Reflections on learning & teaching & learning

I bookend my Digital Media & Society course with a survey of attitudes and beliefs. Students check “agree”, “disagree” or “I don’t know” on a long list of statements such as: “The government should do more to protect citizens’ online privacy”, “Facebook should be responsible for copyrighted images posted to their site”,  “YouTube should censor content on their site that they deem objectionable or offensive”, “If I ask Twitter to take down harmful or slanderous tweets about me, they should have to do it”, “U.S. internet companies should recognize the laws of other countries, even if it means censorship” etc. etc. I use it as a way to introduce the topics of the course. On the last day students re-answer the questions and then I pass back their original answers so they can see what attitudes/perspectives have changed. It’s a great way to sum up the course as well.

Yesterday a student told me she couldn’t believe we had covered so much in one semester. Several students explained how the course had helped them think about things in a more nuanced and complex way. I gave a little spiel on what I hoped they had gotten out of the class and we moved on.

But the exercise also got me thinking: what do I most remember from my undergrad courses? What did I learn that has stuck with me 10+ years later? Why? And how? Taking time to reflect on my own learning and education is a way to think more critically about how I structure my own courses. Thinking back to my time at the University of Oklahoma as an undergrad, here’s what I still remember and what has proved most beneficial to me through the years. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but what has been on my mind lately.

  • How to write an argumentative paper – I’ve been a good writer for as long as I can remember, but my freshman English class really taught me the importance of writing clear and logical arguments. This is something that I rely on daily in my career. My intro to philosophy course also helped me articulate more logical arguments and to recognize fallacies. This continues to shape my career and life.
  • How to interpret statistics and representative studies – I double majored in psychology and communication for 5 semesters until I realized I thrived at communication and struggled at psych, so I dropped the psych; however, not before taking 9 hours of statistics. While my statistical knowledge is still weak in terms of designing quantitative studies and calculating numbers, those courses gave me an entirely different appreciation for statistics, representative samples, and large-scale quantitative analysis. It’s amazing how often statistics are mis-used and mis-interpreted. I feel all high schoolers should be required to take a basic statistics course because we encounter stats all the time, regardless of our careers.
  • Evolution – I grew up in a Christian school that flatout did not teach evolution, like at all. I was so ignorant of Darwin’s research, natural selection, genetic mutations, survival of the fittest, and basic biology. I learned more from that one science course (in which I worked my butt off for a C) than I had in my entire high school career. I was fascinated by life and genes and genetics and biology. I mean, I didn’t want to study it for a living or anything, but I realized how complex and beautiful living organisms are and walked away with a whole new appreciation for science in general.
  • The U.S. Constitution – I took a Constitutional philosophy course my senior year (yea, just for fun). It helped me have such a better understanding of our legal system and the role of the Constitution in our country.

To a certain extent, all of these are more skill-based and rudimentary facts and understandings that have stuck with me since college. But when I think about the things that have really shaped not only my education and career,but who I am as a person, I think about those “ah-ha” paradigm shift courses that forever changed the way I see myself and others in the world. Those are what I strive to help my students achieve, which is why I think it’s so important to discuss contemporary issues and bigger issues than what may be in the textbook or exam. Here are my paradigm-shattering educational lessons that have stayed with me and always will.

  • Power and privilege – I was (and still am) a privileged, educated, white girl who grew up in safe suburbia. I went to a school seriously lacking in diversity and spent the majority of my time surrounded by people who looked, thought, and acted like me. As such, I was largely unaware of my own privilege and I was very ignorant about how power functioned in society. Several courses in college helped me become aware of my own blinders and completely shook up the way I see the world.
  • I remember taking a non-western communication course that really helped me understand how power, space, values, and norms shape culture. I remember being blown away that other cultures had different understandings of time, space, and identities. I mean, on some level I knew this, but I didn’t really understand it. This course with Dr. Eric Kramer is one of the reasons I pursued a degree in communication. He helped me see that culture was not some innate force out there, but was something imbued with systematic and collective understandings of power, time, space, identities, communities, and norms.
  • Our nation’s history – I took a Civil Rights course through the psychology department my senior year. Despite having taken multiple history courses throughout high school and college, I remained so ignorant of what really happened in our country in the 50s-70s. These decades are often glossed over or completely skipped in history classes. We spent an entire semester learning about all the different social movements, key players, legal battles, histories, losses and victories that took place in the U.S. during the civil rights movements. This course forever shaped my perspective on race relations and continues to help me make sense of today’s racial politics and struggles.
  • Gender and feminism – It was really my honors courses that helped me articulate what had been there all along, but I didn’t have a word for: feminist. As I learned more about gender from a psychological, media, historical, and political perspective, I realized I was definitely a feminist. My media courses in particular helped me understand how my own identity had been so powerfully constructed via popular culture, capitalism, and mediated representations. I remember feeling so angry, confused, hopeless, and inspired all at the same time. I finally had words to express what I had long felt, I was relieved there was a much larger history and movement I could join, but I was also angry at how women were (and are) represented in media and society. Together these emotions and passions further shaped my future career and pushed me into academia.
  • Capitalism & democracy – That moment when I realized all our media was owned by like 5 companies and they were considered a person under the law when it was convenient but didn’t pay taxes like a person when it wasn’t convenient and they had major crazy control over who our elected leaders were and what bills passed and what news we even heard about (yea, I’m looking at you McChesney & Bagdikian)! Yea, that moment left me crazy angry and confused and shook up pretty much everything I thought I knew about capitalism and democracy and the role of journalism and media in the U.S. As I continued to learn and explore I came back down to a more reasonable understanding that didn’t want to totally destroy all corporations. But my concerns about the relationship between media and democracy and power and representation remains.

Now, as a teacher I strive to help my students reach their own “ah-ha” paradigm-shattering moments. Sometimes these moments need to be fueled by anger, or fear, or confusion, but also by empathy and compassion and a desire to make the world a better place. My students are content creators and storytellers, producers and editors, directors and writers. I don’t teach them the technical skills, there are other incredibly talented faculty in my department who help them do this and do this well. But I hope my courses help them understand the immense power and responsibility they have as media makers and I can only hope that they use their talents, skills, and passions to make the world a little more equitable, empathetic, compassionate, and understanding.

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