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Monday, 7 December 2015

De-coding Gender in the Media - schools workshop

Natalie Jester reflects on her experiences of designing and delivering the Gender Research Centre's workshop for local A Level students

What we did
When the call for proposals for the ESRC-sponsored Thinking Futures Festival went out in 2014, the request for events targeted at ‘new audiences’ using ‘different engagement methods’ caught my eye. I liked the idea of running an academic workshop with local school pupils, so I suggested it to fellow members of the SPAIS Gender Research Centre, and it was adopted as one of our centre’s proposals. I co-wrote the successful application with Professor Jutta Weldes, and we held our first Decoding Gender in the Media workshop in November 2014 with Thinking Futures and the Schools University Partnership Initiative, supported by Chloe Anderson. We felt that it went well, so we applied to run the same workshop again in 2015, and it took place in early November.

A Level students involved in the De-coding Gender workshop
Why we did it
When I first had the idea for this workshop in 2014, one of the main things in my mind was this idea of ‘new audiences.’ I really enjoy engaging with young people, although I didn’t have much experience of it before our first workshop in 2014. It is a horrible cliché, but young people really are the future. They are the ones who will be producing our culture, running our government and our schools, so the way in which they make sense of the world really does matter.

Teenagers are also in that difficult space between childhood and adulthood, where they are trying to figure out who they are. I remember being that age myself and having terrible body image problems, so part of the motivation for running this workshop was to give young people the tools with which they could deconstruct the media and say precisely why it was rubbish. With tablets and mobile phones making the media accessible 24/7, this is even more important than ever.

We also have a selfish motivation for running this workshop: both Jutta and I really enjoy doing it. As much work (and if I’m honest, stress) as it has been, seeing all the groups pulling apart the media resources and then presenting their interesting findings made it all worth it. The students genuinely seemed to enjoy the workshop, too, which was also important for us as organisers.        

Students present their findings to the rest of the group
Lessons learned
Running this workshop two years in a row has taught me many lessons, chiefly that nothing ever goes entirely to plan, and you just have to be prepared to deal with that on the day. If you expect traffic problems, illness, and to forget something you needed, you won’t feel so worried when one of those things inevitably happens; just improvise. Forgotten your name labels? Use post-it notes with sticky tape. Forgotten your camera? Find someone with a good camera phone and use that. Secondly, I cannot stress enough the importance of working with other people, specifically a team of people you know you can rely on. Working on your own is more work, less fun and more of a risk because if you are ill on the day there is no one else to step in; a team is always better. Thirdly, everything requires more work than you think it will, even the second time around, so start preparing early. This is even more important because it mitigates the problems if something more serious goes wrong. Finally, schools are not the easiest organisations to work with, because they are so large and under pressure to hit targets, so you should expect not to receive replies to all emails, and for some people to drop out near/on the day. This is not something to be taken personally, but simply one of the few down sides of working with complex organisations.

Creating the visuals for the presentations - what would we have done without Post-It notes?!

Thinking beyond the day itself
There are many benefits to running an event that happens more than once. Organising this year’s workshop was a slightly different experience than last year’s, largely because we already knew what to expect. In 2014, for example, bad traffic delayed our participants by 20 minutes, so this year we opted for a later start to minimise the impact of rush-hour traffic (although they arrived half an hour early this time!). Running the same workshop two years in a row also enabled us to take advantage of sunk costs; we spent a lot of time on handouts detailing the key concepts of a gender/media analysis, so we tweaked our 2014 version rather than needing to make something new.

Running a recurring event allows you to build relationships, whether that’s with schools, organisations, (e.g. SUPI) or festivals (e.g. Thinking Futures). I personally have really enjoyed working with the same people over time, and opportunities can arise through these contacts if you think beyond the one day your event takes place. After creating this material in 2014, and gaining confidence delivering it, I have used it to: deliver a talk to Red Maids’ school conference (they sent students to our 2014 workshop), run a seminar for Access to Bristol and write an article for a young people’s magazine. I am already (!) in touch with one of the participating schools about doing a seminar for students unable to attend the workshop. All of these opportunities stemmed from the first event we did, which goes to show that thinking beyond the day itself only makes these events more rewarding. 

Nat Jester is a PhD student at the SPAIS Gender Research Centre. Her PhD examines how UK state identity is constructed in online British media representations of the conflict in Libya. Drawing on David Campbell's work Writing Security, she examines the way identities are sculpted around external threats, paying special attention to gendered-Orientalist tropes. 

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