Steven Frost in front of an LGBTQ flag they created that's on display in the CU Art Museum. A new graduate-level course that Frost started is incorporating the voices of artists and creators to help students think critically about queer representations in different forms of media. Photo by Lia Pileggi. Below, Frost works with a participant at a Slay the Runway event in 2021. Photo by Kimberly Coffin.
New class on queer representation in media a hit thanks to influential guest speakers in journalism, filmmaking, graphic novels and more
By Joe Arney
Steven Frost finds it funny that their calling is weaving, because if you look at how their personal, research, artistic and teaching passions all come together, it winds up looking like the sort of thing you’d create on a loom.
“Weaving is all about a structure that comes together,” said Frost, assistant professor of media studies at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information and associate chair for undergraduate studies. “When I look at what I do in my practice”—especially the study of art in community development and activism—“it’s funny that weaving ends up being such a good metaphor.”
Frost was already making a name for themself as an artist in Long Beach, California, and as part of artist Carole Francis-Lung’s Sewing Rebellion project—a blend of practical knitting skills and labor advocacy—when they, along with husband Jed Brubaker, relocated to Boulder to join the then-new CMCI, itself interwoven from different, but related, academic and professional disciplines.
“A big part of it, for both of us, was the opportunity to be involved with a new college,” Frost said. “It’s given me opportunities to take on a lot of leadership positions and sit in positions I normally wouldn’t as a junior faculty member.”
Firsthand perspectives in class
One example is the Queer and Trans Identities in Popular Culture course, which Frost created for graduate students and is teaching for the first time this fall. A Payden Teaching Excellence Grant from CMCI helped them create a course that leans on both interdisciplinary instruction and extensive input from creators, giving students broad critical perspectives on how the media portrays the LGBTQ community.
“I think I ruined most media for my students, because they leave class thinking, ‘Wow, this is bleak,’” Frost said, laughing. “But instead of just criticizing what they see in the media, they get this cool ability to learn from people whose work is helping to change that.”
This semester, students in the class will hear from journalists, directors, graphic novelists and others, helping them become better critical thinkers “by showing that they’re real people, not just something you’re seeing through the TV screen,” Frost said. “They’re learning to think through the cultural influence through which you develop media, as well as the people making it and how it’s made.”
Hadassah Ward Hill is pursuing a PhD in communication, not media studies, but said the course is giving her a practical set of skills that will be helpful in her career.
“The class pairs media and foundational texts together in a way that’s truly interdisciplinary—and beneficial even if you’re not a media studies scholar,” she said.
For instance, for her final project, Ward Hill will have to do a written analysis in the style of a think piece that might appear in the popular press, which she expects to push her outside the academic-style writing she’s used to.
“Especially as somebody who works with marginalized communities—well, what’s the point of working with those communities if you can’t share that information in a way that members of those groups can actually consume?” she said.
More about engagement than expertise
She got to know Frost when, after giving a presentation in a Queer Theories class she was taking, they followed up with her to recommend some additional reading. That led to a conversation about the origin story behind her research, which examines queer and trans experiences in families with religious ties. Ward Hill mentioned having a sibling who enjoys art, and Frost managed to get them into the Slay the Runway—a series of fashion design, performance and sewing classes for LGBTQ teens that concludes with a runway show.
“One of the things I really love about this class is that we’re not expected to be experts when we walk into the classroom,” Ward Hill said. “The whole point of us being here is to learn, and I think Steven is much more concerned with us being able to engage fully and understand how to have these conversations than creating a competitive environment between grad students.”
Frost’s love of teaching isn’t confined to the classroom, or even events like Slay the Runway. In fact, it was during their time with Sewing Rebellion that Frost realized the role teaching plays in building community—a lesson they needed to fall back on when the self-described “indoor cat” moved to Boulder, a city notorious for its embrace of nature.
“I like the outdoors, but in Boulder, the library was where I found my people—the bookworms and crafty people,” they said.
Frost’s primary research interest concerns community development in DIY spaces, especially libraries; they recently completed a term as head of Boulder’s library commission. Frost has led workshops, exhibited work and studied the role of maker spaces in bringing diverse audiences to libraries.
“Libraries are one of the last true public spaces—free and open to everyone,” they said. “And inside the library, the maker and artist spaces become a way to bring people from business, nonprofits, museums and so on into the library to connect with the community.”
Through Frost’s work with maker spaces—BLDG 61, affiliated with the library, as well as on-campus spaces like the Blow Things Up and Unstable Design labs—they’ve been able to use textiles as a window to different parts of design and art, often working alongside diverse audiences such as astrophysicists, business professionals, law students and writers.
When it comes to their own creativity, Frost said they feel lucky to be an artist at a research institution.
“Being in media studies has helped me make my art messages clearer—I feel an obligation to be a better communicator,” Frost said.
“Art can be a way of thinking through harder problems and coming up with bizarre solutions, but for me, art is mostly a place to start conversations, to think through community development. And the process of making together is very different than thinking together—people encounter new problems and work together to teach each other, and I love that so much.”