Illustrative Examples of Units of Practice

Alternative Media

Snapshot


From the time we get up to the time we go to bed, we are assaulted by information that is meant to sell us something, or to convince us of something. People live routine lives and overlook most of whatever products or information that is not readily available. Similarly, most media tend to encourage tunnel vision. In spite of the glut of information surrounding us, we live, to refer to the title of a Bill McKibben book, in “the age of missing information.” The purpose of this project is to demonstrate to students that the reality that they perceive is often some corporate entity’s arbitrary notion of reality. By having to present and explain to the class a couple of publications (with which they had been previously unfamiliar) the students gain some insight into the workings and values of the media, popular culture, and the cult of celebrity. At the same time the project develops their analytical and critical thinking skills with regard to every aspect of their lives as well as encourages them to read and to seek out materials and ideas that are not readily accessible.

Subjects:                  Social Studies, English/Languages Arts

Learning Levels:     Grades 10-12

Author(s):                Paul Comeau

 

Invitation


To paraphrase science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, “95% of everything is junk.” How do we turn from being victims of modern-day snake oil hucksters to being enlightened consumers? How do we, as cultural consumers, find out what is actually available to us, and how do we sift through mountains of mediocrity to discover the material that is truly original, timeless, or of real interest to us? How do we adapt this approach to political and social issues?

Outcomes


At the end of the project, students will have discovered the following:

Tasks and Interactions


Each student will be required to deal with a couple of publications that are distributed to them and that, hopefully, will be unknown to them. If the class is small I may give them three each just to cover more material and have more variety. Students will then have one class, or two depending on the class or on how much material I’ve distributed, to come up with a brief review of each of their publications. When they’re ready they will then be required to present themselves in front of the class in order to explain the magazines. The presentation should be relatively brief and informal. For example, students should not read a written text they’ve written. They should talk about the publications and show them to the class. Students are encouraged to point out some interesting illustrations, or read some passage that is especially interesting, unusual, or funny. As much as possible, I encourage the students not to share the magazines with their fellow students before their presentation. Students tend to find that watching their class-mates make oral presentations is boring but the variety of each presentation and the serendipity factor tend to make each presentation more interesting. I don’t give much of a choice to each student. Generally speaking, students resist exploring areas beyond their areas of experience. If given a choice they will only want to pick from a narrow list of subject matter. My goal is to stimulate them, maybe even to provoke them, and to go beyond their usual interest.

  Before starting the project I explain the philosophy behind it. I point out that most of the magazines that one sees in most of the stores are published by just a handful of large companies. The same applies to movies at the theatres and in the video stores. Independent productions, as well as Canadian and other movies classified as foreign (non-Hollywood productions) are not readily available. Likewise, books that make it to the New York Times Best-Seller list are not necessarily destined to be classics. Similarly, the recordings that one hears on the radio, on the TV video networks, or that show up in most stores (most of which are part of large chains) are just a small fraction of what’s available. Most forms of music are never given much exposure. Ninety percent of everything that is good, however aesthetically subjective that may sound, gets very little publicity. Thousands of small record labels compete for the small percentage of the market that is not controlled by a few big multinationals. Just as importantly, certain news and points of view are emphasized at the expense of others. Some pundits’ viewpoints are disseminated widely while many others, who are at least equally competent and insightful, are never given a similar opportunity.

I spend a class explaining to the students how to assess a magazine quickly. I explain that each publication has a specific market niche in mind and the students’ job is to figure out as much as they can about the publications that they are assigned. I explain briefly how to look at such things as mastheads, editorials, letters to the editor, columns, articles, artwork and graphics. I tell them where to find the frequency of publication, the price, its publisher (a company or an individual?), and its editorial address. I also ask them to look carefully at the ads. What is the ratio of ads to editorial content? What kind of ads are they? If there are no ads, why not? I also point out that overviews that may be too superficial may cause misunderstandings. For example, many magazines publish a yearly “Music Issue.” Naturally, that implies that the publication is not a music magazine per se. Also, I sometimes include a couple of titles that are not what they seem to be (magazines that are satires of scientific magazines, for example).

After I’ve explained what each student will be required to do, I give the students a model presentation or two by presenting a couple of publications to them myself.

After each student has done his presentation, the rest of the class may be invited to ask questions. This allows the presenter to clarify certain points although some questions would obviously be difficult to answer after such a cursory overview.

Once everyone has done a presentation (which usually takes two or three periods) I give the class one or two reading periods. If some students have discovered publications that appear to be of special interest to them, they have the opportunity to check them out for themselves and, if interested, to jot down the address and subscription rates.

Assessment


If the teacher has a way of evaluating oral presentations, he or she can apply it to this project. Since evaluations of oral presentations can be difficult and especially subjective because of their fleeting nature, teachers might consider giving the same mark to each student simply for having done it. This would not apply to those students who may not have taken the assignment seriously. For example, students may express their personal opinions on each publication (if the teacher lets it be known beforehand that everyone is allowed to do this) but I warn students ahead of time that I do not accept such comments as the following: “I thought this magazine was really stupid...I didn’t understand it much.” Teachers can ask for a more formal, written text based on their oral presentation and this could be corrected accordingly.

 

Tools


Obviously, the teacher has to have a good assortment of magazines in his possession or take the time to go out and buy some. Many would have to be ordered because they simply aren’t available in any store. Some editors are more than willing to share a few sample copies for such a good cause.

A few words may be in order about the publications that I use. Some of the publications that I use are (more or less) glossy magazines, albeit relatively obscure ones. The others are what would be classified as part of the alternative press (fanzines, newsletters, highly specialized publications, etc.) I personally tend to make more use of music magazines than any other kind mainly because that is my specialty and so I have access to a wide range of such publications. I tend to avoid publications that are unlikely to be of much interest to any of them, or publications that are especially difficult to assess because of the complexity of the political or cultural analysis contained, for example. I try to use publications that are of potential interest to some of them or that are amusing for one reason or another. Although I hand out the publications randomly I may try and match certain students with specific publications in a few cases. For example, I may give a particularly difficult publication to a gifted student, or I may slip an anti-car magazine to someone who has a special interest in cars, or a roots music magazine to someone that I know to be a folk or bluegrass musician. I make sure that I end up with a dozen or so extra titles in case some students really can’t handle the ones they have been assigned.

Since many publications are published by individuals who are progressive thinkers, there may be some adult or mature-type words and images in some of them. I try to screen as much of the material as I can. However, considering that I do this project with Grade 12 students I don’t worry about oversights too much. Students are expected to be mature so if they should come across material that is potentially shocking they are encouraged not make a big deal about it and to avoid choosing that particular part to share with the others.

A secondary purpose of the project is to motivate students to read. I therefore make an effort to choose magazines that will appeal to them and I give preference to magazines that are relatively easy to figure out, or that are visually appealing, or that have content that is especially interesting, provocative, or humorous. On the other hand, I try not to pander to their most obvious interests.

The following are magazines or fanzines that have worked well for this project. Whenever the magazines have a slogan or motto on the cover I’ve included it in parenthesis. In some cases, I've included a brief description. Also, I put an asterisk (*) in front of those that are not generally available in stores.

The following four are satirical magazines and therefore not what they seem:

I use more magazines about music and popular culture than anything else because it’s a subject that some students are interested in. Also, it’s my own main interest and therefore I have lots to put at their disposal. Here are a few:

  Of course there are thousands of publications from which to choose. One source leads to another. Good sources to find out about little-known publications are: