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Mark Marino with his #selfieclass (screen grab via YouTube)

We all have those annoying social media friends whose incessant selfies seem little more than digital bragging. But Mark Marino, an associate professor of writing at the University of Southern California, sees much more in the images.

“Selfies are part of first-person communication in the 21st century,” he told Hyperallergic. “Just like first-person writing, this is a communication mode that has its own rhetoric and aesthetics.”

Needing some good essay prompts for first-year students this year, he developed #SelfieClass. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, the course (officially titled “Writing 150: Writing and Critical Reasoning: Identity and Diversity“) helps college freshmen sharpen their prose while considering how every Snapchat post and Instagram “like” shapes their identities.

“Although selfies may appear narcissistic and vain, by the very nature of being images we circulate of ourselves and then share with others for response, they are part of the process of communication that touches our core identity characteristics,” Marino explained. “When students are wrestling with their selfies, they are wrestling with their sense of self in community.”

His scholarly approach to the oft-dismissed photographic genre reflects a larger trend in the academic world: more and more, researchers are seeing all those prune-mouthed snapshots as a valuable anthropological trove. UCLA also offers a class called “Selfies, Snapchat, and Cyberbullies,” and the Selfie Researchers Network — a group of more than 1,500 teachers, researchers, and artists who study the phenomenon’s cultural implications — has developed its own course as well.

While critic Alicia Eler has written extensively about selfies for Hyperallergic, there’s also been a sudden proliferation of academic literature published about them. The latest issue of the International Journal of Communication, for instance, devotes itself to selfies, with 19 articles wielding titles like “Virtual Lactivism: Breastfeeding Selfies and the Performance of Motherhood. It follows Jill Walker Rettberg’s authoritative tome, Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves, published in October 2014.

Marino’s class includes writing prompts such as  “Know Thy Selfie” (“How do your selfies produce or obscure a sense of your identity?”) and assignments like “Why Do My Facebook Friends Look Like Me?” (“How homogenous or heterogeneous is your Facebook network?”).

The students are also asked to think about the photographs in light of philosophical concepts like Judith Butler’s theories of performativity, W.E.B. Du Bois’ double-consciousness, and Ernst Goffman’s and Stuart Hall’s theories of representation. “When the point isn’t selfies as an end but selfies as an opportunity to discuss issues of identity and diversity, suddenly the topic becomes much more powerful and much more meaningful,” he said.

If it seems like Marino and others like him are sucking all the fun out of taking mindless pictures of yourself, that’s not his intention at all. He himself really enjoys taking selfies — so much that his wife recently bought him a selfie stick. He just thinks we shouldn’t underestimate their power.

“I hope [the class] helps [students] ask, as they scroll down their newsfeed, ‘What are my friends and I creating with all these pictures, for whom, and who or what is left out of the picture?’” he said. “More than anything, I hope they develop their writing skills.”

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Laura C. Mallonee

Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...