Introduction: Media Literacy and General Education in Community Colleges


Every week I walk through City College’s Academic Computer Lab in the campus library to get to the tables where I tutor writing. Students are free to do as they please on these computers, and most are working on essays or web research, or e-mail, or something else. Many of the “something else” students are checking Facebook or watching a moving visual.  I start to check habitually, and estimate that 30% of students are doing this on any given day, about 10% on Facebook, and 15-20% viewing videos on YouTube.  This is in the lab whose main purpose is encouraging reading and writing.  What does this mean that the lab is being used this way?  What does this suggest about the fit between our curriculum and the larger communicative context that our students live in?


My inclination is that faculty should learn and teach about important sites and media on the web, rather than viewing them as mere diversions.  I believe that the skeptical analysis and evaluation of digital visual images within a multi-modal communication stream should be part of the general education program at all levels of our education system, specifically community colleges.  At the same time, I must acknowledge that my opinion is very, very far from practical implementation in the United States, though it has come to pass in Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.  This report is about bridging the gap between the multi-media digital context that our students live in and the exclusive focus of our English curriculum on written communication.


I’ve lived in this gap for some time.  For much of the last decade, I have worked with colleagues in the English department, who are working to improve our instruction of the roughly 70% of our students arriving at City College of San Francisco unprepared for university-level reading and writing.  I have the greatest respect for these colleagues who are re-inventing literacy teaching and fully engaged with the struggles and successes of our under-prepared students. Teaching adult content to students who are largely reading between grade levels 6 to 9 requires new approaches, materials, as well as patience and courage.  But while I have learned how to teach with the carefully packaged “case studies” that have become the centerpiece of the new basic writing curriculum, I have wondered, remembering my old interest in media conscious education, whether the narrowness of this basic skills curriculum is redirecting our students too far away from the digital discourses of their own peer communities, and the rapidly changing discourses of higher academia and the work world.  I want to enlarge and enrich the discourse of community college English instructors (especially those concerned with basic skills or “developmental education”) by bringing in concepts of media literacy education, so that we can think and respond to the rapid transformation of communication through digital multi-media with more adequate language, concepts and curriculum.  This sabbatical report is going to try to build that bridge.


So what is media literacy, or what I would call media-conscious education?  It is a broader concept than what is called “educational technology,” the use of varied electronic technologies (film, overhead projectors, Power Point presentations, or web sites) as conveyors of course content. Barry Duncan, President of the Canadian Association of Media Literacy has made the crucial distinction: “Media education is more than using media in the classroom.  We must go beyond teaching through media, as if they are invisible.  Media education means teaching about media”  (qtd. in Pacific Film Archive, 25).  According to this definition, media literacy would fall clearly into the field of English/ Language Arts, given that it has no content beyond communication and mode of communication itself.


While major theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong came from Canada, the fundamentals of media literacy curriculum came out of film studies in Great Britain in the 1970’s, becoming institutionalized in the public education system as part of “the core subject of English” by the 1990’s (Buckingham, 281).  Here again the focus is on teaching about, not just through media, teaching students to be more conscious and skeptical viewers, users, and producers of all media communication, not just print.  Carey Bazalgette’s “key concepts” of media education have defined the field in Great Britain:

WHO is communicating and why?  (Media Agencies)

WHAT type of text is it?  (Media Categories)

HOW is it produced?  (Media Technologies)

HOW do we know what it means? (Media Languages)

WHO receives it and what sense do they make of it? (Media Audiences)

HOW does it PRESENT its subject (Media Representations)

(qtd in Pacific Film Archive, 27).


If  these questions are understood as a definition of the field, media literacy covers not only what is considered “English” in the United States (categories, languages, perhaps audiences, and representations), but also “social sciences” (media agencies, audiences) and in the case of the “technologies” concept, touches on medium-specific fields like broadcasting, computer science, multi-media, or film.  The 1992 Aspen Institute, an attempt to unify media literacy advocates, came up with this brief definition:  “Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and produce communication in a variety of forms” (qtd. in Pacific Film Archive, 19).  The field is clearly cross-disciplinary, but has found no disciplinary base in most students’ general education.  The anxiety that stops prevents discussion about mainstreaming media literacy in American community colleges is that English teachers feel their mission of teaching traditional literacy is embattled.  Redefining or enlarging the field of literacy could make instruction even more vexing, or worse, more incoherent.  Redefinition of literacy must proceed, without being confused with annihilation.


Media literacy scholar Kathleen Tyner has suggested that we enlarge the media literacy concept, using the term “multi-literacy” to unify six sets of overlapping skills associated with digital technology:  three of these she calls “tool literacies”: computer literacy, network literacy, and technology literacy, and the other three she calls “literacies of representation”:  information literacy, media literacy, and visual literacy (94-95).  Tyner cites the 1996 statement “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies” (New London Group) to bolster her case.  This international grouping of language, linguistics, and educational theorists argued that digital technologies and associated social changes necessitated a major shift in educational systems, away from its foundation in print literacy, toward a larger multi-modal concept of learning and communication. They divided this up into linguistic, visual, gestural, spatial, and audio, using “design” as a governing concept uniting the multiple abilities that are required of modern citizens of today and tomorrow (qtd. in Tyner, 79-82).  While my special interest is the relation of visual to linguistic communication, I can see the advantage of the more general multi-literacies concept in educational reform.  While “media literacy” arose in relation to film and television, we need a new concept appropriate to the enormous changes entailed in digital communication, that preserves the special statuses of both alphabetic and visual literacies, and places them in a larger context of the digital communications revolution.


In my 1992 MA thesis (Goldthorpe 2-4, 78-80), I presented a justification for including media education within college English:  1)  I described the communications revolution, from print to electronic communication in motion.  Following Walter Ong, I characterized the change as momentous, but not destructive (Goldlthorpe 188-189).  Just as writing and print did not destroy oral communication, but reintegrated it in new ways, electronic communication would restructure written communication and its culture.  2)  Television, not print, now provided the “dominant frame” for people’s understanding of the world, yet viewers of TV tended to be “naïve,” only rarely asking critical questions or making higher level inferences.   3)  I proposed instruction in critical viewing of television.  But given that this was very far from implementation, I considered the disjuncture between school culture, with its stress on higher order thinking mediated by print literacy, and the culture of the students and the wider society, immersed in the popular post-print culture that Ong called “secondary orality” (Goldthorpe, 188-189).   My position was far from a defense of television’s use as a baby-sitter; on the contrary, I advocated the use of written analysis and evaluation of televised content (films, news, ads, dramas), to encourage a more skeptical, critical awareness of meaning-making, without falling into the hostile treatment of the entire medium or of the students’ popular culture.  Situating myself within the disciplinary discourse of English, I identified with those who claimed to update the ancient teaching of rhetoric (“study of discursive structures and strategies in their relation to systems of signification and human subjects,” Culler qtd. in Goldthorpe 80) rather than the more recent tradition from Britain of studying and appreciating literature.  I cited Scholes’ view that “studying texts” could include “visual as well as verbal, polemical as well as seductive” (qtd. in Goldthorpe 16).


In the early nineties, when on-line communities were like exotic cults, e-mail was in its infancy, and electronic writing was contained in each individual word processor program, the world of visual media was separate from the electronic word.  Today, that separation has broken down, perhaps irreparably.  Consider the blogs, web sites, even e-mails with YouTube links; writing has become part of a multi-media stream. The next section of this report will focus on that stream.

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