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Eric Gordon: Comments on Media Scholarship in the Liberal Arts

Assistant Professor of New Media
Emerson College

This NITLE funded project is intent on discovering patterns and positing directions for media scholarship as it is integrated into the curriculum at liberal arts institutions. While there has been a good deal of research into the educational benefits of multimodal learning over the past several years, there has been little effort directed towards collecting best practices across institutions. This kind of cross-institutional research model promises to surpass the idiosyncrasies of individual institutions and move towards solutions that apply across academic disciplines and cultures.

Why literacy?

There are many challenges to approaching media scholarship as it is defined in this project. The first concerns definitions. The traditional understanding of media scholarship is the scholarship of media. This does not typically include scholarship with media. However, this project makes explicit that the media scholarship in question is one that incorporates the modes of production within the study of production. So then this moves into the territory of media literacy. The final report spends some time addressing the complexities of multi-literacies (information literacy, media literacy, new media literacy, computer literacy, and the list goes on), and makes it clear that within the context of media scholarship, there is foundational training taking place in media literacy.

There are basic skills that are needed to successfully achieve a liberal education. This introduces the question of when these skills should be introduced in the curriculum. Should they be included in content courses? Or should they replace the foundations? In all of the case studies reported, they are included in content courses - often upper-division courses. The work of the teacher then increases to include basic literacies. So not only is the Chinese professor teaching Chinese, but presumably teaching media literacy as well. Is this equivalent to the Sociology professor teaching basic writing? There is a move in these courses from the traditional focus on content - where papers reflect a student's understanding of the material - to a focus on form. In many cases, the instructor is concerned not only with what is being said, but how it is being said. In essence, all courses become like entry level writing courses. That puts a significant strain on the teacher and the student. These are big problems - ones that the report addresses, but one that deserves to be talked about on a larger curricular scale. Should media literacy be taught on the freshman level as a basic requirement and then reinforced later on? The working definition of media literacy stated in the report is "the ability to analyze, evaluate, and produce communication in a variety of forms". This is certainly a noble goal, and one that should be classified as a foundational literacy

But the questions implied by the term "media literacy" are indeed large. How does one make meaning with media? Or, as it is stated throughout the report, how does one communicate using technology. This is where things get a bit sticky. We are quite used to communicating with technology. From pen and paper to the typewriter to the word processor, communicating with technology is thoroughly embedded into academic forms of communication. The more appropriate question is how new technologies and their corresponding practices are changing the form and function of communication. With the big question being, at what point are these changes so extensive that the formal mechanisms of communication practiced in the academy need to adapt to accommodate them? After all, the academic essay has been in place for centuries. So why now are we seeking to change, annotate, or replace it? These questions are implicit in all the case studies - but perhaps bringing them more to the foreground would help establish the imperative for changing the "way we do scholarship."

The case studies collected in this report are wide ranging. The courses range from basic language instruction to a topic course on digital media and culture. The assignments range from blogging to filmmaking. There is little connection between the disciplines, courses, and assignments outside of their commitment to the efficacy of expanded media practices in higher education. Some of the instructors highlighted the need for the academy to adapt to the non-hierarchical mechanisms of digital networked media, suggesting that process be prioritized over product and peer review be implemented to complement professorial authority, and others highlighted the advanced visual reasoning inherent in creating something like an academic poster (using new media tools with an analog output). They each declare the importance of multi-modal scholarship, but the connections are tenuous. Perhaps this group can work towards drafting a statement to go on syllabi that might provide some justification / clarification of these practices.


From the report: "We teach them how to critically evaluate, analyze, and produce high-quality written work, yet we lack a parallel system for providing them the critical tools to successfully evaluate, analyze, and produce high-quality multimodal projects for publication." Indeed, if there is a commitment to integrating this work across the curriculum, there needs to be more substantial methods of evaluation. This project has taken great strides towards addressing this issue. By collecting best practices, it is possible to arrive at common threads that can be extrapolated to different contexts. The next step would be to take the data collected and create a taxonomy of types of projects. Assessment needs to be grounded in purpose and form. Assessing a video project that is intended to reproduce the style of an actuality film is quite different than assessing a web-based project intended to foster networked collaboration. It would be worthwhile and quite valuable to extend the survey used in this study to other institutions and disciplines and then, once the data pool is made larger, build out assessment schemes for various project types. Without this kind of resource, those of us who employ media projects in our courses are often confronted with grade inflation - as it is too difficult to claim authority on things about which one is not an authority. Even when the content area is consistent with media literacy - digital media and culture, for instance - there is still a tension between grading concepts and grading production. If something is quite clever but does not "look professional," should it be graded down? Surely if one turned in a paper that was filled with grammatical errors it would not receive a good grade. This chasm between the forms of natural language grammar and media grammar needs to be filled if we are to get serious about changing academic practice. This requires high-level curricular discussions so that institutions and disciplines can establish best practices. This report is an exciting first step in that much larger goal.


This two-year study showcases precisely the kind of practice that needs to be replicated and expanded. This inter-disciplinary, inter-institutional conversation is setting the groundwork for significant changes in academic practices. This needs now combine with other similar efforts in fair use practices (http://www.centerforsocialmedia.org/resources/publications/code_for_media_literacy_education/) and software systems that enable fair use in media scholarship (http://www.criticalcommons.org/). I sincerely hope this work doesn't end here, but finds a way to replicate itself in other contexts. Perhaps the project leaders can start a blog that includes these case studies and requests participation from others to expand the dataset. If the survey was simplified, I think it's quite possible to achieve a high level of participation.