Tuesday, November 20, 2007

If Only the Text Were a Game . . .

The Tampa Tribune article “Students Use Technology For Critical Thinking” describes many of the classroom activities of Abigail Kennedy, winner of the 2007 Media Literacy Award, which is presented by NCTE’s Assembly on Media Arts. Kennedy, who teaches at Pasco High School in Dade City, Florida, explains the goals for her teaching:

“With media being so prevalent in the world,” Kennedy said, “if they’re not taught how to view it, they can be passive viewers, and can be taken advantage of.” So naturally, Kennedy was thrilled earlier this year when a student told her the young teacher had “ruined” the girl’s enjoyment of television commercials.
Kennedy’s story gets at one of the bittersweet aspects of teaching: students often resist and sometimes even resent teacher’s efforts to open their eyes to the ways that texts manipulate people.

It’s even more frustrating for me because I love to explore how texts work. It’s not just that I want to avoid being a passive audience. I want to know why texts have been put together the ways that they have and how people react when they interact with them. I’m sure I’m saying nothing new to an audience of English teachers. I suspect most of us feel this way. Our challenge is to try to help students engage with texts in this same way—to find fun and usefulness in discovering how texts work.

People do this kind of thinking naturally all the time. They even accept critical thinking and analysis in some circumstances. I’m thinking in particular of sports, and no, not just because my Virginia Tech Hokies are headed for their in-state rivalry game on Saturday.

People have no problem tuning in to a ball game on television and listening to announcers who share not only play-by-play descriptions of what’s happening on the field, but also provide analysis of the ways the players line up and the choices that they make. Pre-game shows are built on a foundation of critical thinking and analysis. The former coaches and football players look at the match-ups, analyze the possibilities, and offer predictions. At half-time breaks, they analyze what has happened so far in the game. After a game, they discuss how it all happened—analyzing how the plays were put together and why the different teams reacted to each other as they did.

I’ve seen hundreds of people watch football games on television. Yet not once have I ever heard anyone complain that the sportscasters “ruined” the game with their analysis. Never. People even share their own analytical comments, agreeing or challenging the ideas presented by the sportscasters. Why does this kind of analysis come so easily to people? Why are they willing to accept and engage in analysis of a football game but not the beer, soda, and automobile commercials that run during timeouts? If we can figure out the answer to that question—and apply what we learn to the classroom—perhaps students will begin to realize that critical thinking and analysis isn’t really ruining things.


Anonymous said...

I have used the sports analogy to try to explain the purpose of such analysis in studying literature. I compare it to watching a baseball game: you will enjoy watching the game more if you know something about the rules, about the possible strategies that might be applied to certain situations, about the likelihood or unlikelihood of certain outcomes, about the individual players and teams, even about the history of the game. All of these elements add depth and texture and complexity to the drama of the game situations. My point is that thinking analytically should add to the appreciation and enjoyment of the game--or of the text--rather than detracting from it. One flaw in my analogy is that many students don't find baseball as fascinating as I do either! But as your suggestion points out, the analogy would work with any sport.

Regarding student resentment to such analysis as applied to popular media, which they already enjoy without such analysis: I think a portion of their resentment comes not just from being shaken out of easy and familiar habits of passive media consumption, but also from the implication that they have been being duped all this time by manipulative media. They may feel insulted by the implication, and the teacher may unintentionally come across as smugly superior.

Lisa said...

I think this is an excellent point. Thanks for blogging it.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid the sports critiques is acutally another demonstration of accepting the status quo rather than challening it. The American broadcasting style is something my international friends hate. They want the sportscasters to 'just shut up' because they're 'ruining my enjoyment of the game.' The fans I'm talking about are players of the sport and prefer to do their own critique. They especially hate the soft 'inside the athlete's life' features.

Russian Accent said...

I think your post raises an important issue. One of the reasons (perhaps subconscious reasons) for the difference between acceptance or active use of sports analysis vs. resistance to critical analysis of popular media is: that the cool guys -- the players themselves, and certainly their coaches -- ALSO analyze the game, and do it at an even more precise and strategic level than the announcer. So, your kids watching football or basketball or whatever may welcome this commentary because they sense that it gives them a glimpse of what might be going on in the players' or coaches' heads. It's like spying, or looking over someone's shoulder at their cheat sheet for the test. Who doesn't like that!

Moreover, sportscasting is in-your-face and ubiquitous -- it is acknowledged and accepted by each and every viewer of the game as far as any other viewer knows. In other words, everybody else is doing it, following along. And you know what effect that has on kinds.

On the other hand, media analysis is independent, lonely, and private. It's inside your head. Nobody else is doing it as far as you know. And the worst part is, who knows if you are even doing it right, since there's nobody around to comment on (or accept) YOUR critical analysis of the media. From this perspective, the odds are stacked against engaging in this kind of activity.

Now here is how I think the weaknesses of critical thinking about the media (ads, punditry, mind-numbing shows like The Price is Right, etc.) can be made into strengths: turn the problem on its head. Specifically, be explicit about telling the students the advantages of engaging in such scrutiny. Tell them why they are literally outsmarting their friends and parents (!!!) and a whole industry designed to brainwash them, by seeing more than meets the eye in each commercial. Show them how NOT using the product JUST because it is advertised the heaviest is actually smart and cool (e.g., by giving examples of products that are heavily marketed but are low quality or actually bad for you, like...say, fast food!!!) Show them clear examples of how political ad campaigns are designed to persuade people without regard for truth or ethics. And so on. And tell them to talk about it and share their insights with family, friends, or teachers more often and out loud, so they don't feel stuck with all these thoughts. Plus, tell them that the more they think critically about the media, the easier it'll be, and the more smart they will be relative to other kids who didn't have you for their teacher! ;)

So these are my 2 cents. Hope this helps.

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