Teaching Media: Fostering Students’ Civic Engagement via Video Production

COMM 3201 “Introduction to Electronic Media Production” is an introductory course at the University of Minnesota that enhances students’ media literacy by combining theoretical knowledge of aesthetic composition principles in television and film with applied media production skills in a multi-camera studio. In the Fall of 2014, students in my COMM 3201 section were asked to do something a little different: for their final project students had to write and produce their own public service announcement engaging a social justice issue.

Class discussions about racialized media representations and the nationwide #BlackLivesMatter protests spurred an interest in Samantha Cabrera, a graduating senior majoring in Communication Studies, to craft a script titled “I see Colored People.” Drawing on her own experiences as an immigrant student of color at the University of Minnesota, the PSA reveals the functions of “white privilege” and asks viewers to be conscious of race in U.S. society.

Samantha: “People tend not to see color to comfortably avoid the obvious differences in everyday life and media. When I came to the U, I noticed how my experience was that much harder than it was for other students.” Using many of the skills and techniques learned over the course of the semester, Samantha and her group successfully produced a high-quality PSA in the Rarig Center: “I am proud of our PSA. It’s all about the exposure to new ideas and points of view and hopefully this is what this PSA did for the rest of the class too.”

Check out the PSA “I see Colored People” here:


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Answering a much dreaded question: what’s your dissertation about?

I realize that it has been quite awhile since I’ve been posting about some of my own research and an update is long overdue. Hence, I decided that it might be a good point to talk a little bit about my dissertation project and what I’ve been working on over the past year [warning: it is a rather academic read].

In my dissertation titled “Terrorizing Gender: Transgender Visibility and the Surveillance Practices of the U.S. Security State,” I explore how  the media representation of transgender bodies is connected to the surveillance practices enacted against trans communities at the hands of the state, e.g. through disproportionate rates of criminalization and incarceration etc. I’ve become particularly interested in exploring how mediated visibilities of marginalized communities, particularly those perceived as gender-non-conforming, impact the material realities of those communities, principally in terms of their access to national belonging and U.S. citizenship.

In recent years, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) movement has gained unprecedented legal victories – with marriage equality, the passing of federal hate crime legislation, and the repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy – granting recognition and rights to certain gay and lesbian citizens. The increased media representation of LGBT people – 2013 saw a record number of queer characters on broadcast networks – further suggests the successful inclusion of gays and lesbians into society. Indeed, gays may be “The New Normal,” as the title of a popular NBC sitcom proclaims. In sharp contrast, the disparaging media coverage of whistle blower and Wikileaker Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning, which focused on her gender identity as a motivation for her leaking classified documents largely to the omission of her own account that she did so out of a “love for my country and a sense of duty to others,” paralleled the state’s own conceptualization of Manning as a traitor. Similarly, the local story of CeCe McDonald, an African American transgender woman charged with second degree murder and sentenced to 41 months in prison for killing her attacker with a pair of fabric scissors during a violent assault motivated by racism and transphobia in 2011, has turned a national spotlight on the discrimination, bigotry, and violence transgender people frequently face. These two stories, then, point to the ways in which, despite being nominally included in the LGBT moniker, transgender individuals were (and still are) not assimilated into the nation state, but are rather excluded from it.


The contrast between gay and lesbian inclusion and transgender exclusion by both the state and mass media has caused some scholars in queer studies (e.g., Spade, 2011) to ask whether transgender bodies, communities, and issues are the excluded “step child” of LGB(T) politics. Using Manning and McDonald’s stories, as both illustrative and representative of everyday transgender experiences, my research takes up this contrast as a problem intensified by the practices of and connections between corporate media and the U.S. security state (an amalgam of governmental, corporate, and civil entities invested in fostering national security and citizen safety at the expense of civil liberties). I examine the media and the state’s differential treatment of transgender individuals as an entry point through which to analyze gender and sexual visibility within the contemporary United States because it affords the ability to interrogate the state’s increasingly prevalent surveillance practices since September 11, 2001.

Using Chelsea Manning and CeCe McDonald as case studies, my project examines how transgender lives are represented by the media and surveilled by the U.S. security state, specifically how media coverage of these individuals is connected to state surveillance practices post-9/11. My dissertation moves beyond studies of representation typical in media studies to build interdisciplinary bridges between critical media studies, queer studies, and surveillance studies. My dissertation asks how and why certain transgender people come under scrutiny by the surveillance practices of the security state as it analyzes the power relations intrinsic to those practices. I argue that the mainstream news media’s portrayal of Manning as “emotionally fractured,” plagued by “disciplining problems” and “delusions of grandeur” provides a rationale for the state surveillance of transgender bodies by tying their gender-non-conformity to mental instabilities that threaten state interests. Relatedly, the media’s framing of McDonald and her gender-non-conforming body as deceptive, as well as the state’s refusal to grant McDonald a right to self-defense, and the denial of her transgender subjectivity by the prison system (through placement in a male correctional facility and the denial of hormone therapy) further illustrates how both the media and the state deem transgender bodies deviant and therefore threatening. I suggest that in this mutually reinforcing process intersecting logics of gender, class, and race inform state surveillance practices that disproportionally subject transgender communities (particularly those of color) to frequent policing, discrimination, and incarceration.

Hopefully, this conveys a good glimpse of my larger project and over the next few weeks I plan on sharing some specifics and examples from the chapters that I have already completed and/or are appearing in publications. So stay tuned for more!

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Return from a Blogging Hiatus

It is the Fall of 2014 and I have realized that my blog has basically received zero attention over the past two years. While unforgivable, I guess it somewhat speaks to the busy mind and life of the academic. Nonetheless, as I am entering my *hopefully* final year of graduate school, I figured it would only be appropriate to at least attempt to revive the blogland. Hence, to be part of the Zeitgeist again you can expect to hear more from me about research and community news as well as exciting things that are going on in the class room over the next few months. Of course, your input, comments, and feedback are always welcome!



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As promised here are some impressions from my German and Greek travels over the past few weeks. It’s been a very enjoyable stay in the homeland with some much needed R&R time to refuel the batteries … our week on Samos in Greece was wonderful. Lots of ancient sites to visit, beautiful bays and beaches, as well as delicious food and wine! And some of you will be delighted to hear that I finally managed to read the Hunger Games 😉

Otherwise, I’m itching a bit to get back to work though (much to Stefan’s dismay). June will be a super busy month with revisions on a book review and article due, plus most excitingly but also time-consuming: I’ll be teaching a eight week Media Literacy summer class – yay.

So please send lots of productive energy my way! More “academic” material should be coming towards the end of this month.


Αντιο und auf Wiedersehen!

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Spring 2012 – It’s a (double) Wrap

Whoop the semester has officially come to an end!

At this point I want to congratulate my COMM 1101 Public Speaking section for successfully “mastering” their rhetorical assignments this semester – yay! You all clearly deserve your summer break and I hope you have fantastic three months off!

As for this blog, which was started as part of my grad seminar COMM 8210 “The Role of the Critic” – it’s been a pleasure circulating some more or less half-baked ideas throughout the past 4 months, and I promise I’ll try my best to keep some “good stuff” coming – probably with a little less frequency though. Btw: Zeitgeist has at this point had over 1200 views – another yay!

And dang: I also survived my first year as a PhD student up here, and yeah while the U of M ain’t like my old Alma Mater, it’s been a really good ride thus far (plus, I’m not nearly as exhausted as I was after completing my first year of grad. school back in 2009, no sleeping in the library), so I’m not toiled to death yet lol.

I’ll be spending much of May and early June in Europe, so keep an eye out for reports from the homeland.

Until then take care,  kill those final exams, good luck with prelims or defending your dissertations everyone!

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DADT and The L Word’s Representation of Queer Military Visibility

As the semester is slowly but surely coming to an end, I’ve been looking over my little list that I had crafted earlier this year with possible topics to cover on this blog. There still remain so many things I would like comment on but realistically I will probably never ever get to it … so this week I figured it might be a good point to present a few very fragmented (emphasis here!) ideas that I have on a possible future project: interrogating the representation of queer military visibility in The L Word.

As an avid fan of the show (I finally finished watching all six seasons this month, and my poor roommate had to endure some of it in the living room ;), it was particularly interesting to follow the development of Tasha Williams, an African American queer service member, who is introduced in Season 4. As I suggest, Tasha represents the shows most provocative take on the Bush Administration’s foreign policy with a (fictional) critique of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” before the policy’s official repeal in September, 2011.

But let me provide some background on all of this:  The L Word ran on Showtime from 2004 through 2009 and presents one of the most successful shows on the network up until today. The L Word revolved around the lives and loves of a close-knit group of (predominantly) lesbians (there are also bisexual and transgender characters) living in Los Angeles, as well as their friends and family members who either support or loath them.

Given the blog post format, I don’t want to waste too much time delving into plot details here, but it is interesting to address The L Word’s “struggle” with, what Kevin Barnhurst (2007) calls the “visibility paradox”: the show became notably “more diverse” in its portrayal of lesbians towards the later seasons as several viewers and fans arguably took issue with its very limited focus on a very affluent, white, and femme type of lesbian during its first two seasons. Similarly, Ciasullo (2001) argues that representations of lesbianism are typically normalized-heterosexualized or “straightened out” – via the femme body; lesbians who are not femme, the butch, are virtually invisible in media representations, and when they do appear, they are often pathologized.

The character of Tasha, especially along with the introduction of woman-to-man transgender figure Max, can be seen as The L Word’s attempt to more explicitly (re)negotiate the “invisibility” and excessive “stigmatization” of certain persons in the LGBTQ community.

But enough on that and to my actual area of interest here: Tasha Williams (played by Rose Rollins), a military Police Officer in the Army National Guard, enters the tight-knit circle of Bette, Tina, Jenny, Shane, Kit and Helena as she becomes Alice’s girlfriend (played by Leisha Hailey). Alice, white, fashion lover, clearly femme and a self-proclaimed bisexual, is a quirky, sometimes hyper-active journalist for LA Magazine who’s mostly known throughout the show as being the creator of the infamous chart, a recompilation of all the lesbian relationships, sexual encounters, and one-night stands  in LA – think six-degrees of separation.

Tasha, on the contrary is portrayed as an African-American Amazon who proudly rides a motorcycle and comes across as a rather tough butch. Her relationship with Alice is not a smooth one from the get go as they frequently bump heads about Tasha’s military service. Alice accuses her of being complicit in a regime that is “killing innocent Iraqis for Bush’s War” and wonders why Tasha let’s herself be treated like a second class citizen by being prohibited from serving openly. The criticism presented in their arguments reveals some stark shots at the Bush Administration, especially if we consider that the season aired in 2006.

Interestingly, we also witness Tasha encountering nightmares and symptoms of PTSD after doing a tour in Iraq. Unfortunately, the show hereby refrains from putting these issues into a larger social discussion. Further, the show also never makes race an issue of any of the struggles or complications the couple is encountering. This complete erasure or neglect of race could certainly be further explored as well.

At the end of Season 4, Tasha gets called in by her superior informing her that someone made a complaint that she was seen engaging in inappropriate conduct. He tells her that he does never want to see or hear again about her “life style.” In Season 5, ironically or not Tasha is spared from another tour in Iraq as she is being investigated for “homosexual conduct in the military” or simply put,  violating DADT.

“Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) was originally introduced as a compromise measure in 1993 by President Bill Clinton who campaigned in 1992 on the promise to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation. DADT became the official United States policy on homosexuals serving in the military from December 21, 1993 and prohibited military personnel from discriminating against or harassing closeted homosexual or bisexual service members or applicants, while openly barring gay, lesbian, or bisexual persons from military service. The policy prohibits people who “demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts” from serving in the armed forces of the United States, because their presence “would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability.” Any homosexual or bisexual person was prohibited from disclosing his or her sexual orientation. The act specified that service members who disclose that they are homosexual or engage in homosexual conduct should be subject to “administrative separation” (discharge).

As Tasha approaches her supervisor for help, she is simply told that any defense would be nearly impossible and that she should prepare for leaving the service, which puts her into much agony: “I dedicated my whole to life to the service.”

In another argument with Alice it is thereby striking to hear Tasha emphasizing that “she is not fighting to turn over DADT, but fighting to stay in the military” while Alice accuses her of “fighting your whole life to deny who you are.” This statement conveys a dismissal of gay rights on Tasha’s part and fits into a neoliberal and neoconservative frame work, which solely relegates ones sexual and personal “politics” to the private realm, instead of critiquing and fighting unjust structural hierarchies and systems in society at large. Katherine Sender (2006) came to similar conclusions in her analysis of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy as the show suggests that the appropriate place to negotiate gender and sexual politics is the commercial realm, leaving its progressive message vulnerable to the vagaries of “audience ratings and marketers’ patronage.” More on that would certainly be worthy to discuss in a full length paper.

Season 5 presents the height of Tasha’s “DADT challenge”: She is ultimately charged with “Chapter 15 discharge for homosexual conduct.” As the investigation becomes more aggressive, Alice encounters an intimidating and humiliating visit by military personnel in her apartment.  She is asked intimate questions, and her LGBTQ materials as well as the infamous chart are scrutinized.

As the trial begins, military prosecutor General Jill Davis is assigned with the case and makes it very clear to Tasha, despite her excellent achievements that if she wanted to stay in the service “You should have thought about that before deciding to become a lesbian.” Ironically, General Davis herself is later unambiguously coded as lesbian as we see her in a telling shower scene.

During the final trial session Alice is called into the stand to testify denying any sexual relationship with Tasha. The following clip from Season 5, Episode 8 “Lay Down the Law” shows you that particular scene. As all seems lost for Tasha, Davis unexpectedly approaches Alice during a break and tells her that Tasha should focus on emphasizing how Sergeant Brown (the original whistleblower) has numerous reasons to act out of envy and jealousy as Tasha chose to promote a female sergeant who was better qualified and more apt.  The case almost seems won until Tasha makes a final statement stating that she has tried to “uphold the military code …until personal freedom [was] denied to me … for the person I love.”  This, of course, leads to her immediate discharge, and General Davis tellingly notes: “Personal freedom is an enviable thing, but personal sacrifice to assure that many more Americans can enjoy their freedom; that is the nobler cause”.

Since DADT was introduced in 1993, the military has discharged over 13,000 troops from the military under DADT, while the numbers of discharges sharply dropped after September 11, 2001.

In his 2008 election campaign, President Barack Obama finally advocated for a full repeal of the law. In October 2009, Obama stated in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign that he would end the ban, but set no date. In his State of the Union Address in 2010, Obama said, “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” This was quickly followed up by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen voicing their support for a repeal of DADT.

The policy came to an official end on Sept. 20, 2011. The law calling for repeal required that the action be delayed until President Obama certified that the military was “ready for the change,” which he did in July 2011. Pentagon officials said that nearly two million service members had been trained in preparation for gay men and women serving openly in their ranks. The extended preparation period had been sought by military leaders and Pentagon officials, many of whom were initially reluctant to end the policy in the middle of two wars.

Not too surprisingly several candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination called for the restoration of DADT, including Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Rick Santorum. Sometimes you may wonder whether we’re still fighting the “culture wars” of the 1990s…

While The L Word’s take on DADT as well as PTSD is clearly limited and severely romanticized to a certain extent, I think it is worthy to acknowledge the shows’ willingness to engage in these discussions in precarious times, particularly during the second term of the Bush administration. Clearly, this is very hypothetically speaking, but it may have been fictional formats such as The L Word that could have contributed to the final and long awaited repeal of DADT in 2011.

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Summer Course::: COMM 3623W “Media Literacy”

COMM 3263W Media Literacy: Decoding Media Images and Messages

M/W/F 10:10am – 12:05pm (06/11/2012 – 08/03/2012)

Ford Hall B 60            

(Meets CLE’s requirement for Writing Intensive Courses)

This is a summer course that condenses a semester’s worth of material into 8 weeks. Media literacy will serve us as a framework and educational tool for accessing, analyzing, evaluating, creating and participating with media content. The goal of this course is to help us all develop skills for critiquing media images, messages, and means of production.

To examine media from a critical perspective is to question why things are the way they are, and how they came and continue to be as such. Your job this semester will be to articulate your own critical arguments about the political and social significance of particular media texts and practices. This work will require us to question much of what we might normally take for granted about the media, our culture, our democracy and, ultimately, ourselves.

We will, for example, spend time discussing the political economy of the media, the impact of new media technologies such as Facebook, the emergence of Reality TV, the role of advertising, queer television shows, and gender relations in Hip Hop.

This course will use numerous films, music, blogging, and Coursekit to help us engage with a variety of media texts. Your grade will be comprised of active classroom participation, discussion questions on readings, as well as paper assignments. Don’t hesitate to email me with any inquiries/questions: fisch792@umn.edu

Registration is now open on ONE Stop!

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