Not Quite Foucault, But…

I’m grading final exams from my Media English course — where, unlike what the title might suggest, we didn’t just use media to boost English. Instead, we looked at issues ranging from copyright, User Created Content (or User Generated Content) online, censorship in media, the power of one medium to supplant another, the politics of (ostensibly) non-political films, and so on.

Personally, I thought it was a great class, but the real proof is in the pudding. And though the students drafted the majority of the final exam — with excellent, excellent questions — the final question was mine.

There’s a big smile on my face as I read the answers to that question: “What is the most important thing you learned this semester in our class on Media?”

So far, a few students have argued the most important thing is that they learned how powerful media is in today’s world, that it is a language that needs to be learned and understood. But one student really got me in that chunk of the brain that drives me to teach. She wrote (I paraphrase slightly), “I learned that I have some power in every situation. I can criticize something, or think about it, and that is power. Even not saying something can sometimes be a kind of power. Power is not just something that politicians or famous people have. I have power. It shocked me, and it’s amazing.”

This was something I hammered away at a few times, of course. I used the (dangerous) example of the class itself. “In this classroom, who has power?” The students, like any sane person would say, argued I did. Then I said, “Well, if one of you stood up and walked out, can I stop you? And if you all stood up together and said, ‘This is too much homework!’ could I argue with you?” They agreed, they had some power, but I had power over their grades. And then I smiled and said, “And you have power over my teacher rankings! But anyway, besides grades, what power do I have? If you really want to resist me, you can sacrifice your grades. And I can’t give everyone F, right? If you work together…”

Ha, I don’t expect a riot on campus next semester, of course. I also noted the fact that if they banded together ridiculously, I really could give them all Fs.

Another student told me about the experience of asking some other foreign teacher of hers to please not talk so much during final exams. (He did so during the midterm and she was worried he’d talk all through the finals as well.) The teacher apparently acted all miffed about it, she said, when talked to him, and she asked me what to do because she pretty much felt smashed-down by his response, which was relatively angry.

I told her I didn’t know the guy and whether he was mature or competent, but to give him a little time, and then try to make sure he understood she respected him, but just needed quiet during exams. (Not an unreasonable request.) Well, last night at a dinner with some students, she told me that during the final exam, uncharacteristically, the teacher was silent throughout the exam. “Then I realized what you said… I always have some power, in every relationship, if I can find it. If I am brave.”

Not quite Foucauldian analysis of intersubjectivity of power — thank goodness, I think the jargon alone would kill my students! — but it certainly is a step up from never having thought about it before, innit?

Pardon me, I’m just a little pleased at finding that perhaps I’m doing something right in the classroom.

(And now, for next semester, to work on creating an environment where everyone feels just that little bit more supported, so they are all more willing to speak up and contribute… it’s tough because I’m just a bit intimidating. What did one student say? “You seem like scary guy, like bastard…” [my word of the night last night] “… but you’re very generous and kind inside, secretly.”) I think that’s what was said.

Shall I let me inner kindness show a bit, then? We’ll see how it works for me next semester…

One more tiny note: I’ve found it is possible to get a little tough jargon into the class, if it becomes a focal thing. If you hammer away at it. For this semester, we had three such words:

  • power
  • mediated/hypermediated experience
  • hyperdetermined image

These were pretty much enough for a whole semester, as we kept returning back to these concepts every few weeks to see how they applied to whatever we were looking at or listening to.

12 thoughts on “Not Quite Foucault, But…

  1. Hi,

    Great posting. I get the same thing from my university students and in-service Korean teacher trainees.

    The class captain of the 6 month program I teach told me that the trainees ‘won’t open a window without your permission’ . . . wow.

    Even after explicitly and repetitively asking trainees to disagree with me, and that it’s okay and preferable to do so … not all of them will do it yet.

    Anyways, I enjoy reading your blog every time.


  2. I have to call you out on “hyperdetermined.” As a word, it does not exist in any dictionary that I know of.

    What does it mean and who coined it?

  3. I think the reason it’s at the top under my name is because I did away with the usual hyphen. Because I’m that 21st century, baby.

    It means predetermined to a degree not normally observed. For example, images in films are rarely the result of an accident. Most if not all aspects are controlled and are the result of decisions made for specific reasons.

  4. “Hyperdetermined” still sounds a lot like highbrow academic claptrap. I give you the point that media has become more hyper and kinetic in today’s high octane world where we have multiple media platforms and options that are all vying for a piece of the ever-shrinking pie, and money and power are the great determiners in seeing what makes it into the final product. “Transformers” is a great example of a toy that utilized other media platforms to sell more toys and, as a by-product, launched into even more revenue streams. There are many others like it out there in media land.

    “Most if not all aspects are controlled and are the result of decisions made for specific reasons.” I couldn’t agree with you more as most images we see are either to get us to part with our hard-earned cash or to keep us under the thumb of whatever regime is in power or those vying for their own power.

  5. No, John, you missed my point, I think, which is that “hyperdetermined” means exactly what you agreed with. The hyper- prefix has nothing to do with “hyperactive”… it’s like in hyperreal… a connotation of extreme degree. In other words, images are determined (in all aspects) to an extreme degree in modern media.

    It means when you see an image, say, in a film? Just about every aspect of that image is the result of conscious choices. The hair, the clothing, the expression on the face, the lighting, angle, background, placement of objects… all these things are issues that people — often expert in the area, for the professional visual media — have spent time thinking about, preparing, and executing.

    In other words, it’s like what everyone does when they see a camera — smile nice, pose, suck in their guts. Except that in media, it’s not just the people but the whole environment, and all aspects of the shot itself, that are controlled consciously, for a given purpose. There are some great discussions of “overdetermination” of images from Batman films and comics, for example, like this one. I just prefer the term hyperdetermined to overdetermined.

    And it’s important to be cognizant of that when studying how media works. I don’t think it’s academic claptrap. It’s a word to hang that concept on, so students can refer to it in shorthand when explaining some other image that works that way. “We can see many ways in which this image is hyperdetermined. Look at the…”

  6. Debating whether or not to call you out on the sidestep… guess I just did!

    We can have it out tomorrow over your beer. (Any news on that, by the way?)

  7. Charles,

    Heh, I thought I was calling you out!

    I just emailed you before I saw this comment. I was mired in grades (still am, about to wade back in after dinner) but we’re on and I’ll be hitting Seoul for a few necessaries for that dinner. The beer will go into the fridge tomorrow, and we’ll see how it turned out… honestly, I’m both excited a slightly anxious about it!

  8. Ha, I think I forgot to give you directions, though I did confirm we were on. Did you get the second email, with instructions on how to get to my place?

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