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

Last fall, I spent a portion of my academic leave in Cambridge, MA. I was a visiting scholar at Microsoft Research New England’s Social Media Lab, where I was able to spend time with Mary Gray, Nancy Baym, Tartleton Gillespie, Nick Seaver, Lana Swartz,  Kevin Driscoll, Sarah Brayne, Andrea Alarcon, and many other amazing thinkers (all of whom I miss as I am writing this). I want to be clear that I was not back at MIT, but the Microsoft offices are right across the street from the outer edge of the MIT campus, and I had a great view of Senior House, the Media Lab, and Building 14 (where my office was for 20 years) out the window. I thought of myself either working with my back to MIT or looking down on the Institute, but either way, it gave me a certain pleasure.

But it also meant that I spent time hanging out with various old friends and colleagues affiliated with MIT and even, gasp, Harvard. At a cocktail party hosted by William Uricchio, I got into a conversation about teaching with Sasha Costanza-Chock about an undergraduate course he was teaching, which turned out to be Introduction to Media Studies. I had helped to develop this class with Martin Roberts in 1997, and it had been one of the first steps we made towards developing the framework for the Comparative Media Studies program.

Later that same week, I had lunch with Martin Roberts, who happened to be passing through town, and we had so much fun recalling our experiences together developing and teaching the class, including memories of Chris Kelty, now a distinguished faculty member at UCLA, who was our first TA for Intro. From these conversations, we came up with the idea of publishing through this blog some reflections on how this core class, central to the undergraduate experience of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, evolved over time.

As media scholars, we often explore other kinds of texts in relations to the times in which they originated, in response to various institutional imperatives and constraints, and especially how they evolve over time in response to new audiences and their demands. But we rarely look at our own teaching practices through this same lens — why do we make the choices we do, what agendas do courses serve, what do we miss even as we are trying to capture the key aspects of a phenomenon. MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies offers us a rich text to consider in this way — given its location and given its ambitions — but I would encourage others to trace through the archeologies of the key courses at their institutions.

In this segment, I am sharing a conversation between Chris Kelty, Martin Roberts, and myself. Later, I will share some reflections by the current instructor, Sasha Costanza-Chock, and along the way, I will share a few thoughts from a few of the folks who have taught the class in the intervening years.

Here are a few links to help you follow the discussion (assembled and with commentary from Martin Roberts)

The original syllabus, faithfully preserved for future media archaeologists (i.e. us) in digital amber:

Minimalist late-90s hand-coded HTML design by yours truly – thank you very much.

My lecture page is here:

Even the BBS is still intact:

Here is Sasha’s most recent version of the syllabus

So, let the conversation begin. (By the way, we would love to hear thoughts and reflections from any of the students who took the class or from others who have taught it through the years. If I receive any, I will republish them here along with these other materials).

Martin Roberts

The first thing that strikes me is how the very language that we use to talk about digital and network technologies has shifted: consider, for example, how laughably antiquated anything with the prefix cyber- now sounds, even though at the time terms like cyberspace, cyberpunk, or cyberculture made you sound like the academic equivalent of William Gibson.

Much the same is true of interactive and, to a lesser extent perhaps, virtual: does anyone still use the term virtual communities anymore? Why would that be? Given that the term historically applies to text-based (MUD/MOO) communities rather than graphics-based ones from Second Life to WOW etc., it’s worth considering why the term seems to have dropped out of use, or at least been displaced by the unpronounceable MMORPG (as in, you can’t actually say it as you can “MUD”).

Other terms  like Web 2.0 have come and gone in the meantime. Today, of course we live in the world of  the cloud, platforms, and participatory culture, but if the earlier examples are anything to go by, this world seems destined in its turn to have faded into the past by the time we hit the singularity (I believe the current ETA is 2029).

From Hypertext to Transmedia

One interesting example of the shift I was talking about is in the domain of narrative. In the ‘97 course, as I recall, the discussion of narrative in digital environments was still pretty rudimentary, and largely monopolized by the George Landau school of hypertext and lots of refs to Borges’ garden of forking paths and postmodernist fiction trickery (Cortázar, Calvino et al.). Now the word on everyone’s lips is transmedia – referring to narratives that extend across multiple platforms, in turn producing new kinds of guided “user flow”- again very different from Raymond Williams’ sequential (and I would argue, largely obsolete) early-70s concept.

From Text to Object?

One last point: other than narrative, I would suggest that today the very concept of the media “text” has become problematic in ways that it didn’t seem so in ‘97. Yet we continue to work with the notion that media studies’ basic unit of study is the media “text”, even though the boundaries of that text have become increasingly difficult to define. Here’s an example I used in a class last year: try defining The Lord of the Rings as a “media text”. Of course, we have the original novels themselves as the ur-text (although even then the idea of a clearly-bounded text became problematic, with all the appendices, sequels/prequels etc.). Now, consider this LOTR-themed Air New Zealand flight-safety video:


Is this part of the Lord of the Rings as a “media text”? I would say absolutely, but as you can see, that text has now expanded to include the entire cinematic cycle of Peter Jackson movies and, even more improbably, the nation of New Zealand itself. And this is just the tip of the iceberg – it’s easy to see that LOTR today is a “transmedia” narrative, but it is so in many more ways than may be apparent. Let’s not even mention Doctor Who… ^_^

So the question then would be, if the very concept of the media “text” as the unit of analysis is increasingly problematic today, in terms of identifying where it begins and ends, then what is to replace it? My answer would be that text is now being displaced by object as a central analytical unit – I’m thinking of the platform studies series, 3D action figures of Guy Debord, Lego adaptations of Minecraft, Minecraft adaptations of everything. I also wonder whether the concept of transcoding might be a useful counterpart to transmedia to refer to the increasingly porous boundaries between digital and material objects.

The arguably obsolescence of the “text” paradigm in media theory can be radicalized further by extending it to the viability/utility of the very term medium itself today as an analytical category, in contrast to the increasingly ubiquitous platform (it’s revealing, if depressing, that my students typically use the two terms interchangeably). This question is of course an even larger one than the one about the status of the media text.

With hindsight, I would say that one of the problems with the course in 1997 was that its analytical horizons were still very much defined by literary theory – notably, of course, the ubiquitous notion of the “text” – even at a time when literary theory had for some time been in the process of debunking it. (It’s a little like the earlier irony of the Cahiers du Cinéma critics coming up with the theory of the auteur at pretty much the time Roland Barthes was declaring the “death” of the auteur.)

The Afterlife of Virtual

One key term I’ve mentioned but haven’t discussed is the notion of the “virtual” – again, big in the mid-90s, today not so much. But still we have the latest generation of VR technologies starting with the Oculus Rift, which is slowly inching closer to the fantasy of the early 90s. As you know, the term “augmented reality” was big a couple of years back but my sense is that this is also already sounding dated.

Anyway, hope these thoughts help to start the ball rolling; I’ll doubtless have more to say later when I’ve looked through the ’97 syllabus in more details. Chris? Any thoughts on commodified dissent, recursive publics, or actor-network theory (ANT)? What would be indispensable in any contemporary iteration of the ’97 course?

Chris Kelty

The first thing to say is that the ’97 class was the first in which I gave a lecture I wrote myself— I don’t know if I ever properly thanked Henry and Martin for letting me do that, but my cup runneth over: so thanks to both of you!

I have no idea why I chose the media concentration stuff—or whether you guys encouraged it, but it certainly led me down a very interesting path.  I wonder how I would do that lecture today? I think the “transmedia” stuff that Henry is on to represents a major change in the industry… and the debates about race in Hollywood are so much more present today… but really much of what I said in ’97 probably could still be said today, sadly.

– the ’97 class had a classic Walter Ong/Jack Goody feel to it in some ways: from Cave Painting to Photography to Radio-TV-Film to Internet.   I wonder whether that is a still a standard starting point?

For me, the work of folks like Lisa Gitelman (When Old Media Were New) has become the de facto way of introducing the historical component of my class, and nothing like the grand historical narratives of Goody or Ong.  

Indeed, thinking internationally, the German media theory/media history schools have become much more de rigueur than they were in 1997.  When we were teaching that class, reading Kittler felt like discovering a gold mine. Now it’s either old hat or canonical, but the Germans themselves have gone from Mediengeschicte and Medienwissenschaft to Kulturtechnik and Media Archaeology to hybridizing ANT and media theory (Akteur-Medien-Theorie) to god knows what else…  I teach some of this stuff but I don’t think most people (in the US) see it as central.

Predictably my classes derived from the ‘97 experience (which I tend to call “intro to software and networks” or “intro to the internet,” instead of media) focus on intellectual property, the politics of software, standards and hacking, and the rise of new social movements.  I was particularly enthused to revisit the ‘culture-jamming’ and intellectual property aspects of the ’97 class—I probably owe a much larger debt to Martin for clueing me into this stuff than I ever realized <tips hat again>.  At Rice I ended up teaching a class with a classicist (Scott McGill) that was called “Piracy across the Ages” which was full of much of the same material, complemented by ancient mashups (Centos) and accusations of plagiary by Seneca and Virgil.  Scott went on to write a whole book about plagiarism in the ancient world.

Remarkably for a class at MIT—we didn’t touch on hacking or the MIT subcultures of hacking at all.  I think I was only just discovering them at that point, so it’s not shameful or anything, but nonetheless, Stewart Brand and Stephen Levy were all over it 15 years earlier—but it was not something that media studies or STS took as central.  The only person in our orbit who would have really cared about it was Sherry Turkle, and she was on to other things.  Nonetheless the fact that Adbusters, the EFF, plunderphonics, EBN and Negativland were part of the class at the time is a kind of triumph.

A propos of Martin’s message, platforms have since become key to be sure, both in the Montfort/Bogost sense but also in terms of the actual political economy (e.g. Tarleton Gillespie’s diagnosis) of things like YouTube/Facebook as “platforms” instead of sites, media or texts—in anthropology and STS the undisputed keyword for this is “infrastructure”—which in ’97 was something I remember talking about with people but which there was no literature about.  Now I can’t imagine teaching the class without it being focused on platforms/infrastructure.

An obvious addendum here is the rise of “digital humanities” and its discontents, which I find totally baffling, since it feels on the one hand like substandard technological skills, and on the other substandard theoretical sophistication (not high praise, I realise, but I’m not attacking it, I just don’t understand where its momentum came from).  I don’t teach this stuff, and wonder how much of it has crept into the CMS curriculum, or Annenberg, or elsewhere— but I am “officially” a digital humanities faculty member at UCLA.

Lastly there was a lot of Tamagotchi that year. There was also a lot of Bill Mitchell.   I’m just saying.

Henry Jenkins

I want to step back and reflect a bit about the institutional context that this course came out of. Keep in mind that this was the first step, curricular-wise, in terms of paving the way for the launch of the Comparative Media Studies Program just a few years later.

That program took shape in the particular context of humanities at MIT: the reality of the situation was that we were trying to create a master’s program which would tap the knowledge and expertise of a range of faculty who came from traditional humanities fields, with little to no chance of hiring people who were specifically trained in media studies. So, we needed a definition of media studies that was humanistic to its core and expansive in its understanding of what constituted media.

In many ways, the design of that syllabus was rhetorical — addressed as much to the faculty who were going to be guest speakers as it was to the students being introduced to the field of media studies for the first time. They needed to grasp the role they could play in something bigger and they had to understand what the stakes for them were in contributing to the growth of that field. We had already been involved in a series of multidisciplinary conversations designed to identify common ground and common themes that might bring the faculty together. This class was designed to embody some of those common themes in practice. This is why it is so reliant on guest speakers and why it is perhaps as text-heavy as it is.

For this to work, we needed to enlarge the canvas, which is why there’s some reliance on “grand narratives,” such as orality and literacy or cave paintings. We were staking out a claim for an approach to media that would be comparative across a range of axis — across different media systems, across different historical periods, across disciplines, across theory and practice, and across academia and the larger public sphere.

So, first, what I see when I look at this syllabus is the goal of expanding the period covered by media studies. Cinema Studies at the time was barely reaching back prior to 1895 (and even those first few decades were still being contested, as notions of “pre-cinema” or “primitive cinema” were giving way to “cinema of attractions” and a bit later, “media archeology.”) So, going back to earlier moments, such as the emergence of written language or the introduction of the printing press, to think about the processes of media change would have been innovative. I recall experimenting with bringing in Pauline Maier, a historian of the American Revolution, to think about committees of correspondence as early examples of networked communications — a move not fully understood by anyone involved but part of an exploration of how we might engage with a broader historical scope.  

You are almost certainly right that Gitelman’s approach would probably be how we would approach some of these same topics now, but there are losses as well as gains in shifting towards that model.  I drew on Gitelman in my introduction to Convergence Culture, which I ended up writing just a few years later.

More recent versions of introduction to media studies class often narrow their scope to focus too much on the current moment of digital media and do not pay enough attention to how we got here, to forms of communication that shaped human history on a broader scale. I would argue that the best way to combat digital exceptionalist or technological deterministic arguments is precisely to read the “digital revolution” in relation to earlier moments when the communication infrastructure underwent profound change.

There would have been a push for each of those speakers to bring these older moments into conversation with contemporary media practices: so I recall incorporating Spaulding Grey’s Swimming to Cambodia into our consideration of the shift from orality to literacy, so we could see how some of the same rhetorical structures and performance practices persisted in the work of contemporary storytellers.

This broader conception of media becomes all the more important if we are thinking now in terms of “transmedia” or “convergence”-based models of the contemporary media landscape. As we do so, we need to be able to think about print culture (including comics, missing here to my regret), theater and other forms of live performance (including bardic orality), and of course, cinema and television, alongside digital media. The cave painting — as a multimodal experience, which combined visual images, live performance, and new evidence suggests, a strong awareness of the sonic — seems like an ideal place to start thinking about what it means to tell a story through a range of different media and their affordances. This gets lost when we focus too precisely on the digital moment, which means that we rarely go much before World War II.

The focus on the literary and thus, texts here also emerges from another institutional factor. The first time this class was taught, it was a subject in the Literature Section, and the faculty there were somewhat reluctant to see us add an introductory level subject, which pulled so far away from what they saw as the core of their field. We did not yet have any academic unit which would allow this class to be identified as a media studies class: so, one of the defining traits of the newer syllabi for me is that it is now CMS 100 and that CMS is now part of its own academic unit at MIT.

This version of the class was so successful at redefining people’s understandings of media studies that there was a certain amount of trauma at extracting it from the Literature curriculum when the time came for us to do so, in part because they still wanted those high enrollment numbers, even though some of the same people had balked at creating the class in the first place. And Literature at MIT has since embraced a much more inclusive definition of the literary that starts to sound rather a lot like what this course tried to achieve:


Literature at MIT embraces an expansive vision of literary study. We are linked by a common interest in problems of narrative, aesthetics, genre, and media, but our curriculum explores a broad array of written, oral, and visual forms, ranging from the ancient world to the 21st century. We teach poetry, drama, and prose fiction, and also film, television, comics, memoirs, and folk music. We represent a variety of methodologies but share a common dedication to close reading and historical reflection. We are interested in both the established masterpieces and the most recent cultural productions of the digital age.

The class was also seeking to position itself as a HASS-D subject — that is, as part of the distribution of courses in the core Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences curriculum, as something that students could take to meet the General Education requirements of MIT, and this also pushed us to make our peace with a broader, more humanistic tradition.

So, some of what seems conservative to Martin and Chris today have to do with the politics of how you introduce a new subject into the curriculum, but I also want to caution people from assuming that an approach too grounded in the present, too focused on the digital, too dismissive of the role of history or of these older frames for thinking about media and communication, are necessarily the right way to go.

A final observation about the context from which the class originated: being at MIT, we wanted to create a subject that would have a strong hands-on component, that would give students a chance to make media, or at least, experience different kinds of media. So, this is why you see some of the assignments here that are a bit more applied, and I am happy to see that tradition of applications and experiential learning continues down to the present incarnation of the class.

All of this is to say that as faculty, we can rarely push further in our teaching than our institutions will allow us, that all of our class designs reflect the contexts within which we work, and that these negotiations were especially strongly felt in this case because of the institutional weight being placed on creating the first true media studies class in the humanities at MIT (as opposed to medium specific subjects).

Chris Kelty

Just a small additional context thought:  at the time the presence of the Media Lab had a major confounding effect on what we could claim was “media studies” and also on what it meant to have a hands-on feel.  There was no humanities there, but they nonetheless dominated the concept…

I vaguely remember there being a “dissident” group of media lab people focused on narratology that met under cover of night to discuss “humanistic” things…but the nascent CMS class was really trying to stake out ground in relation to that fact as well as the claims of the humanities. I think that continues today. I’d be interested in what the more recent issues at MIT are, to be sure, but the proliferation of the “media lab” model around the world has set up a force field of confusion that affects media studies everywhere I think…

Christopher M. Kelty is an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment at ISG and in the department of Information Studies. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering.  He is the author of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

 Martin Roberts studies the relationship between subcultures, globalization, and digital media, and has taught courses on global subcultures at The New School and NYU. His publications include articles on global documentary film, world music, and the J-pop genre Shibuya-kei. His current research focuses on subcultures organized around digital gaming and electronic music, including 8-bit or chipmusic, iOS music, and the revival of modular synthesizers. His article on the black MIDI subculture and Japanese dankmaku (bullet-hell) games will be published by G|A|M|E journal in 2016. He currently teaches digital media and culture at Emerson College and Dartmouth College.