Teaching Digital Consumers to Think Critically
Melanie Stewart Millar, Graduate Programme in Political Science
Volume 9 Number 2 (December 1999)

It had been a particularly bad weekend, punctuated by exasperated exclamations and filled with a curious (if all too familiar) mix of disillusionment, frustration and dread. Despite numerous critical skills exercises, outlines, drafts, one-on-one meetings and inspirational talks, I was once again faced with marking a preponderance of what I had come to know as "stream of consciousness essays" and "factual reports." Evidence of independent critical thought, analysis of the research materials, an ability to distinguish between different arguments, and a clear thesis, were once again largely absent from my students' work. I repeatedly ask myself, what am I doing wrong?

Other TAs report having had the same experience. It seems that I'm not alone. An alarming number of undergraduate students continue to have serious reading comprehension problems. For many students, the task of organizing, manipulating, and analysing information is daunting and unfamiliar. Is there a larger cause, something beyond my own inexperience and failings as a tutorial leader?

In the context of a Foundations course in Mass Communications, I have begun to look for answers by attempting to gain a better understanding of the communicative environment of my students. The social context of my teaching environment is characterized by a relentless stream of graphic-filled data, and continually stimulating emotional responses. North American culture has experienced an increase in the speed at which information is delivered and the variety and quantity of information available. Many of my students have spent more time watching television than they have in the classroom. They are more familiar with visual media, such as film, television, video, and the world wide web, than with books.

As a result, my students see the Internet as an unremarkable extension of an already information-saturated environment. Their world is one of sophisticated special effects and digitally-altered graphics. It is also a world in which the dominant mode of interaction is consumption. Mass consumer culture continually promises instant gratification, and rushes to simplify the complex with increasingly "user-friendly" products. In this context, notions of "freedom" have been re-cast in terms of rapid consumer choice: product A or product B? Cash or charge? Download or delete?

Ironically, in this world where we receive more and more snippets of information and fewer fleshed out editorials and less analysis, we need to develop precisely the skills that high speed culture makes increasingly difficult to achieve. Perhaps more than ever before, students require critical thinking to evaluate the information they read, hear, and see.

In view of all this, I have begun to appreciate more fully the necessity of facilitating two main processes in my tutorials. First, in sharp contrast to the world beyond the classroom, my students and I need to take more time to unpack arguments, make connections, give ideas a history, and examine the consequences of various opinions. In short, while the frenzied media machines outside the classroom hum along, we need to carefully and deliberately slow things down.

One way to achieve this goal is to divide students into groups to explore "common sense" arguments as they arise in class. A series of questions that can be applied to a variety of arguments can be used to help facilitate discussion. For example, it is commonly asserted in class discussion that equality involves treating everyone in an identical fashion. The goal is to achieve a more contextualized understanding of this assumption. Ask students to explore the underlying assumptions about the nature of individuals and groups, what is at stake in making this argument, what connections exist between this argument and existing ideologies, and how such a view may affect real people in real situations.

Alternative positions can be assessed in a similar way. The goal here is not to determine the "correct" position, but to reveal the consequences and connections between different ideas. A wider class discussion of the history of various positions and explorations of why certain views may predominate today can also be very fruitful. I have also used this technique when critically exploring popular song lyrics, advertising slogans, and so on.

It is important to recognize that the success of getting students to assess different positions depends a great deal on their ability to empathize with each other. The exercise requires that students recognize the diversity of experience that fills our classroom and come to terms with how such diversity helps to generate a variety of meanings. It is important to draw on and validate a variety of student experience, and connect larger social issues to individual realities. Frequent group work, student exchange of short written pieces, and discussions about university life and the particular challenges facing students, help to create an atmosphere that is more conducive to critical reflection.

Tutorial leaders also need to be less concerned about teaching specific content and more responsive to the interests of their students. TAs need to help students develop a useful critical skills toolkit that connects academic material with their own experiences. Asking students to bring in material for analysis in the tutorial encourages the building of these connections and helps stimulate greater student interest and responsibility.

The second process we need to facilitate is applying critical skills to visual and emotive communication forms. This is a tricky business. While it is clearly important to develop such skills in our hyper-media environment, it is also important not to reinforce their significance at the expense of "slower," less immediately digestible forms. This means we need to problematize more.

It means creatively and self-reflectively exploring aspects of the "everyday" – everything from the pleasure of visual display, to the demands of the written word, to the seductions of passive consumption.

For instance, engaging in a semiotic analysis of a single story as depicted in a television newscast, a magazine, a newspaper, or a web site, can facilitate a greater understanding of how different media structure information in different ways to achieve various effects. The emotional impact of each medium can be examined in detail. In learning to understand the pleasures of different media forms, tutorials can also provide students with the opportunity to experience the depth of textual information. Devoting significant tutorial time to demonstrating the joy of examining a single challenging paragraph of text in detail, teasing out its meanings and nuances, can encourage students to take the time to do the same. Discussing the process of reading and sharing the successful strategies of different students can also be helpful.

While I recognize that my weekends of frustrating marking are far from over, understanding some of the surrounding context has helped me to imagine ways to negotiate a path forward that is both adaptable and principled. If nothing else, taking my students' communicative environment to heart has emphasized the significance and precious nature of the face-to-face tutorial experience. In tutorial, my students and I have the rare opportunity to engage in critical exploration of our lives as digital consumers, and, if only for two hours a week, meet as citizens and students.