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