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Back in the day, when people debated about what to call this new enterprise, this practice of engaging learners in noticing, analyzing, reflecting on, and composing in response to their own mediated culture, I was deeply torn about whether it should be called “media literacy” or “media education.” I opted for the latter for many major initiatives (including the Harvard Institute on Media Education and, of course, the Media Education Lab). Some readers will remember the vociferous 1990s debates we had as the discourse community sorted out what we meant, exactly, by terms like “critical analysis” and “authentic audiences” and “autonomy.”

But “literacy” has been the most problematic and slippery term of all. As an undergraduate, I was a double major in English and Film/Video, of course. I was (and still am) enamored with documentary film and the editing process. Deeply connected to the practice of reading. A lover of words. I brought to this work a deep sense of the connectedness between reading and writing in relationship to the many different symbol systems, genres and forms of expression that are part of our culture.

But at a very critical period in my life, a mentor invited me to consider the long-term potential impact of my work in K-12 education, encouraging me to reflect on whether I would be OK if reading films replaced the practice of reading books. Impossible, I remember thinking. But it’s an issue that can still keep me up at night. Today, as I struggle to get my undergraduates to read, it’s becoming more central to my sense of professional identity as a teacher. For in the zero sum game that is education, more time with one form of expression displaces time spent with something else. And since each media form demands particular kinds of attentional and cognitive skills that are unique to the medium, and different media genres require more sets of specialized skills, I’m right to reflect on how my teaching practices support (or supplant) the particular values associated with reading. I deeply care that people continue to value poetry, for example, and short stories, and drama; I want to explore how the use of new media and technologies can nurture and support this process.

TS EliotAs an eternal optimist, I love how T.S. Eliot invites me to embrace how the creative individual makes, destroys and remakes the world through life and through art:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others…)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Four Quartets”

2 thoughts on “Reflections from an English Major

  1. Thanks for those thoughts Renee. I often think about these kinds of issues and I even worked a bit with my Japanese reading students on them this morning. I’ve told you before of my interest in McLuhan’s “City as Classroom” and the notion of preserving what’s good and great about schools and classrooms and print, while acknowledging the flexibility and changing sensibilities brought about by new technologies. One of the passages that struck me in “City as Classroom” was this short note:

    “Some educational theorists of this century argue that we are living today in a new kind of world: our community has become a storehouse of information of all kinds, and this information is easy to get. They argue that when schools were first established, there was not much information in the community, and schools were opened to provide knowledge and information. Your grandfather may have gone to the ‘little red schoolhouse’ that was common in Canada and in the United States. Such schools had a single teacher, and all grades were taught in one room. The school teacher, next to the preacher, was the best-educated person in the community. (Look at Oliver Goldsmith’s poem, “The Deserted Village.”) Outside the school, people toiled at the country tasks of plowing and sowing and harvesting. They were very active physically. School was a strong contrast to work. How has the relationship changed between work done in the community and work done in schools?”

    This is the $1 million dollar question for all of us interested in education today, and especially those of us who see the overlap of media/technology and pedagogy as crucial to the entire endeavor. Does our learning start or end in the classroom? Does our learning start or end in the community? Each serves as an anti-environment to the other, and in doing so we create art of each of them. In the community we acknowledge the art of the classroom, and in the classroom we acknowledge the art of the community. If we play one off the other in this way, we find equilibrium and preserve the significance of both.

    • Indeed, Mike, thanks for sharing the McLuhan quote! I like your reflection on the symbiosis between classroom and community. The complex and dynamic relationship between communication, community, identity, technology, culture and learning is sometimes too big, too abstract to bear, which is why I tend to take it down to the little steps I can do, as a practitioner, to realize my big ideas about teaching and learning.

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