Dr. Gisela Gil-Egui and her communication students teach Bridgeport teens to have a critical eye

by Carolyn Arnold ’05

So, how many product placements did you count in that episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians?” asked Dr. Gisela Gil-Egui, associate professor of communication. Her students, who included not only her college students but middle school students, responded with so many examples, including clothing and accessory brands, restaurants, clubs, TV shows, and other celebrities, that Dr. Gil-Egui marveled at their sharp eyes. “You found more than I did!”

This assignment was a hands-on media analysis survey, part of Dr. Gil-Egui’s course, “Mass Media and Society,” which also has a service-learning component. The class travels to the Black Rock branch of the Bridgeport Public Library in Bridgeport, Conn., to talk with young adults who attend the library’s after-school program about media in America’s society.

Being aware of what the media is trying to communicate — and sell — is a valuable critical skill. Together, the students from Fairfield and Bridgeport, under the guidance of Dr. Gil-Egui, examine mass media to understand the different ways that people interact with it.

“We live in media-saturated times when certain forms of storytelling dominate our symbolic environment and create common cultural denominators through a very skewed picture of the world,” said Dr. Gil-Egui. “It is therefore crucial to understand the basic formulas and patterns upon which media messages are constructed.”

The course has been offered for several years at Fairfield, but the service learning aspect is new.

Service learning is an approach to teaching that links academic study — in this case, media criticism — and extends that study into the community where it can be of immediate benefit. The Bridgeport teens get the benefit of a college-level analysis, while the Fairfield students get a window into how media is consumed and understood by teenagers, who are the target of so much media attention.

“In the case of my course, Fairfield students try to get their young partners at the library to be more critical and purposeful about their use of media, while also realizing through practice that different audiences relate to, and process media messages in different ways,” said Dr. Gil-Egui.

The sessions take place in the teenager’s section of the Black Rock branch of the library, which has a relaxed lounge-area feel to it. Subjects have ranged from counting product placements in TV shows and movies like Keeping Up with the Kardashians and the movie Transformers, to discussing how “real” reality TV is.

Dr. Gil-Egui advised her students to think about what reality show’s agendas were, and what manipulations took place.

“Is all reality TV real? Is any of it real? Or is one more real that the other? I don’t know myself. What do you think?” Dr. Gil-Egui asked her class.

Students were quick to identify highly dramatized shows such as Teen Moms and Jersey Shore.

One of the students who has attended almost all of the media literacy workshops said that while she didn’t like Jersey Shore, she knew that it caught people’s attention. “No one is like that in real life, but it’s entertaining,” she explained.

Dr. Gil-Egui said, “Precisely because what we seek in media is, above everything else, entertainment, we tend to have our guard down in the processing of popular movies, music, and TV shows that, cumulatively, teach us tacit and consistent lessons about what is supposed to be ‘normal,’ successful, visible, and in power.”

Following each workshop the college students and the younger students had time to talk, play games together, or play with the library’s Wii. Dr. Gil-Egui said, “Getting college students and younger students comfortable with talking and relating to each other is important for this course.”

The course concluded in December and the final meeting at the Black Rock Library was a wrap-up of the course and a celebration. A video created by the class about what students would change about TV was playing in the background. It was based on an earlier discussion in the class about the myth that media only offers audiences what they want to see.

The young students who attended regularly were presented with Fairfield University T-shirts, and everyone gathered together for pictures and a final game with the Wii.

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