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Bridging the Gap: Popular Culture as a Tool for Reaching New Millennial Students; Communicating Through Visual Art and Visual Literacy

November 17-18, 2006
University of the Sacred Heart and the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Hasaan Kirkland, Associate Professor of Art, Johnson C. Smith University

Extensive studies are showing that a large portion of educators are struggling in recent time to maintain the attention and learning energy of current students, “Millennial Students,” with the same old bag of tricks. I have often located visual forms of media through magazines, commercial ads, visual art or even logo driven clothing apparel (i.e., Nike, RocaWear, Baby Phat, Enyce, Gucci, Prada, Guess etc.) as a means to capture an avenue that would possibly lead students to critical thoughts and educated awareness about a given subject or topic. This not only provides critical thinking but also self-discovery and the ability to gain an identity through education and art. Comparative analysis through visual literacy, critical thinking, and art, can establish contributions from social, cultural, and political resources that characterize identity formation (Caruso,p. 74). For example, Lackey suggests that understanding magazines as pedagogical contexts can help educators use and analyze images and curricula within them (p. 323). A concerting and advancing dilemma in too many college classrooms, this reflects problems with connecting the value and societal benefit of education that is embedded in the curriculum with useful and successful tools of implementation, application and relationship, with the key concern being “successful and useful education.”

Curriculum needs tools that are not just about the subject matter or the critical properties of how to operate in the context of the classroom, but it needs resources, techniques, modules, rubrics, or simple human antics that will keep students’ brains open and receptive to a lesson. This issue is about adapting today’s college lessons to today’s popular cultured students. We as educators need to remember the value of relating our pedagogy to our students through a means that they can receive and establish an understanding that harnesses the idea of educating through culture or “everyday practices.” Marxist critic Raymond Williams argues this in his definition of culture:

“Culture is a whole way of life (ideas, attitudes, languages, practices, institutions, structures of power) and whole range of cultural practices: artistic forms, text, canons, architecture, mass-produced commodities, and so on. Culture means the actual grounded terrain of practices, representations, languages, and customs of any specific historical society. Culture in other words, means not only “high culture” what we usually call art or literature, but also the everyday practices, representations, and cultural productions of people and of postindustrial societies (qtd. in Freccero 13p).

Millennial Students, specifically, are immersed heavily into multiple levels of everyday practices or culture that engage their mental activity; something I call “mental-tasking”. This happens readily via the internet, Xboxes, I-pods, cell phones, text-messaging, internet websites (MySpace, Facebook, eBaum’sWORLD, YouTube etc.), television, popular magazines (Vibe, The Source, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Essence etc.) materialistic advertisements, music videos, blockbuster movies/film and/or technologically enhanced devises, which are funneling audible visual images by the second into the minds of our current college student between the ages of 18-22. The problem with this visual cacophony could be due to educators not utilizing visual art, visual learning, or literacy as a way to tune into the right channel or download the correct program, thus providing an equitable atmosphere that can be associated and assimilated as a place to think, learn, and live. This issue is as much as a teacher issue as it is a student issue. If students don’t know how to make sense or use of the fervent assault of media-driven pluralistic bliss of a thoughtless mind-provoking stimulus that they call life, what good is a college education when they can not apply it to their life.

Today’s students need visual literacy skills, visual art awareness, and knowledge that enable them to encode concepts as well as decode the meaning of society’s images, ideas, and media of the past as well as the increasingly complex visual world (Sandell, p. 33). Students need educators to not only give them the traditional sources and fundamental lessons, but also the skill sets to make sense of the world in which they currently exist. Any fashion of learning that stimulates the mind of students, causing them to grasp the relationship and application of education to achieve a quality standard of living must utilize some form of literacy. In this current visual media-driven society, visual literacy seems to be the best suit. This leads many researchers, professors, instructors, and students to seek out instructions, associations, or practices that will reflect positive learning outcomes that are either from cutting-edge pedagogy or from traditional methodologies that allow students access to relationships and find something that simply looks and feels like them. Finding this will elevate the market of education, rebooting progress and success of students and institutions.

This focus and proactive methodology drives at the heart of making education informative and transformative. The transformation process and the reception of information via media, text, or subconscious context provides students with an enormous critical thinking ability that allows them to be successful not only by what they actually do but what they can critically explain, think, and apply to a given scenario. Sandell notes that whether students are confronting shocking prison atrocities, twisted political ads, or the increasing plethora of colorful artifacts designed for continual material acquisition, teachers and art teachers are responsible for teaching art as a qualitative language (p. 33). This process, like poetry, explores how, in contrast to what something is, through creative expression and critical response, which is both informative and transformative. Through the informative process of critical response, students perceive, interpret, and finally judge ideas connected to visual imagery and structures, past and present. Through the transformative process of creative expression, students generate artistic ideas that they can elaborate, refine and finally shape into meaningful visual imagery and structures (p. 33).

I can distinctly remember during my primary, secondary, and graduate learning, instructors and professors meandered aimlessly, at times, in and out of common and uncommon methodologies hoping that I, the fickle and malleable-minded student, would fall under a spell and actually learn something. Fortunately and unfortunately, I can safely say that I did sometimes. On those marvel occasions I was able to absorb the entire lesson, relate it to life, and walk away feeling and knowing as if “education or learning” just happened. I now, and sometimes then, realize that it had much more to do with how the professor was able to reach me, and was less about the subject. Thankfully I was reached with everything from the Baroque and Rococo era, anthropology, Spanish conjugations, power cleans in the gym, trigonometry, to the moral of the autobiography of Malcolm X, which were all rooted deeply into my conscious mind under “educated and learned.” This phenomenon had everything to do with how well the professor could get my attention through cultural language, art, visual recognition and relationship with circumstance, and the context of the subject matter as it related to me. This ultimately provided a gateway that was familiar by visual stimulation, making it safe for me to venture into “critical thinking” and learning. Through visual literacy and visual associations, and/or art, I was able to recount, understand, apply, and learn any given subject.

The common factor in my experience, disseminating or receiving, has been about the ability to connect to the lesson. This issue is abundantly at play in the classroom today. Such assisted methodology is essential for Millennial Students who are desperately in need for a bridge between the two ideas of information and education. . Learning through the arts has the potential to stimulate open-ended activity that encourages discovery, exploration, experimentation and invention, thus contributing to development in all areas of learning and helping to make curriculum meaningful (Duffy, 2006). Discovering useful methodology that captures the attention of college students by way of structuring courses around the useful and broad scope of their mind and culture should not only be a priority for faculty and institutions, but a necessity. This reality under no circumstance should ever be lost from the academy.

In this day and age it is imperative that faculty discover what will effectively impact their students before graduation. Students learn that there is a balance in the relationship between colors, lines, and objects. Students begin to think critically and reason through real-world situations (Price, p. 50). As a professor of Fine Art, I have found “visual literacy” as a useful tool threaded with visual media, film, and technology as a means to secure an acceptable educated outcome; many times noted by a smile, laughter, assertiveness to participate, follow-up answers with critical thoughts and the reason and acceptance to apply it to their lives. My favorite notation and recognition of an “ah ha” moment for my students would be the often colloquial response of “That’s what’s up” to garnish the ending of a discussion or lesson taught. If we as educators can continue to extend our means and skills, stretching beyond the traditions by not excluding students but simply finding newer methods to include them, we might be able to not only educate Millennial Students, but also re-establish the social respect, purpose, and applicable quality rendered by having a college education viewed as more than a comment of social entertainment or pastime.

Lackey, Lara M. “Home Sweet Home? Decorating Magazines as Contexts for Art Education.” Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research in Art Education v46. n4 (Sum2005) : p323-338

Sandell, Renee. “Form + Theme + Context: Balancing Considerations for Meaningful Art.” Art Education v59.n1 (Jan 2006) : p33-37

Caruso, Hwa Young Choi. “Art as a Political Act: Expressions of Cultural Identity, Self-Identity, and Gender” Journal of Aesthetic Education v39.n3 (Fall 2005) p71-87

Price, Dustine. “From Paint to Pen” School Arts: The Art Education Magazine for Teachers v104. n9 (May-Jun 2005) : p50

Duffy, Bernadette. Supporting Creativity and Imagination in the Early Years. Supporting Early Learning. Open University Press, 2006.

Freccero, Carla. Poplular Culture an Introduction. New York University Press, 1999

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