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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 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.)

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