I had a GREAT class the other day, and I wanted to share the experience with you in the hopes that you might be able to steal something good from it for your own classroom.
I have never been able to teach a class without including a heavy dose of critical thinking in the mix. Really, everything I teach boils down to that; there are mechanics and such to include in the curriculum, certainly, but what good is grammar if one can’t use it to get ideas out? What’s the point in learning how to deliver a speech if one can’t put into it solid and well-supported ideas? Really, English classes (in my context, anyway) are all just thinking practice; I’m teaching students to see beyond what’s on the page and to really think about what’s happening and why, and about how they can use the experiences they gain from the work we do to inform the rest of their lives.
That’s the goal, anyway. I’m pretty sure I fail far more often than I succeed, but I never stop trying.
My comp. students at Local U. are working on analysis papers and, if I’m going to be fair, I’ve got to admit that I really nailed them. My morning students are tasked with choosing a controversy, analyzing three different views about that question, and representing those views in as fair and objective a way as they can. My evening students have it even worse; they were asked to choose a topic, event, policy, or person – past or present, foreign or domestic – that ties into an aspect of civil or human rights, then write a paper that explains their chosen topic, puts it in context, and makes clear that human rights connection.
I recognize that I’m asking a lot of them, but it’s not as if I’m tossing them in the pool and expecting them to swim; I’m bringing noodles to the party, but whether or not they grab hold of them is entirely out of my control.
The other day, for example. I decided to run an exercise in analytical thinking, and I thought long and hard about how to present this activity in a way that would be both challenging and engaging. I chose to build the class around two sets of two different television advertisements to see how well the students were able to 1) identify the messages in the commercials, 2) investigate the ways in which the ads got those messages across, and 3) assess whether or not the commercials were effective for them – or would be effective in general – and why or why not (because we English teachers LOVE to ask “why or why not?”).
The first set of ads came from the insurance industry. First, I showed them this Geico commercial:
They were all familiar with the caveman campaign – almost all of them had seen this ad before, even – and they all agreed that it was a good one. More on that in a minute.
I also showed them this ad from Liberty Mutual:
I took an informal poll after we’d watched the ads a couple of times each. The cavemen won the popularity contest hands-down. Students thought the commercial was funny, and they all agreed that the company did a good job getting the message of their accessibility and ease of use across through this campaign. One or two students preferred the Liberty Mutual ad, though, and stated as their reasoning the idea that insurance should be responsible.
HERE’S where we started getting somewhere! The Liberty kids thought that the Geico ad gave off an impression of glibness and irresponsibility – “next time, do a little research” was cited as evidence for that claim. Of course, they recognized that the ad was supposed to be funny, but the impression that the students who preferred the Liberty Mutual ads got was that the company doesn’t really understand their customers. They were shot down by their peers who countered by saying that the Geico ads were supposed to be funny – that there aren’t cavemen, so they aren’t Geico’s customers – and the company really did a good job of getting across the idea that Geico is convenient and simple to use. The students agreed – almost to a person – that the ads were directed at entirely different populations; the Geico ads were directed at a younger clientele and the Liberty ads were aimed at older, more settled customers. I’m not sure I agree with that assessment – and I don’t think that the students’ reasoning was sound – but I was pleased they came to those conclusions; that kind of thinking marked a departure from their usual “retell the plot” mode.
We had a bit more trouble with the car ads, but I found this discussion to be much more fruitful (figures, doesn’t it?). First, I showed them this commercial from Volkswagen.
Almost none of them had seen this ad before – as I recall, it was a pretty short-lived campaign from several years ago. I have to keep reminding myself that these kids are just that – kids – and that they’ve probably not paid a whole lot of attention to advertisements up to now.
Then we watched this ad a couple of times:
Again, I asked for the show of hands and – big surprise – the Cadillac ad was the clear winner, especially among the men (this was an interesting breakdown – I’ll get to that in a minute). I asked the students to explain to me what was going on in each of the individual commercials, and I was surprised when I got a whole lot of plot. “These two guys are having a conversation in the car, and…” They seemed to have a much harder time looking at how the ads WORKED in this case – they wanted to tell me what the commercials said or what they showed, but they were hesitant to dig in to how they manipulated their messages to an effect.
They were also completely clueless about the (in my mind, over-the-top-overt) role that sex played in the Cadillac ad. The men identified with it, certainly, but none of them was able to articulate what was at work in the ad beyond the “hot babe” and the high-heeled shoe on the gas pedal. I had to lead them through the idea of power and control, about the tone of Ms. Walsh’s voice (“like melted chocolate, you guys!” was the exact phrase I used, and that freaked them out a little, I think), about the use of light and sound in the ad, about the words that were spoken (“does it return the favor?!” Seriously – how could they not see that?!) – all of it. When I tossed out the idea that the ad was really just a visual representation of an orgasm (“Come ON, you guys! Spaghetti straps – is she in a neglige? She’s in a TUNNEL. Look at the lights, VERY. RHYTHMICALLY. MOVING. PAST. Then she BURSTS out of the tunnel and there’s light and music and OH, MY GOD!), they were shocked and demanded to see it again, at which point most of them were embarrassed that they’d missed that implication every time they’d seen the ad before. They’ll never not see it again, I can tell you that!
We talked then about who the companies were trying to attract with the ads and the nearly-unanimous assessment was that the VW ad was looking to hook the family-oriented consumer who’s concerned about safety while the Caddy ad was aimed at men. I took serious issue with these claims and tried to push the students to justify their answers. They responded by saying that the main idea of the VW ad was saftey – that you could survive a crash in this car – and that safety is very important to parents. “Okay, agreed,” I said, “but I didn’t see any families in that ad. In fact,” I went on, “the driver dude was talking about a girlfriend. There were no booster seats in the car. As a matter of fact, all the ads from this campaign that *I* saw featured young people, presumably single and out enjoying themselves.”
They didn’t have a counter-argument for that.
I had a BLAST shredding the claim that the Caddy ad was aimed exclusively as men, and I think I sent a few of my students a little over the edge with my response. Kate Walsh is HOT. I’m a straight chick, and she does it for me. Men want her, women want to be her – she’s gorgeous, she’s in control, she’s smooth and confident and surrounded in luxury and power. SHE’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT, fercryinoutloud! Let’s not forget that she is an actress in a show that is almost universally loved by women (my guess – though I have no hard data to support this claim – is that most men who watch Grey’s Anatomy or Private Practice only do so becuase their girlfriends/wives watch it). There is no way that Cadillac was excluding women from this commercial; the choices that they made – from the actress to the lines she spoke to the color of the car – were all carefully made and meticulously executed. It’s a gorgeous, highly effective ad.
The students loved this exercise, even if they didn’t quite get it. I don’t expect them to, really – at least, not yet. I kind of feel like Annie Sullivan; I’ll keep pumping water over their hands; eventually, the cold, wet stuff and W-A-T-E-R will connect in their brains, and they’ll wonder how they ever missed all this wonderful, exciting stuff happening all around them.