Field Project: Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms {Work in Progress}

I recently completed my Master’s field project proposal, which consists of a literature review and plan around new media and global citizenship education. The project will materialize as a set of curricula and/or website activities geared toward educating youth in America around the ways digital storytelling shapes our perspectives of global issues. I intend to develop the curricula over the next few months, and it should be completed by December 2013.

A brief summary about the project is below. You can download the full version (30p) here: New Media Literacy Project. I welcome feedback and encourage you to read it!

Title: “Challenging New Media and Civics Education Paradigms: A Space for Critical Media and Postcolonial Frameworks”

Purpose of the Project: A supplemental form of critical learning whereby students actively participate in sharing stories, posting critiques and engaging in dialogue around current events and social causes. The goal is to foster global citizenship – a frame of mind that is globally aware and read to take action on issues both at home and abroad – and to develop critical thinking skills by empowering young adults to share their stories and feedback about the worlds in which they thrive – both online and offline.

Theoretical frame: The predominant frame is a concept knowns as the “White Savior Industrial Complex“. Coined by the author and poet Teju Cole in March 2012, it posits that Western media contorts, essentializes and oversimplifies developing or “Third World” countries’ problems in an effort to portray dominance. In this view, drawn from postcolonial theory, European-driven perspectives of the Global South are the representative and normative understanding of the world; moreover Third World problems are frequently viewed from an outside-in lens under the framework of humanitarianism. A good example of the White Savior complex is the KONY 2012 campaign, TOMS shoes and Charity:Water. (Full disclosure: I am not trying to condemn or vilify global humanitarianism; in fact, I have contributed to both Charity:Water and other large-scale campaigns in the past, and own a few pairs of TOMS shoes. The main theme I am attempting to shine a light on is white privilege – the power, wealth, and politics that surround it. For context, I will restate the argument that Mr. Cole put forth in his article: “Those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them.”)

Statement of the Problem: Globalization and the rise of social media, as a result, have shaped the contours of this White Savior narrative with greater impact – and ease: stories of “the other” are now circulated at warp speed across social networks, purporting “the other” as objects rather than subjects. Education programs may use KONY 2012 as a teachable moment, but many if not most fail to reach beyond traditional media literacy programs in identifying the power structures behind these types of events. New media programs, while beneficial in separating fact from fiction, do not routinely apply critical literacy and postcolonial frames to issues of global import like KONY 2012. And while successful civics engagement programs use new media projects to empower youth in oppressed communities, they lack the “global citizenship” framework to raise consciousness while critically examining new media’s role in shaping their perspectives.

Signficance of the Project: The ongoing effort to combat misinformation and distill truth in a 24/7 news cycle is daunting, and educators and parents lack the resources and time to be able to effectively implement these strategies. Moreover, they also lack the tools to guide critical discussions of privilege and power within these current methods and pedagogies. In addition, global activism campaigns target youth through aggressive marketing and storytelling tactics; by capturing the zeitgeist of the movement, these campaigns make it difficult for parents and educators to join the conversations or guide the discourse. In effect, social media campaigns’ stickiness and rapidity of scale make challenging the discourse in real time almost impossible. Furthermore, the essentialization that occurs in global charity and humanitarian campaigns makes for an increasingly difficult concept to unpack, especially given that these “global citizen” movements entice young people to “make a difference” through lending their voices to the causes they care about.

GOAL of the Project: This project aims to go beyond both the current new media literacy paradigms that largely focus on digital literacy as a tool to combat misinformation or distinguish fact from fiction and the civic engagement processes that urge youth to become agents of change without negotiating the broader worldviews they bring to the causes they champion. This project advocates for a marriage of the two paradigms within the greater themes of critical literacy and postcolonial studies from Cole’s White Savior theory. Be re-centering the frame from one that propels the West to be the agent of change towards a more inclusive model, this way of thinking can guide youth in understanding how their privilege reifies the current discourse around global causes. In turn, the process of changing these paradigms can empower youth the change the worlds in which they live.

Why storytelling matters

Storytelling, as a medium, is (seemingly) timeless. The first cave paintings emerged 40,000 years ago in Southern Europe. Ever since, humans have been documenting our world using the forms most readily available: stone, parchment, tablet, canvas, film, video, and now…pixels? What began as an oral storytelling culture has evolved, with language, to include visual and material objects. Text, type, art, symbol, and icons constitute our ever-changing library of meaning-making. What a bountiful spread!

Storytelling matters because stories explain our relationships, both with ourselves and with others. Stories allow us to understand the world: the rich tapestry of colors, sounds and shapes of the physical world, as well as the fantastical, dream-like qualities of the worlds inside our own heads. Life is made of cells, atoms and particles, which are also stories. Each part exists because we have a story to tell around its existence. Every death, birth, creation of new or recycling of old is just another story to share and to remember.

What does that mean for the digital age? Jonah Sachs calls it the “digitoral” era – the rise of digital storytelling, where sites like Facebook and Twiter (even TED) have attempted to recreate the Roman fora, the town square, the campfire. Facebook is the absolute monarch of the digitoral era; instead of tyrannical rule over its subjects, though, it commodifies them. A post about a sip of coffee is worth $4. Your story is now theirs. The social contract consists of giving and getting. You give, they get. You get a little too, but not forever. They own your story. Why? Because their own story depends on it.

In this new era of storytelling, whose story is it anyway? Whose story is being told?

Recently, I’ve been reading Studs Terkel, the master of oral history and ethnographic storytelling, and wonder what he would think of this new era. Instead of live tweeting American Idol, or the latest gadget’s release event, what if we live tweeted someone’s memoir? Or a book we’re reading? Or a conversation we had with someone, years ago?

In-depth ethnographic books like Race, or Behind the Beautiful Forevers, or human-interest documentaries on the unfortunate, are not self-produced works of art. These are stories that have been compiled, edited, and filtered by the author or director– not the subject. The subject is really the object, in traditional storytelling parameters.

Have we begun to invert the subject/object relationship through the rise of social media? One’s story need not have a listener to be told, nor a production team to package it. It need not even be curated as a worthwhile story. Look around, these stories are what sell: cheap, and in the millions, these mass-produced stories make ad executives at Facebook and other social networks rich. And again, who benefits?

At the core, humans want stories to be simple, evocative, to elicit empathy, to depict the human experience. Storytelling is an art, but are we all artists now? A Facebook post is by nature, devoid of context. Unlike a diary or journal, Facebook is outward-facing – the audience silently receives an update, and whether they “like” it or not, it’s there. Meaning cannot easily be derived from this 2D representation of thought. We write into the abyss, hoping someone understands our story, but the medium is already complicating itself. The story has all of a sudden become far less simple than the campfire days, when eager listeners gathered around for a few solid minutes of undistracted wonder. These stories have been stripped of intention, of meaning, and are raw bursts of thought. Collectively, this makes for a lot of anger, frustration, and sadness. Can we find the themes that matter?

Storytelling is a rich and important facet of life. In a way, I argue that it is life. We are nothing without our stories. Technology has captured and monetized our stories through film, TV, radio, and print, for generations. The internet medium, however, is borderless: we are no longer hemmed in by physical constraints of old media, yet the inward/outward and subject/object fuzziness makes for a complicated and messy situation.

Where do I start, and you begin? I’ll read Death of the Author and get back to you.