21L.015   Introduction to Media Studies:  Syllabus | Classes | Labs | Papers | Resources

HASS-D, Category 4

Fall Semester 1998
Tues, Thurs, 3:30-5
Lab, Tues, 7-10

Henry Jenkins, henry3@mit.edu
Office14N-437, 253-3068

Teaching Assistants:
Mary Hopper, mehopper@ceci.mit.edu
Office14N-422, 258-8646
Hours Tues, Thurs 2:30-3:30

Shari Goldin, slgoldin@mit.edu


  • Attendance in discussion sections, one hour per week (10%)
  • Written work: 7 papers
    • first 2-3 page paper (5%)
    • five 2-3 page papers (10%x5=50%)
    • one 8-10 page paper (15%)
  • Final Exam (20%)


Introduction to Media Studies is a new MIT subject developed through our curriculum committee (David Thorburn, Henry Jenkins, Martin Roberts, Chris Appy, and Janet Murray) with the goal of more accurately reflecting our program's expanded course offerings in the area of media studies. The course operates alongside a more traditional introduction to film studies.

We designed the subject to meet the needs of a new generation of computer-literate and web-surfing students and to respond to the powerful changes that have occurred in our global media environment. The convergence of media technologies and the horizontal integration of media industries suggests the need for a more horizontally-integrated conception of media studies as a discipline, one which moves away from medium-specific approaches and towards a comparative media approach that looks at the full range of communications technologies at place at a particular historical juncture. This approach required us to broaden the historical scope of many media studies subjects to deal with earlier forms of communications, including the oral bards of Ancient Greece, the manuscript culture of the middle ages, the early history of the book, Shakespearian theatre, early photography, and so forth. This course assumes that comparative and historical perspectives are essential to understand any specific medium of communication. The history of cinema needs to build upon the history of photography, theatre, and modern art traditions. The history of digital medium necessitates a grasp of the history of print culture. The history of television needs to be built upon a history of radio and theatre.

In order to cover this expanded field, the course calls on the expertise of a range of colleagues from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, including historians, literary scholars, anthropologists, art historians, musicologists, theatre scholars and practitioners, foreign language specialists, and others. One of the benefits of the course is that it creates a common framework for thinking about the work of our wide-ranging media studies faculty and allows students to sample the kinds of courses we offer at an intermediate and advanced level. The course aims to prepare students to take more focussed courses in film history and aesthetics, broadcasting and television, theoretical approaches to media, and the design and development of new media.

The course is structured around four basic units:

  • The first, Core Concepts, provides students with an overview of three basic traditions of analysis -- the media studies tradition embodied by Marshall McLuhan, Harold Innis, and Ithiel De Sola Pool; the cultural studies tradition represented by Raymond Williams, Clifford Geertz, James Carey, and John Fiske; and the commodity theory approach represented by the Frankfurt School. We also spend some time looking closely at the case study of radio to suggest the ways that one core media technology adopts a range of structures in response to changes in its social, cultural, economic, and technological environment: from early attempts to displace the telegraph, amateur radio as a participatory medium, the era of network broadcast radio, the relations of radio to the emergence of Rock and Roll, the growing political power of talk radio, and the new role of RealAudio.

  • The second unit, Media in Transition, offers students a historical overview of media from Homer to Cyberspace, with a particular focus on moments in which the dominant media in the society underwent significant change --orality to literacy, manuscript culture to print culture, the explosion of modern mass media in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the so-called "digital revolution."

  • The third unit, Media Functions, looks comparatively across different kinds of media to determine what recurring social roles they play. Each week juxtaposes media in somewhat different ways. For example, we might look at the ways the emergence of photography placed special emphasis upon the documentary functions of the medium and how the credibility of the image is challenged by digital image-making. Another week might look at how media can be used as an instrument of political power, comparing the role of the printing press during the American Revolution with the role of cinema and radio in Nazi propaganda. We might look at a core genre -- the detective story -- across print, radio, television, and film. Or we might compare American television's role as a "consensus narrative" with the controversy around the importation of American programs into Europe.

  • The final section, Media Institutions, looks at the structures that shape media production and reception, comparing the role played by the Hollywood studio system and the new media conglomerates in shaping film content, looking at two different modes of resistant consumption (the so-called cultural jammers and the appropriative culture of media fans).

Given the range of media examined, the course has pushed us beyond traditional film screenings to offer a range of different student activities during the Lab section of the course, including field trips to the local science museum to experience IMAX, exercises conducted exclusively through the net, demonstrations of emerging media technologies and applications, acting workshops which got students performing Shakespearian scenes, as well as programs of selected materials from radio, television, film and experimental video.

Another significant innovation of the course centered around its use of the net and the web as an instructional platform. The first time it was taught we produced no paper syllabus, depending on students to regularly check our website for new information. The website, which was designed and maintained by my co-teacher Martin Roberts, provided students with access to paper topics, updates on lab plans, and other related information. On most days, faculty provided additional information and links to related websites so that students might further explore a particular topic. Many of the faculty used the web during their presentation as a interactive blackboard, which might outline key ideas, provide illustrative images, or allow quick access to quicktime videos or relevant websites. Students early in the course were asked to create their own links to a relevant website, so that we have built up a wonderful nexus of media-related sites you are encouraged to explore. Students were also encouraged to post relevant notices to a discussion group attached to the course website.

The course is now in its second year and is still evolving to reflect both shifts in faculty resources and changing issues in contemporary media. The course is providing to be an important testing ground for approaches and materials which may spin-off to form new courses within our curriculum. It is also providing an important recruitment tool, an alternative point of entry into our intermediate courses, and has already been credited with increasing our enrollments.

Writing continues to be a central element in the course, with students producing a series of six short essays in the first part of the term and then revising one of them into a ten page paper for the culminating exercise. We developed new instructions for student writers this term which has resulted in a dramatic improvement in the quality of student work for the course. Frankly, I have never taught a course where the level of writing has been, across the board, this high, where students were consistently developing arguments with cohesive thesis and supports, and where they were making such effective use of both secondary materials and original insights/experience.

We have also been trying to rethink the role of discussion in the course. We have moved the discussion segment to follow the Monday evening labs, which means students have something concrete to respond to and that there is an immediacy to the discussion that was previously lacking. We have also restructured the lecture sections to incorporate more chance for student questions and discussions with our guest lecturers.

One question posed by the HASS-D committee at the time this course was first proposed was whether we would be able to provide sufficient integration across the many different topics and speakers in the course. There was, frankly, some difficulty in doing so the first term, but as I have gotten a better sense of what the speakers will discuss and reorganized some of the elements in the course, we have provided a more cohesive framework. Student writing shows that they are able to make links across topics and to think comparatively about different media. We reference those links in discussion sections. My own role as lecturer enables me to make those connections more explicit at key points in the term. And, in practice, the fit between the various lecturers is astonishingly strong given the range of disciplinary backgrounds we are bringing together. Students consistently cite the diversity of speakers as one of the key strengths of the course.

For additional information about the subject, please contact Henry Jenkins at henry3@mit.edu.

Course Materials from the Spring 1997 Introduction to Media Studies Course are also available on this site.