This semester in Youth Media has been an education like no other – since the beginning of the class, I’ve worked with several different groups of students, become a guest on a podcast that’s now online for all to listen to, and led my friends through a gallery of student work that I couldn’t have been more proud of. Each of these discrete experiences have contributed to a greater understanding of what it means to be a producer and student of Youth Media, what it means to learn as we go and problem-solve on a timeline that affects real people outside of the Muhlen-bubble. Throughout the course of this class, several overarching themes and patterns of behavior can be seen on the part of myself, the other students in Youth Media, and the Building 21 students, though this experience can hardly be boiled down to any monolithic lesson.
For instance, there was the constant matter of negotiating identities – negotiating our own identities in the Youth Media class around the B21 students, around each other, around professors, around the greater B21 community when we visited, and so on. In our first meeting with B21 students, when the photography group visited Muhlenberg and we went around campus taking pictures, the Youth Media class neatly lined up against the back wall, sitting in the last possible row of chairs and removing ourselves completely from the B21 students who were about to file in for the first time. Likewise, the B21 students did not “voluntarily” sit in the first row of chairs, as I noted in my field notes from October 15. No one knew where they were situated in this context, both literally and figuratively – though we Youth Media students had read plenty of Freirean theory about become students-teachers and teachers-students, there was little intermixing between the two in our first interactions, though I noted in my field notes that I thought we had at least begun this process (Freire pg. 83). Maddie and I, in our first group pairing together, walked among the students with mostly failed efforts to start conversations, filling the silence “with gentle suggestions, telling them that they could pose with us, use each other in the photo, or manipulate anything they saw around them to reflect what they wanted to show. No bites.” Maddie and I were attempting to negotiate the “teacher” identities that we felt we needed to put on in front of students who might not have known how to use certain types of equipment or take a certain photo using the Rule of Thirds; we tried to appear like we knew what we were doing, but at the same time wanted to seem approachable, open to learning from the students as they learned from us. At this point, this was a very conscious process. I was aware of every single time I spoke and analyzed everything I said to see if it allowed the students to express themselves or if I was asserting myself too much. In short, I thought a lot about what I was doing and how my identity was being perceived.
Though this overthinking never went away, per se – a common problem for ethnographers, who, like Soep & Chavez, may write entire books musing how people who society deigns authority figures by virtue of their age, class, and education should best approach interactions with youth – identity construction certainly became more nuanced throughout the semester. One student whose identity made itself known relatively quickly in the class, Egnor, started in the first session as what I perceived to be a class-clown type; I stated in my field notes that “one student (Egnarr?) raised his hand every time Tony asked if any of the students were familiar with photography/photo-taking techniques. Tony asked him if he could explain the Rule of Thirds. He said, ‘No! I’ve heard of it, though!’ to which everyone laughed.” This pattern continued throughout his visits to Muhlenberg and in our first visit to B21, where Egnor engaged eagerly with Tony’s podcasting tutorial and answered all of his questions as was typical of his behavior. Though I did not get the chance to work with Egnor personally until November 12, Colleen, Maddie, and I spent the majority of the rest of the class making media with him and his rotating circle of friends: Jeremia, DeAndre, and Eddie. When I first sat down to record Lyrical Advisory with them, I didn’t even know that we would be involved in the podcasting process. There I was again, separating myself from the students, subconsciously editing myself out of the student-teacher/teacher-students amalgam before Egnor had even got a word in. When he included us in the podcast, breaching the divide between “authority figure” and student and shattering it almost instantly, I was floored: “Egnor says, ‘We in the mix with…’ and points the microphone at me. For a millisecond, I’m in shock – I for some reason expected the boys to want to make the podcast on their own, that we college people might function like a live studio audience of sorts, but Egnor turns to us without question and smoothly folds us into ‘the mix.’ ‘Brooke!’ I manage to say after I bring my eyebrows down from around my hairline … We’re immediately welcomed into their remarkable inclusive group, despite the fact that we’ve already demonstrated in our pre-recording discussion that we don’t really know what’s going on. We’re along for this ride, and the boys have pulled the lever.”
It was that moment, I think, when Soep & Chavez’s idea of collegial pedagogy stopped being so abstract and intentional. Collegial pedagogy essentially describes the process in which young people and adults work collaboratively in an environment where the young people lead but adults do not disappear; adults are still a part of the editing process and use their expertise to help guide youth without determining their paths or making final decisions. Collegial pedagogy, like our class, also focuses on the end goal of disseminating the media young people make to some kind of public, introducing the guidelines and realities of the greater world into sometimes insular youth media groups (p. 58-59). When Egnor had an idea of what he wanted to make and started to just make it with the help of Colleen’s audio recording knowledge, incorporating our voices into his creation whilst still clearly running the show, collegial pedagogy became real. Egnor wanted his podcast displayed in a public venue, or, even better, an online one, and he wanted us, college students who he had never met, to be a part of that. He and his friends collapsed the identities as teachers that we were still holding on to and adopted part of that mantle for themselves. For instance, when we Youth Media students didn’t know a celebrity they wanted to discuss, they became our educators: “’You don’t know who Tay-K is?!?’ [Egnor] says, his voice and eyebrows raised. ‘I don’t know anything about any of this,’ I say, ‘This is amazing, you guys know so much.’ I’m leaned back in my chair in awe. Jeremia tries to explain, ‘He’s the person who made the song – pardon my language – “F*ck a beat, I was tryna beat that case.”’ ‘Ohhhhhhh,’ I say, having absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.” The B21 students are the teachers here, and I am undoubtedly the student. Identities were created and collapsed countless times during these discussions, allowing them to be much more malleable than they were at the awkward beginnings of this field work.
This passage from my field notes also brings to mind another pattern I noticed throughout the semester: connection through pop culture. In our first meetings with Egnor and his friends, Colleen was our major point of connection with them, as she knew the most about current rappers and sneaker culture, which the B21 students engaged with eagerly. In my own experiences during our first B21 visit, I met with Taylor, who was reluctant at first to take part in an interview. She rarely made eye contact with me and responded “I don’t know” to almost every question. The turning point in our conversation, though, was when she opened up just a bit about her love for music, which turned into a flourishing conversation: “’Who’s your bias?’ I asked. In K-pop fan culture, one’s ‘bias’ is their favorite member of the group. Taylor replied, after some consideration, ‘I think…Key [full name Kim Ki-bum, the group’s lead rapper].’ I replied: ‘No way! He’s mine too!’ Taylor smiled, and we gushed over our shared favorite for a few moments.” Once this touchstone of shared understanding was made through common language and insider knowledge, as “bias” is a term mainly used by avid K-pop fans, our interview was able to proceed smoothly as we traded other bits of pop culture knowledge, trying to see where our likes and dislikes matched up. In this way, Taylor and I were able to practice media-making effectively – she ended up experiencing an interview that was much less like the formal questioning she had likely been imagining (at the beginning of the session, she formulaically asked me, “What does the Heart of Healing mean to you?”) and much more like the podcasting experience I would come to know, full of exploratory wandering and natural conversation.
Even the experiences I witnessed with students completing more formal interviews were full of their creative interpretations and explorations of the model set out for them by Tony in our second week of field work. The group of video interviewers/interviewees, CiCi, Craig, Imani, and Angeli, worked with and around the formula that Tony had presented for them at the beginning of the class period. For example, one exchange between CiCi and Angeli went like this: “Angeli [responded], ‘[The Heart of Healing is] when you care for something and then you try and make somebody feel better.’ CiCi then asked a follow-up question: ‘What type of people are we making feel better?’ to which Angeli responded, ‘Someone you care about.’ CiCi ended the interview by saying, ‘That was very nice. I had a nice interview with you. Get home safely,’ causing Angeli to hide her face by pinching the bridge of her nose.” Here, the students were implementing the interview instructions Tony had set out for them – rephrasing questions, thanking the interviewee – but were subverting it with their own inside jokes, turning the process into something all their own.
They were following a model, yes, but the model was only a starting point: CiCi crafted her own questions, Angeli crafted her own answers, together they crafted a series of meaningful nonverbal exchanges, especially the joyfully embarrassed nose-pinching on Angeli’s part at the end. Throughout the semester, students likewise appropriated models for their own ends – Egnor and his group of friends, for instance, looked up to podcasters for inspiration but clearly established themselves as something different, something all their own: “’DJ Academiks basically is, um. He tells the news about like – he does what we do on a bigger scale.’ ‘But we better, though. We better though.’ proclaims Jeremia. ‘Exactly, we’re better. Definitely. Hands down. Shoutout Adademiks.’ affirms Egnor, to a chorus of ‘Of course, of course,’ from Maddie, Colleen, Autumn, and I.”
Here is where collaborative identity construction collides with collaborative media construction: when youth are provided with plenty of models to draw inspiration and learn certain forms from, like Tony’s interviewing methods or DJ Academiks’s work, they can synthesize both a sense of self and a physical media product that combines their own individual twists on that model. In conjunction with the pop culture that runs throughout so much of our understanding of youth culture, these students craft their identities as fans or watchers or listeners of everything from K-pop to Tay-K. We as students-teachers of a culture we all share engage in a collaborative identity construction process, in which we exchange knowledge and see how much teaching must be done on either side (i.e. Egnor testing the waters in terms of how much we knew about rappers and deciding to turn our knowledge deficits into a lesson). Once this process is complete, we then enter a process of crafting new collaborative identities, ones in which our differences in knowledge and perceived authority are collapsed. By the end of my session with Taylor, for example, we were just talking about writing and Harry Potter together across the lines of identity that might otherwise have divided us. Collegial pedagogy is still at play here, though, and we as adults are still free to offer up any useful models or advice we might possess whilst still listening and ultimately referring to the young leaders. These models, too, become sites for collective identity construction in which youth tweak and change them to best serve their purposes. The ultimate product is a collaborative piece of media that crosses boundaries of identity whilst still acknowledging those identities as important. When, during the first episode of Lyrical Advisory, we began talking about mass incarceration, for example, we did not ignore the locations that everyone in the room came from – we all shared our opinions and differences of treatment in terms of race and class and how we all thought about those things were not brushed over. The space was one where all could speak. Through this process, youth media becomes tangible, real. It becomes something more than an effort. It becomes a genuine site of collaboration where everyone feels seen.