Selfies are often trivialized and lambasted as vehicles of shameless self promotion. They are tools for the vapid and narcissistic, so say many researchers who study the rising selfie-taking trend.
They are also the center of a University of Southern California course called #SelfieClass.
Fall 2015 will be the second semester the class will be offered by USC, and it might come as a surprise to some people that the course tackles some complicated subject matter.
“Identity and diversity are difficult topics to tackle in any context,” Mark Marino, the professor who leads the class, told Business Insider.
“So when I have students take five selfies at the beginning of the semester, because they are later going to write about them, it gives them the opportunity to notice a lot of things about the way they perform their identity. Not just their racial and ethnic identity, but their gender, their sexuality, and their socioeconomic status,” he said.
Topics of identity are uncomfortable and tricky to handle gracefully in many situations. But Marino said the format of the class allows him to talk about sensitive topics in a way that doesn’t feel dangerous.
He used the events of Ferguson, Missouri, a city where an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown was killed by a white police officer, to illustrate this point.
“One question we asked was in what way did the events of Ferguson show up in your news feed?” Marino said. “Now that’s very different than saying how do you feel about Ferguson?”
He gave another example of how discussions about the subtle messages that social media images emit to their viewers with the image to the right.
In one of the first lectures he shows the Instagram photograph of Italian soccer player Mario Balotelli with his former fiancee sitting on his lap. He poses questions like: “What are all the things we can observe about this?…What does this say about sexuality?…What does this say about race?…What does this say about socioeconomic status?”
At first, he explains, students are hesitant to say the things they are already observing in the image. But then they begin to open up and begin to take note details in the picture, such as fake nails or an expensive watch. Those observations further spur discussion of the sexually charged nature of the picture.
Beyond discussions of other people, the course allows students to contemplate their own identities and the personas they allow the world to see via their personal selfies.
One student offered a deeply personal story about her own social media identity.
“I grew up in a really white neighbourhood. I always wanted to be kind of white,” the unidentified female admits on a video detailing the class on USC’s website. “I just, like, try to detach myself from anything Asian for my whole life. So nothing in my pictures, I think, shows any bit of ethnicity. I don’t want to be defined by my ethnicity.”
If that seems like heavy subject matter for, at least ostensibly, a vacuous sounding college class, Marino believes it speaks to the openness and bravery of his students.
“My students were rather fearless,” he said.
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