So, you’re in college and you want to learn? Then you’d do well to embrace discomfort and appreciate failure. This is the advice—a little tongue in cheek but quite sincere—that professor Charisse L'Pree hopes students will take to heart. Discomfort is a natural response when our previously held notions are challenged. And failure, she reminds us, is not an identity but an experience—one that can motivate curiosity and encourage the search for new answers.
New Perspectives Open New Paths
L’Pree, an associate professor of communications in Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications , credits experiences of failure and discomfort for shaping her own academic journey. One of her most valuable lessons came during her first attempt at college. She had been a precocious student and was accepted into Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at age 16. She intended to pursue genetics, but when her interest in the subject faltered, her grades plunged. Her social experience of college compounded her discomfort, as she faced subtle and not-so-subtle challenges to her legitimacy. “My presence as a young woman and person of color from a nonaffluent background, studying the sciences, made people uncomfortable. In their attempts to resolve that discomfort they tried, in turn, to make me uncomfortable.” After her freshman year, L’Pree dropped out.
In the ensuing downtime, she had an epiphany that proved pivotal. “I was spending a lot of time hanging out at my mother’s house, watching TV and wondering what I should do with my life.” Then, she says, she was struck by an insight. “I suddenly saw my relationship with this technology—TV—in new light. I saw it as an entity we’d welcomed into our home—paid to have here—essentially telling us what reality should be.”
This shift in awareness sparked a fascination with how technologies and messaging influence the way we see ourselves and others, propelling L’Pree back to school and ultimately launching her career. She graduated from MIT with dual majors in brain and cognitive science and comparative media studies and went on to earn a master’s in critical studies in cinema-television and a doctorate in social psychology from the University of Southern California. In 2013, L’Pree joined the faculty at Syracuse University.
The Value of Questioning
L’Pree’s scholarship at the intersection of media studies and cognitive sciences has led her to mentor psychology majors in the College of Arts and Sciences and those studying communication and rhetorical studies in the College of Visual and Performing Arts . In her teaching and writing, L’Pree prompts students to examine some of the fundamental frameworks and experiences of their lives. “My overall goal has been to encourage people to think differently about that which they assume to be normal when it comes to technologies or content, messages and narratives,” she says.
Much of L’Pree’s work focuses on diversity and representation in media. It’s crucial that students understand the history of intergroup relations and the way that history has shaped the world they live in, she says. This empowers them to participate in discussion and create media that is mindful of the past, present and future.
L’Pree explores these themes through a variety of lenses. She’s wrapping up work on a textbook about diversity and satire, and this year she has a cohort of students considering the concept of the American Dream—a project that asks them to interview people who are demographically different from them in at least four concurrent categories (in race, gender, class and age, for example). So far, L’Pree has compiled 150 such interviews, capturing a wealth of different perspectives around the idea of the American Dream.
My overall goal has been to encourage people to think differently about that which they assume to be normal when it comes to technologies or content, messages and narratives.—Charisse L’Pree
But to fully appreciate the way we absorb and are influenced by content, L’Pree says, we must examine the psychological impacts of the medium conveying that content. In her new book, 20th Century Media and the American Psyche: A Strange Love (Routledge), she analyzes how technologies like recorded music, theatrical film and audio and video cassettes fundamentally changed the way we relate to people and the world around us. For example, she points out how consumer market cameras have normalized our expectation that we can and should copiously capture scenes of our lives. “It is our ingrained normal now, but that’s really only happened in the past 100 years or so. The pace at which our communication environment changed over the past 150 years is striking. And these changes have altered what we expect of ourselves and how we engage with others.”
Learning Is a Journey
L’Pree hopes the story of her own academic journey will help students appreciate education as a process rather than a status to be definitively achieved. In her classroom, she tries to model an approach to navigating potential discomfort. “I assure them that in the course of our time together inevitably someone will say something that another finds questionable, even offensive. And quite likely that person will be me, since I’m doing the majority of the talking. I ask them to bring it to my attention. The expectation is not that any of us are completely ‘woke’—that is not possible. But I do expect that we are all willing to be corrected and checked and that we will always try to improve.”
Learning, she says, is not just about figuring out how to respond correctly to the questions asked of us. “In the end, it’s really about thinking more deeply about the questions you want to ask and the questions you want to answer.”