Talking with The Inquirer about online feminism, intersectionality, and the challenges facing feminist bloggers
Last month, Cassie Owens at The Philadelphia Inquirer reached out to me via email for some background information on online feminism for a profile piece she was writing on Melissa Fabello, a Philadelphia-based feminist blogger, educator, and body acceptance activist. You can read the profile here. Below, I share my answers to Owens' questions about online feminism, intersectionality, and the particular challenges facing feminist writers and activists today, including financial strain and online harassment.
There’s been reporting (that quotes you!) discussing the influence of social media on feminist blogs/news sites that launched in the aughts. How would describe how feminist activist media/blogs have developed or changed during the current decade, in a landscape where sites like Jezebel are considered more mainstream?
One of the biggest changes for feminist blogs and other online outlets over the past decade has been audience size. The first feminist blogs started in the early 2000s and while they reached decently sized audiences, their readership started to grow exponentially in the 2010s. This was when the first feminist hashtag campaigns broke out onto the scene, when celebrities began explicitly claiming the feminist label, when marketing companies began incorporating feminist rhetoric and ideas into their branding strategies. Feminism started having a media moment, powered in large part by feminist media-makers drawing attention to feminist issues and encouraging feminist discussions on highly visible platforms like Twitter. As a result, today, some feminist sites have moved from the more alternative blogosphere to the mainstream. Jezebel is a good example of this. As these websites become more visible and demonstrate a market for feminist content, more mainstream publications, from The Guardian to Teen Vogue, have even recruited feminist writers from the alternative blogosphere and created columns and sections explicitly for feminist analysis.
Is there a trend in online feminist media currently towards promoting intersectionality? If so, how would you say it’s developed?
Online feminist media have played a big role in bringing the idea of intersectionality to mass audiences. Today, intersectionality is a key vocabulary word for feminist activists, but the term was first coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 article published in the University of Chicago Legal Forum. Feminist bloggers and social media users have helped intersectionality make the leap from academia to everyday activist discourse and practices. Websites like Everyday Feminism have taken this complex idea and translated it into definitions that are not only accessible, but actionable, allowing more people to incorporate intersectionality into their analyses of social justice issues and into their activist organizing practices. The importance of this work cannot be overstated. As “intersectionality" has entered popular use, there have been some concerns that the term can become easily misused or misunderstood. Feminist publications that are doing the work of carefully unpacking and defining this term play an important role in not only spreading the idea of intersectionality, but in helping readers understand what intersectional analysis and activism actually entails.
As a fun sidebar and a testament to some of what I’m talking about here, in 2017 alone, the Wikipedia page for the term “intersectionality” was viewed more than 790,000 times [source]. That’s pretty remarkable for a term that first appeared in an academic journal.
How would you describe the economic climate for indie feminist online publications today? Anecdotally, I’ve heard about dynamics at activist publications where sites subsist on viral content, while not making much from the clicks. Is this something you’ve observed?
The economic climate for any indie online publication, feminist or otherwise, is difficult. In our digital media environment, consumers have grown accustomed to getting content for free, so old-fashioned subscription models make for a difficult sell these days. As a result, online publications have turned toward economic models based around advertising, where revenue depends upon impressions and clicks, or the number of times an ad loads on a website and a user interacts with it. This model creates a push for content that brings as many users as possible to a publication, in order to increase the probability that they will view and click on an advertisement, thereby generating the revenue that publication needs to survive. For feminist and other activist publications, this model raises a number of thorny issues. For one, the need to depend on advertising to subsist might stand in direct opposition to their activist values. When a feminist publication, for example, has to rely on advertising, its editors may have to compromise between their anti-capitalist values and their desire to keep the publication afloat. This is a longstanding issue for feminist media-makers in the U.S., going all the way back to the hundreds of underground feminist newspapers and magazines that were published throughout the 1960s and 1970s. But what’s new in this digital environment is the way that click-based revenue models create what researchers have called an “attention economy” deeply dependent on viral content that drives traffic to a publication. For activist publications, this can mean sacrificing the detail and nuance of long-form investigative pieces or political analyses in favor of clickbait. The challenge for feminist publications today is how to fund their work without compromising on their values or mission.
A related question to the previous one: How would you describe the economic climate (and challenges) for a writer working for feminist online publications?
It is both an exciting and a challenging time for writers working within the realm of feminist online publications. The demand for feminist content has probably never been higher than it is right now. We are living in a pop culture moment where feminism is regularly a trending topic across social media platforms and news outlets, which indicates that the market for feminist content is sizable. At the same time, feminist publications have struggled to develop economic models that are in line with their politics and that also allow them to remain financially afloat. For the average feminist writer, this can translate into the financially precarious and likely tiring life of freelancing and packaging content with clickbait headlines. So, there’s this tension between a demand for feminist content and a lack of economic support for content producers. Especially successful feminist writers have made the leap to more mainstream commercial publications, which are better-equipped to fund their work, but which may not offer the same support for authors’ more radical writing and ideas.
You’ve written about the appearance of feminist safe spaces. This is a two-part question: First, what are forms of online harassment that women writer-activists often experience? Secondly, beyond creating safe spaces, have you observed other means that writer-activists are responding to the abuse, individually or communally?
Online harassment is a challenge for just about any activist writer today, but research shows that women are much more likely than men to encounter gendered or sexualized forms of abuse, such as rape threats or misogynist hate speech, which is far more aggressive and alarming than the more generalized “trolling” men face. Consequently, online harassment takes a disproportionately negative toll on the careers of women writer-activists. Online harassment, particularly when combined with doxxing attacks where harassers publicize victims’ home addresses, has forced women writers and activists to leave their homes, move their families, cancel speaking events, shut down their online presence, and generally retreat from public life. Given how important it is for writers to have an online presence with active social media profiles, the harassment often comes as an onslaught via Twitter, Facebook, email, and in the comments sections of their articles. For women writers and activists who are of color, trans, queer, and/or disabled, the harassment is compounded.
Unfortunately, platforms like Twitter and Facebook have not done enough to address harassment. Leaving these platforms entirely is not a sustainable solution for writers who depend upon them for their professional and activist lives and, given the severity of some types of threats, neither is choosing to ignore harassers. This has left women writers and activists to develop their own strategies for coping with harassment. Some have created private forums or groups on Facebook and other platforms where they can enlist one another’s support. Others have successfully pushed publications to do away with comments sections, which tend to be breeding grounds for harassment. There are also organizations that are working to provide resources for anyone who encounters online harassment, such as Heartmob, an online tool for documenting harassment and requesting backup against perpetrators. In any case of online harassment, documenting everything is key and, when harassment escalates to direct and explicit threats, it is important to contact the appropriate authorities and, if available, your organization’s IT support specialists.
I recently had the opportunity to talk to Wired about the hashtag, #HimToo. The hashtag started out as an advocacy campaign for male survivors of sexual violence but was hijacked by men's rights activists as an outlet for spreading rape myths regarding false accusations in the lead up to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's testimony at the Kavanaugh hearing. Reporter Emma Grey Ellis, who often writes on internet activism, reached out via email to ask why this hashtag has been so flexible and so effective no matter what ideology it is used to support. A snippet of my thoughts are quoted in the article, which you can read here. I share my full response below, reflecting more on the affordances and limitations of hashtag feminism and what activists need to know about the risks of cooptation and hashtag hijacking.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the strengths and limitations of hashtag feminism, including this question of cooptation. Here’s my response to your question:
One of the aspects that makes hashtag activism so powerful and compelling is that a hashtag is both individual and collective. Anyone can tweet their particular story, perspective, or concern under the hashtag, making it a deeply personalized form of protest. At the same time, the hashtag aggregates and networks these personal posts into a collective action. You can think of the hashtag as the digital version of a picket sign — I can write whatever I want on my sign and you can write whatever you want on your sign, but we’re all gathered here in the same town square, participating in one collective protest. That Twitter is a digitally networked, public-by-default, global platform amplifies the reach and strength of this collective but personal form of protest. Plus, launching a viral hashtag campaign requires a lot less time and energy and fewer resources than mobilizing an in-person street protest.
The hashtag’s ability to act as a personalized form of protest, however, is also one of its limitations. Some of the most virally successful feminist hashtags about sexual violence — #MeToo, #YesAllWomen, #WhyIStayed — are general enough to include a broad spectrum of personal stories. But this flexibility also leaves them wide open to cooptation. In the case of #HimToo, the hashtag itself does not place any constraints on the content of the tweet, aside from the fact that its use of a masculine pronoun directs attention toward men’s experiences. This makes it flexible enough to accommodate a number of different, even contradictory ideologies and messages, from the more progressive idea of supporting male survivors to the more reactionary notion that men are no longer safe in the #MeToo era. The networking functions of the hashtag make it easy for one person or a coordinated group of people to coopt a hashtag for their own purposes and trigger an entirely new cycle of diffusion for that hashtag built around a new message. As a testament to how easy and common this tactic is, public relations professionals even have a name for it — “hashtag hijacking.” Over the past several years, we’ve seen activists across the political spectrum use this tactic, including Black Lives Matter activists’ hijacking of the #MyNYPD hashtag and now men’s rights activists’ hijacking of #HimToo to spread rape myths about false accusations. Not only is hashtag hijacking fairly easy, but hashtag campaigns are often not backed by the traditionally structured social movement organizations that would be required to mobilize more conventional forms of protest. This means that the campaign lacks the organizational capacities to launch a coordinated response to the hijacking or reclaim its original message.
The lesson for activists is that hashtag activism is a double-edged sword. While its pairing of the personal with the collective can have powerful results, the flexibility of a hashtag campaign also leaves it open to any message, even those that directly contradict its original mission. The result can be a lack of a clear, unifying message at best or cooptation at worst.
Last week, I participated in a roundtable on The Academy and Activism, hosted by Penn's Media Activism Research Collective. It was great to be in conversation with Elisabetta Ferrari, Antoine Haywood, and Guobin Yang on this topic, which feels especially important in our current political context. MARC organizer Hanna Morris asked us to prepare responses to a set of questions in advance of the roundtable. I share an edited version of my thoughts below.
Firstly, let’s begin with a question of definitions: How do you personally define/differentiate academic research from activism? Or, do you differentiate the two?
I think it’s important for academics interested in activist-academic work to begin with the realization that not all academic research is activist. It might seem like an obvious statement, but anyone interested doing activist-academic work needs to be reflexive about what makes some academic work activist, and why we need to descriptor “activist-academic” to begin with.
Academic research is, at its most basic level, about the pursuit of knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge can sound like something that is intrinsically good. When pushed a little further semantically, academic research can even sound like an inherently socially just endeavor. We’re “uncovering truths” about the world around us or “combating ignorance.” But if all academic research was activist by default, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking about the relationship between activism and the academy, and we wouldn’t have specific descriptors like “activist scholarship” or “activist academic.”
In my view, anyone interested in pursuing activist-academic work needs to be asking, at every step of the research process, questions about their approach to knowledge production. Who is this research for? Why am I doing this work? Who will benefit most? Whose knowledge am I citing as an expert source? How does this work contribute in concrete ways to a social change project?
In addition to this reflexivity, I also feel that activist-scholarship should be participatory. In order to study social justice movements while also pursuing scholarship that is socially just, we must position ourselves in solidarity with activists. What solidarity looks like can vary depending on the situation or context. For me, solidarity has meant, to whatever extent possible, becoming directly involved with the activist work I am studying. It is important, however, to be reflexive about what this involvement looks like. As academics, we have a lot of knowledge and resources we can lend to movements. But it is key to remember that while you might be the only academic in the room, if you are new to this organizing community, you do not have the same knowledge or experience as those who have been doing this work for a while.
Not all research is activist. Not everyone’s research agenda is going to involve that process of reflexivity, that concern for how academic research is entangled in systems of power, and that vested interest in making a social impact outside of one’s academic career. Not everyone’s research is going to be participatory. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are justifications for research projects whose outputs will primarily reach other academics. We need to talk to each other and expand on and improve our tools and analytics and theories. But it’s important to make the differentiation between scholarship and activist scholarship, because the added description, in my opinion, includes an additional set of commitments. It involves more than just simply declaring, "I am an activist and an academic."
Do you think activist work and academic work should be kept separate? Why or why not?
As I explain above, I don’t necessarily think that all academic work needs to be activist. It is at times necessary to separate the two. What cannot, in my view, be separated is the relationship between academic research and politics. I study feminists, and I also consider myself a feminist researcher, which means I work within a specific tradition or philosophy of feminist knowledge production, rooted within ongoing feminist debates and dialogues across the social sciences. A key tenant of this school of thought is that all research is political. All knowledge is socially, politically, and historically situated. All forms of knowledge, even those which claim to be objective, reflect the particular conditions in which they are produced and can, in turn, reify normative power relations. The key element that sets activist scholarship apart is that its practitioners recognize that knowledge is linked to power and, in turn, resistance. Working from this assumption, they strive for scholarship that aligns itself in solidarity with marginalized communities and their social justice projects
When—or under what conditions—if ever, do you think academic research should be more “activist”?
One condition in which academic research should be more activist in its orientation is when it is benefitting from the knowledge and labor of marginalized communities. There is a great deal of scholarship on power, media, identity, and communication that is grounded in the writings and voices of activists doing the hard work of organizing for change, the writing and voices of women, people of color, queer and trans people. But this scholarship is not always produced or even circulated in a manner that benefits or reaches these communities, nor do the researchers behind this scholarship always try to return the labor these communities have performed for their benefit. This is one major area where scholars need to begin incorporating the reflexive questions that should be part of an activist scholarship practice. Who is my research for? If I am saying this research is for the marginalized groups I am studying, how am I making good on that promise in specific, concrete ways? I am benefiting from these communities’ time and energy and I am claiming authority in representing their perspectives and experiences, which can have an impact on their actual lives. What am I doing to address this power imbalance? Scholars that want to talk to talk, to frame their research as critical and politically engaged, must also walk the walk and develop methods for channeling the benefits and knowledge of their research into the communities they study.
Do you feel there is (or should be) an ethical obligation (beyond IRB and other institutionalized research standards) to the activists you study in your research?
Yes! IRB approval is a flawed mechanism for gauging the ethics of any research project. The process of obtaining IRB approval turns ethics into a simple declaration before you begin your project. The linear process of IRB approval suggests that if you submit the paperwork and the IRB approves your project, your project is officially ethical and nothing more needs to be done. I am interested in a more processual approach to ethical research. Annette Markham has written several pieces describing ethics as a method. Every methodological choice and action the researcher makes or takes has ethical consequences, whether she recognizes them or not. A processual “ethics as methods” approach incorporates reflexive questions throughout the research process, so that you are reflecting critically on your choices through your study.
The IRB’s definitions of harm and risk also do not account for other types of problematic issues that a researcher can create for her participants. The IRB doesn’t ask you to explain how you will mitigate the power imbalance between yourself and the community you are representing, or how you will work to make sure your participants can benefit from the knowledge you produce. A more critical, reflexive, processual approach to ethics can incorporate these questions.
For researchers who study activists, this processual approach is especially important, because there are specific ethical considerations to keep in mind. Some of these considerations are more pragmatic. How am I going to protect this potentially vulnerable group of political subjects, who could face threats or violence if their identities were revealed? How am I going to compensate activist participants for their time and energy, given that they are already low on both, and that their time would be better spent actually doing labor for the movement under study? But other ethical considerations are more abstract. How can I contribute to their social justice projects? Do I have access to skills or resources that might be useful for their cause? How can I communicate the knowledge I produce through my research with them in a manner that benefits their work? Doing activist-academic work always comes back to the practice of reflexivity and asking yourself a long list of questions about your research process, from the formulation of your research questions to the writing up and circulating of your findings.
Recently, a first-year graduate student here at the Annenberg School emailed me to ask what, exactly, "media activism" is. I use this phrase a lot in my research -- it's even in the title of my dissertation, Doing it Ourselves: The Networked Practices of Feminist Media Activism -- and in my campus community work -- I helped start Penn's Media Activism Research Collective back in 2014. I was glad to have the opportunity to really meditate on this term a bit and share an edited version of my response below. I would love to hear what "media activism" means to you and whose perspectives have helped you define this keyword.
It’s a great question, and a complicated one as you noted. Like any other keyword in academic research, this is a term with multiple definitions and a whole family of related keywords that various scholars and stakeholders prefer. But it’s definitely smart to spend time in your first year figuring out how the terms you’re studying have been defined.
Fortunately/unfortunately for you, the debates around this term are a focal point in my dissertation and part of my bone to pick with existing work on social movements and media, so here’s my long-winded answer:
In my understanding, “media activism” is used to mean two different but related things: 1) Individual or collective efforts to reform policies related to media, communication, and technology and/or expand access to these tools; and 2) Any individual or collective effort to create change using media. My interests tend toward the second, but there can be crossover between these types of media activism. For example, movements for net neutrality in the U.S. fall under #1, but if a group got together and launched a hashtag campaign for net neutrality, thereby calling on people to participate in a mediated form of protest, it would cross over into #2.
I am definitely not a media policy/media reform expert, so I can’t speak much more to the first definition. But as for the second definition, when it comes to the study of how media have been used for activist purposes, scholars have largely conceptualized media in one of two ways: 1) media as a resource to be mobilized in the pursuit of political work happening elsewhere (for example, using Facebook to tell people when and where a street protest is taking place); or 2) media as a political practice of activism in an of itself.
In my own work, I think of media as political practices. I’m interested in how feminist media-making, whether it’s a hashtag, a zine, or an underground newspaper from the 1970s, functions as a political action in and of itself, regardless of whether it produces other non-mediated actions elsewhere. For example, in my work, I’ve looked at how posting under a feminist hashtag like #MeToo works to shift the discourse surrounding sexual violence — a political act in its own right, even if it never produces other actions like street protests or policy efforts. I’ve also looked at how, for feminist activists here in Philly, the act of producing and circulating zines is a community-building practice, in which zine-makers and readers create a safe space for expression and connection. In my view, when scholars of movements and media treat media as only a resource or only a set of texts, they overlook how media have historically functioned as important spaces for political participation and how, behind-the-scenes, activists invest a great deal of thought and energy into creating a set of media tactics that reflects their values. Also, for researchers really invested in activist scholarship that is participatory and grounded in the movements they study, framing media as practices shifts the analysis toward the actual practitioners and their organizing work. When we approach media as resources, we only really need to look at media texts, not the people behind them.
The idea that media-making can function as a form of political activism may not sound like that much of a radical claim. I came into this work assuming that this argument was kind of common sense, based on my own experiences as an activist and also based on my background as an English major reading feminist literary theory about writing and expression as liberatory acts. But then I started getting pushback from sociologists, political scientists, and communication folks who either work from an understanding of what counts as “politics” that is rooted in the government and state-based institutions or from an understanding of political change that requires more immediate, concrete measures, such as numbers of policies passed or resources created. I soon learned that some classic works in social movement theory (much of which is rooted in sociology and political science), such as Contentious Politics by Charles Tilly and Sydney Tarrow, define activism/collective action/contentious politics (another set of debated keywords that all describe similar phenomena) as public-facing actions directed at the state. This is really problematic for U.S. feminists who have spent a lot of time using tactics that revolve around media, expression, and discourse to highlight the ways in which the personal can be political. In this framework, for example, #MeToo doesn’t count as political activism. So, in my work, I use a definition of media activism that frames media as political practices in and of themselves, to expand what “counts” as politics and activism and highlight the political dynamics of feminist media-making.
In case you’re looking for theoretical resources, I use Nick Couldry’s “media-as-practice” framework and I draw on Foucault’s concept of discourse, Stacey Young’s theory of discursive activism, and Patricia Hill-Collins’ work on rearticulation and black feminist thought to make the case for media as political practices. I also draw on counterpublic theory (Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner) and theories of prefigurative politics (Francesca Polletta) to talk about how the act of media-making can produce communities that reflect the type of world or society activists are trying to build — again, a form of political work, even if it’s not directed at the state or policy creation.
This annotated bibliography Betty, Jasmine, and I worked on with Guobin may also be useful. We used to the phrase “activist media,” rather than "media activism," to signal our focus on how media are used for activist purposes.
And finally, for your Google Scholar search term purposes, and to highlight the fact that we are still trying to articulate what, exactly, media activism is, here are some descriptions scholars have placed before “media" to talk about media activism/activist media: “alternative," “citizens’,” “radical,” “community,” “civil society,” “critical,” “tactical,” “autonomous,” “rhizomatic,” “small,” “our,” and “DIY” media.
I hope this is helpful! Thanks for giving me the time to nerd out a bit here, and let me know if you ever want to chat more in person about this area of research.
I'm blogging about class activities and teaching strategies from my Media, Activism, and Social Movements course, an undergraduate-level seminar I designed for advanced high school students participating in Penn Summer Prep 2017. You can find an introduction to the course here and other posts about the course here.
One section of my Media, Activism, and Social Movements seminar offers a survey of different media genres, with one day dedicated to news media coverage of protests, one to activist print media, and another to online activism. By far, my favorite class session this past summer was our print media day. Surprisingly enough, course feedback suggests that this was also my students' favorite session. Much of their lives revolves around digital media platforms, so exploring firsthand the potential of print media activism was new and exciting for many of them and offered a different mode for reflecting on course content.
The print media activism session has two parts. First, drawing on assigned readings from John McMillian's Smoking Typewriters, we explore the history and practices of the 1960s underground press in the United States, a key predecessor for the activist zine scenes of the 1980s and 1990s and, later, online activism. After establishing some historical context, I ask students to work in groups to analyze underground publications archived on Independent Voices, an incredible digital resource with hundreds of text-searchable Civil Rights-Era titles.
Next, we turn our attention to zines. In our seminar, activist zines are of special interest, but the zine can be applied as a teaching tool across a variety of different contexts. With this in mind, I'll spend the rest of the post talking about teaching the zine as a particular media genre and making zines together in the classroom.
Introducing Zines in the Classroom
Teaching with zines comes with a particular challenge -- the zine, or little magazine, eludes precise definitions. Plus, in my summer class, I found that most of my students had never held a zine before and many had never even heard of zines. Our first task as a class, then, was to develop a working definition of "zine."
While students read excerpts from Stephen Duncombe's Notes from the Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture prior to class, I purposefully avoid describing or historicizing zines at the start of this lesson. Instead, I pass around zines from my own collection and give students about 10-15 minutes to page through the booklets and trade with neighbors. Zines often feature edgy or zany writing and artwork, so students have a lot of fun with this, especially if you encourage them to chat and share with each other as they peruse. Plus, the best way to teach newcomers about zines is to hand them a stack. In my own research, I found that many feminist zine-makers (or zinesters) only began making their own zines after getting their hands on someone else's for the first time.
Next, I ask students to call out descriptions of the zines they read and I write down their responses on the board. Since zines vary widely in form, content, and degree of professionalism, this inevitably brings up important points of contrast. For every zine in my collection made only from paper, Sharpies, staples, and a photocopier, there's one printed in color on cardstock with artist-grade inks and paints; for every hilarious zine, there's a heartbreaking one; for every zinester with an informal, deeply personal voice, there's one who writes in deadly serious, formal, manifesto-like prose. We discuss these contradictory observations together as a class and I help steer students toward a broad definition of "zine" that leaves room for all this variety. Then, based on their own experiences paging through the zines, I ask students to share what they think makes for a particularly good zine, what the strengths and limitations of zines as a genre might be, and how zines are similar to or different from other types of media, like newspapers or blogs.
Going into this lesson, I was concerned that students without prior experience or direct instruction from me might not have much to say about zines. But I found that the opposite was true -- their first brief encounters with zines inspired a lengthy discussion of the genre and a solid definition of what zines look like and do.
Drawing on the Duncombe excerpts, I then provide some historical background on zines. I start with their roots in the science fiction fandoms of the 1930s and touch on the Riot Grrrl era of the 1980s and 1990s. But then, I remind students that all the zines in front of them were produced within the past five years. This inspires a discussion of why, in the digital age, alternative media-makers might continue to make zines. I use this as a moment to introduce the concept of counterpublics to students, but contemporary zine-making provides a great opportunity to talk about the limits of free expression online and the advantages of print versus digital media.
For the purposes of our class, reading and exploring zines in the classroom helped us think about a particular type of activist media. In another class, you could incorporate zines as assigned readings from expert and amateur practitioners or as examples of literary or visual art. You can find more ideas for lesson plans that incorporate zines on the Barnard Zine Library's website.
Making a Zine Together
In the second half of this lesson, following the philosophy that the best way to learn about zine-making is to try it, I ask students to make a zine. There are many different ways to make a zine, but since time in the classroom is a precious resource, I suggest two strategies for making a quick, low-maintenance zine in just one class session:
1) every student can make their own mini-zine out of a single sheet of paper; or,
2) each student can contribute one page to a class zine on a particular topic.
I opted for strategy #2 and asked students to create a single page for a how-to zine for activists trying to improve their media tactics. Then, after class, I assembled and photo-copied our class zine and distributed it to students in the next class session. The class zine creates a productive challenge -- students only have one page to consider a big question -- and results in a single, co-authored text that sums up what students have learned in class thus far, which they get to bring home and review later. Plus, the "how-to" genre pushes students to make connections between course content and real-world practices and problems and the process of making a zine offers a new artistic mode for exploring concepts.
Let's move on to the nuts and bolts of this activity. Zine assembly can be tricky. Preparation is key to making this activity go as smoothly as possible. I've done this activity in class twice now, so these are my tried and true directions, perfected through trial and (lots of) error.
Class Time: 45-60 minutes
It may seem like a daunting task, but it is possible and even simple if you follow these steps:
Class Zine Debrief
At the start of the next class session, I distributed the zines to students and gave them some time to page through them and talk with each other about the final product. Then, I asked them reflect as a class on the zine-making process: what did you like about making a zine? What didn’t you like? Did making a zine make you think differently about the strengths or limitations of print media as a form of activist media? Do you have any new ideas about why people make zines?
For the purposes of our course, this discussion became an important point of contrast for our next area of focus -- online activism. In your own course, you could easily shape this discussion to suit your needs. Regardless, I am sure you'll find that incorporating zine-making into the classroom gives students an opportunity to reflect on course content through a new outlet and may even inspire students to explore alternative media-making in their own time.
This month, I'm blogging about class activities and teaching strategies from my Media, Activism, and Social Movements course, an undergraduate-level seminar I designed for advanced high school students participating in Penn Summer Prep 2017. You can find an introduction to the course here and other posts about the course here.
Day 1 of Media, Activism, and Social Movements involves laying some important groundwork for the course. Like your typical college seminar, this involves some of the standard elements of "syllabus day" -- we walk through the syllabus together, so I can rest easy knowing my students have read over it at least once. But given the nature of this class -- high school students encountering college-level material for the first time in a discussion-heavy course that asks difficult questions about social justice -- I wanted to make especially sure we were jumping off from a strong foundation.
With this in mind, in our first class, we tackled three important tasks: 1) setting the space for empowering discussions, 2) strategizing for sometimes difficult readings, and 3) establishing the major definitions and questions that will motivate our work. These three steps toward revamping "syllabus day" can be extracted and adapted for the first session of just about any course.
Setting the Space
Penn Summer Prep students come from all over the world. Their backgrounds, their high schools, their interests, and their experiences vary dramatically. Given this, we spent a lot of time on our first day together getting to know one another and thinking explicitly about how we will engage with each other.
One of the first things I do in class is ask students to take part in an icebreaker. Now, icebreakers are loathed by students and teachers alike, and for good reasons; they are often embarrassing and yield little useful information about participants. But good ice breakers -- and they do exist -- not only help students get to know their peers, but they also get students used to talking with one another and to the whole class early on.
I found inspiration for actually useful icebreakers in this Cult of Pedagogy blog post by teaching expert Jennifer Gonzalez. Together, we played five rounds of "Lines and Blobs," in which students line themselves up or form blobs according to a set of directions that I give. First, students line themselves up in alphabetical order according to their first name without any help from me -- they have to figure out what everyone's names are and arrange themselves on their own. This serves as their basic introduction to each other. Then, they line themselves up according to who travelled the greatest distance to be at Penn; this gives them a sense of the diversity of backgrounds in the room. Next, students form blobs by high school year and then by prospective college majors, and finally; my goal here is to help them find something they have in common with their peers from the get-go. Finally, I ask them to form three blobs: one blob of people who would say they have a lot of experience with activism, one blob of people who would say they have some experience with activism, and one blob of people who say they have little or no experience with activism. I purposefully do not define "activism" at this point, and give students time on their own to discuss what this term means and how it has manifested in their lives. The purpose of this question is not to shame students who haven't had many activist experiences., and I am careful to let students know this up front Rather, the purpose is threefold: 1) It creates space for students to talk about personal stories. This helps us stay more on task later on, but more importantly, it helps students get personally invested in the class from the start; 2) It helps me get a sense of students' experience with course content before we dive in; and 3) It gets students thinking about what "activism" actually entails; often, by the end of this class session in both sections of the course, students who initially said they had never done anything "activist" changed their minds and were able to identify some activist action they had taken.
Once we've begun to get to know each other, we lay down some basic ground rules for class discussions. Given that the course revolves around questions related to social justice, we often end up discussing difficult topics, so it's important to intentionally create a productive space for discussion. To facilitate productive discussion, I ask students to keep name tents on their desks, which helps all of us (myself include) refer to classmates directly by their name. In the syllabus, I also ask students to follow three basic discussion guidelines:
1. Respect others’ rights to hold opinions and beliefs that differ from your own. Challenge or criticize the idea, not the person.
Working together as a class, on our first day, I ask us to come up with and agree upon at least five more guidelines for discussion and to write them on the syllabus beneath my initial set of three guidelines. In both sessions, students came up with at least six more guidelines, covering everything from basic essentials (no interrupting, share the floor, etc.) to the more abstract (create space for classmates to ask big or basic questions, understand that experience filters perception, and more). Suggested guidelines were not added to our official list unless we all agreed with them. The act of collaboratively writing these guidelines gives each student a stake in how the course was run, Throughout the course, I reinforced our guidelines as necessary but more importantly, students felt comfortable reinforcing the guidelines for one another.
Strategizing for Readings
At Penn Summer Prep, high schoolers engage with college-level readings and academic articles, often for the first time. With this in mind, I asked students to complete three sentence stems about each of the assigned readings prior to class:
Something new I learned from this reading is ____________________________ .
Since Penn Summer Prep students do not take courses for credit, I did not collect or grade these. Instead, I instructed students to jot these completed sentences down in their readings notes or even directly on their reading packets and asked students to share their responses either at the beginning of sessions focused on particularly difficult readings or during class, when discussion fell flat. For a traditional, credited, undergraduate seminar, especially a lower-level, introductory course, asking students to submit their stem sentences electronically through an online classroom management system like BlackBoard or Canvas could help fuel discussion and hold students accountable for the reading. In my case, these stem sentences helped the readings seem less intimidating for my high schoolers. Once class prep work was boiled down to these three simple questions, diving into the readings became easier.
Establishing Definitions and Questions
Our most important task for the first day of class is to establish our key definitions and motivating questions for the corse. We did this together through two board exercises.
First, we collaboratively define our three key terms for the class: media, activism, and social movements. This exercise works best if students understand why it's important to define our terms in the first place, even when the terms are words we might use in everyday vocabulary. As researchers, our definitions shape the lenses through which we see the world, which in turn shapes the kinds of questions we ask and the phenomena we study.
Once we've established this important point, we get to work defining each key term, starting with media. First, I ask students to spend about two minutes doing some free-writing in response to a simple question: "What is media?" Then, after two minutes have passed, I ask students to share their answers, either by raising their hands or calling them out, and I record them on the board. With each response, I ask the rest of the class whether they agree or disagree. In the process, not only do we develop definitions for our key terms, but we also get our assumptions about these key terms out on the table for questioning before we dive into the rest of the course.
We repeat this for both "activism" and "social movements;" with these two terms in particular, students' responses yield important debates over what "counts" as activism or a movement. These debates become important reference points for the rest of the course.
Importantly, my job is to synthesize students' responses into cohesive definitions and repeat them back to the class. I start our second session with a Google Slides presentation that begins with the definitions we agreed upon, just to reinforce our key definitions before going forward with the rest of the course. Like collaboratively writing class discussion guidelines, collaboratively defining our key terms gives students a personal stake in the course's focus and direction.
With our key terms defined, we can start asking questions about media, activism, and social movements. For this section of class, I ask students to do some imagination work and pretend that they are researchers seeking to learn more about media, activism, and social movements. What research questions could they ask? This is a challenging task for introductory-level students, so I set this up as a "think, pair, share" activity. First, working independently, students jot down questions for about two minutes. Then, they share with a neighbor for another two or three minutes. Next, I hand out big Post-It notes and ask each student to choose their favorite or most interesting question, write it down in big, bold letters, and stick it anywhere on the board. I ask students to stay standing in front of the board and to begin grouping similar questions and to identify emergent themes (an affinity mapping strategy adapted from Cult of Pedagogy).
We repeat this process a second time, this time imagining we are activists. Once we have both academic and activist questions mapped on the board, I ask students to identify similarities and differences between the two categories of questions. This gets us thinking about what social movement researchers and activists can learn from each other and why the course content matters for the real world.
After class, I photograph each Post-It note. These become great material for class wrap-ups. At the end of every class session, we discuss at least one of the Post-It questions and think about whether or not our class readings and discussions for that day have brought us any closer to an answer, or if there are any new questions we can ask about the topic at hand. Again, my goal here is to give students a stake in the class, to identify a question they walked in with and to get them thinking about how their knowledge around that question has grown.
I developed this three-part, revamped "syllabus day" especially for my high school students, but these three basic components can become organizing principles for the first day of any humanities or social science class, especially one at the introductory level. Class time is precious, so making syllabus day actually work for you is key!
In July and August, I taught two sections of Media, Activism, and Social Movements, an introductory, undergraduate seminar course I designed, as part of Penn's Summer Prep Program for advanced high schoolers. It was without a doubt the most rewarding teaching experience I've had as a graduate student. Students take Penn Summer Prep courses exclusively for the experience; there are readings and assignments, but no grades. The program in turn draws students who are especially eager to get a firsthand look at college life and academics. Both of my sections (one group of 20 and another group of 12) were filled with energetic and passionate student-activists ready to tackle difficult questions and topics that typically don't find their way into high school classrooms. All of this added up to a great opportunity to experiment with new in-class activities.
Over the next few weeks, I am going to share lesson plans for activities we did together in class. But before we go any further, I want to provide some context for the course.
First, it's important to note that at the outset, I found myself approaching this course differently than I have approached regular undergraduate courses. These students would be younger and less experienced than my college-aged students and I felt as though I needed to invest more time and energy into developing a class that challenged them while also meeting them where they were at. How could I make this material accessible and meaningful to high school students? What can I do to introduce or reinforce the skills they'll need to succeed in college? What about the typical college seminar or lecture is not going to work for this particular group of students?
For each class session, the answers typically involved hands-on activities, often with the type of playful, imaginative, and, yes, sometimes even "cheesy" work we don't typically ask our more mature (and perhaps slightly more cynical) college-aged students to perform. But toward the end of the program, rather than thinking about the traditional college classroom as a learning model that needs to be reimagined for high school-level students, I found myself reimagining the traditional college class altogether, with my enthusiastic high schoolers as the inspiration.
During the Penn Summer Prep Program, I was also co-teaching an undergraduate course at the Annenberg School on Communication and Popular Culture in the evenings. I started asking myself the same question I asked about my high schoolers, but this time, about my undergrads -- What can I do to make this material come to life for them? The result was more creative lesson plans and more engaged students, who found more meaningful connections with the material when given a hands-on task that asked them to approach it from a new angle, even if it seemed a little cheesy at first. As instructors, we might shy away from creative and playful teaching when it comes to our undergraduates, who are, after all, adults who have graduated beyond the high school classroom, where play may be more acceptable or even expected. Teaching in the Penn Summer Prep Program pushed me to approach the college classroom more creatively.
Now, more details about the class itself. Here's the course description:
From #YesAllWomen to #BlackLivesMatter, from the People’s Climate March to the Women’s March on Washington, a new generation of activists has taken the world by storm, with global media networks as their megaphones. The goal of this course is to explore, from the perspectives of multiple disciplines and fields of study, how contemporary activists harness a diverse range of media tools and platforms for social change. We will define “media” broadly, and consider not only the relationship between movements and mainstream news media, but also social media, street protests, DIY print media projects, and more. While digital media have altered the face of activism, we will trace important historical continuities between today’s social movements and the movements of the past. Most importantly, we will keep in mind that while new media have brought greater reach to today’s movements, these new platforms have also created new risks and challenges for activists. Ultimately, through independent readings and in-class activities, we will explore how social change emerges from the resilience and creativity of activist media-makers.
You can download the syllabus here.
Ultimately, my main goal in designing the course was to facilitate an undergraduate-level introduction to research and thinking at the intersection of media and social movements while also providing my high school students with the resources necessary to tackle undergraduate-level readings, likely for the first time. I developed our course readings, assignments, policies, and in-class activities with with three specific undergraduate-level skills in mind: reading closely and critically, engaging in accountable and empowering discussions, even when the topic at hand is a difficult one, and creating real world applications,
Throughout this month, I'll share lesson plans for hands-on activities that help students make connections between course content and real world social justice and activist concerns. My next post, which will focus on our very first class session, will hone in on the questions of close reading and empowering discussions. Teaching is a truly collaborative venture; I've learned a lot from teaching blogs, groups, journals, and, of course, my faculty and colleagues at Penn. I hope to pay it forward with these posts and invite readers to borrow/adapt/reimagine these activities for their own classrooms.