Last fall I made my triumphant return to Towson University, this time as a mass communication major. In my attempt to finish my degree as quickly as possible, I took three weeks of vacation time (the military calls it “leave”) and enrolled in two classes during Towson’s January semester: the minimester. Fun trivia: how many credits has Adam amassed at Towson? (answer below!)
For the last decade, I’ve played saxophone in the United States Navy Band, traveling all over the country, and playing everywhere and for everyone in D.C. I even got to spend the first eight-plus weeks of my naval career at a place called Recruit Training Command (boot camp), where I was yelled at, tear gassed, sleep-deprived and exercised. Recently, I packed up my horns and traded them in for a desk. I now work in our public affairs office, focusing my efforts on public relations, marketing and social media.
Class? What class?
My afternoon class is entitled Media Criticism, and the only thing I knew about it was that it satisfied one of the requirements of my major. My wife told me that I’d be set if that class was all about criticizing things. She’s right, in the sense that it is about criticism. In this case, it’s a more involved and analytical type of criticism.
As Dr. Nichols, the professor, presented in her lecture, we live in a “media-saturated world.” We’re bombarded with advertisements, entertainment and information on television, computers, phones, books, magazines, newspapers and in public spaces. There are more ways than ever for humans to communicate with other humans.
This media saturation is exactly why it’s important to think critically about everything you see and hear. It’s essential to think about who is trying to reach you, what they are trying to communicate, and why. In addition, we often have to sort out what is true, what is sort of true and what is absolutely false.
UCLA’s Douglas Kellner put it perfectly (and more academically than I ever could) in his article “Cultural Studies, Multiculturalism, and Media Culture”:
We are immersed from cradle to grave in a media and consumer society and thus it is important to learn how to understand, interpret, and criticize its meanings and messages. The media are a profound and often misperceived source of cultural pedagogy: They contribute to educating us how to behave and what to think, feel, believe, fear, and desire — and what not to. The media are forms of pedagogy which teach us how to be men and women. They show us how to dress, look and consume; how to react to members of different social groups; how to be popular and successful and how to avoid failure; and how to conform to the dominant system of norms, values, practices, and institutions. Consequently, the gaining of critical media literacy is an important resource for individuals and citizens in learning how to cope with a seductive cultural environment. Learning how to read, criticize, and resist socio-cultural manipulation can help empower oneself in relation to dominant forms of media and culture. It can enhance individual sovereignty vis-a-vis media culture and give people more power over their cultural environment.
Criticizing… with extreme prejudice
There are six steps to a systematic critical process: selecting, describing, analyzing, interpreting, evaluating and writing. Bear with me, I’m going to move fast. For your sake and mine.
Let’s select a television show. Why? Because, that’s why. “30 Rock.” Why “30 Rock?” Because I watch it.
“30 Rock” follows the writers and cast of a fictional sketch comedy show on NBC television. Tina Fey plays the head writer, Liz Lemon, and Alec Baldwin stars as the NBC executive, Jack Donaghy. The show is funny. Trust me.
Lemon and Donaghy are easily the most interesting characters, simply because they are caricatures of American liberals and conservatives. Lemon plays the urban liberal feminist, and Donaghy the corporate elite conservative. And both to comedic effect.
This idealogical divide between the two characters adds tension to a working relationship that is otherwise friendly. It is the tension, and their differing politics as the foundation of that tension, that offers the opportunity for humor.
In some ways, it’s refreshing in our current political climate that two people from opposite ends of the political spectrum can get along, both professionally and personally. It’s tough to imagine a Republican and Democrat in Congress doing the same.
But why? Why??
Let me tell you why I think that this level (and more) of criticism is necessary. First, we need to know what’s being communicated to us and why. Second, it’s good for us, especially communication professionals, to know what works and what doesn’t. Third, it helps us to know something about ourselves; what entertains and intrigues us, and why?
Oh- and the answer to the trivia question? 153. 153.