In August of 2006, K-State Polytechnic (then called K-State Salina) hosted an inter-institutional day of professional development for faculty from multiple institutions of higher learning in the region. The two main collaborating partners were Cloud County CC and K-State Salina.
It was at this conference that I first met Ruth Moritz who was then working at Barton County. Ruth eventually found her way to teach on the K-State campus in Salina. We became good friends and I was deeply saddened when she left to teach for Kansas Wesleyan.
For several years I have been interested in doing some lessons in media literacy with students. This first became an interest of mine while I was doing my doctoral research on using digital video as an alternative form of writing and literacy. Anyone who knows me and my approach to teaching very well knows that I frequently like to experiment with new ideas and techniques. This semester in our #DigMe256 online class on Digital Literacy, we have been working with the theme of Superheroes.
One of the themes I have been interested in exploring with students when interpreting media messages is the theme of human objectification, particularly the objectification of women. We see these messages frequently in the everyday media we encounter. Honestly, I have been a little timid about diving into this one. However, the idea has been simmering in my mind for some time, and I’ve spent a good amount of time collecting examples we can discuss, so this week I took the plunge.
This week I gave an assignment that shows superheroes in their most private, awkward and intimate moments. The artist who created these images is Greg Guillemin from France. The work of this artist came to my attention several years ago, and since we are doing a superhero theme in our class, it made sense to include his work for our media literacy analysis because it does in fact show objectified, comic hero men and women.
Here is the assignment.
Look at the work of Greg Guillemin, a French artist who paints behind the scenes images of superheroes and other cartoon characters. Check out the Secret Life of Superheroes to see Guillemin’s work. (Caution, some of these are risqué, depicting superheroes in unexpected ways.) Think about how answers to the key questions of media literacy might look with this body of work. Discuss.
I thought since I gave the assignment, I would complete it myself as well. My response is as follows.
The five key questions of media literacy are:
Who created this message?
What creative techniques are used to attract my attention?
How might different people understand this message differently from me?
What lifestyles, values, points of view are included; or omitted in this message?
Why is this message being sent?
Who created this message? French artist Greg Guillemin is the man who created the Secret Life of Superheroes series. I have been unable to find a great deal out about him, but I did find this interview after the singer Rhianna was seen wearing a shirt with one of his images. From what I could glean from his website and the interview, Mr. Guillemin studied graphic design and worked in advertising for two decades before introducing the Secret Life series to the world. He originally began creating digital images and shared them on the Internet. As his popularity has increased, he has expanded into creating acrylic on canvas paintings and sculptures of his unusual superhero imagery.
What creative techniques are used to attract my attention? Guillemin’s work is reminiscent of pop art icons like Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. He creates crisp comic book style imagery of bright colors and halftones and combines it with familiar brand names and superhero characters in private, intimate or awkward scenes. Guillemin gives the audience a voyeur’s glimpse of the everyday life of his superheroes. His work is unique because it provides such an unusual view of these very familiar characters.
In his book Virus of the Mind, Brodie (2009) tells us how ideas spread quickly because they are connected to our survival or prosperity. He argues that we are hard-wired to pay attention to things like danger, food, and sex because our very survival depends on it. Indeed, these things are the basis for what is now becoming recognized as memes, or ideas that spread quickly because of their content. As a former graphic designer in advertising, Guillemin is an expert at pushing our biological buttons.
Some of the Secret Life images are surprising, possibly even disturbing or offensive to some viewers. The food and sex memes are featured prominently in this body of work. It might be a bit of a stretch, but danger might also be playing a role in grabbing our attention, as voyeurs who could be caught spying in this secret superhero world.
How might different people understand this message differently from me? Let’s begin with my own perspective as a college professor. I thought it would be worthwhile for my students to view The Secret Life of Superheroes because we are studying digital literacy through a superhero lens. From my perspective, it is a struggle to keep students engaged and interested. I chose this body of work precisely because it is edgy and tinged with controversy. I was thinking of this very question, how different people might interpret the images when I included it in our classes exercises. Educated people must be able to consider multiple perspectives on controversial ideas, being fair about considering different points of view and ultimately believing in something because the available evidence supports that position.
So what are some of the other ways that people could understand the message of the Secret Life of Superheroes? I can imagine a sort of person who is comfortable with sexuality and along with being a complete pacifist, abhorring any form of violence. This person sees the irony in parents who shield their children from any form of suggestive imagery but are perfectly fine with their children subsisting on a media diet of gore, death and violence. (My hunch is, although I’ve never been there, that people in France might lean in this direction.) Such people might see this body of work as humorous and entertaining. Some people will use these images to make a hip fashion statement (See Rhianna above).
There is also the type of person whose sensibilities are deeply offended by Mr. Guillemin’s work. He portrays the women as sex objects, sometimes showing only their body parts and not faces. He shows the men engaging in behaviors like smoking and popping viagra pills. He shows various characters holding sex toys and birth control. Some superheroes are shown brushing teeth, taking showers, using the toilet. Most of the subject matter he shows is taboo for discussion in polite company.
Some people feel our culture is media-saturated, often with highly sexualized imagery showing up in a flood of media messages. They feel this is adversely affecting us as it manifests itself in a variety of ways. Schools have long since abandoned time-honored mandatory showers for PE and sports teams because of the sexual connotation. According to some, we have a hookup culture that doesn’t include dating. We have a culture of slut-shaming, that blames women for how they dress instead of the young men who are distracted, attracted, or even perpetrating assaults on them. People who are concerned about these developments in our culture will not view The Secret Lives of Superheroes as innocuous.
What lifestyles, values, points of view are included; or omitted in this message?
The main lifestyle depicted is hedonism. Included in the imagery are condoms, viagra pills, smoking, drinking, lovemaking of all types, masturbation, guns, bodily functions and maintenance, dressing and undressing. Many of the things shown are everyday occurrences that we would hardly ever see outside of our own lives. There are some hidden visual jokes like Robocop drinking motor oil and Poison Ivy drinking weed killer.
An omitted point of view is that of people who value modesty and temperance. Another omitted point of view is one that thinks women should be valued as human beings, not as objects of desire.
Why is this message being sent?
The two primary reasons media messages are sent are 1) to obtain money and 2) to obtain power and influence. Guillemin began working with The Secret Life of Superheroes by creating digital images and sharing them online for free. He used the world wide web and social media to gain notoriety and influence. Once he established a following, he was able to begin charging for prints and expand his art business into making paintings and sculptures for exhibit in galleries around the world. The reason Guillemin is successful is because he provides a service to his audience of entertainment, amusement and perhaps even provoking thought through the works of art he creates.
We have a small but mighty group of students in my Hardware and Networking class this semester. I’m sharing this picture for two reasons. Because 1) It’s the smallest group I’ve ever had for this class since I started teaching it about 14 years ago and 2) They have been really fun to work with and this picture makes me smile.
We are going to take the opportunity to try some new ideas this semester. I have ordered in some Raspberry Pis and we are going to experiment with doing networking stuff with that kind of computer. I’m really excited about how this semester will go.
I think one of my frustrations as a student was with teachers who’ve forgotten what it is like to be a novice learning something new. I have to wonder how many teachers ever intentionally put themselves in the learner seat?
I’ve long felt that it is important to do this regularly so I never forget what it is like to be a student learning something new for the first time. One of the things I like about where I work, K-State Polytechnic, is that we value and emphasize industry experience with our faculty. Everyone who teaches in a technology field here has some industry experience to bring to bear in the classroom.
I think far too many teachers have spent their entire lives in school, never having experienced other contexts for working and learning. That doesn’t fly in computing. You wind up obsolete in a hurry if you aren’t always learning something new. This summer I am learning about ASP.NET. A few years ago I had the opportunity to do some applications programming using MS Visual Studio and .NET framework, but didn’t do anything significant with the web side of things.
I recently took on a new consulting work project that involves updating an existing web application. Let me tell you, this is some of the most challenging learning I’ve ever done. Trying to understand the logic of software that someone else has built well enough that you can make useful changes to it is tricky and takes a lot of time. I’ve spent over a month just trying to get the source code I was supplied to compile and run.
I was finally able to get that to happen this week! At long last, I have a system that runs locally and I can tinker with it without disturbing the actual production system that this business relies on for its livelihood. Wouldn’t you know it—less than a day after I got things working for the first time, I started getting compile errors again. It made no sense. All I had been doing was looking through source code. I hadn’t changed or saved anything (or so I thought).
It took several hours, but finally this evening I figured out how to make the error go away and I am back in business again
I suppose one thing that I’m learning in all of this is basic humility. Computers tend to keep you humble if you work long enough with them. They are constantly changing and evolving. And they aren’t very smart. One small accidental change can upset your whole program.
But over time, you start trusting in your ability to solve problems and to persist through adversity. I suppose if there is one skill I would like to model for my students it is that—you can do it if you stick to it and don’t give up.
If there is one piece of advice I can give other teachers is to regularly put yourself out of your comfort zone and take on some challenging learning. That will help build empathy with your students who don’t seem to be learning quickly enough, or working hard enough or really anything that isn’t working out as planned. Learning is tough business and it is hard to remember that when you are always teaching something that you’ve learned long ago.
I remember the first time I did a live Skype call with someone. I was acquainted with him, but didn’t know him well—only through the Internet. I had no camera on me because my computer was old, but I still felt very awkward looking at the live video feed of him. It took me a long time to get used to the idea of doing live video conferences because it was new and strange to me.
Actually, the idea isn’t new at all. AT&T invented a video telephone in the 1960s. They market tested it, and it was a failure. People didn’t like it and I get it. But today, I’m a believer in the video conference. It is so easy to do with the technology we have.
Things are shifting today, actually in the opposite direction I think. In the 1960s, people were quite comfortable with having both telephone conversations and face to face conversations. I’ve noticed that young people today are having less and less of either type of real-time conversation. They are mediating their conversations, so they can consider, parse and edit every word that is said. I’m not saying this is right or wrong, but I think it imposes unnecessary limitations on their life and workplace skills to do it this way.
That is why I am always experimenting with different techniques to engage with students. I think it is good for all of us to stretch beyond our comfort zones, to learn new skills and bring them to bear on solving the problems that life presents us with.
This semester in my DIGME406 online class on Social Media, we are experimenting with using Flipgrid. The little bit that we’ve tried it seems to have worked pretty well. We all have different schedules and I think it is difficult to try to do live conversations. Flipgrid seems a nice compromise in that regard. It mediates the conversation, so you can record a video and try again if you don’t like it before you commit it. You can also upload a video that has been edited if you wish. And it is asynchronous so it works with anyone’s schedule. So I’m excited to see how that works out.
The previous time I taught the online version of this class, I gave an assignment of visiting with me in real time using a telepresence robot. A few students tried it and liked it, but ultimately, I gave up on that one because I had a really hard time with the tech working for everyone, and also some people simply didn’t want to try it I think. We ended up using Skype or Facetime, and even a POTS (plain old telephone system) phone call. But I still like the idea of having a live chat with each of my online students. Distance education is so isolated for everyone involved.
For a while, I have been intrigued by the possibility of the graphic syllabus. I was particularly inspired by the work of Lynda Barry and her hand drawn syllabus book. I have seen some of these graphical syllabi floating around the web, and a few years ago I decided to give it a try with my Visual Literacy class. It only made sense that I would employ some of the concepts of visual communication in the syllabus for that course. Here is a copy of what that one looks like in infographic format:
And below is another one I did for my Fall 2017 edition of an online course I taught in Digital Literacy. The theme for that online course was “Superheroes” so I had a lot of fun developing a syllabus in comic book format:
Last night my family and I participated in a fun fundraiser at the high school – an “escape room.” I have been hearing about these escape rooms recently. My kids as well as my students have been talking about them, so when our school set one up we had to try it out.
Although there was a short informational video, we walked into the escape room knowing very little about what we had to do. There was a science scenario, in which the world is going to end by a pandemic disease unless we solved the puzzle within the next hour.
Sorry world, you didn’t make it!
Our team included my wife and two kids, as well as my sister and her son. All of the kids were in the 12-15 age range. We weren’t allowed to bring personal items into the room, including cell phones. I guess most escape rooms are actually locked, and you have to free yourselves, but ours just had the door closed. It didn’t matter. It was still a bit unnerving being cooped up for an hour.
We started poking around the items looking for clues. It was an English classroom, turned into a science laboratory. There were chemicals and books and messages, and several locked toolboxes with multiple locks on them.
Our escape room had a telephone with instructions on how to phone in for three clues that would help us. But the clues were pretty mysterious in themselves.
We managed to get one toolbox unlocked, and inside it were some vials of some colored liquids. Also, there were litmus paper strips we could measure the PH of the liquids with. Somehow, after a couple of tries, we managed to use the numeric PH levels as the secret combination on another lock. But that is about as far as we got.
The activity required good communication, teamwork, thinking and problem solving skills. I think it is an excellent thing for people to be doing, especially young people. For an hour we actually got away from our technology a little while and spent some quality “together” time. But for me, it also showed some of my own shortcomings. Getting frustrated, losing patience, working on a team with everyone tripping over one another, not communicating well.
Some things that would have helped us include:
1) bring a notepad and pencil. I didn’t have anyway to write down information that was needed later.
2) Communicate when we found something new. Several times, somebody found something that would have been useful, but couldn’t make sense of it, and left it alone. Nobody else knew about it. If we announced that we found something to the group, we could have taken turns at it.
3) More time. We probably spent 15 minutes just figuring out what we were supposed to be doing.
Doing this activity has me wondering if there is something here that could be brought into a classroom setting. I’ve read a little bit about gamifying courses, but haven’t done much with that idea yet. The closest I’ve come is using skits and simulations. A full blown escape room, built upon technology concepts we have been learning in class seems like it might have some potential. Stay tuned!