As a young scholar, back in the early 1990s, I had the chance to visit the offices of the Center for Media Literacy in Los Angeles, where Elizabeth Thoman was publishing Media&Values, a media literacy magazine. Working on a lean budget, Liz’s non-profit organization was a busy place: there were always a couple of grad school interns from USC or UCLA and always a couple of very talented professional staff. Over its 15-year history, the magazine reached upwards of 10,000 readers each month and introduced people to key topics in media literacy, exploring issues including the changing role of journalism in society, television and film violence, gender stereotyping in media, and other topics.
What I remember most about my visit to Los Angeles was the Center for Media Literacy’s library: it was a treasure trove of media literacy books, VHS video tapes, sound cassettes, curriculum kits, photography and film production resources, everything a teacher might want if the aim was teaching about journalism, advertising, Hollywood film and popular culture. Simply put, it was a room full of media literacy “stuff” from all across the U.S. and Australia, England, Scotland and even Brazil. In that pre-Internet age, access to media literacy materials this diverse was mind-blowing: perusing the shelves, for the first time, I began to understand that media literacy was a global movement.
It was also obvious to me that media literacy was, even then, an unwieldy, difficult concept that meant a lot of different things to different people depending on their disciplinary backgrounds and professional identities, their political and social commitments, their attitudes towards media, and their life experiences. That’s partly what made the concept of media literacy so fascinating to me.
Twenty years later, when Elizabeth Thoman was packing up the contents of the Center for Media Literacy archive, I was lucky enough to acquire the collection and even more thrilled to be able to share it with my doctoral students at Temple University and the University of Rhode Island. We held the first symposium on the history of media literacy in 2013.
I was proud when Temple University’s Michael RobbGrieco applied his intellectual curiosity and generous heart into an examination of the archives, looking closely at the content, patterns and ideas of Media&Values magazine. He wondered: How did the magazine represent the voices and perspectives of the various stakeholders in the formative years of the U.S. media literacy movement?
Mike’s dissertation got me thinking about the generational, relational and transformational spread of ideas about media literacy. Over the course of three generations, Liz, Mike and I, each of us in our own time, had wrestled with a unique, particular set of intellectual forces and flow of ideas. We each had attempted to understand media literacy in relation to the ever-changing state of media and technology, cultural politics, and education. In exploring how best to teach and learn about media, we used and built upon the ideas of scholars and thinkers from a variety of fields, including philosophy, education, communication and media studies, psychology, sociology and the arts and humanities.
But each of us had encountered these ideas through the prism of our own lives. Our personal life stories uniquely shaped the way we interpreted the significance and meaning of earlier authors who examined the relationship between communications media, technology, culture and education.
Exploring Digital and Media Literacy History through Personal Narrative
To explore how life narratives may shape people’s understanding, I wanted to push even further back in time. What were the deep roots of digital and media literacy? How could I find creative ways to help undergraduate and graduate students to understand the historical legacy of media literacy’s interdisciplinary position at the intersection of media studies and education?
That’s why I invited 16 distinguished authors to respond to the question: “Who is your metaphorical grandparent? What writer has most influenced your thinking about digital and media literacy? I was delighted when distinguished authors including Henry Jenkins, Douglas Kellner, Dana Polan, David Weinberger, Lance Strate, Donna Alvermann and others agreed to contribute essays to this volume.
In my new book, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative, these authors introduce readers to a particular scholar who influenced their thinking. Through their own personal narratives recounting their exposure to ideas, readers are introduced to some of the great minds of the 20th century. Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative features essays by:
- David Weinberger on Martin Heidegger
- Lance Strate on Marshall McLuhan
- Dana Polan on Roland Barthes
- Cynthia Lewis on Mikhail Bakhtin
- Srivi Ramasubramanian on Gordon Allport
- Michael RobbGrieco on Michel Foucault
- Gianna Cappello on Theodor Adorno
- Douglas Kellner on Herbert Marcuse
- Henry Jenkins on John Fiske
- Amy Petersen Jensen on Bertholt Brecht
- Donna E. Alvermann on Simone de Beauvoir
- Jeremiah Dyehouse on John Dewey
- Renee Hobbs on Jerome Bruner
- Vanessa Domine on Neil Postman
- Peter Gutierrez on Scott McCloud
Each chapter describes an individual whom the author considers to be a type of “grandparent.” By weaving together two sets of personal stories—that of the contributing author and that of the key ideas and life history of the historical figure under their scrutiny—major concepts of digital media and learning emerge.
The book shows how the theories and concepts that drive digital and media literacy educators have been shaped by people’s exposure to early 20th century scholars and thinkers who:
- explored awareness of form, content and context in the meaning-making process;
- examined the social nature of representation and interpretation;
- unpacked the dialectic of empowerment and protection in relation to media influence;
- considered the role of art as a means of social transformation; and
- reflected on media’s contribution to personal and social identity.
For many readers, the book will recreate the experience I had when visiting the offices and library of the Center for Media Literacy so many years ago: a chance to marvel at and explore the writing and scholarship at the turn of the 20th century that continues to offer insights to contemporary scholars trying to understand the practices involved in accessing, analyzing, and reflecting on mass media, popular culture and digital media.
Today, with the rise of Internet and social media continuing to reshape our complex love-hate relationship with media and technology, it is my hope that by connecting the best ideas of the past to the challenges of the present and future, the next generation will be well-poised to carry on the important work of digital and media literacy education.
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