The Value of Media Literacy Education in the 21st Century: A Conversation with Tessa Jolls (Part Three)

Henry: I really appreciate the work the CML does in translating research into awareness and action, in trying to build a more sustainable and scalable movement for media literacy. As someone who sees themselves first and foremost as a researcher, I am deeply committed to translating our research into language that can be broadly accessible and providing resources which can be deployed within important conversations; I see this blog as part of the work I try to do to broker between different groups of people who should be talking to each other.

My team through the years has done a fair amount of applied work with educators, trying to get our materials out in the field. We’ve come to the same conclusion you have that media literacy is at least as much about rethinking education as it is about rethinking media. We found very early on that developing resources were never enough unless you also helped to train the teachers who would be using those materials. This took us down the path of developing and running teacher training programs in New Hampshire and California, and then publishing a series of white papers which dealt with what we saw as best practices in fostering participatory learning, practices that both dealt with how to integrate the new media literacies into school curriculum but also how to couple them with progressive pedagogies that are very much in line with those that Masterman describes above — pedagogies that are very much informed by thinkers such as Dewey and Freire. See, for example:


We are back in the trenches again with the latest phase of our work, this time emerging from extensive research (interviews with more than 200 young activists) about the political and civic lives of American youth: We’ve now built an archive featuring videos produced by young activists around a range of causes, many of them appropriating and remixing elements from popular culture, many of them using tools and tactics associated with participatory culture. This time, we are testing these materials in collaboration with the National Writing Project, and working with their teachers (as well as the organizations we study) to develop activities and lesson plans which might allow educators to integrate our materials and insights into their teaching. One thing we’ve learned through the years is that our core strength is ultimately in cultural theory and research and thanks to my move to USC, coupled with media production capacities; we have some understanding of core pedagogical issues; but we do better working hand in hand with classroom teachers to develop the actual activities that make sense in the public schools. And we count on the power of various networks — including both the Media Literacy Movement and those folks involved with the DML world — to get word out about what we’ve created. This is why I place such a high priority in building partnerships which can help us work together to achieve our shared goals.


The issue of whether representation remains the core of contemporary media literacy is a complex one, it seems to me. Representation is a powerful principle, one which helps to explain the ways we use media to make sense of ourselves and our lives, and it remains very pertinent in a world where we are encouraging young people to develop a stronger sense of their own public voices, to tell their own stories, to create their own media. Looking critically at existing representations, thinking ethically about the choices they make as they create their own representations as media producers remain core to any understanding of media literacy, but young people are also participating in media which are more focused on social exchanges and personal interactions in which the creation of texts is secondary to the cementing of social bonds.  If we were developing media literacy in response to the telephone rather than television, would we be asking different questions, have different priorities?


Representation is itself a process, to be sure, but we also often use it to refer to a product or text: a representation. The disciplines which do much of the heavy lifting on media literacy education — especially language arts but also arts education — tend to focus heavily on texts, and so as the term representation gets translated into their vocabulary, it is not surprising that it comes to circle around texts. This focus on texts can lead us to think in terms of readers and writers/producers but not in terms of participants in an ongoing communication process. And this is a key reason why my vocabulary tends to place a greater emphasis on notions of participation than on notions of representation.


TESSA:  Ah…and so down the rabbit hole we go. And we are going on a slippery slope because as you said, it’s complicated.  I’m enjoying the ride!

Which universe are we describing? The physical world that surrounds us and that we perceive on a local and physical level — the world that surrounds us with physical media like logos and traffic signs and billboards and movies and music and candy wrappers — or the alternative global village or digital media that we access only through the assistance of hardware and software media like the internet in general or Instagram or Facebook or games?  In each case, the media are man-made, which means that men (and oh yes let’s be sure to be inclusive and say women too) construct these media messages and devices. Construction always calls for decisions on the part of the creator(s), who sets the initial limits and boundaries through which we may experience his or her creation — media construction, whether digital or not, is a physical representation of the creator’s intention.

So fundamentally, construction and (implicitly) representation must take place before participation is possible.  And participatory culture (whether we participate online or off) is both an input to and an outcome of construction/representation — and the fusion constantly changes the nature of and the expression of the construction, which always has emotional, social and cultural implications. There is a chicken-or-egg quality to the cultural issues and their intersection with media, but it can also be argued that an individual’s mind and group culture itself are also constructions/representations.

But back to media…As an example, let’s think about video games.  The games are media constructions and they provide a software “box” in which players operate, and this software box is constrained by the hardware platform.  The creator of the game designed the game intentionally — to share a worldview and/or to profit from game purchases. Players engage with the game text itself and interact with each other to experience the game in a myriad of ways — visual, verbal, social, emotional — and often players invent new ways of experiencing the game through mods or hardware and they amplify their experiences together.  But because the construction itself is constrained, there are inevitably frames and experiences that are included and excluded.

So much depends on how we parse the world we live in!  But at the same time, to take a scientific approach towards media literacy, we need boundaries and concepts that define and describe a specific field of inquiry — that of media, in this case. While the cementing of social bonds through media use may be a primary goal for youth or adults, media are still the means toward an end, while also acknowledging that digital spaces (constructions) multiply possibilities for and the nature of social engagement exponentially.

I agree with you, Henry, that the focus on the word “texts” — because of its traditional association with physical media — generally limits people’s perceptions about participating in an ongoing communication process that digital media enable.  In today’s context in the global village, the notion of text expands so that “text” may become the entire “box” that encompasses the digital world itself, and the cultural representations within the box and outside it. We now have the physical world and the digital world and their intertwining and as Steve Jobs famously espoused, we need to “think different.”


Henry: Your phrase above, “construction and (implicitly) representationmust take place before participation is possible,” hints at the core hesitation which I am trying to flag here. I absolutely agree on the term construction in this sentence and with your discussion of the many different ways that construction takes place on the level of technological constraints and socio-cultural conventions. I have always been drawn to Lisa Gitelman’s definition of media: she argues that a medium is a technology that enables communication and also a set of associated ‘protocols’ or social and cultural practices that have grown up around the technology. She writes, “Protocols express a huge variety of social, economic, and material relationships. So telephony includes the salutation ‘Hello?’ (for English speakers, for example) and includes the monthly billing cycle and includes the wires and cables that materially connect our phones…And protocols are far from static.” These features change over time, work differently in different cultural contexts, and are influenced by the other media that intersect with them at any given moment. So, our models of different media and of the media ecology have to be very nimble to respond to those transitions. But, all of this can be described in terms of the construction of media messages, audiences, and contexts. I would just expand contexts to include not simply forms of production but also the terms, the social norms, that shape our participation.


However, I do have some questions about whether “representation” can stand in for the totality of the communication process. We might start with the distinction art critics might draw between representational and abstract art: surely, an abstract painting is a media text, but does it fall under the category of representation. Sure, in an abstract or “implicit” way, such a painting represents the artist’s vision  but at some point, we need to agree either that representation is not the only thing going on here or that the word representation has been stretched so thin that it no longer serves a useful purpose.  So, I would absolutely agree that representation is an important concept to draw into discussions of media literacy, especially given the links between representation (as a mimetic process) and representation (as a political concept) so that we can speak of the struggles of marginalized groups to gain media representation as a struggle that impacts their power in society.


But, if we go back to my earlier question about what would have happened if media literacy had taken shape in response to the telephone rather than radio, film or television (depending on which strands we are discussing), we should think about the properties of the telephone (as Gitelman invites us to do here). We do not talk about telephone calls as texts — unless of course we are talking about transcripts or recordings of them. We might ascribe to phone calls a broader range of motives besides power and profit. We do not talk about telephone calls in terms of authors and readers — but rather in terms of participants. There are certainly all kinds of representations involved in telephone calls — from Goffman’s performance of self in everyday life to the narratives we are recounting with each other — but we might well argue that the call allows for communication that operates on other levels and that perhaps the most important thing going on through the call is the establishment of interpersonal relations between the participants. When we say to each other, “I just wanted to hear your voice,” we are speaking about the telephone call as something much closer to pure expression — like the abstract painting — than representation (in much the same way that Marshall McLuhan argued that the light bulb was a medium of “pure information”). Not quite, of course, which is why this is complicated.Yes, there is interpretation involved in the telephone call and definitely construction. In no sense do I mean to imply that the telephone call is somehow transparent. But the media literacy skills we need to understand the telephone call may focus much more on the social relationships being performed and the ways they are embodied through Gitelman’s protocals than they have to do with any notion of texts or audiences which seems to go hand in hand with representation as it is being discussed here.


As we turn towards digital media, some of it does generate texts in the classical sense of the term — a podcast or a YouTube video or a blog post, though it matters that these are forms which we can directly engage and respond through the same medium to the same audience and that these tools enable many-to-many forms of communication. Some forms and uses of digital media are much more important because of the communication processes they enable than they are in terms of the product of that communication — text messaging, for example, or Twitter, come to mind, as having more in common with the telephone than with television. So, what I would argue for is not the displacement of media literacy’s historic focus on representation but an expansion of concepts to be able to more fully capture the roles that these new media platforms and processes play in our lives.


I know in doing this I am edging back towards the idea that you are obejecting to, the idea that media literacy has historically been framed in terms of mass media literacies — and this is somewhat unfair on the conceptual level. Yes, media literacy covers a broad array of different media in theory but the fact remains that if I went to a media literacy conference at the time that our white paper was first published, the over-whelming majority of talks would have centered around various forms of mass media, including film, television, advertising, and print based media, with some noteworthy exceptions. What gave Media Literacy its urgency throughout most of its history was the pervasive role of television in American culture just as the digital is what gives new media literacies their urgency. When I looked at the production projects being proposed, most of them were modeled on the public service announcement, itself a product of the one-way communication practices of broadcast media, rather than the kinds of dialogic production practices we are finding on Youtube or Tumbler. I like Jessica Clarke’s term, “public-moblizing media”, which stresses a different dynamic between those participating in these media exchanges.  This has changed dramatically over the past decade, we are seeing more work done on the participatory dimensions of media, we are seeing more projects that involve remix practices, though there is still a tendency to think about media in terms of texts rather than process, practices, or to use your word above, relationships that are being mediated through various kinds of communication technologies. Organizations like NAMLA have more than caught up with the changing media environment, but I would argue there needs to be a process of continuous questioning of core assumptions as we work through what if anything is different about the media environment today than at the time some of the founding work in media literacy was first produced.