Why I teach media literacy in public speaking courses

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Adobe Stock photo capturing what it used to look like when I taught

When I started teaching public speaking over a decade ago, I noticed quickly that, no matter how exciting I thought something was, students were overwhelmingly more interested in what mattered to them. This isn’t some revelation. Research has shown for years that connecting the classroom to real life (subscription required for full text) or materials to students’ interests (subscription required for full text) generates more enthusiasm. Online teaching resources like TeachHub, education organizations like the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and even publishers often feature tips for engaging students through their interests or real world connections.

Maybe I was just worried about looking like a fraud in front of a room full of people whose futures depended at least in some small part on my ability to convey information.

I found all these examples and several more without even going to the second page of Google and Google Scholar searches, and these barely scratch the surface. Most center on K-12, but many of the same reasons younger students would be interested can be applied to college students. Even if you’ve never taught before, you probably know this. We can all recall moments as a student when we were more or less engaged in class, and it was almost always based on our level of interest in the subject or how we could connect it to our own worldview.

I don’t know why I ever thought it would be different when I started teaching. Maybe I’d seen one too many movies and figured my own enthusiasm for knowledge in all its forms would rub off on students and change their trajectories forever. Maybe I was just worried about looking like a fraud in front of a room full of people whose futures depended at least in some small part on my ability to convey information. Whatever it was that blocked the “interest = interested” equation at the early stages, I’m glad I got past it.

It’s challenging, of course, to find common ground with everyone. As an inexperienced teacher, it was easier for me to use my own frame of reference to situate course concepts within the real world. That didn’t land for everyone. Over the course of several semesters, I began to notice particular subsets of students drawn to my courses. Eventually, I had a room full of athletes and sports fans, TV and film junkies and broadcast students. Alternately, students not interested in these things either avoided my courses or, if they did sign up for one of my sections, often felt a bit isolated from the rest of the class. That’s not exactly the teaching philosophy I was hoping to adopt, so I needed to find a way to increase connections with a more diverse group of students. That’s when I figured out — completely by accident — that a media literacy unit might be one way.

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Photo by Tim Bennett on Unsplash

What do we mean by “media literacy?”

Before I rally you to start adding media literacy units to your own courses, let’s look at what the term actually means. The Center for Media Literacy (CML) offers a definition of media literacy for “21st century media culture.” Rather than simply an ability to distill messages you receive into manageable pieces or create accessible messages, CML’s updated definition incorporates social, political and educational forces. In their expanded definition, they add that media literacy is “a 21st century approach to education” that “provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate and create messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the internet.” Perhaps most important to my own addition of media literacy units in my courses, CML declares that “media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy.”

While understanding how to responsibly engage with the media we see daily is central to the definition of media literacy, students often perk up when I introduce their role as makers of the media — and I don’t just mean the students with dedicated and carefully curated social media identities. Even the most passive “Facebook sharer” can be lured into the conversation when they are able to see themselves as stewards of responsible information-sharing and creation. Media Literacy Now, CML, the National Association of Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) and the News Literacy Project (NLP) are a few of the organizations that integrate media creation by citizens into their toolkits. Media Literacy Now focuses on students’ roles as creators of thoughtful and conscientious media. CML’s definition above lists creation as an integral part of media literacy. NAMLE’s Media Literacy Week often dedicates a portion of its celebration of all things media literacy to individuals’ ability and responsibility to writing, speaking, creating, posting, sharing or developing their own contributions to the media narrative outside the traditional or mainstream media. NLP focuses on the role of educators and members of the public to “teach, learn and share the abilities needed to be smart, active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy.” Highlighting for students the agency they have in shaping the world through the information they share or create — and then encouraging them to explore this notion through their own media behavior — has rarely been a swing and a miss.

None of these definitions differentiate between types of media, leaving a fair amount of wiggle room as to what even counts. In fact, there has been a conversation over the last few years about whether we mean “news literacy,” “media literacy,” the even broader “information literacy” or another term that effectively encompasses the seemingly countless sources of information available to us — and created by us. I’m not here to split those hairs today; maybe we’ll get into that another day. Regardless of what we call it, it’s refreshing that I’m not alone in a desire to teach at least some form of it. Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism has created a Center for News Literacy and both NLP and NewseumED provide excellent resources for creating conscientious consumers of news and information at (thankfully) all the school levels that come before my college courses.

Yeah, but does it work?

In my courses, I use what is certainly more of a media literacy model than a news literacy model, although news consumption is a vital part of the lessons learned. I’ve adopted the idea of media literacy as an umbrella under which news literacy, social media literacy and digital literacy can be housed. The unit ties news media to social media and explores the consumption and creation (key!) of messaging. As well, we discuss how information is disseminated (or how it spreads) and what makes consuming and creating information digitally different from non-digitally. That emphasis on social media use and all-encompassing information consumption rather than specifically news consumption helps situate media literacy into public speaking, interpersonal communication and other courses not directly related to news and media.

Of course, as a researcher, I’m not naïve enough to think this was some definitive proof that media literacy increased interest and engagement in public speaking, the reigning monarch of all “boring classes.”

As I mentioned above, one of the most popular aspects of the activities is the portion focused on our role as creators of media. Most students have at least a passing familiarity with the basic audiovisual functions of a smartphone and understand that social media platforms allow you to create your own messaging to share with whomever you’d like, from just a single contact to the entire world.

So how does all this empower students to take ownership over course concepts? When I first offered a media literacy unit, I did so in response to questions that were coming up in class. It was a detour that the students agreed on after I realized I (somehow!) had an extra day in the schedule. As luck would have it, the other section of the same course voted not to talk about media literacy, but rather to use the extra day to get caught up. Without trying, I’d set up a little A/B testing. I recognized the opportunity before it was too late and took extensive notes on student engagement, observed their ability to connect course concepts to one another, evaluated the depth of discussion in class and in assignments and — easiest of all — considered comments on teaching evaluations.

Without getting into the weeds, what I discovered was that the section that chose to talk about media showed more engagement, did a better job tying together all that we’d learned and offered greater critical analysis in their work. A few even called out the unit by name in evaluations. Of course, as a researcher, I’m not naïve enough to think this was some definitive proof that media literacy increased interest and engagement in public speaking, the reigning monarch of all “boring classes.” No, I knew there were other factors at work, including the basic premise that the class that chose to talk about media literacy was simply made up of a differently situated group of students. This was no rigorous study, just a hunch.

Regardless, it seems to have been a solid hunch. The enthusiasm showed by that group of 26 undergraduates was enough to convince me I was onto something, and I even found it translated well to the online classroom, a notoriously confusing place for both students and teachers but one that isn’t going anywhere any time soon. From then on, I started teaching media literacy because it provided students with a way to draw on their own ideas of the real world and their own interests instead of hoping someone in the room would understand me when I said, “Undomesticated equines could not remove me.”

So what benefits have you seen from adding media literacy to public speaking classes, interpersonal communication courses or another course where you might be seeking connections with students?

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Media professional. Professor. Baseball fan. Academic fraud. Hair farmer. Demigod. Miscellaneous superpowers.

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