Teaching with selfies: icebreaker
This morning I met my students for our first lecture of the semester in DIKULT106, where I’m teaching a three week module on digital self-representation (like, you know, selfies). So after a quick “How many of you have phones with cameras in your pockets?” ascertained that ALL of the students were carrying such devices I ditched the traditional interview-your-neighbour icebreaker and sent them out to take selfies with each other instead.
The idea was entirely stolen from Terri Senft‘s first assignment for the online selfie workshop a bunch of us are doing in advance of the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Korea in October. You see, at 6 am this morning I was Skyping with eight amazing colleagues around the world, discussing assignments and weekly readings for the course, which has already ballooned into a five week festival.
It is going to be an amazing course, and the syllabus will be ready for us to share next week, I think. Most of the other teachers will be using it live with their own students (sadly that won’t work with my teaching schedule), and additionally the course will be open to anyone else who wants to join in, whether they are students, researchers or just interested.
That photo is me opening our class selfie session with one of me looking nuts in front of an auditorium of nice, quiet, well-behaved students. Actually, one of the interesting things for me was seeing this photo against the selfies taken by the students themselves. In my selfie with students, the students are so clearly disciplined by the architecture of the room: those seats, stacking them side by side with little space to be individuals. Of course I could have chosen to sit beside them to take my selfie but that actually didn’t occur to me. Of course I followed the expectations of the room – and of my role as teacher, and maybe also as selfie-taker/photographer, and put myself at the front keeping them all in their places. Look how they smile a little nervously as their crazy teacher declares they must all take selfies.
The selfies the students took themselves are quite different. Some are classic selfies with smiling faces and beautiful young people (they are all beautiful simply by virtue of their youth and enthusiasm) but others have deliberately fake smiles, grumpy faces, some are of just feet and one is just of two t-shirts. I’m going to risk sharing that one without permission, actually.
Some of the photos use filters. Some show three students as equals, giving them equal space in the frame. Others show one in front, clearly the photographer, and the others in the background. Some pretend to be asleep, others show thumbs up. Two girls frown severely with finger gestures.
Terri’s assignment (which I butchered in stealing it, as one always does) didn’t actually send students out to take selfies, instead she asks students to find flattering and unflattering selfies on their phones, and to think about how and why the photos would be good or bad for different purposes, like a Facebook profile page, a dating site or a company profile for different kinds of professions – or for a history book showing what life was like in 2014.
In my misremembering of Terri’s assignment I asked students to discuss what our selfies, taken together, would tell a future historian about what everyday life was like in 2014. Again the usefulness of students having phones in their pockets was evident: I could simply ask them to scroll through the photos on Instagram on their phones. After talking about this in small groups we talked about it together. “Future historians would think we were self-obsessed,” one group said. “Or obsessed with self-documentation,” said another. “They’d think we had no jobs at all and spent all our time smiling and taking photos of ourselves,” said a third. A fourth suggested that the biggest mystery to the future historians would be that we only had a few photos, and that they weren’t video streams. “Didn’t they record everything,” these future humans would wonder.
Next time we will have to work more specifically on how to read selfies. I didn’t really want general observations like “selfies are self-obsessed,” and unfortuantely we didn’t have time to really talk about that. Definitely on the to-do list for the next class. I think if I were to do this again (and it certainly seemed to work beautifully as an icebreaker!) I would try having much more specific analysis tasks for the students. Not the future historians question, but maybe more what Terri asks students to do in her assignment (I’m citing a draft, so this may change):
Label your six photos A-F, and then write a photo essay in which you explain which pictures would be the best and worst to use for the purposes below. In your explanations, be as specific as you can (e.g. don’t say “this photo looks professional,” explain how and why you came to that conclusion, based on signifiers like clothing, background details, and so forth.)
Probably talking more about signifiers and visual rhetoric would be important. Also, if students were deliberately choosing images they had taken previously we would have had a greater variety than when I just sent them into the courtyard for 10 minutes to snap selfies. That would have given us more to analyse.
Practically, the way I did this was to set up a shared Instagram for the class before the lecture, with a password that will be easy for our students to remember but isn’t too obvious. Most of the students already had Instagram installed and all but one already had the university’s wifi access on their phones. I gave them a few minutes to install Instagram, log out and log into the class account, split them into groups by having them count (“OK, you’re in group 1, you’re in group 2…”) so they wouldn’t be in groups with people they knew. We had no problems having 40 people logged into the same Instagram account. A very easy assignment to set up.