Tagged: Media Criticism

Twenty-Percent Rule

A few moments ago at a Starbucks in Sylmar, California, after grading a set of take-home exams and posting grades to CUNYFirst, I finished another teaching semester at Queens College. I now get about a week off before starting anew with an online, winter session course that I will be conducting from my childhood bedroom at my parents’ house. This shortens my winter break a bit, but the online course allows me to extend my stay here in California until mid-January. New York is always so cold, sad, and boring in early January, and I am not the least bit bereft about missing out on whatever winter dreariness there is back east.

While I should be excited about finishing another semester and again submitting grades on time, allowing me a peaceful Christmas break, that enthusiasm is tempered because just over 20% of students in my Media Criticism course didn’t receive a passing grade. Nine out of forty-five students outright failed, and one student just stopped attending but still submitted a take-home final exam. In all but two cases, the students just stopped attending class.

Sadly, this is a common occurence at Queens College. I was shocked to see that, in the first class I taught there years ago, about a third of the class failed. Up to that point, I had only limited teaching experiences: as a TA at UCSB and NYU, and teaching one introductory film course at Marymount Manhattan College. In those situations, there was always one or two students who didn’t complete the course, usually because of an extraordinary circumstance, but having ten students fail a single course was a terrible surprise. In my second semester at Queens College, I alerted my students to this fact, imploring them to not repeat this same, terrible feat. For whatever reason, in that second semester, the failure rate was much lower, but since then it has crept back up.

I don’t have a single explanation for why so many Queens College students fail these courses compared to similar courses at other colleges. However, a few factors, however, come to mind:

  • Some students have challenging socioeconomic circumstances.
  • Some students have demanding family obligations, either raising their own children or tending for other needy relatives.
  • Some students work full-time and are taking courses in their scant spare time.
  • Some students’ commutes make it hard to attend class.1
  • Some students are returning to school after an absence and are having a difficult time readjusting to school and/or learning how to “do” college.
  • Some students come from NYC or other urban public schools, where they largely excelled because they stayed out of trouble, not necessarily because they were academically proficient.
  • Some students are stuck in “K-12 mode,” treat the classroom as a battleground between student and teacher, and are consumed by what they “get away with” in class, with assignments, and on exams.

These are some pretty significant obstacles to overcome, and it’s not unreasonable to see how students facing these would have trouble in a college class, especially where I really push the students beyond procedural learning into more conceptual terrain. In other words, my courses are hard because I expect a lot of students, and I haven’t yet come to terms with dumbing down courses for more favorable reviews or a higher passing rate.

For the new year, I am implementing a few new policies at Queens College to help make clear that attending class and participating in the day-to-day assignments, not just the written ones that count towards their final grade, is essential in succeeding in college and beyond.

One step is to implement two new attendance policies:

  1. Negative reinforcement: Students may not miss more than four weeks of class for any reason.
  2. Positive reinforcement: Students attending more than 12 weeks of class will receive a half-grade bonus to their final grade.

These two seem a lot more consequential than factoring their attendance as a percentage of their final grade.

I’m also instituting a second policy in my Media Criticism course: require students to present on assigned readings. This worked really well in the New Technologies class that I taught years ago but never got to do again. The class relied a lot on readings and developing conceptual frameworks for understanding media. It also spared them from having me lecture, pontificate, and yammer for a three-hour (!) class period.

I hope these policies keep students engaged and invested, not just for my Media Criticism courses, but for all their other courses at the college. We owe it to our students to push them into realizing their greatness, especially in the face of the formidable circumstances many of them face. Allowing them to pass, by doing subpar work or missing many class sessions, is a disservice to what they should expect from us and why they enrolled in the first place.


  1. My eight-mile commute from Brooklyn to Queens College is a lethargic agony. I can bike there in less than an hour, but it’s through some pretty bike-unfriendly terrain. Alternatively, I can take public transportation, which will take about an hour-and-forty minutes to travel those eight miles, via a mix of subway lines and busses. 

Gardening Leave Bears Little Fruit

Pardon my silence over the last three weeks. I was asked to take an unpaid gardening leave for two weeks, and I stayed away from the computer as much as I could. And after my digital sabbatical was over, the beginning of the semester loomed on the horizon. Between the two, I stopped posting on this site.

I should have said something about it, but I was surprised as anyone that I would take such an extended leave from posting.

Before starting my leave, I planned to a bunch of awesome things, although tending to a garden was not one of them, including:

  • Visiting my friend Joe in Maine. He works there during the summer, and invited me to spend some time in the summer resort town of Northeast Harbor. Having never been before, it sounded like paradise.
  • Join my friend Steve in Baltimore as he watches a baseball game at a thirtieth different ballpark. Over the last three years, Steve leveraged all the spending his business generates into frequent flyer miles. Those miles allowed him to travel to a bunch of different cities to watch a baseball game at every current major league ballpark. His last stop was on August 17, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore. He’s not sure whether he’s going to do the International League or the Pacific Coast League next…or whether he’ll ever attend another baseball game again.
  • Hit the beach. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve been going to the beaches around here, and it’s pretty easy to bike to many of the beaches around here.
  • Organize my living and working space. Since I switched to the other side of the Newtown Creek, I’ve been uninspired to unpack the boxes I used to carry and hold my possessions. Going on cleaning and organizing binges used to be an embarrassing indulgence.
  • Go to Block Island or somewhere similarly exotic. As well as bikes and trains work together, bikes and ferries work even better. I had considered doing something like riding my bike out to Montauk and then catching the ferry to Block Island. But I could never find a time to do that.

As is the case with most of my grand plans, I did very few of these. Yes, I did go to the beach once, and I did go to Baltimore to watch the Mets play at Citi Field South Camden Yards with Steve and a few friends. But I didn’t visit any new places, such as the northeastern coast of Maine or one of America’s “Last Great Places”. Instead, I did a few familiar bike rides.

  1. Biked to Peekskill. This was a Monday ride that turned into an opportunity to enjoy dollar-oysters at the Peekskill’s Brewery. It however started as a coin-toss ride. My friend Brian and I rode the Westchester and Putnam county trails to Carmel, then rode on NY-301 to the junction with US-9. There we flipped a coin. Heads: we turned right to Beacon; Tails: we turned left to Peekskill. Since neither of us had a coin, I asked Siri to do so. At first, it gave us a smart-ass response: “You’re never going to believe this, but the coin landed on its edge.” We flipped again, Siri said “tails,” and we headed south to Peekskill. I’m considering making this a formal club ride, calling it something like “Heads Beacon, Tails Peekskill.”
  2. Biked to Philadelphia. I am planning to write a dedicated post about this ride. In the meantime, suffice to say that I had planned to ride all the way to Baltimore, over two days, to meet my friend Steve for that game at his thirtieth major-league park. However, after riding 97 miles to Philadelphia in 95°F heat, I decided it would be better to ship my bike back to New York and take a bus to Baltimore. The ride did serve as a testing ground for my canonical route to Philadelphia.
  3. Biked to Amagansett. Like the aborted ride to Baltimore, this was supposed to a Babylon-to-Montauk ride. On the same day as this ride through the Hamptons, our house was hosting a BBQ—a DreBQ as we call it out here. Since I didn’t want to miss the party, I aimed to return to NYC on the 3:30 PM train out of Montauk, which would put me in NYC by 7:00 PM. A couple of mechanical issues delayed our group’s progress so I bailed in Amagansett to catch that Montauk train along its westbound route. Until we had those flats, after the first half of the ride, we were due to finish the whole 92-mile course in about six hours.

And since returning to work, I assembled syllabi for three classes:

  1. Media Technologies at CUNY Queens College
  2. Media Criticism, also at Queens College
  3. Latin American Film, a new class at Pratt Institute

With the long summer break and my own gardening leave behind me and the semester beginning today, I recognize that I didn’t completely “turn off” during the break or do something completely unfamiliar. But I did do things that I enjoy and do pretty well.

And, yes, I’ll resume posting to this site again.

My Spring 2015 Classes at Queens College

The spring semester started yesterday at CUNY, and as luck would have it, it came just after a historic significant snowfall that receded in time for the first day of instruction. Also, as luck would have it, I teach two classes on Wednesday this semester at Queens College. This is a welcome relief from the past three semesters: I’ve either taught only one class or have had to make an hour-long, ten-mile slog on multiple days, at rush hour, and in peak-travel direction. It will be much more pleasant to have to only travel one day a week and at midday.

With the semester officially underway, I’m lifting my self-imposed embargo on publicizing the syllabi for my two Queens College classes.

Media Technologies

For the last five semesters, I’ve taught the evening section of this introductory course on the development of communications technologies. In it, we cover the technologies of writing and print, mass culture in the industrial age, electronic broadcast media, and, of course, digital media.

This semester, I changed the textbook from Crowley and Heyer’s Communication in History (retail price: $154.00) to Irving Fang’s Alphabet to Internet (retail price: $60). While the students should appreciate the economic relief, there is a significant trade-off in adopting the Fang textbook. Whereas the Crowley and Heyer book anthology is an collection of condensed writings on communication technologies, Fang writes a more traditional textbook. I usually prefer the former and to read a variety of different writings on a topic especially because it fascinates me how greatly scholarship can vary despite each author writing on the very same subject.

However, I sensed that most students weren’t reading the articles I assigned. With students enrolled in an evening section of an introductory course, almost all of whom are coming from day jobs and have pressing family responsibilities, it’s remarkable to me that they manage to attend class in the first place. Consequently, I have decided to lighten the weekly reading load by adopting a more condensed textbook, and I’ll use our class session to elaborate on each topic.

Media Criticism

To be honest, I always dreaded teaching this class. It used to be a 300-level class, and when I started teaching it, I upped the difficulty to meet my expectations for graduating students. I curated a collection of long, challenging readings; I assigned several writing assignments with a capstone; and I gave in-class exams with difficult essay questions. But after the first few weeks, I realized that I needed to do a lot of remedial work. Instead of having passionate in-class discussions about each reading, I had to teach students some fundamentals, such as how to outline an argument, how to compose a thesis statement, and the importance of opening each paragraph with a topic sentence. One semester, I even taught some research methods, such as searching catalogs and electronic journals, and I spent a whole week on citations and bibliographies. But I stopped doing that after one peer reviewer censured me for teaching so many nuts-and-bolts. After that critical evaluation, I became frustrated and gave up on figuring out how to teach this class. Thankfully, I was not asked to teach it again.

A few years have passed since I last taught the class, and both the class and I have changed in that time. Media Criticism has been reclassified as a 200-level class, presumably due to Pathways reform, and I am more experienced with teaching seminar-style courses, where I can let students talk. I’m now ready to retry teaching it as introductory media theory course: a course where we “criticize media criticism,” as I explained in class yesterday. This semester, instead of “curating” an overly ambitious collection of readings, I had the students buy one textbook, we’re comparing three or so readings each week based on themes that the anthology’s editor, Laurie Ouellette, presumably organized them and based on my own interests in media and cultural studies.

One of the reasons I chose Ouellette’s edited collection is because gender and race aren’t put into a “topical ghetto.” Instead, those are addressed in almost every reading throughout the book. When I explained to my students yesterday about the importance of “studying (or criticizing) media criticism,” I offered the following diatribe:

A few weeks ago, the Academy Awards nominated ten film actors and ten film actresses for best of the year. Not one of them is black, Latino, Asian, or any other American ethnic minority. Are you telling me that there’s not one such actor who was among the best last year, or was it that those in charge of making movies didn’t offer some one “different” an opportunity? Either way, as a country, we have failed when our most visible cultural form disregards our own people…those that make up this country.

It was a rare moment of seriousness for me, and I probably prattled on a bit longer than I should have. But I wanted to make a point about why it’s important for budding creative professionals to study theory. I attribute the representational failures of the commercial film and television industries, as evidenced by 2014’s films and the attendant nominations, to its anti-intellectualism. A little reading and critical thinking could do everyone some good.