Early in my teaching career, a student asked me what Marshall McLuhan meant by “the medium is the message.” I responded by situating McLuhan’s work within the history of Communication Studies and highlighting its strengths and weaknesses. This reply didn’t seem to satisfy the student. The next week, I began class with Jackson Pollock’s Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950. I told everyone that Pollock offered a way to visualize McLuhan’s famous aphorism. Instead of painting scenery or human figures, Pollock splashed paint onto the canvas so that when viewers look at the painting, they see paint. Not figures. Not objects. But paint. My inquisitive student pondered this for a moment, then raised her hand: “Okay, but what about the visuals in class? They show real people, not just random colors or something.” I agreed. But I told her that these images still comprise pixels, light, color, and various other media technologies. I suggested that maybe the fact that viewers see “real people” tells us something about how that medium works as well.
Weeks later, that student was still talking about McLuhan. She became one of my most engaged pupils and, later, a successful graduate student. I taught her something about communication that day, but she gave me a much more valuable lesson about teaching. Some students respond best to traditional lectures, some to visual examples, and all students learn from engaging in meaningful dialogues. Today, I use music videos, film trailers, comics, and bestselling novels to involve my students visually, aurally, physically, and through diverse forms of communication. I am happy to work in an interdisciplinary field that allows me to probe such objects with students to attain deeper levels of comprehension while appealing to their different interests and learning styles. Since being awarded the Governor’s Teaching Fellowship at The University of Georgia’s Institute for Higher Education (2014-2015), I have learned a great deal about formal and informal strategies to improve education. My priority in every course now centers on developing intrinsic motivations. I encourage students to create unique research problems and integrate their own experiences into the theoretical frameworks we cover, rather than picking from prearranged topics. I find students produce much more powerful studies when the issue stems from their own interests. They also infuse much more pride and energy into their work when I provide formative assessments throughout the process rather than simply at the end—when it’s usually too late to implement any changes.
I try to demystify the academic process by talking openly and self-reflectively about things like presenting at conferences and publishing books and articles. This approach led me to form The Media Studies Research Collective in 2012, through which I conduct large-scale research with students and take them to international academic conferences to present our work together. Many students in the department now strive to enter the program, and all who do have gone on to advance fascinating and rewarding work at their graduate schools of choice, in part, thanks to the experiences, skills, and greater confidence the MSRC has helped them achieve. Developing an open exchange of ideas in the classroom is what makes a liberal arts education crucial in today’s world. It also ensures that students of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds are comfortable asking questions and participating in the debates. One of my personal teaching goals is to build more relationships with students, particularly those first-generation students who often feel lost in the “ivory tower,” much like I did, and to help them contribute to their fields of research while developing confidence. Thus, removing the hidden curriculum from the learning experience, which can otherwise sustain and legitimate social power imbalances, is an important element in every activity I plan. Ultimately, I teach in higher education to witness the spark in students who realize that thinkers like McLuhan hold significant implications within their everyday lives. I have seen these theories assume new meaning when students perceive their own experiences and aspirations through such conceptual frameworks. That energy, when ideas become meaningful to students beyond the classroom, excites me most about teaching in higher education.