Barry Duncan RIP
Media literacy champion Barry Duncan dies CREDIT THE VISIONARY EDUCATOR FOR WHAT WE TAKE FOR GRANTED IN SCHOOLS BY SUSAN G. COLE
Students these days talk openly and freely about media and their messages and by the time they're the primary market for advertisers they're savvy consumers. They have Barry Duncan to thank for that.
The influential thinker and educator, co-founder of the Association for Media Literacy in 1978, passed away Tuesday (June 5).
It seems like a no-brainer: kids should be trained early and often to understand media – especially the ads aimed at them – and how to deconstruct them. But the AML under Duncan's leadership had to work tirelessly to develop groundbreaking ideas, create curricula and, most important, convince school boards to get with the program.
It wasn't a slam dunk. For one thing, media literacy as a concept was always a progressive one, based on interactivity. It's a successful strategy because it focuses on the very things teens especially love – television, movies, music. As a basic tool, media educators in the early days often just played students images and songs and asked them what they saw – and what they didn't. Kids were automatically into it and gathered the skills to avoid being manipulated.
Duncan was the antithesis of a snob. He understood why pop culture mattered and had to be taken seriously in schools and he was expert at conveying his ideas. He was also funny, with a self-deprecating demeanour always charming, anxious to promote the work of others and deeply committed to ideas that didn't always sit well with educational convention.
For example, media literacy is a wholly interdisciplinary form, and Duncan made sure it stayed that way. He insisted on linking it to economics, class, language, visual arts, psychology and even sexuality. You couldn't slot it into a traditional department and he loved that.
Fearlessly, he fought for even the most challenging material. In the 80s, he and I collaborated on a series of initiatives to bring the issue of media and sexuality into the curriculum and various media literacy handbooks. I was developing research on pornography at the time and he was savvy enough to know that porn wouldn't be welcome in schools but that the principles I was working on could be applied in other ways.
He pushed me to work on spinoffs – specifically, ways to look at message about sexuality in advertising. He promoted a series of sessions I did for school teachers, usually on professional development days, that morphed into workshops with students. It's not easy to get a teacher without official accreditation into a classroom but Duncan fought for it.
When the Harris government wanted to gut media literacy programs in schools, threatening to force it out of the language department and into technology – not the interdisciplinary home media literacy needed – Duncan led the charge to bring it back to the language department.
Today, media literacy studies are firmly embedded from kindergarten to Grade 12, sharing an equal place with reading, writing and oral skills.
Visionary, passionate, Barry Duncan inspired as a teacher and leader.