Thinking about and with “Selfies” in the Classroom

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  • posted byMaggie Cummings
  • dateJune 29, 2015
  • commentsNo comments
CategoryMain Story
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I often long for a classroom in which students eschew electronics in favour of pen and paper, a classroom that favours slow reading and reflection, rather than one where laptop, tablet, and phone use mean that note taking and distracted internet surfing often go hand in hand. But knowing that this is easier said than done, I am happy (at least for now) to settle for a learning environment in which students view their various electronic devices with curiosity rather than complacency, as cultural artifacts of a particular time and place, and of their use of these devices, and of social media, as culturally informed practices.

In the fall term of 2014, I introduced a new assignment, which I dubbed the “selfie assignment,” to my second-year class, Culture Through Film and Media. The course is a mix of visual anthropology and media ethnography. In the second half of the term, we spent a few weeks thinking about mobile phones, social media, and other new communication technologies, and read a variety of case studies from North America and elsewhere. In past iterations of the course, students read Ilana Gershon’s The Breakup 2.0: Disconnecting Over New Media, and were asked to demonstrate their understanding of her key arguments by reflecting on their own experiences using various types of social media. The assignment worked well, but I felt like it needed updating. Published in 2010, Gershon’s book draws on research conducted in 2007 and 2008, and focuses heavily on undergraduate students’ use of Facebook and instant messaging. For many of my students, these were platforms that they had used as preteens, but which they had since left behind in favour of Vine, Snapchat, Instagram, and WhatsApp (and quite possibly other, newer services I haven’t even heard of). I also wanted to incorporate some form of experiential learning in the class. The solution: a selfie assignment, which would require students to take a “selfie” (a self-portrait, taken with one’s mobile device, for the purpose of sharing on social media) and write a 5-page reflection, drawing on the course material, about how and why they took the photo they did, and how, why, and with whom they would choose to share it on social media. Ideally, I wanted students to develop a better understanding of course material on media publics, selfhood under neoliberalism, idioms of practice, the “newness” of new media, and cultural norms around photography and representation.

The assignment was a great success, both in terms of improving student learning of the course material and increasing student engagement (I actually had a student thank me for assigning this paper, which was definitely a first). The experiential aspect of the assignment really did help students grasp some of the more abstract course material, and this was apparent in the overall quality and depth of their answers on the final exam. But overall, the greatest strength of this assignment was not that it improved student learning of the course materials, but that it required students (at least temporarily) to see the exotic in the familiar, the familiar in this case being their mobile phones and the ubiquitous use thereof. Of course, the defamiliarization required for this assignment was not only its greatest strength, but its greatest challenge as well. Some students struggled to move beyond the taken-for-grantedness of the everyday practice of selfie-taking and sharing, and worried that they wouldn’t be able to write a good paper because “taking selfies doesn’t mean anything, it’s just something I do with my friends.” Group discussions, both in class and online, encouraged the students to work collaboratively to move beyond such claims. A different kind of challenge arose for those students who take selfies very seriously and very personally, and had a hard time moving beyond reflection into analysis. Indeed, some students ultimately wrote highly personal, almost confessional, reflections, but failed to adequately connect these reflections to the course work. For others, however, digging deeply into the personal spurred them to dig deeper into the abstract, as well, and these students wrote the most thoughtful papers.

Ultimately, I think this assignment was a hit, for me as a teacher and for my students as learners, because of the way it struck a balance between two different tensions that often arise in the classroom and can be difficult to resolve. One refrain I often hear from my students is that they want to learn material that they find “relatable,” material that speaks to issues in their own day-to-day lives. But much of what is great about anthropology (at least for me) is that it asks us to explore that which is unfamiliar and often challenging to relate to. The selfie assignment worked, I think, because students drew on “relatable” personal experiences to move toward a greater understanding of social media and new technology use in other, less familiar contexts. The second tension worth noting arises from the push, both from students and administrators, to incorporate more technology into the classroom. Technologies such as iClickers, Blackboard, or lecture casting are often lauded as pedagogical innovations, but I can’t help but think that what they really address is the need to efficiently manage larger and larger classes. The selfie assignment hit a technology “sweet spot”: I incorporated technology into the classroom, but in a way that turned it into the object of study and cultural analysis, rather than a utilitarian means to an end.

Maggie Cummings is Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, Scarborough.

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