What does it mean to live in a democracy and what is the role of media—ubiquitous, digital, easy-to-produce, easy-to-distribute, endlessly re-posted and recomposed media—in a democratic society? This was just one of the questions at the heart of COMM 405: Participatory & Public Culture in the Digital Era which would have been enough for us to tackle, but, as with every aspect of the class, there was more to it.
Each democracy, in practice, is different. The central rights a nation focuses on protecting and ensuring access to can differ, and in the United States, one of our founding values is the right to own property. As we began to consider examples of digital (activist blogs and tumblrs, hacktivism) and non-digital (zines, minority public access television) forms of participatory and public culture, we repeatedly ran into concerns about how alternative and self-produced media can be coopted by consumerist forces. If an inherent assumption of the course was that democracy, in its emphasis on everybody’s access and engagement in the realm of media and thereby the realm of public discourse, was good, what did it mean that democracy wasn’t what we assumed it was? This conundrum became steadily more vexing as week after week we read about subcultural media production in the United States, or delved into the politics of reality TV in China and Saudi Arabia, or considered fan mobilizations for film-stars-turned-politicians in South India. More than that, this nagging question became important because half of my intrepid students were not from the United States. They were from China, a non-democratic sovereign state with a population more than four times the size of the U.S. and a completely different business model for mass media.
As a PhD student in Communication Studies at the University of Michigan, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to plan and offer my own course, to take responsibility for and have control over its subject matter and its pedagogical practices. It allowed me to design a class that involved not only studying different types of media, but making them (e.g. zines, tumblrs)! I had often found myself—from primary school into my graduate studies—sitting in a classroom where the assumed topic and norm was the United States, or more generally the West. I was excited about my lessons, but hungry to think globally and comparatively; I could do that with Comm 405! And with the latitude possible as the head instructor, I could test out strategies for creating a classroom dynamic that supported deep student investment and involvement. When I did all this, just like with asking questions about the meaning of democracy, I always received more in return.
I found I too had new insights as I worked to produce our class zine. (Like a deeper respect for zine makers; it always take longer to lay out and produce than you think! And with that I gained an appreciation for zinester’s elaborate labor.) As we learned about reality television shows across the globe and the mobile technologies used to facilitate voting for, say, China’s next Mongolian Cow Yogurt Super Girl, I was reminded how much national communications infrastructures and uses vary. Finally, as my students became deeply invested in questions of participation—Was liking something on Facebook mere slacktivism or a form of civic engagement?—they asked wonderful, difficult questions of society, of themselves, and of me.
The best teachers I have had have been the most engaged learners. When they set up their classes, there is the serious risk that they are going to learn as much as their students. Designing and teaching Comm 405 was an amazing experience and while my students told me they learned a lot, I know, profoundly, that I did as well.
Written by: Lia Wolock