Syllabi as Cultural Artifacts: MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies (Part Four)

What follows are Sasha Costanza-Chock’s reflections on teaching the most recent iteration of this class:

Sasha Costanza-Chock:

I feel honored to be part of this conversation! Reading everyone’s comments on the evolution of CMS100 provides such rich insight into the evolution of our field(s) as a whole; the unique institutional birth, struggles, and rise of CMS/W within MIT; broader transformations in our media system and in the paradigms that shape our understanding of media; and our own personal/political pathways as media scholars, makers, and activists. I taught the most recent instance of the course, in the fall of 2015; my syllabus is here (http://bit.ly/cms100-2015).

This is my fifth year as a faculty member at MIT, but it was my first time teaching CMS.100. I really enjoyed reworking the syllabus and teaching the course, not least because it was the largest group of MIT undergrads I’ve had the chance to work with so far. They did amazing work last semester! Reflecting on my approach to the course in the context of this conversation about its history, I’ve organized my thoughts into continuities with the past, transformation in the present, and opportunities for the future.  

Continuities

Still hands-on. I worked hard to minimize lectures and incorporate hands-on learning activities and workshops throughout the semester. I really wanted students to explore key concepts through making.

Over the course of the term, they shared media objects with one another and created their own collaborative Media History Timeline; conducted a mini-autoethnography during a 24-hour media fast; analyzed front-page newspaper attention using PageOneX; explored web-based remix tools like NewsJack, deconstructed and remixed ads; and produced an open-format final project that included a written component, but for those who preferred, could also include a media-making activity.

The hands-on workshops aren’t stand-alone; they’re tied to readings and discussions of key texts and serve to reinforce the diverse methodologies that media scholars employ (historical research, qualitative and/or quantitative textual analysis, interviews and ethnography, political economy, critical theory, and so on).  

For example, early in the semester there’s a hands-on workshop where we use the PageOneX tool (http://bit.ly/pageonex-draft-2015) to explore front page newspaper attention to media events; after that students write short papers around an analysis they conduct using the tool. This is after reading about the history of systematic content analysis as a subfield of media studies, including Chomsky & Herman’s well known polemic but also tracing ‘column-inch’ metrics of newspaper attention back over a hundred years. Several of the students chose to create visualizations of news attention to recent social movements. Their short PageOneX papers are here, with an example visualization by a student (below) of how Ferguson coverage shifted over time from framings of ‘unrest’ to ‘police brutality’ to ‘racism’:

 

ferguson-screenshot

Front page newspaper coverage of Ferguson over time

“In the above graphs (data compiled by [a PageOneX user]), blue corresponds with discussion of the events in Ferguson directly, purple indicates columns about police brutality, and green is general discussion of racism.” — From A CMS100 student paper

 

Still comparative across methods, theoretical frameworks, platforms, time, geography, still no canon. This seems to have been consistent in all iterations of the course. Although we all come from somewhat different intellectual trajectories, happily it seems like none of us have tried to insist on a single canonical set of texts for orienting students to media studies. How could we?

Although it does seem that the course content drifts back and forth between versions of ‘media studies’ that are rooted in literature, then branch out steadily to encompass other platforms, and those that begin from an ‘always already’ heterodoxy of theory & methods mobilized into the shared study of media as texts, objects, platforms, infrastructure, and in all the other ways described in this thread.

Transformation

A shift towards civic media. I’m biased, because this is my wheelhouse, but I do think there’s been recent increased attention (both scholarly and popular) to the relationship between media and social change. In part, I believe this is because of the recent global cycle of struggles that kicked off with the Arab Spring, inspired Occupy, and now percolates through the steady pressure of #BlackLivesMatter. Students’ experience of the media ecology now includes the regular eruption of social movements into networked consciousness, through hashtag activism, transmedia mobilization, and transformative media organizing.

My version of the course includes a sustained, semester-long conversation about these dynamics. This includes classic approaches like public sphere theory, Nancy Fraser’s critiques of Habermas, a unit on civil disobedience in the information age that moves from Thoreau through Critical Art Ensemble and to Gabriella Coleman on Anonymous, as well as a discussion of networked social movements that draws from the Occupy Research network study of movement media practices.

I’m not arguing that all media studies can, or should, focus on activism, but I do see (and advocate for) a shift to recenter questions of the relationship between media and movements, civic engagement, and social transformation as fundamental to our field. Students are inheriting a world in crisis, and as educators we do have a responsibility to connect them to the many threads in media theory & practice that they can use to find possible pathways forward.

 

Opportunities

Connection with MIT’s history. Rereading this conversation and thinking more about the history of contributions to media in both theory and practice that have emerged from MIT, the next time I teach this class I’ll work harder to incorporate those contributions. Shannon, Bush, Chomsky, Leacock, Turkle … although I did manage to bring in Jenkins during spring 2015, both in the readings on convergence and in the flesh 🙂

A full reframing through the lenses of race, gender and gender identity, class, sexual orientation, disability, intersectionality. Although some of this happened, I feel like my first version of CMS.100 still suffered from a bit of ‘let’s do race this week, gender next week, class the next’ and so on. Much as in other domains, there’s a generational sea change in the ways that folks think about, research, and organize around a truly liberatory transformation of the media system, and it has largely to do with intersectional praxis rooted in Black feminist thought.

I feel like media studies as field(s), and CMS.100 as an introduction, needs to be remixed through that lens. I’ve tried to move in that direction, and I’m not sure exactly what it will end up looking like. I imagine it won’t be a process with an end point, but rather a steady ongoing re-evaluation of the key texts, writers, and makers across multiple dimensions of media studies.
Department-level intentionality about the work this course will do. Finally, I took a quick peek at the Spring 2016 version of the course, as taught by John Picker; here’s the list of textbooks. At the moment the syllabus seems to swing around pretty wildly based on the instructor that semester. I’m not sure that’s been an intentional decision, it may be more of an artifact of the recent institutional shift where CMS has gone from ad-hoc program to CMS/W as a department, a series of faculty hires, a still-pending review of our undergraduate and graduate curriculum by the Curriculum Committee, and so on. However, there’s plenty to be said for this approach, it allows flexibility and autonomy and diverse interpretations of what an introduction to our ‘field’ might mean. And as we’ve seen through this brief archaeology of CMS.100, there are literally endless possibilities!

Sasha Costanza-Chock is a scholar and media maker who works in the interrelated areas of social movements and information and communication technologies; participatory technology design and community based participatory research; and the transnational movement for media justice and communication rights, including comunicación populár. He holds a Ph.D. from the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California, where he was a Postdoctoral Research Associate. He is also a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. While living in Los Angeles, he worked on a variety of civic media projects with community-based organizations, including the award-winning VozMob.net platform. More information about Sasha’s work can be found at schock.cc.

Comments

  1. Sorry, Mr. Jenkins, but I didn’t know any other way to reach you. Do you know Mr. Terry Ramsey? I noticed on Amazon that you have co-authored a book with him on American Pool Checkers.

    Mike

    • Henry Jenkins says:

      Not me. I have an expansive expertise for sure, but pool checkers is not amongst the topics I claim to know anything about, and I don’t know anyone by that name.