By Mike Gange
Rethinking Popular Culture and Media
Edited by Elizabeth Marshall and Ozlem Sensoy
Rethinking Schools Org, $18.95, 340 pages
I have been teaching some form of media literacy for more than 25 years. Even while teaching courses such as French Second Language or Law, I used techniques that have come to be accepted as best – or at least better – practices in media literacy. I would teach film language such as edits, zooms, pans or close ups, along with point of view, story line development and persuasive techniques. (And, at times, I would do so ‘en Français.’ It certainly added greatly to the students’ conversational French.) I taught about power, control, and the official story line as opposed to the story that is NOT told. A few years later, when I was asked to teach media studies, I expanded my efforts to get my kids to think critically about the world they lived in. Not only did I try to be an “agent-provocateur” for my students, I hoped they would become citizens who would challenge the status quo.
At the beginning of the media literacy movement, it was rare to find anything that showed how one might teach social issues. Teachers seeking innovations in their course content had to be relentless in their search for thought-provoking ideas and lesson plans. Finding a journal, a book or even an article on how to teach critical thinking for media studies was almost impossible. At conferences promoting media literacy, you could benefit when veteran teachers shared their ideas, but if you missed the conference and the specific session, you missed out on the approach.
Now, two professors from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada have come up with Rethinking Popular Culture and Media, an anthology of more than forty essays and articles that address issues within media and popular culture. Co-editor Elizabeth Marshall has been published in such distinguished journals as the Harvard Educational Review, and is especially interested in literature for children and popular culture. Co-editor Ozlem Sensoy has had her work published in journals such as Gender and Education. She is particularly interested in critical pedagogy and cultural studies, and she is the editor of Muslim Voices in Schools.
The need for this kind of book is clearly expressed by Drs. Marshall and Sensoy, who write, “The lives of children and youth are thoroughly saturated by corporate influences that promote values of consumption, hierarchy, sexism, homophobia and contempt for equality.” And, they say, one of the key approaches to understanding the relationship between popular culture and media has been media literacy. Marshall and Sensoy conclude, “Popular culture, then, is also a way for adults, children, and teens to reposition themselves, from cogs in the machine to social actors, intent on jamming, resisting and/ or rewriting the status quo.”
With all this in mind, Rethinking Popular Culture and Media is broken into six segments. The first segment looks at the relationship among corporations, youth and schooling. Another is a critique of how popular culture and media frame historical events. Another examines race, class, gender and sexuality in pop culture and the media. Yet another is a call for action.
Most of the articles are written by teachers with classroom experience. The authors are males and females, from a wide range of backgrounds, from various communities in the U.S. and Canada. One of the strengths of this book is that the authors present divergent points of view, and we learn from people who are not typically writers of textbooks or academic articles, but rather have an approach or idea to share.
While there are many fine examples among the articles, an article by Herbert Kohl is worth mentioning because it deals with power, control and the story that is NOT told. “The Politics of Children’s Literature” looks at the myths surrounding Rosa Parks. According to Kohl, Rosa was hardly a mere seamstress, too tired to get out of her front seat on a bus, then arrested for breaking the law. Her arrest, the common story goes, sparked a bus boycott by African Americans, a boycott which had been instantly organized by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Kohl points out that Rosa Parks was also a member of the NAACP. She was specifically chosen by the organization to provide resistance to the racial injustice and to become the catalyst for public demonstrations because she could withstand the abuse and threats she was sure to receive for her efforts. The resulting bus boycott was not instantly organized; it was planned months in advance and was set aside until the perfect flashpoint – such as Rosa getting arrested. Kohl’s article is wonderfully enlightening, moving Rosa from a tired old woman to a community activist bringing change to society in a planned, coherent manner. Kohl’s article moves Rosa Parks from being a victim of an oppressive society to being an “agent provocateur.” She is even more heroic, in my view.
There are a few weaker selections in this book. Some of these are extended editorials that come from a biased, or at least narrow, point of view. I believe media studies has to examine issues from a good and a not-so-good viewpoint. Still, I applaud the editors for including these articles in the collection, for it proves that it takes many divergent voices to make a community.
Teaching media studies courses is still not for the faint of heart. There are so many issues to cover, so many areas that require extensive planning and preparation. Rethinking Popular Culture and Media will give teachers a chance to see how others have implemented classroom lessons that teach about social activism and empowerment. The book proves we have come a long way since the mid-1980’s. As a field of study, media literacy or media studies still has a long way to go, but this book will serve as a signpost to get us further along our path. If you are a teacher of media studies, you will have to feel a kinship with some of these authors; it is nice to know there are so many other “provocateurs” out there.
Mike Gange teaches media studies at Fredericton High. His students frequently call him Mr. Media.