A VISIT FROM IMAGIN8R: The value of guest speakers in the classroom

A presentation from my friend Billie Mintz  – an award winning filmmaker and crusader for social justice – was just what my grade-eleven students needed to inspire them to see both their roles as students of the Social Sciences and as users of digital media in a new light.

I invited Billie to speak to my Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology, and Sociology (HSP3M) class because our final project in the course is a multimedia public service announcement incorporating insights from the three disciplines. My goal was to get the students thinking about what makes an effective PSA, and Billie’s talk made the students think deeply about both the medium and the message of their projects. Billie’s charismatic blend of “Web Scientist,” edgy comedian, and genuine do-gooder kept the students laughing, thinking and questioning.

Using admittedly inaccurate but highly truthful graphs and diagrams, clips from YouTube and from his own films projects, and a personable and humorous tone, Billie explored why so many of the messages put out by so-called media experts flop while seemingly random content goes viral. He began by sharing some observations about humanity gleaned from studying viral videos and people’s reactions to them.

The Message in the Bottle

The second part of the presentation was centered around The Message in the Bottle, a campaign that Billie’s non-profit, ARC Institute,  created in partnership with Molson. He zeroed in on the failure of the many shareholders in the fight against irresponsible drinking, including brewers, law enforcement, non-profits, and the government. He pointed out that while the messages about alcohol consumption are traditionally created behind closed doors, a more effective campaign must not only target but also include the people affected by the problem – that is, the students and youth who are surrounded by a culture of irresponsible binge drinking. The internet allows new forms of participation and communication between people whose ideas deserve a platform, and Billie’s work incorporates these voices to craft provocative, engaging, and interactive stories.

After gaining the students’ respect and piquing their interest through humour, Billie switched to a somber tone, telling the class about the alcohol related death of his young cousin, which motivated him to speak out about irresponsible drinking.

Finally, he fielded questions and gave the students advice about each of their chosen topics, reminding them that as social scientists it is more important to ask good questions and conduct probing research than it is to broadcast a one-way message.

In the hallways after class, many of the students thanked me for inviting Billie to speak, and told me that his insights had made them rethink their projects. On a selfish note, having access to someone like Billie raised my cool quotient among these notoriously hard-to-impress teenagers.

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