Why are we so obsessed with taking selfies? At first glance, the pictures appear as a perpetual mirror image–a shrine to the self.
A better question might be, what do these snapshots really represent? For students enrolled at both USC and UCLA, the semester may involve exploring a seemingly endless stream of answers to that question.
It’s arguably vital for young people to consider what these images are reflecting, especially when broadcasted across the vast abyss of the internet and social media spectrum.
At University of Southern California (USC), writing professor Mark C. Marino asks his class to examine five of their own selfies and consider the potential implications from the perspectives of race-ethnicity, socioeconomics, sexuality, and gender.
The course is titled #SelfieClass, a new spin on Writing 150: Writing and Critical Reasoning: Identity and Diversity. Freshman students are instructed to broaden their understanding concerning themselves, the world, and their place in it. One example essay assignment for the class is entitled “Know Thy Selfie,” in which Marino asks students to take five selfies, and consider how these photos may “produce or obscure a sense of identity” through factors like personal appearance, technical elements that frame the photos (lighting, camera angle), and background items.
Marino believes that the likes, comments, and followers gained from a selfie post carry a much deeper meaning beyond the increase in online friends and animated hearts.
“On social media, students encounter many parallel challenges to the ones they face in real life: creating a sense of themselves, cultivating friendships, seeking acceptance and belonging. They face their fears, anxieties, hopes, and dreams [in each circumstance],” says Marino.
A similar class is available at neighboring UCLA. In the Digital Humanities department, Miriam Posner teaches a course called Selfies, Snapchat, and CyberBullies: Coming of Age Online.
When asked to explain her motivation for teaching the class, Posner explains, “I’ve heard a lot of generalizations about Millennials. I wanted to submit those generalizations to rigorous scrutiny, to see whether they held up.”
These California schools are not the only ones emphasizing the selfie as a viable topic for academic discussion. There’s also a Selfies Research Network that’s composed of an international group of intellectuals who examine the social and cultural significant of the selfie in today’s world.
Marino says that he was inspired by the findings of the Selfies Research Network and Jill Walker Rettberg’s book, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology, while developing the concept for his course.
This fall, #SelfieClass will be offered for the second time at USC. During its first semester last spring, Marino remarked that the allegedly light-hearted subject of the selfie (if identity and diversity are momentarily taken out of the equation) permitted class discussion to flow naturally.
“Selfies seems like an absurd topic for a college writing course, which gives it just enough ironic energy to make the course both intriguing and yet deceptively trivial,” Marino tells BTR.
Serious events, such as the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, were brought up. Rather than debate the shooting itself, Marino encouraged students to speak openly about how the media affected their exposure to the horrific event.
Last spring, students from both Marino’s and Posner’s classes collaborated on a service project, where they volunteered to assist first-generation college applicants as they completed scholarships applications.
Marino says that the project greatly expanded the network of his own students beyond the USC campus. His students worked alongside peers of different backgrounds, adding valuable experience to their understanding of culture on both a community and global level.
Selfie courses are designed in a way to present rigorous challenges for the students enrolled. There are countless ways in which studying and analyzing the significance behind their own images for an entire semester can be intellectually stimulating.
“No one should assume that just because a young adult has her eyes on her phone, she’s not also self-aware and thoughtful,” says Posner.
After all, the self-portrait is far from a novel concept.
“People have been representing themselves since Homo sapiens put their first handprint on a wall,” offers Marino. “We write in the first person and keep journals. We take pictures of each other. It’s part of the human condition.”
When asked if she supports the practice of taking selfies, Posner argues, “I don’t think it’s my place to condone or not condone any form of participation in a visual culture. Community means a lot to people, and taking selfies is one way that some people participate in a community.”
Perhaps the surge in selfies is simply a mark of the time. Posner comments, “Students carry unprecedented educational debt these days. In an economic moment in which online identities may determine [salary], it’s incumbent upon them to create charismatic online personae.”
It seems that the selfie is more than a projection of narcissism after all. Like any photograph, a seflie can possess endless layers, meanings, and interpretations.
For more on the #SelfieClass, check out this episode of The Hash.