Harvard University: An Opportunity for a Digital Media Literacy Lesson

Massachusetts Hall at Harvard Yard

Massachusetts Hall at Harvard Yard

As a December recess getaway, I spent a long weekend in a Harvard University neighborhood. I walked beside Victorian townhouses and through the campus maze. The raw and misty weather didn’t stop crowds on historical tours of the Yard, as dozens gathered around buildings like Massachusetts Hall and listened to the narratives of years gone by.  But the tour that I envisioned in my head was not historic but, rather, based on critical digital media literacy.  In no particular order, here’s what my Harvard University digital media literacy tour might look like.

Matthews Hall at Harvard Yard

Matthews Hall at Harvard Yard

Buildings in Harvard Yard have ornate cornices, austere lines, or even modern facades. I kept asking myself, What social and cultural forces have influenced changes in architecture since 1636, when Harvard was founded? How did the introduction of new materials and mass production change the way that buildings have been designed?  What effect will natural resource depletion have on architecture in the next two decades? What do we, as consumers, need to know about the sources of the materials we buy for our own home projects? How will a greater understanding of our own consumption contribute to a more sustainable planet?

Roses in bloom outside the Harvard University Museum

Roses in bloom outside the Harvard University Museum

As a self-trained gardener, I’m always studying the ways that plants adapt to our four season New England climate.  I wondered, In what ways is it ironic that roses were blooming in December on the Harvard University campus? To what extent has New England climate change affected botanical cycles of dormancy and bloom?  What research studies are underway at Harvard University to help scientists and citizens to understand and confront the quickly changing climate? I recognized that the effects of climate fluctuations and consequences can be a first step to adapting our own interactions with the natural world.

Thayer Hall accessibility sign at Harvard University

Thayer Hall accessibility sign at Harvard University

At one time in my life, I was a community access monitor, so I noticed universal accessibility signs as I walked on the Harvard campus.  What is it like to be a person who uses a wheelchair at Harvard University?  What types of architectural adaptations have been made to Harvard’s historic buildings so that persons with disabilities are given freedom of access?  What barriers remain to persons in our U.S. society who seek higher education and associated residential housing? Moreover, how can we all, in our local communities, ensure that all citizens with disabilities have access to as many public and private structures as possible so they can richly participate in community culture?

Plaque commemorating education of indigenous peoples at Harvard University

Plaque commemorating education of indigenous peoples at Harvard University

Several years ago, my local book group read Geraldine Brooks’ Caleb’s Crossing and even heard the author speak at the Read across Rhode Island May breakfast.  So, of course, as I meandered through Harvard Year, I was delighted to come across a plaque commemorating John Sassamon, who became the first known Native American to study at Harvard. Today, the purpose of Harvard University’s Native American Program is to advance the well-being of indigenous peoples. I wondered, What barriers do Native American and Alaskan Native students face in higher education? How are these barriers to student success being addressed theoretically and practically  at Harvard and at other renowned sites of higher level education in the United States?

Of course, questions about cultural literacy aren’t new to Harvard University.  In 1993, Harvard hosted a Media Literacy Teaching Institute that drew nearly a hundred interested instructors, scholars, and journalists.  It is also telling, however, that funding cuts later discontinued the Institute.  The host, Dr. Renee Hobbs, continues inquiry into education that prompts today’s students to think critically about what they see, read, and watch at the Media Education Lab. Perhaps Harvard’s current work at Youth and Media Lab at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society  will continue the power and promise of cyberspace research through a study of its own Harvard Yard, which is a site that offers myriad possibilities for critical connections through digital and media inquiry.

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is the recipient of the International Literacy Association’s 2015 Grand Prize Award for Technology and Reading.  She teaches English Language Arts at a New England public high school and is an adjunct faculty member at Rhode Island College. If you’d like information about workshops in digital and media literacy and learning, contact Carolyn at c4tuna31@gmail.com.

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