I looked around the room that first night at the 35 or so students staring at me – when they weren’t checking their email, Facebook account or latest cat video.
The room was nearly full. I smiled.
“How many of you enrolled in this course because the title included the words ‘serial killer,’” I asked.
Hands shot up on all sides.
“Gotcha,” I said.
I was about to teach an introductory journalism course and among the topics awaiting exploration was manipulation, how to influence people’s behaviour.
“What are you going to call it,” asked those who had helped in making the course happen.
“Serial Killers and Storytelling.”
Eyebrows shot up around the room.
“Hey,” I said, “this is a new course and it won’t happen unless students enrol.”
A few weeks later I received an email asking if I wanted to cap the enrolment at 40 because it was starting to look like the course was going viral.
In fact, a key goal of the course was to introduce the students to the idea that they needed to be crucial thinkers when it comes to the media, both the people in the business and the people they write about.
“The manipulation industry - the spin industry if you prefer,” I said in an early lecture, “is well funded and highly motivated. Politicians need your vote, companies need your money. They pay for the best research, hire the best people and spend tons of time figuring out exactly how to target you.”
If you don’t believe me, try Googling this: Bose wireless headphones. I’m a runner and one day went looking for ear buds so I can listen to audiobooks saved on my cellphone while I’m putting in my mileage.
Bose has been after me ever since. Wherever I go on the web, its ads are waiting for me. Buy me, they urge. You know you want to.
“You swim in an ocean of spin,” I told the students. “You can’t avoid it. The only thing you can do is learn how to cope with it.”
So I could only watched in bemused astonishment these past few days as the story of Lindsay Shepherd began making headlines.
If you missed it, the teaching assistant at Wilfred Laurier University was dragged in front of a three-person panel and scolded because she let her student see a brief YouTube video. It featured a professor opposed to using new words like ze and zer to replace him and her. The new words are intended to take gender out of the equation.
Shepherd wanted her students to see a clip about the debate and use it as a launching point for their own discussion.
By the time the panel was done – a 25-minute ordeal – the Hitler comparison was being thrown at her as a reason why such controversial material should not be shown to young people.
They’re just not ready for it, she was told.
Fortunately, she recorded the entire inquisition. Howls of protest ensued, followed – predictably – by apologies from the university and a professor involved.
Not ready for it?
Please. Ready or not, the world isn’t waiting for, or offering to coddle, those about to join it as adults. Post-secondary education should be preparing them for that world, by honing their critical thinking skills.
It shouldn’t shield them from what’s coming their way.
- Rick MacLean is an instructor in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.