Media Activism and Public Engagement
Depending on whom you ask, media-powered activism can sound like either a silver bullet or a lost cause. It's often both at the same time and more in between. Through hands-on examination of the strategies and tactics of movements, past and present, we'll discover how media can shape social change and how we can become more savvy media practitioners ourselves.
The central themes of this course are power, agency, and narrative in media for social change. Whom does a particular media choice empower, and whom does it render as a passive consumer? How do we choose our heroes, and what are the consequences of those choices? How can we tell stories of change that invite people to take part in changing the world? Our work will consist of close reading, familiarizing ourselves with relevant debates, and honing our own practice.
- Cultivate habits of media activism by doing it through passionate, strategic, pragmatic advocacy
- Analyze theories and lessons from a wide range of social-change campaigns throughout history and around the world
- Create a ready-to-deploy media intervention through collaboration with a social-change agent
Students are expected to complete the weekly reading assignments. This does not necessarily mean microscopic reading of every page, but it does mean engaging rigorously with portions of particular interest, as well as familiarizing oneself with the works as a whole and thinking critically about their interconnections.
Each week, students are expected to turn in what we'll call an Intervention. These Interventions are simple, informal media sketches that contain a) a challenge or problem related to the week's texts and b) an outline for an original strategy that addresses it. Interventions need not be realistic for students to carry out; students may imagine themselves as representing better-resourced organizations, real or imaginary. The purpose of this assignment is to explore our own sense of agency and to exercise adventuresome thinking. Over the course of the semester, a student's Interventions may address various topics, or they can connect in a way that builds toward the final project.
Projects may take the form of a drawing, infographic, game, video, skit, text, art installation, business plan, social media campaign, or other media, digital or otherwise. In any case, they must be submitted digitally as a new thread in the appropriate discussion topic for each week's unit.
Students should be active participants and make contributions to the oral discussion that reflect strenuous engagement with the assigned texts. Please come prepared to contribute original analysis, reflections, and critique. Inform the instructor ahead of time about any missed classes.
Evaluation of discussion contributions takes place twice—at the middle of the semester and at the end.
Each student will complete a final project that is ready to deploy upon completion, in partnership with a relevant organization, community, or company. Projects might consist of anything in the same range of media as the weekly Interventions—except, rather than mere sketches, this project must be fully implemented.
After discussing the topic with the instructor or teaching assistant, students will turn in a proposal that explains and justifies the project's objective and medium. The proposal, as well as the final project itself, should reflect a sophisticated grasp of the themes and texts of the course. In particular, projects should convey an analysis of power and agency through which they intervene, resulting in a plausible case for making effective social change.
Students will constructively review complete drafts of each other's projects before submitting the final draft. Students may choose to form groups of connected projects, but each student is responsible for turning in their own contribution independently.
Coursework is evaluated according the following rubrics:
- Weekly Interventions (30%)
- Demonstrate a sophisticated grasp of one or more assigned texts
- Communicate a problem and a creative proposal by which to address it
- Practice adventuresome thinking in both concept and presentation, using compelling media techniques to communicate the proposal
- Weekly discussions (30%)
- Engage actively and strenuously with the bulk of each unit's assigned texts over the course of that unit's comments, with direct quotations, evidence of close reading, and thoughtful analysis
- Interact respectfully and critically with fellow students, demonstrating careful attention to others and presenting reasoned articulations of one's views
- Final project: (40%)
- Proposal: (40%)
- Explain and justify the project idea in a 1,400-to-1,600-word text with scholarly citation standards and a high degree of stylistic quality
- Describe the community collaboration underway; propose an intended medium and the scope of project deliverables, including rationale for each
- Articulate a clear objective for impact, reflecting an understanding of the intended audience, a relevant theory of power, and a theory of agency
- Include strong evidence of background research, citing relevant primary and scholarly sources, while engaging with at least two assigned texts from the course
- Project draft: (10%)
- Complete a draft of the project that meets the expectations discussed in the proposal process
- Peer review: (10%)
- Provide feedback for at least two fellow students' drafts, of at least two paragraphs each, with these suggestions in mind
- Final draft: (40%)
- Produce a project that is polished, compelling, informed by peer review, and ready to deploy
- Reflect rigorous engagement with course themes and assigned texts
- Integrate collaborative engagement with community partner
- Demonstrate a plausible strategy for circulation, audience, and social change
Based on the stated point structure, grades will be awarded as follows: A (94-100), A- (90-93), B+ (87-89), B (83-86), B- (80-82), C+ (77-79), C (73-76), C- (70-72), D+ (67-69), D (63-66), D- (60-62), F (0-59). The minimum passing grade is 60 for undergraduates and 70 for graduate students.
- Interventions are due in the appropriate online discussion unit at noon on Tuesdays
For the final project:
- Consult with the instructor on the final project concept, via email or meeting, by Tuesday, March 2
- Proposals are due on Canvas at noon on Tuesday, March 9
- Drafts are due in the online discussion at noon on Tuesday, April 20
- Peer review comments are due in the online discussion at noon on Thursday, April 22
- Final drafts are due in Canvas at noon on April 27
- We will work together to foster a respectful, accessible community based on creativity, accommodation, and attention.
- When problems arise, we will seek to address them collaboratively whenever possible.
- We respect one another's privacy. Content shared in class or online will not be shared with anyone outside of the class without permission.
- We adhere to all university policies regarding accessibility and academic integrity; we take responsibility for understanding them and the relevant procedures.
Throughout the course we will be reading three books together:
- Zeynep Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest (Yale University Press, 2017)
- adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds (AK Press, 2017)
- Sasha Costanza-Chock, Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need (MIT Press, 2020)
1. Points of intervention
- Donella Meadows, “Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System,” (Donella Meadows Institute, 1999)
- Marshall Ganz, “Public Narrative, Collective Action, and Power,” in Sina Odugbemi and Taeku Lee (eds.), Accountability Through Public Opinion: From Inertia to Public Action (The World Bank, 2011)
- Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding,” in Durham and Kellner (eds.), Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, revised edition (Blackwell, 2006) 
2. "A networked public"
- Prologue, introduction, and chapters 1–2 in Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas
3. "Making a movement"
- Chapters 3–4 in Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas
4. "A protester's tools"
- Part II in Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas
5. "After the protests"
- Part III and Epilogue in Tufekci, Twitter and Tear Gas
- “introduction”–“interdependence and decentralization” in brown, Emergent Strategy
- “nonlinear and iterative”–“thank you” in brown, Emergent Strategy
8. "The Matrix of Domination"
- Introduction and chapters 1–2 in Costanza-Chock, Design Justice
9. "Narratives" and "Sites"
- Chapters 3–4 in Costanza-Chock, Design Justice
- Chapter 5 and “Directions for Future Work” in Costanza-Chock, Design Justice
Choose between one of the following pairs of films (and a critical essay) with an eye to how agency is expressed.
First, resistance to slavery:
- Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg (2012)
- Django Unchained, directed by Quentin Tarantino (2012)
- Adolph Reed, “The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation,” Jacobin 18 (Summer 2015)
Second, labor organizing:
- On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan (1954)
- The Salt of the Earth, directed by Herbert J. Biberman (1954)
- Enid Sefcovica, “Cultural Memory and the Cultural Legacy of Individualism and Community in Two Classic Films about Labor Unions,” Critical Studies in Media Communication 19, no. 3 (2002)
Third, climate change:
- An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim (2006)
- This Changes Everything, directed by Avi Lewis (2015)
- Ashley Dawson, “Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor: An Interview with Rob Nixon,” Social Text (August 31, 2011)
Choose one of the following classic memoirs:
13. Case study
Choose a historical example of a social movement from Beautiful Trouble, Beautiful Rising, or the Global Nonviolent Action Database. Use those and other sources to examine the mediated components of it, and prepare to present an analysis in class as your Intervention.
- Wu Hung, “Tiananmen Square: A Political History of Monuments,” Representations no. 35 (summer 1991)
- Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Day Before the Revolution” (1974)
[ Notes ]