Monday, February 24, 2014

Comparing syllabi of introductory mass communication courses

To compare syllabi, I chose J201 Introduction to Mass Communication of UW-Madison, J110 Foundations of Journalism and Mass Communication of Indianan University, and C130 Mass Media and Society of University of Pennsylvania. Although J201 is a three-credit course and J110 and C130 have two credits, all are the introductory mass communication courses at each school, devoting to helping students understand and critically think about media’s roles and activities in society.

Course organization

The three courses have drastically different organizations. J201 is organized around three broad yet distinct topics -- journalism, strategic communication and media effects. J110 is structured by six debates surrounding media, which are about either recurring themes, like profit vs public good, or the more recent developments, like the evolution or revolution of media techonoglies. C130 also has three parts -- overview of media, print media and electronic media. 

Of the three models, J110 is probably the least helpful for students to build conceptual frameworks about the media world, though its course design might greatly stimulate interest. Its topics are loosely related to and overlapping with each other. Prior to the first topic, the instructor arranges two media effects sessions. The first and second topics, although under different and fancy titles, are essentially about the influences of media technologies on the media ecosystem and public sphere. The third topic switches abruptly to the tension between people’s right to know and national security, and the fourth topic takes another abrupt turn to media’s commercial interest and civic mission. In the last two topics, the focus circles back to the media effects. Through out the arrangement, there isn’t a thread that strings together all the bits and pieces of materials, nor is there a logical reason for such a set-up. If I were the student, I would probably exit the class without having any systematic and conceptual tools to analyze the media messages and performances. 

In contrast, J201 and C130 do a much better job of scaffolding. The first two sections of J201 focus on the two important and dominant media models, making a clear distinction between news and advertising (public relations). After directing students to learning the media practices and products, it then leads them to think about various media effects with an expanded scope that includes video games and entertainment. 

Although C130 takes a different approach in designing the content, it is as effective as, or proabaly more conducive than J201 to orient students to criticaly think of the media world. In its first part, C130 introduces media content, as well as the economic and political factors that influence media production and practices. In the second and third section, it focus on print media and electronic media respectively, with a heavier focus on the latter. The materials contain a spectrum of media forms, including books, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, movie, television, video game and PR. 

Reading materials

Since J201 has the most credits, it’s no surpise that it has more readings than J110 and C130. But the difference is not limited to the amount of readings, but also the genres. 

J201 bind together a rich mix of “readings,” including books, journal articles, newspaper or magazine articles, radios and videos. The only required book is Kovach and Rostentiel’s Blur, published in 2010 and providing useful insights to looking into journalism by journalism insiders. It’s practical, but definitely not dense nor academic. The rest of readings is equally split on media publications and academic publications. Also, quite a lot of supplemental readings are attached, accommodating students who crave more. 

The types of readings for J110 are similar to those of J201. The required book is Media and Culture (Richard Campbell, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008), but students read excerpts or chapters of the book instead of its entirety. Interestingly, podcasts feature in the rest of the readings. 

In contrast, C130 has only one book, Media Today written by the instructor Joseph Turow himself. Students read this book chapter by chapter as they move forward in the course of semester. Although teaching with one book can help students develop ideas in a more systematic fashion, there are downsides. The lack of diversity of topics and opinions might not inform students very well and one reading can make them bored. 


J110 and C130 share virtually the same formats of assignments: three exams and one final paper that asks students to make some reflections on certain media phenomenon or case. Contrastingly, J201 designs much more assignments in different forms. The three exams are the same, but in addition there are three 1000-word essays on each theme and a set of assignments that train students public speaking skills.  

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