Draft Unsyllabus for ICM/JRN 522

The following is the framework for a course without a syllabus. This document is up on Google Docs, and seminar participants will edit it together on the first night of class.

Communication, Media, & Society

ICM/JRN 522, Fall 2008
Tuesdays, 18:30-21:10 (GMT-5), Buckman Center 137

Alexander Halavais, 522@halavais.net
Skype, Google, Twitter, Delicious, FriendFeed: halavais
Telephone: +1.646.961.3526

Office Hours
Mon, 12:00 – 13:00 (GMT-5)
@ Video/Text: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/halavais

Tues & Weds, 16:30 – 18:00 (GMT-5)
@ QU Mt. Carmel Campus, Faculty Office Building 23

(Or by appointment.)


The catalog description for this course is as follows:

This course focuses on the historical and contemporary state 
of personal and public interaction with popular media in the context 
of technological developments and the impact of these developments 
on society and culture. 

Students completing this course will study journal articles, survey 
the research literature, and write papers on the historical trajectory 
of  information consumption from the emergence of mass-produced 
paper-based texts to the development of the World Wide Web.

This has always struck me as an impossibly broad description. The advantage to this is that it allows some flexibility in what we focus on, and in previous versions of this course, I have successfully turned the planning of the course–to a greater or lesser degree–over to the participants in the seminar. (See the end of this document for a statement on the philosophy surrounding this approach to organizing the course.) Therefore, this initial syllabus is really only a temporary skeleton, to be fleshed out collaboratively on our first meeting. It is hosted on Google Docs, and we will be editing it on our first meeting. What is listed here initially is the “immutables”–things that due to the structure of the university, my own standards, or the description of the course must remain fairly strictly defined.

In terms of course content, we should cover:

  • Some of the ways in which media affects (and is affected by) society and its coevolution with social structure.
  • The evolution of media: how it changes over time.
  • The history of mass, networked, and interactive media.
  • The future of mass, networked, and interactive media.

I will be distributing (both online and in person) some resources that will help us to plan out a course. I’ll ask you to brainstorm before our first meeting as well. We will find a topic, or topics, that allow us to dig deep into a particular historical or contemporary issue and make connections to social effects and the media environment.


We are scheduled to meet on the following dates. We may choose to group some of these meetings together into “modules” or split some of them into parts, depending on what we want to uncover and how.

Week 1: Tuesday, August 26 – Brainstorming and Writing the Syllabus – BRING A LAPTOP!

Objectives for our first meeting:
* Introductions: who are we?
* Mini-lecture: “Society and Communications Media: Some Highlights”
* Syllabus: brainstorming topics. Clear questions we want to get at.
* Syllabus: schedule. Who is doing what and when.
* Syllabus: assignments. What do you need to do for the course and how are you assessed?
* Syllabus: reading assignments. What do we need to be reading.

Week 2: Tuesday, September 2 –

Week 3: Tuesday, September 9 –

Week 4: Tuesday, September 16 –

Week 5: Tuesday, September 23 –

Week 6: Tuesday, September 30 –

Week 7: Tuesday, October 7 –

Week 8: Tuesday, October 14 –
(Please note that on this date the instructor will be out of the country. You can meet without me, I can try to attend via Skype, we can bring in a guest to work with, or we can figure out another alternative.)

Week 9: Tuesday, October 21 –

Week 10: Tuesday, October 28 –

Week 11: Tuesday, November 4 –

Week 12: Tuesday, November 11 –

Week 13: Tuesday, November 18 –

Week 14: Tuesday, December 2 –

All assignments in: December 9
(Because the instructor is expecting his first baby this week, he’ll need every moment he can to get the grading done. Therefore, all material for the course–including a final project or exam if we decide to have one–must be in by the 9th so that he can get grades in on time for the semester.)


The assignments should be things that we think will make for the best learning experience in the course.

There are some special, baseline requirements that we must meet:

At least some of the material we engage in each week must be of expert-level quality. This means peer-reviewed journal articles and the like. We can certainly draw in more popular stuff as well, as this can often help to uncover interesting perspectives and point us in interesting directions. Indeed, in most of the previous 522s we have made use of an “organizing text” of popular fiction or nonfiction, and then found more scholarly work that related to it in order to dig a bit deeper.

As the catalog description indicates, writing makes up an important part of this course. As a minimum, each student is expected to write about 7,500 words during the semester. A significant proportion of that writing should be scholarly–that is, written in a style that would be acceptable for a scholarly journal, and supported with evidence from the scholarly literature. We will decide as a group how best to split up this writing. It could consist of a single, long paper, or as 750 haikus, or some mixture of these. This work might take on a more collective nature. We could do our own research and write a paper for publication. Last semester, the class wrote a book.

If it isn’t clear from the structure of the course, the instructor also thinks that conversation and discussion are an important part of learning. I hope we can assign some part of the final grade to participation in the class.


Evaluation has a couple of meanings, and though they are united, some see them as different: feedback and letter grades.

In terms of feedback, the instructor will do his best to give you expert-level evaluations of your work, and suggest ways of improving it. In areas where his expertise is weak, he will clearly indicate this, and in planning for the course, we should try to avoid those areas as much as possible.

In terms of letter feedback, I suppose there may be an impulse, since you are determining the structure of the grading, to just toss out the grades all together and say “everyone gets an A.” We can’t do that for a few reasons. First, I (Alex) am untenured, and that would run far enough against the standards of the university that they would probably give me the boot. Second, I (Alex) have tried this in the past, and it did not work out well. Even though it seemed like a good idea at the outset, people who did work in the class were resentful toward those who did not, and that sort of made the experience sour for everyone.

Short of that, I’m willing to discuss rubrics and other processes. I have some preferences, but will air these when we discuss the assignments evaluation process as a group.


We will arrive at an appropriate policy on late work and attendance as part of the above discussion. However, the following are not open to negotiation:

At the beginning of the course we will discuss the problem of plagiarism and proper citation. At its root, plagiarism constitutes misrepresenting the authorship of work for a course. If you make use of another’s ideas, this must be cited. If you make use of words and phrases that are substantially similar to another’s work, you must cite this. If you make use of phrases that are identical to another’s, regardless of the length of the phrase, you must place these in quotation marks. The following resources will be of help in understanding what constitutes plagiarism:

Plagiary and the Art of Skillful Citation: http://www.ece.mtu.edu/faculty/rmkieckh/cla/3970/Rodgers-plagiary.pdf

Writing With Sources: http://www.rochester.edu/College/honesty/docs/harvard_guide/index.htm

Please also refer to the Quinnipiac University Academic Integrity website (http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1046.xml) for information about Academic Integrity and proper student behavior. Students are expected to be familiar with these university policies. Forms of dishonesty include:
* cheating or helping another to cheat on an exam
* using a paper authored by someone other than yourself
* plagiarizing another’s written work (papers or outlines), in full or in part, including failure to properly cite all sources
* deliberately distorting information
* falsifying information (e.g., reason for absence)

Students found guilty of any of the above will be subject to sanctions, usually a failing grade for the course, and will also be reported to the Academic Integrity Board.

Students with disabilities who wish to request reasonable accommodations should contact: John Jarvis, Coordinator of Learning Services in the Learning Center, Tator Hall Room 119 at (203) 582-5390 or at john.jarvis@quinnipiac.edu. More information may be found at http://www.quinnipiac.edu/x1168.xml . Quinnipiac University complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

I generally do not offer “Incomplete” as a grade, and when I do, it is only under extraordinary circumstances, and when the work up until the last several weeks of the course has been of a quality that would suggest the student would have otherwise received a passing grade in the course. Please carefully assess your grade by the last date for withdrawal (October 31), and consider withdrawing if you are not receiving a passing grade.

Course Philosophy

Why am I not just providing a finished syllabus in this course? In fact, I do this in most courses, but I have had success with this method in this course in the past. Frankly, providing a ready-made syllabus is a lot easier for me, as an instructor. For one thing, it means I only have to design a course once, and then can re-use it over and over. That sounds bad, but there are some advantages to it, including the potential making small tweaks and improving it over time. However, there are some real advantages to starting the semester without a syllabus as well.

You should be given the privilege of playing a significant role in helping to decide where your mind is going. I don’t think my attitude should be: “This is my course, follow me or get off the bus.” I think, given the time investment I am asking you to make, the dedication to the course, you also deserve a strong voice in its direction. Teachers like to talk about the “guide on the side” in opposition to the “sage on the stage” (see King, 1993). I’m not sure I want to be on the side, but I also don’t want to be the only one in the room that gets to talk or create. I want to engage in learning too, and I think it’s better for students when I do.

I think I can immodestly call myself an expert in this subject area. That’s not because I’m especially smart, but rather because I’ve chosen to devote more time and energy in reading about, thinking about, and doing research in the area than most people have. That doesn’t mean I have all the answers, but it does mean that I have some wisdom that can be helpful to you in your own quest for knowledge. What I am not an expert in is you, your experiences, and your passions. You may not be an expert in those things either, but they are worthy pursuits of your energies. In a one-on-one situation, we could explore your own interests directly; in a seminar, we can engage in some push-and-pull, and come up with a plan of study that reflects some of your interest, and maybe introduces you to some things you didn’t know were interests. In the end, we find a set of objects of curiosity for us all to share.

Note: it’s a trap. I’m transparent enough to tell you ahead of time that I plan on tricking you. I know the kung fu of connections. I know that knowledge is connected in far less than six degrees. I am a ninja of networks, deity of the digression. I have the knack for nodes, a talent for tangents. In other words, I suspect that no matter how we enter the issue of media and society, and no matter how we make our way through it, there will be enough to see that we will begin to be able to map the whole; and that, after all, is my hope…

For look! Within my hollow hand,
      While round the earth careens,
I hold a single grain of sand
      And wonder what it means.
Ah! If I had the eyes to see,
      And brain to understand,
I think Life's mystery might be
      Solved in this grain of sand.

– Robert Service, “A Grain of Sand.”


King, Alison. 1993. “From sage on the stage to guide on the side.”College Teaching 41(1):30.

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  1. Posted 8/12/2008 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    What a great idea! I’m in the process of designing my syllabi for Loyola and this is both thought-provoking and all around AWESOME. I especially like that you’re explicit about why you’re doing this and how this approach contributes to their engagement in the learning process.

  2. Laura
    Posted 8/13/2008 at 8:50 am | Permalink

    This is a great idea! I have done things like this in the past to customize the course to learners’ needs, but I love the idea of opening up a syllabus to classroom participation. Great idea Alex!!!

  3. Randy Thornton
    Posted 8/13/2008 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

    “The serialization of time was one of the great contributions of the 19th century education system to the systems of Discipline.” – Foucault

  4. Posted 8/13/2008 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    brilliant! i’m going to bring this to the attention of my Media Theory 2 professor this fall. i doubt he’ll be able to make use of it, but i’m sure he and his colleagues will find it interesting. and if/when i go into academia, i’ll definitely give this model serious consideration.

    -james gordon
    B.A. candidate, interactive arts and media (game design)
    columbia college chicago (iam.colum.edu)

One Trackback

  1. By jill/txt » unsyllabus on 8/13/2008 at 5:14 am

    […] Halavais just blogged the unsyllabus for a class he’s teaching this semester on communication, media and society. I take it the idea of an unsyllabus is taken from the unconference concept, where participants […]

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