Making the Invisible, Visible: Engaging Students in Critical Media Literacy

By Lauren Arend, Assistant Professor, Education

A few years ago a graduate student in my statistics course shared with me the website “Spurious Correlations,” a site replete with near perfect statistical correlations between variables such as per capita consumption of margarine and the divorce rate in Maine.  While humor in statistics is always welcome, the site led me to consider the importance of statistical literacy.   Would my students be able to identify spurious correlations that were not so obvious?  This question got me thinking about my students’ history with data and statistics.

I teach an introductory course, and often students groan, “I know NOTHING about statistics” on the first day of class.  But this is not true.  They have been consumers of statistical data for years through a variety of media.  Prior to taking any formal coursework, students in a statistics class already have an orientation towards interpreting, understanding, and applying statistics.  This prior knowledge is hugely influenced by the media representations of data, not critically framed, and most likely not changed through completing problem sets on hypothesis testing.  In other words, it is possible that students come to class with a limited ability to critically analyze statistics presented in the media, excel in a course on statistics, and leave with the same limited ability to analyze media.

This led me to identify ways I could engage more purposefully in critical media literacy pedagogy in all of my classes.  Critical media literacy is an approach to literacy (this can be a broad definition of literacy to include fields such as statistics) that seeks to critically analyze relationships between media and audiences, information, and power.  Engaging in critical media literacy can be an important tool in unpacking prior knowledge and challenging students to view and evaluate their own epistemologies.

While students enter our programs with limited background on what they know about content   in their respective fields, they come to us with some preconceptions about what it feels like and looks like to be a professional in that field.  Students come to us with a history of interactions with news media, film, television, music, literature, and advertisements that have shaped their understanding of who teachers are, what a doctor is like, or what it means to work in criminal justice. Without framing, it is highly unlikely that students were examining those decades worth of images through a critical lens.  This is where critical media literacy pedagogy becomes crucial.

What does critical media literacy look like?

In research methods courses, use the framework of critical media literacy to investigate how research is “translated” by the mainstream media.  Students can collect articles from both mainstream media and academic journals reporting research on the same topic.  Prompt students with questions such as, who is the intended audience of this piece? what information or understanding do I need to have to interpret the research reported? what information is missing?  what is lost in the translation of academic research to a popular news story? For example, students in an introductory statistics course can analyze how statistics are framed and positioned in mainstream media sources that are read by people who may understand very little about statistics.

In pre-professional programs, such as teacher education, use visual clips from film and television that portray professional teachers. Use these clips to unpack assumed knowledge about education as a field, teachers as professionals, or groups of students.  Prompt students with questions such as what values are portrayed? what is the ideology of this film? what is the commercial message? who is the film made for? For example, my students in a course on urban schools and communities watch clips from the movie Freedom Writers to critically examine the film’s implicit messages about students of color in relation to their white teacher.

Critical media literacy is broadly applicable to coursework in any field and can help us as instructors understand our students’ positions and identities, while our students develop an awareness of their own epistemological stances.  Such investigations make the invisible subtexts and assumptions in our classrooms, visible. Students become excited to engage in critical work and empowered as a classroom community as they re-examine “familiar” representations and see those representations in new ways.  For me as an instructor my favorite classroom moments are when, as a community of learners, we peek behind the curtain and expose the wizard.