Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative

Renee Hobbs, Editor


The book proposal has been accepted for publication at Temple University Press (tentative publication date: July 2015)

Notes on Deadlines and Format for Submitting Chapters

Concept and Rationale. Because digital and media literacy embraces the disciplines of media studies, education, technology, cultural studies and other fields, it's sometimes difficult to provide new readers with a comprehensive understanding of the multifarious roots of the field. Designed for students and others who are just entering the field, this book introduces readers to the multidisciplinary field of digital and media literacy through engaging personal narratives written by a range of distinguished scholars and practitioners who each focus on the life of one of the giants of the early 20th century, the fascinating men and women who serve as the intellectual grandparents of the current scholars and practitioners of digital and media literacy education.

Variations on the term digital media and learning and digital and media literacy have been constantly in flux for more than fifty years as each generation aims to articulate a new set of competencies that specifically address the new technologies of our cultural environment. In the early 1960s, the new term was called visual literacy, and it referred to the perceptual, cognitive and interpretive competencies associated with many new images and symbols beginning to flood the cultural environment with the rise of television and Madison Avenue. In the 1970s, librarians introduced information literacy, providing patrons with new skills (like Boolean search strategies) for using new electronic database systems to find and retrieve information. By the 1980s, the advent of cable television brought us media literacy, with the need to understand and analyze the political, economic and cultural dimensions of the 500+ channel universe in order for people to function as informed citizens in a democracy. The, in the 1990s, the term computer literacy was used to refer to the new knowledge and skills needed to use hardware and software that was small enough to sit on our desktops.

As the Internet helped transformed all media into digital formats, today the term, digital media and learning is used to describe research that explores the role of digital media in the lives of children and youth, especially in out-of-school, informal learning environments. The term digital literacy is used by business and governmental organizations including Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Commerce, and is defined by the American Library Association as "the ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills" (American Library Association, Digital Literacy Task Force, 2011, 1). Digital literacy often encompasses the first steps in the digital learning process, including gaining broadband access and learning to use a keyboard and mouse, developing critical analysis and computer authoring skills, as well as the ethical responsibilities in using social media like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. In all its varying names and formulations, the underlying principle is simply one of expanding the concept of literacy to include the panoply of knowledge, understandings and skills that enable people to share meaning using a wide array of symbols, media and technology.

Given these broad and all-encompassing definitions, when people ask about the intellectual history of digital media and learning, it's difficult to determine where to even begin. Because different scholars with interests in media literacy may claim any of a number of scholarly disciplines as part of their genetic makeup, when they are asked about their symbolic or metaphorical grandparents, they may look to the early 20th century to acknowledge the legacy of John Dewey, Lev Vygotsky, or Paolo Freire, who emphasized learning as an active process of meaning-making that relates directly to ongoing changes in culture, technology, and society. They may make reference to Theodor Adorno, Daniel Boorstein, Marshall McLuhan or Stuart Hall, who were exploring the impact of mass media on personal and cultural identity at a time when the new industries of Hollywood and Madison Avenue were reshaping social norms. And they may even acknowledge the influence of writers like Vance Packard (The Persuaders), Marie Winn (The Plug-in Drug) or Neil Postman (Amusing Ourselves to Death), whose books popularized the practice of media literacy and introduced several generations to the idea that media and technology tools are never neutral but always come with values and ideologies attached.

It's not generally the case that young educators and scholars get to actually lay claim to their intellectual forefathers. Most of the time, we come across famous names in a book or a lecture and then promptly forget about them. In every discipline, intellectual grandparents are those scholars, theorists, researchers and practitioners whose work provides shared core themes and ideas that bind members of a discourse community, connecting people across time and space. Their work offers an articulation of foundational concepts upon which new knowledge can be generated.

But what if you could select your grandparents? In this book, I invite the reader to review the choices of a number of contemporary scholars, educators, media professionals, and others who come from a variety of fields and who have selected the authors and practitioners of the early 20th century who best match their own passions, interests and scholarly DNA. Readers are thus invited to reflect: Which of the core ideas of digital and media literacy are most compelling to you? Who might you choose to be your symbolic and metaphorical grandparents? 

The Story: Using Personal Narrative to Explore Intellectual History.  In this book, readers encounter a series of informal personal narratives by more than a dozen distinguished authors who reveal how they understand the scholars and practitioners of the previous generation, individuals who were working towards the beginning of the 20th century. Each chapter describes an individual who the author considers to be a type of "grandparent." By weaving together two sets of personal stories - of both the contributing author and the key ideas and life history of the historical figure under scrutiny - we examine how the key ideas of digital media and learning cannot be separated from their historical context but that great innovation comes from bringing key ideas together from across several disciplines and fields of inquiry. 


RENEE HOBBS ON JEROME BRUNER. When I was 10 years old, I was presented with a magical set of materials about how animals communicate and how people communicate and act around the world. The curriculum, “Man: A Course of Study” used films, posters, interactive activities, simulations and books to show the power of symbols in shaping cultural life. The focus of the learning seemed to be on asking questions and sharing ideas. These materials were developed by Jerome Bruner, a Harvard psychologist whose influential books on education helped stimulate new thinking about the role of culture and communication in human development and education. In this chapter, I explore how Bruner’s work and ideas shaped my own interest in the intersection of media, technology and learning. Bruner was confident in teachers as professionals and viewed children as active meaning-makers, able to explore difficult and sometimes controversial subjects. He wasn’t stuck in one discipline: his works straddled the fields of cognitive and social psychology, education and the humanities. He wasn’t stuck in the ivory tower: he moved seamlessly between the roles of researcher, curriculum developer and policymaker. As I explore the relationship between theory and practice in implementing media literacy education programs in K-12 schools, I now see that Bruner’s contribution to the “cultural turn” in education made it possible for me to explore the messy realities of teaching and learning about mass media and popular culture.  

DAVID WEINBERGER ON MARTIN HEIDEGGER. When I was young, teenagers had "identity crises" in which we were unable to tell what was real about us and what was phony. Being of an intellectual turn of mind, my identity crisis took the form of existential anxiety as (unknown to me) described by JP Sartre: the meaning of things wouldn't stick to them.  In my first year in college, Martin Heidegger gave me a boost out of this pit. We don't live inside our heads, he said. We experience the world as an external, shared place. Therefore, language doesn't reconstitute an image of the world inside our head, but turns us to this shared world, showing it to us in particular ways. From this point of view, the Information Age plunged us further into bad ideas about language, for information theory says communication succeeds when a message reconstitutes its meaning in the head of the recipient. But Heidegger's understanding of communication explains our new network of links far better: links show us our shared world as it appears to others. And because Heidegger's explanation attempts to express what our experience is actually like, we can see why the Web has had such an appeal: it is a more truthful expression of how humans live in the world. 

DONNA ALVERMANN ON SIMONE DEBEAUVOIR. This chapter weaves facets from Simone de Beauvoir’s life with events from several periods in my own life when her writings influenced considerably how I came to invest in studying digital media and learning.  The result is a personal narrative that takes into account historical contexts and circumstances that have deepened my previous understandings of where several key ideas for my work originated. Although on different continents and at different points in time, de Beauvoir’s political activism mirrored my own actions and in ways that produced useful insights into digital media and learning a full century later.  For example, de Beauvoir’s writings address the concept of “otherness” and the connection between freedom and responsibility. They also speak to the postmodern critique of dreams and fantasies being the scapegoats for much of what passes as censorship and politically correct rhetoric in current times.  Finally, the complexities and contradictions of de Beauvoir’s lifelong project to be taken seriously, both as an intellectual and as a woman capable of loving and being loved, pioneered the way for me to map my career trajectory pretty much as I wished—a feat that arguably led to my work in digital media and learning.

DOUGLAS KELLNER ON GERBNER, HABERMAS & SCHILLER. My own approach to media literacy was mediated through interaction with Multiple Grand and (God)Fathers, including Gerbner, Habermas, Schiller and other media and cultural theorists, which led me to develop a multiperpectival approach to media with focus on political economy, media texts, audiences, and reflection on the multiple roles and impact of media in contemporary society. My influences also include literary figures who I met through their texts such as McLuhan, Adorno, and Baudrillard. I will provide a personal narrative of my encounter with different contemporary media theorists and theories, and how I came to synthesize their work into my own approach to media which involves crossing the divide between political economy and cultural studies, combining humanities and social science approaches to the media.

CYNDY SCHIEBE ON DOROTHY AND JEROME SINGER. I came to the field of media literacy education in the mid-1990s from a background in child development and research on the effects of television on children.  I was already familiar with Dorothy and Jerome Singer through their writings on Piaget, make-believe and children’s imagination, and had cited their work extensively in my doctoral thesis on children’s understanding about Santa Claus and other fantasy characters.  Later, as the co-director of the Center for Research on the Effects of Television (CRETV) with my mentor and colleague John Condry at Cornell University, I explored the potential impact of television on children’s beliefs, attitudes and understanding – which led me right back to the Singers.  They were the first – and sometimes the only – voices in developmental psychology emphasizing the importance of critical viewing skills as a means of addressing the harmful impact of television.  Now, in my ongoing media literacy work with K-12 educators at Project Look Sharp, our approach is deeply grounded in children’s active, constructivist understanding of the world and the role that parents and educators can play in helping children think critically about the media messages that help to frame that understanding.

PETER GUTIERREZ ON SCOTT MCCLOUD. In the U.S. it’s been hard to be a comics fan—let alone a comics-friendly educator or comics scholar—since before I was born. With the cultural witch hunts of the 1950s, and the subsequent dominance of a lone genre, superhero adventures, for the next several decades, the bias against the medium became so entrenched and pervasive that even its supporters seemed resigned to it. As someone who fell in love with comics in the 1970s, looked for ways to bring them into my teaching when I entered the field in the late ‘80s, and became a creative professional in the industry in the ‘90s, I can recall that this outsider status occasionally served as a perverse badge of honor. In the long run, though, it was exhausting for me and everyone else who took comics seriously. Into this sad state of affairs came Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (1993) and suddenly everything began to change. The book crystallized many things that long-time comics readers instinctively knew while simultaneously legitimizing the object of our love to those with whom we had longed to connect—tastemakers, academics, librarians, and, well, thinking adults generally. Indeed, its impact is still being felt today.

GIANNA CAPPELLO ON THEODOR ADORNO. I have never fully bought (albeit often tempted to) into the simplistic and somewhat caricaturist versions of Theodor Adorno’s ideas about the cultural industry and the alienated consumer given by some supporters of the “active” audience. Even more so today, when digital social media seem to make participatory culture, creativity and active citizenship a dream coming true. I have always thought instead that, beyond the traps of binary thinking (powerful media vs. active audience), there is a much more complex story to be told and that we, as cultural analysts and media literacy educators, need to patiently reconstruct – with all possible evidence coming from empirical data – the intricacy of the intersections and contradictions between the constraining discipline of structures at macro level and the empowering anti-discipline of individuals at micro level, between power as strategy and power as tactic, between society at large and the sitting room where I watch my favorite TV show, between culture as meaning and culture as action. Drawing from my personal encounters with Adorno’s writings, particularly those devoted to socio-musical enquiry, in this chapter I want to argue that these writings offer impressive keys to a perspective where much broader questions about the media in/as everyday life can be addressed: how media are defined as (and in relation to) social process, how media materials (including the ways they are interpreted and evaluated) are created, revised, and undercut with reference to specific social relations and social contexts of action, how media provide constraining and enabling resources for social agents, i. e., modes of conduct, evaluative judgments, social scenarios and institutional arrangements, emotional conditions and so forth. Ultimately, I want to argue that, by taking a detour through Adorno, media literacy education can better respond to the urgent need to (re)theorize and (re)politicize its discourses and practices as “negative dialectics”, as Adorno would put it.

LANCE STRATE ON MARSHALL MCLUHAN. Many individuals, myself included, were inspired by the writings of Marshall McLuhan to probe and explore media, in an effort to study and understand the effects of media on the human psyche, society, and culture.  Although he was not the first to study media, he deserves credit for bringing the study of media to popular attention, and sparking the first efforts to incorporate media education into the classroom.  While popular references to "the media" can be traced back to McLuhan's influence, as much as he emphasized understanding media as a collective phenomenon, constituting an invisible environment and thereby influencing human life, he more importantly stressed the differences between different types of media, their underlying characteristics and inherent biases, and how changes in the ways that we communicate have played a leading role in human history.  McLuhan discussed media as both technologies and languages, extending and translating human perception and interaction with the world, making his work foundational for the field of media ecology as well as media literacy.

VANESSA DOMINE ON NEIL POSTMAN.  I was a child raised in Silicon Valley of a physicist father who facilitated the development of the first personal computers during the late 1970s. Many questioned why as a doctoral student I would choose to leave sunny California to study in gritty New York with alleged Luddite Neil Postman. Postman himself continually questioned why I would do such a thing. In this chapter, I portray my evolution from communication scholar-turned-educator as influenced by educator-turn-communication scholar Neil Postman. I metaphorically dance with Postman across key dualities of technology that have shaped my work in media literacy education. These include: bias versus neutrality, humanism versus determinism, and narrative versus iconography. The chapter counterposes Postman’s twentieth century philosophy of critical restraint with my twenty-first century pursuit of creative possibility. The reader is ultimately left with an appreciation of both as vital to achieving the public purposes of education in the United States.

HENRY JENKINS ON JOHN FISKE. This is the way John Fiske recounts the shifts in his understanding of media literacy across the course of his career: “I learnt the close reading skills of New Criticism while studying English literature at Cambridge, and soon realized that I wanted to apply them to popular media, television in particular, rather than literature. I had two interlinked aims. One was to show that TV was as multi-layered as poetry and thus worthy of equally serious attention, and the other was to equip “literate” TV readers with the analytic skills to protect themselves against the hegemonic thrust of mass TV.My later work on the active audience grew from evidence that teaching this defensive literacy was less necessary than I had believed. Audiences were already literate in their viewing and had little need of academics like me. They were using their literacy not just defensively but actively in a way that turned a hegemonic text into a subordinate pleasure. They taught me what actual media literacy was all about.” (John Fiske, 2013, Personal Correspondence with the Author) Fiske says he never used the term, media literacy, directly, but in this recent email exchange, Fiske affirmed that this shifting understanding of media literacy was at the heart of his work.  We can, in turn, see the impact which Fiske and others in the Cultural Studies tradition had upon our modern understanding of media literacy if we look at NAMLE’s Core Principles of Media Literacy Education, which insists that the concept of literacy can be applied to a broad range of different forms of media and popular culture, that media content gets actively interpreted by individuals and groups based on their local frames of reference, and that media literacy is fundamental to the promotion of active political and civic participation, all concepts that Fiske promoted across his professional career. Using these core principles as a framework, I want to trace the emergence of these core concepts back to what Fiske learned from his own professional mentor, Raymond Williams. Williams most famously insisted that “culture is ordinary” and focused attention on the ways people integrated meaningful cultural materials into their everyday experiences, suggesting that we often learn as much about culture in tea shops (or other commercial establishments) or from dinner table conversations as we learn from museums and libraries.  From there, I will explore the ways that Fiske’s Reading Television, written with John Hartley, sought to identify some of the core features of the broadcast medium and to explain the ways that it communicates in meaningful way with its audiences. Here, the term, “literacy” is somewhat ironic, since Fiske and Hartley emphasize the connections between television and more traditional forms of oral culture, describing it as a “bardic” medium. Second, I will trace the new focus which Fiske and others placed on audiences, reading, interpretation, or decoding, in the second phase of his career, concerns which surface most directly in his key book, Television Culture. This work paved the way for my own focus on studying fan cultural and interpretive practices and more generally, my own ongoing emphasis on the nature of participatory culture in the digital age. Third, I will explore the ways that Fiske increasingly coupled meaning-making and cultural appreciation with a larger understanding of civic participation, seeking to frame popular culture (and what I would later call participatory culture) in relation to discursive struggles around race and politics in the United States, key themes in his final book, Media Matters. Ultimately, my goal will be to explore the legacy of John Fiske’s ideas for the current Digital Media and Learning movement, fostered by the MacArthur Foundation, which has sought to reimagine the core skills required to meaningfully participate within a networked culture. Here, my focus will be on the ways we might link current discussions of “participatory culture,” “participatory politics,” and “connected learning” back to Fiske’s strong respect for the forms of informal learning and active literacies associated with “the people.”  To tell this story, I need to trace my own intellectual lineage back across several generations -- as someone who was lucky enough to have had Fiske as my mentor in graduate school and as someone who has been drawn back by Fiske towards a more active engagement with the ideas of his own mentor, Raymond Williams. 

MINDY FABER ON NAIM JUNE PAIK. My pathway I set upon in my life's trajectory would not have happened with out Nam June Paik, Lyn Blumenthal and Dara Birnbaum. I was 14 years old when I saw a Paik exhibit at the Guggenheim I think and there was no turning back from there. He was the original video remix artist. Then I saw Dara Birnbaum's Wonder Woman Transformation and met Lyn Blumenthal whose video Arcade and curated Series "what Does she want" completely blew me away. Lyn was also my teacher and first employer who hired me at the Video Data Bank. I did love reading theory and ideas but seeing the theories expressed through video art is what made me want to define myself as a cultural worker.