How should we best teach digital and media literacy? How can such teaching respond to today’s politically and technologically polarized milieu?
Last week a discussion brewed across Twitter and the blogosphere as several digital literacy people (Benjamin Doxtdator, Maha Bali, Renee Hobbs, Britni Brown O’Dell) responded to danah boyd’s SXSW keynote. Here’s a video of the latter:
I chimed in on Twitter belatedly, caught between storms, travel, presenting, and consulting. danah then responded with a blog post, and invited all of us to reply.
So here I am.
I’ll respond to key items from both her blog post and the original speech, as best as I can.
(NB: I’m writing this between a dozen plane flights and on various new medications. Hopefully it is coherent.)
Some personal background: I’ve been involved with information and digital literacy efforts since the 1990s. I’ve published and spoken on these topics, as well as closely related ones (copyright). I built and led an information fluency effort at Centenary College.
To the discussion, and starting with actual media literacy: in her speech boyd argues that “a perverted version of media literacy does already exist… When tech is involved, it often comes in the form of ‘don’t trust Wikipedia; use Google.'” My experience of this differs from danah’s and also from some others’ in this discussion, I think. I don’t have nearly the K-12 immersion that danah has had. I work primarily (although not exclusively) in higher ed, but over the past twenty years I have traveled to, and worked with many people working in, hundreds of campuses in the United States (and beyond, but the US is, I think, the frame of this discussion). I have also studied digital literacy (which includes media literacy) across American higher ed (and globally, but ditto).
My sense is that, yes, there is still a strong antipathy towards Wikipedia – not just “treat it as an encyclopedia, with the limitations that form historically affords”, and not “it’s a social platform, so let’s study and even edit it”, but “avoid the Wikipedia.” I’ve seen this across institutional types and geography. At the same time, I’ve heard from faculty and librarians who either celebrate Wikipedia or just quietly allow its use. I’ve had some fantastic and bizarre conversations with educators about this.
I have also seen many and varied information and digital literacy programs throughout higher education. These don’t focus on the difference “between CNN and Fox”, as danah also noted, but on finding information in the general digital ecosystem, especially for scholarly work. Such programs are often housed in academic libraries and driven by their librarians. They are often about helping students calibrate trust in response to the open web’s many forms, and in identifying securely trusted sources accessed through databases and portals (JSTOR, Google Scholar, library sites, etc.).
“I am not arguing that media literacy causes hatred. I’m arguing that it doesn’t solve it. And, more importantly, that a well-intended but ineffective intervention can actually do harm.”
I agree with this, and applaud the citation of Tripodi’s important work on evangelical hermeneutics. I am especially pleased at taking religiously conservative viewpoints – and students – seriously and thoughtfully, rather than as villains (“I worry about how people judge those they don’t understand or respect”). I’ve taught at a college deep in America’s Bible Belt, and know well the dynamics of teaching progressive/feminist/critical theory/Marxist/etc. content and approaches to politically opposed students. (Which includes supporting students there who are engaging positively with such ideas, and who are all too often disappeared by liberals from other regions; ah, geographic prejudice is alive and well in the US.) It’s really easy to backfire. In short, blue can boost red.
“Can you give me examples of programs that are rooted in, speaking to, and resonant with conservative and religious communities in this country? In particular, I’d love to know about programs that work in conservative white Evangelical and religious black and LatinX communities?”
This is a great question, and I can’t point to such programs in the United States.
I can point to the work a group of us did last year in international digital literacy, working with the late New Media Consortium. One of our findings was that nations and regions often expressed different frameworks for teaching, and understandings of, digital literacy. That included, among other things, a stronger emphasis on media literacy in the Middle East and North Africa; it might be worth exploring those frameworks, as different as the context is. The European tendency to emphasize aligning student growth with national and EU-level regulations is interesting, and I could imagine transplanting that to the US backfiring. I do wonder about the African emphasis on digital literacy for economic purposes – jobs and economic growth – and if that approach could cross political and religious divides.
“How do you stabilize students’ trust in Information, particularly among those whose families are wary of institutions and Information intermediaries?”
This is a great question, although my take might differ from others’ in this discussion.
For one, I’m fascinated by the authority politics of digital literacy. As I wrote earlier, one way of viewing new developments in the field is as a struggle over where authority should be located: in empowered individuals making critical choices themselves, or in trusted institutions, including ones established before the Web. While Trump has slammed some tv news and newspapers, a lightly dialectical response has occurred, with people flocking to pay the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian (whose American coverage success story is fascinating), and others to
get behind paywalls support their coverage. I’ve also seen calls to support certain tv news outlets – CNN, MSNBC – along with their being cited uncritically. I have not seen a return to authority for other, classic gatekeepers, like librarians, radio stations, or print publishers, but each longs for more. This is classic American politics – individuals versus authority – and also ancient human politics.
I’m also less concerned about what some call a crisis of authority. I do take Mike Caulfield’s observations seriously, especially on a practical level. At a broader level I am concerned about some strange or addled beliefs insofar as they have public impact, such as antivaxxers keeping dangerous diseases alive (Bruce Sterling: “anti-vaxxers are a greater public health menace than the NRA”), young Earth creationists squelching biology teaching, and climate change denialists working to stop all kinds of research and policy.
At the same time I see many authorities doing just fine. As mentioned above, for all of Trump’s bluster, many of his media targets are healthier now than in 2016. This, despite their well known biases and grievous problems, which I’ve written about in terms of national tv news. Criticizing major news media is and has always been a fine thing – do I need to cite Chomsky on this, or refer to plentiful examples, like the Washington Post’s little blacklist article?
I don’t know if this is what Kate Bowles was thinking of with this tweet, but it might align:
Or Renee Hobbs:
I’ve been concerned about those who teach media literacy as a valorization of mainstream media or who present it as merely making simplistic distinctions between fact and opinion.
I’m also leery of dismissing opposition to one’s preferred authority without taking that resistance seriously. For example, while I abhor anti-vaxxers, I’m mindful of how the medical establishment all too easily runs roughshod over patients, especially those from marginalized populations. At another level, we can think of the bizarrely underdiscussed habit of Americans in refusing to punish public figures for horrendous mistakes and crimes, such as invading Iraq, conducting torture, failing to perceive much less stop 9-11, all the way back to Iran-Contra’s perpetrators largely escaping justice. Think, too, of how many bankers and policymakers were prosecuted or otherwise punished for the 2008 financial meltdown. Remember how successful both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were in connecting with voters on the theme of “the economic game being rigged”; that isn’t a fantasy in an age of increasing economic inequality and decreasing economic mobility. In short, there are reasons for distrusting authority we can pay heed to, and should, if we want to build up trust.
Beyond the media world and the United States, we’re seeing political authorities expanding their powers, from China to the Philippines to Russia and Poland. While some are suspicious of populist movements as rebellious or unsettling, authoritarian politicians can readily adopt those insurgent energies into rule. We may be heading into an illiberal, rather than (classically) liberal age. This is another reason I am skeptical of pushing for more trust in authorities, and am often sympathetic to anti-authoritarians.
Shorter: go read Renee Hobbs.
Back to boyd and her final note:
when I try to untangle the threads to actually address the so-called “fake news” problem, I always end in two places: 1) dismantle financialized capitalism (which is also the root cause of some of the most challenging dynamics of tech companies); 2) reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people. But neither of those are recommendations for educators. <grin>
Bravo for returning to the problems of capitalism, and another cheer for mentioning financialization, which often drops out of American political discourse (either because it’s complex and unsexy, or because certain politics depend on finance).
However, I firmly disagree with this conclusion, even with the ultimate smile. These are precisely tasks for educators.
Dismantling financialized capitalism is something we can research and teach – and do. We have generations of left-wing pedagogy to draw upon, like the work of Myles Horton and Paolo Friere (cf our passionate book club reading). We have recent political movements, like Occupy, the coalition around Bernie Sanders, and the rising Democratic Socialists of America. There are people doing this now. No, 5th grade teachers and university adjuncts alone can’t win the White House and Congress with a left-wing political party, but they can play a role. As one does in a democracy.
Similarly, instructors can actually work to “reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people.” We do and have often done this in a variety of ways, from nurturing learning communities to supporting interracial busing to service learning to social justice pedagogy in the classroom (for example). I think open education – open access in scholarly publishing, open education resources, open teaching – is also a fine way to “reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people.”
One more point: I’m a bit surprised to not see more calls for the open web in this conversation. If we want to get away from platforms we see as multiply dangerous (Facebook in particular, it seems), then we could posit some better sites. I’m for RSS and the blogosphere. Others may plump for Mastodon.
I’d like to say more about this from a futures perspective, since that’s my job, but not in this post, which is already way too long.
One final, meta, small note: it’s interesting how much of this conversation happened on Medium, rather than on self-hosted or other-hosted blogs.