Category Archives: 240

Student video projects


I was so impressed with my students’ final projects in Visual and Cultural Studies! Overall, they made a very strong showing in their five-minute critical analysis videos. The assignment was fairly open in terms of content, as we were spending several evenings conducting hands-on work in the multimedia lab, but in general, I’d asked them to pick one of three topics and create a brief, scripted video analysis with voice-over narration. Students could analyze a film (we’d watched Source Code in class, and worked with it to see how gender, race, ability, and technology were being presented in a mass-market film), analyze a television commercial, or create a mini-documentary about a subject relevant to cultural studies. Most chose to analyze a commercial, and almost everyone worked with gender–I want to think about ways to ensure that doesn’t happen in the future. Some were particularly effective, but everyone completed the project and learned something new! Here are a few I thought worked particularly well:

Source Code & Gender Relations in the Media

Being the Man with Imagination

DC Street Art

Exploring Exclusivity and Rhetoric in Girl World

Modern Women: A Visual Representation in the Media

If you watch any, please leave the author a comment!


Rhetoric, Visual Rhetoric, and Consumer Culture

Tonight’s 240 class is packed! We’re going to be discussing rhetoric in advertising, with a nod to some of the key definitions of “culture” and the goals of cultural studies that we’ve covered in other classes. I’ve asked students to bring in a selection of three print advertisements, one of which may become the subject of their first essay and anatomization; they’ve also watched Killing Us Softly via google video, and I’ve got some great clips from Stuart Hall’s MEF video on representation. The goal is to get to a point where we can see how advertising works to create identifications, identities, and communities through the strategic use of signs–and, ultimately, how this builds on and calls into being specific ideologies and relations of power.

My plan for the organization of the evening is something like this:

  1. 15 min. In small groups, go over the reading. Define a selection of significant vocabulary, and then find a quote from each of the readings that you would argue contains the most important ideas to remember. Be prepared to explain why.
  2. 15 min. Discuss the readings as a group, adding to our google doc list of important terms and concepts. How many different “definitions” of culture are we working with now? Any common threads, recurrent ideas?
  3. 20 min. Watch an excerpt from Killing Us Softly: How is Kilbourne analyzing rhetoric? What kinds of identifications does she think the advertising industry is encouraging us to make? What kinds of divisions and exclusions are embedded in those identifications (Ryan 61)?”[Culture is the software of our lives. It is the program we live by, the rules that determine how we think and act. But it is also the malleable, rewritable script that we ourselves rework and recreate as we live and produce creative works and say and do creative things in our lives” (Ryan xi). We should expand this to include critical work, like what Kilbourne is doing.
  4. 10 min. Look at Benetton ads, make observations, inferences as a group. Consubstantiality?
  5. 10 min. Share your ads with your peers in small groups–come to a conclusion about which is the most interesting, the richest advertisement to critique, and why.
  6. 30 min. Round robin. Pass the ad. Make a list of 5 concrete observations about the signs used in the ad; pass the ad. What inferences can you draw about the observations your peer has made? Pass the ad. Add to the list of observations–insert 5 more concrete observations, and pass the ad. The next person should complete the inferences list. Pass the ad. Read what your peers have written, and examine the ad closely. Then, answer the following interrelated questions: “What central consubstantiality does the ad seek to create on the part of the viewer? What ‘truth’ or ‘norm’ is it constructing?  If rhetoric is a use of signs, directed toward others, to compel action and belief, then what belief is this ad working to compel? If rhetoric is how we shape the chaotic experiences of life into a shared worldview (Ryan 58),  what shared worldview is the ad working to create?” Let’s think about big ideas, big beliefs–race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, identity, nation, and so on.
  7. 20 min. Return the ads to their owners. Read what your peers have written, add any notes of your own. Then, freewrite for 15 minutes. In your freewrite, describe the advertisement in as much detail–both objective and inferential–as possible. Don’t worry about organization or style!
  8. 20 min. Watch excerpt from Stuart Hall. Consider what he says about the power of representation. What is his most important point? How can we draw on some of his ideas about power and representation to help us interpret our advertisements?
  9. 10 min. Construct a working thesis for your essay; share.
  10. Homework/next class.

I hope that’s not too ambitious… Thoughts?

Overly Abstract in EN240?

This evening I met for the first time with EN240: Intro to Visual and Cultural Study, and I was a little off my mark, I think, with the first half of class. I wanted to stage an ice-breaker that would lead us in to a discussion of how we conventionally understand identity, community, and culture. I asked students to brainstorm defining features of their identity, as they saw it, and then to make a similar list of how other people viewed them–how do others (whom you don’t know) categorize you? That’s all well and good, but then I asked students to put themselves into communities with a common culture; that was a little too abstract, I think, and I need to reconsider the wording of the prompt as well as its purpose. The goal was to help students see that there are cultures and identities we select, and we may belong to more than one; those often compete with the identities others ascribe to us. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see how easily students picked up the point that how others define us is often flattening or uninformed, but also that we respond to that and work to define ourselves in relation to their perspectives and other contexts–one student, when I asked why no one identified themselves as students, made an excellent point to the effect of it being too obvious because we were in a classroom. At any rate, the goal was to make real the point that identity isn’t a static thing, but mobile and multiple–and not always wholly under our control. This was to have led into an introduction to semiotics, which we didn’t get to–that will be for next meeting.

But, we did have a good time extrapolating audience features and their values from a selection of magazines I brought in; I asked students to browse through the magazine, and make observations about the advertisements, the articles, the layout choices, and topics discussed–then, try to identify what we could about the target reader: age, race, class, occupation, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, taste preferences, and other values. Then, students were to select a representative ad and show how it addressed (we didn’t use the term “interpellation”!) or called into being that reader with specific observations about the ad. I think this would work very well as an ice breaker, in lieu of the more cerebral approach I took–they were talking, laughing, getting to know one another, and in the meantime, they seemed to grasp some of the stakes of cultural studies.

As with 203, we didn’t get to go over policies, but I did remember to share my plans on that score with them. In both classes, I’m not at all sure the students are into using twitter as a backchannel–only about 5 of a total of close to 40 students had ever used it!

What will the first day of classes hold?

Tomorrow I will meet for the first time with two of my three classes, EN203: World Literature 1450-1800, and EN240: Introduction to Visual and Cultural Study. I’ve had the real pleasure of teaching EN203 a few times before, so I’m looking forward to adding some new texts and removing a couple I’ve grown–how shall I say–bored with. I will stay on track this year and actually get to Olaudah Equiano–and, I’m going to revisit Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?”, which I haven’t been able to teach since the first iteration of the course. We’re still going to work through Sor Juana’s “Reply to Sor Filotea,” though I’ve noticed that the Norton includes virtually the entire text, while the Longman has excerpted a nice piece. We’re also doing some South Asian poets near the beginning of the term, as a good counterpoint to Western European lyric poetry–so exciting! For the first time, I’m asking students to read some material around biblical translations during the Reformation, too.

EN240 is virtually a new course for me, though I’ve taught it once before; this time around, I’ve selected different texts–Ryan’s Cultural Studies: A Practical Introduction and the graphic-novel-ish Introducing Cultural Studies–supported by timely excerpts from theoretical sources. My pledge to self this term in EN240, you ask? Have fun, and don’t overburden the students with Althusser or Meagan Morris’ very rich essay on shopping centers. And have fun. The schedule is very, very different this time around, not least because it’s a course that meets for three hours once a week–I’m honestly a little worried about the utility of that schedule for a 200-level course, so we’ll see what happens. But, I’m assigning fewer highly-specific projects, in order to give students more flexibility to address topics interesting to them, and reining in the final project to ensure I don’t have too many different kinds of projects–students will be able to choose from three options: 1.) creating a critical commentary on a five-minute clip from Source Code, uploaded to YouTube, 2.) create a critical commentary on a contemporary television advertisement, ditto, and 3.) create a five-minute mini-documentary on a topic covered in class, illustrated and narrated a La Jetee, ditto. Finally, students will be producing a term portfolio using Google sites including a selection of revised responses, their two major projects, and some self-assessment. We’re also going to take a trip to the Museum of American History to explore “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” a joint exhibition by the Center for Art, Design and Visual Culture (UMBC) and the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. I’m interested in having students consider the exhibit as an exercise in what “visual culture” is, as well as some of the public history and policy issues associated with museum exhibitions. It’s shaping up to be an energizing term, though this past week has been exhausting.

On a related note, I’d planned on creating Facebook groups for each of my courses, which students could use to communicate with their peers, ask questions, and post interesting web finds, but something seems to have changed there–if anyone’s reading, do you know what happened to the old FB groups? I’m going back to my original plan, which was to set up twitter hashtags for each of the courses, which students can use in the same way. This will be a novelty for me, so I’m planning on using it as a test-case, explaining it to students in that way; purely voluntary, but users can see an extra bump in participation grades.