Youth Voice, Authorship, & Democracy: Unpacking Media Literacy with Dr. Renee Hobbs

In this Q&A with The New Edu’s Sara Falluji, Dr. Renee Hobbs breaks down what media literacy is, the importance of youth voice and authorship, and how intergenerational conversations factor in

A row of computers in a computer lab with an orange wall.

Media literacy has been defined as the ability to “access, analyze, evaluate, and create media,” according to the Media Education Lab.  In the modern day, it is more important than ever for students to have access to information about the world around them and the past that shapes it, and to be equipped to interpret the perspectives and implications of that information. 

University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab, founded and directed by Dr. Renee Hobbs, is dedicated to improving the access and quality of media literacy education within communities, through dialogue, research, mentorship, and advocacy. Their website outlines the need for “every learner to be a media producer.” 

In November 2022, The New Edu’s Sara Falluji spoke with Professor Hobbs, an expert on digital and media literacy education, on different forms media literacy takes, media literacy within K-12 education, and the power of intergenerational conversations.

The New Edu’s SARA FALLUJI: Where do you see a need for these discussions and education about media literacy in current society– media literacy with propaganda, with things that we see in the news?

RENEE HOBBS: So the fake news crisis and the rise of disinformation have fueled a lot of interest in media literacy, because we've got misinformation being shared on social media and political campaigns. We've got misinformation about vaccines. We've got misinformation about climate change; about the economy. We've got misinformation intentionally spread for political purposes in ways that are harmful to people's understanding of reality. 

In the context of school and schooling, media literacy comes in through the changing nature of literacy– literacy is not just reading and writing. It's speaking and listening and creating media and analyzing media. More and more English teachers are recognizing that it's as important to critically analyze a film as it is to critically analyze a work of literature. It's as important to critically analyze an article in The New York Times as it is to critically analyze a work of photojournalism.

I define literacy as the sharing of meaning through symbols. Right now we're sharing meaning. I'm using language. Speaking and listening is the symbol system we're using. But now, because of digital media, we're using many, many other forms of symbols. 

Media literacy is also coming into the science curriculum because if you think about it, only a small, small percentage of high school graduates or college graduates will become scientists, but everyone will rely on science news for the rest of their lives. 

So almost all of our understanding about what to do about our health and our wellness is rooted in our understanding of, well, what does the science say? What are the best practices? What's the way to stay healthy? And that's coming not through us being scientists, but through us reading and encountering science news. A lot of science teachers are devoting either one day a week or every other week, to “let's read science news and let's learn to read it critically and not just articles in the New York Times, but let's look at those memes on TikTok about nutrition.” Science teachers can play a really important role in bringing media literacy into those topics–chemistry, physics, biology, and environmental education. And that's a very exciting part of how media literacy's coming into the classroom.

SF: Where do you think that media literacy– in all those forms that you listed– interacts with youth involvement in civic engagement and democracy as a whole? 

For some kids [youth voice] takes a long time to develop. And for other kids it's really super easy: some kids grow up in families where their voice is respected beginning at age two as soon as they can talk, right? As soon as they learn to express themselves, their scribbles, their drawings, their artwork are appreciated, right? And respected for their autonomy. 

They don't understand why there are other kids who are paralyzed by the creative process, who never would ever think of themselves as authors ever, never would even use that term in relationship to them. 

We can see that in children as young as nine and ten years old. So that early education has a big influence on who sees themselves as an author. Who feels empowered to have an opinion, and who doesn't. 

And so those inequalities are baked into the education system too. They are the product of a lot of complex aspects of socialization. So that's why the pedagogy of media literacy matters so much, because there are things that we can do as educators to scaffold and support folks whose journey into being a digital author is gonna take some care. Some compassion, some love, some support, because it's not going to be as easy as it is for other kids. To me, one of the most interesting things about that is that kids will share on social media, but they won't think about that as authorship, right? So they'll text like crazy back and forth and they'll produce a lot of creative expression, but they do not think of that as authorship. And so one of the things we immediately do is break that down. To realize that yes, when you take a photo, you have just become an author. 

SF: What do you think schools and educators and parents– really anybody– can do to help people recognize that authorship? 

There's so, so many things that can be done. One thing that I've long advocated is there's a way for educators to make a bridge between the classroom and the lived culture, the lived experience of students in 2022. [Editor’s note: And beyond!] So much of what kids experience in school seems kind of completely remote and unrelated to what's happening in the world. It's almost like whatever happens in school is kind of hermetically sealed and nobody seems to question, we just do it this way because we do this. We just read it because we've always read it. So media literacy educators see that that's disempowering. If you're spending six hours a day doing bullshit stuff that nobody ever explains, why are you doing it? What's the point of this? What is the goal? Why are we doing it? And we're doing it because we do it because this is what school is, right?

So that alienation, that perceived irrelevance between the world of the classroom and the world of the culture, media literacy educators, whether they're in English education or in social studies education, or whether they're principals or superintendents, they try to make bridges. Project based learning is really great for that. And youth voice is really great for that. 

If your school policy is that YouTube is blocked, then it's really going to be hard to build a bridge between the classroom and the culture. If students can't use cell phones in the building during the school day, it's going to be really hard to build bridges between the classroom and the culture. Because students won't ever learn that that powerful tool they have in their hands is more than just an entertainment device, that it's a tool for learning. There are policies that are in place in schools that can keep these worlds far apart. And then there are also policies that can bring them closer together. So we try to help educators see– here are the instructional practices you can use to connect the classroom and the culture, and then here are the larger education policy issues that have to be tackled if you're going to bring the culture and the classroom together.

SF: That made me think a lot about banned books, too.

And it builds a culture of mistrust that is really corrosive to a community. That's a project I'm working on right now, trying to depolarize our communities, because when the mistrust is high like it is right now in topics like critical race theory or banned books, then schools are going to do everything they can to be completely bulletproof from the community. And the community is going to be completely missing the opportunity to connect to a school. And in those kinds of conditions, then the inequalities will continue to thrive, right? Because the rich will get richer and the poor get poorer when we aren't building those bridges between the school and the community. 

SF: What do you personally see and what do you encourage youth to do to progress in that way?

Well, of course making media is a really great way to become media literate. Making media immediately invites you to think about who's the author and what's their purpose, because you're thinking about your purpose, right? You're thinking about what, who you are, what your identity is. People's identity is every word you choose or every image you choose, or every piece of media that you'll ever make says as much about you as it does about the thing you're writing about. So to be an author in a digital age is to think a lot about identity. Who am I and what is my purpose? 

So making media helps you learn a lot of big media literacy competencies. For instance, making media helps you understand about the importance of attracting and holding attention, of communicating about values and ideology through expressing different points of view. And it really sensitizes you to how different people can interpret the message differently so that when you put something out into the world, when you write something for The New Edu, somebody's going to say, wow, that was really great. And somebody else is gonna go, huh. They both saw the same work, but they did not make the same interpretation. Once you really understand that deeply, then you become much more humble about your own interpretations. You become much more aware. We need people with different interpretations around us to make sense of the world, otherwise we're trapped in our own little reality. 

I hope you see from those topics that media literacy isn't just about news and journalism. Media literacy is about applying questioning, critical questioning, to all aspects of media culture. And for a lot of kids, that's actually a more accessible way in than through news because fuck news; news isn't really for teenagers. 

There's so much world knowledge that you need to even be able to read a newspaper. But a 13 year old can critically analyze the YouTubers promoting sketchy products. And because that kid has had some experience with sketchy products that she bought on Instagram, and it turned out to be a disaster. So sometimes kids can acquire their media literacy competencies through popular culture and then that strengthens the muscle asking how and why questions. Why did they do that? How is it designed? What made me attracted to it? And those questions can move from participating in a fan community. 

SF: It kind of touches back to what English classrooms are doing. You're not just doing literature, you're watching movies, it's like watching movie analysis. A lot of students are participating in these things in their free time and they're not thinking about how these are– you're doing media literacy, you're getting involved. This is the stepway to democracy, what you're doing. 

One guy that I've been watching has got a nine-part series, really fascinating, about how people's ideas about crime and law enforcement are shaped by TV. And he's got a series called Copaganda where he basically is analyzing Brooklyn 99, Blue Bloods, NCIS, Law and Order, The Wire, all the TV shows of the last 10 years looking at how our ideas about police have been influenced by cop shows. And now, of course, in the wake of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, now we are starting to realize everything we learned about law enforcement and crime from TV is wrong. 

There are courageous, new voices who are trying to like, okay, so let's find new ways of telling stories that are true. I feel like that's also happening on YouTube. So I do feel pretty optimistic about the fact that, in part because human creativity is boundless. We will find ways to represent the complexity of being alive and connect with each other and use the power of communication to feel the power of being connected. Because people by themselves can't do anything, but when they come together, they can do everything. 

In Rhode Island, we just passed a civic literacy law that now mandates a project based civic education component. I was just at this meeting of the social studies teachers and they were not happy about it.

Why are you not happy about it? This is like gold. This is so awesome. And they're scared. They're scared of kid voice, they're scared of youth voice. Because guess what? Youth will say things that point out the hypocrisies of grownups. Youth will say things that show grownups to be the hypocritical, irresponsible assholes that they are.

We need youth voice to correct the abuses of power that are kind of baked into what happens when people become part of institutions and the power of institutions sort of swamps or warps or distorts their ability to think ethically and act responsibly.

SF: Is there anything else about media literacy and youth that you wish was discussed more as a whole?

I'm glad we got to address this fear of youth voice topic, which I think is a really interesting thing for parents to reflect on. And so as a parent, I think about, you know, when do I shut my kids up, close them down, and when do I enable, right? So I think that's really important to think about as a parent as well as a teacher. 

We haven't talked about how youth voice can empower people to do the wrong thing. I think that's something that probably is easier to talk about within the youth community than it is between youth and adults because we're all afraid, right? It’s important to have a critical perspective on the harms, the social harms that come from using your voice to victimize yourself and others. 

SF: And I think a lot of that harmful voice, we can even see it in schools– something that comes to mind with all that and promoting self-destructive behavior is how many hours of sleep did you get? 

Right. But then it becomes–the values get turned upside down because it's like, who can be more unhealthy? 

SF: Yeah. There's insomnia culture, there's vape culture. Like that's stuff that exists in schools too. And it's like, no wonder adults are terrified of it. It's such a difficult thing to address.

And some of it is because adolescence is full of pain that is confusing and hard to understand, right? I guess if you were in pain and you're not sleeping or your mental health is in the toilet, then yes, you might temporarily feel better. But it can then build this sense of reality. It can distort people's understanding of reality where that set of voices becomes normative. And we lose track of the fact that, you know, that is really not a place of pride. That's not something aspirational. 

SF: There's a lot about general society that intersects with education. It all really starts in schools, because that's where we start as young people.

Exactly. Absolutely. And through schools that you can see the whole universe and the single drop of water. You can see the whole universe in your high school. The best, the worst and everything. And it is interesting to think about how youth voice could really help build bridges. 
SF: I think the best tool against a lot of this awfulness that everybody feels in terms of schools and societies is these communities, intergenerational too. We see it with schools a lot– that students don't always get the authority to talk to administrators. And I think there's a level of fear in that because of the way that schools are arranged. Which is part of why I want to talk to you, because I'm a high school student, but I don't have the perspective and the experiences that you have, and through this conversation, we're learning a lot.

Exactly. I really appreciate the point you made about how, in a lot of schools, the sort of messages– you can't go talk to the principals; the power imbalance is so profound that it's like, what's the point? And it is interesting about how the power of intergenerational… it's why teens have always found it easier to talk to their grandparents than to their parents. 

I also think it's interesting how maybe that practice of creating intergenerational spaces could address the kind of us versus them framing that is so everywhere right now. That, to me as an educator, is the single most important thing I'm brainstorming or trying to solve– because I can see it in my own way of thinking. It's so easy. Blue, red; us, them; you guys out there and down in the south. All the ways in which we other each other. I have to address my own tendency to think in us versus them frames. And I have to call myself on it and I have to protect and guard against it when I feel it happening. I feel like through intergenerational dialogue, you can disrupt stereotypes.


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