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CMST 4M03 Comm,Cult,Tech

Academic Year: Winter 2017

Term: Fall

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Prof. Dilyana Mincheva


Office: Togo Salmon Hall 308

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23536

Office Hours: Friday, 2-3 pm or by appointment

Course Objectives:

It's tempting to see new technologies, especially new media technologies, as drivers of political and social change. But technological artifacts also embody the values, assumptions and conflicts of the societies/cultures that produce them in complicated and surprising ways. In this course we ask, how can we think about media technologies in a smart and critical way? Do they ‘re-wire’ society and drive social change, as is popularly (and ubiquitously) claimed? How do they reflect our socio-cultural-political values and divisions? Is there anything special about media and information technologies in particular? In what sense do they carry ‘messages’ and ‘meanings’ that make them special?  The lectures and readings will seek to provide a comprehensive view of how communications, forms and technologies unfolded, and especially how they shaped, and were shaped by, social, political and economic forces. The course presents some of the difficult historical questions and challenges posed by the arrival of new communication technologies. Was technology determining, or was it determined by, external forces? Both contemporary and historical case studies in the interaction between culture, communication and technology will form the core of the course. The course operates from the vantage point of historical analysis. Specific theories and conceptual frameworks will be used where they are useful to enriching our understanding of the past.

Learning objectives: This is a senior undergraduate course and as such it is reading and writing intensive. The course aims to provide senior undergraduate students with a critical and wide-ranging understanding of the communications-culture-technology nexus. Students will acquire competence and acuity in research and writing in the field of communications and history through assignments, readings, presentations and discussions. At the end of the course students are expected to have sophisticated understanding of contemporary discussions about communication, culture and technology. Technological systems have exhibited an ever-growing complexity. The ability to understand, explain, analyze and provide insight into that complexity is at the centre of this course’s objectives.

Textbooks, Materials & Fees:

The required readings for this course are provided through hyperlinks in the syllabus. Students are expected to familiarize themselves with all required texts prior to lecture/seminar discussion.


Kellner, Douglas and Meenakshi Gigi Durham (edit), Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2012. 

Method of Assessment:

  1. TWO response papers (approximately 500 – 750 words each): you will draw on the course readings and discussions to craft a brief, focused argument in response to an assigned statement. You could then agree with the statement, disagree with it, or take a position in the middle. Your position would need to be well supported and would need to take account of different points of view. What will determine your grade will not be the position you take so much as the sophistication and rigor with which you defend it. Response paper # 1 is due in the forth week of classes, and response paper # 2 is due in the eleventh week of classes. The response questions are indicated in the reading and lecture schedule that follows.
  2. In-class group presentations: great questions in technology and culture (case-studies): students are asked to form groups (of three or four), select a historically specific case-study  (or event) of a communications technology, and produce an oral report of their findings. Specifically, groups will be required to formulate a “great question” about an assigned technology and answer it. You decide what the question will be: it could be an overarching question or a specific, focused question that demonstrates context about your specific object of research. For example, if you choose to do research on the socio-cultural-political changes incurred by the introduction of social media technologies (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.), an example of an over-arching question would be “how social media create new social behaviours?” while more focused questions would be concerned with youth subcultures, ideologies of self-representations, the Twitter/Facebook revolutions, etc. In-class presentations start in the fifth week of classes.

Guidelines to consider as you plan your presentation:

  1. Determine and define the research questions based on your assigned topic (and figure out which “great question” you want to answer.)
  2. Determine data gathering and analysis techniques
  3. Collect the data
  4. Evaluate and analyze the data in collaboration with the group
  5. Prepare the oral report in collaboration with the group

* This activity will involve a minimum of two meetings for each collaborating group. These meetings will be held outside class, at a time of convenience to members of your group. The instructor will not supervise these meetings. It is the responsibility of each group to ensure attendance and a fair division of the tasks among group members. Each group will give a brief oral presentation in class (i.e., 30-40 minutes), according to the schedule of group assignments (as indicated in the reading and lecture schedule that follows).

3.Final research paper (approximately 3000 words): choose a media artifact (or a case study), introduce it, and use it to support and/or challenge theories from the required readings. You can choose (but you are not required to) expand your research on the case study chosen for the in-class presentation assignment. Your research may carry you beyond the course readings; however, the course concepts should play a prominent role in your writing. The formal requirement for the paper is that you use at least ONE course text and at least THREE other academic sources (that may or may not be included in the course readings) as your references. Your final research project is due in the final week of classes.

4.Attendance and Participation: attendance at lecture and seminar, participation in seminar discussion, and contribution to the general intellectual atmosphere of all parts of the course are the criteria for this portion of the mark.

Breakdown of assignments:

1. Final research paper – 40 per cent

2. Two response papers – 30 per cent (15 per cent each)

3. Presentation – 15 per cent

4. Class participation (in lecture and seminar) – 15 per cent


Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Please, respect the deadlines provided in the syllabus. Assignmets will be accepted for five days after the official deadline without penalty. After the five-day pass, late assignments will NOT be accepted. 

Please Note the Following Policies and Statements:

Academic Dishonesty

You are expected to exhibit honesty and use ethical behaviour in all aspects of the learning process. Academic credentials you earn are rooted in principles of honesty and academic integrity.

Academic dishonesty is to knowingly act or fail to act in a way that results or could result in unearned academic credit or advantage. This behaviour can result in serious consequences, e.g. the grade of zero on an assignment, loss of credit with a notation on the transcript (notation reads: "Grade of F assigned for academic dishonesty"), and/or suspension or expulsion from the university.

It is your responsibility to understand what constitutes academic dishonesty. For information on the various types of academic dishonesty please refer to the Academic Integrity Policy, located at

The following illustrates only three forms of academic dishonesty:

  1. Plagiarism, e.g. the submission of work that is not one’s own or for which other credit has been obtained.
  2. Improper collaboration in group work.
  3. Copying or using unauthorized aids in tests and examinations.

Email correspondence policy

It is the policy of the Faculty of Humanities that all email communication sent from students to instructors (including TAs), and from students to staff, must originate from each student’s own McMaster University email account. This policy protects confidentiality and confirms the identity of the student.  Instructors will delete emails that do not originate from a McMaster email account.

Modification of course outlines

The University reserves the right to change dates and/or deadlines etc. for any or all courses in the case of an emergency situation or labour disruption or civil unrest/disobedience, etc. If a modification becomes necessary, reasonable notice and communication with the students will be given with an explanation and the opportunity to comment on changes. Any significant changes should be made in consultation with the Department Chair.

McMaster Student Absence Form (MSAF)

In the event of an absence for medical or other reasons, students should review and follow the Academic Regulation in the Undergraduate Calendar Requests for Relief for Missed Academic Term Work. Please note these regulations have changed beginning Fall 2015. You can find information at If you have any questions about the MSAF, please contact your Associate Dean's office.

Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities

Students who require academic accommodation must contact Student Accessibility Services (SAS) to make arrangements with a Program Coordinator. Academic accommodations must be arranged for each term of study. Student Accessibility Services can be contacted by phone 905-525-9140 ext. 28652 or e-mail For further information, consult McMaster University's Policy for Academic Accommodation of Students with Disabilities.

Academic Accommodation for Religious, Indigenous and Spiritual Observances

Students requiring academic accommodation based on religion and spiritual observances should follow the procedures set out in the Course Calendar or by their respective Faculty. In most cases, the student should contact his or her professor or academic advisor as soon as possible to arrange accommodations for classes, assignments, tests and examinations that might be affected by a religious holiday or spiritual observance.

Topics and Readings:

Week 1, September 6

Communications, culture, and technology: critical junctures. Introduction to the course.

Media Artifact Discussion:

TED Talk: Abha Dawesar, Life in the Digital Now


Rob Horning, Permanent Recorder, in: The New Inquiry Blog Post, 2015

Organisation of the in-class group presentations

Week 2, September 13

A Human-built world? Thinking about history, culture and technology.

Required reading:

Rosalind Williams, Afterword to Castell's The Network Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective: An Historian's View


Robert L. Heilbroner, “Do Machines Make History?” in: Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx, eds. MIT Press: Cambridge, 1994, 53-66.


What is technology?

Week 3, September 20

Technological determinism, Part 1

Required reading:

Leo Marx and Merritt Roe Smith, Introduction, in: Merritt Roe Smith and Leo Marx (edit.) Does Technology Drive History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, MIT Press: Cambridge, 1994, ix-xv.


Technological present and future: how does it reflect or relate to the past? Social media: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram

Week 4, September 27

Technological determinism, Part 2

Required readings:

Marshall McLuhan, The Medium Is the Message, in: MCS, pp. 100-107.

Peter N. Stearns, "Forecasting The Future: Historical Analogies And Technological Determinism", in: Public Historian, number 3, June 1983, pp. 31-54, available on Avenue.

First response paper is due today. The topic is: “Our obsession with technological innovation blinds us to how much of technology is focused on keeping things the same.”

Week 5, October 4

Early media makes its mark on history: the newspaper

Required readings:

Caroline Sumpter, “The Cheap Press and the 'Reading Crowd’,” in: Media History, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 3, pp. 233-252, available on Avenue.

Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, in: Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Verso, 2006, pp. 48-59.

In-class presentation #1: The newspaper and society (nationalism, public opinion, freedom)

In-class presentation #2: The public sphere

Week 6, October 11

Reading break, no class

Week 7, October 18

Time-space compression: the telegraph

Screening and discussion:

Russel Barnes, How the Victorians Wired the World, 2000 (documentary)

Required Reading:

James Carey, Technology and Ideology: The Case of the Telegraph, in: James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society, Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp. 201-231.

In-class presentation #1: The telegraph

In-class presentation # 2: The telephone

In-class presentation #3: The phonograph

Week 8, October 25

The Radio

Media Artifact Discussion:

Marlene Dietrich, Lili Marlene, 1939, song (original)

CBC Digital Archives: Radio as a Propaganda Tool

Required Readings:

Bertolt Brecht, “Radio as a Means of Communication: A Talk on the Function of Radio,” in: Screen, issue 20.3, vol. 4, 1979, pp. 24-28, available on Avenue.

John Hartley, Radiocracy: Sound and Citizenship, in: International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 3(2), pp. 153-159.

In-class presentation #1: Radio and society

In-class presentation #2: Digital radio and podcasts

Week 9, November 1

Photography, Part 1

Required readings:

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproduction,” available on Avenue.

Jonathan Crary, Modernity and the Problem of the Observer, in: Techniques of the Observer, MIT, 1992, pp. 1-24.

In-class presentations #1: Daguerreotypes

In-class presentations #2: Photographic representation and objectivity

Week 10, November 8

Photography, Part 2

Required readings:

Susan Sontag, In Plato’s Cave, in: On Photography, 1977, pp. 3-24.

Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, Chapter 7, in: Regarding the Pain of Others, 2003

In-class presentation #1: Photography and Ethics

In-class presentation #2: Digital Photography

Week 11, November 15

The moving image: cinema

Required readings:

Laura Mulvey, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, in:  Leo Brady and Marshal Cohen (edit.) Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, NY: Oxford UP, 1999, pp. 833-44.

Lev Manovich, Cinema and Digital Media, in: Jeffrey Shaw and Hans Peter Schwartz (edit), Perspectives on Media Art, Ostfildern, Germany, 1996.

In-class presentation #1: Cinematic representations

In-class presentation #2: Digital cinema and analogue cinema

Your second response paper is due today. The topic is: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Week 12, November 22

Television, Part 1

Required readings:

Jerry Mander, Television Taboo, in: Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, NY, 1978, pp. 347-358.

Neil Postman, The Huxleyan Warning, in: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, 1985, pp. 155-165.

In-class presentation #1: Television and society

Week 13, November 29

Television, Part 2

Required readings:

Amanda Lotz, “Television Outside the Box”, in: The Television Will Be Revolutionized, available on Avenue

Friedrich Kittler, “Television”, in: Optical Media, Polity, 2002, pp. 207-225, available on Avenue.

In-class presentation #1: Television and visual culture

Week 14, December 6

Technology, culture, and society: conclusions

Your final research essays are due today in class.


Other Course Information:

This is a weekly three-hour seminar class.