Overly Abstract in EN240?

This evening I met for the first time with EN240: Intro to Visual and Cultural Study, and I was a little off my mark, I think, with the first half of class. I wanted to stage an ice-breaker that would lead us in to a discussion of how we conventionally understand identity, community, and culture. I asked students to brainstorm defining features of their identity, as they saw it, and then to make a similar list of how other people viewed them–how do others (whom you don’t know) categorize you? That’s all well and good, but then I asked students to put themselves into communities with a common culture; that was a little too abstract, I think, and I need to reconsider the wording of the prompt as well as its purpose. The goal was to help students see that there are cultures and identities we select, and we may belong to more than one; those often compete with the identities others ascribe to us. However, I was pleasantly surprised to see how easily students picked up the point that how others define us is often flattening or uninformed, but also that we respond to that and work to define ourselves in relation to their perspectives and other contexts–one student, when I asked why no one identified themselves as students, made an excellent point to the effect of it being too obvious because we were in a classroom. At any rate, the goal was to make real the point that identity isn’t a static thing, but mobile and multiple–and not always wholly under our control. This was to have led into an introduction to semiotics, which we didn’t get to–that will be for next meeting.

But, we did have a good time extrapolating audience features and their values from a selection of magazines I brought in; I asked students to browse through the magazine, and make observations about the advertisements, the articles, the layout choices, and topics discussed–then, try to identify what we could about the target reader: age, race, class, occupation, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, level of education, taste preferences, and other values. Then, students were to select a representative ad and show how it addressed (we didn’t use the term “interpellation”!) or called into being that reader with specific observations about the ad. I think this would work very well as an ice breaker, in lieu of the more cerebral approach I took–they were talking, laughing, getting to know one another, and in the meantime, they seemed to grasp some of the stakes of cultural studies.

As with 203, we didn’t get to go over policies, but I did remember to share my plans on that score with them. In both classes, I’m not at all sure the students are into using twitter as a backchannel–only about 5 of a total of close to 40 students had ever used it!

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