Harvard Educational Review
  1. Growing Up with Television

    Everyday Learning among Adolescents

    By JoEllen Fisherkeller

    Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002. 165 pp. $19.95.

    The influence of television on today’s youth is often a subject of intense debate and public interest. Once envisioned as a medium for transmitting information to enrich our educational lives, television has become our primary source not only of news and educational material but also of entertainment. Television is ubiquitous, and its presence has become virtually impossible to ignore. Young people in particular spend a tremendous amount of time watching and talking about television. Understanding how television influences youth and their educational and social development is an important part of understanding the intersection between popular culture and education.

    In Growing Up with Television: Everyday Learning among Adolescents, JoEllen Fisherkeller presents portraits of three adolescents, focusing on the role television plays in their lives and education. As Fisherkeller notes in her introduction, “Even though cultural and media studies now conceive of audiences as active meaning-makers at some level, most often adults refer to youth as passive receivers of media messages and images” (p. 2). Her purpose for this book was to illuminate how youth engage in active meaning-making as they interact with television.

    The three youth portrayed in Growing Up with Television are students at an alternative middle school in New York City in the early 1990s. Fisherkeller spent more than two months as an ethnographer at the school, surveying fifty students about their general media habits, including frequency of and motivation for watching television. She chose six students as focal participants, with whom she conducted in-depth interviews and household and school observations over the course of a year. Her book contains individual portraits of three of the original six, who represent the greatest range of diversity in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, family background, and personality.

    The first portrait is of Marina, a sixth-grade girl who is a first-generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic. Marina enjoyed television that portrayed events that were either part of her real or desired experience. In particular, she liked television shows that depicted what she called “real” families, such as Roseanne, as well as those that depicted characters who represented what she wanted to achieve in her future life, such as Who’s the Boss?, which portrays a successful female advertising executive. Marina also spoke about how television taught her about social problems, often depicting multiple sides to an issue and prompting her to sort out those multiple perspectives. She said that TV movies help her learn about “drunk driving [and] things like that. . . . And about AIDS and things like that. And drugs” (p. 42). Marina also appropriated television images to define and describe her own identity. For example, because of her physical maturity, school officials and peers often described Marina as sexually advanced or experienced, which was not true. To deal with this identity dilemma, Marina appropriated the image of explicitly sexual women like Madonna, whom she described as a strong woman who is successful despite what others think or say about her.

    The second portrait is of Christopher, an African American boy in the seventh grade who, at the time of the study, had recently moved to New York City to live with his father and stepmother, after being neglected by his mother. Fisherkeller describes a change in Christopher over the two years of the study, from a shy, confused, and lonely boy to a confident and sociable one. These changes were reflected in his television viewing habits. At the beginning of the study, Christopher watched television to pass time and keep company. By the end, however, television was a last-resort source of entertainment for Christopher, after basketball and spending time with friends. In addition, his tastes evolved from a preference for science fiction and fantasy genres to reality-based, prime-time situation comedies. Fisherkeller interprets Christopher’s changing preferences as a “settling down.” Whereas he once felt most comfortable with himself in an imaginary world of cartoon superheroes, he became more comfortable wrestling with his identities in a more realistic world, such as by identifying with Theo Huxtable (of The Cosby Show), an African American male who demonstrates strong family values.

    The final portrait in the book is of Samantha, an Irish–Jewish American girl from a middle-class Bronx neighborhood who is in the seventh grade. Because Samantha had a learning disability that made it difficult for her to read and excel in school, she often turned to television for entertainment. Samantha’s parents were educated, politically active professionals. In Samantha’s home, television viewing was a family activity: they all engaged in lively ongoing criticism of the shows they were watching. She particularly liked talk shows, since they allowed her to engage in a conversation about important social issues, and disliked programs that “insulted” viewers with crude humor. Samantha also watched television to define her identity. She was often described by her teachers as an aggressive, outspoken student, and she came to terms with this identity in part through her admiration of the title character in Murphy Brown, an opinionated, independent, and successful female television newscaster.

    Fisherkeller brings these portraits together in the final two chapters by identifying common, cross-cutting themes. One theme is the use of television to help youth find strategies for realizing visions of their future “possible selves.” For the three youth, these visions come from home and family cultures; however, television provided a way for these youth to make these possible selves seem more realizable. Each of these youth had television characters with whom he or she identified as having characteristics that he or she hoped and expected to develop. Each of these youth also was acutely aware of television as a commercial industry that can manipulate images to serve certain ends. Fisherkeller argues that “they have learned, at least tacitly, that engaging in the making of multiple media forms is a credible and powerful means of economic survival and of participating in public life” (p. 130).

    Fisherkeller ends with an epilogue about Marina, Christopher, and Samantha, including excerpts of interviews conducted at the end of high school and again a few years after graduation. She intentionally provides verbatim quotes with little analysis, letting the youth speak for themselves and allowing the reader to develop his or her own insights. The role of television in these individuals’ lives shifted dramatically. As the students grew older, television was less influential in terms of helping them understand their identities and more influential in helping them become critical consumers of media. However, television continued to play an important part in mobilizing them to assert their identities in multiple contexts. Growing Up with Television is a useful addition to the field of popular cultural studies. It is an in-depth exploration of how youth use television and the images we receive through television to deal with personal and social conflicts and tensions in their daily lives. Because these stories come from the youth themselves, this book is not only authentic but also an enjoyable read.

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    Book Notes

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    By Sunaina Marr Maira

    Growing Up with Television
    By JoEllen Fisherkeller

    Latino/a Popular Culture
    Edited by Michelle Habell-Pallán and Mary Romero

    Brave New Voices
    By Jen Weiss and Scott Herndon

    By Tucker Shaw