Like most other people who are keyed into the left/progressive activist milieu, I had been following the Occupy Wall Street events since before the occupation began, mostly via Twitter but also through other sources on the web and a few professional colleagues. I’ve been paying attention to actions like these for a long time as part of my scholarship–I’ve spent the past 5 years or so studying and writing about anarchist activists–so I was expecting Occupy Wall Street to be another in a long line of interesting but not-too-remarkable events. Indeed, as the first several days of the occupation passed, things seemed par for the course. The mainstream media outlets weren’t paying attention, but I had never really expected them to. (One exception was a New York Times “article” which was so blatantly biased against the protesters that I barely paid attention to it, assuming it must be someone’s blog post that got misfiled in the serious journalism section.) When the protests finally became “newsworthy” this past weekend, I was again unsurprised. Unsurprised that what made people pay attention was violent conflict between police and protesters. Thoroughly unsurprised that, though it seems all the violence was *by* police *against* peaceful protesters, organizations like ABC News chose headlines like “Protests Turn Violent,” implying that protests lead to violence just as naturally as clouds lead to rain. Still, par for the course.
It was only when I sat down to write my lectures for this week that I realized I could probably use the coverage as an excellent case study in one of my courses. I’m currently teaching two sections of Introduction to Media Criticism at NYU’s Steinhardt School, in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication. My students have spent the last four weeks learning basic critical theories of culture. I’m teaching theorists so familiar to me by now they feel like old friends–Marx, Gramsci, Adorno, Hall. We’ve talked about the ruling classes and the ruling ideas, media’s function in winning the consent of the governed to dominant ideologies, the standardization and pseudo-individualism of the culture industries, the way our understandings of reality are filtered through the maps of meaning offered to us by cultural institutions like television. Standard Media Studies stuff. Tuesday’s class was to focus on television news programming, in particular the ways hegemonic values are subtly encoded in televisual journalistic conventions (think for instance of how “reporter on the scene” clips reinforce the widely accepted myth that news reports are authentic representations of reality, stabilized and confirmed for us by the emotionally detached anchor in the studio). I always like to show my students a timely, relatable example after dropping abstract ideas on them, so they can practice applying theory for themselves. Of course, the mainstream coverage of Occupy Wall Street came to mind. NYU’s campus is just a short subway ride from Liberty Plaza/Zuccotti Park, so I figured all of the students would have heard plenty about the occupation, and maybe some of them would have even been down there personally or know people who had been. I found a few clips to show (the ABC news one linked above, and this one from NBC) and felt confident we’d have a productive discussion on Tuesday, before moving on to other topics on Thursday.
Tuesday morning I woke up, checked Twitter on my phone as usual, and after seeing all the #occupywallstreet tweets in my feed, it hit me. We had to go downtown and see Occupy Wall Street for ourselves. What better way to demonstrate the ideological filtering at work in television news than to let students develop their *own* eye-witness accounts and compare with mediated representations of the same events? I jumped out of bed and fired off an email to my department to make sure the field trip was ok (it was) and whipped up an assignment description to hand out in class:
For this activity, you are to compare news coverage with your own observation of “newsworthy” events. The first step is to spend at least 30 minutes observing the Occupy Wall Street protests downtown. You should actually go to Zuccotti Park (or another location where protesters have converged) and spend time observing the protesters, police, and journalists who are on the scene. Please do not engage in illegal activity or anything else that might put you in harm’s way! The second step is to compare your observations with mainstream news coverage of the events. You will write up your comparison in a reflection (minimum 1 page). You may also choose to include alternative news coverage via Indymedia or other independent news sources in your reflection.
In Tuesday’s class, I announced that Thursday’s lecture would be cancelled. Students seemed genuinely excited about getting out of the classroom for a field trip. I was surprised to find that a few of them had not even heard of Occupy Wall Street; I was less surprised that none of them could articulate the purpose of the protest or the beliefs of the protesters. This can be attributed on one hand to the decentralized, autonomous politics of the protesters themselves: they don’t actually *have* a singular goal and that’s entirely intentional. But mainstream media must shoulder a great deal of blame for neither grasping this aspect of the protest, nor bothering to investigate and clearly represent any of the multiple aims held by individuals camped out at the occupation, beyond what can be expressed in a 10-second soundbite. Mainstream outlets have chosen instead to talk about arrests and pepper spray, representing the fundamental political economic critiques behind the occupation as mere excuses for marches and mayhem. Even those outlets who seemed to be on the side of the victims of police violence devoted all their coverage to that violence, rather than illuminating the systemic violence that spurred the occupation in the first place. Who could blame some of my students for accepting the idea that the protesters are a bunch of misguided whiners, if undeserving of police brutality? I have enough experience with activists (and people in general) to know that there certainly are misguided whiners out there. But I also have enough experience with media discourse to know that this is an extremely convenient frame through which to represent people who pose serious doubts about systemic imbalances of power.
My hope was, of course, that if given the chance to actually observe and talk to the occupiers, my students would get a different picture of the protest than what they had been offered by media accounts. Even if they didn’t find themselves on the side of the protesters, at least they would see something that diverged significantly from what they were seeing on the news. Ultimately, my job as a teacher of this course is to train students in the methods and theories of media critique, not to win them to any particular ideological position. I told students they were free to do their observation whenever they wished, but asked if anyone would be interested in going together as a group during class time. It turned out a lot of them liked that idea, so that became our plan. (For the record, I did not absolutely require students to participate in the field trip – I offered an alternative assignment to anyone who wanted one. I had no takers.) In an email I sent to the class to reiterate the assignment and field trip plan, I included a link to a well-reported articlepublished in the blog NYU Local, both to give them and idea of what to expect at the occupation site, and to see how their own school was covering it.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about our experience of visiting the occupation today. In Part 3 I’ll discuss the write-ups that students will turn in next week, reflecting on their observations and their comparisons with mainstream news coverage. With my students’ permission, I will try to post some of their writing, as well as the photos and videos they took of the occupation. In Part 4, I hope to offer my own reflection on this assignment and the pedagogical value I believe it holds.
In the last post I shared the assignment I gave my Introduction to Media Criticism students, the first part of which was to record their first-hand observations of the Occupy Wall Street protest. I wanted them to actually hear unmediated (through tv news) accounts of why people are participating in the occupation, and to actually witness what the protest looked like on a “normal” day, as opposed to during the moments that have become higher profile due to news sensationalism (i.e. moments at which police clashed violently with protesters). They are then going to compare their own observations with mainstream media coverage.
In this post I want to offer my own observations of the occupation, as gathered during two field trips I made with my students to Liberty Plaza (I teach two sections of Intro to Media Crit, both meet on the same days). I gave all of my students the option to visit the occupation on their own time – some of them have other classes that would make it hard for them to get from campus to Liberty Plaza and back in time. The class day I had set aside for the field trip was also during Rosh Hashana, so I knew that several of my students were planning (excused) absences from class that day. About half my 48 students ended up choosing to go with me during the scheduled class periods.
The first group of students and I took a bus from campus to Liberty Plaza, in light rain. When we arrived, we went over to the welcome table set up on the Broadway entrance to the park. The student who volunteered to take video asked questions and the person staffing the welcome table answered:
The welcomer informed us that a General Assembly meeting was about to begin, so we went to where a crowd was gathered for that. My student videographer spotted a friend in the crowd, and she asked him to explain why he was there. (I’m not posting the video here because he said he did not want to be filmed!) Here’s what he said:
Protester: My reasons? I just found out about it a couple days ago when I was watching videos of what the police were doing to the marchers and it kind of infuriated me that people had a legitimate complaint and they couldn’t voice it in public space without being brutalized by the police that are supposed to protect them. And it just raises questions about who the police are actually protecting. And I didn’t really know what it was and now that I’ve gotten here, and all the public forums and discussions, it’s like a big experiment in direct democracy.
Student: Do you think it’s more of an experiment than a stance?
Protester: Um… I think it’s both. Does it have to be one or the other?
Once the GA meeting got underway, we were able to observe the “human microphone.” It works by participants all repeating what is said by the facilitator at the front, so everyone in the crowd can hear. The ostensible purpose of this is to circumvent the need for voice amplification, which the police have told the protesters they are not allowed to have. One of the occupation participants we spoke with also said he saw the human microphone as beneficial because it gives everyone the opportunity to speak with one voice. It thus serves as a performance of discursive unity. A side effect of this is that meetings can sound like participants are repeating a rote pledge – the content of the meeting starts to sound not unlike a group of students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I overheard one of my students say “it sounds like church.” To me this makes all the more clear the ritualistic aspect of protest actions. Even seemingly mundane logistical meetings become opportunities to perform solidarity, both through literal vocal repetition of the words said by facilitators, but also through the conventions of meeting process such as the hand gestures used to introduce a “point of order” or to indicate agreement with what is being said. These conventions were taught to all meeting participants at the start of the General Assembly meeting, thus bringing newcomers into the fold and giving them the chance to actively participate in the established meeting rituals. The facilitators explained (and the human microphone repeated) that the reason behind the established meeting process was “to try and create (try and create) the most democratic (most democratic), open (open), horizontal (horizontal) space (space) possible (possible).”
As the General Assembly continued , people milled around the rest of the park as well. It had been raining for a while, so most of the beds and other belongings were covered with tarps. I noticed a hand-drawn poster with diagrams instructing how to use the tarps to protect belongings from the rain. A lot of the tarps had occupiers sleeping under them!
Due to the rain and tarps, I wasn’t able to see much of the media center, which I had been looking forward to. The kitchen was up and running though, along with a children’s play area where I did indeed see several children and parents gathered.
Participants seemed very willing to converse with students and explain their reasons for joining the occupation. My student videographer captured one such conversation:
The police presence was notable, with uniformed officers standing lined up on the sidewalk on Broadway, and the entire street to the north of the plaza blocked off for police vehicles. One protester stood on the Broadway sidewalk holding a sign ostensibly aimed at passers-by, but his position directly across from the line of officers added another layer of meaning to the invitation on the sign:
The general assembly meeting wrapped up with announcements of break-out sessions to be held later in the afternoon, and I made my way back to campus for my office hours.
My second group of students had much worse weather to contend with – we were caught in thunder and pouring rain when we got off the train with a mile still to walk – but they trooped through it with cheerful attitudes. When we finally arrived at Liberty Plaza, I was a bit disappointed but not entirely surprised to see the crowd had depleted from earlier. One of the welcome tables (at the east entrance) was shut down entirely to keep it from getting drenched. There were fewer people milling about the park and thus fewer people for students to approach and converse with, as my earlier group had been doing. After walking around for a few minutes, one cluster of students asked me if they could talk to one of the police officers standing on the perimeter of the park. I encouraged them to, and caught what I could on video:
Toward the end of this video you can hear that a march is returning to the plaza. I realized that the crowd hadn’t been depleted due to the rain but due to the scheduled afternoon march past the stock exchange. The return of the marchers enlarged the crowd in the park once again and gave the students many more opportunities to converse with participants.
There was a tense moment when several police officers (including one with a bullhorn) gathered near the camp library. It appeared that they were asking organizers to remove the tarps protecting the books from the rain, which provoked objection from the protesters standing nearby (though it was actually impossible for me to tell what was going on and what words were being exchanged between the officers and people standing directly next to the books). After a few minutes the tarps were replaced and the officers filed away from the area through the crowd that had gathered (to chants and applause from some protesters).
A breakout media group meeting began, in which a facilitator asked everyone in attendance to explain what kind of media production they were working on at the occupation and whether they were willing to share what they had recorded with the collective. She began by explaining that she was a filmmaker working on a documentary about the economy, inspired by her own father’s economic struggles and eventual suicide. Others explained that they were journalists, writers, filmmakers, and emisaries from movements in other regions of the country, such as Wisconsin. Everyone I heard expressed their willingness to share with the collective. A notebook was passed around for everyone to list contact information and personal skill-sets, so that media production efforts could be coordinated among the participants. Upon seeing the notebook get passed around, one of my students standing near me remarked, “It’s like… a network!” (I imagine that wherever in the world Jeff Juris was at that moment, he got the chills!)
I saw no one expressing overt hostility at other individuals or treating passers-by (ostensibly people who are employed in the financial district and who Mayor Bloomberg represented the protesters as being “against”) with disrespect. The crowd, based on appearances, seems diverse in terms of age, race, and occupation. A fitting embodiment of the “we are the 99%” sentiment that thematically unifies the protest. Overall, the aspect of the occupation I found most striking was the sheer number of personal conversations going on, in which people were discussing their concerns in a serious, open, thoughtful manner.
These weren’t just insular conversations among people who had been with the occupation for days–everywhere I saw newcomers, visitors, tourists, and media personnel asking questions and being treated with welcoming enthusiasm. To me, this was a poignant metaphor for what (I think) is the central goal of the occupation–to incubate and spread a national conversation about issues that matter to people who neither finance powerful political lobbies nor control powerful media corporations. If political and economic speech are largely unavailable to everyday citizens, they will go the old-fashioned route and just speak.
In Part 3, I will summarize my students reflections and reactions, as written in their assignments and as shared in class discussion. I will hopefully get permission from some of them to post their written reflections here.
In the last post I shared my own personal observations of the field trips my students and I made to Zuccotti Park. In this post, I want to report my student’s reactions, as shared during the class period following our field trip and in their write-ups comparing their observations with news coverage. Their opinions are necessarily filtered through my own perceptions and retelling, so let the reader beware that my account is just that–an account. At the same time though, I will attempt to document what my students said, rather than offer my own judgment of their comments’ accuracy. I can’t say whether the 48 people in my Media Criticism course constitute a “representative sample” of college kids, NYU students, or any other group, so any conclusions that might be drawn about the rhetorical successes and failures of the occupation and its coverage by mainstream media outlets are, again, necessarily partial.
Observations about the protesters themselves:
- Students noted the diversity of views expressed by the participants with whom they were able to have individual conversations.
- The most common sentiment I heard expressed by my students in class was frustration. Frustration that the protesters’ message wasn’t clear, that there were no goals, or that there were no concrete goals, or no achievable goals, or that the goals had not been achieved yet.
- On the other hand, many students were able to identify a unified message of solidarity-in-disastisfaction in the “We are the 99%” slogan, and the effect of the protests in bringing attention to this message.
- Some students knew or knew of NYU students who had participated in the protests and at least one who had been arrested during the march on the Brooklyn Bridge on Saturday.
- Many students noted that a lot of the protesters (and some of their friends in other cities) were there because it seemed “cool” or “historic”; my impression was that my students did not think these were legitimate reasons to be involved in the event.
- Students didn’t like when protesters generalized or made blanket statements without specific facts or personal experience to back them up. For example, one student quoted a protester who said she was participating in the occupation because “lobbying doesn’t work”; my student doubted that the protester had ever attempted to participate in lobbying.
- Some students pointed out that when they visited the occupation site, they did not see violence or hostility, that protesters were “chilling out” or maintaining a joyful atmosphere.
Observations about media coverage of the protests:
- Several people commented on how much the story had grown since we had first started talking about it one week ago.
- Students had heard of occupations in other cities, via social media sources like Facebook. Some described exploring Youtube videos, Twitter accounts, and blogs created by protesters in order to learn more.
- Many commented on how mainstream news coverage focused on the most visually spectacular of the events, notably instances where police officers exercised physical force on protesters. They noted the difference between their own observations of relative calm and cooperation between police and protesters, and what television news had chosen to highlight. One student observed that the number of views on Youtube videos featuring violence was over ten times the number of views on footage of peaceful protest.
- Some noted the differences in visual appearance of the protesters and protest site from what they had expected based on news coverage. For example, one was surprised to find how organized the site was, including a library, food service area, etc.
- A few students doubted the representativeness of their own observations, since they were so divergent from the events they had seen on the news.
- Students differed in their attitudes toward the news coverage. Some were highly critical, describing coverage as “condescending,” “vulgar,” and “frustrating.” They observed that even coverage which appeared sympathetic to the protesters (like Lawrence O’Donnel’s) focused on sensational aspects, like police brutality, instead of discussing protesters’ reasons for being there or the developments that had occurred since the dramatic incidents. Others noted that the protesters’ own diversity of opinions–and even vagueness–might account for the hesitancy of news outlets to go into detail on what they stand for.
- Several students actually asked the protesters what they thought of the media coverage. The trend seemed to be that protesters were happy to receive coverage, though many of them had not personally seen any mainstream stories (given that they had been camped out in the park).
In my next post, I will reflect on this activity as a teaching tool. I will also attempt to offer insights as to how a similar assignment might be used in future media criticism classes.
In this post I want to provide some pedagogical reflections on my use of Occupy Wall Street in my Intro to Media Criticism class. I’m still mulling over a lot of this, so these thoughts are, as always, partial.
Motivation for this assignment
Ultimately, my teaching philosophy is that my job is to equip students with skills to engage in productive critique as they interact with media and popular culture after they leave my classroom. This translates to my constantly asking students to practice applying the theories and methods of critique to contemporary examples. Usually this means showing clips in class and having them reflect on how the theories and methods I’ve taught them can illuminate the text at hand. This time, it meant leaving the classroom and bringing their personal experiences of a “media event” to bear on their analysis of news coverage. My hope is that in the future, students will be able to use their memory of this activity as a reference point when encountering news stories, and will evince an awareness that what they are seeing in the media are necessarily representations of reality that may not correspond to the experiences of people actually involved in the events depicted.
I would have also liked to use students’ first-hand experiences of and reactions to the protests themselves as a case study about how ideology shapes what frameworks and discourses we can even bring to bear on our experiences of reality. In other words, ideology isn’t just present in news reports, its present in our heads before we ever see the news. Thus even if we see something for ourselves, we cannot escape the ideological frameworks that allow/encourage us to interpret reality in particular ways. This is a trickier point to make, since it forces people to call into question their own deeply held beliefs. Also, while the theory involved in such a lesson would certainly be relevant to the content of my course, I didn’t want to spend too much time with this particular example. As ripe for interrogation and analysis as “common sense” views about radical political dissent are, I am cognizant of the fact that the issue may be a bit far outside of students’ own interests and experiences. I do think discussions of Occupy Wall Street could be productively used to teach concepts of ideology, hegemony, and discourse in very deep and personal ways. But I was wary of spending too much class time focused on this example, lest students lose sight of the fact that these theories can and should be applied to media texts that are less overtly “political” in topic.
Students received full credit for this assignment simply for turning something in. This is partly due to the fact that I termed it an “activity” which my syllabus says are graded based on whether students are present in class and complete the assignment, not on whether or not they arrive at “correct” answers. There is an ethical dimension to assigning grades this way as well – I wanted there to be no confusion as to whether my own opinions and political positions on the protesters or the media coverage of them would influence the grades assigned. Based on my experience in the classroom over the past 7 years, students tend to skew their responses on assignments like this toward what they think professors want to hear. When this pushes them to learn course material and accurately summarize and apply it, this is a great thing – of course professors “want to hear” that their students have learned something! I’m less comfortable when I suspect that students are claiming to espouse particular political opinions as a way to endear themselves to me. And so, I don’t want to set up a situation in which students feel their grade on this assignment reflects the degree to which they were able to align themselves with a particular opinion of the protesters. Of course any professor who teaches from a political position (and this is everyprofessor, whether they are explicit with their students about their position or not) has to strive for some sort of objectivity when assessing student learning (and, it should be noted, the burden will be borne more intensely by faculty whose politics diverge from mainstream, hegemonic ideologies, because their politics will be visible as such rather than taken for granted as common sense by the majority of students). This is thrown into sharper relief when the topics and theories we teach are directly linked to political struggles, as when, for example, I teach feminist perspectives in a class on gender and media and my students are aware that I myself identify as a feminist.
Anyway, this is all to say that an assignment like this could be controversial if it is not carefully framed as an opportunity to apply media theories, versus a recruitment to the protest cause. I also want to reiterate that students were not required to attend the protest in person (and some ended up having scheduling conflicts that prevented them from doing so). I offered them the alternative assignment of comparing non-mainstream/first-person coverage (usually in the form of videos posted to YouTube by participants) with mainstream coverage. These students necessarily engaged in a different kind of analysis, but one that was still productive and relevant to the course.
I would have liked to ask my students to write a more formal paper using materials we have read on television news and ideology. I think their written responses would have been more carefully supported with theories from the class had this been the nature of the assignment. I do balk at requiring students to write formal papers about specific texts though – nearly every assignment I give asks students to choose texts and topics that feel personally relevant to them. I do this not only because I want students to be interested in the work they are doing for class, but because I want to stimulate them to continue the work of media criticism after they have completed my course (as I discussed above). By giving them the opportunity to practice media criticism on texts they actually willingly engage with, I think that my assignments more closely simulate the kind of critique I hope they will do in the future. With this assignment, they did not get the choose the text – I required them to write about Occupy Wall Street stories. As much as I personally find these stories compelling, I can’t be assured that my students will too. The concern is doubled when one takes into account the political charge of the story. I want there to be no perception that I am “forcing” students to be politically engaged, let alone to take a particular stance on a political issue.
So the question is, was this assignment successful at giving students the opportunity to 1) demonstrate their knowledge of the ideas presented in the assigned readings; 2) engage in theoretically informed critique of mediated news coverage; and 3) practice critical skills they can use in future encounters with media texts?
I think the answer to all of these questions is a qualified yes. I did find that many students approached the assignment purely as a personal reflection on their encounters with the occupation site, rather than a comparative analysis of news coverage of the occupation. Had the assignment been a longer, formal paper and not an “activity” I probably could have steered them away from taking this approach, and there would have been more concrete incentive to bring their writing into conversation with the assigned readings, which dealt with ideology and news. I do think this was a useful exercise though, and based on a few conversations I’ve had with students in the weeks since, they have retained some of the insight they gained by doing it. Will they approach future news coverage with the same critical eye this assignment asked them to? I can’t know. But I think at the very least they will be able to draw on their class experiences when consuming coverage of the Occupy movement, and considering the significance this story is gaining on a national scale, that is no small thing.