Musings Informed by Danah Boyd’s Keynote About Media Literacy at SXSWEDU

I didn’t make it to SxSWEdu this year, but I enjoyed following the articles, other written reflections, and recordings inspired by or created at the event. Among them, I recently watched the full keynote by Danah Boyd, a candid critique of and insight into the current state of media literacy today. She offered some important insights for our consideration. I’ve put my own twist on a few of them below. Check out the actual keynote for her own words on the subject. I’m sure that she would summarize things differently, but here are some of the points that captured my attention.

  • One can use media literacy and media skills to do both good and harm. As such, it isn’t as simple as checking off on some list of media literacy standards that students are proficient in creating multi-modal messages. Those messages could be in support of a hate crime or cyber-bullying as much as a social good.
  • Simply teaching people to question everything is too simple, and nurturing cynical skeptics of everything that they read/watch/see can be as much of a problem as nurturing people who believe everything that they read/watch/see.
  • The search for “truth” in the digital world is not a simple exercise in a shared or universal set of rules of logic. What each of us perceive as truth is deeply informed by our epistemologies. Our deeply held beliefs and values color what we see, how we see it, and how we interpret it. Our values for ways of discerning knowledge and what is true have an enormous impact as well. This is why three different highly and similarly educated people can listen to the same speech and walk away with three completely different assessments of what was said.[This is my personal aside (not shared from Boyd), but I used to have my graduate students interview a pastor prior to giving a sermon on a Sunday, taking careful notes on the intended message. Then the students had to interview at least five people right after the church service when the sermon was preached. Even in a close-knit faith community where people have many shared beliefs and values, my graduate students consistently discovered a wide array of perceptions, emotional reactions, and interpretations of what people heard in the same sermon.]
  • Our approach to media literacy must be far more thoughtful and nuanced. We must acknowledge affordances and limitations in current efforts, and acknowledge unexpected negative implications for how we approach media literacy in education.
  • A more thoughtful approach to media literacy will help people recognize the role of epistemology as well as the many cognitive biases at work in all of us. Even then, the path is riddled with risks.

Again, these bullet points are informed by Boyd’s keynote, but they certainly have my twist on them. I welcome corrections and clarifications where I might have misrepresented the spirit or letter of Boyd’s keynote.

Regardless, even with this incomplete and flawed summary of five themes that I extracted from her talk, one might anticipate some of the criticisms that Boyd received. Some critics, in my assessment, are so close to media literacy, that it is hard to accept what they perceived as such a harsh critique of the current state of the field/area. I get that, and yet I can relate with Boyd’s position. Over twenty years later, I still recall my first presentation at an educational technology conference. My presentation was a review of the literature on the negative implications of technology in education, and I had a line of software vendors grimacing at me along the back wall of the room. Of course they didn’t like a presentation that might not be good for business, but it was more than that for these critics. They genuinely saw flaws and misrepresentations in what I presented.

The attachment to the field doesn’t discredit the criticisms of such people, but I simply suggest that anyone who has taken the time to survey the current state of media literacy in education and is open to a holistic view of the field is likely to at least see some of the wisdom in Boyd’s comments. One need not agree with every point, the style or tone used in communicating it, or appreciate the selection of illustrations used to explain the points. Yet, some of the larger themes in her keynote were not especially controversial among media scholars, including the many largely more conservative scholars who launched what is now the filed of media ecology, as well as countless philosophers of technology ranging from Heidegger to a more contemporary scholar like Bernard Gendron. I’m also thinking of scholars like Walter Ong, the great Roman Catholic scholar who penned Orality and Literacy, a text that, with no exaggeration, changed my view of the modern world. In fact, some of Boyd’s comments about epistemology were reminiscent of arguments made by great texts in worldview studies, the philosophy of mind, the philosophy of religion, and more. They are also largely familiar concepts for those of us with formal training in interpretive methods of research.

I’ve read and benefited from most of what Boyd has published over the years, and I can say with confidence that she would likely be a strong critic of my life work and writing. To be completely candid, I can hardly read anything that she writes without feeling judged, labeled, even disregarded as a scholar and sometimes as a citizen. It takes extra hard work for me to put on my dispassionate scholar hat and glean as much as I can from her excellent research and writing, but it is almost always worth the effort to be sure. Boyd and I approach our work from very different belief systems. Our epistemologies are a stark contrast to each other. She is able to speak and work from a position of greater trust and respect in the most progressive and elite circles. My work, regardless of whether it is aligned with a given agenda, is persistently suspect because of my faith tradition affiliation when it comes to my valued colleagues in more progressive communities. It is also approached with caution from those within the many networks informed by my faith tradition and my equally valued colleagues from conservative and more libertarian lines of thinking. I find great satisfaction (not to mention insight) in doing work that truly bridges or spans these many groups, but I genuinely strive to pursue truth, beauty, and goodness wherever it might be found, regardless of camp or creed.  I’m sure that she faces supporters and skeptics in different ways. Regardless, I see much wisdom in her keynote and appreciate her courage to challenge us with her comments.

As I listened to Boyd’s comments, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the two most troubling books that I’ve read in the last decade. The first was George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. In it, Lakoff essentially offers a playbook for how progressives can defeat and muzzle the voice of conservatives in modern politics and society. He warns against letting the “other side” frame the debate or discussion. I can say with confidence that the book would have troubled me as much or more if it were a conservative writing it as a playbook against progressives. To me, it was a disturbing proposal to objectify and diminish the other, to choose power over a genuine pursuit of understanding or even democracy. The other book was 48 Laws of Power, what some claim as the most requested book in prison libraries. It is essentially a book on the art and alleged science of power and manipulation. Both of these books came off to me as disregarding a genuine humanizing of people who are different from us, including people who hold different beliefs. Power becomes more real and achievable than the pursuit of truth or unity. Both of these books were perhaps so troubling to me because I see the spirit of them at work in American society today. I share my reflection on these books in this article because these same sentiments are rampant in the manifestation and application of media literacy today.

Yet, I will say that I am likely more optimistic about media literacy than Boyd. Or rather, regardless of how elusive it might be, I consider it good and important for us to champion a shared pursuit and cultivation of truth, goodness, and beauty when it comes to media and messages in contemporary culture. I believe in the ability for us to foster communities where people of different faith traditions, belief systems, and epistemologies find ways to live and learn together, honor and support one another, challenge and disagree with one another, and even struggle together toward such classic transcendentals as truth, beauty, and goodness. They grapple to understand each other and the complex multi-modal texts and messages around them. They disagree but don’t simply relegate it all to a matter of personal opinion and preference. They don’t ignore the other as some sort of political or ideological “framing” tactic. They cultivate more nuanced ways of thinking, caring, and sharing with one another.

These are noble pursuits with regard to media literacy today. They are not achievable in some utopian way, but the pursuit is still worthwhile. There are many dangers along the way, but there are just as many dangers in refusing to go on that journey. So, we keep moving, but we do so with caution. We pause often to learn from insights like those shared by Boyd, and we use what we learn to make sense of life and learning in this brilliant, troubling, beautiful, flawed, massive, confusing, fascinating, ever-changing digital world.

Reflecting on that very journey was, after all, the reason for launching this blog well over a decade ago. As it said on the first version of my site, this is “Etale: Musings About Life and Learning in a Digital Age.”

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.