Media Literacy 101
If teachers dream of lights going on in students' eyes, this must be a gratifying day for Teresa Foley. Educators might mark days between such moments. Here in the basement of Steel Valley High School, Foley is earning several each class period.
Maybe it's because Foley, a guest lecturer, is new to the students. Maybe it's her enthusiasm for the subject matter. But most likely, the key is that she's having teen-agers do something that's as natural to them as breathing -- watching cartoons -- and making it as enticingly strange, even radical, as unlocking a secret code.
Foley's main "text" on this February day consists of two Betty Boop cartoons from the early 1930s, beamed from a ceiling-mounted projector onto a big screen. One black-and-white short features jazz great Louis Armstrong. The other stars crooner Rudy Vallee. As the cartoons roll, Foley prompts the students to describe the images and sounds, to say out loud what they see and hear.
In Armstrong's cartoon, a pith-helmeted Boop and her sidekicks, Bimbo and Koko, are on a jungle safari when they're captured by spear-waving, grass-skirted "natives" with dark skin, huge mouths and topknots. Bimbo and Koko escape; a diminutive native pursues them. As the soundtrack takes on a jazz beat, the native's head detaches, growing huge and floating above them in pursuit. He begins to sing, in Armstrong's voice, the song "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You." Then the animated head dissolves into Armstrong's live-action head, which continues the song.
In the second cartoon, the live-action Vallee, who is white, poses casually in a train station; animated scenes of Boop frolicking in the surreal world of animator Max Fleischer frame a single unbroken sequence of Vallee singing the music-hall tune "Kitty from Kansas City."
After screening both cartoons, Foley, a brisk but approachable 40-year-old, stands by a wipe-board and asks the students to compare how the singers were portrayed in their respective vehicles.
Both cartoons include live-action footage as well as animation. But there the similarities largely end. "It seems like Rudy was the boyfriend of Betty Boop's character," says Qamara Miles, a sophomore.
And Louis? "He's more trying to chase her away -- trying to have her killed," says Tyrone Ezell, a freshman whose black T-shirt depicts Al Pacino in full Scarface mode.
Then Tyrone recalls another sequence in the cartoon -- a tubby animated native stirring a soup kettle dissolving into footage of Armstrong's rotund live-action drummer. Suddenly, prompted by Foley, he's making other connections. "One guy's in a wild setting, the other's in a normal setting," he says. Then Tyrone remembers the natives -- a host of identical beings whose pinpoint eyes and other simplified features have most of the students referring to them as "monkeys." Tyrone realizes they're supposed to be humans. "Are you saying they're representing them as animals?" he says. "I think so," he adds, answering his own question. "I think that's ignorant."
Foley's presentation is less a lecture than a firm push in the right direction. But the students -- some of them, at least -- are getting it: They're "reading" media, and thinking about it critically. Foley works for just such breakthroughs. She helps people understand the messages, some of them deeply embedded, that media delivers, about things such as portrayals of women as well as depictions of people of color.
Teacher Meagan O'Toole's Video 1 class, where students learn to use cameras and computer-editing equipment, is an apt venue: Foley, a nationally screened video artist as well as an educator, emphasizes that making movies plays a huge role in understanding them.
And in a world awash with images, the importance of her field, media literacy, is widely acknowledged. But despite her eight years as Media Literacy Arts Education coordinator for Pittsburgh Filmmakers, it's still a struggle. Media literacy places a grasp of the language of motion pictures and other media alongside traditional alphabetical literacy. But the subject is not widely featured in U.S. school curriculums, and funding for extracurricular programs can be hard to find.
That's another lesson brought home at Steel Valley, as Foley races to pack information into each of seven 40-minute classes. After discussing the cartoons, she usually has time to introduce, via PowerPoint slideshow, some historical context: images of racist memorabilia of similar 1930s vintage, then contemporaneous photos by the renowned photographer Teenie Harris, whose portraits of everyday life in Pittsburgh's Hill District sharply contrast the cartoonish stereotypes. "This is a history that isn't taught," Foley tells the students.
But in most of the sessions, Foley, who is white, doesn't even have time to ask the kids whether any stereotypes of African Americans are evident in today's media. In one class, she displays the racist images but the bell rings before she can show the Harris photos.
It's better than nothing. But in a world ever more packed with, and represented by, little images, it's barely a start on getting people to see the big picture.
"Media is the most voraciously consumed product in America, besides food and air," says Foley's boss at Filmmakers, Executive Director Charlie Humphrey. "If you have generations of children not understanding the importance of that in their everyday lives, you've got a problem."
Foley was curious about media literacy before she even knew the term. She grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood, but came to her mother's hometown to study English literature at Duquesne University. Home for the summer one year, she and some friends attended a concert by The Cure at the Los Angeles Forum. Before the show, they watched a man wearing a cowboy hat stand on a folding chair on the arena floor, pull out a knife and start stabbing himself. "They dragged his body to the side, turned out the lights and the concert started," she recalls.
Some people Foley told about the suicide attempt, including her mother, figured it was part of the show; when news outlets were silent too, Foley started wondering whether she'd even seen what she saw. After a brief item finally ran in the paper, the question lingered: "Wow. What is this thing called the media? And why is it I doubt my actual experience" until it's validated by the press?
What made Foley a filmmaker was her desire to engage an audience. In 1988 she won In Pittsburgh newsweekly's short-fiction contest with a story about a racial confrontation on a grade-school playground. After it was published, Foley saw a man reading the story in Mineo's Pizza, in Squirrel Hill. She wanted to know what he thought, but didn't feel comfortable asking. She wanted not just to tell, but to listen.
Getting closer to an audience through playwriting didn't work, either. "There was nothing left for me to do," she quips, "but go to film school."
Foley had never used a motion-picture camera. As a student at nonprofit media-arts group Pittsburgh Filmmakers, her first complete work was "Statue of Charity." It featured stop-action animation of her aunt's doll-sized Infant of Prague statue stealing some money and riding a PAT bus Downtown to give the cash to a street singer.
Foley's first jobs out of college here, in the early '90s, included teaching video production to formerly homeless people in a Downtown residential program. Later, volunteering as a GED tutor at the Hill District branch of the Community Intensive Supervision Program, an after-school program for juvenile offenders, she saw that CISP lacked an instructor for its "media analysis" class. "I said, 'I'll do it for free,'" says Foley.
Efforts to grasp how communications media affect us are as old as the media themselves: In his dialogue Phaedrus, Socrates included a critique of writing. But the sort of modern media literacy that Foley had begun to teach followed the advent of television. In the '60s, the community-media movement put cameras in the hands of regular people; it was a start. But media, too, marches on. Before most people had even begun to make sense of the several hours of TV they were watching each day, there came home video, for instance.
Yet while Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Billy Jackson's Community Media, which taught video to city kids, was new then too, Foley had the local field largely to herself. She was drawn to the African-American community: Born just after the Watts riots, she grew up in a once-white neighborhood where an influx of blacks sometimes led to violence. "All of us kids were scared on the street," she says. Foley wondered how her black neighbors felt. "I always thought if I could see through their eyes, I would understand why people were so angry."
In her CISP classes, she helped students to "read" media -- to analyze what they were looking at instead of watching passively. She showed them stuff they hadn't seen -- clips from Russian art films and animation such as "The Wrong Trousers," the early comic short by decidedly British filmmaker Nick Park. (Student reactions to "Trousers," she says, started with "What is this shit?" and progressed to "That penguin's packing some heat!")
Foley also helped students record their own experiences. Kids at the Hill District CISP, for instance, documented a garden they'd made.
Foley's ideal classroom is still one where students both create their own videos and watch work that expands their sense of what moving pictures can be.
In Pittsburgh in the late '90s and early '00s, Foley's early years on the job at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, she did numerous local projects, including workshops for kids at a Wilkinsburg community center and at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild. Sometimes under the aegis of Filmmakers, sometimes working as an independent consultant, she's also run workshops for educators. Lately she's training other local artists to teach an expanded array of media-literacy classes at Filmmakers for kids and adults.
Some of Foley's own young students make pretty sophisticated work. Last fall, in Foley's advanced documentary-making class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, Fox Chapel Area High School senior Jesse Goldsmith started a piece about military recruitment of teens. He focused on "America's Army," a combat video game developed by the Department of Defense. Goldsmith noticed how the digitally animated shooting "victims," for instance, remained unbloodied.
Foley helped shape Goldsmith's approach. "She thought it was really cool to see something from the point of view of someone who was being affected by it," says Goldsmith, whose footage includes images of himself, and also of his younger brother playing the game.
Foley, a Squirrel Hill resident, is sought nationally, too, going back to 2001, when she presented "Betty Boop Is a Dog, Cartman's Mom Is a Dirty Slut," a talk on the portrayal of women in animated media, at a national educational conference in Austin, Texas. In 2005, she taught students at the True/False Documentary Festival, in Columbus, Mo., and at GirlsFilmSchool, in Albuquerque, N.M. Paul Sturtz, True/False co-director, calls her "the Jenny Appleseed of media literacy."
But over the past couple of years, the funding that backed Foley's Pittsburgh projects has been harder to come by -- in part, she says, because many funders don't understand what media literacy is. Most of Foley's teaching has been through classes at Filmmakers itself, mostly in animation and documentary; the sessions at Steel Valley High, in Munhall, for instance, were a one-time gig on Filmmakers' dime.
"We have these rock-solid programs," says Filmmakers Executive Director Charlie Humphrey, "and not enough places to implement them."
The term "media literacy" sounds academic, but in practice it's familiar. Every time somebody questions the slant of a news report, or protests how women are treated in a music video, they're exercising a kind of media literacy. Another example is the controversy over the racial subtext of the recent remake of King Kong, which boiled briefly on blogs and editorial pages, and even in the comic strip "The Boondocks."
Just as Foley sometimes asks students to make her videotapes of TV programs they're watching -- she doesn't have cable -- she bought a ticket to Kong.
One thing that troubled her was the story's inevitable themes of exploitation (black figure brought in chains from a far continent for a profit) and a racially based sexual unease (black male figure's attraction to blonde starlet's "beauty"). Another was the way director Peter Jackson, a white New Zealander, fails to confront those themes. But she was appalled by something that got relatively little mention: the portrayal of the dark-skinned humans who inhabit Kong's island. "The native sequences are demonic," she says, down to the distortion of the islanders' features.
Seventy years after Louis Armstrong met Betty Boop, in other words, racial stereotyping has not been consigned to society's fringes. And it emanates not only from Peter Jackson, but also from popular modern minstrelsy such as the 2004 film comedy Soul Plane, about an African-American-run airline.
Nor have women, after four decades of modern feminism, escaped stereotyping. Lara Croft aside, much media is still obsessed with women as homemakers -- as in the recent spate of "reality" shows, including Trading Spouses, that highlight women's domestic roles -- or as sex objects.
Foley knows that encouraging critical thought about media risks turning people off -- spoiling their fun. It suggests a protective approach to media, one springing from the idea that people must learn how media works in order to keep from getting hoodwinked or corrupted by such things as TV advertisements.
That's why "innoculation" -- showing students just enough media so they'll reject its harmful content -- is only half the story, and maybe not even the most important half. Foley strongly supports teaching media literacy through the creation of media.
As with any language, the best way to understand the formal language of moving pictures and sound is to speak it yourself. Understanding that characters shot from a low angle -- or, say, while wearing a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier -- are being portrayed as powerful and competent might be one key first step.
Secondly, learn-by-making advocates don't say that there's too much media -- just too much bad media, especially emanations from the halls of corporate power, dominated still by old white guys. As with so much else, the issue of representation often comes down to economics -- who owns the equipment, who owns the theaters, who owns the country. But change is possible. One solution is to get historically oppressed groups telling stories from their own points of view.
For instance, Foley admires Bamboozled, Spike Lee's trenchant 2000 satire about two modern-day African-American performers reduced to performing on a TV minstrel show. But while Lee himself, in a recent Pittsburgh appearance, noted that black films are still "ghettoized" into a few categories -- broad comedies, romantic comedies and gangster flicks -- Foley sees signs of change. The recent feature film Something New, for instance, is a mainstream romance about an interracial couple -- but it's told from the perspective of an upper-middle-class black woman who falls for a lower-income white guy. Not coincidentally, Something New is the work of two young black women: screenwriter Kriss Turner and Morocco-born director Sanaa Hamri.
Then there's Everybody Hates Chris, the UPN sitcom co-created by Chris Rock about an adolescent version of himself who's moved to a mostly white school district. "We've turned a corner in terms of being able to walk in the shoes of a person [of color] as they experience white culture," says Foley. But in terms of influence, the Kongs still outweigh the Chrisses.
In early 1999, when Meagan O'Toole, a second-year science and biology teacher, volunteered to teach Steel Valley High's new video-production classes, she had never held a video camera. By that fall, she'd taken a television production class. She'd also met Teresa Foley, who quickly became a mentor.
O'Toole's class is about more than shooting properly exposed footage and editing it competently. It requires students to think critically about media. They come in having watched an enormous amount of movies and television, but with little idea how moving pictures work. "They don't know what a narrative is," says O'Toole. "What's a story? A beginning, middle, and ending?" Given a camera, most students treat it as an audience member -- never moving it or changing its angle of view, just letting the action play out in front of it.
O'Toole, 34, shows her students edgy video -- a favorite artist is Michel Gondry, the French-born director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and innovative music videos for artists including Björk and The White Stripes. Recently O'Toole also screened clips from Night of the Living Dead and discussed the 1969 film's subtext about race in America.
"We teach kids to analyze books," says O'Toole. "Why are we not analyzing media when they're not reading books anymore?"
It's a question media-literacy advocates have been asking for years. In Great Britain, Canada and Australia, says Kathleen Tyner, author of Literacy in a Digital World, media studies are part of the grade-school curriculum. In the U.S., every state has official standards for studying the subject, but most schools don't apply them. Though video equipment is more widely available than ever, it's usually deployed in the "industrial" model, with students making public-service announcements, or fake commercials. They're never taught to think critically about what they see or how it's made.
But at least those schools, including many in Pittsburgh's wealthier suburbs, have video programs. In Pittsburgh Public schools, the only students for whom media arts are part of the curriculum are arts-track students at the district's High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. Foley says that CAPA and Steel Valley High, where about a third of O'Toole's students are black, might be the only high schools in the area where students of color learn about video.
One problem, says Tyner, an assistant professor in radio, TV and film at The University of Texas at Austin, is that school districts tend to value media arts even below traditional arts, which are themselves increasingly the victims of budget cuts. Another issue is the increased dominance of standardized testing in the wake of the federal No Child Left Behind law. Educators who fear funding losses if students test badly in math and English are unlikely to beef up classes in video.
Indeed, some critics of electronic media's influence have questioned how much classrooms should incorporate technology that's typically used to entertain. As Marshall McLuhan ("the medium is the message") pointed out long ago, new media make our minds work differently. In his classic 1986 work Amusing Ourselves to Death, cultural critic Neil Postman explored how television has molded every aspect of life in its image, education included. Reading and writing promote orderly, rational thinking, Postman wrote, but to television, "[a]rguments, hypotheses, discussion, reasons, refutations or any of the traditional instruments of reasoned discourse," are anathema -- and bound to wither in any classroom given over to electronic media.
Media-literacy advocates, of course, acknowledge the depredations of bad media. But Tyner, for one, argues that it's counterproductive to force young "digital natives" -- with virtual baccalaureates in electronic savvy -- to check so many of their communication skills at the schoolhouse door, trading a blogger's keyboard for pencil and paper.
And slowly, Tyner says, awareness of the need to study electronic media is changing. Texas, for instance, now requires that applicants to teach high school humanities pass a media-literacy course before receiving their teaching certificates. "People are beginning to recognize this is really a shift in the literacy skills necessary to participate in society," says Tyner. "You can't have a voice if you don't effectively work with these digital tools."
Nonetheless, teaching media literacy is hard. Teachers need to know what media their students consume, and must be sensitive to how they consume it. Even Foley treads carefully when discussing beloved fare such as Disney's The Little Mermaid. Little girls whose memories of multiple viewings are tied up with sleepovers or family movie nights, for instance, are likely to resist discussions of the film in terms of unrealistic body-image expectations.
For now, Tyner says, media literacy depends on the initiative of individual teachers. In 2004, Foley taught the first session of Reading Movies/Making Movies, a free after-school class for middle- and high school students at the Carnegie Library's main branch, in Oakland, with initial funding from a federal grant. The class continues this spring, taught by Joseph Wilks, a library assistant who worked with Foley in that first class. "Teresa developed a pretty strong model," says Wilks, 23.
Another recruit is Jill Kazmierczak, who teaches English to college-bound high schoolers at Winchester Thurston School, a private school in Shadyside. When she and a few fellow Winchester teachers took a media workshop with Foley in summer 2004, she didn't understand why they had to make their own animation. "Yet in the long term, that was the most transformational experience for me," says Kazmierczak.
Now Kazmierczak, 45, supplements doses of Beowulf with assignments such as having students see last year's SpongeBob SquarePants movie to evaluate charges that the film promotes homosexuality. "Critical thinking isn't just in relation to Hamlet," says Kazmierczak. "It's in relation to the Gap ads and Bud Light commercials."
Licence, a retrospective of Foley's short videos at Downtown's SPACE Gallery, concludes March 11. One short, 2005's "Flight and Fight," is based on footage she shot of cockfights at a Hindu temple in rural Bali, where she traveled in 2001. Foley was dissatisfied with a 2004 version of the video, which featured her narration and explored what the sport means culturally. She realized that the piece ought instead to address why she was so fascinated by the subject matter, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which had occurred the day she left for Bali. Moreover, she remembers thinking, "People are not listening to my voice."
Reworking the piece, Foley resorted to a favorite visual approach -- the photo roman, a series of still images that's as much slide show as movie. To sound more natural, she substituted a new soundtrack excerpted from her half of a dinner conversation about her experiences. Then, using a technique she'd seen in a video by then-local artist Jared Larson, she linked her voice to the stills, so that the images flashed past to the rhythm of the words. Now, she found, people watched and listened.
In "Hazardous Materials" (2004), Foley uses a moon-suited toxic-remediation action figure named Rick Ranger, and a voiceover drawn from a Web site for those contemplating jobs in the field, to deconstruct our post-9/11 attitude toward such anonymous heroes. Her signature video "Licence" (2000) is animation in a philosophical sense: Foley, again playing with a toy, depicts herself bathing, dressing and tutoring a blow-up sex doll, which not only learns how to drive but also literally finds her own voice, lip-syncing (despite the fixed O of her mouth) to an opera record.
Lately, Foley is exploring interactivity. Her newest piece at SPACE is "Colon Dash Forward Slash," in which a series of emoticon faces flash on a screen. Viewers who step on a carpet pause the imagery on one face and activate a synthesized voice that speaks for it. An impish emoticon says, "Sometimes it is better to ask forgiveness than permission."
But ask Foley about her show at SPACE and she enthuses not about her own impressionistic documentaries and playful fictions. Instead she talks about the screen showing work by her students from over the years, ranging from high school-age to senior citizens. In one piece, an African-American teen-ager documents the way her little sister plays with dolls; in another, a girl videotapes her shirtless boyfriend uneasily discussing his own body image.
"I'm really proud of the part of the gallery where my student work is," says Foley. "Because it's good stuff. There was a young couple sitting on the carpet in that area right before I went in to give my talk on Saturday, and they said, 'This is the best stuff in here.'
"It's great," she adds. "It was done by people who were open to exploring the medium."
As she put it to the Steel Valley High students, "You have a voice. You make video. You have a choice about what you say."