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

We reached out to everyone who has taught MIT’s Introduction to Media Studies through the years and we received responses from a few, describing their versions of the class:

Fox Harrell

My version is based in initially challenging their preconceptions that media forms are a matter of continuous progress over time. I also challenge them to reconsider any hierarchies they have that places one media form above another. So, we challenge great divide theories between orality and literacy and technological determinism. They complete a quick one-week project, relating this theory to practice (and allowing me to assess their interests, theoretical engagement, and production abilities).

There are then three units. First unit: they engage in comparative study of different media forms (e.g., the still image, the moving image, remix culture, and so on). Second unit: the interplay of media production and media consumption (communities and technological literacies). Third unit: how we represent ourselves in media (social identity and media).

The class has them building systems as a means of theorizing, writing theory to understand why and how media systems are used and built, and relating all of the topics to their own interests. A central feature is student facilitations during each class where they relate readings to topics of their own interests. I do an immense amount of offline scaffolding in that process, with write-ups due well ahead of presentations and ample back and forth feedback to ensure that their interests are tightly integrated with the core concepts from the readings. The students like this a lot and it makes it lively. They always say the course is challenging and they find it one of their most valuable experiences.

I pioneered the course before coming to MIT and adapted it to an introductory rather than upper division experience. So, it has a different lineage with its own pedigree of iterative improvement, but I think a lot of synergies with the CMS ethos. The different notions of comparativity on the CMS site as of when you were here resonates with me. So, I’ll leave it to you to relate my take to any notion of evolution of the field, but rather emphasize here the notion of complimentary perspectives that I find with others who have taught it.

I just mean that my version is based on my own take on media studies, including my interdisciplinary academic background, approach to theory and practice, etc. I developed the syllabus from a course I designed and refined over the years when I was at another institution.

This is in contrast to the course that Flourish taught, for example, because she was trained as a CMS graduate student — that’s an example of what I consider the CMS lineage. Similarly, other versions may have built more upon prior iterations of the CMS.100 course.

Flourish Klink

To be honest to me the primary goal of this class was to teach freshmen how to get out of a literature focused analysis mode and think about other ways of engaging with texts. This stemmed from the fact that it was a “writing intensive class,” so there were a lot of requirements that had to be fulfilled through essays. To me, though, that’s the foundational premise of media studies—that texts can be approached in lots of ways, and that finding insights about them and about their audiences doesn’t necessarily proceed from literary analysis (or not solely from literary analysis).

In practice, a lot of the strides students made were in improving their writing skills. The class also served as a first introduction to lots of thinkers in media studies—almost a survey course. (I’m sure lots of them got left out.) The hope was that students would take CMS 100 and be excited about some of the concepts, then follow those later in more intensive classes also offered by CMS, or just read more by the authors they were assigned in class. Who knows if it worked..

Fox Harrell is a researcher exploring the relationship between imaginative cognition and computation. His research involves developing new forms of computational narrative, gaming, social media, and related digital media based in computer science, cognitive science, and digital media arts. The National Science Foundation has recognized Harrell with an NSF CAREER Award for his project “Computing for Advanced Identity Representation.” Harrell holds a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Cognitive Science from the University of California, San Diego. His other degrees include a Master’s degree in Interactive Telecommunication from New York University, and a B.F.A. in Art, B.S. in Logic and Computation (each with highest honors), and minor in Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University. He has worked as an interactive television producer and as a game designer. His recent book is Phantasmal Media: An Approach to Imagination, Computation, and Expression (MIT Press, 2013).

Flourish Klink was educated at Reed College (BA Religion ’08) and MIT (SM Comparative Media Studies ’10). As a teenager she co-founded and helped to run the first Harry Potter fan conference (as well as many others in the same conference series). Later, she was a partner in The Alchemists Transmedia Storytelling Co. and a producer on the hit HULU teen telenovela East Los High. Today, she is a partner in Chaotic Good Studios, a franchise planning company, and co-hosts the podcast Fansplaining. She also has taught classes at MIT, including Introduction to Media Studies and Fans & Fan Culture.