Mormon Artist

Amy Jensen

Amy Petersen Jensen, PhD, is an Associate Professor in the College of Fine Arts and Communications at Brigham Young University, where she serves as Associate Chair of the Theatre and Media Arts Department. She also coordinates the undergraduate Theatre and Media Education Program as well as the Media Education Masters Degree. In addition to teaching and research, Amy directs the BYU Hands on a Camera service learning project. She also co-authored the Core Principles of Media Literacy Education with a select group of scholars from across the United States. Website
Photo by Tiffany Tertipes

What is media literacy?

Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media. At BYU we focus on ways that young people might use and understand media content and digital media forms to express themselves and to understand the expressions of others.

To this end we engage teachers and young people ages eight to eighteen using the Core Principles of Media Literacy Education to think about and create with digital media.

Erika Hill and I direct the BYU Hands on a Camera Program, a service learning project where university students work with K–12 students to create documentary films about their community. In the program we emphasize the social capital of storytelling through digital means. BYU students work together with the K-12 students to tell authentic stories about their worlds. For all of us the project is an exercise in civic dialogue. Through artistic expression and digital means we share our perspectives and learn to value the perspectives of others. Most of the digital stories that we create are local stories about family, community events or processes that affect how we live. Through our website we share these stories globally. Our hope is that all of the participants in the program feel more comfortable using digital media, but we also hope that they have a better understanding of how this global media works to shape the choices that they make as consumers. With this knowledge they have more power to make media choices that match their own ethics.

How can people outside the academic setting think about using media and media literacy in their homes?

I think it’s really an important time for families to be thinking about how a variety of types of media are currently used in their home and how they might be better used to serve the needs and interests of their unique family. I’m really interested in my children learning and growing in a variety of ways, so right now we’re taking horseback riding lessons, we are reading the Harry Potter series together, we’re taking piano lessons, and we’re practicing with the swim team. Those are all really great things for nine-year-olds to do, but one of the things that we also do regularly is think and talk about media and then practice doing some kinds of media activities that are appropriate for their age, like learning how to use a still camera or learning how to use a video camera. One of the things that my daughters and I do is engage in conversations about the types of media that they are interested in. They watch media that sometimes I’m not that interested in because I am a media scholar, but because I’m their mother I watch whatever they watch with them. Not long ago I had the opportunity to go with them to see High School Musical 3 and I have to say that I was dreading it. I was not excited about it at all. But I decided that that wouldn’t be a very good approach and instead we might talk about our expectations before we went and then talk about what happened in the film when we got home. And because I changed perspective from saying, “Oh, I’m dreading this,” to saying, “This might be an educational experience for all of us,” we had a very lively and very rich conversation about themes that were in the film that were interesting to them, and therefore themes that led to other aspects of our life that were important to us and that allowed us to have conversations about who we were as human beings.

A colleague of mine, Dean Duncan, wrote an article several years ago called “Family Home Media,” and in the article he says that it’s important for us to watch things, and then to go and do something related so that our children’s whole experience becomes integrated. So it’s not just about viewing, it’s about doing. And it’s not just about doing, but it’s about seeing other people’s creative work and seeing how it interfaces with our life.

I like to think about that as a good principle for learning all types of new media and technology and how we might think about it in our homes. We could make the choice to ignore it, to say, “In our home we don’t access technology, we don’t think about films, we don’t think about television, we’re book readers,” and that could be a choice that we make. But our children are going out into the world and they are going to engage in the stories that media presents in some way, and maybe without the conversation with us that might prepare them in the way that we might want them to be prepared. Instead of cutting things off, it might be good for us to work together to explore these varieties of kinds of tools together.

We might want to explore what a blog is like with our family and then look at some other people’s blogs and have conversations about them. In our family, we have a lot of interest around the iPhone and think about all the things that the iPhone does to help us be creative and practical. Then there are times that we shut it off and do something else. But the talk around the technology is far more important than the technology itself. And the doing with the technology is far more important than the technology itself because it allows us to discover who we are as human beings as a collective, as a family, or as individuals.

One of the best things that has happened to me as a mother is having experiences where my children have brought a new media form, or some new media story to me and told it to me, and I hear about it for the first time from my child’s perspective. I like to try and do the opposite too, try and bring something to them that has been essential to me—a film story or a theatre story or a book that I’ve loved all my life—and share it with them. But it’s really important that I’m willing to listen to their stories and the things that they’re interested in so that we can talk about how our interests are similar and different and how all those perspectives are valuable and make us a family unit and bring us together in some ways, and help us to think differently in some ways. I think it’s a really exciting challenge for people to start to explore things on their own. And it actually takes effort; you have to be willing to make some effort, and then fail and try again. I have to admit that I am not a technology savvy person. I do not do all this stuff like technology savvy people, it’s an effort for me. But I’m interested in people’s stories, in hearing and telling stories. It’s something that I have to learn today. Something that we’re trying to do with our family is to try to learn about it, but not make it the only thing in our lives.

Photo courtesy Mark Philbrick

What work have you done in theatre?

Like my work with media, my role here at BYU is to engage in conversations about education. That’s true of theatre as well. I’m not a theatre director and I’m not an actor, but I get to use my fan skills again, and I get to explore how meaning making occurs in contemporary theatre. And I mostly do that in educational venues.

That might be collaborating with a colleague to think about theatre in education practices and how those might work in a science classroom. Or it might be thinking about traditional theatre skills, such as acting, directing, or producing, and how they are employed in a theatre education setting.

But mostly, again, I’m interested in how a medium can help young people to find their authentic voice. And that can happen in a lot of ways in theatre. It can happen for theatre students when they act in a traditional play by speaking someone else’s voice, and if you talk about the words that they’re speaking or the role that they’re playing, if you engage in conversation about meaning making there, then it might enrich their view of the world—it might enrich their experience. That’s really important to me. But it might also mean that students are making their own theatre, making their own plays, and that they’re using their own life experience to generate new theatre, and generate theatre that engages in social issues that are important to them, and tells stories that really reflect their world. We at BYU try to do a mix of traditional types of theatre where production is the end result, but we also try to do, especially with our education students, process-driven theatre that engages in ideas, and engages students in considering their social circumstances and being more aware of other social circumstances and their stories and the conversations that are going on in the world, or going on in their local community, or going on in the very classroom that they’re in. We’re really interested in exploring both types of theatre, theatre that is production-driven and theatre that is process-driven. In an educational setting we do a lot of process-driven theatre that is engaging students in thinking about their own experience and the world experience and how those two things might intersect.

What is the difference between production-driven theatre and process-driven theatre?

Production-driven theatre means that the most important part of what you’re doing is an end product: a play that is performed for an audience. The value in doing something like that is that students get to try on all the roles of the production process. They might be an actor, they might be a director, they might be a costume designer, or they might take on the role of scene designer. So they learn in sort of an apprenticeship form a valuable skill that helps them be a contributor to a theatre community.

Process-driven theatre means that you’re exploring ideas and issues and circumstances and characters through the medium of theatre, using theatre tools to explore new ideas, new conversations, and possibly new theories. Or you’re looking at ways that theatre tools might help you understand science or social studies, or a story that you’ve written in your English class. And so you start to think about how something might be performed to help others better understand the meaning of a given thing, whether it’s the meaning of molecules, or the meaning of a short story that you’ve read.

I think both things are valuable because they require skills of thinking and doing. And that’s what draws me to both theatre and media in an educational setting. The study of both mediums requires you to think and reflect, but also to do and to act. So you get to often simultaneously be a viewer and a creator in both fields. Sometimes, you put on your viewer hat and you get to evaluate the experience that you have with a form. Other times you get to put on your creative hat and you get to experiment and try things out with a story that you’re interested in telling, or someone else’s story. You get to recreate someone else’s story and re-envision it for your own world, for your own time and your own space. That idea is very exciting to me. And more exciting than just that idea is to watch students as they explore that for the first time, or watch students as they try on roles or positions and start to find out not only what their skills are, but what their likes are, what their interests are, what they value, what they want to understand, what they want to leave behind, what they want to take with them. That’s one of the most exciting things about being a teacher, watching someone figure out for the first time who they want to be, or watch them figure out for the second or third time who they are now and how they’re situated in the world that they live in. I love what I do because of that, because I get to engage in conversations with people regularly about who they are and who they want to be and how they’re going to be that person, regardless of the medium, and that I get to encourage that in some way. That’s exciting to me.

Photo courtesy Mark Philbrick

What is it about education-based work and documentary and new media and things like that that you find important and interesting?

Here’s what I find personally interesting about education work in general, especially artistic work. I’ve always been a Martha. You’re familiar with Mary and Martha from the New Testament. Martha is described as “careful and troubled about many things.” And she challenges Jesus and says, “Why are you letting Mary sit at your feet while I’m doing all the work?” I’m a worker, and I like work.

But Jesus’ response to Martha is something that really intrigues me about the world. He says that Mary is doing the better part sitting at his feet, listening, paying attention, understanding who he is, relating to him. And there’s power in that.

Even though I more identify with Martha and I am careful and troubled and going about doing work all the time, I think that being in education, whether it’s in media education or theatre education, gives me an opportunity to see people through God’s eyes, to be more charitable as I seek out opportunities to try to see who they really are or how I can really benefit them, or to find joy in seeing them progress as an artist.

I’ve said over and over again that I’m not an artist, but if I have one skill, it’s being able to see someone else’s potential. Their potential as an artist, their potential as a human being, and figuring out the unique way that I can encourage that to help them move on to the next step.

Education is the venue that has allowed me to do that, to step back from the busyness and the work that I so enjoy and that comes easily to me, and to sit at God’s feet and really see another human being and to value who they are. I’m really grateful for that.

I’m really grateful that even though I’m not an artist, I’ve figured out a way to experience art and to really feel it deep down in my soul, so much that it helps me to understand who I am. And I can only do that through other people, that’s why I’m an educator.

What do you find about these specific processes that’s uniquely spiritually enriching for you and for others?

I have a favorite quote that I sometimes share with my students. It’s sort of a familiar quote and it’s from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, Aurora Leigh. “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.”

I love that idea that if I’m a creator, I get the opportunity to see—whether it’s through the lens of a camera or whether it’s placing people on a stage or viewing those kinds of things for the first time—I get to see and experience vicariously through art something that shapes me and allows me to take off my shoes, in a sense.

I think that’s all tied up in the idea of charity; it’s all tied in up in what I’m trying to teach young people. If you look outside yourself, if you have charity for someone else, you really see them.

And then, in some way, it helps you better see yourself, know where you need to improve, know where you’re glorious, know who you are as you’re situated in this world, and know that you’re God’s child.

Photo courtesy Mark Philbrick

How does your faith affect what you do artistically and educationally, and vice versa, how does what you do professionally affect your testimony and beliefs?

One of the things that I know because of my faith is that eternal beings are always growing and progressing. That means that it’s important to be curious.

And not just curious about the knowledge that I can gather or intrigued by the things that I can figure out how to do on my own, but curious about how other people are engaging in the world too, and try to learn from them as well.

My faith teaches me that to be an eternal being I have to know other beings and I have to love other beings. In some way, I have to figure out how to move past judgment of myself, or judgment of them, to love. And the two mediums that I’ve immersed my life in, theatre and media, are the very things that allow me to do that.

I’m curious about people, and I’m curious about how these two mediums allow people to tell stories that change and shape us. I’m continually eager to experience other people’s stories.

I certainly have a long way to go in my progression as an eternal being, but I’m pretty excited about the journey because of what I get to do. ❧

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