Students glean corn in Apopka. Photo by Lindsey Reid ’09.

Jennifer Zyski ’10, Kelsey Pike ’10, Shannon Walsh ’11, and Julie Klempf ’11 participate in a corn gleaning project in Apopka, Florida, an experience in the immersion course, Media, Peace, and Justice. Photo by Lindsey Reid ’09.

Breaking New Social Ground

Critical Media and Cultural Studies

By Leigh Brown Perkins

When critical media and cultural studies (CMC) was officially listed as a major four years ago, it was projected that, with time, it might grow to have 50 students.

By the end of its first year, 100 students had already declared themselves CMC majors. “Out of all 30 majors on campus, only economics graduated more seniors this year,” said Lisa Tillmann, professor of CMC and department chair.

• Number of ads average American views per day: 5,000

• Number of murders on TV average American child will see by age 18: 16,000

• Average time teenagers spend browsing the internet: 11 hours, 32 minutes per month

• Average time adults spend browsing the internet: 29 hours, 15 minutes per month

Part of its popularity is the currency of the major’s content for students who have never known anything but interactive, visual, virtual, and immediate communication.

But Tillmann said the major appeals to students who want to discover how such media support and undermine the public interest and the practice of citizenship. “We have been able to recruit and retain socially conscious students who are independent thinkers,” she said. “And a more pragmatic reason we have so much interest is the production element.”

Unlike a traditional communications major, CMC majors are trained in the tools of creating their own visual media, from Photoshop to sound editing. Such technical expertise not only gives CMC graduates an edge in the job market, but also enhances liberal arts skills like critical thinking and expression. “To be literate in the 21st century depends on more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic. To be literate today means that we are able to critically read and analyze visual messages and produce them ourselves,” Tillmann said.

To that end, students must complete a practicum requirement that can be fulfilled through an academic internship, a study-abroad experience, or significant service to campus media.

Louisa Gibbs ’11 confesses she didn’t even know how to turn on a camera when she was a first-year student, but as a CMC major, she has gone on to create a documentary about the homeless in Orlando and is working on her final project, a film about human trafficking. “I am studying things I never knew existed,” she said. “CMC is so engaged with what’s happening in this moment out in the world. It’s not only made me more aware, it’s propelled me to be a leader on campus. It’s opened the whole idea of advocacy to me.”

Such social consciousness comes about by design. Classwork is often combined with service-learning experiences, such as in the course Media, Peace, and Justice taught by Associate Professor of CMC Denise Cummings. Her students, including Gibbs, co-produced the Global Peace Film Festival on campus, giving them hands-on experience with a film festival centered on peace and social justice, as well as connections to the wider community, including, for instance, farm workers from Apopka, who are invited to screenings and discussions. “I have sought ways for students to become introduced to and better understand this community,” Cummings said.

Cummings and Tillmann have taken students on a Toxic Tour of Apopka to expose them to the human and environmental costs of agricultural toxins. In the spring, CMC seniors sold Sweetwater Coffee to raise money for the Farmworkers Association of Florida.

Like many students, Gibbs has been profoundly influenced by such experiences. She now hopes to attend law school to study public interest and human rights.

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