Beginning this Spring semester I am taking on my department's 101 course, "Introduction to Mass Media," with 324 students and six TA's. (Yes, the course should be renamed to reflect the fact that we don't think of the media as "mass" like we used to.) Although I was trained as a film scholar, I teach in a journalism and mass comm department (there's that "mass" again) where I consider myself a scholar of media, and in particular American entertainment media. (My scholarly interests are fairly well reflected in the topics I have covered in this blog.) Most of the department's majors specialize in journalism or advertising and PR, though some choose to focus on media studies. But because this is the intro course, it attracts lots of 1st and 2nd year students from across the university looking to fulfill a general education requirement. My approach to teaching 101 is to expect that no one knows anything. (Of course this isn't true; some students will know lots, and everyone has their life-long experience of media. But I never expect anyone to know anything in particular.)

I decided several months ago to teach 101 without a standard textbook and instead to assign readings (and viewings and listenings) on electronic reserve and the interwebs. The book previously used in my department and many others, Media and Culture, by Campbell et al., is one I don't care to read myself from start to finish, so I can't justify making hundreds of strangers do so.* When I was an undergrad I would choose courses so as to avoid having to read textbooks (and take multiple choice exams, which I also still dislike, though I will use them to save my TAs' labor). This is one big reason why I majored in English lit as an undergrad, which offered courses where the only readings would be novels, poems, stories, and plays. Getting a B.A. in exchange for reading this pleasurable stuff seemed like a much better bargain than having to deal with textbooks, which often seem to have been written not for actual readers, people who care for language and ideas and stories and who often prefer reading to many other activities, but for the author's notion of what an undergraduate student is like. I know there is probably no better way of introducing undergrads to many topics and fields than assigning textbooks, but it usually pains me to read them, to encounter their didactic tone, their politically correct smattering of special topics in colorful boxes, their elevation of information over understanding and argument. (Yes, there are many good textbooks and this is a very broad negative generalization. Indeed, here are some I like.)

Like many academic texts, Campbell has a breathtaking retail price: about $90. Textbooks have been getting much more expensive, doubling the rate of inflation. That $90 price tag doesn't make textbook prose any better; it goes toward magazine-style color layout, supplementary materials like powerpoint shows and test banks and online video clips and quizzes (protected as a walled garden, of course), and the salaries of the cheerful reps who drop by professors' offices to persuade them to assign their employer's product. I hate conservative nostalgia, but I find it hard to believe that in shifting from college textbooks that were basically just words on a page to textbooks that are multimedia extravaganzas we have improved our education of undergraduates.

Alternatives that I considered didn't seem all that different from Campbell in price or quality, to the extent that I could judge without actually reading them, which I don't care to do. Textbook publishing is not unlike big pharma in marketing products not to consumers but to professionals responsible for prescribing or assigning them to consumers who lack the agency to make their own choices. The doctor/professor doesn't need to care too much about the product's price or weigh this as a factor in comparing the product to competitors. Thus the "enhancements" the publishers offer, the online content and the PP slides, are things that make the prof's life easier (and maybe help teach better) and that make the text seem appealing to him or her. Who knows if the students want or need these things. And anyway, maybe it's the prof's job to create slides and online content. I'm not sure, I just don't think the students should be paying extra, and I suspect that the publishing house's profits are more important in making the decisions that create these enhancements than their commitment to higher education. I'm no economist, but it seems likely that if the consumer were more empowered in this scenario, the prices would be more reasonable. My decision not to use a textbook was in part a product of my hostility toward academic textbook publishing as a business, as was my decision to write about it here. (Some universities have started textbook rental programs to lessen the burden on students, but this may not be a practical option for many campuses--search "textbook rental" and you'll see what I mean.)

Just as significant as these issues in my case, though, the intro to mass media books don't approach their topic in a way I would want them to. Campbell and others organize their material by medium and format. There are chapters on film, television, the internet, newspapers, magazines, advertising, etc. I don't think the contemporary media should be taught as discrete topics in this way and would prefer not to have one week on cinema, one on television, etc. Media are converging in so many ways and this organization scheme doesn't reflect this reality

I've been collecting readings suitable for this kind of course and it's been a bit of a challenge. I prefer to assign readings I myself would like to read, but of course they also need to be appropriate for beginning undergrads at UW-Milwaukee. I wanted readings that would be accessible to readers with no background knowledge yet serious and rigorous enough to introduce ideas worth teaching. I have found a mix of scholarly and popular writings that I think do this pretty well. Some are challenging, and to really get them the students will need to read slowly, carefully, and more than once. But many are what I would consider easy, which I think is a good thing. I don't know if reading articles from Time and The New Yorker and New York Times will seem easy to the students; probably very few of them read these publications. My biggest challenge in teaching is to imagine myself in the role of the student, to understand what they understand and don't understand, and how understanding varies among them.

My new semester doesn't begin for three weeks, so I am pasting my syllabus-in-progress below. You will see if you keep reading that I have organized the course into five units corresponding to five affordances of media: to sell, to entertain, to document reality, to be civic culture, and to be art. I came up with these on my own; I'm sure others would come up with more or fewer or
different ones. I am aware that these are in some ways redundant and overlapping, that many examples of media are artistic, commercial entertainments that document reality and promote civic culture. (I have been watching The Wire beginning with Season 1 in the past few weeks and I think it does all of these things pretty well, though I might add a sixth especially for it: to confuse. I'm collecting links about the show in my del.icio.us.) Ordering the course this way will allow us to revisit certain kinds of media from different perspectives. It will also allow me to spend more time on areas I know well and have an interest in (movies, TV, the internet, music) than I would be able to do if I were teaching from a standard textbook.

But teaching this way, compared with teaching from a textbook like Media and Culture, probably means that the students will encounter less information. Many of the readings will be more specifically about a single topic like The Walt Disney Company or 19th century American newspapers than the chapters in an intro textbook. The typical intro textbook has no shortage of facts and details. I hope that I will be able to impart greater understanding and knowledge, however, than I would using a textbook.

Any suggestions are welcome in the comments. In particular, I am still looking for readings that will introduce students to Hollywood as an institution and to movies as an art form (I left my own area of greatest expertise for last as I have been working on the syllabus), and readings that consider reality TV as something other than just trash

Intro to Mass Media

Day 1: Course Introduction (W 1/23)

unit i: media to sell

Day 2: Today's Media Companies and their Strategies (M 1/28) Read David Croteau & William Hoynes, "Introduction" and "Chapter 4: Strategies of the New Media Giants"

Day 3: Media Company: Disney (W 1/30) Read Janet Wasko, "The Disney Empire"

Day 4: Media Franchise: Batman (M 2/4) Read Eileen Meehan, "'Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!': The Political Economy of a Commercial Intertext"

Day 5: Advertising (W 2/6) Read Inger L. Stole, "Advertising"

Day 6: MTV (M 2/11) View "MTV 1983 (Part 1 of 2)" (85 min.) and please don't ignore the commercials, promos, and VJs; Read Ed Levine, "TV Rocks With Music" and Janet Maslin, "TV View; A Song is No Longer Strictly a Song, Now It's a 'Video'"

unit ii: media to entertain

Day 7: Entertainment (W 2/13) Read Neal Gabler, "The Republic of Entertainment"

Day 8: Hollywood I (M 2/18) View Singin' in the Rain; Read Douglas Gomery, "The Triumph of Hollywood"

Day 9: Hollywood II (W 2/20)

Day 10: Television Drama (M 2/25) View TBA (a 1-hr television show); Read Michael Z. Newman, "From Beats to Arcs"

Day 11: Videogames (W 2/27) Read Steven R. Poole, "The Origin of Species" and "The Player of Games"

unit iii: media to document reality

Day 13: Representing Experience (M 3/10) Read Anthony Lane, "Candid Camera: The Cult of Leica"

Day 14: Photography (W 3/12) Read John Szarkowski, "The Photographer's Eye"; Mia Fineman, "Say Cheese!: A History of the American Snapshot"; Alex Williams, "Here I Am Taking My Own Picture"

Day 15: Sound Recording and Music (M 3/24) Read Michael Chanan, "Record Culture"

Day 16: The Moving Image (W 3/26) View Early Lumière Films; Early Edison Films; The Black Imp; The Gay Shoe Clerk; The Great Train Robbery; Read Eric Barnouw, Documentary, pp. 1-51

Day 17: Reality TV (M 3/31) View TBA (a 1-hr television show)

unit iv: media as civic culture

Day 18: Media for Citizens (W 4/2) Read Peter Dahlgren, "Media, Citizenship and Civic Culture"

Day 19: Newspapers and their Public (M 4/7) Read Michael Schudson, "The Revolution in American Journalism in the Age of Egalitarianism: The Penny Press"

Day 20: News Culture and New Technologies (W 4/9) Read Michael Schudson, "National News Culture and the Informational Citizen"

Day 21: Digital Publics (M 4/14) Read Howard Rheingold, "A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community"

Day 22: Media by Citizens (W 4/16) Read Wikipedia, "Citizen Journalism"; Steve Outing, "The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism"; Jay Rosen, "The People Formerly Known as the Audience" and "Citizen Journalism Wants You!"; Jeff Jarvis, "Networked Journalism"

unit v: media as art

Day 23: Art and New Technologies (M 4/21) Read Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"

Day 24: Movies as the "Seventh Art" (M 4/28) Read Hugo Münsterberg, "The Function of the Photoplay"; maybe view Chaplin clips online and Léger & Murphy's Ballet mecanique?

Day 25: Advertising and Pop Art (W 4/30) Read Lawrence Alloway, "The Arts and the Mass Media"; Time, "Pop Art - Cult of the Commonplace"

Day 26: Music Sampling (W 4/23) Read Mark Katz, "Music in 1s and 0s"; Listen to Paul Lansky, "notjustmoreidlechatter"; Camille Yarbrough, "Take Yo' Praise"; Fatboy Slim, "Praise You"; Public Enemy, "Fight the Power" (for some of these to play in their entirety, you need to sign up for an account at imeem, which is easy and fast)

Day 27: Remix Culture (M 5/5) Read articles from Wired 13.07 in the section "remix planet" (yeah, all of them--they're short!)

Day 28: Course Summary (W 5/7)

full citations

Lawrence Alloway, "The Arts and the Mass Media," Architectural Design & Construction (February 1958).

Erik Barnow, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (New York: Oxford UP, 1974).

Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations (trans. Hannah Arendt)

Michael Chanan, "Record Culture," Repeated Takes: A Short History of Recording and Its Effects on Music (London: Verso, 1995).

"Citizen Journalism," Wikipedia.

David Croteau and William Hoynes, The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest (Pine Forge, 2005).

Peter Dahlgren, "Media, Citizenship, and Civic Culture," in James Curran and Michael Gurevitch, eds., Mass Media and Society 3rd ed. (London: Arnold, 2000), 310-328.

Mia Fineman, "Say Cheese!: A History of the American Snapshot," Slate (17 October 2007).

Neal Gabler, "The Republic of Entertainment," Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality (New York: Vintage, 2000).

Douglas Gomery, "The Triumph of Hollywood," Movie History: A Survey (Wadsworth, 1991).

Jeff Jarvis, "Networked Journalism," BuzzMachine (5 July 2006).

Mark Katz, "Music in 1s and 0s," Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music (Berkeley: U of California P, 2004).

Anthony Lane, "Candid Camera: The Cult of Leica," The New Yorker (24 September 2007).

Ed Levine, "TV Rocks With Music," New York Times (8 May 1983).

Janet Maslin, "TV View; A Song is No Longer Strictly a Song, Now It's a 'Video,'" New York Times (23 January 1983).

Eileen Meehan, "Holy Commodity Fetish, Batman!" in Roberta E. Pearson and William Uricchio, eds., The Many Lives of the Batman: Critical Approaches to a Superhero and his Media (New York: Routledge, 1991).

Hugo Münsterberg, "The Function of the Photoplay," in Philip Lopate, ed., American Movie Critics (New York: Library of America, 2006), 10-17.

Michael Z. Newman, "From Beats to Arcs: Toward a Poetics of Television Narrative," The Velvet Light Trap 58 (Fall 2006), 16-28.

Steve Outing, "The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism," Poynter Online (15 June 2005).

Stephen R. Poole, Trigger Happy (Fourth Estate, 2001).

"Pop Art - Cult of the Commonplace," Time (3 May 1963).

Howard Rheingold, "A Slice of Life in My Virtual Community," The Virtual Community: Homesteading On The Electronic Fronier (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1993).

Jay Rosen, "Citizen Journalism Wants You," Wired online (14 March 2007).

Jay Rosen, "The People Formerly Known as the Audience," PressThink (27 June 2006).

Michael Schudson, "The Revolution in American Journalism in the Age of Egalitarianism: The Penny Press," Discovering The News: A Social History of American Newspapers (Basic Books, 1980).

Michael Schudson, "National News Culture and the Informational Citizen," The Power of News (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1996).

Inger L. Stole, "Advertising," in Richard Maxwell, Ed., Culture Works: The Political Economy of Culture (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2001).

John Szarkowski, The Photographer's Eye (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1966/2007).

Janet Wasko, Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy (Polity, 2001).

Alex Williams, "Here I Am Taking My Own Picture," New York Times (19 February 2006).

Wired 13.07 (July 2005), "Remix Planet" section.

*Every time I open Media and Culture to a random page, something irks me. For instance, the first thing that caught my notice the first time I flipped through was the skyscraper of culture on p. 16 (the Chrysler building of culture, to be precise) describing which cultural texts are high (Hamlet, Aïda), which are middle (Harry Potter, John Coltrane), and which are low (Rolling Stones, Gawker.com). The accompanying text reads, "Throughout the twentieth century we tended to think of culture not as a social process but as a set of products sorted into high, low, or middle positions on a cultural skyscraper." [Really? Who is "we"? Who is it that "thinks of culture" at all? And who would think of it as a skyscraper?] "Look at this highly arbitrary arrangement and see if you agree or disagree. Write in some of your own examples. Why do people view culture this way? Who controls this process? Is control of making cultural categories important--why or why not?"

Why would I want to reinforce this idea, even if only to criticize it? Many students find it hard to grasp the attribution of an idea to others which you will question, so whatever you say gets copied down like it's what you want them to know. I don't avoid attributing ideas, but I'm careful about when I do so and choose important ideas that I really want them to consider. Here they are being asked not just to consider a perhaps unfamiliar idea, but to revise the authors' highly arbitrary attempt to illustrate it. For real. I find this whole idea shallow and reductionist; I hardly dismiss the notions of cultural hierarchy and distinction, but why would you want to represent it as such an orderly and straightforward array of items? And this particular hierarchy is so problematic, given that Hamlet and Aïda are not so simply high, that Coltrane and Harry Potter are such bad examples of middle, that the Stones are as good as it gets to many people who think of themselves having good taste, that the typical reader of this book will never have heard of Gawker and that it's a bad example of a "low" blog anyway (here are some alternatives: Drunken Stepfather, Perez, Double Viking). This list seems to have been written by someone who doesn't really know and care about literature, drama, jazz, rock, and blogs. (The authors call their hierarchy "highly arbitrary" but it's clearly not really all that arbitrary except to the extent that any such thing is arbitrary, and they must have chosen these particular items in this particular order for a reason.)

Most important: sociologists and culture critics have been saying for years that such hierarchies are collapsing toward a "nobrow" culture, and that elites are now much more likely to be culturally omnivorous than they were in the old days. On this point, see James B. Twitchell's chapter "Adcult and the Collapse of Cultural Hierarchy" in Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture; John Seabrook's book Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture; and Richard A. Peterson and Roger M. Kern, "Changing Highbrow Taste: From Snob to Omnivore" American Sociological Review 61.5 (Oct., 1996), 900-907.

(This entry was edited on 1/10 to clarify that my hostility is toward academic textbook publishing as a business rather than academic publishing in general.)


Derek said...

Wow. Very interesting take on doing the intro course. I've done the same one for seven semesters straight, though I'm off the hook now for at least the next four. And I've used the Campbell et al book!

I absolutely agree with most of your critique of that book, and especially those which are endemic of textbooks (and textbook culture) in general. That said, I think it's still miles better than any other book in its category, for at least taking on the idea of "culture." Most "mass media" (sic) textbooks are still dead-boring tech and policy heavy trudges, peppered with outdated "isn't this cool?" lingo to supposedly entice future professionals. Campbell, warts (and they're many) and all, has little of that, and a lot (too much, very dubiously organized) of interesting stuff.

You hit the nail on the head about the racket that is textbook publishing, though. I've never used any of the test banks or PP slides for any book I've assigned, as they've always been pretty crappy IMHO. So there goes that "advantage." In addition, and Campbell's very guilty of this, these books are confused in their overall conception of the course. There's simply too much to go over to really get into the assignments they suggest, unless you have a small enough class (under 30, if not 25), and a high enough course number.

Anyway, I've some grave issues with even books by scholars I really love (e.g., Hilmes' and Bordwell's textbooks), and still do some jiggery-pokery with the contents to shape it to my needs.

Great looking syllabus. I especially like the variety of styles. I love the use of themes rather than chronology. It worked well in my Crime TV course this pas semester (though not perfectly). One of these days, I'm going to organize my TV history course similarly, using period readings wherever possible. Are the readings available for them online (that's what I generally do these days), or are you doing hard-copy coursepacks?

Lastly, I get what you're saying about the skyscraper, but I've found it still offers a handle for them to think about cultural politics in ways most of them probably hadn't before. That said, don't get me started on their takes of modernity and postmodernity...gah.

Chris Cagle said...

A lot to reflect on and digest - thanks for sharing. I had a similar problem in the Media and Culture class I taught last semester, and I ended up foregoing a textbook as well. Given the options out there, it was the only choice I felt comfortable with, but was one with some headaches. If I teach that course again, your syllabus will certainly help me retool mine.

Most of all, I really like your course subtopics. For the Civic Culture I would recommend C. Wright Mills' chapter on the Mass Society from Power Elite: it's a nice, accessible introduction to the concept of the public sphere. As for film as art, is Andrew Sarris too evil to teach?

Jonathan Gray said...

Mike, I had many similar misgivings when teaching a 250 person Intro to Mass Communications at Berkeley.

And I'm a big fan of the thematic approach. I did it for that class, I do it for my tv class, and I just wrote a textbook-y thing (200 page-r, not a 1500-plus-CDs&websites-a-plenty-er) on tv entertainment divided thematically. My students have really responded to it positively.

Small recommendation on reading: Jeff Jones' stuff on The Daily Show works really well for your 4th unit. It's always been a hit with my students.

Jason Mittell said...

I concur about the troubles with textbooks, even as I am in the midst of writing one myself! I purposely avoided going with one of the more commercial presses (Bedford, McGraw-Hill, etc.), who seem to aim toward producing books that look expensive rather than have pedagogical integrity. And I disagree with your assumption that a textbook-centered course conveys more information than article-centered. In my survey of textbooks before writing my own, I found that most mass media textbooks didn't really present much information, but rather pointed to areas in which information might be presented - Campbell is actually more informative than most I found, but most textbooks are more like empty coloring books waiting for actual material to be filled in.

That being said, I think the plus of a good textbook (and I hope people will find mine fits this bill) is that it does provide a useful conceptual map to structure a course, engage students, and inspire them to find out more. My book, which focuses more narrowly on American television, follows a topical structure similar to your course: television as commerce, democracy, aesthetic form, site of representation, everyday practice, and technology. I'd say the key area that seems missing from your course is representation - where will issues of ideology and identity factor into the course?

Good luck!

cbecker34 said...

I’ve had the same problems with textbooks. Jason has it right – if you can’t find what you want, maybe it’s time to write your own. In a related matter, the course packet copyright fees issue just hit our campus like a tidal wave last semester. I’m going exclusively with library e-reserves from now on, because otherwise the cost to students is just ridiculous. Also, I desperately echo your call for more good writing on reality TV, Michael. I’m going to work The Hills into my upcoming TV Criticism class, and your own “The Hills Is Real Too” post is just about the best thing I can find on it to use. (And I totally don’t mean for that to sound like a backhanded compliment, like yours is only the best in comparison to a bunch of stuff that sucks. It stands on its own as great. I just wish there was more out there like it and on more shows. So keep writing! :-)


michael z. newman said...

Thanks for all these comments, and thanks Chris for de-lurking ;-) Elana has written about Laguna & The Hills too, in a column in Flow.

@derek I am doing e-reserves only for the reason Chris brings up, to save paper, and because it's easier for me (I fill out requests online, I can do a few at a time instead of all at once, and the library does all the work of scanning).