Launching the Emerging Media Major

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

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So as most of the readers of this blog know, we launched a new major here at the University of Texas at Dallas: Emerging Media and Communications. (Sorry the website is not as informative as it ought to be, yet. We have been busy getting the program structured and have not had time to work on our public persona, but we will soon.) At any rate, what is exciting about this program to me is that it is built from the ground up. That is, we did not take an old media studies program and add in a digital studies, we started quite literally with a blank slate (okay not slate but computer screen). This has its advantages (and its disadvantages) primarily with course design and major progression. I am sure that we got a lot of things wrong, and will need to change a bunch of things, heck who knows what is going to happen with the media landscape in four years, it could require a whole host of classes we can’t even imagine right now. But, for now I am pretty pleased with what we have worked out: a variety and progression of courses that cover a range of media (audio, video, text), that incorporate both studio creation type classes and theory of media classes.

You can read the official language of the program over at the main site, but before I discuss the specifics of the syllabus and course design I thought I would post some of my personal thoughts on the program, what I see the goal of the program to be. I thought this would be 1) A useful exercise for me to try and concretize what I think the program is about. 2) Useful for students in the program and those thinking about majoring in it (practicing transparency). 3) Useful for others who are thinking about starting a similar program. 4) A way of generating feedback, opening a conversation about what these types of programs ought to do, need to do.

I tend to be a reductionist, not in terms of writing (although I do like twitter) but in terms of thinking about a “core organizing principle” for things. I try to take a “what’s the goal” approach, and that goal better be only a paragraph long. In designing this program, indeed before I even came here to UT-Dallas I think I spent a lot of time mulling over in my head the following quote from Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs:

A new kind of digital divide ten years from now will separate those who know how to use new media to band together from those who don’t.

Now Rheingold wrote this in 2003, so we are over half way to his projected ten year horizon. And so, this is what I lie awake at night thinking about. There is a new type of literacy developing, one between those who will understand the digital network media landscape, and who use it to produce, to organize, to take ownership over their lives, responsiblity for their community, to be critical of it, to engage with it . . . and with those who merely consume it. A divide between those who will be passive consumers at best, victims at worst, and those who will be active participants. There is a lot of nuance in this argument that gets glossed over when I reduce it this way, but I think it is essentially true. We are at “the changeover” a moment when culture is changing, will look completely different than it does now. What that is I have no idea, but I am sure it is going to be profoundly heterogenous to what we have now (think printing press change but on steroids).

And so this crosses with my other goal in education, (as much as I rant about the shortcomings of the University system I do think it can serve a purpose): education, specifically higher education is one of the best ways for an individual to increase their life chances and choices. Sure if you go to Harvard, or Princeton, or one of those other top ten ranked schools, the prestige of your diploma will carry you pretty far, sans having learned anything. But, for other institutions, I think we out to be seriously concerned that both our mode and content of education is going to be, perhaps already is, irrelevant. And that we are educating our students for a world that no longer exists instead of educating them for the world they will inherit. This strikes me as irresponsible.

We have somewhere between 30-50 new majors at the undergrad level (hard to tell because many are not “officially” declared yet) and I have been fielding a lot of questions from faculty here, and at other schools about what this major is. Many of these questions are sincere if skeptical, but many are of the “your just teaching a fad,” “you are seriously going to let students major in “Facebook?” variety. So, my quippy response has been: we are teaching digital literacy—offering no explanation because it doesn’t seem to help. But yes this major is a bit like studying at “Social Media University,” but done right I think that is a good thing. And so, the longer more official justification, taken from my syllabus:

In particular, this class will reflect one of the fundamental principles underlying the strength of the internet: None of us are smarter than all of us. Or, if you prefer a slightly different take: Knowledge is a communal process even if we have been taught to treat it as an individual product. . . .

Given all the above, you might ask yourself: “What’s in it for me?” A fair question, since I am going to ask a great deal of you, probably more than any other class you are taking this semester, not just because of the workload, but because I am requiring you to participate in a whole new style of learning. Let me begin by answering the question this way. . . I think we are approaching a critical cultural juncture, where literacy itself is changing. There will develop, perhaps already has developed, a significant divide between those who know how to use these emerging media, and those who uncritically consume them. My goal for the class is to help you move into that first category: to become active, critical producers in this new media landscape.

So I’ll end there and post again later, on the how’s and why’s of that syllabus, the details and the thought process behind it’s construction.