Friday, December 12, 2008

Critical Media Pedagogy for All Ages

Many of us wrestle with effective strategies for teaching critical media literacy. How do we teach our students ways to take apart the ideological dimensions of mainstream and independent mass media, while also helping them develop analytic models that help account for the profoundly (often seductive) mass appeal of these cultural forms?

I’ve been deeply impressed by the work being done by the critical media feminist scholar Rhonda Hammer at UCLA, as she trains her students in media analysis. Her students have produced an extraordinary series of videos, posted on line, exploring a range of mass media imagery, in ways that are smart, incisive and often funny. See:

I like the way many of these pieces creatively move back and forth between media imagery and carefully edited interviews (sometimes on the street) with ordinary consumers of media, across lines of gender, race and class. The net effect of the strongest of these works is not simply to portray audiences as passive consumers of media hegemonies, but rather to emphasize the creative and thoughtful agency of audiences, as they actively struggle to position themselves in reference to these powerful and seductive images. Taken as a whole, these imaginative critical videos take media seriously, while also taking seriously (and not simply stereotyping) media consumers, honoring their intelligence and critical self-consciousness.

Here on the “other coast”, many of our graduate students in the M.A. Program in Cultural Production at Brandeis are especially interested in developing critical media capacities among children and adolescents, especially those from historically excluded communities. They know that simply lecturing to youth---about the gendered, racist, classist and homophobic subtexts of the popular music, film and television in which they are deeply invested-- is an ineffective pedagogic strategy. What are productive alternatives? Often we’ve found the best approach is to have young people develop their own imaginative media products, in ways that cause them to reflect upon the political construction of mainstream media--while still honoring their delight in the dynamic energy of the media that they regularly consume.

For instance, Cathy Draine has done highly creative work at Freedom House in Dorchester with urban teens in her program, as they develop snappy PSAs on school avoidance. Brian Friedberg, in turn, has sought to engage the musical and media-savvy imagination of adolescent young women living in the Prospect Hill Terrace public housing development by having them develop a “mockumentary”, in which they script and play the roles of members of girl band undergoing a break up. Last year, this same group of young women, when performing at the Brandeis campus, only wanted to lip sync songs by current pop idols. But this year, working with Brian, the young women are composing their own music and writing their own lyrics, as they also develop the characters they are playing. Along the way, Brian engages them in thought-provoking conversations about mass media literacy but this isn’t the foregrounded focus of their sessions. Meanwhile, in the same Prospect Hill community center, Nadia Hemady engages a broader group of teens and tweens in conversation about media by exposing them to media forms, primarily Japanese anime, with which they are not all that familiar. In watching and discussing in anime in Japanese (with English subtitles) the young people’s experiences of mass media is to some extent ‘de-naturalized,” and they develop on their own interesting and creative takes on cinema and television more broadly.

Other Cultural Production students are deploying ethnographic research techniques to develop nuanced senses of how audiences creatively re-appropriate mass media forms. Bryce Peake, for instance, has been doing fascinating fieldwork on urban “Zombie Walks,” in which hundreds of people, usually in their twenties, dress up as Zombies, largely modeled on the undead creatures in George Romero’s films, and lurch through city neighborhoods. Becky Lennon, in turn, is critically analyzing children’s “educational television,” including the popular show “Dora the Explorer,” with an eye to unpacking the subtle transpositions between the Dora character and the “imagined community” of the children’s television audience. Although each episode of the show is formally framed in terms of interactive problem solving, Becky argues persuasively that the shows offer a kind of pre-fabricated simulacrum of problem solving, while captivating children who in a curious sense continuously give life to the Dora character. Later this year, Becky may be developing creative media projects with children, as they explore and comment upon these kinds of educational TV shows.

1 comment:

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