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A freestyle cruise in class

February 28, 2009
Matt, the slightly crazy cruise director

Matt, the slightly crazy cruise director

I didn’t wear an angel costume like Matt did, but he did give me a little gift from heaven…

It takes a certain amount of courage to do something in class that you’ve never done before, especially if it’s a large class and it involves a game that the whole class will play. Probably like a lot of teachers of undergraduates, I’m always hoping to get the class engaged and enthused. I can remember fondly the times that this has occurred the way I imagine it does in the perfect classroom. Sort of like spontaneous combustion, the class will erupt in meaningful discussion.  When I realize that I can step back and say nothing and the class will continue apace, I have hit pedagogical pay dirt.

So, I guess this is my goal for each class. Suddenly, I know why teaching sometimes drives me crazy. I guess I have pretty high expectations.

Whenever I attend a “big group” activity — a seminar, panel discussion, lecture, or even a play or stand-up routine, I’m always trying to analyze what makes audiences pay attention.  When I first started teaching a few years ago, I thought it was all about me, and that made me nervous. But now I have the theory that unless the material being presented is of intense personal interest, the person talking is enormously famous or attractive, or there is non-stop action on stage, a lot of people are engaged when they can talk and contribute.

Just reading that last paragraph helps me realize how tough it can be for a regular old person to hold a class’ gaze and lead it to a fruitful learning outcome.

Over the summer I found myself in a situation comparable to one my students might face in my class, though at first thought it seems an unlikely comparison.  I was on a cruise to the Bahamas, attending an event on board called “Qwest” with other participants who were of my general demographic group but about whom I knew little. I also didn’t know what “Qwest” meant and I had a few reservations about the “teacher” — or cruise director. He was a stocky, Welsh fellow with a spiky crew cut, square black glasses, and a party-boy demeanor who liked to break into a weird smile and talk like Austin Powers.  (A little like me, perhaps, when I do my Tom Brokaw imitation in Understanding Media class.) Sitting, waiting for Qwest to begin, I knew something was going to be required of me and I wasn’t sure I could trust him — a situation a lot of students may find themselves in on the first day of class.

My first instinct was to make myself as invisible as possible and hope that no one called on me. Hmmm. This is more insightful than I first imagined.

Anyway, Matt, the slightly wacky cruise director, had everything under control. His idea was to have a type of scavenger hunt right there as everyone sat in the audience. “Ok, this makes sense,” I said to myself. “This might be fun,” I continued thinking. And, then he assigned us into groups. Sound familiar? (Groups are a big thing in teaching right now. Millennials, the generation now in undergraduate classrooms, are big on groups.)

This being a pleasure cruise, some of the items Matt asked for would not be appropriate for class, of course. But I was actually shocked at how enthusiastic the crowd was about competing to find the items he requested and race them to the stage so he could award points.  The way it worked was that Matt would call out an item or direction — a holographic bank credit card, a man wearing women’s shoes, two men holding hands (Many of the requests involved men wearing women’s clothing or otherwise doing something against gender type — an interesting study in its own right, perhaps.), etc. The first five or so people who got to Matt’s side with the item or request would earn a point for each of their teams. It got a little chaotic at times but in a good way.

Eight weeks later and two weeks into the semester, I’m “Matt” and my students in Understanding Media are the cruise goers.  Most educators in communication departments around the country know this class — the introductory, undergraduate, usually large-size class that introduces students to the field. It’s a media literacy class, and in the first few weeks we are looking at the new media-saturated world we live in and the ways in which we all use media.

Here is my in-class scavenger hunt list (compiled by my TA, my husband and myself) with the approximate number of how many were found in the class of 40: (The numbers are not at all definitive because if you were too late to show what you had, you missed out, or some people might have been too shy to participate.)

electric blue cell phone (2)
iPhone (7)
non-iPod MP-3 player (2)
Gameboy (0)
Fountain pen (0)
Phone with a ringtone of Rolling Stones, Led Zepelin, the Who or the Beatles (Several)Cell phone with a waiting e-mail alert (Many)
Text message in in-box from mother/father or guardian (Several)
Wooden pencil (4)
Music CD (0)
Music cassette (0)
Vinyl (0) (by chance, someone in class had some in a previous class)
Any hard copy section of The Washington Post (2)
A novel (3)
Photos of friends from previous weekend on phone (many)
Text message from someone in class (frantic text messaging produced lots)
GPS device not on phone (0)
Apple laptop with your photo on it (more than 4)
Same with Windows laptop (more than 4)
iPod with earphones that aren’t white (many)
iPod loaded with MJ’s greatest hits! (3)
Tupac and Biggie on the same iPod (2+) (from TA)
M.I.A.’s music video of ‘Jimmy’ on YouTube (frantic downloading)
Text without looking at your phone (5+)
Red cell phone (lots)
Pay-as-you-go phone (0 would admit it)
Verizon as a provider (many)
graphing calculator (2)
Discman (0)
“non-bic” pen. (AKA this pen didn’t come in a pack of 20)
Digital tape recorder (0)
Headphones that aren’t white (several)
Blackberry with school schedule on it (5)
book on tape on I-pod. (0)

Among the things the class said it learned:

–Media are converging on cell phones (many of the individual items could be found on them)

–Media that were “new” just a short time ago are now “old”

–Hardly anyone had a print newspaper

–College students are packing a lot of media in their pockets that would have filled entire buildings decades ago

–College students are packing a lot of media that costs a lot of money, and some people are left out of that privilege

Five bonus points went to the group that could make up the best rap about media.

Here was the rap:

When we need some info we turn to da media

Some dawgs like to look stuff up on Wikipedia

Goin’ on the Internet and lookin’ up some vids

Of the other night, regarding what we all did

The crowd wasn’t as raucus as on the cruise. But, it was still pretty shagadelic, yo.

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