Media, Power, and Technology: The Themes of My Media English Course

So, I was thinking about what to do with the real intro lecture to my Media class, last week. (Yes, it was week three of the semester, but as one student put it to me the other day, “We don’t think of the first week of school as the first week of classes. You know how we change classes and shop around.” The first week of real classes is Week 2, and in Week 2 I led a discussion about personal opinions and experiences of Media, of course. So I was casting about for what to do with my Week 3 lecture, and decided that I’d throw straight out the window my plan vaguely-considered plan (as mentioned on the timeline included in the syllabus) to give a crash course on the history of media, full of dates  and names and places.

There was just too much, and I didn’t have time to put together a powerpoint for that — nor did it feel like I’d be doing much of a service to my students if I failed to touch upon the real themes I’m trying to work in this class: Media and Power, Media and Social Change, Media and Technology. But I found a solution…

So I decided to focus on those themes, and what followed was an excellent two-hour lecture on four media technologies and the ways in which they changed the world, connected to one another, and profoundly affected the lives of everyone present:

  • the printing press (touching on the technological power of the book, and how cheaper and faster reproduction facilitated massive social, political, technological, scientific, and religious change in Europe)
  • the phonograph (its originally intended purpose — to capture the voices of “great men” — and how it transformed not only the music business — move over, manuscript publishers! — but also radically changed the nature of music, performance, youth culture, dance, and more)
  • the radio (how it evolved from the phonograph, how it was developed by many people working in different places, how it was commercialized, and how quickly so many people grew dependent upon it for news and entertainment; we also briefly discussed Orson Welles’ broadcast of The War of the Worlds, which we’ll be looking at more closely later on in the semester)
  • the cinematograph (ie. the film camera, and its invention, the novelty factor it enjoyed at the beginning and how people learned to view films as unreal imagery; its use in propaganda and advertising, to whatever degree those can be split up; its inherently constructed vocabulary and its absolute control of imagery, as we saw by reading a few still still shots from Full Metal Jacket.)

The homework for the class was for students to pick out a media technology I hadn’t touched upon — the telegraph, the World Wide Web, the telephone, the handycam, the walkman — and to discuss its history and impact on the world, society, culture, and more. I’m betting most groups will end up discussing some aspect of the Internet, predictably, but the trick is that I’ll require each successive group who contributes their findings to say something the other groups haven’t said yet.

(By the way, one of the most enjoyable moments was a side trip into the oddities of Edison’s lab. The students responded well to the fact that some of the most important technologies in their lives are the result of very unusual people who did very unusual experiments — the sorts of people who, if many people had known what they’d been experimenting with in their labs, would likely have been widely dismissed as freaks or weirdoes, heretics or crazy people.)

On Thursday, a student panel discussed Michael Robinson’s essay “Broadcasting in Korea 1924-1937: Colonial Modernity and Cultural Hegemony” on the power and politics involved in Japanese  radio programming in Korea during the colonial era. There were some deeply interesting comments — some of them predictable, some not — and one of the things I’ll have to unpack is the term in the title, “Colonial Modernity” since one of the panelists loudly decried the very notion, I suspect without quite grasping what it’s supposed to mean.

All of which very nicely ties in with one of the themes of the course, which is that media is not simply something made by other people for our consumption, but a tool of power, and one that students themselves can use for their own ends. Which is why, when we turn to advertising next week, I’ll be assigning them the homework of producing a professional-quality advertisement for any product (of any kind, even an imaginary one), for any medium of their choice, from scratch. (ie. No trawling the Internets for images to steal and use, no stolen ad copy… it must be completely original, and use some of the techniques we’ll discuss in class.)

My lecture/discussion on Tuesday will focus on the grammar and vocabulary, and the implicit messages, in a series of advertisements, and the principles of psychology used in advertising. I’m going to try find an appropriate scene in one of the episodes from Season 1 of Mad Men as a starting point, and then hold a discussion of a few specific advertisements, probably starting with something tame and and finishing with one of these ones. (The latter ads stuck out in my mind from the discussion in the comments for this post at The Grand Narrative, by the way.)

On Thursday, a panel will discuss specifically gender, sex, and audience in Korean advertising. That should be interesting, and I’m curious what kinds of ads they’re going to pick out for their discussion. (Most panels don’t get the freedom to show anything like an image or video in class, but this group, given the nature of their subject, will be allowed to use the computer to show a few ads to the class for the purposes of discussion.)

4 thoughts on “Media, Power, and Technology: The Themes of My Media English Course

  1. Good luck in your effort to have students recognize that media is not just made for our consumption but is a tool of power.

    Students generally have a very narrow conception of “power” as EITHER brute military force OR as brute economic capacity. If you can get them to have a glimmer of the notion that power is also institutional and cultural, you’re achieving something admirable.

    I greatly admire that you are getting the students to read academic/historical writings and they are actually discussing them and making interesting comments.

    Getting students to speak and say something interesting is so much more difficult than getting them to listen.

    1. Thanks Bradley,

      I think you’re right about the way a lot of young people (not just in Korea, but it is alarmingly more common in the face of an increasingly censorious and speech-controlling pack of authories).

      I’m on the lookout for an interesting academic essay on advertising, though I may just have them watch Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self — it’s no substitute for academic discourse, and Curtis may go off the deep end occasionally (I’m not sure whether I quite think so, but I acknowledge that it’s debatable), and it’s several hours long in total, so asking them to read on top of it would be too much.

      (Especially considering the kind of preparation/reaction work I have them do with each panel discussion.)

  2. Gord,

    I like what you are doing in that class

    I’m trying a similar (but different) thing in my UK/US culture class. I just showed them “Merchants of Cool” to try to get through to them the power that mass media can wield. I got my first assignments back today and I look forward to seeing what they did with them.

    This week it’s a discussion of the role of the cowboy archetype in US culture and how that media creation (thanks Teddy Roosevelt and Owen Wister!) informs much of how the US thinks.

    I’m going to outright steal your idea about creating an advertisement though. I think I’ll try to have them identify a Korean marketing archetype and then use it in their advert.

    And that will fill another week!

  3. Charles,

    In a previous course I taught, something about “Understanding Anglophone Pop Culture” I did more with narrative archetypes and their social repercussions. It’s a great approach that unpacks a lot for students. One particularly interesting one is the “nerd” archetype. Quite a revelation for a studying-obsessed mainstream. Another one we looked at a lot is the “warrior” archetype, and the “damsel in distress” one that seems to inform so much of media and of real-life sexism too.

    I’d love to hear about any other exercises you come up with…

    As for having themm make an ad, it’s an excellent exercise.

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