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Douglas Kellner & Jeff Share: New Book Highlights Need for Critical Media Literacy in Schools

When a scholar of critical theory in the tradition of the Frankfurt School and an award-winning photojournalist and teacher educator collaborate at UCLA to examine the need for critical media literacy in education and beyond, the result is a groundbreaking book. Douglas Kellner, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Education, and Jeff Share, a faculty advisor and instructor in the Teacher Education Program (TEP), have published “The Critical Media Literacy Guide – Engaging Media and Transforming Education,” an exploration of the intersection of media, technology, and information and the pressing need to teach students from kindergarten to university, how to navigate this environment thoughtfully and with socially just perspectives.

Kellner, who teaches in the division of Social Sciences and Comparative Education, is a Distinguished Professor in the UCLA Departments of Education, Gender Studies, and Germanic Languages. Utilizing print literacy as a focus for literacy skills, he emphasizes the need for other basics in education, including media literacy and computer and information literacy, to better enable students to read and creatively interact with emergent technologies such as the Internet. Professor Kellner is the author of a comprehensive range of books on social theory, politics, history and culture, including “The American Horror Show: Election 2016 and the Ascendency of Donald J. Trump,” and “American Nightmare: Donald Trump, Media Spectacle, and Authoritarian Populism.”

Share has taught in bilingual classrooms at Leo Politi Elementary School in L.A.’s Pico-Union community, and earned his Ph.D. at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies in 2006; Professor Kellner was his graduate advisor. Share served as Regional Coordinator for Training at the Center for Media Literacy where he wrote curricula and led professional development. He continues to provide professional development in critical media literacy for LAUSD teachers as well as for educators throughout the United States and internationally. Through Share’s collaboration with educators in Argentina, “The Critical Media Literacy Guide” will soon be translated into Spanish. In 2015, Share published a second edition of his 2009 book, “Media Literacy is Elementary: Teaching Youth to Critically Read and Create Media.”

Kellner and Share had a conversation with Ampersand on effective training for teachers who bring CML to their classrooms, the organic possibilities for CML within the domains of education and information studies, and the potential that exists in preparing the next generation for positive change in the world through activism guided by CML.


Ampersand: Is this the first book of its kind? Would it be like a handbook?

Jeff Share:  There are numerous books about media literacy, but I have not seen anything like this about critical media literacy – this is something new.

Douglas Kellner: Usually handbooks bring together conventional wisdom and things that people have already said, whereas we’re doing… real critical analysis. I would argue that this is more than a handbook. It’s an original, scholarly book.

And it’s theory and practice. We really lay out the origins and the frameworks, as well as demonstrating applications of what this looks like in K-12 education, in universities, and even in teacher training.

Kellner: It’s concrete and practical. And Jeff gets a lot of credit for this, since he’s been training teachers in CML for many years.

A lot of that developed here at UCLA in the critical media literacy class that we created. We’re the only university in the United States that I know of, that has a course like this for teachers.

Kellner: And I can brag that we’re one of the only graduate [education] programs that has a cultural studies and CML seminar that has been a requirement of the Social Sciences and Comparative Education division.

&: What are some positive interventions in CML that you’ve seen in schools and in professional development for teachers?

Share: We did a research survey recently with former students who had taken the CML class in the last five years and are now teaching. We got back really positive results. Around 80 percent of the teachers who are teaching CML now in their K-12 classes feel that it’s improving the critical thinking skills of their students. We are also seeing a lot more adaptation of using different types of technology. Our former students are helping their students think about the impact and the effects of these tools to create different types of messages that will challenge issues that we look at in the classroom in terms of racism, sexism, classicism… the ways that representations in the media are harmful to certain groups and to everybody in general.

Right now, some of my students are teachers in the second year of the Teacher Education Program (TEP) and several of them, for their masters’ inquiry project, are doing CML. I have one student in Central Los Angeles, working with 3graders and they did all these CML lessons.  Then she had the students choose a topic they felt was most important to them, analyze it, and create a piece of media about it. The kids chose school gun violence, the terrorist attack in New Zealand, Islamophobia…

Kellner: It’s sad they are aware of guns, or Islamophobia, for that matter. Kids shouldn’t have to think about that. But it’s good that they are able to analyze these media messages through a critical lens.

Share: They did this in a proactive way and invited guest speakers to the class. Now, a group of these third graders are actually pushing the administration to bring a restorative justice program into their school.

Let me add one point here. The innovation that I think came up in general in the field, but particularly in our book in the time we were working on this, is that CML has metamorphized into critical digital literacies. In other words, we’re increasingly aware that the media culture is now part of the bigger digital culture that includes social networks and all of that. When we started out with this, it was film and television that were the dominant media. Now, they’re watching TV shows and movies [online]. We’re going to do [another] book that delves more into critical digital literacies. That is our next continent to explore.

Share: This is really the marriage of information studies and education. We see what we are doing as this wonderful nexus where the fabulous work that Leah Lievrouw, Safiya Noble, and so many people in information studies have been doing, can now enter into education where it’s so needed. And it hasn’t been, it’s really been missing.

Kellner: More and more, we’re trying to get projects together with people in UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and maybe even work out a program of critical media and information literacies that will address what are key issues in education and information studies. Both of our fields are connected by technological evolution and developments that have been stunning during our lifetimes.

&: How does CML fit into UCLA’s TEP program?

Share: It’s now a required course in TEP. Every new teacher must take the CML class and it’s gotten tremendous positive responses. In the research we’ve been conducting, we’re seeing that a lot of what we’re doing in the course, even five years down the road, is being taken into the K-12 classrooms. So, that’s really the goal.

One thing is to get the teachers to understand the big ideas, and the next level is to be able to find ways to bring it to their students in the classrooms. And we’re seeing a positive impact that is reaching more and more K-12 students.

&: We’re amazed at how third graders are engaging in CML – how do such students as young as kindergarten age participate?

Share: In so many different ways. There’s a kindergarten teacher at a school in Watts, who for her master’s inquiry project worked with her students to start thinking about the environment, and to look at media and messages about climate change, the environment, and pollution. They started to analyze those messages, and then the kids created their own media. They created posters, they wrote a big letter to the other students at their school, and they even created a song.

Kellner: This is a point you might make about the whole trajectory and scope of CML – almost from cradle to grave, starting off with young kids and educating them to interact with computers, with TV, with screens and all sorts of things. Through every stage of life, audiences are exposed to different media with different effects. We have to start training children, young people, even college students and adults. There are adults who have never thought critically about media.

Share: One of the reasons we named it critical media literacy – and Doug was one of the first to do this – is to start identifying the differences between CML and other kinds of media education or media literacy. By naming it, we can bring in questions of ideology and power, and ask about the problems of racism, classicism, sexism, and how these are being represented and reproduced in media and technology.

&: Why, in your words, do we need this book now? And why should it have been taught in schools 40, 30, or 20 years ago?

For the longest time, we haven’t had really good literacy education, where we teach more than just decoding letters on a page. We need to help people to ask questions and think critically so that the level of comprehension goes beyond simply regurgitating answers from what is found in the text. We need to really start understanding the power of literacy … and the way all information has a bias, and help people start to recognize how information is functioning in society to promote representations that support dominant systems and institutions.

One of the things we try to get at is that it’s not a simple thing because media rarely cause direct effects – the idea that you see a violent show, you go and commit a violent crime. This direct effect is rarely what goes on with media. The bigger problem is the way the indirect effects of media tend to normalize problematic ideologies. The whole notion of patriarchy and misogyny, the repetition of these representations and messages, produces a society and a culture that can elect a president who brags about groping women and defending racism.

How is it possible that our society can allow or can accept things that are so harmful to so many people as normal – “boys will be boys.” Those types of ideologies – of patriarchy, sexism, racism, homophobia – that’s what’s being reproduced so often in media. What we try to do with CML is help people to see that all messages are either helping or hurting somebody: How is this message being constructed that’s positioning people to think in a certain way? Then, they’re going to have more chances to be able to understand what’s happening, be able to reject or think differently about it, and be able to create alternative messages to challenge that.

Kellner: This has been going on for decades. There have been, since the 1960s [an] increasing awareness of how different groups and individuals are addressing the whole question of the media in society and how education responds to it. But it’s unfortunate that education departments have not addressed this and stepped up to the extent to which they should, because more broadly in the culture, everyone is aware that we’re in a media culture and society and that it’s having a massive effect.

Certainly, the election of Trump dramatized the media dimension and how we need to be more critical of it. I just hope that it can be now engaged in education and information studies departments, that we see that we really need action on this. The time is now – we need programs in CML to address key issues of education and literacy, but also our politics and society.

Share: One of the things we talk about in the book is how this has become the dominant ecosystem because there have been so many changes. More than half the population of our planet is online. The technologies and tools have increased exponentially so that things are possible today that were never possible before. Kids walk into classrooms at almost any age with a little device in their pocket that can communicate with the entire world, that can access almost anything.

&: That would be difficult to control or understand…

Kellner: It can’t be controlled, but it can be addressed in education and engaged in a critical way. This has to do with literacy and teaching people how to analyze, criticize, and interpret this new ecosystem, our new culture and environment that we live in. Certain theorists and communication researchers, including George Gerbner and Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s, have been aware of this, but now it’s become more and more evident to every field that is addressing media, whether it’s communications studies, education, information studies. These are key issues.

&: Doug, you’ve done some major work on gun violence in schools – how would CML fit into becoming more aware of media’s impact on this?

In my research, I saw that the problem is that we have young, alienated males who are influenced by these media images of the Columbine shooters who have become heroes. It’s almost like a movie for them… the Virginia Tech [shooter] was acting out a movie script he wrote … to create himself as a hero.

It just shows that we have to be critical of these media narratives because some of them can be very destructive to the society: violence against women, racism, homophobia. There are many narratives in the media that can have horrible effects on students and young people.

Share: In the book, we address some of these issues. We look at the emergence of the “manosphere,” where a lot of White males are heavily misogynistic, putting out information attacking women online. This culture is increasing toxic masculinity and social media are contributing so much to this.

Kellner: Jeff and I establish UCLA as a major site of CML studies. We should cite Jackson Katz, who is one of my Ph.D. students and a good friend of Jeff’s who has contributed significantly to masculinity studies. Jackson was one of the first to address this issue of violence against women from the perspective of the media in his documentary film, “Tough Guise: Men, Violence, and the Crisis in Masculinity,” that shows how media images of men and women create this toxic masculinity. Also, Rhonda Hammer has been a pioneer of CML, like Jeff teaching students at Windsor University in Canada to produce student videos that promote CML, and teaching CML here at UCLA]. So, again, UCLA has several feathers in its crown as far as [CML] research.

&: How can the digital environment be turned around to help solve these issues?

Share: That’s really part of our argument, is that CML is about reading as well as writing, with media. This notion of pushing back or having a sense of agency and empowering students to create media that challenge these problems is really important. That’s a big part of CML, it is both analysis and production.

It’s like the example I gave of the third graders. Whatever they create will be meaningful on its own, but bigger than that is this teacher has planted seeds with these kids to position them in a role where they know that they can be constructors of information, of knowledge – that they can create and have a voice that is meaningful and needs to be heard.

Kellner: And, from the theoretical perspective, it’s important to stress that we’re not just trashing the media or digital technology. We’re arguing there are positive and negative features and we’re criticizing what we consider the negative aspects of this to be. It’s important to be aware of this two-sided dimension of media and technology, and to literacies. But as Jeff says, we’re putting out a positive agenda about how media and digital technologies could be used for progressive education and social change – as they have been used in some cases.

Share: So many of our students come in already very aware of how to use the tools. They’re creating memes, they’re posting, they’re already media producers. And yet, most of them lack that critical framework. That’s what CML tries to do – provide that theoretical framework, that lens to be able to see how can the information that I’m taking in and using, and also the information that I’m creating, be used in a critical way to benefit more than it hurts. To bring in the questions of what are the limitations and problems that are involved in media… as well as what are the potential benefits that I can be contributing to through critical media analysis and production.