Bridging the Gap: The University in the Youth Media Field

Renee Hobbs is one of the nation’s leading authorities on media literacy education. For more than 20 years, she has helped bring media literacy education to thousands of students in the United States through her collaborative work with school districts, state education agencies and media companies. She has authored a number of publications on media literacy, exploring how teachers integrate media into elementary and secondary classrooms. She has created numerous curriculum materials including My Pop Studio, an online creative play environment that introduces media literacy to girls ages 9 to 14. She is the Director of Media Education Lab and an associate professor in the School of Communications and Theatre at Temple University where she teaches both undergraduate and graduate courses on media literacy, children and media, and research methods.
In this article, YMR features a field placement course developed by Hobbs, which provides college students a hands-on approach to working with youth media and media literacy. The interview with Hobbs, included in this article, offers youth media professionals a unique insight in the development of university-community partnerships which may benefit youth, staff, students and faculty members alike.
Experiencing the field in “field placement”
Renee Hobbs’ personal website contains a wealth of work, publications, projects, and media activism that the acclaimed professor has accomplished in and outside both the university and the youth media field. Amidst the sea of content, a syllabus for the course Field Experience in Youth Media & Media Literacy caught YMR’s attention. What an interesting combination – a course that actually gets college students to work specifically in the youth media field
The course, offered annually, provides students with a community learning experience while helping children and teens build their communication, media production and critical thinking skills. College students are expected to spend time each week in a school setting, assisting teachers or taking leadership on media analysis and production projects with children and youth. Back in the classroom at Temple University, college students reflect on the role of media, technology and education in the lives of the youth they work with and discuss the teaching and learning process. The goal of the course is to engage college students in experiential learning while strengthening their understanding of the role of media and technology in urban education through action, reflective writing and discussion.
The course uses the “empowerment spiral” of awareness, analysis, reflection and action to explore issues in media literacy and youth media production. Through the process of reading, writing and discussing how real-world field experiences relate to the required course readings, college students build an appreciation for the complexity of media literacy education in urban education. The main text used, in addition to several supplementary articles, is Holler if you Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students by Gregory Michie (Teachers College Press) about the life of a first-year teacher in Chicago.
Hobbs lists aims and goals for the course in the syllabus. They provide a window into an enlightened pedagogy that seeks to connect students with tangible media literacy skills outside university walls — specifically, within the youth media field.
As a result of this course, students:
• become more reflective and aware of the role of mass media and technology in the lives of urban children and teens;
• strengthen their communication skills, including their use of email, interpersonal communication, writing, and public speaking;
• gain project management and career skills through field placement in a job setting;
• gain knowledge about the key concepts of media literacy and the development of the field in the United States and Britain;
• strengthen their ability to solve problems in school-based settings and actively contribute to a learning community as a member of a team;
• improve leadership and independent initiative by being responsible for their behavior in a field setting and acquiring specific expertise in a related special interest;
• gain sensitivity and understanding of the cultural backgrounds and life experiences of urban and privileged youth;
• reflect on the power of critical thinking about media and media production as a means of cognitive, emotional, personal and social growth.
Reading over such outcomes would make anyone desirous to go back to their undergraduate years and demand such a course was in place to immediately sign up for. We need Renee Hobbs, and more of her kind.
On her website home page, an article authored by Hobbs entitled, “Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century University” proves to be important both for academic and media professional audiences. She concludes with the notion of creating a “community of learners” at the university, which youth media professional can surely benefit from. She states:
We must focus our emphasis on teaching and learning not only on classroom techniques that make us better lecturers, but on building and nurturing respectful relationships that enable faculty colleagues to be “critical friends,” engaged in the process of reflecting upon, testing and continually enhancing the quality of what we offer, collectively, to our students. Providing incentives to departments that design and implement activities to promote this kind of ongoing, iterative curriculum reform could be a first step towards creating the “community of learners” among the faculty that is the hallmark of excellence in university education.
Both college students and youth media professionals can learn from the 21st century university. Using the same words from Hobbs’ article, in order to build and nurture relationships that enable youth media professionals to be critical friends with students and faculty, both media professionals and academics must engage and reflect upon the ways their work overlap and can benefit from collective purposes. Young college students in field work courses such as those offered by Hobbs have opportunities to test and enhance the quality of youth media, media literacy, and education in after-school programs.
The insight they gain offer both the academy and media professionals a bigger picture – and point to the need for media literacy and analysis skills for all. To academia’s benefit, youth media professionals have the capability to design and implement media literacy in after-school youth media programs across the nation. By partnering with college students who enter after-school programs, a greater collaborative force can address the nation-wide need for media literacy to coincide with media technology in youth media programs.
If there is a willingness on both sides – who share common goals such as integrating critical thinking, exchanging insights and perspectives, educating youth, networking with professionals, and making a difference in communities, society, and/or in youth development – then there is great potential for the youth media field and academic professionals to partner, complimenting the specific goals both wish to achieve.
Working together, a pairing like this could be a match made in media-heaven. Media professors, such as Hobbs, have the power to link students to the field. Engaged students are active participants and leaders that report to youth media professionals and organizations on the needs of contemporary youth media education. Updates and ideas are exchanged; practice and research become actively interconnected, and youth media makers are equipped with instructors that mindfully connect media technology with media literacy and social analysis.
Inside the mind of a media literacy professional and academic: an interview with Renee Hobbs
YMR: YMR is interested in the connections within and outside the University, whether with community partners or media practitioners in the field. Your article talks about the importance of a “community of learners.” Can we talk about that?
HOBBS: Philosophically, that is a big part of why I created the Media Smart Seminars, a monthly program run for students and the media and education community in Philadelphia. It is an opportunity for networking and information sharing. Teachers, college faculty, media professionals, artists, community members, students, youth and after-school professionals have so much to offer each other yet there’s often very few structured ways for them to interact and share ideas. [These seminars] give a space to share experiences and knowledge and reflect upon the challenges and complexities of the work. Here at Temple, students are hungry to test some of their ideas in the context of the ‘real world’ and the community.
YMR: Can you share more about this student hunger for “the real” or a ”taste of the real world?” Where is that coming from and how do you focus on meeting that need?”
HOBBS: Media literacy draws its appeal from its perceived relevance to the mediated world, so that when we are analyzing and making media we are responding to the contemporary world as we experience it, find it, and want to change it. That’s exactly what’s going on with students, as they want to frame the knowledge they are gaining in the classroom by responding to and exploring new and unfamiliar cultural environments. Students are looking for opportunities to test their ideas in the field. There are several examples of this at Temple, such as when white suburban kids have their first experience in urban schools and African-American kids have their first experience with schools in suburban settings. It’s fascinating to see how that learning works, when students apply course readings and discussions to new life experiences.
YMR: It seems that students really want different perspectives. Media, media literacy, seminars, and teaching about the media engage students with what is not often tangible. They can see they are affected by the media, but how interesting it is to be able to analyze, touch, and create the media. To present your own perspectives as well as be connected to others is wonderful. What exactly happens at Media Smart Seminars?
HOBBS: Media Smart Seminars are informal sessions, held at Temple University campus in the late afternoon so people from the Philadelphia area (and beyond) can attend. We publicize them in the local community papers so people outside the University can learn about them. Everyone gets a chance to introduce themselves — we encourage people to develop their professional network. Usually [the seminars] consist of 30 minutes of a presenter sharing (i.e. screening a student-produced video, sharing a lesson plan, a graduate student sharing preliminary research, or a media professional discussing new initiatives). In the discussion that follows, participants are active and thoughtful.
At each Seminar, there are different participants and it is always a diverse group [where] many people can connect with others with similar interests. Topics have included: using hip-hop as a teaching tool, media literacy in middle-school, girls and online media, media literacy in higher education, and digital media production for urban teens.
We also use the Seminars to showcase our community-university partnerships. In the Fall of 2006, Temple graduate students worked at the Fairhill Community High School researching a media literacy initiative developed by a teacher who worked with me over the summer. Fairhill is a “second chance” high school for youth ages 16 to 21 who are returning to high school after having previously dropped out. For the culminating event, 40 teens (and several family members) from Fairhill came to Temple’s campus, toured the college radio station, and then attended a Media Smart Seminar. At that event, eight Fairhill students made multimedia presentations on different topics related to the five-year anniversary of the September 11 attacks. It was a remarkable event. Many Temple students and faculty attended and it was very inspiring — it’s important to provide opportunities that give youth a chance to show how talented they are.
YMR: Let’s talk about your course for Field Placement in Youth Media and Media Literacy. This is for undergraduates, correct?
HOBBS: Yes, the course is targeted for sophomores. It is an opportunity for experiential learning. Students spend 3-5 hours in a fieldwork setting where there is an interest in media analysis or media production. They work in teams assigned to a specific site and negotiate with faculty and students on what kinds of projects they will undertake. They may support the work of teachers, teach classes themselves, or work with students in teams or individually. Students have helped make video projects and offered media literacy workshops. [Accompanying the fieldwork,] students attend a two-hour seminar that meets once a week where they reflect on their experiences in light of the required readings. They compare what the literature says about youth media to their actual experience on site.
We’ve had some fascinating insights. The student evaluations at the end of each semester state that the course exceeded their expectations, they had no idea they would learn so much, and that it was life-altering. Because the course enables students to contribute to educational change and to make a difference in a community setting, it influences their sense of themselves. Because of this, the course is never the same, it’s always changing; it is unpredictable because it is an adventure based on students’ complex experiences in the field.
YMR: What role do teachers and media professionals, who work with your students, experience? How do your students enhance media literacy knowledge for both instructors and the youth they serve?
HOBBS: I establish relationships with site supervisors, who in some cases, are on their own steep learning curve. Teachers may let us do this in order to piggy back their own learning curve — as they essentially let the students into their classroom in order to learn from them. For some teachers, their first media literacy exposure [comes from] our students. So, one model for the field placement course is “teacher as co-learner.” Another model is the site supervisor who adopts students as a “part-time teacher,” which is a more formal relationship and based on an employee/employer relationship [typical of after-school programs.] But in both models, everyone is a learner.
For example, one Temple student involved middle school students in a discussion of images of women in advertising. Afterwards, in discussion with the teacher, it was clear that the teacher hadn’t thought in a systematic way about gender stereotyping via media representations. The teacher had learned a lesson from the demonstration the student brought to the seventh graders. Of course, there are downsides to this model, since undergraduates are new to media literacy themselves and bring different levels of knowledge and skills with them to each site. I meet with supervisors four times throughout the semester and have discovered that’s a very important part of my job.
YMR: How do you get media literacy spread out into those sites? How do you get teachers to become more aware of media literacy as co-learners?
HOBBS: Here in Pennsylvania, there is less understanding of media literacy than in some other states. People don’t know to ask about it, and may not value it as the kind of knowledge and skills that are important for children and youth. We need to provide more explicit rationale for this type of work. One hypothesis I have about this is that, here in Pennsylvania, there is a strong tradition of vocational education. When teachers and school leaders think of media in schools they think of video production courses, equipment, learning to use equipment. Critical thinking or reading, analyzing, discussing and challenging ideas do not get associated with the provision of “technical” skills.
I get calls from individuals who say they want help providing students with technical skills. And I inform them that more will come than just that. There will be a lot of critical thinking, reasoning, analysis, writing, research and collaboration. One heartbreaking case is when I worked with a group of 13-14 year olds who were eager to discuss issues of representation in Latino communities. It was very clear that the [program] officer [who headed the after-school program] wanted technical training and not a media literacy initiative.
Most youth media folks affiliated with YMR “get” the connection between media literacy and production. But I have found that a lot of folks aren’t “there” yet. The word “skill” is important, but sometimes this word gets used as a code word for “manual labor” or not intellectually challenging work. When I describe media literacy to program officers [and supervisors], I have had responses [as shocking as] “our kids can’t do that.” These are crazy attitudes that we, as media literacy educators and youth media professionals must address.
For example, the Student Television Network (STN) is a group of teachers, many of whom just teach production with no critical perspective, no analysis or aesthetics, just how to make nice, tight edits. Youth media professionals can really contribute to the work of these types of educators.
YMR: It is important to articulate, read, and have a say in the media. How would you change the attitudes of these program officers and media teachers, who end up gate keeping what gets through as learned “educational” models, resulting in a lack of media analysis and critical perspective?
HOBBS: The only way that happens if those educators themselves have had a learning experience where they discover the power of linking media analysis with media making. Leaders and teachers need to have the experiences that we offer students — to analyze media through the practice of close analysis and deconstruction and to work collaboratively to compose a meaningful message and present it to a real audience in a community setting.
In my experience, very techie individuals have taken a seminar of mine and have experienced a widening and deepening of perspective. Its not that they didn’t care about analyzing media, they just didn’t know how to do it or bring meta-cognition into production practices. It may take just one teacher education session. But in many after-school settings, there is no money for training. Staff turnover is phenomenal. Few programs have an opportunity to provide such training to staff. Institutions are operating on a shoe-string budget. Right now, there is such phenomenal explosive growth in youth media programs that it’s a situation where everyone is re-inventing the wheel. That’s why what Tony Streit is doing at Youth Learn is fantastic.
YMR: College students are perhaps, a great way to work around the lack of funding in American public after-school programs. With the help of enlightened university staff/ faculty, college students can get plugged into schools that are in need for media literacy programs. In order for a community of learners in universities to work with media literacy field work, it seems that faculty need to say, “I really want my students to learn something and connect to the bigger picture and the real world.”
HOBBS: We are building this at Temple University. But university-community partnerships take time, they take sensitivity, they take support and funding from university administrators, and they are challenging. Faculty can’t always have the level of control they desire. The real world is messy — and it doesn’t always conform to our expectations. With my PhD students, part of the opportunity is to examine the kinds of complexity that occurs in media literacy learning. We ask, “What’s actually happening here?” and “how does that map onto the claims, the hopes, and the dreams people have for youth media and media literacy?”
YMR: How do you find those networks, bridges, and links especially as a busy faculty member?
HOBBS: There’s never enough time for this. At any one of these schools or after school sites, there’s so much I could do. I’d personally love to spend 20 hours a week at some of these sites. I learn so much from practitioners — and observing practitioners really inspires my research interests. But what’s amazing to me is the way these community partners come into my life and how Temple students benefit from this. I meet many of them by hosting the Media Smart Seminars. When someone new attends a seminar, we often invite them to consider making a future presentation. These presentations are validating to the presenters and they also help Temple students get connected to youth media sites in schools and community organizations.
In one case, a director of the youth media program for Project Home showed up at a Media Smart Seminar. One of my graduate students met with him, they chatted, and the student ended up researching researching Project Home and writing a paper on the program. The director is on his own intellectual journey as a youth media professional and strives to make his youth media program better. He benefited tremendously from a relationship with this ‘critical friend.’ He gets to learn about the field from the perspective of a student who is studying it formally, share his own experiences, respond to questions, and reflect on another’s ideas about his own work. They may continue to collaborate. We’ll invite him to make a presentation on Project Home at a future seminar. It will be a win-win for everyone.
YMR: Rutgers University, The College of New Jersey, and University of California Los Angeles are working on community partnerships and community based research, but none of them focus specifically on a youth media or media literacy component, which you do at Temple University. I applaud your work, Renee. Thank you so much for your time.
Piecing it Together
As a leading figure in media literacy and education, Renee Hobbs provides key insights to linking the university classroom and students with youth media after-school programs and teachers. Youth media professionals, who stretch far and wide across the globe, can use Hobbs’ experience to re-consider the depth to which media literacy and youth made programs collaborate and join forces.
Combining a “community of learners” between college students who witness the needs of youth media after-school programs and the capability of youth media professionals to address these needs, a greater ability to expand, grow, and build the youth media field is in view. Just as academics can benefit from bridging faculty across disciplines to share their work, the youth media field can benefit from networking with students and faculty in colleges and universities who are interested in testing media theories in the “real world.”
College students are hungry to experience the “real world,” to frame their knowledge gained from the classroom into the dynamic learning space of hands-on practice. This space proves to be life-altering, as shown in the course evaluations Hobbs receives at the end of each semester. The youth media field can partner with faculty at universities to encourage such co-curricular experiences for their students. Youth media professionals ought to reach out to the university more, as faculty are interested in ways to engage students with practice and alternative, community-based, hands-on learning.
By using her dual resources as professor and media literacy educator, Hobbs has offered the youth media field an opportunity to interact with college students who have time, a vested interest, and desire to engage with media non-profits and offer students the contacts they need to connect theory with practice. She recommends that youth media professionals work with college students, attend and present at seminars and events on university campuses, and integrate media analysis and media production activities.
It is up to youth media professionals to extend themselves to faculty and college students who have opportunities to gather data, reflect upon and analyze the lived experience of participants in youth media programs. In order to strengthen the awareness of how youth media can advance young people’s education and understanding of the world, such teachings must be executed from all angles. Hobbs makes a point that youth media literacy has not developed equally to that of media production technology – so there is a real need out there, in the “real world,” one that is perhaps beyond the current reach of the youth media field.
Bridges between media literacy academics and youth media professionals will require some of the same outcome as the results students can expect to achieve from taking Hobbs’ field placement course in media literacy: “to become more reflective and aware of the role of mass media and technology in the lives of urban children and teens…and strengthen [one’s] ability to solve problems in school-based settings [in order to] actively contribute to a learning community as a member of a team.”
To learn more about Hobbs, go to her site: To become involved with Media Smart Seminars at Temple University, go to:

Youth media professionals to collaborate with college students on media education and literacy.