Re-theorizing the core class

I have a love-hate relationship with syllabi. I am envious of teachers who feel comfortable assigning a single text and “teaching the text.” In some ways I wish I could do this without being bored to death. I have a feeling at least some students would thank me for doing so.

I am charged with providing an overview of communication theory to new graduate students. This should not be too difficult, right? I mean, we’re not talking the cutting edge, here. This should be a course that looks similar to courses at other, similar communication programs.

The thing is, there is no such thing as a common understanding of what the field of communication considers to be its core. Moreover, one cannot assume that most graduate students come in with an understanding of the history of communication research, with that broad survey. Indeed, many of them don’t even have a strong grounding in basic social theory, even when they are coming from universities and programs that have a reputation in this area.

Add to this that we are communication with a dash of “informatics,” and you have a lot of demands.

This year, I agreed with my colleague, Tom Feeley, to split the two core theory courses roughly into social and psychological approaches (not that this is a clean split, of course, but it’s a starting point). So I start to map out some good things to read. Very soon, I’m up to nearly a hundred items that students should definitely read, and I realize I have to start cutting.

Out goes any real discussion of globalization, development, or intercultural communication. Gone are cultural studies, feminist approaches, post-structuralism, and post-modernism. Any cultural or ethnographic approaches are off the map. Hermeneutics, the bane of last years’ students, has been excised. Despite the hope to start talking about a relationship of society to technology, any concept of social construction of science or technology is left aside. No chance to really talk about concepts like the body, space, or design. Institutional and economic treatments are gone, leaving only the core critique from Bagdikian, sort of in a vacuum. And I end up with what to me seems like the bare minimums, yet I know from experience will seem like a serious reading load–especially to students for whom English is a second language.

From this paucity I start to think that maybe a textbook is not such a horrible idea. The point of the class, however, is not so much familiarity with the ideas that have come before (though this is important), but an ability to process, analyze, make sense of, and make use of theory. As such, reading a preprocessed version doesn’t really do much for the student.

And so, the final version of the class is likely to look a lot like the draft syllabus I have now. Here is the overview:

This course aims to provide a set of maps for understanding the social forces and effects related to two recent communication “revolutions”: the mass communication revolution and the information revolution. The focus will remain heavily on social explanations for the phenomena grouped roughly under the term “communication,” and will deal largely with communication that is mediated through communication technologies.

We will not be reading a core canon of communication theory, since no such canon exists. Instead, we will be reading through a variety of work that in some way touches on issues of communication in a social setting. One of the primary tasks of the semester will be to collectively arrive at a story about how communication theory fits together, and how various models and theories map out a field of communication.

Now it’s time to whip the blogging class syllabus into order. If you’ve read this far, you’ll probably be getting an email from me some time in the next couple of weeks asking if you would be willing to guest blog :).

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5 Comments

  1. Ronald Nigh
    Posted 7/21/2004 at 12:38 am | Permalink

    I am a lurker on your blog:
    you wrote:”Out goes any real discussion of globalization, development, or intercultural communication. Gone are cultural studies, feminist approaches, post-structuralism, and post-modernism. Any cultural or ethnographic approaches are off the map. Hermeneutics, the bane of last years’ students, has been excised.” I am giving a course on Globalization and Indian Peoples (in Mexico, using web research and blogging I hope) and I would love to see your excised bibliography on these issues!
    ron

  2. Posted 7/21/2004 at 1:45 am | Permalink

    That is a fair request. Unfortunately, I don’t have a biography per se, more like ideas and quickly scribbled notes on random pieces of paper. However, I can at least provide some indication of some of the readings I considered, or have used in the past, but didn’t include (either in the required or recommended)…

    This is kind of off the cuff, in no particular order:

    * Bateson, Steps to an ecology of mind (Actually, I may still try to fit this in, somehow)
    * Aristotle, Rhetoric
    * Burke, Definition of a man
    * Durkheim, Elementary Forms of the Religious Life
    * Geertz, Thick Description
    * Giroux & McLaren, Between borders
    * Pierce, What is a sign?
    * Eco, A theory of semiotics
    * Fortun, Ethnography In/Of/As Open Systems
    * Giddens, Reith lectures
    * Hall, Encoding/Decoding
    * Hall, Cultural studies: two paradigms
    * Said, Orientalism
    * Haraway, Cyborg Manifesto
    * Hur, International mass communications research
    * Best & Kellner, In Search of the Postmodern
    * Foucault, Discourse on language
    * Schiller, Communication and cultural domination
    * Hall, Silent language
    * Katz, Can authentic cultures survive in new media?
    * Fiske, Polysemy and popularity
    * Turkle, Life on the screen
    * Hall, Cyberfeminism
    * Ting-Toomey, Toward a theory of conflict and culture
    * Baudrillard, Simulation and simulacra
    * Husserl, Phenomenology (encyclopedia article)
    * Popper, Logic of scientific discovery
    * Luhmann, What is communication?
    * Williams, Keywords
    * Lyotard, Postmodern condition
    * Levy, Collective intelligence
    * Babbage, Economy of machinery and manufactures
    * Leontiev, Activity, consciousness, and personality
    * Swanson, The political-media complex
    * Schudson, Politics as cultural practice
    * Pinch, Social construction of technology
    * Winner, Do artifacts have politics?
    * Latour, We have never been modern
    * Feenberg, Questioning technology
    * Bijker & Pinch, The social construction of facts and artifacts
    * Kuhn, The structure of scientific revolutions
    * Wallerstein, Rise and future demise of the world capitalist system
    * Mosco, Free trade in communication building a world business empire
    * Pool, Technologies without boundaries
    * Appadurai, Modernity at large
    * Hess, The philosophy of science, an interdisciplanry perspective
    * Lerner, Passing of traditional society
    * Benjamin, The work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction
    * Illich, Toward a history of needs
    * Merleau-Ponty, The film and the new psychology
    * Mumford, Technics and civilization
    * Jacobson, Modernization and post-modernization approaches to participatory communication for development
    * Hamelink, The politics of world communication
    * Marcuse, One-dimensional man
    * Boyd-Barrett, International communication and globalization: Contradictions and directions
    * Ellul, Technological society

  3. Barbara
    Posted 7/22/2004 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Well, to start with, your description is waaaay too long.

  4. stef
    Posted 7/24/2004 at 6:23 am | Permalink

    i like siad: like the way he writes: simple and deep.

    i read “Representations of the Intellectual” and it was not that painful: i really enjoyed him. lots of the above are so, well, dry.

    I rember a big argument over Harold Bloom’s Book, the western cannon (notice not capitalized) man, it was very presumptuous to construct a “western cannon” Its not east west no longer and we are global. If one wants to educate ones self, it all becomes more real if one just finds what is meaningfull and then debates the issues with others. This is raw communication, and very agora like. Bloom made a dry argument with what he chose as the cannon. but who was he to choose the cannon and leave out so much.

    Aristole as well as Plato undermined the oral for the written. representations of nature begin with the imagination and with ones extrasensory tap of movement towards causing meaning in the other person.

    so the best students will not be the, hey lets just do the work layed out in the syllabus, but rather the ones who look through stuff because they are on a mental and spiritual journey towards understanding and learning.

    ok, i understand this structure thing and even grades, but in the end, after graduation, what is it that sticks existentially?

    what is it about courses and teachers we take into the rest of our lives?

  5. mohammad fadlollah
    Posted 10/25/2004 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    Dr. Halaivas. iam a mass com masters student. i read too much for com theorists, but they are all useless(for 4 reasons i can explain if you want). our work must be innovating new com skills for humans, like the great innovation of alphabatics. iam glad to see some body saying “re-thoerizing”.

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