My varied research interests and methodological training have provided me with a critical toolbox with which to examine diverse cultural implications of digital technologies. Through my teaching, I work to share this toolbox with students and assist them in exploring the implications of digital media on communication theory and practice.
I emphasize experiential learning, both in terms of subject matter in the classroom, which takes students beyond the classroom in order to experience the real world applications of the work they do. A central tenant of my teaching is to make the experiential and esoteric tactile and material, an approach that lends itself well to teaching new media theory and production. By this, I am referencing TPR (total physical response), a traditional teaching method used in language learning, where learning new vocabulary or grammar often requires the human body to change or adapt its physical form upon learning this new notion or particular concept. Take, for example, Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality, a somewhat abstract and dense concept for some undergraduates to understand. Encouraging students to engage with difficult concepts in a physical or material form helps them access sometimes challenging theories. In the case of hyperreality, I use something simple as a roll of painter’s tape on the floor of the classroom and group students in a cluster in and out of this new reality created within the demarcated area. Students have a material vision of the concept. Visual learners get to see the concept in motion. Auditory learners are able to learn through the lecture and listening to their classmates’ work through the process in the physical model. Kinetic learners, such as myself, comprehend from the physical response of actually moving from one reality to another. This TPR approach works to bring abstract physical concepts to life for students, allowing them not only to see but also to experience these concepts in practice.
This approach is just as relevant to digital media classes, where I teach students not only the mechanics of different software tools, but ask them to explore the theories that influence their work and the affordances of the media in which they are working. Students must understand not only how to use the technology but why and for what purpose. Why are certain technologies available? What are their affordances and why is this important? For example, when might an argument be best made through text, and when might the information be better served when presented as an infographic? My assignments and approaches encourage students to explore these media affordances in order to experience these distinctions for themselves.
This experiential learning also moves student assignments from the classroom to the world outside. My assignments are designed to encourage students to seek out resources around them and to contribute to their university and surrounding communities. An example is a video production assignment that asks students to represent one aspect of the university for an outside audience. This project asks students to seek out resources from individuals in the university marketing office and then to use that information to create a video project that the marketing department can then use with outside audiences. This assignment mimics a production project with a specific client and timeline, engages students in the university community, and also provides authentic audiences for their projects.
My media studies courses also combine critical analysis with hands-on learning. I designed a Rhetoric of Television and Film course to examine both the television industry and its cultural impact through representations of race and gender. This class also has an experiential component, and I split students into groups and divide up the roles of showrunners, producers, and writers to create a scene in a particular television genre. This project allows students not only to analyze television programs as media objects, but to also understand the larger ecosystem of the television industry. In my Media Ethics and Law class, I also take students through the process of filing open records requests, learning first-hand how to gather information and manage relationships with sources.
This first-hand experience extends to my participation in international programs and study abroad. As a member of the university’s International Committee, I led a group of HBCU students to Hokkaidō, Japan for a six-week stay that had students participate and understand media production within a global context. Students learned about the Japanese mediascape, participated in cultural events, and traveled throughout the country on excursions outside our base city in Sapporo.
My hands-on, experiential approach to teaching is a method applicable to theory, media studies, and production courses. Through this approach, I ask students to reconsider elements of media they have taken for granted and encourage critical thinking about that media and its place in the culture at large, assisting them in becoming critical consumers and producers of media.
For more on Dr. Theo Plothe’s teaching, please see his curriculum vitae here.