Read Chapter 1

Historical Roots of Media Literacy

CITE AS: Hobbs, R. (2016). Historical Roots of Media Literacy. In R. Hobbs (Ed.) Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative (pp. 9 - 36). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 

Chapter 1
Historical Roots of Media Literacy
Renee Hobbs
The opportunistic teacher who embraces the leisure interests of his pupils in the hope of leading them to higher things is as frequently unsympathetic to the really valuable qualities of popular culture as his colleague who remains resolutely hostile. A true training in discrimination is concerned with pleasure.
—Stuart Hall and Paddy Whannel, The Popular Arts

What are the historical roots of media literacy, and why do they matter to the future of the field? This book is an effort to recover some of big ideas about media, technology, culture, and education using personal memoir as a vehicle for inquiry. Six key themes are explored: the heightening of consciousness of message form, content, and context; the social nature of representation and interpretation; the dialectic of protection and empowerment; art and social activism; the interconnection between literacy and learning; and engaging the head, heart, hands, and spirit.

The roots of media literacy have emerged from the intellectual and creative legacy of a large group of twentieth-century scholars and writers; these roots supply both the nutrients and the stability needed for future growth and development. These fundamental dimensions of the theory and practice of media literacy enable us to connect media literacy’s past to its present and future. In this book, I show that the intellectual roots of media literacy can be most transparently identified in relationship to the lived experiences of the people who have practiced it. In this chapter, I preview some of the key ideas in this volume and show how the historical roots of media literacy can be gleaned from learning about the lives and ideas of contemporary authors—and those of the great minds who inspired them.

Heightened Awareness of Form, Content, and Context

All illusions are potential ways of ordering reality. The goal of criticism should therefore be not to destroy illusions but to make us more sensitive to their workings and their complexity.
—Leo Braudy, The World in a Frame

Because language is the first and most important symbol system for conveying personal and social identity, media literacy educators have long come from the ranks of those in language arts and literacy education. We emphasize the importance of developing a heightened awareness of language and its power to shape lived experience. When British media literacy educator Len Masterman articulated the importance of what he called “media awareness education,” he offered up eighteen principles that reflected what he had learned over the course of two decades of teaching students about the media. Among them is the importance of illuminating the life situations of learners in relation to wider historic and ideological issues (Masterman 1989).

Wrestling with the big ideas of philosophy, in Chapter 2, David Weinberger shares his own experience exploring the power of language to shape how we view the world and our role in it. A fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, Weinberger is a philosopher who writes about the Internet. He is famous for his book The Cluetrain Manifesto, which explores shifting power dynamics in business and marketing communication strategies. In Everything Is Miscellaneous and Too Big to Know, Weinberger looks at the epistemology of the Internet. In this book, Weinberger recalls his youth: as a young undergraduate facing an existential crisis, Weinberger discovered the work of Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher, who disrupted his thinking about the transmission model of communication and helped him discover the simple majesty in our connected relationships. As beings in time, Weinberger finds, we participate in “a language-soaked, shared world,” are embedded in social networks, and live with others who, although they may care about different things than we do, give us great gifts: they use language and other symbol systems to show us how the world looks to them.

When people live through a cultural shift during which one form of communication rises to dominate culture for a time, it forces them to notice how media shape consciousness. When writing was first introduced, Plato feared the loss of human memory and imagination. Thousands of years later, when printing came to dominate European culture, the concept of a fact emerged as superior to the proverbs and wisdom of oral and manuscript cultures. Print encouraged hierarchical structures of authority and contributed to romantic ideas about individual originality and creativity as emerging from the author’s unique point of view. When Walter Ong (1982) compared verbal expression in an oral culture to forms of expression in literate cultures, he noted how patterns of thinking and social relationships were restructured to valorize some cultural ideas and restrict or limit others. Of course, changes in media inevitably reshape education. Looking critically at Italian universities during the Gutenberg revolution, a Latin scholar in 1477 observed that “an abundance of books makes men less studious” (quoted in Ong 1982, 78).

Hundreds of years later, the rise of film and television created similar challenges for educators who wanted to find ways to make education more relevant to the students in their classes. In Chapter 3, after describing his own (largely negative) experience with the first generation of communication arts classes offered in New York City high schools in the 1970s, Lance Strate remembers how he discovered the work of Marshall McLuhan, vividly capturing the sense of awe he experienced. Strate is a professor of communication at Fordham University and one of the leaders in the media ecology community, which is a subdiscipline of media studies. By showing how media-symbol systems reflect and shape the apparatus of perception, Strate writes, McLuhan helps us recognize how film and television contributed to changes in society and culture. In his chapter, Strate reminds us that the first goal of media education is to “restore the sense of novelty, that experience of strangeness, that we so easily lose regarding our modes of communication.” By defamiliarizing media, we treat them as objects of study, using the practice of critical distance to “look at them rather than through them.” Therefore, media literacy education emphasizes the use of instructional strategies to help heighten conscious awareness of the constructedness of media form and content, always in relation to context and culture. Now we examine how cell phones, tablets, and the always-on broadband environment of work, home, and leisure spaces may be reshaping consciousness in ways that promote intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning, as well as contributing to the mental state of perpetual distractedness or fertilizing an ever-growing thirst for the novel, the profane, and the shocking.

To reflect on how media shapes consciousness, defamiliarization is an important process that can take many forms. Because all the phenomena of everyday life—not just linguistic communication—can carry symbolic and expressive meaning, even ordinary forms of consumerism and popular culture, including shopping, sporting matches, games, advertising, and fashion must be analyzed. In Chapter 4, film scholar Dana Polan, a cinema-studies professor at New York University and author of Scenes of Instruction (2007), a book about the history of film studies in the United States, introduces us to the work of Roland Barthes, who looked at how mass culture signifies various ideological positions to maintain (or challenge) the social status quo. Barthes showed that ideological values are grafted onto the ordinary objects and practices of the world. Representations are never neutral or natural. Close reading of texts of popular culture, through semiotics, enables us to engage in critical analysis that can demystify symbol systems. Barthes explains that “our conversation, our remarks about the weather, a murder trial, a touching wedding, the cooking we dream of, the garments we wear, everything, in everyday life, is dependent on representations . . . between the man and the world” (Barthes [1957] 2012, 252). Therefore, careful, active interpretation of the representations we create and the ones that circulate among our peers, families, and communities is essential for living an informed and reflective life.
The Social Nature of Representation and Interpretation
When media literacy was first being explored in the 1970s, it was common to talk about the many stereotypes that pervaded entertainment and informational media. Stereotypes reproduced traditional hierarchies associated with gender, race, class, sexuality, and occupation. Unproductive debates raged about whether particular depictions were accurate or inaccurate. But media texts are not simply external ways of representing reality; they constitute the meaning of reality (Hall 1980). Fortunately, when the term media representation began to circulate among media scholars, cultural critics, and media literacy educators in the 1980s, it helped us capture a broader, more nuanced practice of recognizing how media constructs versions of reality that shape our lives and identities. Media representations do not merely document experience; they actually create cultural practices and ways of thinking. For example, reality TV and Facebook have helped create a new, mediated form of reality whereby ordinary people may think of themselves as always performing their identities in competition with each other. By critiquing representations and creating their own alternative representations through media productions, students may explore alternative, transformative ways of perceiving and acting in the world.

Media representations can’t be oversimplified: they are not merely true or false, accurate or inaccurate. Representations can be shaped to maintain the social status quo or to construct and convey a particular ideological agenda. As Daniel Chandler (2002) explains, representations are made to seem “natural.” Because cultures offer up ways of making sense of the world, Rick Beach (2007) explains, “they{AU: “They” here seems to refer to “cultures.” Correct? If not please clarify.} provide us with frameworks for classifying the world according to some hierarchical value system—what is most versus least valued; who has power and who does not; what practices are or are not condoned or sanctioned.”

But since both readers and writers live within particular temporal and spatial contexts, meanings and interpretation are inherently unstable. In Chapter 5, Cynthia Lewis, a literacy and education researcher at the University of Minnesota, introduces us to the work of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian literary critic and philosopher working in the 1920s whose works first became available to European and American scholars in the 1960s. Lewis explains that we can’t make much sense of media representations if they are not contextualized within the lives and identities of both writers and readers. In describing the contribution of Bakhtin to her scholarship and teaching, Lewis explains that “both readers and texts are situated within social, cultural, and institutional frameworks that both constrain (close) and destabilize (open) meanings.” Any particular media message can contain within it competing discourses and meaning potentials to be activated differentially by particular interpreters in specific contexts or situations. Issues of representation and interpretation are deeply embedded in the ideological values of the historical contexts in which they are situated. The implication? Meaning can’t be controlled—not by authors, producers, teachers, or assessments. Meanings are in people.

Today we take for granted the idea that scholars examine contemporary political and social issues, including issues of popular culture, through research. The social and political issues we are concerned about in 2015 may include the extreme polarization and stagnation of our political system, the rise of big data, privacy and surveillance, the continuing scourge of global terrorism, and the growing inequity between rich and poor. But as Srividya Ramasubramanian shows, the idea that scholarship should be directly relevant to contemporary social issues was once path-breaking and novel. In Chapter 6, Ramasubramanian, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University, explores the work of Gordon Allport, who was one of the founders of the field of social psychology. His work explored the role of media in diminishing prejudice and promoting intergroup relations, showing how scholarship can connect to the wider social arena, contemporary social issues, political activism, and social democracy. Since then, we have learned that under the right circumstances, talking about media can contribute to political tolerance, cooperation, and respect for cultural differences (Paluck 2009).

It’s also noteworthy that Allport didn’t become trapped by his methodology: he was an expansionist and inclusive scholar who fought against dogmatic, extreme theoretical or methodological stances. Ramasubramanian herself explains how she developed an openness to various methodological approaches and a multidisciplinary perspective, which played an important role in her journey into media literacy.

Our own personal narratives, as learners, teachers, researchers, and creative people, shape our approach to media literacy. Ramasubramanian’s interest in media stereotyping was shaped by her own life experience, as we see in her chapter, just as Allport’s socially relevant, solution-driven, theoretically grounded empirical approach allowed him to explore the role of media and communication in relation to real-world social problems. People who affiliate with the concept of media literacy often seek to create engaged scholarship that links theory to practice in ways that accelerate real-world social, institutional, and cultural change.

In Chapter 7, Michael RobbGrieco introduces us to his metaphorical grandfather, Michel Foucault, the preeminent intellectual historian of the twentieth century, who offers a poststructural perspective on representation and interpretation, asserting that knowledge is constructed and we need to understand the systems that produce it. We must understand subjectivity, or how it is we come to know ourselves in particular ways. As a musician, media artist, teacher, and scholar, RobbGrieco explores the constructedness of media in relation to knowledge, truth, and reality. In his chapter, he writes that although media literacy “is often positioned as a way to interrupt the processes of media influence through awareness and active reasoning, the critical function of interrupting taken-for-granted meanings can also be seen as productive—a way of opening up space to think and communicate differently.” By interrupting the flow of automatic meaning-making, we can “ask questions about whom these meanings benefit and harm, where they come from, how they might be understood differently, what purposes and political projects they serve, and how they relate to reality; in short, interruption allows us to ask questions about power.” When it comes to teaching and learning, RobbGrieco balances three interrelated aims: supporting students’ sense of agency, offering access to academic discourses that increase social power, and helping students challenge and transform power relations through critical analysis and creative production.

Reflecting Noddings’s (1984) ideas about the ethic of care, media literacy education embodies elements of relational ethics with a focus on multiple ways of knowing and interpretation through an examination of everyday uses of representation and interpretation. This is not a new idea. In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans recognized that to behave properly, in order to practice freedom properly, it is necessary to care for the self, both in order to know oneself (gnothi seauton) and to improve oneself—to surpass oneself, “to master the appetites that risk engulfing you” (Fornet-Betancourt et al. 1987, 116). Deconstructing messages to probe their indeterminacy is a prime way to know and care for the self.
Dialectic of Protection and Empowerment

Understanding the new media and using them constructively and creatively actually require[] developing a new form of literacy . . . [to] enable students to deal constructively with complex new modes of delivering information, new multisensory tactics for persuasion, and new technology-based art forms.
—National Council of Teachers of English, “Resolution on Promoting Media Literacy”

For some people, there is nothing really problematic about media, aside from minor personal annoyances when favorite shows are canceled or when faced with certain technology snafus. Such individuals are more or less oblivious to media. They are media indifferent, in a sense. But many people experience a mix of both “mediaphobia” and “media euphoria” (Hediger 2013). Today, we have developed new routines for using the ubiquitous mobiles phones in our lives. When using the mobile phone to maintain our social relationships, we are effectively able to coordinate our actions with friends and family in a finely grained way, enabling social connections, yet the very same expectation of inclusion and connectedness can become a burden and create overdependence along with feelings of entrapment (Hall and Baym 2012).

The dialectic of positive and negative dimensions of communication and computing technologies is undeniable. We respond with deep swings of the emotional pendulum in response to the ambivalence generated by changing patterns of communication, expression, knowledge, information, entertainment, and advocacy that result from historical, technological, and cultural change.

In the United States, discourses of protection and empowerment have been woven into the historical fabric of media literacy since the beginning of the twentieth century, as the proliferation of new immigrants and the rise of film and radio offered new forms of leisure to people. Even when leisure time was scarce, before laws limited the workweek to forty hours, middle-class people worried about the behavior of the poor and working-class and their interest in popular entertainment, which the middle class considered inferior to more elite forms (Levine 1990).
The Payne Fund studies, the first large-scale studies of media influence, were inspired by these concerns. Scholars aimed to discover how the content and form of films were affecting children’s knowledge acquisition, their attitudes toward racial and ethnic groups, and even their sleep patterns (DeFleur and DeFleur 2010). The results showed a fascinating mix of positive and negative impacts.

Today, I am ambivalent about the ever-expanding rise of celebrity culture, the always-on nature of my own habits of social media communication, and the fragmentation of family life made possible by wireless broadband and the rise of YouTube culture. In discussing these topics, I gain clarity about my ideas. By asking people to think about what they love and what they hate about their own use of mass media, popular culture, social media, journalism, or the Internet, media literacy insists on being multivocal about both the empowering and the limiting aspects of life with contemporary media and technology.

Indeed, the deep pleasure we experience in encountering media texts and creating and sharing our own media messages is profound. As Todd Gitlin said, “Collectively, we are in thrall to media—because they deliver to us many of the psychic goods we crave, and we know no other way to live” (quoted in Thompson 2003). But while the pleasure is profound, so also is the resentment and anxiety we may experience when we reflect on the many variations of depravity, triviality, and inhumanity that masquerade as entertainment or the humility we feel when we encounter our real dependence on media and technology.

Digital media makes everyone a producer and gives everyone a voice, but now we live our lives in front of a screen. We live with these contradictions each day. It’s natural to want to protect ourselves (and our children) from the unbalanced aspects of media in our culture. And it’s natural to want to be able to engage with the best, most beautiful, and most powerful texts, tools, and technology for personal and social empowerment. There is so much to love! Throughout history, when old media were new, there were tensions between “classes, families and professional communities [who] struggled to come to terms with the novel acoustic and visual devices” (Marvin 1988, 5).

To address these contradictions, the discourse of empowerment and protection emerged as among the most distinctive features of media literacy. In the early twentieth century, in response to the rise of film and radio, social critics recognized the changing power relations made possible by mass communication. Concerns about the rise of mass culture created the birth of critical theory, which uses social critique for enlightenment and social change. Because it aims to explore the paradoxes, inconsistencies, ironies, and contradictions in the dominant worldview, critical theory also must apply the critical process to itself by examining the relationship between theory and practice. Originally located in Frankfurt, Germany, in the early part of the twentieth century, the Frankfurt School scholars moved to Columbia University in New York City to escape Nazi Germany and, led by Max Horkheimer, a sociologist, assembled a group of luminaries including Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and Theodor Adorno. In Chapter 8, Gianna Cappello, a professor of sociology and education at the University of Palermo in Italy, introduces us to the work of Adorno, who recognized that hope and redemption were achievable through critical inquiry, knowledge seeking, and social commitment.

Why? Art is one of the major tools for renewing the human spirit. Adorno worried that mass media was replacing art, giving people clichéd and oversimplified representations of reality; he believed that mass-produced forms of art do not enlighten and inspire. According to Adorno, they merely maintain the social status quo by pandering to people’s preconceived, stereotypical ideas. In her chapter, Cappello invites media literacy educators to engage in self-reflection as a form of professional development. She wants us to ponder these questions: Are people truly “free” in creating art? Are people really “active” in making sense of media messages? Or are they more like sheep, merely following the crowd and reproducing or accepting dominant ideologies of the culture? When teachers teach media literacy, are they imposing their own ideological meanings on students? Or are they promoting independent, critical engagement with texts and culture? By rediscovering the contributions of Adorno, Cappello invites us to re-theorize and re-politicize media literacy so that media literacy educators can resist the “technologist drift dominating their field.” She imagines a future that explores more fully the nexus between critical analysis and creative production.

The dialectic of empowerment and protection continues in Chapter 9, as UCLA professor of education Douglas Kellner introduces us to the work of Herbert Marcuse, a distinguished philosopher and Marxist sociologist (and in his youth, a postdoctoral student of Martin Heidegger). Marcuse extends the work of Adorno and Horkheimer to show how capitalism is invested in the production and transmission of media spectacles, which transmit the ideology of consumerism through popular entertainment and displace the primal role of the family as agent of socialization. Kellner’s own important work in sociology and philosophy examines how film addresses contemporary social and political struggles and passions of the day; he shows how active interpretation of film sheds insights on the fantasies, fears, hopes, and dreams of people living in a particular time and place. Because of corporations’ quest to control the government and the media, Kellner argues, we have lost the separation and division of power between the executive, legislative, and judiciary; the media are co-opted by corporate interests and politicians are co-opted by their need for fundraising. But technology’s continual push for creative destruction continually constructs “new forms of economy, politics, culture, and everyday life, as well as new forms of domination and resistance.” Kellner sees critical media literacy as helping people recognize that new media and technologies are forms of power that impact all aspects of contemporary life.

During the early part of the twentieth century, in England, the rise of popular culture led literary critics F. R. Leavis and Denys Thompson to argue that educators needed to provide training in critical awareness as a means to address the paradoxes of empowerment and protection. In their book Culture and Environment ([1933] 1973), education is described as both “a weapon and a tool-kit—a weapon to resist the whims of rampant consumerism; and a tool-kit to discriminate between, on the one hand, the quick-fix sensationalism of mass media and advertising, and on the other, the best of what has been written, shown or performed” (Laughey 2011).

In articulating the power of art to transform society, nineteenth-century scholar Matthew Arnold offered an optimistic perspective, hoping that culture could renew contemporary society and help counter our blind faith in technological machinery. Coming from this tradition, media literacy educators have been part of the classic modernist English-education legacy of wanting to help learners discover how to discriminate—to consider the key distinctions between credible and incredible, quality and junk, superficial and trite, beautiful and ugly, professional and amateur.

Here, the dialectic of empowerment and protection is rooted in the concept of discrimination, which is a culturally learned practice. Educators preserve cultural identity through making such distinctions, but this perspective was challenged by the rise of cultural-studies scholarship when Raymond Williams resisted the inherent elitism of discrimination. By re-framing the concept of culture to focus not on works of classic literature, music, and art but on the lived experiences of ordinary people,

Williams rejected the high-low binaries of class hierarchy and celebrated the rich variety of cultural practices among working-class people through folk, common, and popular culture. The creative practices involved in fan fiction and remix culture, in particular, offer opportunities for readers of media texts to identify and reflect on kernels of rich insight, holes, contradictions, silences, and potentials (Jenkins and Kelley 2013).

In Chapter 10, Henry Jenkins, a professor of communication, journalism, and cinematic arts at the University of Southern California, introduces us to the work of his mentor, John Fiske, who was a student of Raymond Williams, and he shows media literacy’s theoretical alignment with cultural studies by illustrating how ideas from Williams and Fiske are embedded in the Core Principles of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE 2011). By democratizing the concept of culture, media literacy education makes room, in both K–12 and higher-education classrooms, to study works of popular culture, however variously the term is defined. Williams offers a powerful dialectic counterpoint to Adorno by rejecting the idea that media entrap audiences into a powerful ideological system that works against their own interests. As Jenkins explains in his chapter, Fiske was critical of inequalities of opportunity and the imposition of cultural hierarchies, yet he was respectful of diverse forms of cultural experience.

For me, as a young undergraduate literature major at the University of Michigan in the late 1970s, the idea that film and television were as multilayered as poetry and thus worthy of equally serious attention was truly the animating discovery of my life. It was profoundly empowering for me. At the same time, I appreciated that the corporate structure of media industries and the ordinary economics of commercial mass media were structuring my experiences and encounters with messages and meanings. But in my work with students, I did not find, as Fiske did, that students had little need of academics like me. Because critical understanding of a media text is aided by understanding the political, economic, and cultural context in which it is produced, I love creating learning environments that intensify learners’ intellectual curiosity about media institutions and systems.

For Jenkins, the “aha!” of media literacy came from his discovery of how ordinary people use mass-media content “as raw materials for constructing their own stories, songs, artworks, or videos” and how fans create out of a need to satisfy their “fascination and frustration” with favored texts, rewriting them to speak to their needs and pleasures. His conceptualization of participatory culture is rooted in the explosion of media and technologies that make it possible for average consumers to “archive, annotate, appropriate, and recirculate media content in powerful new ways.”

A belief in the transformative power of art is of central value to media literacy educators. In Reading in a Participatory Culture, Jenkins and Kelley urge teachers to connect reading and writing together with “media-diverse modes of expression” and new literary forms, with the goal to “embrace those changes that deepen and enrich human consciousness and push back on those that trivialize and distract” (2013, 17).
The Arts and Social Activism
Man with a Movie Camera is a film that literally changed my life. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I took an art history class with Rudolf Arnheim, the author of Film as Art ([1932] 1957) and Art and Visual Perception ([1957] 1974) and a class in Soviet film with Professor Herbert Eagle. At the time, I was studying English literature. I was captivated by film theory, of course, but Man with a Movie Camera, created by Dziga Vertov in 1929 as an experimental silent film, became my obsession. At that point in my life, I had seen no experimental films, so it was beyond strange to me. The film was fast-paced and evocative: it seemed to be a mind-blowing type of visual poetry about the precious lyricism of everyday life. Eagle not only helped me deeply understand the technical elements of a film (i.e., lighting, set design, use of color, shot composition, and editing); he introduced me to the theories of the Russian formalists, led by Roman Jakobson, who were writing about film as language. I also learned that the Russian avant-garde artists of the 1920s truly believed in their ability to change the world. After repeated viewings of Man with a Movie Camera and other Soviet films and reading deeply the work of Arnheim, Sergei Eisenstein, Béla Belázs, and other scholars, the following question captured my imagination, and it  has continued to obsess me for my entire professional career: How do people learn with and about visual images?

Of course, the Russian formalists’ ideas about montage as a reconstruction of thought processes were later to become important in my empirical work in exploring the way people who had never before seen film or television could interpret videos that used a variety of editing conventions (Hobbs et al. 1988). But at the time, I was intrigued by the idea of dialectical montage, which suggests that a new idea can emerge from the presentation of two conflicting shots. I had experienced for myself the deep pleasure of “filling in the gaps” by making inferences as a reader of literature. It seemed to me that such inference making in responding to literature, film, and television could open up people’s minds in powerful, life-affirming ways.

In Chapter 11, Amy Peterson Jensen identifies Bertolt Brecht as an intellectual grandfather who reimagined the role of the spectator by creating politically motivated theater in which audiences needed to critically engage with ideas. He wanted to help audiences see themselves in new ways through theater. What does it mean for artists to not just explain or react to the world but also aim to change it? When people go to a sporting event, they participate and help create the event; when they go the to theater, they may sit passively, waiting for a spell to be cast. This was a problem for Brecht. He believed theater artists shouldn’t aim to hypnotize audiences, to put them into an emotional trance. Rather, he believed that there must be a shock of some sort to wake up people’s awareness. Man with a Movie Camera was that shock for me, igniting a powerful intellectual curiosity that wrested me from complacency. Jensen concludes her chapter by considering the connection to Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, noting that educational revolutions cannot happen “without love” (McLaren and Leonard 1993, 82). Brecht channeled his anger about the injustices of the world, and this brought passion to his work; he was able to gather people together for the collaborative art of theater. As a scholar of theater arts and media at Brigham Young University, Jensen also wants art and education to engage in the complex problems of the real world. This inevitably entails a focus on the work that individual artists do, with their time, talent, and treasure, to express lived experience though material form.

I’m deeply ambivalent about the relationship between personal and social identity. I have never been one for identity labels. In reflecting on the reason for this ambivalence, I remember that as I began my journey as a young teenager, in the process of discovering myself, I experienced the stresses of adolescence as a time of profound angst and disorientation. The expectations that my parents, friends, and family placed on me were oppressive. No one seemed to acknowledge my emerging sense of personal identity. The absurdities of the world overwhelmed me, and this sense of confusion led me to discover the philosophy of existentialism. I remember that I truly loved the idea that I alone was responsible for my self-definition; through my actions and their consequences on others, I create my own identity. (I also had a T-shirt with the name Kierkegaard on it, and I remember feeling very much the intellectual when wearing it!)

In Chapter 12, Donna Alvermann introduces the work of Simone de Beauvoir, a French feminist and existentialist who challenged the limits of socially imposed gender roles in her writings about freedom, interpersonal relationships, and the experience of living as a human body. As a distinguished scholar of literacy at the University of Georgia, Alvermann’s own work has resisted easy labeling, but one thing is certain: she has led literacy researchers into recognizing and appreciating the power and relevance of mass media, popular culture, and digital media. In researching and teaching about adolescent literacy practices, she has been dedicated to helping youth who self-identify as nonreaders in school by discovering the complex literacy practices they use while engaging autonomously with digital media in informal learning contexts. When such students get to select their own online resources, they demonstrate levels of literacy competence in many ways. Ah, the power of individual will and choice!

But Alvermann also reminds us of the existentialist’s paradox: in valuing the primacy of my own individual freedom and responsibility, I must respect the fact that other people possess the same desires. When de Beauvoir wrote, “Each of us is responsible for everything and to every human being” (1948, 1), she captured something that is simultaneously daring, disquieting, profound, and optimistic about humanity: we must mind the gap between our selfishness and our social responsibility. Fortunately, we are aided by artists who use creative expression to address the paradoxes of living.
Learning and Literacy

If students are not trained to ask basic questions about the images which confront them, if they are not asked to examine the knowledge and assumptions which they already possess, they are being denied the opportunity to develop the most simple and essential critical tools.
—Cary Bazalgette, “The Myth of Transparency”

Although Raymond Williams described the word culture as one of the most challenging to define with precision, the words learning and literacy are pretty slippery, as well. Scholars and educators continue to struggle to define the full range of knowledge, skills, competencies, and habits of mind embodied in the concept of literacy. For most of human history, to be well educated meant to be able to master the practices of daily living. As societies became more specialized, education entailed a long period of apprenticeship in which one worked side-by-side with the master to gain specialized knowledge. After the Gutenberg revolution, things changed. High levels of literacy, specifically the practice of reading and responding to history and literature, became essential for the well educated. To be learned was to be able to understand and appreciate great authors and great works that represented our literary, historical, and cultural heritage.

Today, there are so many ways to learn. Some involve decoding little black squiggles, and others do not. I can harvest ideas from experts by reading an online discussion group or bulletin board, listening to a podcast featuring insightful commentators and experts, or watching a how-to video on YouTube. Because we deeply recognize the medium-specific competencies involved in sense-making, media literacy educators have always resisted the implication that film, television, and digital technologies are the cause of declining interest in reading. Today, while everyone rattles on about the crisis of nonreaders, “books aren’t as imperiled as some critics believe, and in some ways they might even be thriving” (Striphas 2009, 2). Electronic books, online bookselling, and online reading communities like Goodreads signal that, even apart from the economics of the industry, printed books, images, film, and digital media complement each other with a remarkable array of synergies.

But, truth be told, print literacy is truly one of the most amazing social practices of all time. One of the pioneers of literacy education was Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist who examined the acquisition of language and written symbol systems by considering meaning in relation to the cultural practices of daily life. As a historical materialist, Vygotsky recognized how reading and writing were differentially imbued with social power. He saw reading and writing as extensions of speaking and listening that always reflect and embody cultural values. As children use oral language to participate in family life, they “bring their meanings into line with meanings in the adult world” (quoted in Mahn and John-Steiner 2005, 81).

After World War II, reading researchers began to discover that reading is a multidimensional set of cognitive, social, and cultural practices that involve perception, attention, decoding, literal comprehension, inference making, critical analysis, aesthetic appreciation, interpretation, and study skills (Bormuth 1973). We began recognizing that people’s reading patterns varied from genre to genre, as people read nonfiction works differently than they read textbooks, novels, or poetry. In exploring appropriate ways to define, teach, and measure print literacy, educators and researchers also began to appreciate the importance of oral literacy, as it was discovered that some kinds of classroom discussion practices support reading comprehension, critical analysis, and interpretation (Alvermann and Hayes 1989).

The fascinating topic of how reading, writing, learning, and media were separated into distinct academic disciplines is beyond the scope of this book. But writing teachers are deeply engaged in multimodal literacy practices and have contributed many key figures in the media literacy movement. Today, many in English education are enacting fundamental practices of media literacy whether they use the term or not. A growing movement of multimodal literacy educators invites students to create book trailers, public service announcements, digital stories, graphic novel projects, blogs, podcasts, comics, slide presentations, animation, interactive fiction, and more. In the 1970s, when Donald Murray wrote “Our Students Will Write—if We Let Them,” the field of composition studies emerged as a discipline separate from its parent discipline of English and its allied discipline of education. The compositionists helped expand the concept of literacy to include writing as a literacy practice, and they were among the first to carefully articulate a new role for the teacher. Writing teachers generally don’t lecture from behind the podium but sit next to their students, discussing their writing as a process of discovery (Ballenger 2008). Writing scholars are inevitably focused on practices of teaching and learning, even though they may sometimes distance themselves from the discipline of education.

In Chapter 13, Jeremiah Dyehouse, a professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Rhode Island, introduces readers to the work of John Dewey, one of the major grandparents of media literacy who made major contributions to the fields of philosophy, communications, and education. Dewey challenged old conceptualizations of education and communication and re-imagined concrete ways in which these institutions could more fully support democracy. Could new forms of writing and technologies of mass communication help to bring about broadly democratic social transformations? Or was social change best brought about through the creation of embodied, multisensory, and collaborative approaches to schooling? Dewey showed us the problems that result when what happens in school is mismatched with the needs and cultural practices of society. Dyehouse deconstructs one of Dewey’s most pertinent insights for educators with deep interests in communication: he shows how the development of shared understanding is “not the cause of but rather a result of successful cooperations in action.”

Media literacy teachers want the literacy practices that happen in schools to be not so separate from the literacy practices used at home and in the community. Media literacy educators aim for schools to be an intermediary of sorts between home and mass media, popular culture, and digital media. Media literacy educators want to enact literacy and learning through accessing, analyzing, creating, reflecting, and taking action in the world. That’s why inquiry and collaboration define both learning and literacy (Castek et al. 2012).

The practices of communication and education are fundamentally tied together in a complex relationship that has not yet been fully explored in contemporary scholarship, in which hyperspecialization may narrow and limit our vision. In Chapter 14, I introduce readers to the work of Jerome Bruner, who celebrated his hundredth birthday in 2015. Bruner is one of the architects of a learning theory known as constructivism: the idea that people learn by constructing new knowledge that builds on what they already know and can do. Bruner defined intelligence as “the internalization of ‘tools’ provided by a given culture, including not only technological hardware but symbolic systems as well” (quoted in Cole and Scribner 1974, 24). Bruner recognized the power of learning through language, visual media, and various gestural and enactive forms of expression and communication. As a developmentalist, he recognized that children are naturally inclined toward physical and social activities through which they develop attention, self-control, and problem-solving skills. The role of the teacher is to support this natural growth by creating learning environments that enable learners to discover ideas, concepts, and principles for themselves through well-structured and well-sequenced knowledge and meaningful activities that enable learners to explore, manipulate, and test ideas. Influenced by John Dewey, Bruner identifies the powerful interplay between working with cultural objects and materials and working with symbolic representations and ideas as fundamental learning practices—not just for young children but across the lifespan. Media literacy educators insist on emphasizing creative-media production (in print, visual, sound, and digital formats) as a core element of pedagogical value, reflecting a Brunerian line of inquiry where learning is understood as a socially, culturally, and materially embodied symbolic process.

Few people have influenced the field of media literacy more than Neil Postman, whose work demonstrates the practice of media literacy by modeling the reasoning process with engaging, playful prose. When I met Postman in the summer of 1993, he made me feel like the most important person he had ever met. His charisma, intelligence, and, especially, his relational depth influenced a generation of students who are now professors themselves. In Chapter 15, Vanessa Domine, an education professor at Montclair State University, reflects on her relationship with Postman. She describes the dialogical learning process of actively co-constructing knowledge along with him. I value Domine’s educational leadership and her passion for improving education by changing the ways in which we talk about media, technology, and schooling.

Ask around: Postman’s many gifts as a natural teacher are legendary. Postman’s inquiry-oriented perspective demonstrated the significant connective tissue between the humanities, media studies, and education—he was a bridge builder, indeed.

Postman’s rhetorical skills were considerable: he knew how to create engaging arguments that simply captivated you, grabbing you by the throat. His fundamental claim in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1986) is that television is at its most dangerous when it tries to do good. As I recall, the very argument left us breathless at the time. How could educational television be a bad thing? How could TV news be dangerous? One simply had to read to discover the powerful and persuasive reasoning at work. Postman’s way of inverting people’s expectations reflected his insight on the humanities. Part of the challenge we have in the field of media studies and communication comes from the divorce with the humanities. Most media faculty will agree: students of media and communication studies no longer get rich exposure to literature, history, and the arts. Can that be restored in the twenty-first century? Postman hoped so. But Domine recognizes that Postman’s attitudes toward the humanities and technology were complex. I remember the whiplash I felt when reading Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1971), which Postman wrote with Charles Weingartner, and then, during Reagan’s back-to-basics revolution, Postman’s Teaching as a Conserving Activity (1982). It turns out that those dialectically opposed ideas were profoundly linked.

I like to think that Postman’s protectionism was actually a result of living so optimistically and having such high hopes for the future. Postman has helped me understand that my mission, as an educator, is to activate learners’ power of communication, critical thinking, and imagination to challenge (and help transform) the inequities of the social status quo while at the same time enabling the next generation to appreciate and value those profound and fertile ideas that have withstood the test of time.
Engaging the Head, Heart, Hands, and Spirit

Remember that values questions have a you in them. The goal is to involve people in relating what they see on the screen to their own lives, not to analyze the filmmaker’s technique or to engage in intellectual criticism. Allow the conversation to flow along a values and feelings track.
—Elizabeth Thoman, “Use TV to Exercise Values”

Media literacy has a powerful way of engaging the head, heart, hands, and spirit. Elizabeth Thoman, founder of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, certainly appreciated the cognitive, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of media literacy. Recognizing education as a political act, Thoman understood that media literacy addressed issues of social justice, including inequality, poverty, racism, and sexism. She was deeply influenced by the work of Freire, a Christian socialist who helped thousands of Brazilians to learn to read and, thereby, to gain their political rights. As Thoman understood it, media literacy could create a “jolt in awareness” to inspire people to care about addressing social issues “that were caused, reinforced, perpetuated or exacerbated by objectionable media practices” (RobbGrieco 2012, 185).

Another of the pioneers of American media literacy, Jean Kilbourne, discovered the power of what she called reactance as she found that she could activate strong emotional responses from audiences by deconstructing magazine advertising images of gender. Kilbourne’s audiences get angry when they learn about how advertising manipulates us. That anger may sometimes be channeled into activism; other times, it simply makes insight on the value of media literacy unforgettable. Her film Killing Us Softly (1979) shows how advertising uses powerful human drives for love, belonging, and status to sell products. By creating new ideals, advertisers activate and intensify our sense of discomfort with ourselves. Kilbourne believes that advertising’s objectification of the body dehumanizes women and represents a form of symbolic violence. Scholars including Renee Engeln-Maddox at Northwestern University have developed measures of media literacy to examine how critical-analysis skills may be activated by an understanding that beauty images are fake, too thin, or even harmful to women (Engeln-Maddox and Miller 2008).

As a young teacher, I was deeply opposed to using my authority in the classroom for persuasion, moralizing, or advocacy. I had experienced a bit of that kind of teaching as an undergraduate, and it always felt patronizing (at best) or coercive (at worst). But this did not stop me from finding engaging ways to activate students’ own sense of emotional involvement with the ideas of media literacy. Truth be told, when it happened, I was unprepared for the exhilaration and exhaustion. Teaching students to question and create media was joyful and hard. I was regularly surprised by what happened in the classroom as I worked to select relevant print, visual, and electronic texts; considered how to analyze and discuss them; and listened carefully to my students. I created a space that was both supportive and challenging, where both teacher and students could try out ideas and take risks. It seemed that the more open I was to encountering students as human beings, the more authentic and profound our conversations became. I continue to be mesmerized by the unpredictability of the classroom as different minds engage with each other in sometimes tentative, unexpected, and often lyrical ways. In the beginning, as a teacher, the mind-bending questions, the flashes of insight, and even the occasional bursts of anger or frustration (from students and from myself) were ever so mysterious to me. Over time, I discovered the magic that comes, in the seminar room, from trusting one’s students—and oneself—with the organic process of wrestling with ideas to stitch together some bits of truth.

When I stumbled on the work of Parker Palmer, I felt I had discovered a guide to making sense of the emotional and spiritual dimensions of teaching and learning, which is “a living relationship with the subject at hand” in which students are invited into that relationship “as full partners.” Palmer writes, “Education is not just a cognitive process, not just the transmission of facts and reasons. It is a process that involves the whole person, and so involves deep feelings as well” (1983, 115). When students feel valued, teachers can be “vulnerable to the ways students may transform the teacher’s relationship with the subject” while “stretching and testing” ideas through creative tension (103–104). One of the reasons why media literacy has continued to absorb my passionate curiosity and interest is the very real way that it compels the head, the heart, and the spirit.

In The Aims of Education (1929), Alfred North Whitehead explained that the first stage of the education process is romance, when the student’s own interest is aroused in encountering the thrill and mystery of the subject matter. In Chapter 17, Peter Gutierrez, a comics writer and curriculum development professional, shares with us his deep emotional attachment to comics and graphic novels. When he read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993), it legitimized the object of his love and helped him share his passion and connect with others. The book enabled him to suture his two identities, as a writer and editor of comics and as a freelance developer of curriculum and instructional materials; now, his approach to media literacy education is rooted in a deep appreciation of pop culture. Gutierrez is eager to respect the knowledge and insights that children and young people have in making sense of the stuff they love: pop music, sports, television, music, social media, and videogames. His approach elevates forms of culture that have been denigrated. As Gutierrez shows, moving effortlessly between the worlds of popular media and high art deepens our appreciation of both.

Engaging the head, heart, hands, and spirit means linking learning to what really matters. Media literacy education enables us to address one of the most fundamental challenges of being human: dealing with time, death, and loss. In Chapter 17, Susan Moeller, a professor of media and international affairs at the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland, offers us the ultimate example of how media literacy can inform one’s understanding of the very essence of humanity. In reflecting on Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida, she recognizes how Barthes brings disparate fields of knowledge to bear on core questions: “Why do certain images seize our attention? What power is present in certain photographs so that we keep looking?” As we make sense of images, we dance with them, she explains. That’s how we are moved, emotionally, viscerally, and with tenderness or awe.

Moeller’s essay reminds me of Brian Stonehill, a professor at Pomona College, a media literacy colleague with a deep interest in visual communication who died tragically in 1997. Stonehill was the founder of the media-studies program at Pomona and a creative academic who was exploring how to use educational technology for teaching media literacy (“Brian Stonehill” 1997). His CD-ROM projects, Screen Smarts and House of Visual Literacy, were based on his book projects, and Understanding D. W. Griffith was an amazing interactive, scholarly, archival multimedia project. In considering the process of using the power of personal memory to elucidate the theoretical and historical roots of media literacy, I reflect on Stonehill and other colleagues who are “here” in memory alone. Remembering the past with knowledge of the present and anticipation of the future is, as Barthes writes, a “viewing moment,” a time machine of sorts that connects memory and imagination.

I experience the sacred through all forms of artistic expression and communication. Thornton Wilder tells us, “All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being” ([1938] 1998).The authors of this book reveal that through the practice of media literacy, we are invited to be alert to the constructed, the ephemeral, and the eternal in human experience and all its media forms and representations.
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