Introduction and Guidelines

Introduction to “Studying Selfies: A Critical Approach”

Welcome to “Studying Selfies: A Critical Approach.” This six-week syllabus has been created for teachers, students, or anyone on the internet wishing to think critically about the use of “selfies” in popular culture. The academic team responsible for the development of this syllabus include:

Theresa Senft (New York University, USA)
Jill Walker Rettberg (University of Bergen, Norway)
Elizabeth Losh (University of California, San Diego, USA)
Kath Albury (University of New South Wales, Australia)
Radhika Gajjala (Bowling Green State University, USA),
Gaby David (EHESS, France)
Alice Marwick (Fordham University, USA)
Crystal Abidin (University of Western Australia, Australia)
Magda Olszanowski (Concordia University, Canada)
Fatima Aziz (EHESS, France)
Katie Warfield (Kwantien University College, Canada)
Negar Mottahedeh (Duke University, USA)

This course will run live from September 8, 2014. If you’d like  to follow this course online, you may take part in discussion on the course blog. If you’d like to submit photo assignments, you are welcome to apply to join the Flickr group.

The course is also intended to be used by teachers in existing courses with their own submission platforms and guidelines. If you use any of the assignments in your teaching, please share your experiences with us!

Definitions and Questions

For the purposes of this course, we’ll define the term “selfie” as any photograph an individual (or a group) takes of themselves, regardless of whether that photo is privately held (or is thought to be privately held), transferred to others, or is displayed via social networks like Facebook and Instagram.

Throughout this course, we focus on two questions:

  • First, how do selfies “speak” as cultural objects?
  • Second, what methods might we develop to better understand what is being said?

The fact that “selfie” was Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2013 indicates that the selfie is a topic of popular interest. Yet for scholars, the selfie phenomenon represents a paradox. As an object, the selfie lends itself to cultural scorn and shaming. As a cultural practice, however, selfie circulation grows by the moment, moving far beyond the clichéd province of bored teenagers online.

With this syllabus, we provide a week-by-week guide designed to teach how to think critically about selfies. Although the weeks can be taught in succession, they can also by used in a modular way (i.e. just teaching two weeks; teaching one week, skipping another, etc.) Regardless of the week in question, students will be given assignments in which they are asked to:

  • analyze case studies from recent press coverage of selfies
  • produce and curate their own digital images
  • read scholarship on networked images, representation, and politics
  • engage in guided online conversations with students from different schools and countries
  • write a self-reflection document in which case study material, production work, readings, and/or guided conversations are synthesized.

Although there will be overlap at times, each week of this syllabus has been designed to dialogue with specific topics and themes, as follows:

  • Week One:
    Identity, interpellation, and psychoanalytic critiques using selfie culture.(Conversation leaders: Terri Senft from New York University, USA and Gaby David, EHESS, France)
  • Week Two:Branding, celebrity, micro-celebrity and critiques of consumer culture using selfies.(Conversation leaders: Alice Marwick, Fordham University, USA and Crystal Abidin, University of Western Australia, Australia)
  • Week Three: Biometrics, facial recognition and dataveillance critiques using selfie culture. (Conversation leaders: Elizabeth Losh, University of California, San Diego, USA and Jill Walker Rettberg from University of Bergen, Norway)
  • Week Four: Sexual expression, dating, and gender-based critiques using selfie culture. (Conversation leaders: Kath Albury, University of New South Wales, Australia, Magda Olszanowski, Concordia University, Canada and Fatima Aziz, EHESS, France)
  • Week Five:Staging Subalternity (subaltern as “Self”), Subaltern Representation (subaltern as “Other”), “Criminality” and Race/Nation based critiques using selfie culture.(Conversation leaders: Radhika Gajjala, Bowling Green State University, USA and Olivia Samerdyke, Bowling Green State University)
  • Week Six: Place, Space and “appropriateness” critques regarding selfie production and circulation. (Conversation leaders: Terri Senft, New York University, USA and Katie Warfield, Kwantien University College, Canada)

Learning Outcomes of this Class:

By the end of this course, students should feel comfortable conversing about selfies in the following ways:

  • Selfie as discourse: Examples: What is the history (or histories) of the selfie? How do these histories map to contemporary media and scholarly discourses regarding self-representation, autobiography, photography, amateurism, branding, and/or celebrity?
  • Selfie as evidence: Examples: What are the epistemological ramifications of the selfie? How do selfies function as evidence that one attended an event, feels intimate with a partner, was battered in a parking lot, is willing to be ‘authentic’ with fans, or claims particular   standing in a social or political community? One uploaded, how do selfies become evidence of a different sort, subject to possibilities like ‘revenge porn’, data mining, or state surveillance?
  • Selfie as affect: Examples: What feelings do selfies elicit for those who produce, view, and/or circulate them? What are we to make of controversial genres like infant selfies, soldier selfies, selfies with homeless people, or selfies at funerals? How do these discourses about controversial selfies map to larger conversations about “audience numbness” and “empathy deficit” in media?
  •  Selfie as ethics: Examples: Who practices “empowering” selfie generation? Who does not? Who cannot? How do these questions map to larger issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion and geography? What responsibilities do those who circulate selfies of others have toward the original creator of the photo? What is the relationship between selfies and other forms of documentary photography, with regard to ethics?
  • Selfie as performance/presentation of self: While this aspect might be considered self-evident. We must pay attention to the tension between spontaneity and staging in the way that selfies serve as a performance and presentation of self in global and social media contexts. Also – when does the selfie as genre become a standard and format for staging authenticity in marketing and social activist campaigns across cultures? To what effect and what purpose?

Our Online Resources

This syllabus has been designed to serve a range of teachers and students. Some students will be working with this syllabus in offline classes; others will be using it in classes held over the Web; still others will be unofficially going through the syllabus without any formal class structure at all.

We have designed class assignments to be used in a similarly open-ended fashion. In some cases, instructors will ask their students to share assignments with one another in live classrooms. In other cases, students will share materials with one another on locked school-based platforms like Blackboard. In still others, students in different universities across the globe will post assignments for one another to see and comment upon. To help meet a range of teaching/learning needs, this syllabus has three online components:

  1. A public web site at that contains:
    • A copy of this syllabus
    • list of readings  for each week
      (with links and PDF copies when possible)
    • links to case studies for each week
    • list of assignments for each week
    • list of class/online conversation starters for each week
    • list of reflective essay prompts for each week


  2. A membership-only Flickr  site for posting and discussing images:

A public blog for faculty-led conversations with students on specific topics each week, per the syllabus. Located at:

Please note the following:

Types of  Assignments

  • Reading: you will be provided case studies from recent press coverage of selfies, and will be asked to read scholarship on networked images, representation, and politics.
  • Image production: you will be asked to produce and/or curate digital images.
  • Writing: You will be asked to engage in guided online conversations, either with your classmates or with students from different schools and countries. You will also be given opportunities to provide reflective essays connected to the case studies, readings and image-production assignments.

In some cases, instructors will ask their students to share assignments with one another in live classrooms. In other cases, students will share materials with one another on locked school-based platforms like Blackboard. In still others, students in different universities across the globe will post assignments for one another to see and comment upon.

Thoughts Regarding Posting work publicly

Many of the modules involve work posted publicly online. There are legitimate problems with using commercial, networked services in this way, but we believe the pedagogical, social, and professional benefits outweigh these problems, for now. You are always welcome to post work under a pseudonym, and to make accounts for your coursework that are separate from your personal accounts. We welcome you to approach your instructor with any concerns you may have about posting your work publicly, and they will do my best to accommodate these with you.

Thoughts about Student Civility and Kindness

Talking about others’ work (and listening to people speak about our own) can be hugely beneficial, but the process can also be hard emotionally, especially when done in an unskillful way. Delivered without criticality or compassion, online discussions often do more harm than good, which is why a decent online forum won’t even permit such discussions without with certain ground rules (“codes of conduct,” if you will) firmly in place.

Specific Notes on Blogs and Blogging

Your blog posts and comments should make connections between course readings/theories and your own observations/experiences of selfie culture. Your posts should be designed to provoke responses and discussion among your classmates. To help, we provide the following guidelines, generously borrowed and adapted from Professor Laura Portwood-Stacer.

  1. Make a substantive contribution to the week’s discussion.
    Your post should demonstrate that you have read carefully and have taken the time to (at least try to) learn the relevant concepts from the module, and to apply those concepts meaningfully to any examples discussed in your post.
  2. Be sure to use hyperlinks and multimedia examples.
    Your post should make use of hyperlinks where appropriate — this means providing links to the websites of any notable individuals or publications you mention (like authors from the course), and to any specific articles or webpages you reference. Everyone likes pictures – include them where appropriate, but make sure you link them back to their original source (or give the source credit in your post).
  3. Be sure to give proper attribution/trackbacks.
    Any time you reference the words or ideas of another individual, your post links back to where you found them. this means linking back to your classmates posts if you reference them, and it definitely means including links to any online material you discuss in your own posts. this helps people notice your writing, and builds you good will around the web.Noble Blogger Guidelines: How to Cite Pictures
  4. Include appropriate categories & tags.
    Your  post includes, at minimum, categories and tags for for the post number/subject. Include tags for theme: social media, consumer culture, and/or relevant artist, theorist, company, etc.
  5. Be sure your post is of adequate length.
    Your post is the appropriate word count to make your point cogently and succinctly (if outlined by professor). Images and/or video are recommended.
  6. Proofread for grammar, spelling, formatting. 

    Your post is proofread — this doesn’t mean you have to be as formal as you would be in an academic paper, but you should be consistent so that it is clear to your reader you didn’t just neglect to fix your mistakes.

  7. Remember your voice: Show off your originality, creative flair, and unique insights.
    Have fun writing your posts and make them fun to read! original, creative, and unique posts will be the ones that your classmates will choose to respond to. It will make you feel good when they do!


Grading Policies for this Class

This syllabus has been designed as a resource for instructors and students. If you are in a formal classroom environment, your instructor will let you know which (if any) grading policies apply with regard to exercises assigned in this syllabus. There will be no grades or credits awarded for the course if you are taking it independently.

See next pages for Dates to Remember and Weekly Assignment Breakdowns.


Dates to Remember

Because some classes meet two or three times, while others meet only once per week, we’ve designed this syllabus in week-long chunks, leaving it to individual instructors to customize it to meet the meeting times of their specific questions. Each week of this syllabus has been designed to dialogue with specific topics and themes. While teachers are not obligated to follow the sequence we have laid out below, we ask them to keep in mind that if they were hoping for online dialogues beyond their own classrooms, they should keep to the schedule below, making readings and student assignments due on one set of dates, and asking students to participate in online discussions/self-evaluations the following week, per the chart.

Week Dates for
Dates for
1 Sept 8-12 Identity, interpellation, and psychoanalytic
critiques using selfie culture
Sept 15-19 Terri Senft
Gaby David
2 Sept 15-19 Branding, celebrity, micro-celebrity and
consumer critiques.
Sept 22-26 Alice MarwickCrystal Abidin
3 Sept 22-26 Biometrics, facial recognition
and dataveillance critiques
Sept 29-3 Elizabeth Losh,
Jill Rettberg-
4 Sept 29-3 Sexual expression, dating,and gender-based critiques Oct 6-10 Kath Albury, Magda Olszanowski,Fatima Aziz
5 Oct 6-10 Subalternity, “criminality” and race/nation based critiques Oct 13-17 Radhika Gajjala, Terri Senft, Anca Birzescu and Olivia Samerdyke
6 Oct 13-24 Place, Space &
“appropriateness” critiques
Oct 20-24 Terri Senft
Katie Warfield

Creative Commons License
Selfies Syllabus by The Selfies Research Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.