It may be one of the last places in the world you’d expect to be interested in learning how to develop skills in critical thinking and media analysis. But when academics and researchers in Iran decided they needed help with that effort, they turned to two experts from Ithaca College: Cyndy Scheibe and Chris Sperry of Project Look Sharp.
Scheibe and Sperry were invited to serve as keynote speakers at the First International Media Literacy Conference in Iran, held in late October in Tehran.
“The opportunity to participate in this extraordinary event came about when I got an email from the Media Literacy Research Group, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) whose mission is to raise awareness about the effects of media on the worldview and culture of the Iranian people,” says Scheibe. “They were organizing a conference on the topic, and in looking around for who the experts are, they found us.”
Attendees at the conference included university students, educators, administrators, other NGOs, social activists and representatives of the government’s information and education ministries.
“We tend to perceive Iran as hardline and repressive, and that is certainly a major element of their government and society,” says Sperry. “But we were there to support and work with elements in Iran — including some connected to the government — that are authentically pushing for critical thinking, for greater openness and tolerance. Our task was to present models for integrating critical thinking and media literacy into Iranian education in a way that was accessible, exciting and inspiring.”
Scheibe is a professor of psychology and founding director of Project Look Sharp, a program based in the Ithaca College School of Humanities and Sciences that provides training and support for the effective integration of media literacy into classroom curricula at all education levels. Sperry serves as Project Look Sharp’s director of curriculum and staff development.
For their keynote, the two took the stage together, putting on what they call “The Chris and Cyndy Show.” Their presentation was given simultaneous translation into Farsi as they showed snippets of media ranging from newspaper headlines about the ongoing nuclear talks between the U.S. and Iran to clips from the movie “Argo,” about the escape of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran during the 1979–1981 Iran hostage crisis.
“First we needed to explain what we mean by media and expand their notions of it as more than just television and the Internet, to also include books, magazines, newspapers, even money,” says Scheibe. “Then we had to expand their notion of what literacy means in today’s world. So media literacy is ultimately about going beyond just reading and writing, to include creating, analyzing and evaluating media in all these different forms.”
“One thing we wanted to help them understand is that media literacy must be interactive,” says Sperry. “So instead of just lecturing to the audience, we asked questions and invited them to talk back to us as well as to one another. It was very gratifying to see their positive response.”
This isn’t the first time that Scheibe and Sperry have brought Project Look Sharp to the international stage. In 2012, they were invited by the Kingdom of Bhutan to work with educators and students in implementing a media literacy curriculum in the Himalayan nation — the last in the world to receive television.
While they were apprehensive in advance of this trip, Sperry says the only danger they experienced during it was with the crazy traffic in Tehran.
“The people who brought us there want change,” he notes. “We were conscious of not doing anything to undermine our hosts and make it impossible for them to do their work. At the same time, however, we were honest and clear about the importance of asking questions and looking at things from different points of view as being absolutely essential for any kind of media literacy.”
Scheibe and Sperry would be interested in returning to Iran to continue their work, but they’d also like to bring some Iranian students and educators back to Ithaca.
On Tuesday, Nov. 25, they will be giving a presentation on “Teaching Critical Thinking in Iran” following the 7 p.m. screening of “Rosewater” at the Cinemapolis theater in Ithaca.
Directed by “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart, the film tells the story of the brutal 2009 imprisonment of a U.S. journalist in Iran. Scheibe and Sperry will tell stories and interact with the audience about their experiences in Iran and the role of media in shaping our cross-cultural understandings and misunderstandings.
For more information on Project Look Sharp, visit www.ithaca.edu/looksharp.