Teaching the New Media Literacies

Below is an article I wrote for the Journal of Media Literacy (formerly Telemedium). It provides a short summary of the course I taught last semester here at MIT. It doesn’t quite convey the personal rewards I experienced teaching this class. It was the first time I’d had the chance to mesh my interests in literacy and media, and it was the first time I understood what it takes to lead a graduate seminar. I could not have done it without my colleague Katie Clinton and my teaching assistant Neal Grigsby.

Teaching The New Media Literacies Framework
by Alice J. Robison

How are we preparing MIT’s graduate and undergraduate students for the work they are doing on Project NML?

Teaching students to be critical thinkers, readers, and writers is difficult in just about any academic setting, but it can be especially challenging for media literacy educators. Popular media might often seem to be in competition with schools’ content learning goals, where war metaphors are often used to describe the “barrage” of “bullet-like” messages “bombarding” our students minds and “occupying” their free time. Media Literacy has long sought to help students develop the critical skills needed to be discerning consumers and more frequently, active producers of media content.

Yet, the new media literacies push us further — to think about their roles as active participants in online communities, gaming guilds, fan cultures, and social networks.  Here at MIT, the New Media Literacies Project seeks to help educators develop professional techniques, ideas, and strategies for working with new media, as Henry Jenkins (this issue) explains.

How do we make the ideas and framework of the New Media Literacies Project useful to pre-service educators, educational technologists, librarians, legal scholars, literacy specialists, or for that matter, students in media studies?

This past spring, I was invited to teach a graduate course titled New Media Literacies that would expand and support the concepts put forth in the New Media Literacies white paper, published in October, 2006 for the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Learning Initiative. The purpose of the course was to provided students with a solid theoretical understanding of what it means to think about media production and consumption as literacy practices. At the same time, I wanted to give students the opportunity to act as educators themselves and design materials for teaching new media literacy concepts that themselves represented the new ways of thinking about both interpreting and making media. The course was offered as a special topics mixed undergrad/grad course in the Comparative Media Studies Program; it enrolled ten students total and a handful of auditors who joined us regularly.

The syllabus I created was designed to provide students with some rapid reading in the area of contemporary media literacy by introducing them to some of the progressives in the area, including Renee Hobbs and David Buckingham. At the same time, we read from the print-based literacy tradition, beginning with Plato’s Phaedrus, in which he expresses his deep skepticism of written language. Positioned opposite Plato was Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought,” in which Ong, once a student of Marshall McLuhan’s, argues that the process of writing–of making meaning–is closely tied to thinking. “To say writing is artificial is not to condemn it but to praise it,” says Ong. “Like other artificial creations and indeed more than any other, writing is utterly invaluable and indeed essential for the realization of fuller, interior, human potentials. Technologies are not mere exterior aids but also interior transformations of consciousness, and never more than when they affect the word” (23). The comparison between Plato and Ong helped students understand why similar debates arise with regard to digital technologies, and how perhaps both Plato and Ong might be viewed as privileging the technology more than the practice of using it.

I wanted to teach them about the “new” and “literacy” parts of new media literacies. Since my training as a literacy scholar was largely based in what is now called the New Literacy Studies (NLS), I assigned readings from NLS scholars who argue for an even further extension of Ong’s theories. Among the New Literacy Studies scholars are Deborah Brandt, James Paul Gee, Brian Street, Gunther Kress, Colin Lankshear, and Michele Knobel, all of whose work we read in the course. Jumping straight into the New Literacy Studies scholarship enabled students to think critically about where meaning is situated. Plato had argued that meaning comes from oral dialogue; Ong positioned meaning in the printed word. The New Literacy Studies looks instead at meaning-making as a process, as a “coming to know,” as a series of both oral and print-based activities within particular contexts and social groups. Much of the NLS research is anthropologically-based and driven by topics of social justice, but what resonated most with the class were the concepts of multimodality (Kress and Van Leeuwen) and D/discourse analysis (Gee). But most important for these media studies graduate students, thinking in “new” ways about literacy enabled them to see why participating in media production and consumption communities is a rich and cognitively valuable experience.

Students remarked that the practical applications of the theories we discussed were the most helpful when thinking about media literacy education. Nine of the fifteen weeks were devoted to heavy, theory-driven readings in media, literacy, and learning. During the other six weeks (interspersed throughout the semester), students wrote their own media literacy lesson plans. They focused on the skills and competencies of the NML framework (e.g., transmedia navigation, networking, judgment, play) and developed theoretically-informed activities which we then practiced in-class. Highlights of these student-led teaching days included lessons on editing digital video, making a podcast, and constructing a wiki. Combined with the regular sharing of viral videos, memes, and fun new technology toys, these teaching days made for a nice counterbalance to a challenging set of course readings.

Final projects for the course, student-written lesson plans, photos, videos, readings, notes, and the course syllabus will soon be available free for download via MIT’s Open Courseware project, located at http://ocw.mit.edu.

Gee, J.P. (1989). Literacy, discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction and what is literacy? . In Cushman, et al (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 525-544). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Jenkins, et al (2006). Confronting the challenges of participator culture: Media education for the 21st century. Available at http://projectnml.org

Kress, G. and Van Leeuwen, T. (2001). Introduction. In G. Kress and T. Van Leeuwen, Multimodal discourse: The Modes and media of contemporary communication (pp. 1-23). New York: Oxford UP.

Ong, W. (1986). Writing is a technology that restructures thought. In Cushman, et al (Eds.), Literacy: A critical sourcebook (pp. 19-31). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Plato, Phaedrus. Chapter XXV: The superiority of the spoken word.

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