Department of Cultural Studies Trent University

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Department of Cultural Studies

Trent University

2014 FA

CUST 1535H: Introduction to Media Studies


Professor Liam Mitchell


Telephone: x6072

Symons Campus

Office: 211 Scott House, Traill

Office Hours: Fridays, 11:00-12:00

Administrative Assistant: Rosemary Devlin


Office: 202 Scott House, Traill

Telephone: x1771

Course Overview

It’s a cliché to say that we live in a media-saturated world – that we’re “always connected,” that our devices are “always on,” or that there’s “no escaping” the reach of technology. These might be boring claims, but we repeat them frequently. It seems like we can’t stop talking about the media, let alone using it. That said, this idle talk doesn’t often translate into a sustained, critical questioning of how the media shapes us as individuals, how it informs our politics, or how it changes the way that we understand the world.

In this introductory course, we’ll be framing critical questions about the media on the basis of experience. We won’t work from the sort of introductory textbook that tells you “what” the media “is,” since you’ve all grown up in mediated environments. (This, at any rate, is the purpose of CUST 2035Y, where we discuss traditional media and approaches to the study of the media in depth.) For this reason, we’ll be starting from your experiences of the media – not so much your passive, 20th century experiences of “broadcast” media (watching TV, listening to the radio, or reading books and magazines), but instead your interactive, 21st century experiences of “social” media (blogging, gaming, chatting, and so on). We’ll bring in academic commentary in order to clarify those experiences and to help you ask more provocative questions about them. In other words, we will move from practice to theory rather than the other way around.

Calendar Description
CUST 1535H is an introduction to media studies that starts with students’ own experiences of contemporary media. It seeks to give students an understanding of these media and how they emerged. The course leads into second-year courses in the history and theory of media, in changing media practices, and in digital culture.

Course Format

Lecture/Workshop: TH 11:00-12:50 TBA

Seminars: F01 TH 13:00-13:50 TBA

F02 TH 19:00-19:50 TBA

F03 TH 17:00-17:50 TBA

F04 TH 18:00-18:50 TBA

F05 TH 16:00-16:50 TBA

F06 TH 15:00-15:50 TBA

F07 F 12:00-12:50 TBA

Texts and Material
Bill Wasik’s book exemplifies the practical, experiential approach of the class, and will serve as both a model and a guide to some of our themes. Additional readings, listed in the schedule below and available either online or through the library website, will provide theoretical grounding for your practical work.
Wasik, Bill. And Then There’s This: How Stories Live and Die in Viral Culture. New York: Viking Press, 2009. ISBN-10: 0143117610. ISBN-13: 978-0143117612.
You’ll find a laptop useful, of course, so if you have one, bring it to class. You’ll need to purchase the videogame Minecraft for one of the assignments, available online at If you don’t have a laptop, don’t worry: you’ll still be able to successfully complete the course.

Learning Objectives
Upon completing the class, you will be able to:

  • explain what the media is in terms of what it does to us and what we do to it;

  • make claims in a variety of media;

  • clearly explain a theoretical argument by making reference to your experiences;

  • raise critical questions about course texts;

  • reflect on the extent of your situation within the media; and

  • creatively re-engage with familiar media.

Most of your work in the course will be practice-based, meaning that you will be creating your own images, sounds, events, and so on. You will do this around the themes central to the course, namely:

  1. Memes

  2. Identity

  3. Norms

  4. Games

  5. Wikis

You can find details for the thematic assignments and their evaluation below. For these assignments, you can work with any media that you like, but several will be most easily completed using photographs – so I recommend that you start taking pictures of things that catch your interest or that might pertain to the course. Having a wide array of your own original material to draw on should make your assignments easier (and will help improve your grades).

Although the class is practical, please note that your TAs and I will not explain how to use different media manipulation software. This isn’t a Fine Arts class. (If you’re interested in doing work in media arts, take a look at CUST 2111Y and 3111Y.) I don’t expect you to be experts at Photoshop or Garage Band or whatever else, and I certainly don’t expect you to buy those software packages, but I do expect you to figure out how to download their free equivalents and look up tutorials on how to use them. Consider downloading and playing around with the following:
Image manipulation: GIMP (all platforms)

Sound editing: Audacity (all platforms)

Video editing: VirtualDub (Windows), iMovie/Final Cut (Apple)
Also, please register an account on sites like the following that host these sorts of files so that you can collect all of your assignments together:
Images: Imgur

Sound: SoundCloud

Video: Vimeo
If you prefer to use different software or hosts, please do.

Assignment Selection: You will complete an assignment for at least four of the five course themes. This means that you can choose to do the four assignments that interest you the most, or avoid the one assignment that interests you the least. (You can find a detailed description of what’s required for each assignment in the section below.) There are two caveats, though. First, everyone in the class must contribute to the wiki assignment. You can’t avoid that one. Second, if you like, you can complete all of the assignments and then drop the one with which you were least satisfied. If you complete all five assignments, the TAs and I will only count the four highest grades.

Grading Breakdown: The thematic assignments are worth 15% each – 7.5% for the practical work and 7.5% for the critical reflection that accompanies it. Your TAs and I will grade the thematic assignments on the basis of their originality, the extent to which they exemplify the theme, and the extent to which they demonstrate an understanding of the readings. The final exam, the details of which we’ll discuss in class, is worth 25%. Seminar participation will be worth 15%. The TAs and I will take attendance each class, but we will weigh the quality of your comments more highly than your simple presence. If you’re the kind of person who feels unbearably uncomfortable talking in class, try to make up for it by contributing excessively to the wiki assignment (particularly on the discussion pages) – and definitely talk to us one on one as well. So, to sum up:

Four Assignments + Critical Reflections: 60%

Final Exam 25%

Seminar Participation: 15%
Critical Reflection: Each thematic assignment should be accompanied by a short critical reflection. This is a very important part of the assignment: it’s where you get to demonstrate that you can connect an idea from the readings with your own experience in order to create an argument about the theme in question. In other words, the written component of the assignment should look like the following:
insight from readings + experience of media  argument on theme
Your argument should explain the broader significance of the theme – that is, not just why you might happen to find something interesting, but why other people should find it interesting too. For instance, you might construct an argument that looks like the following:
insight: many websites enable users to construct multiple identities

experience: Reddit sometimes fosters multiple identities, but Facebook discourages them

argument: pseudonymous sites help proliferate multiple identities, and this is socially valuable because experimentation leads to freer personal expression
You’ll generally do better work if you pick a single aspect of a single reading and focus on it. That said, feel free to incorporate insights from the other readings or from the films that we watch in class if they’ll help you construct a more interesting argument.

Length and Citation: All of your critical reflection assignments should be 500-600 words in length. Slightly longer or shorter is fine. You are not required to refer to sources outside of the course texts for any of the assignments, but feel free to do so if it will be useful. Please make sure to properly document any sources that you do consult (i.e. through citations and a bibliography) in APA, MLA, or Chicago.

Submission: Bring a hard copy of your critical reflections to your seminar on the week that it’s due, and make sure that you have uploaded the assignment itself to the web. (If it’s an image, you’ll need to use an image hosting site; if it’s a video, you’ll probably want to use something like YouTube; etc.) Include screenshots wherever they might be helpful. Please also write the URL (and a password if you have made your content private) on the hard copy, since your TAs and I may make reference to your work during the seminars (with your permission, of course). Because URLs can get very long, use a URL shortener like Some TAs may prefer to do all of their grading electronically. Your TA will tell you their preference during the first weeks of the seminars. Make sure you’re clear about their expectations.
Formatting: For all of your writing, please include a title page that lists your name and student number, the date that you are submitting the assignment, the name of your TA, the number of your seminar, and a word count at the end of the assignment. And include a title for your assignment: rather than just calling the first assignment “Assignment 1” or “Meme Assignment,” come up with something descriptive. Please also double space your text, use Times New Roman 12 point font, and staple multiple pages.

Spelling, Grammar, and Late Assignments: Although this isn’t principally a writing class, we will be deducting marks for mistakes in spelling and grammar. This is because the Media Studies program intends for you to be able to communicate your ideas clearly across different media. We will also deduct marks at a rate of 5% of the assignment per day, not including weekends, for late assignments, barring instances of verifiable illness or family emergencies. Please have your assignments ready to hand in by the beginning of your seminar.

Assignments and Due Dates
Assignment 1: Memes

Create and disseminate a meme. Feel free to do this in groups of two or three. (The critical reflection must be done individually, however.) Useful starting places for inspiration might be social news aggregators like Reddit, meme-oriented websites like 9gag, or online contests like the one hosted by Threadless ( Useful images can be found on stock image websites, but I would also encourage you to create your own. (They’ll tend to be more interesting, anyway.) For the critical reflection, explain why the meme succeeded or failed by making reference to Debord, Wasik, or Dawkins as you see fit, exploring the broader social significance of memes as a form of communication. In what sense is your meme “spectacular,” and what broader cultural logic does it exemplify, if any?

Due: Week 4 (Sep. 25)

Assignment 2: Identity

Perform an online identity: create a new one or modify your own. This is something that you may want to start early, so that you have time for a convincing performance. In order to create a convincing identity, flesh it out with a background, family, friends, educational history, motivation, goals, and so on. The key here is believability: avoid creating an identity that other people won’t believe. (This doesn’t mean that you should avoid outlandish identities entirely, however, since they might be perfectly believable on the right forum.) Pick the forum for your performance carefully, and consider engaging in conversations in a number of other forums as well in order to build a robust profile. For the critical reflection, discuss the experience of impersonating someone else in the context of the questions that Smith, Turkle, Horning, Klosterman, and Wasik raise about digital identity formation. Is identity in general given or constructed? How is it affected by different techno-social structures (e.g. Facebook vs. Twitter vs. Tumblr vs. Omegle)? Does your experience of multiple identities change how you think about yourself?

Due: Week 6 (Oct. 9)
Assignment 3: Norms

Identify and violate an unspoken technical norm governing a social media site. For instance, you might try the following:

  • Correspond with the kind of person you would normally follow silently on a site like Tumblr, Flickr, or Twitter. Take advantage of the different features of the site to communicate in a variety of media (e.g. images, sound, video, and so on) when normally you would only communicate in one (e.g. text).

  • Derail a forum conversation by posting something benign but completely off topic. Continue to do so over a few days. If the forum moderator bans you, create another account and demand to know why you were silenced.

  • Mix media inappropriately: respond to phone calls with texts, or to email with a phone call; turn web-based conversations into face-to-face ones. Get creative.

  • Ask to borrow someone’s laptop or phone in order to check for an important email. If they lend it to you, keep it for an inappropriate amount of time or use it to check websites that have nothing to do with email.

  • Like or comment on a friend’s pictures and posts more than is appropriate. (Be systematic: don’t miss a single photo.) Include only positive comments.

These are only a few options, of course; feel free to come up with your own. In devising and carrying out this sort of experiment, try to identify something both unspoken and non-obvious. For instance, don’t start arbitrarily provoking a stranger on a forum simply because it will elicit a negative reaction. You know in advance that the reaction will be negative, which makes the experiment uninteresting – not to mention unkind. Try to create a scenario the results of which you can’t predict in advance.

For the critical reflection, consider the following sorts of questions: How did you feel about the experiment? How did other people react? What do the reactions to your violation of the norm suggest about the norm itself – e.g. about how it operates or how strongly people adhere to it? If this is a completely new norm governing social media, how susceptible do you think it is to change? How closely tied to the structure of the site is it? Feel free to reference any of the journalistic pieces in your reply, but make sure that you include Garfinkel as well.

A word of caution: this assignment encourages abnormal behavior. Literally. If you find yourself tempted to violate a norm in a way that goes beyond mere awkwardness – if, in other words, you worry that what you might be doing could be construed as immoral – then please don’t do it. This sounds obvious, I know, but it can be easy to get carried away. Err on the side of playfulness rather than disruption. If you need a second opinion, check with your TA.
Due: Week 8 (Oct. 30)

Assignment 4: Gaming

Your TAs and I will create one instance of a Minecraft world for each seminar, and we will start making it livable after reading break. Your seminar group will be competing with each other seminar group to build an enormous monument. We’ll decide on what sort of structure we want to build in the first few weeks of the course. The group who builds the biggest and best monument will receive the highest grade. But don’t fear: if your group doesn’t gel and your monument isn’t very impressive, you’ll be able to make up for it by writing a really solid reflection. For that critical reflection, consider what games like this one tell us about the nature of the world in general. What are the societal implications of your experience of Minecraft? What does your classmates’ behaviour in the game world tell you about the way that society is organized in the real world? Be sure to incorporate material or approaches from the readings, especially from Wark’s Gamer Theory.

Due: Week 10 (Nov. 13)

Assignment 5: Wikis

This assignment differs from all the others. Here, you will be challenged to work as a collective: you will all produce a single hypertext document over the course of the semester. Your task is to create a wiki about the content and themes of the course. At a minimum, it should break down the main points made in each of the assigned readings, but it might also do a number of other things: it could feature critical commentaries on the readings, links to further reading, notes from lectures, observations on the themes of the course, or whatever else you think appropriate. As long as it is well-curated, those sorts of expansions should improve your grade.

You should begin working on this assignment immediately – we’ll talk about how to access the class wiki in class – by creating a user page for yourself that includes a description of who you are and what you’re interested in and a representative photo. As the class goes on, I’d like you to create pages on the different themes we’ll discuss, populating the wiki with content over time. If you work together to take this sort of approach, the assignment should be easy to complete. If, however, you leave things until the last minute, or if you can’t figure out how to effectively collaborate, some will end up doing the lion’s share of the work while others do nothing. The TAs and I will provide class time to work on the wiki, but how you self-organize is ultimately up to you.
Half of your grade for this assignment will based on your contribution to the wiki itself, and hence on your ability to write and to collaborate. In other words, you need to be willing both to create new content and to edit old content – even old content created by someone else. Please make sure that your contributions to the wiki include both original writing and edits. The other half will be based on your critical reflection about the effort to collaborate: did your experience affirm the concerns of Lanier, Shirky, or Zittrain regarding wiki-based collaboration?
This is a large and challenging assignment, so I’m adding an additional incentive: if the wiki achieves a professional polish in its content, style, and organization, I’ll give you – the entire class – a bonus to your overall assignment grade.
Due: Week 12 (Nov. 27)

Class Policies

Your assignments and in-class activities may not violate any University policies, particularly the Policy on Discrimination and Harassment, the Computing Code of Ethics, and the Academic Integrity Policy (see below). Your practical work should only draw on material in the public domain, and you should be able to provide attribution for any sources that you use upon request.

While you are obviously expected to use computers during the workshop component of the class, I strongly encourage you to leave your laptop turned off during lectures and seminar discussion.

Academic Integrity
Academic dishonesty, which includes plagiarism and cheating, is an extremely serious academic offence and carries penalties varying from failure on an assignment to expulsion from the University.  Definitions, penalties, and procedures for dealing with plagiarism and cheating are set out in Trent University’s Academic Integrity Policy. You have a responsibility to educate yourself – unfamiliarity with the policy is not an excuse. You are strongly encouraged to visit Trent’s Academic Integrity website to learn more:
Access to Instruction
It is Trent University’s intent to create an inclusive learning environment. If a student has a disability and/or health consideration and feels that he/she may need accommodations to succeed in this course, the student should contact the Student Accessibility Services Office (SAS), (BH Suite 132, 748-1281, For Trent University in Oshawa Student Accessibility Services Office contact 905-435-5102 ext. 5024, or email Complete text can be found under Access to Instruction in the Academic Calendar.

Schedule and Readings
We meet twice a week – once for a lecture, and once for a seminar. The lecture will introduce key questions and ideas and give you a chance to work on your assignments, and the seminar will both provide a forum to discuss the texts we read and give you the chance to talk about your work.

Generally, you’ll find the readings reading online or in the Wasik book. If I’ve provided a complete citation to a journal article, you’ll need to find it through the Trent University Library Catalogue (TOPCAT). I’ll demonstrate how to do that in class.

It seems like there are a lot of readings here for a course that’s also asking you to do practical work. In some weeks I’m asking you to read two or three scholarly articles, for instance, and in other weeks I’ve provided three or four readings written in a more journalistic style. But you don’t need to read everything thoroughly. I’d like you to skim everything once – this will give you an overview of the theme we’re discussing, and will help you figure out what you’re most interested in – but you only need to read one article thoroughly in order to complete the assignments. So, when you’re doing a write-up for an assignment, think about the readings in terms of a few different steps: 1) skim all the readings for the week, 2) pick one that grabs your attention, 3) figure out the article’s thesis, and 4) find some claim made in the article (which might or might not be the same as the article’s thesis) that resonates with your practical work.

Week 1: Introduction

Sep. 4
Wasik, “Introduction: Key Concepts”

Week 2: Memes

Sep. 11
Wasik, “My Crowd”

Debord, Guy. “Chapter 1: Separation Perfected” and “Chapter 8: Negation and Consumption within Culture.” In Society of the Spectacle. (Theses 1-5 and 203-211.)
Week 3: Memes

Sep. 18
Wasik, “Annuals” and “I Have a Meme”

Dawkins, Richard. “Memes: The New Replicators.” In The Selfish Gene. 189-201.

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. (Available through the Trent University Library Catalogue.)

Week 4: Identity memes assignment due

Sep. 25
Wasik, “Agent Zero”

Smith, Zadie. “Generation Why?” The New York Review of Books (25 November 2010):
Watch: Noah (available at
Week 5: Identity

Oct. 2
Horning, Rob. “Google Alert for the Soul.” The New Inquiry (12 April 2013):

Turkle, Sherry. “Multiple Subjectivity and Virtual Community at the End of the Freudian Century.” Sociological Inquiry 67.1 (1997): 72-84.
Klosterman, Chuck. “Nostalgia on Repeat.” Grantland (28 September 2011):
Film Screening: We Live in Public
Week 6: Norms identity assignment due

Oct. 9
Garfinkel, Harold. “Studies of the Routine Grounds of Everyday Activities.” Social Problems 11.3 (Winter 1964): 225-50.

Siegler, MG. “I Will Check My Phone at Dinner and You Will Deal with It.” TechCrunch (21 February 2011):

Rimer, Sara. “Play with Your Food, Just Don’t Text!” The New York Times (26 May 2009):

Week 7: Norms

Oct. 16

Coleman, Gabriella. “Our Weirdness Is Free.” Triple Canopy 15 (13 January 2012):
Phillips, Whitney. “Interview with a Troll.”
Schwartz, Mattathias. “Malwebolence: The World of Web Trolling.” The New York Times Magazine (3 August 2008):
Film Screening: We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists
Reading Week

Oct. 23
Week 8: Gaming norms assignment due

Oct. 30
Wark, McKenzie. “Agony on the Cave.” In Gamer Theory. 1-25. Cambridge and London: Harvard, 2007.
“Games.” Radiolab 10.2 (2011):
Week 9: Gaming

Nov. 6
Wark, McKenzie. “Allegory on the Sims.” In Gamer Theory. 26-50. Cambridge and London: Harvard, 2007.

Dibbell, Julian. “Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World.” Wired (18 January 2008):

Film Screening: Indie Game: The Movie
Week 10: Wikisgaming assignment due

Nov. 13
Shirky, Clay. “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.” World Changing (7 May 2008):

Lanier, Jaron. “Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism.” Edge (30 May 2006):
You might also take a look at one of the replies to Lanier found here:
Week 11: Wikis

Nov. 20
Zittrain, Jonathan. “The Lessons of Wikipedia.” In The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It. Yale University Press, 2008:

Lessig, Lawrence. “Code Is Law: On Liberty in Cyberspace.” Harvard Magazine (January-February 2000):
Week 12: Wrap-upwiki assignment due

Nov. 27
Wasik, “Conclusion: Notes for Further Research”

CUST 1035Y Grading Rubric

Student and Assignment:



Theme and Originality


Concept and Interpretation

Mechanics and Form

  • Demonstrates insight into a particular aspect of the theme (rather than simply creating an example of the general theme)

  • Demonstrates insight into the arguments from the readings

  • Offers commentary on issues broader than the theme itself

  • Avoids obvious stereotypes and clichés

  • Makes connections between media or platforms (e.g. text & film, lecture & song, etc.)

  • Makes use of current examples, e.g. from pop culture

  • Uses technical skills to enhance content

  • Demonstrates artistic ability

  • Uses particular media to effectively support message

  • Makes clever use of irony, metaphor, language, imagery, and so on

  • Captures the attention of the viewer/listener/reader

  • Demonstrates a mastery of concepts relevant to the theme

  • Demonstrates an understanding of an author’s main arguments in general

  • Restricts focus to a single aspect of an author’s argument, digging deeply into it

  • Uses project or experience to illustrate some aspect of the concepts or arguments (and vice versa)
  • Connects concepts or arguments to project or experience in such a way that a new argument is advanced

  • Argument is well structured

  • Main claim is clear from its location in the text

  • Language demonstrates an authorial voice

  • Quotations are contextualized

  • Text is free of spelling and grammatical mistakes

  • Paper offers clear evidence of proofreading

  • Includes a complete title page

  • Includes a shortened URL

  • Includes screenshots or quotations as appropriate

  • Adheres to MLA, APA, or Chicago if necessary



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