Introducing the Critical Media Project: An Interview with USC’s Alison Trope

 

As always, this blog is deeply committed to media literacy education — in all of its many formats and approaches. I started the fall with my exchange with Tessa Jolls about the ways networked communication has or has not changed how we understand media literacy. Next week, I am going to share an interview with Belinha De Abreau and Paul Mihailidis, the editors of  Media Literacy Education in Action: Theoretical and Pedogogical Perspectives. This week, I want to share with you a vital new resource for critical media literacy instruction, a data base of several hundred segments from all kinds of media, which can be used in teaching critical perspectives on race, gender, sexuality, and identity.

The Critical Media Project has been developed by Alison Trope, a cherished colleague in the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, working with a team of our graduate and undergraduate students. There’s more about the process by which the project emerged in the interview which follows. As Trope explained recently in another interview with Diana Lee for the USC News Office, ““If we can understand how our own race, gender, sexuality and class are being represented in the media, it can help us understand how these messages feed into how we live our lives and how we interact with each other. If we can learn to decode the messages, we can be better equipped to dismiss them or challenge what we’re being fed. The more active we are as consumers of media, the better.”

The archive’s selection of materials is diverse — ranging from commercials to comedy segments to news reports to clips from reality television programs. To illustrate the wealth of the collection, I am going to scatter some segments across the interview, most of which come up under the heading, “Mixed Race” or in honor of Obama’s decision last week, reflect the politics of immigration.  I have thoroughly enjoyed browsing through the collection in pulling together this post: they are well curated, carefully selected  by people who are deeply informed about issues of identity construction within contemporary culture and who has an eye towards what kinds of clips might constitute “teachable moments” in the classroom. If you go to the site itself, Her team’s commentary is designed to spark but not exhaust critical discussion around these media elements.

In the interview which follows, Trope takes us behind the scenes, sharing how the project emerged, what she seeks to achieve, and how you and your students might get involved.

 

What motivated you to create the Critical Media Project? How do you see it as contributing to the larger movement towards media literacy in American education?

 

I’ve been interested in media literacy since I was in graduate school. I primarily studied cinema and television, but was particularly drawn to the ways media studies could productively intersect with museum studies—specifically how media was and could be exhibited in the context of museums. I wrote a book (Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood) that examines the way Hollywood (via films, characters, studios, stars, etc.) has been imagined and put on display in a range of exhibition contexts, including museums, theme parks, DVD box sets and Internet sites. In my teaching, I want my students to understand the relationship of the text to the context, whether that be exhibition context, industrial context, or socio-cultural context. We can look at media or any cultural object on its own, but the broader context provides relevant meaning and resonance.

The Critical Media Project was loosely inspired by my regular use of media as a subject and object of teaching. It was more directly inspired by an invited talk I gave on mixed messages about gender, sexuality and representations of women in the media. After the talk, which was attended largely by parents and supporters of a local Planned Parenthood chapter, a few attendees asked whether the type of instruction I offered was available in high schools. It was not only the content they were interested in; it was the presentation—media rich and full of examples that were imbricated in everyday popular culture. At the time, I suggested it was likely up to the individual instructor, and surmised it might be difficult for many instructors to spend the time to find and scaffold media-rich lessons, given the curricular structure and testing standards most high school teachers must adhere to.

The question nagged at me. What kind of barriers did teachers face with regard to implementing media and media literacy in the classroom, and what kind of resources could help them? The presentation I gave that day could easily fit into a social studies class discussion of feminism and women’s rights, or a human development class on gender norms and expectations. The Critical Media Project was inspired by those questions. I wanted to create a site that didn’t simply “school” teachers in how to “do” media literacy. Rather, I wanted to provide them with the texts and resources—the actual media—that could be put in the context of their own curriculum and further framed by discussion questions designed to elicit critical analysis among their students.

This site differs from many other media literacy sites in two key ways. First, it is media-rich—with over 250 media artifacts embedded into the site and ready for teachers to use. Second, the site tackles a specific topic—identity—and asks us to think about the way all facets of identity (for example, race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, socio-economic class) are shaped by the media. Rather than taking media representation at face value and accepting what has been internalized or normalized through media conventions, the site asks us, through each media artifact, to question those representations and their broader social, cultural and political implications.

Such questioning is particularly important in the media saturated environment in which we all live. Students are coming into classrooms having engaged for years in exhaustive and casual media practices. They consume traditional and digital media across a multitude of platforms, and produce content using a variety of media production tools. It’s worth noting that much of the content they consume and produce is about identity. It’s about figuring out who they are, who their friends are, what they like to do, what their tastes are, etc. For young people, in particular, a critical perspective on identity is crucial during key developmental stages when they are gaining new life experiences and learning to define, navigate, and negotiate their online and offline identities.

What criteria did you use for the selection of materials for the archive?

 

Much of the material comes from my own “library”—media I’ve collected over several years of teaching. Other media comes from USC Annenberg PhD students, who suggested media as well as contributed annotations to the site. (I’m lucky to have such generous students, who follow a variety of blogs and sites, and regularly send me new things to look at and incorporate into my classes). The other contributors were undergraduate students in a 2012 class I used as a lab space to brainstorm and develop the site. The class was divided into different identity groups and tasked with gathering media and developing skeleton curriculum for each assigned category.

As my project manager, Garrett Broad, and I narrowed the selections for the site, we had a few criteria in mind. We strove to choose media that could stand on its own (without a lot of contextualizing). We also wanted to use media that clearly said something about at least one of the identity categories featured on the site, thereby facilitating its incorporation into a broader curricular context. (An offhand or oblique comment by a character or a judge on a reality show might not make the cut).

We did not shy away from media that was challenging or might be uncomfortable for users/viewers. In fact, we embraced nuanced and complicated texts, knowing that we provide scaffolding through the brief annotated descriptions. In some cases, we also provide “critiques” of media examples.

The critiques are used to call attention to social or political issues that might have been left out of the actual media example, but are nonetheless relevant to its interpretation. For example, a clip from America’s Next Top Model features a photo shoot in a Hawaiian sugar cane field in which the contestants are asked to transform themselves to embody two distinct racial groups. The critique for this clip comments on the way that Tyra and Jay gloss over Hawaii’s history of colonialism and cultural domination and the way in which the racial transformations via hair and makeup could be read as blackface. The critiques are designed, therefore, to highlight the complicated ways in which a media example can be interpreted, and to provoke further discussion about broader issues it may invoke.

Your central project here seems to be to focus on the roles which media play in shaping our — collective and personal — sense of identity. What theoretical models have informed your perspective on identity?

Much of my own background in film and television studies was informed by cultural studies. To that end, the work of Raymond Williams, and the notion that “culture is ordinary,” frame much of my teaching and is the foundation of the Critical Media Project. I urge my own students to consider the value and resonance of everyday popular culture, particularly media. And, I hope the Critical Media Project, through its very existence, highlights the value of such texts in the context of broader identity issues.

The site’s focus on identity and identity politics is also firmly rooted in a cultural studies perspective, which asks us to not only consider the social and cultural construction of identities, but also how those constructions are imbricated in ideologies and structures of power. Our gender, race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and class can play a critical role in determining the kind of social, political and economic power we have, how we attain that power, and how we use it. In the context of media, much power comes from visibility and agency (in the media product as well as behind-the-scenes). Such analyses of power lead to productive discussions of inequity and prejudice, ultimately raising important social justice issues.

Do you have a particular pedagogical model in mind as you think about how these materials might be used in the classroom?

The site’s approach draws theoretically from critical pedagogy (and its connections to cultural studies), which works to frame critical thinking, and the learning that comes out of it, in the context of social change. The primary goal is to change students’ perspective on media and its role in shaping their own identities as well as the meanings they ascribe to identities more broadly. Following the lead of writers such as Henry Giroux and Douglas Kellner, the site focuses on critical media literacy—interpretation as well as production and dissemination of content that can challenge dominant ideologies and play a pivotal role in fostering a multicultural, democratic society. The Critical Media Project’s focus on identity and the politics of identity speaks to social justice issues and the larger historical, sociological and political context revolving around them. The site is further designed to spark discussion and to engage students in critical praxis, thereby underscoring the participatory and communal ways in which meanings are made and, further, can make change in the classroom and beyond.

We often hear of the rigid nature of much public school curriculum and the difficulty teachers have introducing innovative materials while adhering to standards. The Critical Media Project is designed to work in the context of pre-existing curriculum and the general principles set forth by the Common Core as they broadly relate to applied critical thinking. The media on this site can be viewed as texts—akin to, if not worthy of comparison with, traditional texts read in an English Language Arts curriculum. It can be used to illustrate a lesson in social studies or history tied to civil rights, or to highlight and make sense of the racialized narratives or sexual politics tied to a particular current event. It can be used in the context of health and human development classes to foster discussion around lines between sex, gender, and transgender identification. Ultimately, the site is designed to be flexible and to work with teacher and student interest and curricular requirements.

 

How might readers who want to contribute to the project get involved? 

The site is a work in progress and we’d like to continue to build and expand on the catalogued media, in large part by crowdsourcing from potential contributors. We aim to regularly post current and relevant examples on Facebook and Twitter (@critmedpro), where we have recently included media tied to the events in Ferguson, MO as well as this summer’s viral “#Like a Girl” campaign distributed by the feminine hygiene brand, Always.

 

Potential contributors can email media to criticalmediaproject@gmail.com. We also welcome full annotated contributions, following the format on the website (with description and discussion questions). In the “class activities” section of The Critical Media Project, there is an assignment that educators can use to solicit contributions from their students. We also would be interested in piloting the site in a classroom or school, working with individual or groups of teachers, their curriculum, and students to facilitate using The Critical Media Project.

We are always looking for current and fresh examples! Please share this resource with others and send feedback.

Alison Trope, Clinical Professor in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, teaches a range of classes on media, popular and visual culture and is the author of Stardust Monuments: The Saving and Selling of Hollywood. She directs The Critical Media Project (www.criticalmediaproject.org), a web resource that facilitates the teaching and understanding of identity in the media.