December 2016: M-Passioned Member Kathryn Cramer Brownell

brownell-author-picture-2Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Assistant Professor of History
Purdue University

1) What do you do?
I am an assistant professor in American history at Purdue University and author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life.  I received my B.A. from the University of Michigan and my Ph.D. from Boston University.  My research and teaching examine the intersections of media, politics, and popular culture in twentieth-century American history.  Though a trained historian, I also write regularly for national media outlets and am passionate about blending my expertise in studying media history with my work in developing innovative strategies to disseminate academic scholarship to the public and to provide students with skills to do the same.   

2) Tell me about your latest work or project in media literacy.
My latest project has been to work with colleagues at Purdue and across the country to develop curriculum in “History Communication,” an important issue for historians of the twenty-first century.  Like other scholars, historians too frequently communicate only with one another and they grapple with how to disseminate their research to a broader public.  History courses overwhelmingly reflect the tendency to pursue an original research topic, engage with the archives, and debate the past.  But, these courses do not prioritize teaching students how to communicate these lessons to the broader public—skills that the majority of our history majors, who pursue careers in business, journalism, and government, need.   This program I am working to develop will train undergraduate students in both historical analysis and specific communication skills, allowing them an opportunity to pursue a focus in communication broadly defined to include fields in performance, film-making, literature, policy-making, political communication, journalism, and web design.  These classes in multi-media and multidisciplinary communication, combined with courses in history, will train students how to pursue historical research and disseminate scholarship through new and creative mediums.   In an effort to produce a high quality piece of scholarship with creative and fun modes for distribution to the public, I recently teamed up with public historian Jason Steinhauer to make a series of YouTube videos that have scholarly rigor but a fun presentation of an essential topic for public understanding: “Presidential Elections in American History.”  Check it out here.

3) Why is media literacy important to you?
The contemporary debate about ethics, corporate responsibility and democracy demands an understanding of shifting modes of communication and ways in which access to information has reshaped political institutions, economic structures, and notions of citizenship.  The recent proliferation of “fake news” especially has generated fear, polarization and a distrust of experts and facts that has dramatically influenced public understanding of economic realities and political alternatives.  This is a historical development I address in my research and in the classroom.  As a scholar, my new book project, The Republic of Entertainment: Cable Television and the Transformation of American Democracy, explains how and why this modern media landscape arose, highlighting the political and economic decisions that transformed the public sphere and modes of civic engagement by making citizens expect entertainment services as consumers and political leaders see citizens as market-segmented groups.  As a teacher, my goal is to give students critical thinking and analytical skills to assess the factual from the fake and synthesize these diverse perspectives that dominate the media landscape into an understanding of the complexities of contemporary society.

4)   What are you most excited about in the media literacy field?
The commitment that this field brings to understanding the history of media and its efforts to teach the broader public to produce thoughtful media messages and decode manipulative ones is essential to democracy and its future.  Historians frequently situate media on the periphery of their narratives, assuming that the contours of technology shape its application.  I have challenged this as a scholar and teacher by demonstrating how central understanding media is to American political and economic development.   I am thrilled to be part of a community committed to the same scholarly and pedagogical mission with forums and resources to collaborate and share expertise and experiences.

5) Why did you become a NAMLE member what benefits do you see to membership and how will it support your work.
I became a member of NAMLE because working with practitioners in the field, notably colleagues like Kim Osborne (also a member of NAMLE), has taught me so much as a scholar and teacher about the different perspectives, expertise, and experiences practitioners outside the academy have to help us understand the intricacies of media’s development and application.   I am strongly committed to bridging the academic, professional and public divide in my teaching and research and I look forward to learning from others in this community to do this.

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