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.
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”