual social media platforms. So I think it works very well in a course like this. Hopefully you can also imagine how these assignments could be adapted to platforms like Instagram or Tumblr.

If you find any of this helpful, or have any questions I didn’t address, please feel free to tweet or email me!

Facilitating Exam Preparation with Twitter

We all know that users of media platforms tend to “discover” affordances that the creators and distributors never intended. The students in my Culture and Social Media Technologies course last spring discovered a great use for the Twitter accounts I required them to have — collectively prepping for the midterm! I hadn’t envisioned the students using it this way, but I ended up being really impressed and nerdily delighted that they arrived at this affordance, so much so that I think it provides justification in itself for integrating Twitter into any college course. Because, as I will explain, it’s important to get students rolling on Twitter well in advance of any exams in order to create the class culture that might facilitate Twitter-based exam review, people who are planning their Fall classes will want to think about integrating Twitter into their course structure now, rather than right before midterms. Hence my posting it in mid-August! I’ll offer the context and results of our experience using Twitter in this way, along with some pedagogical reflections and student feedback (which I obtained via a voluntary, anonymous survey, after returning the graded exam to the students).

Background

I require all 47 students in my course (on the topic of Culture and Social Media Technologies) to be active on Twitter. Each student is required to post at least two course-relevant tweets per week, using the class hashtag (#csmt12). Knowing that students differ in levels of comfort with social media technologies, I spent the first few weeks of the course getting them familiar with the Twitter platform, teaching them how to use the class hashtag, and making classroom time for them to interact with each other in person and exchange usernames. After getting acquainted with the norms and expectations of the class Twitter stream, many students went beyond the required number of tweets, replying to me and to each other, and posing thoughtful questions about the reading and lecture material. After six weeks of collective tweeting, they had come to expect that I and their fellow students would read and sometimes respond to their tweets.

Emergent uses of the class Twitter stream for exam preparation

On the night before the midterm exam, the class stream had a near constant flow of exam-related tweets. Unprompted by me, several students coordinated the exchange of study guides and arranged in-person study sessions. Some students tweeted questions about the course material, which other students would answer, sometimes immediately. I tried to monitor the question/answer exchanges and jump in when necessary to provide clarification. Some students tweeted at me directly to ask questions about material or the exam format. Overall, I sensed a mood of camaraderie, as if we were all in this exam preparation boat together. One student confirmed this afterward, observing that Twitter “brought the whole class together in a unified study group outside of the classroom.” Throughout the evening, several students shared jokes to lighten the shared exam anxiety, further contributing to the sense of unity and goodwill.

One of the most advantageous aspects of the Twitter review was that all students could see the questions that other students were asking and answering, as well as my replies. Some students reported that this alerted them to topics and details they hadn’t realized they should be reviewing. Had these questions been asked over email, my responses would have been useful only to the student who directly asked. The response time may have been much longer, and I would have had to respond to redundant questions. Thirty-one out of 35 respondents to my post-exam survey said they had monitored the #csmt12 feed, using it like a FAQ or “Frequently Asked Questions” page on a website. This “lurking” method saves face, because it allows students to receive clarification without having to admit to me what they don’t know. Indeed, one student described Twitter in this context as “a much more comfortable, open forum” than email. One student also reported that answering others’ questions ensured that they “knew and could explain the logic behind some concepts more clearly.”

So one of the major advantages of the Twitter exam review was the transparency it lent to the studying process. On my end, I could see what students were doing to prepare as well as their level of confidence going into the exam (sometimes expressed through humorous tweets like “I think I’ve got this #csmt12 midterm in the bag. #FamousLastWords.” After the exam, several tweeted to express satisfaction with their performance and with the level of difficulty of the exam questions.

Student feedback about using Twitter for exam preparation

The feedback from the students about the experience itself was largely positive. Some pointed out that the 140-character limit helped keep the material clear and concise. One shared that the Twitter stream helped “keep topics on my mind even when not directly ‘studying.’”

But not everyone found Twitter a useful tool in this instance. Three of the 35 students surveyed said they did not utilize Twitter to study (12 students didn’t respond to the survey at all). One said that they did not find Twitter helpful because they were still “not familiar enough with how to use the platform.” One student “didn’t think reading 140 character posts would be helpful,” and another pointed out that sometimes students gave incorrect answers to each other’s questions, so they had to wait for these to be corrected. Even some students who found Twitter helpful overall did express being overwhelmed by the number and frequency of exam-related tweets. One student suggested that a Facebook group may have been more conducive to cultivating conversation among students. These are all points to consider.

While several students expressed the wish that all their classes would conduct exam review sessions via Twitter, I do think that, for it to work, the class must establish a culture of regular Twitter exchanges well in advance of the exam. My takeaway from the experience is that, even in classes where the subject matter isn’t directly related to social media involvement (as mine is), it could still be worth cultivating a Twitter backchannel from week one, for purposes like this!

 

Day of Higher Ed

I’m a bit skeptical of this #dayofhighered social media campaign, not because I don’t think it’s about something important, but because I worry that the people in my social networks are already well aware of the labor that goes into an academic career and thus I really won’t be helping that much by tweeting about my day (and I think the people in my networks who are not academics would as likely be alienated as informed by the tweets). That said, I did find it to be an interesting exercise to keep track of the academic labor I did today:

***

8am: wake up and read Twitter (feed is mostly students, academics, and research-related), respond to student tweet about reading

8:30: commute to campus, read student emails on phone

9:30-10:45: lecture

10:45-12:30: check twitter, bookmark articles for teaching; read media studies blogs while eating lunch; photocopy quiz for 12:30 class; finalize and print lecture notes for 12:30 class; while skimming readings for class, take notes on book manuscript; input attendance and participation grades for 9:30 class

12:30-1:45: lecture

1:45-3:30: grade quizzes from previous class and input scores into Blackboard; write up paper assignment description for class; meet with current student about class project; meet with another student to arrange independent study for next school year; locate clips to show in 3:30 class; respond to emails from graduate students; respond to student tweets

3:30-4:45: lecture

at home after hours: write up another paper assignment description for a different class; read twitter, bookmark articles & teaching blogs for future teaching ideas

***

I think there are two things worth noting here. One, much of the “labor” was about being socially engaged with students and colleagues via Twitter and email. This reminds me of the historically invisible labor that is often associated with female workers. I can’t put “responded to student tweets” on my CV, but I do think it makes a difference in the pedagogical success of my teaching. My hope is that by communicating and enacting my own investment in my courses and in my students, they will reciprocate with their own investment in the courses, and thus learn more. This is something I can mention in a job letter or a teaching statement or an annual review, but there’s no doubt this would be worth less than a publication line on my CV.

Which leads me to my second note. There is only one bit of work in here that has to do with my own research and writing, and it was an incidental note I made in my moleskine to look up a reference for my book manuscript. It’s possible that my priorities are way out of whack, and I’m setting myself up for imminent failure when I go back on the tenure-track job market by devoting a disproportionate amount of my day to teaching-related tasks (and this is what The Professor would say, I’m sure). On the other hand, I have organized my weekly schedule so that my three classes all meet on the same two days of the week, so that Tuesdays and Thursdays-Sundays are much more amenable to doing research and writing. Had the DayOfHigherEd fallen on one of those days, the labor breakdown would have looked different (basically swap out the lecture periods for research/note-taking/writing time).

I found this exercise useful more for myself than I see it being for educating anyone else about academic labor. I may try to do it more often!

Classroom Activity: Legitimation Continuum

A conversation on Twitter this afternoon (shout out to @_mesk) reminded me of a classroom activity I’ve been doing for a few years whenever I teach mass culture theory and/or taste hierarchies in relation to media consumption. (It’s a simple thing, and I’m sure I didn’t invent it, but I can’t remember where I first saw it, or what it was like in its original form versus how I’ve ended up adapting it.)

Here’s how it works:

I start out by writing “High Culture” at the top of the chalkboard and “Low Culture” at the bottom. Then I draw a vertical line connecting them. Then we populate the continuum with the names of specific media texts. (Unfortunately I don’t have a picture – I’ll try to remember to take a photo next semester). I throw out the first few example texts to get us started. So I’ll ask things like “where does American Idol belong on the continuum?” I usually begin with examples that I think everyone will agree on — NPR and The New Yorker are pretty easy to stick near the top, Jersey Shore pretty reliably ends up near the bottom. I’ll throw out an example, and then sort of move the chalk up or down the vertical line until several voices tell me to stop. Then I write in the media text next to the line. As we fill in more and more examples, the hierarchical comparisons between different media texts become clear. (This activity is also a great way to involve all the students if the class is small enough – on the first day of my media classes I ask every student to share their favorite piece of pop culture – a tv show, a film, a band, etc. I write these down and try to use all of them as examples during this exercise. This way everyone is assured to have a stake in the discussion of which texts belong where.)

The conversation gets interesting when there are disagreements among the students over where certain texts belong. At this point I usually have to remind people that we’re not ranking the texts in the order of how much we personally like them, we’re thinking about where they belong in the cultural hierarchy between high and low culture. With specific comparisons, I ask the students why one text should be ranked higher than another. So, when Project Runway gets ranked higher than America’s Next Top Model, as it inevitably does, I ask students to think about why. For example, one thing that comes up is the cultural value of niche cable networks (PR was on Bravo, then Lifetime) compared with teen-targeted network TV (ANTM was on UPN, then the CW).

(A favorite side activity of mine is, when the Real Housewives come up, to ask the students to rank the different RH casts – New York vs. New Jersey vs. Beverly Hills vs. Atlanta, etc., etc. This can become a jumping off point for talking about cultural hierarchies of class, race, geographical region, etc. I’ll admit that sometimes this side activity doesn’t work as well – it really depends on having a group of students that is devoted to and familiar with the Real Housewives franchise.)

Once we’ve got the chart all filled in, I ask the students to reflect on how they knew which texts went where. Because we were able to achieve consensus on most of the texts, it becomes a good opportunity for deconstructing taste hegemonies. Many students have never thought about why exactly NPR is more legitimate than US Weekly. Starting this conversation can be a great way to expose how education, upbringing, and class status enter into the personal tastes that most people take for granted. The relationship between gendered audiences and cultural legitimation may also become starkly clear, depending on the texts discussed. It’s also a great way to introduce the concept of “middlebrow” when you look at which texts ended up clustered around the middle of the continuum; also when students argue over whether a text should be high or low and it ends up in between.

I think the visual and interactive nature of the activity works really well to make it stick with students – I will often have students mention the continuum later on in the course or even reference it in exam answers. The key is to make sure students are able to connect it to some of the more complex, theoretical concepts that are relevant to cultural legitimation, like hegemony and distinction, and don’t just remember “The New Yorker = better than Real Housewives” as the takeaway. This I can’t speak to without some more systematic evaluative research… would love to hear from anyone who uses this exercise with more or less success on this point.

Word Cloud activity

I started off one of my classes this semester with an activity I’ve never tried before – and it turned out great!

The course is called Queer Identity and Popular Culture, and I’ve conceived it as an upper-level undergraduate course designed to introduce students to queer theory in the context of media and communication. The activity was to, as a class, manually create a “word cloud” around the term “queer.” I wrote QUEER in the center of the chalkboard, and then asked students to start offering terms that they saw as being associated with “queer” in some way. I started off asking them to raise hands and let me call on them by name – this was to give me a chance to learn their names and so I could ensure that everyone got a chance to participate at least once. (Once everyone had shared something, it became more of a free-for-all.) I pointed out that they could cite any terms that were associated with queer in our culture – their saying a term didn’t necessarily have to mean they believed it was synonymous with queer or should be associated with queer in their opinion. This freed them up from having to take personal ownership (if they weren’t comfortable doing so) and allowed us to shift the discussion, implicitly, to the discursive construction of queer, versus their own personal experience of queerness. I also encouraged them to offer pop culture examples – to pretend we were bloggers writing for a Queer Pop Culture blog, and these were the words we’d use to “tag” our posts. Here’s what we ended up with by the end of the class:

(Closer-up pictures can be seen here.)

Here’s what I think worked about the activity:

It got everyone talking. Since there were no wrong answers, everyone had something to contribute and the stakes were pretty low. Even the students who seemed shy/more reluctant to talk could participate. I had no idea going in how well versed the students would be in queer theory or queer culture – I figured this activity would allow anyone to chime in, even if they had a pretty limited background in the topic.

I learned new things. Many of the examples students offered were figures in queer pop culture that I hadn’t heard of. Some of them were local queer icons, which was great for me since I’m pretty new to NYC.

We established a safe/productive classroom discussion dynamic. Discussions in a course like this can be sensitive. I want the students to feel safe admitting when they don’t understand something or haven’t been exposed to it before. I tried to model this by admitting that I hadn’t heard of some of the examples the students offered (this also gave them the chance to serve as experts and explain it to me and the rest of the class). I also pointed out, earlier in the discussion, that it was ok if they hadn’t heard of some of the things other students were mentioning and that they shouldn’t feel like “outsiders,” because we’d be discussing everything as the class progressed. At one point, a student prefaced her contribution by saying “I don’t mean to be offensive with this, but…” I pointed out to the class that, going forward, we were going to assume that no one means to be offensive with their comments, and that the classroom should be a safe place to share things we’re unsure about. (Of course, this one depends on everyone actually not meaning to be offensive. My sense with this group is that this won’t be a problem, fortunately.)

I got to learn about each student. Not only did I get practice associating their names with their faces, the activity gave them the opportunity to self-disclose without being put on the spot. Several of them, with the terms they offered (and in some cases, explanations of those terms), were able to express their personal experiences and special knowledges. This may have been the most productive aspect of the exercise for me, as I now have a great idea of where to pitch my explanations of various concepts, going forward.

I suspect (hope?) that the activity also worked to pique the interest of the students in the topics and examples they haven’t yet encountered. I had one student tell me after class that he liked the activity, and I saw a few of them taking their own pictures of the board with their phones. It will be fun to refer back to the photos of our word cloud at the end of the class to see which things we ended up covering in depth. This will also hopefully help students measure their own learning – to see where they had expanded their vocabularies and competencies over the course of the semester. I also think it will be fun, at the end of the semester, to talk about which words we didn’t have on our cloud and that we would want to add.

I think this activity could work well for almost any course centered around a key theme or term. It’s particularly useful for courses with “sensitive” topics (anything having to do with social inequality, for example), and for courses in which the backgrounds of the students may vary widely. It could also work in lectures on specific topics (not necessarily on the first day of class) though some of the outcomes (like learning names) may not be as useful later on in the semester.

Confronting Media Privilege

I recently went looking for a list of markers of “media privilege” — something similar to the checklist in Peggy McIntosh’s famous knapsack article, but specifically geared toward media. I didn’t turn up anything right away, so I’m generating a list of my own, to use in my Intro to Media Criticism class later in the semester.

 

Gender

I can name a Hollywood director who is the same gender as I am.

I can name five Hollywood directors who are the same gender as I am.

I rarely see jokes on tv and in movies mocking my gender.

When the lead character in a tv show or movie has the same gender as I do, it’s hardly noticed or commented on by anyone.

When a celebrity of my same gender wins a big award, their gender is not excessively pointed out.

If I want to get a job in the media industries, I don’t have to worry about being pigeon-holed into certain positions, companies, or topic areas based on my gender.

 

Ethnicity

I can name a tv show where most of the main characters are the same ethnicity as I am.

I can name five tv shows where most of the main characters are the same ethnicity as I am.

I can name a Hollywood director who is the same ethnicity as I am.

I can name five Hollywood directors who are the same ethnicity as I am.

I rarely see jokes on tv and in movies mocking my ethnicity.

When a celebrity of my same ethnicity wins a big award, their ethnicity is not excessively pointed out.

I can regularly find television shows in the same language my parents speak at home.

I have access to an entire television channel in the same language my parents speak at home.

I have access to five television channels in the same language my parents speak at home.

People of my ethnicity are frequently featured on the covers of mainstream magazines.

I can be pretty sure that most newsstands will have magazines geared toward people of my ethnicity.

People of my ethnicity are frequently featured in advertisements.

If I want to get a job in the media industries, I don’t have to worry about being pigeon-holed into certain positions, companies, or topic areas based on my ethnicity.

 

Sexual identity

When tv or movie characters have the same sexual identity as I do, it is not seen as controversial.

I can name a tv show where most of the main characters have the same sexual identity as I do.

I can name five tv shows where most of the main characters have the same sexual identity as I do.

I can name a Hollywood director who has the same sexual identity as I do.

I can name five Hollywood directors who have the same sexual identity as I do.

I rarely see jokes on tv and in movies mocking my sexual identity.

When a lead character in a tv show or movie has the same sexual identity as I do, it’s hardly noticed or commented on by anyone.

When a celebrity of my same sexual identity wins a big award, their sexual identity is not excessively pointed out.

People of my sexual identity are frequently featured in advertisements.

I can be pretty sure that most newsstands will have magazines geared toward people of my sexual identity.

Access

The home I grew up in had cable television.

The home I grew up in had premium television subscriptions.

The home I grew up in had high speed internet access.

I had a smartphone before I was 18.

I had an iPod before I was 18.

I had my own computer before I was 18.

My high school had updated computers and high speed internet access.

 

New questions could be generated around age, disability status, class, region, nationality, religion, political affiliation, and so on, depending on the material to be taught. We could also get intersectional, asking these same questions but combining identity categories. So for instance, “can I name five shows with main characters who share my gender and my ethnicity and my sexual identity?” Comments with additions to any of these lists welcome!

#OccupyWallStreet as Media Criticism Classroom, Part 4

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.

Assessment

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.

Structure

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.

 

Conclusions

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.

#OccupyWallStreet as Media Criticism Classroom, Part 3

In the last post I shared my own personal observations of the field trips my students and I made to Zuccotti Park. In this post, I want to report my student’s reactions, as shared during the class period following our field trip and in their write-ups comparing their observations with news coverage. Their opinions are necessarily filtered through my own perceptions and retelling, so let the reader beware that my account is just that–an account. At the same time though, I will attempt to document what my students said, rather than offer my own judgment of their comments’ accuracy. I can’t say whether the 48 people in my Media Criticism course constitute a “representative sample” of college kids, NYU students, or any other group, so any conclusions that might be drawn about the rhetorical successes and failures of the occupation and its coverage by mainstream media outlets are, again, necessarily partial.

Observations about the protesters themselves:

  • Students noted the diversity of views expressed by the participants with whom they were able to have individual conversations.
  • The most common sentiment I heard expressed by my students in class was frustration. Frustration that the protesters’ message wasn’t clear, that there were no goals, or that there were no concrete goals, or no achievable goals, or that the goals had not been achieved yet.
  • On the other hand, many students were able to identify a unified message of solidarity-in-disastisfaction in the  “We are the 99%” slogan, and the effect of the protests in bringing attention to this message.
  • Some students knew or knew of NYU students who had participated in the protests and at least one who had been arrested during the march on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday.
  • Many students noted that a lot of the protesters (and some of their friends in other cities) were there because it seemed “cool” or “historic”; my impression was that my students did not think these were legitimate reasons to be involved in the event.
  • Students didn’t like when protesters generalized or made blanket statements without specific facts or personal experience to back them up. For example, one student quoted a protester who said she was participating in the occupation because  “lobbying doesn’t work”; my student doubted that the protester had ever attempted to participate in lobbying.
  • Some students pointed out that when they visited the occupation site, they did not see violence or hostility, that protesters were “chilling out” or maintaining a joyful atmosphere.

Observations about media coverage of the protests:

  • Several people commented on how much the story had grown since we had first started talking about it one week ago.
  • Students had heard of occupations in other cities, via social media sources like Facebook. Some described exploring Youtube videos, Twitter accounts, and blogs created by protesters in order to learn more.
  • Many commented on how mainstream news coverage focused on the most visually spectacular of the events, notably instances where police officers exercised physical force on protesters. They noted the difference between their own observations of relative calm and cooperation between police and protesters, and what television news had chosen to highlight. One student observed that the number of views on Youtube videos featuring violence was over ten times the number of views on footage of peaceful protest.
  • Some noted the differences in visual appearance of the protesters and protest site from what they had expected based on news coverage. For example, one was surprised to find how organized the site was, including a library, food service area, etc.
  • A few students doubted the representativeness of their own observations, since they were so divergent from the events they had seen on the news.
  • Students differed in their attitudes toward the news coverage. Some were highly critical, describing coverage as “condescending,” “vulgar,” and “frustrating.” They observed that even coverage which appeared sympathetic to the protesters (like Lawrence O’Donnel’s) focused on sensational aspects, like police brutality, instead of discussing protesters’ reasons for being there or the developments that had occurred since the dramatic incidents. Others noted that the protesters’ own diversity of opinions–and even vagueness–might account for the hesitancy of news outlets to go into detail on what they stand for.
  • Several students actually asked the protesters what they thought of the media coverage. The trend seemed to be that protesters were happy to receive coverage, though many of them had not personally seen any mainstream stories (given that they had been camped out in the park).
In my next post, I will reflect on this activity as a teaching tool. I will also attempt to offer insights as to how a similar assignment might be used in future media criticism classes.

OccupyWallStreet as Media Criticism Classroom, Part 2

In the last post I shared the assignment I gave my Introduction to Media Criticism students, the first part of which was to record their first-hand observations of the Occupy Wall Street protest. I wanted them to actually hear unmediated (through tv news) accounts of why people are participating in the occupation, and to actually witness what the protest looked like on a “normal” day, as opposed to during the moments that have become higher profile due to news sensationalism (i.e. moments at which police clashed violently with protesters). They are then going to compare their own observations with mainstream media coverage.

In this post I want to offer my own observations of the occupation, as gathered during two field trips I made with my students to Liberty Plaza (I teach two sections of Intro to Media Crit, both meet on the same days). I gave all of my students the option to visit the occupation on their own time – some of them have other classes that would make it hard for them to get from campus to Liberty Plaza and back in time. The class day I had set aside for the field trip was also during Rosh Hashana, so I knew that several of my students were planning (excused) absences from class that day. About half my 48 students ended up  choosing to go with me during the scheduled class periods.

The first group of students and I took a bus from campus to Liberty Plaza, in light rain. When we arrived, we went over to the welcome table set up on the Broadway entrance to the park. The student who volunteered to take video asked questions and the person staffing the welcome table answered:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFYp_jojyg8&w=640&h=360]

The welcomer informed us that a General Assembly meeting was about to begin, so we went to where a crowd was gathered for that. My student videographer spotted a friend in the crowd, and she asked him to explain why he was there. (I’m not posting the video here because he said he did not want to be filmed!) Here’s what he said:

Protester: My reasons? I just found out about it a couple days ago when I was watching videos of what the police were doing to the marchers and it kind of infuriated me that people had a legitimate complaint and they couldn’t voice it in public space without being brutalized by the police that are supposed to protect them. And it just raises questions about who the police are actually protecting. And I didn’t really know what it was and now that I’ve gotten here, and all the public forums and discussions, it’s like a big experiment in direct democracy.

Student: Do you think it’s more of an experiment than a stance?

Protester: Um… I think it’s both. Does it have to be one or the other?

Student: Touche.

Once the GA meeting got underway, we were able to observe the “human microphone.” It works by participants all repeating what is said by the facilitator at the front, so everyone in the crowd can hear. The ostensible purpose of this is to circumvent the need for voice amplification, which the police have told the protesters they are not allowed to have. One of the occupation participants we spoke with also said he saw the human microphone as beneficial because it gives everyone the opportunity to speak with one voice. It thus serves as a performance of discursive unity. A side effect of this is that meetings can sound like participants are repeating a rote pledge – the content of the meeting starts to sound not unlike a group of students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I overheard one of my students say “it sounds like church.” To me this makes all the more clear the ritualistic aspect of protest actions. Even seemingly mundane logistical meetings become opportunities to perform solidarity, both through literal vocal repetition of the words said by facilitators, but also through the conventions of meeting process such as the hand gestures used to introduce a “point of order” or to indicate agreement with what is being said. These conventions were taught to all meeting participants at the start of the General Assembly meeting, thus bringing newcomers into the fold and giving them the chance to actively participate in the established meeting rituals. The facilitators explained (and the human microphone repeated) that the reason behind the established meeting process was “to try and create (try and create) the most democratic (most democratic), open (open), horizontal (horizontal) space (space) possible (possible).”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tl3ElMcLDx8&w=640&h=360]

As the General Assembly continued , people milled around the rest of the park as well. It had been raining for a while, so most of the beds and other belongings were covered with tarps. I noticed a hand-drawn poster with diagrams instructing how to use the tarps to protect belongings from the rain. A lot of the tarps had occupiers sleeping under them!

Due to the rain and tarps, I wasn’t able to see much of the media center, which I had been looking forward to. The kitchen was up and running though, along with a children’s play area where I did indeed see several children and parents gathered.

Participants seemed very willing to converse with students and explain their reasons for joining the occupation. My student videographer captured one such conversation:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lpNRuqhpBJw&w=640&h=360]

The police presence was notable, with uniformed officers  standing lined up on the sidewalk on Broadway, and the entire street to the north of the plaza blocked off for police vehicles. One protester stood on the Broadway sidewalk holding a sign ostensibly aimed at passers-by, but his position directly across from the line of officers added another layer of meaning to the invitation on the sign:

The general assembly meeting wrapped up with announcements of break-out sessions to be held later in the afternoon, and I made my way back to campus for my office hours.

My second group of students had much worse weather to contend with – we were caught in thunder and pouring rain when we got off the train with a mile still to walk – but they trooped through it with cheerful attitudes. When we finally arrived at Liberty Plaza, I was a bit disappointed but not entirely surprised to see the crowd had depleted from earlier. One of the welcome tables (at the east entrance) was shut down entirely to keep it from getting drenched. There were fewer people milling about the park and thus fewer people for students to approach and converse with, as my earlier group had been doing. After walking around for a few minutes, one cluster of students asked me if they could talk to one of the police officers standing on the perimeter of the park. I encouraged them to, and caught what I could on video:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E0rP_PWoaBw&w=640&h=360]

Toward the end of this video you can hear that a march is returning to the plaza. I realized that the crowd hadn’t been depleted due to the rain but due to the scheduled afternoon march past the stock exchange. The return of the marchers enlarged the crowd in the park once again and gave the students many more opportunities to converse with participants.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mtzsevMhlys&w=640&h=360]

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQ838cnr4A0&w=640&h=360]

There was a tense moment when several police officers (including one with a bullhorn) gathered near the camp library. It appeared that they were asking organizers to remove the tarps protecting the books from the rain, which provoked objection from the protesters standing nearby (though it was actually impossible for me to tell what was going on and what words were being exchanged between the officers and people standing directly next to the books). After a few minutes the tarps were replaced and the officers filed away from the area through the crowd that had gathered (to chants and applause from some protesters).

A breakout media group meeting began, in which a facilitator asked everyone in attendance to explain what kind of media production they were working on at the occupation and whether they were willing to share what they had recorded with the collective. She began by explaining that she was a filmmaker working on a documentary about the economy, inspired by her own father’s economic struggles and eventual suicide. Others explained that they were journalists, writers, filmmakers, and emisaries from movements in other regions of the country, such as Wisconsin. Everyone I heard expressed their willingness to share with the collective. A notebook was passed around for everyone to list contact information and personal skill-sets, so that media production efforts could be coordinated among the participants. Upon seeing the notebook get passed around, one of my students standing near me remarked, “It’s like… a network!” (I imagine that wherever in the world Jeff Juris was at that moment, he got the chills!)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RjkcX8Vij8&w=640&h=360]

I saw no one expressing overt hostility at other individuals or treating passers-by (ostensibly people who are employed in the financial district and who Mayor Bloomberg represented the protesters as being “against”) with disrespect. The crowd, based on appearances, seems diverse in terms of age, race, and occupation. A fitting embodiment of the “we are the 99%” sentiment that thematically unifies the protest. Overall, the aspect of the occupation I found most striking was the sheer number of personal conversations going on, in which people were discussing their concerns in a serious, open, thoughtful manner.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jdk13zxnX1c&w=640&h=360]

These weren’t just insular conversations among people who had been with the occupation for days–everywhere I saw newcomers, visitors, tourists, and media personnel asking questions and being treated with welcoming enthusiasm. To me, this was a poignant metaphor for what (I think) is the central goal of the occupation–to incubate and spread a national conversation about issues that matter to people who neither finance powerful political lobbies nor control powerful media corporations. If political and economic speech are largely  unavailable to everyday citizens, they will go the old-fashioned route and just speak.

In Part 3, I will summarize my students reflections and reactions, as written in their assignments and as shared in class discussion. I will hopefully get permission from some of them to post their written reflections here.

OccupyWallStreet as Media Criticism Classroom, Part 1

Like most other people who are keyed into the left/progressive activist milieu, I had been following the Occupy Wall Street events since before the occupation began, mostly via Twitter but also through other sources on the web and a few professional colleagues. I’ve been paying attention to actions like these for a long time as part of my scholarship–I’ve spent the past 5 years or so studying and writing about anarchist activists–so I was expecting Occupy Wall Street to be another in a long line of interesting but not-too-remarkable events. Indeed, as the first several days of the occupation passed, things seemed par for the course. The mainstream media outlets weren’t paying attention, but I had never really expected them to. (One exception was a New York Times “article” which was so blatantly biased against the protesters that I barely paid attention to it, assuming it must be someone’s blog post that got misfiled in the serious journalism section.) When the protests finally became “newsworthy” this past weekend, I was again unsurprised. Unsurprised that what made people pay attention was violent conflict between police and protesters. Thoroughly unsurprised that, though it seems all the violence was *by* police *against* peaceful protesters, organizations like ABC News chose headlines like “Protests Turn Violent,” implying that protests lead to violence just as naturally as clouds lead to rain. Still, par for the course.

It was only when I sat down to write my lectures for this week that I realized I could probably use the coverage as an excellent case study in one of my courses. I’m currently teaching two sections of Introduction to Media Criticism at NYU’s Steinhardt School, in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. My students have spent the last four weeks learning basic critical theories of culture. I’m teaching theorists so familiar to me by now they feel like old friends–Marx, Gramsci, Adorno, Hall. We’ve talked about the ruling classes and the ruling ideas, media’s function in winning the consent of the governed to dominant ideologies, the standardization and pseudo-individualism of the culture industries, the way our understandings of reality are filtered through the maps of meaning offered to us by cultural institutions like television. Standard Media Studies stuff. Tuesday’s class was to focus on television news programming, in particular the ways hegemonic values are subtly encoded in televisual journalistic conventions (think for instance of how “reporter on the scene” clips reinforce the widely accepted myth that news reports are authentic representations of reality, stabilized and confirmed for us by the emotionally detached anchor in the studio). I always like to show my students a timely, relatable example after dropping abstract ideas on them, so they can practice applying theory for themselves. Of course, the mainstream coverage of Occupy Wall Street came to mind. NYU’s campus is just a short subway ride from Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park, so I figured all of the students would have heard plenty about the occupation, and maybe some of them would have even been down there personally or know people who had been. I found a few clips to show (the ABC news one linked above, and this one from NBC) and felt confident we’d have a productive discussion on Tuesday, before moving on to other topics on Thursday.

Tuesday morning I woke up, checked Twitter on my phone as usual, and after seeing all the #occupywallstreet tweets in my feed, it hit me. We had to go downtown and see Occupy Wall Street for ourselves. What better way to demonstrate the ideological filtering at work in television news than to let students develop their *own* eye-witness accounts and compare with mediated representations of the same events? I jumped out of bed and fired off an email to my department to make sure the field trip was ok (it was) and whipped up an assignment description to hand out in class:

For this activity, you are to compare news coverage with your own observation of “newsworthy” events. The first step is to spend at least 30 minutes observing the Occupy Wall Street protests downtown. You should actually go to Zuccotti Park (or another location where protesters have converged) and spend time observing the protesters, police, and journalists who are on the scene. Please do not engage in illegal activity or anything else that might put you in harm’s way! The second step is to compare your observations with mainstream news coverage of the events. You will write up your comparison in a reflection (minimum 1 page). You may also choose to include alternative news coverage via Indymedia or other independent news sources in your reflection.

In Tuesday’s class, I announced that Thursday’s lecture would be cancelled. Students seemed genuinely excited about getting out of the classroom for a field trip. I was surprised to find that a few of them had not even heard of Occupy Wall Street; I was less surprised that none of them could articulate the purpose of the protest or the beliefs of the protesters. This can be attributed on one hand to the decentralized, autonomous politics of the protesters themselves: they don’t actually *have* a singular goal and that’s entirely intentional. But mainstream media must shoulder a great deal of blame for neither grasping this aspect of the protest, nor bothering to investigate and clearly represent any of the multiple aims held by individuals camped out at the occupation, beyond what can be expressed in a 10-second soundbite. Mainstream outlets have chosen instead to talk about arrests and pepper spray, representing the fundamental political economic critiques behind the occupation as mere excuses for marches and mayhem. Even those outlets who seemed to be on the side of the victims of police violence devoted all their coverage to that violence, rather than illuminating the systemic violence that spurred the occupation in the first place. Who could blame some of my students for accepting the idea that the protesters are a bunch of misguided whiners, if undeserving of police brutality? I have enough experience with activists (and people in general) to know that there certainly are misguided whiners out there. But I also have enough experience with media discourse to know that this is an extremely convenient frame through which to represent people who pose serious doubts about systemic imbalances of power.

My hope was, of course, that if given the chance to actually observe and talk to the occupiers, my students would get a different picture of the protest than what they had been offered by media accounts. Even if they didn’t find themselves on the side of the protesters, at least they would see something that diverged significantly from what they were seeing on the news. Ultimately, my job as a teacher of this course is to train students in the methods and theories of media critique, not to win them to any particular ideological position. I told students they were free to do their observation whenever they wished, but asked if anyone would be interested in going together as a group during class time. It turned out a lot of them liked that idea, so that became our plan. (For the record, I did not absolutely require students to participate in the field trip – I offered an alternative assignment to anyone who wanted one. I had no takers.) In an email I sent to the class to reiterate the assignment and field trip plan, I included a link to a well-reported article published in the blog NYU Local, both to give them and idea of what to expect at the occupation site, and to see how their own school was covering it.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about our experience of visiting the occupation today. In Part 3 I’ll discuss the write-ups that students will turn in next week, reflecting on their observations and their comparisons with mainstream news coverage. With my students’ permission, I will try to post some of their writing, as well as the photos and videos they took of the occupation. In Part 4, I hope to offer my own reflection on this assignment and the pedagogical value I believe it holds.