Mass Media and Popular Culture
In this blog I usually evaluate individual films at the rate of two a week. Today I want to write about a unique experience that I have had of using films to educate. In August I began teaching a sociology class, “Mass Media and Popular Culture,” at Queens College. The class meets at the un-Godly timeslot of 6:30-9:30 on Friday nights and has its final meeting on December 16. When I was first given this time slot I said, “Who is going to take a class that meets on a Friday night?” The answer, for me, was an education in and of itself.
At the first class I conducted a video interview with each student who was willing. The interview was strictly voluntary, but it is a good way for me to get to know students and learn their names. It is also an effective icebreaker that generates a friendly atmosphere. From these interviews I discovered that the students attending class at this late hour worked full time and then managed to go to school. In other words these were people who worked harder than I did, and yet they were coming to me to learn something. This revelation filled me with humility and a stronger than usual sense of responsibility and commitment.
My hard working students range in age from early twenties to grandparents. Over the past four months we discussed how media frames our perception of the world. Since the class is part of the Sociology Department I related media issues to sociology.
The second half of each class involved screening a narrative film or documentary, mostly documentaries, that illustrated a media topic. There were also at home screening and writing assignments. I did not require my students to buy expensive textbooks but I did require a Netflix membership. We watched a lot of films. I used mass media to teach mass media.
My class received a varied education on media issues and on how media has affected their lives and the lives of others. We screened the movie “They Wont Forget” (1937), a fictionalized account of the Leo Frank case of 1913. The film, plus a consideration of the actual facts of the case, provided a way of examining media manipulation, southern prejudice and politics in the early twentieth century. We also looked at how these issues were portrayed by media on screen. We screened and discussed “The Tillman Story” which concerned the government’s cover-up and media manipulation in the death of Pat Tillman in Afghanistan. We compared Daniel Ellsberg and his use of media in exposing the Pentagon Papers (“The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers”) during the Vietnam War with the current media work of Julian Assange and wikileaks (“Julian Assange: A Modern Day Hero?”). We examined the federal prosecutions of stoner comedian Tommy Chong (“a/k/a Tommy Chong”) and porn star Harry Reems (“Inside Deep Throat”). We looked at how these men had their first amendment rights trampled upon in the government’s zeal to prosecute their use of media. We screened the movie “Lenny” and discussed how comedian Lenny Bruce was prosecuted in the 1950s and 1960s for “obscene” humor that today would have gotten him his own HBO special. We discussed the ideas of Noam Chomsky (“Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media”) and even managed to touch on Aristophane’s ancient Greek play “Lysistrata.”
A teacher friend told me that the relationship between a teacher and his students is formed within the first 20 minutes of the first class. That being the case it was apparent from the start that fate had given both teacher and students a fine match.
From Ancient Greece to Wikileaks we cut a wide swath through the human experience and had a lot of laughs along the way. Since it was my first time teaching this course I did not have the luxury of simply relying on what I had done in the past. There was no auto pilot on which to fall back. I had to work just as hard as my students to keep up and even, hopefully, stay ahead of them. Oh yeah, and they also learned a lot.