The post-recession university has been one marked by anxiety over the function of higher education in relationship to employment. A June 29, 2013 New York Times article addressed this in terms of my own interests in media, technology, and politics: “[Young employees are] really good at technology, but not at how to take those skills and resolve specific business problems.”
For scholars of media and technology, now is an exciting moment when media consumption and media production are rapidly converging; we are able to teach students the applicability of Bourdieu and Goffman in producing public service announcement campaigns, and the value of Tönnies and Giddens in engineering and understanding social media networks. Moreover, there is a real need within the news industry for workers with experience in social scientific methods, who have the potential to challenge unsubstantiated generalizations about the intersections and juxtapositions of gender, race, and class that plague contemporary national and international reporting. As Pierre Bourdieu lamented in 2000, “Driven by the aim of intervening in the first person in the construction of the correct representation of the social world — without possessing the necessary minimum of instruments of knowledge — journalists mostly condemn themselves to contributing to the maintenance of… the discourse of those who dominate the economic and political worlds.”
The exciting thing about teaching media now, then, is that skills-based education and liberal arts education are converging around the goals of producing culturally sensitive, politically competent, and media literate citizens. My teaching meets these goals by emphasizing the global nature of media circulation, production, and consumption, all within a feminist framework that is attentive to differing relations of gendered, racialized, and economic power.
In pursuit of the liberatory potential of higher education, I use active learning strategies in the classroom that often draw on the bridge between media consumption and media production. I am most interested in pedagogical techniques that force students to bridge classroom knowledge and public occurrences through engaged and applied scholarship within the local community – not just about it. As a teaching assistant for a course on historical anthropology and museum studies at Brandeis University, for example, I worked with a group of students to collaborate with activists protesting the potential closure of the Rose Art Museum. Collaborators designed an exhibition of the history of accession and potential de-accession of art at the museum as it correlated with the rise and fall of the stock market. From both traditional classroom engagements and activist meetings, students uncovered the entanglement of economics and cultural institutions: the ways in which male donors’ commitment to institutions changed with the stock market while women maintained an active commitment independent of such external forces; and how the 2009 crumbling of the Madoff Ponzi-scheme gave impetus to the de-accession of museum donations and radical transformation of the University as part of what Naomi Klein has called ‘disaster capitalism.’
Even in large lecture courses, I maintain an emphasis on active learning through dynamic and team-oriented conversations and assignments that serve to de-anonymize the lecture hall. It is only when held accountable to themselves, their peers, and their instructor that students are given a sense of themselves as learners in large lecture spaces. In my 2013 Feminist Media Studies course (J320) at the University of Oregon, which had approximately 100 students, I emphasized team-based learning through a team-based media production assignment. Their task was to a) critique a set of media representations within news or advertising, focusing on intersectional forms of discrimination, and b) produce a media artifact that constituted a ‘positive move’ to this critique, providing a better and more ethical way of addressing diverse audiences holistically. This student project was organized using SLuG (Student Learning User Groups), a system for randomizing student teams based on student-chosen strengths (project researcher, editor & writer, media producer, or project manager) that was designed by a group of feminist media scholars specifically for this course – of which I was a part. In its early stages, I was hired as a research assistant to design evaluative tools for the project; survey research and focus groups during the early piloting of the project showed that randomized groups based on these skill sets enabled students to find pathways into course materials through their own knowledge production strengths.
I attempt to convey the importance of this experiential and applied learning by having students regularly reflect on and theorize their learning experiences, sometimes verbally and often within writing assignments. These more open assignments are often paired with more traditional forms of evaluation (i.e. reading quizzes, midterm exams, short essays). Understanding the anxiety that grades produce for students, I provide students with a myriad of ways to earn points towards their grades above and beyond the course requirements, while maintaining the integrity of traditional forms of student evaluation that serve to give students a sense of their accomplishments in relation to both my expectations and the quality of work by other students. I ensure transparency in grading by distributing grading rubrics to students and making clear grading polices and tabulations. Just like pedagogical activities that occur in groups, I view assignments as part of the iterative and reciprocal process of learning, and am always open to the experiences that students are willing to reveal through their graded projects and in conversation.