Digital Media and Cultural Identities: Course Syllabus

“It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be”

(JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)

One of the perks of my job is teaching. My favorite class ever in Rotterdam has been “Digital Media& Cultural Identities.” There are several reasons why I loved it so much. First, because it is a class I fully designed myself, while the other classes I teach are sort of pre-prepared and I have less control over them. Second, because students are in an international Media, Culture&Society MA programme and they  are very diverse and come from all over the world, so I could learn a lot from them sharing their experiences (do you know Weibo’s strategies to censor posts? And do you know about hashtag anti-government campaigns in Honduras? Well, now I do). Third, during my postdoc I worked in a project where, for some reason, “identity” was a trigger word and every time I mentioned it some colleagues would go berserk and say to never use it again. So now that I am no longer in this program I’m unleashing my previous repression making entire classes about identity.

(In a rush of honesty I told students in this class they’re my favorite. Then, students from another class asked me if THEY were my favorite. At that point I didn’t know what to say and I have a terrible poker face. That’s why you don’t tell students they’re your favorite)

This resulted in a class with GREAT discussions about tolerance, diversity, inclusivity, race, gender, sexuality, religion, (dis)ability, beauty standards, hate speech, political activism, and the role of digital media in all this. I have taught this class twice, once face-to-face, and once in a pandemic hell where most of the classes were online and one in a classrooms with half of the students on zoom. In this post I will post the syllabi from both 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 and I will describe activities that I did across these two academic years.

The class was organized in eight weeks (here there are four terms of two months per year) with three readings each week. These are the people whose work we read in 2020-2021:

Several pictures of scholars

Some of these people are friends and colleagues I know, some are just scholars whose work I like and it was a lot of fun to google them and discover what they look like. I was especially proud of the readings because students said  “This is the only course where I can read all three readings for the week in one sitting because they are just so interesting.”

Plus, one of the advantages (I’m one of these people to look at the glass half full) of online learning is to invite guest speakers, so I had the pleasure to have lectures from:

  • Dr. Delia Dumitrica from Erasmus University discussing identity and Facebook
  • Dr. Miranda Klaver from Free University of Amsterdam talking about megachurches and the Internet
  • Dr. Ladan Rahbari from the University of Amsterdam presenting queer fashion in the Iranian cyberspace
  • Dr. Aya Yadlin-Segal from Hadassah Academic College analyzing disability campaigns online

Each guest presented their work and students had the opportunity to ask questions, which they really enjoyed. This is also a way to show students that academics are real people with whom they can interact (and, in the case of my guests, they are also incredibly nice and keen to answer questions)

In addition to the readings, I also asked students to do some extra activities for class discussion, which included:

  • Watching the Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (which is GOOD)
  • Doing the Bechdel Test on a film of choice (and 1/3 of the movies selected by the students did not pass it). Some students also spontaneously did the Vito Russo Test and the DuVernay test
  • Reading the story of gay pride and looking for gay pride parade pictures on social networks all around the world (and let me tell you, Suriname has a pretty cool one)
  • Watching the Religion for Breakfast video “What is Religion?” and reflect on possible definitions of religion
  • Reading the Teen Vogue article “What it’s like to be a disabled model in the fashion industry” and think about the notion of beauty
  • Looking at various platforms’ (Facebook, Twitter) hate speech policies and come up with possible countermeasures for hate speech (and some were great)
  • Watching Greta Thunberg’s Ted Talk “School Strike for climate” and think about examples of digital activism

All the readings and the activities are in the syllabus, which is actually called Course Guide here:

Course Guides here are VERY long documents which contain all sort of info, from the readings to week-by-week activities to regulations to teacher’s favourite food to bribe them (one is false, try to guess which one). Since it has been a painful process to write it and I have mercy of my readers I posted a shortened version, but of course I will be happy to answer questions if anybody wants more details.

Students needed to come to class and participate, write a blog post, do presentations about a topic of choice, and a final paper. I have to say that final papers touched a lot of interesting topics, from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to Veganism, from the Uyghurs in China to refugees’ food festivals in Paris, from anti-hijab protests in Iran to the Black Trans Lives Matter movement, from revenge porn to the Christchurch terrorist attack, from queer people in Indonesia to female masturbation and feminism. Do you know how academics always complain about grading? This time, grading was fun.

Then, I also suggested students to read some of my favorite novels each week, and the (non-mandatory) reading list included:

  • “Americanah”, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • “Reading Lolita in Teheran”, Azar Nafisi
  • “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe”, Fanny Flag
  • “White Teeth”, Zadie Smith
  • “I know why the caged bird sings”, Maya Angelou
  • “The Bastard of Istanbul”, Elif Shafak
  • “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness”, Arundhati Roy
  • “Euphoria”, Lily King

Because, of course, knowledge is not only about academic readings.

Something I did at the beginning of the class when we could meet face-to-face is also giving students a way to tell me about their triggers/phobia to make sure they were comfortable in the class. I asked them to write something about themselves that they wanted me to know in a confidential way. I know some students appreciated it and I could avoid potentially disturbing topics. When I moved the course online, I created weekly discussion boards and videos so students can prepare some questions/material before coming to class.

I really hope I get to teach this class again and please let me know if this is useful or if you have comments.

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