Monday, July 20, 2009

Media as a Tool for Empowerment

Throughout my high school education, I was media illiterate. Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. I was a passive recipient of media. My teachers brought in movies or documentaries. In my creative writing class, we were able to write some drafts on computers. However, I did not interact with media in any critical or analytical way. The closest I came to media literacy was when Mr. Dean compared the theme of societal brainwashing in A Brave New World to the contemporary world of advertising where happiness is defined and subconsciously ingested in images of friends on the beach consuming a bunch of beers.


I wonder why Mr. Dean never brought in actual commercials or print advertisement so that we could analyze and discuss the intricacies of how advertisers were manipulating the viewers’ perception. Perhaps Mr. Dean in his ivory tower didn’t want to give media the significance of a place on the curriculum. However, research is confirming that media can be used as a tool that will allow students to critically engage in and question their world. Project Look Sharp (1999), a Ithaca College-based media literary initiative, traces the history of media literacy from its beginnings as a model of “protection (from the so-called ‘evil effects of media)” to the current model of “empowerment (stressing critical thinking and production skills.)”


Project Look Sharp offers twelve holistic principles for integrating media into any curriculum. One example, which is a very traditional standard-based objective, is perspective-taking by “pointing out ways in which media messages might be interpreted differently by people from different backgrounds or groups.” Another example of critical analysis is to examine the credibility and bias of the source. First the student would have to pinpoint the source, which is often a feat in itself. Then the student would have to synthesize from the source’s background and motivation, his/her “purpose of producing the message.” Both of these factors influence the objective truth. What a wonderful connection to make to the characters in literature, who through the narrator’s magic wand we come to either strongly like and trust or despise and ignore. This makes us question the medium in which to receive certain character’s exclamations of reality.


As it turns out, we haven’t come very far in our knowledge of media literacy since its beginnings in the 1970’s as a protection model. In one 1999 study of 130 secondary schools, it was discovered that though teachers had heard of the term ‘media literacy,’ they were unable to define it in regard to its function as a critical tool (Hobbs, 1999). One teacher defined it as, “Media literacy is the understanding of all technology and media that is available and how to use it effectively.” There are rampant misuses of media in the classroom. Over a three year period within two school districts, it was repeatedly observed that teachers used the television to keep students quiet while they did other work. It was also observed that there was no opportunity to discuss or ask questions about the material. The message this gives to students is that this is time to relax rather than to critically think.


One final aspect of the use of media in the classroom is one that has been beaten into us in our first-year of teaching. Differentiation! Students, who have different learning abilities or styles, benefit from a varied array of presentation materials. However, I stumbled upon a very eloquent discussion of visual experience from Douglas W. Green’s study of the Binghamton City Schools in 1993. After surveying 55 teachers, he also cited an axiological understanding of visual reception from Elliot Eisner who wrote in The Enlightened Eye.

Some visual systems depict visually, but appeal to our emotions-as in expressionism. Others depict visually, but appeal to our imagination-as in surrealism. Still others depict visually, but appeal to our optical experience…In fact, the form we select is constitutive of the understanding we acquire: the medium is part of the message (Green, 1993)

I am not entirely sure students in secondary school will be able to articulate so eloquently the differences in their experiences when viewing expressionism vs. surrealism. However, to give them the opportunity by presenting images then posing questions is enough to empower them to interact with the world in a new way. By utilizing media for its artistic and critical potential, we are creating people who feel empowered to create their own message in the varied forms of media.

References

Green, Douglas W. (1993). Media Meets Curriculum: Uses, Abuses, Historic Perspective, and Potential Emerging Technologies. Binghamton University, 36 p.

Hobbs, Renee (1999). The Uses (and Misuses) of Mass Media Resources in Secondary Schools. 21 p.

Project Look Smart (1999). 12 Basic Principles for Incorporating Media Literacy into any Curriculum. Ithaca College, NY, 13 p.

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