President Barack Obama poses for a selfie with Bill Nye, left, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson in the Blue Room prior to the White House Student Film Festival, Feb. 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

“Selfies,” or self-taken photographs, have become as ubiquitous as the smartphone. Their popularity has even spurred the formation of an academic group, The Selfies Research Network. Your students take selfies, you probably do as well. But how do we encourage our students to think critically about the selfie as cultural artifact?

Mark C. Marino, associate professor (teaching) of Writing at the University of Southern California, came up with this admirable assignment titled “Know Thy Selfie”, in which students are directed to unpack their own selfies for signifiers of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and other identity markers, and to write a thesis-driven essay based on this analysis. Mark encourages students to examine choices in self presentation (pose, clothing, facial expression) as well as elements used to frame the picture (lighting, background etc.) to make their analysis. I was so impressed with Mark assignment that I gave it to my students in a course titled The Rhetoric and Politics of Social Media that I am co-teaching with Emily Van Duyne. The students loved it, one emailing me to tell me after that this was his favorite assignment of all time.

In this post, I detail my riff off Mark’s assignment, where I integrate Know Thy Selfie, an essay-based assignment, into one for a group discussion. The assignment follows below. If you use this assignment or Mark’s original one, please report on your results in the comments!

Know Thy Selfie: Group Discussion Questions

(with thanks to Mark C. Marino for the original assignment)

  1. Exchange your essays and selfies among the group. Read your group’s reflections. THEN
  2. Use the following questions to reflect on: What do your selfies convey about you as a GROUP? Come up with a thesis you could use to answer this question as a group, with specific evidence from your selfies. You should focus on one or two core identity characteristics of the group. You will be presenting this information to a class as a whole.
  3. After discussing these questions, then take a NEW group selfie that represents this thesis.

Questions to consider:

  1. How do your selfies perform race/ethnicity, social/economic status, sexuality/gender as a group?
  2. What choices do you make to present yourself and what does this say about you: Clothing, pose, facial expression
  3. How do you frame the picture to construct meaning about your image? Background, lighting, proximity, angle of the camera
  4. Other elements in the picture? Objects? Other people? Location?
  5. What is obscured or ambiguous in this selfie?
  6. What is accurate about your selfie?
  7. Does the image/do the images portray one identity trait more than others? Why/how?
  8. How does your selfie/do your selfies play off other well-known images, or each other?
  9. Analyze the context of the selfies, and how it affects how they might be interpreted.

After discussion is complete, groups should upload their group selfies to and have the other groups analyze them.


Do you have a favorite assignment involving selfies? Or do you have a favorite assignment focused on digital photography? If so, please share in the comments.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons