Tuesday, January 21, 2003

Rethinking Media Literacy: A Rant

For starters, it's not what you think.

Most people think of media literacy as one of two entirely incorrect and limiting things:

a) a critical viewing study, biased heavily towards an assumption that "the media", by which is most often meant mass media but today vaguely references the more corporate major service providers of the Internet as well, is out to get you, and you need to be able to see how and condemn them for it, or

b) a slightly more complex study that suggests that a combination of critical analyitic skills and applied knowledge and experience leads to empowerment, most often to enable one to "stand up" to the media.

The former is most fatally flawed for that it disempowers students through its reliance on an analytic dialectic that is far too small, and far too contradictory. It begs questions, such as: Why are the authors of written texts inherently celebrated for their use of their medium while the authors of web texts are ignored, the authors of TV and movie texts reviled, and the authors of popular music/musicvideo texts ridiculed? In other words, why show the worst of media and the best of writing? Shouldn't students see the ideal potential in all communication if they are to be steeped in a culture which depends upon facile and deliberate use?

The second option is what is commonly practiced in middle-school "Tech Ed" requirements around the country. Usually positioned in a rotation with arts and home economics, the Tech Ed class at its best allows students to have hands-on lab experience with relatively new technologies, and to construct realities with them. These courses are almost entirely creative, in fact; they are where students build web pages and PowerPoint slide shows and make video documentaries of their shaky talking-head friends leaning against their lockers.

Note that both are oppositional models. We approach these perfectly neutral, powerful, ubiquitous communications tools, all of which our students will be expected to have some mastery of, in a way so far unlike the healthy celebratory approach we give to writing, speech, and other media, and the end result is, I suggest, to preclude students' empowerment as participants in their increasingly mediated culture. Modern media's second-class treatment by the pedagogical institution stunts student's development of the ability to actively create and share knowledge, and that's a darn shame.

Neither model, though, is truly Media Literacy in its ideal form as part of the framework for lifelong process, as consistent with the English curriculum's delivery as a way of teaching thought construction and expression through reading and writing and writing some more. The mature Media Literacy curriculum is one which as wholly prepares the student for the world of multiple and fast-changing digital and mediated communication tools as the English curriculum wholly prepares the student for the world of the language which those tools still rely on, although in different ways in different tools, for, after all, the medium, you know, is the message.

I was teaching this, and they are taking it away from the students, so they are taking it away from me. I've been asked to spearhead an effort to integrate this curriculum more broadly throughout the school, through my work with teachers and departments, and it works in theory, in my head, on my best days.

But I'm not sure it will work. The deep study, like the English class itself in relation to the "writing across the curriculum" movement, is a vital part of this curriculum; its absence will keep those who I teach from seeing the big picture -- they'll learn skills more than understanding, and without understanding, they can't teach themselves new skills later in life, if you know what I mean. And those students that took the class, and the teachers that I talked with about the class as the curriculum progressed, spread those ideas like prophets through the hallways, and the world changed for the better, if just for a moment. I worry that we're sacrificing the very foundation of our mission to create life-long learners, and are willing to settle for life-long HTML coders and PowerPoint users -- not inherently a bad thing but worse if that is all they can do -- without realizing that those are the stakes.

And these are not all my best days. I'll miss the class, and miss more the knowledge that the class could have made masters of the universe, and now cannot.

posted by boyhowdy | 8:47 PM |

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