Media Studies

Part Three:  Surveying the Territory: Media Literacy
Curricula in American Higher Education.

Why attempt a general survey when much of the action is far away from the community college where I work? Approaches and trends in media studies may help create a context for my efforts.  Elite research universities play a leading role in defining what is important, teachable knowledge.  Mainstream undergraduate universities have tremendous influence over what courses community college students take in order to transfer, and train most of the future teachers. Teacher-researchers in community colleges can contribute to this field if we assume a democratized concept of knowledge, and in that spirit, I will begin with my experience in this field, rather than a reading of theory.


In March 2009, I attended the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC), hoping to renew my connections to media conscious educators. At the 1992 CCCC, when I gave my own presentation on students writing analytically about TV commercials, I was working on curriculum that pushed beyond many teachers’ comfort zones.  Imagine me in 2009, hoping for a welcome home, attending a workshop on “Streaming Media,” and then feeling that what I had worked on in past decades was passé.  I experienced the Rip Van Winkle syndrome: One minute I was rewinding the VCR to show students how to study ads so they could do written analysis on their PC’s and suddenly teachers were assigning students to write “multi-modal compositions,” which combined Internet-derived graphics, sound effects, music, video clips, podcasts, etc., into their writing.  I had never even heard of multi-modal compositions. The technical requirements seemed staggering.  When I asked, trying to contain my feeling of future shock, how teachers took on the tasks of teaching the recording and editing of video and audio as well as expository writing, I was politely told that teachers and students already shared rudimentary skills in operating digital cameras with sound, and that just a common proficiency, not expertise, was expected in these classes.  Students already lived in multi-media environments, and multi-modal compositions did not lead to new anxiety, but excitement.  I had become accustomed to students who were flustered by plain old thesis statements.  I began to realize that this trend went way beyond my original interest in analyzing multi-media visuals in written texts.  These presenters were saying that writing was no longer used as a discrete, symbol system in handwriting, print, and electronic media.  Writing was now one ingredient in a multi-media soup, in which several other modes of communication bobbed around simultaneously.  By implication, to teach writing as a separate mode of communication was becoming archaic (Goldthorpe “Rip Van Winkle”).


I wondered if this was just the latest fad, hyped up by people who had not thought carefully about what new skills and competencies were involved, and how the new media was reshaping the message. Where were multi-modal compositions were being taught? Certainly not at City College, where no one had never even heard the term.  As I attended the rest of the conference, I realized the multi-modal compositionists were one tendency.  Most of the presenters were from Ohio State University, and Purdue.  They clearly were teaching students who arrived at college with strong reading and writing skills. One community college instructor gave a presentation about using Wikispaces (not Wikipedia) as a writing environment for a transfer level class.  When I asked her about the basic writing classes at her school, she said that they were part of a separate program, and that Wikispaces was on the basic writing agenda. Transfer level classes were moving onto the “information superhighway” to use an old term, and basic writing classes were on a dirt track in the woods, using computers as word processors. There was some recognition of high tech privilege.  In one workshop researchers compared the well-endowed schools, (where all students have laptops, classrooms are wired, and schools lend students digital recording equipment to do their multi-modal compositions), to their poorer cousins, like City College, where resources are more limited. I began to feel impoverished, and perceived a new kind of digital divide was opening up, based this time not merely on access to the Internet, but on skill in accessing new tools, and using the multiple streams of communication. I needed to study the field more carefully.



Defining the Field

Kathleen Tyner’s Literacy in a Digital World traces media literacy studies back to literacy studies. One oft-cited predecessor is Plato’s Phaedrus, an account of his dialogue with Socrates, in which Socrates complains that newly literate intellectuals are over-reliant on writing to learn and argue, as opposed oral intellectuals like himself who must learn, teach and argue by repetition, recitation, and oral dialogue (Tyner 22).  Modern literacy studies is a multi-disciplinary field, shaped the work of anthropologists Levi-Bruhl, Goody and Watt, classicists like Eric Havelock, historians like Harvey Graff, linguists like John Paul Gee, and psychologists like Lev Vygotsky, Michael Scribner and Sylvia Cole.  The discipline of English gave literacy studies its first scholar/ celebrity, Marshall McLuhan.  While McLuhan was first mentored by F.R. Leavis of Cambridge University, who saw modern media as an enemy, he later became so convinced of the power of electronic media, that he sought to assimilate the new rules of discourse as he understood them, and turned into a guru of the media-saturated “global village,” rather than its opponent.  In several works, he advanced the notion that each medium of communication, from voice, to writing, to print, to electronic media, has its own aesthetic form which profoundly influences the message sent through it.  He popularized this idea in the aphorism “the medium is the message” (Tyner 52-55).  One of McLuhan’s students, Walter Ong, a more careful thinker and researcher, in his 1982 Orality and Literacy advanced a more nuanced version of McLuhan’s theory.  Ong argued that while the medium does bend and shape the message, older and newer media co-exist, producing hybrid forms like television’s revival of spoken conversation, but based on scripted and artificial dialogue that he called “secondary orality” (qtd. in Tyner 55-57).


Literacy studies grew modestly in the twentieth century, but the instruction in broadcast communications grew rapidly, a field of study based on employment trends, rather than a pre-existing field of knowledge.  As fields based on economic fields have grown, each new discipline has sought legitimacy as a field of knowledge.  Several disciplines have opted to enlarge the metaphor of literacy to include visual literacy, computer literacy, information literacy, media literacy and so on. Tyner describes conflict and convergence between the more scholarly literacy researchers mentioned above,  the mass communications scholars studying twentieth century media, the critical literacy theorists based in schools of education, the information literacy scholars from library science, and finally the media literacy advocates, a very eclectic coalition themselves (42-91).  The splintered field has resulted in contradictory theories that are “only tangentially compatible….Both oral and alphabetic literacy researchers, with their emphasis on complexity and historicity, would be resistant to, if not appalled by, the simple communication models and decontextualized variables that dominated mass communication in the past” (Tyner 45).


One hopeful sign Tyner points to is the formation of an inter-disciplinary, international New London Group (with a heavy representation from faculty in Schools of Education) which published “A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures” in the Harvard Educational Review in 1996 (Tyner 79-82).  The New London Group focused on media in relation to education, encouraging a global redefinition of all communication as meaning making, divided into linguistic, visual, gestural, spatial, and audio design, each with particular meta-languages to allow for coherent communication in those fields. Tyner astutely describes this approach as most easily implemented in informal collaborations between artists and teachers in schools and programs that are open to experimentation, but marginal to the core curriculum (82).


Writing in 2010, I see the 1996 multiliteracies statement as an important conceptualization, but not as a strategy for educational reform in the present. In the real world of schools, the only sure thing is a widely held belief in the positive educational good of the Internet, causing schools to spend billions of dollars purchasing and upgrading computer systems, training students to use new programs and applications, and experimenting with on-line education.  But as long as educators and administrators continue to be influenced by the faith that technology solves learning difficulties in and of itself, media literacy curriculum cannot assume any place of importance. Tyner argues that technology is only significant insofar as it supports a larger approach to education.  She wisely observes that political difficulties often lead to a bland neutrality: “Because the research base cannot support predictions of educational technologies benefit to the classroom, pragmatic techno-boosters try to steer clear of thorny educational reform issues” (74).



Given that Tyner’s book was published in 1998, it might be helpful to seek out a more recent overview, Renee Hobbs’ 2008 “Debates and Challenges Facing New Literacies in the 21st Century.”  Hobbs, a leading researcher, and key organizer in the National Association of Media Literacy Educators (NAMLE), is well situated to describe these challenges.  Her portrait of a fragmented field is very similar to Tyner’s.  Hobbs describes the media literacy field as divided into competing approaches:  1) Information literacy educators “position technology-centered research skills as a key component of literacy,” (433).  2) Media literacy educators stress instruction of students in both understanding and communicating in moving visuals, audio, graphics, as well as written texts in digital media.  3) Critical literacy educators encourage students’ awareness of political and economic structures governing media communication, and call for close collaboration with cultural studies in academia and media reform initiatives in the political sphere.  4)  Protectionist educators see media literacy less as pedagogy, and more as public health intervention to counter negative health effects of media use, encouraging parental oversight, and skeptical treatment by teachers (433-436). In addition, Hobbs includes the growth and activity of the youth media producers, concerned with production and distribution of their own texts and creative works rather than their place in the existing educational system (438). She describes the rapid growth of media literacy as an inter-disciplinary field, and its understandable lag in incorporating the growth of interactive digital media into curriculum but her description of the divisions in the field has a sober, disillusioned tone.  This is a clear signal that media literacy is not about to become enshrined in American general education. Nonetheless, there is an uneven patchwork quilt of Media Studies in American universities that barely existed two decades ago.


American Media Studies Goes Academic


Educational reform in the United States does not follow the top-down pattern of Britain, where 1970’s Film Studies was applied to pre-collegiate education in the 1980’s (Buckingham, 281-283).  Is the recent growth of university level film/ media/ visual communication studies in the U.S. an analogous first phase?    The first Media Studies program at New York’s New School (founded in 1975), and the older Media Ecology at N.Y.U.,  M.I.T.’s Comparative Media Studies, and the Communication, Culture and Technology graduate program at Georgetown have been joined by newer programs at University of Chicago, Brown, and the University of Southern California, where three media studies centers co-exist (“Media Studies”).  A web page for potential Fulbright scholars subdivides the field into three sub-groups: 1) Film and media studies, interdisciplinary and humanistic in focus, focused on the place on media in larger social, cultural, and historical contexts, 2) Communications studies, associated with journalism and mass communications but also drawing on social sciences, rhetoric and information sciences, focusing more on scientific or psychological analysis of media communication, as well as moral, legal, and cultural effects, and  3) Film and Media Production, also more career-oriented, preparing students to master practical skills in digital media, as well as studying the broader context of production: history, criticism, genres and aesthetics.  The web page describes this field as “among the most rapidly evolving of academic disciplines at US colleges and universities,” then gives young scholars a familiar warning that “As the study of media grows in popularity and significance, these studies may appear increasingly amorphous” (“Film and Media Studies…”).


In the programs mentioned above, most do have undergraduate majors : Brown, N.Y.U. and University of Chicago all have undergraduate programs.  The M.I.T. undergraduate program “is MIT’s largest major in the humanities” (“MIT Comparative Media…”). The New School program is only an MA program. Georgetown’s Communication, Culture and Technology also remains a graduate program, but it has established a “Film and Media Studies Initiative,” if not a major for undergraduates.

The University of Southern California program is most advanced in this regard, with three distinct programs working in and around media studies: the Center for Visual Anthropology (founded 1984), Institute of Multimedia Studies (founded 1998), part of the School of Cinematic Arts, and the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism (founded 1971).  There are a few departments, such as USC’s Institute of Multimedia Studies, and the University of Denver’s B.A. and M.A. programs in Digital Media Studies that focus directly on academic research and study of digital media.  The tendency in such programs to focus exclusively on defining their own sphere of knowledge is powerful.  This is not all bad for general education.  Disciplinary boundaries, common language, and more consistent research methods are important to the legitimation of a new academic field so that general education can be undertaken. Graduate students must be educated in depth if there are going to be future teachers for undergraduate courses.  On the other hand, the exceptional public outreach of Temple University’s Media Lab web site is not replicated on any other university’s web site (“Media Education Lab”).  The Temple web page offers curriculum, games, and videos suitable for students and teachers at the elementary, middle and high school levels. Clearly the educators behind the Temple site (Renee Hobbs and her colleagues) seek to integrate media studies into general education, whereas the normal college programs and more internally focused.


Fine distinctions between academic specialties at research universities do not necessarily translate into new or redefined disciplines and classes at other universities, community colleges and high schools.  For example, the spread of Peace and Conflict Studies programs in universities has not resulted in the direct formation of such a discipline in community colleges or high schools, though we might detect its influence on a range of social and political science instruction in those schools. Do these programs aim to integrate media studies throughout American language arts and communication instruction?  Media studies courses and departments are now widespread if not universal in colleges and universities, from the University of South Carolina, to Willamette in Oregon, and Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Media literacy studies are often included in via English, speech communication, or humanities classes.  On the other hand, media studies can be a specific discipline, often affiliated with Departments of Communication, Film, Broadcasting, Art or Art History, and in a few cases Humanities programs.  These classes are often unknown to the typical undergraduate, unless some of the introductory courses carry GE credit in Humanities; however in general they are not a general education requirement.


Media studies in California conforms to the pattern noted on the Fulbright web page, divided into humanistic/ film studies, journalism/communications, and practitioner-oriented arts programs.  A Communication Studies guide showed that of nine California State Universities listed, five had one or more Concentrations in Media Studies, whether “mass” or digital.  Most of these departments have a Speech Communication component (significantly linked to the ancient discipline of rhetoric), and have added on programs in public relations, journalism, mass communication, and from there to digital/new media (“Communications Studies”).  Film Studies majors remain a significant way to study visual media.  According to the ASSIST data base, eight CSU departments, and seven UC departments offer film studies programs, often with concentrations in new media.  Four of these programs, include “Media Studies” in degree titles.  UC Riverside has a department with a still broader title, “Media and Cultural Studies.”  At CSU Los Angeles, you can major in philosophy and concentrate on film studies!  Creative arts departments have grown to encompass several kinds of multimedia studies in many BFA programs on seven different CSU campuses.  CSU Dominguez Hills offers a B.A. in Digital Media Arts.  San Francisco State, presumably because of its over-educated populace and proximity to the burgeoning multimedia industry, only offers a Certificate in Multimedia Studies in its College of Extended Learning (“Multimedia Studies Program”) to allow its students to move quickly into the industry. Less common are programs affiliated with the Art History/ Visual Culture and Humanities programs.  “Visual culture” studies bridges the gap between the curatorial field of Art History and modern media studies.  UC Santa Cruz and CSU Monterey Bay both have programs of this type.  The recently opened Monterey Bay campus also has a large inclusive B.A. program in Human Communication, which includes concentrations in writing, ethnic and gender studies, speech, teacher preparation and three media-related concentrations:  Oral History and New Media, Journalism and Media Studies, and finally Literary and Film Studies. UC Berkeley has a Media Studies major within the College of Letters and Sciences, once titled “Mass communications.”  It is not a department but an interdisciplinary major*.   Media studies is a rapidly growing field of study, inside and outside of the above-mentioned disciplinary boundaries, but remains peripheral to undergraduate education for the time being.



Foundation-Driven Forces for Curricular Reform


The slow process of research, theoretical work, and institutional legitimation going on at elite research universities, which sometimes leaves the wider educational system untouched, is being challenged, or at least supplemented by a cross-disciplinary trend, headed by the MacArthur Foundation. Foundations are important influences on and indicators of  educational policy change, providing seed money for experimental initiatives, and possible legitimacy via research results, to allow for later, more widespread initiatives prior to general acceptance.  They suggest possible directions in educational theory and practice, but cannot be confused with official or operative curriculum in schools or school systems, which tend to change slowly, through institutional cultures and political processes that can limit, twist, or transform original theories or programs for educational reform.


MacArthur Foundation launched its Digital Media and Learning Initiative in 2006 with a new emphasis on student learning rather than education, funding an ethnographic study of how youth are using digital media. This suggests an interest in digital media, not just as a means of information transfer, but in the broad cultural sense that has historically been the purview of media studies.  Reviewing the twenty odd educational institutions that have received grants through this initiative, I noticed that among the predictable recipients like communications programs, libraries, and Internet studies programs, are at least three different Schools of Education, at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Wisconsin. This suggests a commitment to application of digital media studies, not as marginal elective, like film studies, but as central to general education (“Exploring Digital Media”).


Though the theoretical framework of these researchers and academics is different than the relatively narrow spectrum of media studies educators, it would be a mistake to imagine that this foundation seed money is being distributed with no connection to media literacy scholars at all.  For example, Henry Jenkins, author of a 2006 MacArthur funded paper “Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century,” (Pacific Film Archive 121-158) is probably one of the most prolific media scholars in the U.S. today, and until recently was the Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at M.I.T. But the wider range of players in these efforts, and the universal reach of digital transformation, lead me to wonder how this innovation will become visible on the American college campus in the next decade.  It may take new forms that look very different from the old media studies paradigm.


For example, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), centered at U.C. Irvine, instead of presenting a plan for disciplinary development, suggests new paradigms and systemic reforms: “…to reconsider how we conduct research, how we organize knowledge, and how we think, learn, communicate, interact, grow, change and experiment in the face of changes happening faster than we ever imagined possible” (“History/HASTAC”).   Led by two scholars from Duke and U.C. Irvine (neither of them from a media studies background) HASTAC is engaged in research, scholarly publishing, and  on-line discussion forums, sponsors yearly competitions between programs focused on digital media and learning, and facilitates face to face meetings and conferences.  Their lead researcher, Mizuko “Mimi” Ito, reinforces their call for new paradigms and reform, picking up themes of constructivist educational theory, matching the concept of the autonomous, self-regulated learner to the Web 2.0 platform, which she suggests, allows for immediate access to information: “Kids learn on the Internet in an autonomous way, by looking around for information they’re interested in or connecting with peers who can help them…This is a big departure from how they’re asked to learn in most schools, where the teacher is the expert and there’s a fixed set of content to master” (Rico).  When a heavily funded researcher pronounces her favor of constructivist concepts of learning, we are taking an important step toward the legitimation of those progressive practices.  Unfortunately, Ito’s rhetoric on the autonomy of learners (she works with a youth outreach project called YouMedia at the Chicago Public Library), confuses the testing-based curriculum of the No Child Left Behind Act with the public school teachers’ practices, both of which have been challenged by a significant minority of teachers.  Students are the crucial actors in Ito’s statements on educational reform: “Technology is allowing them to access information and craft their identities in unprecedented ways, without interference from parents or teachers” (Rico).  New technology has long been a nexus for new youth identities, but I am concerned by how little Ito has to say about the interference in young people’s access and identities by the invisible people, really corporations, behind the shiny surfaces of Facebook, YouTube, and Google.


Teaching and You Tube


I would like to read direct accounts from teachers doing media conscious education using the Internet as a medium, but have encountered very few.  One of these experiments is recounted in Alexandra Juhasz’s “Why Not (To) Teach on YouTube.”  Juhasz taught a Media Studies class that both studied YouTube and posted its own videos and blogs on and around YouTube.  As an experiment, it is very interesting to consider, because it attempted to do what Ito suggested: to carry on new learning processes fully inside the Web 2.0 web site.  Her class’s on-line presentation (which included video-recording some class sessions, and responding to journalists’ questions) exposed them more to hostility than utopian acceptance:  “The students, while initially awed, quickly came to feel abused, judged, and harassed by a global spotlight that saw them without equal attempts at listening or understanding” (Juhasz  134).


Juhasz’s account helps relate the Web 2.0’s “participatory culture” to my pedagogical and curricular concerns.  She draws a sharp distinction between the interactivity in her private liberal arts college and the open, uncredentialed, anonymous interactivity of the on-line environment (135).  Such colleges create a protected space where “…students are asked to publicly contribute their interpretations, and sometimes personal experience and knowledge, always knowing that they are not the experts, but they are certainly experts-in-training” (Juhasz  135). Academic discourse encourages a kind of interactivity “to allow ideas to build in succession permitting things to grow steadily more complex, to able to find things once and then again” (Juhasz  139).  But it all relates back to the professor, and to the goal of a coherent written essay produced in a space that encourages carefully managed dialogue.  “On YouTube, amateurs rule, experts are deflated, and authority is flattened.  While it is exciting to hear from new and varied people, and while this undoubtedly widens and opens our knowledge base, it is difficult to learn in an environment where vying opinions rule, where data is helter-skelter and hard to locate, and where no one can take the lead” (Juhasz  139).  Rather than enjoying the freedom, Juhasz’s students “…were routinely judged by critical YouTubers who we would never see or know, who may or may not have been aware of the history of our conversations, or the subtle dynamics in the room” (Juhasz  135).  You Tubers were perceived by the students as “unruly, impolite, and often unproductive: not disciplined into being as committed and attentive as we were” (Juhasz  135).


However, Juhasz’s students attained a kind of rough but uncomfortable equality with YouTubers: “…most newly empowered videomakers on YouTube are not educated or adept in the language of images, and thus depend on the mere recording and relay of their [spoken and performed] words, primarily through the talking head or rant of the vlog …they are typically unedited, word or spectacle-reliant and accrue value through the pathos, talent, or humor of the individual” (Juhasz  136).  Juhasz’s students “…quickly understood how well trained they are to do academic work with the [written] word…and how poor is their media-production literacy…”  Her students’ YouTube videos were “word-reliant, the illustrated summary, and the YouTube hack, where academic content is wedged into a standard YouTube vernacular form (music, video, How To, or advertisement)” (Juhasz  134).


This is one of the contradictions of introducing a vernacular discourse into an elite forum—students have to experience the discomfort of feeling awkward and inarticulate once again.  On the other hand, community college students might feel differently in this situation.  It might be that CCSF students,  particularly those in developmental classes, would feel more comfortable with YouTube’s rough discourse than with a written composition, or the stronger students might resent the diversion from an academic context*. On the other hand, teachers might have similar reservations about the crude qualities of YouTube’s populist discourse.  Apart from direct involvement in You Tube, assuming classroom as a distanced site of reflection, the very confusion and uncertainty of the new relations between media and audiences make them an ideal topics of pedagogical reflection, if instructors can maintain that safe space to allow the discussion and inquiry to take place, and students can share and reflect on their participation in this new media universe.


From Elites To Grassroots: The Multimodal Compositionists


The National Council of Teachers of English and its affiliate the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the principal professional organizations for English teachers in the United States, have a long record of support for infusing media education into English instruction.  When I entered the profession in the 1990’s, I was able to read about, and then meet media literacy authors and practitioners like Bill Costanzo, or do a conference presentation at the 1992 CCCC.  The NCTE was also ready to fund this work, as they did with my 1998 research on media literacy and critical thinking.


However this supportive environment had its limits.  Media studies were strictly separate from English in both the California State University and Community College systems, and in the NCTE neither the appointed Media Commission, nor the participatory Media Assembly were taking major initiatives.  I recall reading the Assembly newsletter (in print!) Media Matters in 1998, and finding this plaintive appeal by the editor:

This issue of Media Matters has the largest circulation of my several years as editor.  I  know, believe me, as I stuffed and sealed the envelopes and affixed the stamps…In the decade since the Assembly was founded we have rarely exceeded a circulation of 100…The hope always has been that the Assembly and its publication could become more than a cottage industry, more a widely circulated source of insight and information into the field of media education…Least [sic] you become discouraged about renewing or starting a membership, rest assured that I shall plug on for the next four issues…but after that it’s up to the younger generation! (“Editor’s Musings,” 12)


It took me some time to realize that most college composition teachers were not regular readers of College Composition and Communication, and that what might lead to an animated conversation in an annual conference might not fly in school hallways, much less in formal deliberations of an English department. For better or worse, professional organizations are detached from the everyday culture of teaching, and school decision-making.  They don’t have to decide which students pass or how money will be spent.  They are free to recommend what should be done in schools, without having to decide how to accomplish it.


When I began teaching in community colleges in 1993, media literacy concerns were clearly marginal to the concerns of both composition teachers and English departments.  Visual media was considered an acceptable writing topic, but not relevant to the substantial skills we were teaching: reading and writing.  What was a hot topic in the 1990’s, for both English teachers and administrators, was computers as writing technology, a replacement for the typewriter, and later, the Internet as medium for reading and collecting information for students’ research papers.  TV and film were still understood as the visual media, and it was not until massive, seemingly instantaneous success of YouTube in 2006 that this perception of the Internet as text-based has begun to change.


Of course the present prominence of the visual in the Internet was actually a gradual process, as was the growth of “multimodal composition*” in the NCTE.  There has been a steady procession of essays in the CCC about visual rhetoric and multi-modal composition the past ten years.  Presumably prodded by this writing, and the research and pedagogical innovation of computers and composition scholars like Cynthia Selfe and Anne Wysocki, the NCTE passed “Resolution on Composing with Nonprint Media” in 2003.  Citing the growing influence of “non-printcentric” media in the lives of young people, the resolution encouraged staff development programs on multimedia composition and a “broadened concept of literacy,” model classroom policies to promote multimedia composition, integration of multimedia composition into teacher education, official curriculum and local/ state standards and renewed support for equity in access to “the full range of composing technologies.”   (National Council of Teachers of English, “Resolution…”) To give an idea of how long it can take to ideas to percolate through the different layers of the profession, by the time I encountered these ideas and their advocates at the 2009 Conference on College Composition and Communication, not one teacher at City College of San Francisco, including some more tech-savvy and well-read than me, had ever HEARD of multi-modal composition, much less had an opinion about it. In the meantime the NCTE Executive Committee adopted a “Definition of 21st Century Literacies” that argued that competent readers and writers now need to be proficient with digital tools, work collaboratively, design and share information for global communities, “manage, analyze and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information,”  “create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multi-media texts,”  and deal with ethical challenges in cyber-space (National Council of Teachers of English).


By the time I attended the 2009 CCCC, multi-modal composition had become a large, diversified current, sponsoring between 30 and 40 overlapping workshops, including many young graduate students as well as seasoned practitioners.  Some focused on the inclusion of graphic, audio, or visual elements into composition, while others treated visual and other web environments as simply topics for writing.  Others still focused on the integration of writing activities into on-line environments like blogs,  Wiki and  MySpace, while some looked at the web as area where students do most of their research in order to write, as well as associated issues of plagiarism, authorship and fair use.  There were also more theoretically oriented sessions dealing with definitions of propaganda versus education, multimodal rhetoric, participatory web culture, and so on (“4 C’s Notes”).  The 2010 CCCC went a step beyond multiple small sessions on cyber topics to a major forum with major scholars, and further to making the digital recording concept of “Remix” into a conference theme and omnipresent metaphor, used in pre-conference publicity: “From mashups to CLUSTER!%#*! and all the wikis, flashbacks, multimodalities and mapping, the presentations will push our discussions further.  They might even tell us if Aristotle is in the DJ booth or Twitter.” (Pough, 5)  .  My point here is not to evaluate the rhetoric, only to take note of its ascendance to a new norm of professional discourse. I heard no opponents at the 2009 meeting, and working from workshop titles in 2010 like “Rethinking Multi-Modal Composition at Multiple Institutional Levels,” and “An Assessment [i.e. placement and grading] Remixology,” multi-modalism is trickling into normal departmental discourse. One might say the multi-modal compositionists are just a small group of experimenters, who don’t determine how literacy instruction is done today.  Yet from their influence on professional discourse, they may determine how it is done tomorrow.


I once carefully explained why students should learn to interpret video texts in their essay;  now I can go to presentations where composition scholars are arguing that students should learn how to shoot videos and include them as part of a multi-modal composition.  If I was shocked by the readjustment and reconceptualization called for, I can’t imagine what the normal comp instructor is in for.  This is not to say that this rhetoric or these suggested practices have filtered down to many schools or even colleges, nor to claim that even the best scholars, researchers and practitioners really understand what we are getting into, but to suggest that these exciting and disturbing changes will continue to trickle down and around and through the educational hierarchy for the rest of our lives.  And given the force and speed of the digital saturation and transformation of our society, the curricular and social changes may sometime accelerate from a trickle to a torrent that will hit the profession and the classroom with tremendous disruptive force.


Meanwhile, Back At the Ranch (Again): Media Studies at CCSF


City College of San Francisco, like most community colleges, has curricula responding to students’ needs for vocational skills and knowledge, to transfer to a four year universities for academic and career purposes, and to acquire basic skills in English and math to allow the prior needs to be successfully satisfied.  Operating under pressures to satisfy these various needs, City College has not developed any formal cross-disciplinary media education curriculum.  Rather, media education has sprouted in several locations, growing out of instructors’ personal interests.  I will review courses and teaching initiatives here, beginning with transfer level classes, then reviewing vocationally oriented classes and finally an English elective toward a high school diploma.


It is the BCST 101 Media Literacy class which has probably come closest to the media education curriculum which interests me.  One would think it would be filled with Broadcast majors, but due to its articulation with San Francisco State’s BECA 201 class, which can be taken for G.E. credit, 80% of the students are non-media majors (Podenski).  Course content has focused on the properties of the televisual medium (color, camera angle, camera shot, lighting) in contrast to print or radio.  This semiotic focus extended to narrative as well, considering how common story schemes such as the “hero” are adapted by various media ((“City College… Course Outline …BCST 101”).  Another emerging course topic has been the influence of TV talk on styles of public speaking generally.  As the course has been taught in the (BCST renamed as) BEMA  (Broadcast Electronic Media Arts) department, it made use of television technology to teach about issues like camera angle with cameras and recording technology, to connect the theory and practice of visual semiotics.  While the class required students to take exams, and write a short paper analyzing the properties of the visual medium, the key assignment was an in-class oral presentation analyzing a media text. The class had a different approach from other introductory survey classes, such as BCST 100 Introduction to Electronic Media or BCST 103 Mass Media and Society, which have more historical and sociological approaches.  However, unlike these other courses, BCST 101 Media Literacy has not been offered since 2004 (Abma).  I had expected that for some reason the course had not been popular with students.  However the author of the Course Outline and the original professor who taught it said that no one has wanted to teach the class after she put it aside to chair the department.  For whatever reasons, the media literacy framework does not match well with the Broadcast faculty’s priorities (Podenski), and the course is in the deep freeze.


IDST 14 American Cultures Through Literature and Film is offered in regular and on-line forms.  It is a class that fulfills Humanities requirements for the IGETC program, therefore is a transfer class.  Its content focuses on multi-culturalism, that is the clashing ethnic identities that co-exist in  modern America.  In relation to media, the course requires students to compare artistic statements on similar topics across two different media.  The class continues to be offered every year, appealing both to students’ interests in identity issues and multi-media comparison.  I’m not sure how much instruction focuses on properties of different media, but I think it is subordinate to the multi-cultural course content (“City College… Course Outline …IDST 14”).


In the English department, there are no courses focused on digital or electronic media as content, but in composition courses, many teachers use anthologies with heavy focus on multimedia issues (Reading Culture by George and Timbur has been popular at the English 93 level), and teachers occasionally integrate films, videos, graphic novels, and blogging into class activities.  Written analysis of advertisements is probably the most widespread type of visually-oriented assignment in English classes, at basic and transfer level, most commonly applying an analytical approach to color magazine ads, and sometimes to televisual commercials.  Another popular text is How To Watch TV News by Neil Postman and Steve Powers, particularly at the English 93 level.  The authors encourage readers to think critically about print/ visual differences as well as the commercial and technological context of TV, albeit from a “protectionist” viewpoint. The typical assignment is to read and write critically, applying ideas from a print culture context to a multimedia context.  These assignments are often high interest, but they often set themselves up against popular culture and multimedia world of the students, limiting the depth of student reflection.


There are departments I have not surveyed carefully.  Journalism, traditionally associated with liberal arts education, but professionally oriented, may have begun to integrate digital issues given the earth-shaking changes in the newspaper and publishing world.  The same goes for the Cinema department, which offers several liberal arts oriented courses that undoubtedly teach media conscious curriculum for transfer level credit.   There are also practices that grow up on the margins of  the dominant curriculum, such as the growing use of graphic novels by instructors in English, ESL, Social Sciences and Political Science at basic and transfer levels.  Graphic novels are used to teach about the Holocaust (Speigelman’s Maus), the 9/11 Commission Report, Islam and Palestine, and about the visual medium itself (McCloud’s Understanding Comics).  And though there are now teacher’s guides about teaching with comics, I have not seen any research on what it means to combine print and graphics to teach either reading or content knowledge.  I am sadly uninformed about an entire social science class titled Comics and Social Power which obviously uses graphic novels as major texts. In just the past few years, there has been a significant and growing collaboration between KQED’s education coordinator and CCSF’s English as a Second Language department (the College’s largest, given the extensiveness of its Non-Credit classes, mainly for working adults), involving students viewing and listening, connecting high-interest content (on environmental issues), with the ESL teacher’s listening and speaking goals.


Transitional Studies 2323 Media Literacy has been taught in only the last five years, at first experimentally by different instructors (including film, advertising, politics, encompassing both viewing and production), in conjunction with a media education initiative by KQED,  the local public broadcast affiliate (Strauss).  The class was designed and is still being taught to satisfy a state requirement for 160 unit program toward high school graduation (Rosales-Uribe).  The Course Outline is dated March 2009, and it will be taught fall 2010.  The “Learning Outcomes” listed on the Course Outline are standard media literacy fare (“A. Evaluate and compare how media forms, content and products are constructed for specific audience”, (“City College… Course Outline …TRST 2323”).  From this list, we might be hard-pressed to distinguish the course from a university undergraduate course at an elite university.  Other course elements are more revealing.  “Instructional Methodology” emphasizes group work, project based learning, and short, informal writing assignments. Evaluation relies on a short answer test on topics and vocabulary covered in the course.  The Course Outline only lists in-class assignments.  Even media logs, which would seem to be ideal for getting students to assess their personal media consumption, are only included under in-class assignments.  When I asked the Course Outline author about homework, she said that little or none was required. She spoke of the basic nature of these courses, designed to stabilize students who often have very disordered lives and disrupted educations (with little homework required or done).  The limited reading (in class only), limited writing, and the dependency of the students on the teacher’s presentation and classroom activities, would seem to limit the depth of learning required in the Course Outline to a certain level that I am hard-pressed to quantify precisely (Rosales-Uribe).



Next, I would like to consider the more vocationally-oriented courses offered by BEMA, Graphic Communications and Multi-Media Studies departments (the latter two associated but not merged).  These departments prepare students to transfer to universities (all BEMA classes are for transferable credit) and also provide a wide range of certificate programs to help students move into high technology industries. The prominence of directly vocational instruction in BEMA is suggested by its specialized certificate programs in Sound Recording Arts, Digital Radio, Video Production and Editing, in addition to its general Media Studies and Core Media Skills courses (BEMA Class Schedule, 2010).  Graphic Communications and Multimedia are similar, offering core courses, along with Certificate programs, fourteen certificates all together! (Graphic Communications Spring 2010 Class Schedule).   Given number of certificate programs, and the rapid growth and transformation in the multimedia industry, I assume most of these students want to go directly into the work world, rather than transferring.


Perhaps reflecting the rapid growth in multimedia, or the paucity of existing theory, research and definitions, there are not any theory or “digital media studies” classes in the Multimedia department.  There are classes where general features of multimedia discourse surely come up, such as Design Fundamentals (subtitled “Visual Literacy”), or Multimedia Content and Form (Graphic Communications Spring 2010 Class Schedule 4-5).  The chair of Multimedia Studies, who is also coordinator of Basic Skills at CCSF, is aware of the limitations of traditional vocational training, and is specifically concerned about whether the MM students general literacy skills are sufficient for the industry the students are going into.  In our interview, she cited the example of nursing students who have graduated from a RN program without learning sufficient math skills.  She spoke of a general need for integrating basic literacy and math skills into “contextualized learning” programs.  MM Students were hard to characterize by literacy levels, she said;  they are a mix of young graduates from high schools with older adults changing careers, who may already have BA or MA degrees but not the technical skills.  Multimedia and Graphic Communications chairs have discussed the need for a discipline-specific writing class, but are not sure about the content of such a class (Cataldo).


BEMA divides its classes into Media Studies, Core Media Skills, and the technical specialties mentioned above.  The key gate-keeper class under Core Media Skills, CSU transferable and also a prerequisite for all digital production classes in BEMA, is Digital Media Skills (BCST 119).  It is taken by many different kinds of majors (including Multimedia students), for many purposes.  Basic software skills and production of podcasts and videos are the focuses of the class, and the key assignment is a  multimedia project with competence evidenced in its design, editing, and communication.  While more explicit teaching of digital literacy concepts would benefit students, teachers often do not have time for it (Antonich).


The 119 course, introducing students to the basics of digital radio, audio, video, and the editing, storage and manipulation of data in various forms, gives students a practitioner’s introduction to media literacy.  One instructor interviewed said that the students begin the class overconfident about how easy it will be to communicate audio-visually, and during the semester they become more deeply aware of how clear story boarding, camera angles, or sound/picture synchronization affect their intended message (Antonich). While looking into this course, I was able to collect some pass-fail data that suggest a correlation between transfer-level English course completion (96, making one eligible for 1A, or 1A completion) and passing BCST 119.  The general BCST 119 pass rate over several years was 61%.  If we take the students who had previously completed only a basic writing class, from 90, 92, 93, to 94, there was 50-60% pass rate.  But if we take the 96/1A completers, the pass rate goes up to 71-80% (See Appendix ____).  This suggests a match up between multimedia skills in design, editing and communication, and written composition skills in conceptualizing, planning, organizing, citing sources, and expressing views.

* Berkeley also has a Film Studies program, which is affiliated with the Pacific Film Archive.  While the PFA is housed in the University Art Museum, and although it remains focused on its mission of curating and studying film, in the past decade it has sponsored summer educational programs with a broad media literacy focus aimed at public school teachers, and in 2004, on media production programs for youth.

* This is not to suggest that I am proposing what Juhasz tried: using YouTube as a medium of instruction.

* Multimodal texts enlarge the written text to include, like typical web pages, still and moving images, animation, music and sound (podcasts), videos, hyperlinks, and other additions to and hybrids of these.

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