The university and the public sphere

Lives Steeped in Stories

Teaching students to become critical consumers of media

The Academic Exchange
Vol. 13 No. 2
Spring 2011

Return to Contents

The University and the Public Sphere
What is public scholarship?

The Legacy of the Center for the Study of Public Scholarship at Emory

Further Resources

Scholar, Teacher, Public Policy Player
The balancing act of the modern legal scholar

Turning to Public Scholarship
Race and music

Teaching and Learning in the Public Realm
Lessons on effectiveness

Further Resources

Shared Knowledge
Developing a public voice through the media

Media Strategies for Faculty

"Often, when academics are not involved in [media] conversations, people rely on short-term generalizations to explain the world."

"I have my effectiveness in speaking to diverse audiences, whether it’s to three hundred executives or two thousand teachers, going out and telling them something about the global economy and its implications."

Reflections on a Tragedy
The media and the public stigma around mental illness

Trusted But Not Respected
Nurses in contemporary media

Further Reading

The Public Scholars of the Future
Preparing undergraduates with skills and experiences for public service

Lives Steeped in Stories
Teaching students to become critical consumers of media

More Resources on Critical Media Literacy

"The Bible in one hand, the newspaper in the other"
Cultivating public theologians in the Youth Theological Initiative


When students arrive for the first day of the semester to one of my courses about media, they come with a lifetime of experience. Their existence has been steeped in mediated stories. They have a cache of knowledge relevant to the serious study of media. So on the first day of my classes, I tell students that through their everyday exposure to media they and others already know quite a lot about the material we will wrestle with in the course. Part of my task is to help them unearth what they already know and provide a structure to help them organize that information, so that they can bring it to bear on the course and build on it. I aim to have students become critical consumers of media—to understand that media systems and the dominant ideas conveyed via media may seem natural but are actually socially constructed. This ability to discern is critical to becoming an active citizen in a democracy.

For these reasons, I encourage students to be aware of items in the popular press that have connections to the course topics. The themes that have recurred throughout media history continue to resonate today. For example, in my History of American Television course, the news about media’s vital role in the unfolding of the political uprising in Egypt had relevance with discussions of media and political change on the one hand. On the flip side, the attempts to stifle Internet access and control television coverage are connected to the recurring issue of censorship. Another example involves the aftermath of the Arizona shootings, which stirred up public debates on civil discourse, echoing similar conversations following other national tragedies. Students begin to see these connections on their own and even bring them to my attention to share with the class.

Several assignments bridge the space between the classroom and students’ lives outside the university. In courses in my specialty area—children, youth, and media—a first assignment is a kind of autobiography or auto-ethnography around media, a reflection on the student’s personal history with media. They are asked to think and write about, for example, their earliest memories of using media, their family’s attitudes about media technologies and texts, and the role media played in the home. Then they are to synthesize their reflections and draw some conclusions about the role of media in their early lives and how it connects to their media use and attitudes today.

In many cases students mention that they called their parents to discuss their memories and to acquire additional information. Many have told me that they spend a good deal of time thinking about the assignment before they actually start to write. They have to create their own story, and they say that in remembering and reflecting, they come to new realizations about their own lives. On the day the assignment is due, all students report to the class on what they have discovered through investigating their own experiences. What results from these reports and subsequent discussion every semester is fascinating for me and the students in both the similarities and diversity of experience. If I simply collected the papers to read and grade, the students would miss out on hearing about their peers’ experiences and would not realize the complexities and variety of factors involved when we study the role of media in the lives of children.

With this importance of historical memory and media in mind, this semester for the History of Television class I devised a new exercise that took students outside of the classroom to learn about television history. They were to conduct an interview with a person who is at least fifty-five years old—whether a parent or other relative, friend, or acquaintance. I provided an interview script as a guide and encouraged students to follow up on their answers and probe more deeply. The goal was to conduct a conversation with the person, which would help them access their memories and opinions about television and provide insights into how television history has unfolded in individual lives. The students interviewed parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends of parents, and even a professor.

When it was not possible to conduct an interview face to face, I encouraged them to use a technology that would allow them to see the interviewee (Skype or other video chat). An interesting side value of this assignment was the cross-generational conversation on a neutral topic in which both parties were interested. Students were excited about this assignment and enjoyed talking about their elders’ memories and opinions in class. It helped bring the history home for them.

I also lead students to think about their current media habits. And they begin to imagine themselves as potential parents and ask themselves how they will handle media in the lives of their own children. They know this issue will confront them in their possible future role as parents or caregivers of children.

To drive this point home, I have assigned students to conduct an observation of a child (up to age sixteen) using media. The idea is to spend at least an hour unobtrusively observing a child involved in a media-related activity. This might be watching television or a movie, playing a video or computer game, or using the Internet. Students are to observe the child’s involvement with the medium and note such factors as other simultaneously occurring activities, the kind of content being used, the child’s emotional state, and the space and other contextual factors in which the activity occurs. If the child is old enough, students are encouraged to talk with them about what they were doing (after the observation period) or to talk with parents or caregivers. The idea is to describe and interpret the interplay between the medium, the content, the child, and the context. As with the autobiography assignment, students bring their findings to class and summarize their experiences for one another. Again the complexities of studying children and media are revealed when hearing all of the students’ reports.

For the students these exercises result in an intimate involvement in the study of media and boost their critical thinking about media. Bringing the world outside the university into the classroom and into students’ consideration of the course material gives extra power, relevance, and immediacy to issues that are integral to our culture and our democracy. Above all, these strategies help students, at least momentarily, decentralize themselves and the present and allow them to situate their own generation in history.