Bridge Building and Craft
At the end of this report, I am still in the gap. I have surveyed the fragmented and marginal field of media studies, and have looked for common ground between it and the institutionally-rooted but conflicted field of developmental education in community colleges, specifically literacy education. Yet when I consider the current moment in City College’s policy and curriculum, my concerns with media literacy could not seem further from the immediate concerns of faculty, students and administrators. In the past months I have written this report, fierce arguments and political maneuvering have broken out around proposals from the Board of Trustees that Math and English departments make their developmental courses more effective for all students, including disadvantaged groups with a low rate of passing, persistence, transfer, and graduation. Clear reform proposals are not apparent, but the demand for change is intense. In English, Basic Skills faculty exercise growing influence, and usually propose a mix of reforms based on intensification of instruction, accelerating the advancement of students from developmental to transfer-level, integration of reading and writing instruction, and centralization of support services. In this situation, pressure for a breakthrough is growing, instructional strategies are being innovated, but with such high stakes, experimentation may be controlled. Broadening the definition of literacy beyond reading and writing, into realms of learning for which standards and benchmarks do not yet exist, is looked upon skeptically. There is not yet even a common language to talk about these things– maybe that is the real purpose of this report.
I have not discovered a strategy for advancing media literacy as general education in community college, but like the worst of the technological determinists, I have predicted the inevitable character of “progress” and have suggested that if literacy educators do not get on the bus, someone or something is going to drag us behind it. However I am not a technological determinist, but a believer in appropriate technology. I want to teach and learn about the effect of the medium on the message. I want to suggest cross-disciplinary ways of working toward a media-conscious curriculum that are practical for myself and others, and leave the project of the grand design to others. These “ways” need to include innovation in curriculum, intra- and cross-disciplinary collaboration, and good pedagogy.
Bridge Building: Departments, Curricula, and Collaboration
I will begin where I am, in the English department. I have taught a mid-level developmental composition course English 93 Introduction to Academic Writing since 1996, and have recently begun to teach it with a visual literacy theme, first on TV news and advertising, and more recently on City College’s mural by Diego Rivera. In the past year I have begun to teach this class using Insight, the Moodle Learning Management system, which gives me a closed site for the class, and also allows me to draw on the visual and informational resources of the Internet. In an effort to move beyond an outdated text and develop a more coherent syllabus, I am changing the theme to focus to murals in San Francisco, including the Diego Rivera’s.
In my upcoming English 93 planning, I am spending at least as much time on the meta-cognitive, community building side as on the curricular side, in line with my experience and the department’s course reforms. It is not yet clear what direction these course reforms will take. On the one hand, moving away from the four-level pre-English 1A detached composition class structure, toward a two level intensive reading/ writing “accelerated class” model may lead to growing openness to experimentation with learning communities and digital initiatives. On the other hand, the high stakes of this course reform (70% of City College’s students test into developmental literacy courses, and these courses are associated with educational inequity), could lead to very tight control over curriculum that may not favor my cross-disciplinary approach. I will not predict an outcome. But I intend to be involved in the department’s reform process, especially at the English 93 level (the most problematic course with the largest number of sections), where many colleagues teach media and visually focused assignments, but there are not many books and materials appropriate to the developmental level.
Another direction would be teaching transfer level English composition courses, specifically an English 1A class, focused on film. This step was suggested by my earlier work with Pacific Film Archive, which has recently digitized its extensive collection of print materials on films, which dovetails quite well with the 1A focus on the research paper. There is also a wealth of material for teaching film at this level, several freshman comp anthologies with a visual focus, and a generation of scholarship that marries film to college English. It is also easy for me to imagine teaching Eng 1C (critical thinking and composition) with a media focus for the same reasons. Another possible focus for an English 1A class would be on journalism, in its transition from print, radio, television journalism to digital journalism, hopefully including some assistance from the journalism department.
I have also considered proposing a new elective course in English focused on digital literacy/ culture, which could fulfill CCSF Humanities requirements and articulate with lower division media courses in the UC and CSU systems. This course could focus more on the archival/ library side of digital literacy, situating it more within the traditional textual bounds of English. Or it could focus more on the visual/ pop culture side of digital culture, resembling an updated Humanities class, which includes visual artifacts as well as texts in its course content. This direction, focused on the transfer level course work within my own department of course leads me away from an exclusive focus on developmental education. It could also limit the cross-disciplinary collaboration that will be so important in broad future shifts in academic culture, not to mention the immediate disadvantage of teaching about visual culture in a text-oriented discipline.
Another direction in curricular development is more cross-disciplinary, vocational and developmental in focus. City College has large and growing programs devoted to the teaching of digital media production: Broadcast Electronic Communication Arts, Multi-Media Studies, and Graphic Communications. There may be a place here for an English teacher. First of all, since the 1990’s vocational education has shifted away from purely technical teaching to embrace “contextualized education,” integrating developmental general education into vocational training, seeing that general skills in problem solving, collaboration, written, spoken, and digital communication, are now a requirement of many of the new semi-skilled jobs, not just professionals with college degrees ( Bragg). Currently at City College, in the Multimedia and Graphic Communications departments (which are closely associated) the chairs are considering the need of their students for stronger written communication skills (Cataldo). One might say that these students just need to take English classes at an appropriate level, like any other academic majors. Fair enough, but the “contextualized learning” approach suggests an integration of reading/ writing practice with the Internet-focused writing environment, possibly leading to a pioneering effort at teaching multi-modal composition. In what department would such a class be taught, and how would it correlate to an AA degree, a transfer program, or to English department definitions of developmental and transfer level courses? These are unanswered questions.
A more immediate possibility of cross-disciplinary collaboration involves the BCST 119 course, taught within the Broadcast Electronic Communication Arts department, but taken by students from other majors who need basic digital audio/video skills. This is a gatekeeper class that once passed, allows students to take other more technically refined production skills classes. The chair of that department has proposed a closed Learning Community class, linking a BCST 119 to an English class to strengthen the literacy skills of those students, funded by a Perkins Grant (vocational education) loan. When I asked the Matriculation office for statistics relating English course completion to passing BCST 119, it found a large gap between the low pass rate of 119 who had completed the developmental courses (English 90, 91, 92, 93, 94) compared to the higher pass rate of students who had completed English 96 and 1A (see Appendix _____ ). In this case, the teaching possibilities seem entirely different. On the one hand are the difficulties: I would be collaborating with a colleague from not only another department, but from another professional culture. How long would we have to match our curricula and teaching styles? How well can we work together, and with what level of institutional support? On the other hand, are important rewards: I would be teaching reading and writing of basic media interpretation to students who at the same time are producing basic digital media communications, a potentially powerful combination, recommended by Tyner (183-185). Also this is clearly an opportunity to teach within a contextualized learning situation.
There are several other possible collaborators. The Audio-Visual department is an important not only as a service, but in the long run as a stakeholder in the transition to a more fully digital system. The multi-modal compositionists that I met a year ago were clearly assuming that their schools could provide students with the digital equipment and services to make multi-media texts possible. Librarians are obviously major players in any transition to digital literacy. Like the English department, they are balancing old and new literacies, and in a different way are dealing with the whole problem of teaching students about digital searches beyond simple “googling,” and the associated dilemmas of hyper-texts, authorship, copyright, citation and cut and paste plagiarism. Transitional Studies is offering an English elective class this fall focused on media literacy. KQED radio and television has an educational office with media literacy savvy staff that I may yet work with. I was remiss in not making contact with two other departments with a stake in media literacy issues in the digital age: Journalism and Cinema. Journalism in particular seems to be a good fit with English. A college level vocational discipline that services a print-oriented industry undergoing a profound restructuring might welcome an English 1A class focused on that restructuring. A journalism focused English class is only one kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration; others are possible. I plan to work where openings and interest exist, but at the same time digital/curricular transformations will continue to emerge unpredictably, so that what works one day may not work the next.
This review of small openings and possibilities may not sound optimistic. A wider perspective would be helpful, a contrast with a school system that has integrated media literacy curriculum into general education. In Britain, according to David Buckingham’s Children Talking Television: The Making of Television Literacy,* my goal was largely accomplished in Britain in the early 1990’s, almost twenty years ago! In the concluding chapter, Buckingham mentions in passing that “The National Curriculum Council has allotted a major role for media education within the core subject of English…which ensures that the study of media is now part of the entitlement of every student…for better or worse, it is now much closer to the educational mainstream” (281). But there is trouble in paradise, according to Buckingham, and his criticisms of practices and tendencies in the U.K. educational system are fully comprehensible to me in terms of my limited and narrow experience as a community college composition instructor who fits in a little media-oriented content. We have troubles in common.
Craft: Pedagogical Issues
Media-conscious education will not have any influence without innovative, engaging pedagogy. It’s time for me to advocate an approach to teaching with the help of Buckingham, as well as the previously cited Kathleen Tyner and the Reading Apprenticeship authors. In this final section I will often refer to teaching experiences to encompass the complexity, as well as articulate the ideals that motivate me to step into uncharted territory.
To state the my purpose for teaching literacy in my own words, I see teaching as more than techniques, procedures, and processes for better communication and understanding. My deeper purpose is to open social space for study, deliberation and dialogue about a range of human issues. My faith is a democratic one: that this dialogue can establish a measure of common understanding and respect, and that this can build a base for later positive actions. My experience tells me that my students often arrive in the classroom after at least twelve years of schooling and living, with little practice in deliberation and dialogue, but with an abundance of fear and anxiety about their literacy abilities. Those with the best intentions often assume I want them to think according to a specific doctrine, and if they want good grades they will learn to parrot it.
I don’t think most students see themselves as active citizens trying to shape a future. They want to get by, get a better job, and do better than their parents. They may have encountered some discouraging experiences before they have gotten to me. Our cross-purposes are not always reconciled. I teach within a system of power and privilege that I am complicit in, despite my misgivings. So when students avoid the fuller dialogues that I try to facilitate, I sometimes get frustrated, forgetting that I too am inside this system that gives me the power to promote or deny a student, and that as a result, they are intimidated by me.
Buckingham, drawing on the discourse theory of John Paul Gee, argues that educational disciplines are not composed of pure, neutral scientific knowledge, but a discourse of social power (291). Mastery is gained through socially structured discourse acquisition, where the learner absorbs an ethos and way of being, not just a body of knowledge. Applying this theory, community college can be a challenging place to teach, because knowledge acquisition is not smooth here, due to the college’s social function as an alternative entry point into professions and skilled trades. The constructivist rethinking of learning has led Tyner, Gee, and the Reading For Understanding authors to embrace the term “apprentice” for student and “apprenticeship” for acquisition processes (see Part Two in this study, a section titled “Reading Apprenticeship and the Meta-Cognitive Turn”). The term evokes learning within a larger social work process, in which the benefits of learning are immediate and clear (while in large schools such benefits are often distant and vague), and beliefs and norms are informally conveyed along with specific skills. To return to real life, I am looking for school situations where an inclusive community is animated by a common goal and ethos related to media and communications.
Buckingham’s critique of media education in Britain’s pre-college system is that it proceeds from a “protectionist” agenda (284) that oversimplifies students’ understanding of TV content. This tends to be true of media education in the U.S. as well, where it can take rightist, leftist, and religious forms. I presume it is also the most influential approach to media criticism in City College English classes. The most widely used book on the media used in English 93 has been Neil Postman and Steve Powers’ How To Watch TV News, which does not exactly condemn TV per se, but certainly emphasizes its general inferiority compared to print as a way to understand the news. Part of the problem here is that TV is studied in class readings but is rarely studied directly. Student writers rely on memories and generalizations about TV news, and their condemnations cause little rethinking of students’ media consumption habits. In an attempt to broaden the limits of protectionism, I have used both specific video excerpts and programs, as well as opposing or contrasting readings to encourage students to think and write more specifically and critically. To avoid the “please the teacher” dogmas, I try to create a kind of zone of playful neutrality to introduce the topic of a popular media text, analyzing how words and images create meanings in fascinating ways, before getting into the value-laden effects of those messages.
Educators, according to Buckingham, typically begin from an assumption that students’ ordinary comprehension is naïve and uncritical, understanding TV’s conventional symbols and narratives well enough, but all too often neglecting to make deeper conclusions or question premises (I recognize myself in his description). He doesn’t think that viewers have nothing to learn, but asserts that educators don’t have sufficient knowledge of what viewers do know (283-284). He argues, very realistically in my opinion, that while TV comprehension takes place in private contexts, teachers expect students to easily transfer and share this knowledge in the very formal, credentialed, institutional context of schools (284). All too often students respond to teachers’ earnest attempts to teach media criticism by writing a simple criticism that agrees with the teacher’s perceived agenda, and remaining silent (or even writing dishonestly) about their actual understandings of certain media content (286). In my opinion, when educators teach about new media and popular culture, they have to be ready to go outside their comfort zone (I recall one class hearing a laugh at my expense when I did not recognize the name of a then-popular actor). Even more difficult is the challenge of teaching with and assigning work in a new medium, application or website, which the students sometimes operate more smoothly than the instructor. Instructors clearly have much to learn, and we sometimes need to admit that we may never surpass our students’ proficiency at using digital devices.
Following the Russian linguistics and psychology theorists Vygotsky, Volosinov, and Bakhtin, Buckingham emphasizes the importance of the social context to TV viewing: viewer conversation significantly influences comprehension, rather than just abstract “viewing skills” (284). So for example, when Buckingham gathered together young research subjects in gendered groups, he found that boys or girls criticized programs or genres that opposite gender liked; boys sneered at soap operas, and girls ridiculed violent cartoons (292). He argues that teachers should be conscious of the social situations in which they teach, distinguishing between a student’s voiced or written understanding and that person’s actual understanding while viewing in a normal viewing context outside school (293). Not surprisingly, he found that in his diverse population of K-12 research subjects that middle class high school students had a more self-conscious awareness of narrative and genre (288-289). But he encouraged teachers at all levels and with all populations, to move students toward more self-conscious viewing. In learning about realist fiction in screen narratives, for example, students should be encouraged to articulate their own viewing criteria for realism in order to further discuss larger questions of representation, stereotyping, positive images, etc. (289). This work cannot be done well if educators oversimplify students’ comprehension or ignore social contexts. In my own teaching, I want to recognize, nurture, and extend my students interpretive skills, which means being attentive to their perceptions and observations. I see my goal as creating a safe enough, open enough learning situation so that students will intermingle their readings of theories and theorists with their own media viewing. I want them to assume a position, not of discipleship, but of critical autonomy.
Buckingham stresses that media literacy should not just be about students interpreting and producing media texts, but reflecting on their own experience as readers and writers (288). In this passage, he comes closest to the on the meta-cognitive emphasis of Reading Apprenticeship. According to the RA authors, once the “meta-cognitive conversation” becomes a regular part of the classroom (no mean feat), then discussions over reading comprehension difficulties become easier, as students abandon the simplistic notion that comprehension is either zero or 100%, and see their comprehension on a developmental continuum (Schoenbach, Greenleaf, Cziko, and Hurwitz 58). Students can also develop meta-cognitive awareness from work on interpreting images. But because students’ experience interpreting images takes place largely outside of school, they tend to believe that image interpretation is natural and effortless (rather than their common beliefs on reading linguistic texts, that it is painfully laborious, opaque, even mystical). This kind of reflective conversation, that Buckingham said was missing from British classrooms in the early nineties, is something that my basic skills colleagues have been working on. It is difficult for our students to learn, because meta-cognitive conversation is largely absent from their experience. English teachers can easily become aware of how meta-cognition is part of their own reading and writing processes, but we are still learning rather slowly how to teach meta-cognitive conversation. In City College’s English department, the main experience is with teaching meta-cognition is the “cover letter” assignment in the English 91 Final Portfolio. One issue in the evaluation process is distinguishing real meta-cognition from a student going through the motions. Buckingham suggests that informal classroom conversation may be a better place to gauge meta-cognition than high-stakes writing assignments: in his research, even a comparatively neutral and low-stakes assignment like a media viewing log didn’t motivate genuine reflection on media content (295).
“Scaling Up” Media Education at City College
Disseminating promising educational practices to a broader audience is
known as “scaling up” in educational “bureaucratese.” Scaling up is preferred to the term replication, in recognition of the fact that programs cannot be instituted whole, but must be customized to fit local community conditions….Change and adoption occurs district by district, school by school, teacher by teacher. It is difficult to know which conditions in which configurations, will foster the kind of critical mass necessary to produce wide-scale educational change efforts (Tyner, 227).
If any scaling up is to be done, the work begins with me. First, I have to teach media within my English classes the best that I can, engaging the interest and allaying the anxieties of students. I also have to share this work with interested colleagues. I can continue the networking I have done during this sabbatical, and perhaps find a niche in the digital world to upload and publish the good course work that I and many other colleagues are doing. Just by collecting and labeling the work that we are doing as “media conscious education” contributes to its legitimacy.
Second, while connecting with interested colleagues, I need to communicate with a broader range of faculty who may have no interest in media studies, but are concerned with the broad question of how digital technology is integrated into schooling, thereby developing the common language related to literacy, multi-literacies, and communication. I can do this by becoming more involved in department and college committees, both listening to the discourse, and adding a media-conscious view to the discussion. If there is greater understanding of this media conscious approach, then there is a greater chance that when the next moment of crisis or curricular change comes about, that media education will be part of the mix. Exactly what form that change will take is unpredictable.
If media conscious education gains any currency, a third fundamental issue that will emerge is disciplinary affiliation. I would expect this to involve issues of personality, doctrine, and bureaucratic interest. For the moment, I will be practical, and consider media education as a cross-disciplinary project that various individuals and disciplines should contribute to; on the other hand, I teach now in the English department, and will try to create more legitimacy for media education where I am.
The current controversy over educational equity draws our attention to basic skills instruction. Certainly media-conscious education can be practiced in a basic skills context, as it can be at the transfer level. There is nothing esoteric or “high level” about teaching students to be more conscious of the communication environment of digital media. It can be done from pre-schools to the Ph.D. level. The same priorities of careful design, supportive scaffolding, and meta-cognitive reflection apply to media education as they do to teaching print literacy.
What’s important to recognize is that the “ground” of discourse that we are teaching on is moving. Helping consciousness catch up with this communications revolution is the work of a lifetime.
* I am leaving aside the specifics medium (TV vs. Internet). The general topic I am interested in is pedagogical: how to teach a popular medium and culture in the print-oriented school culture.