Contact a Humanities Office or Academic unit.
Find your course outlines.

CMST 4M03 Comm,Cult,Tech

Academic Year: Winter 2017

Term: Winter

Day/Evening: D

Instructor: Prof. Dilyana Mincheva


Office: Togo Salmon Hall 308

Phone: 905-525-9140 x 23536

Office Hours: Thursday, 3 pm – 5 pm or by appointment

Course Objectives:

Course description: 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:

Required texts: The required readings for this course are either designated with hyperlinks or will be made available on Avenue to Learn prior to lecture/seminar. Please, note that this is a reading and writing intensive senior seminar. You are expected to come to class prepared for discussion with all the readings done for the week. You are also supposed to treat all screenings and viewings in the course as course texts, which means that I expect you to watch actively, take notes and be prepared to provide a comment in the discussion that follows.


Method of Assessment:






Attendance (5%)

Class discussion, group activities (10%)



Two response papers (500 words each)

20% (10 % each)

February 14 and

March 28 on Avenue (drop-box)

Film Review (1000-1250 words)


February 7,

February 28,

April 4

Group Presentation (20-5 minutes)


Weeks 7-11 in class

Research paper (2,500 words)


April 11 on Avenue (drop box)

Film review: this semester, in addition to screening numerous video clips and documentary selections, we are going to see together three movies (Jaimie Uys’s The Gods Must Be Crazy, Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown and Mark Romanek’s Never Let Me Go) that address the topics in our course. You should pick ONE of the movies and provide a short (around 1250 words) discussion of the film text. What is the director’s main goal by telling the film story? How are the story and the characters reflecting issues of communications, culture and technology? Is technological innovation portrayed as a curse or salvation in the film text? What ethical questions about progress does the movie raise? Are these questions solvable? Who is the other in the film and how is the other portrayed? Is it true that “cinema, as the art of appearances, tells us something about reality itself? It tells us something about how reality constitutes itself” (Zizek). What are the strengths and the weakness of the movie? Please, treat each viewing as if it were a reading assignment for the class. Take notes during the film, for instance, ad chart your reactions to your viewing experience.  And if you chose to re-watch the film, take note of the time stamps of the scenes, and what is happening in the scenes. Just like reading a scholarly essay, novel, or short story, one viewing isn’t often enough to fully understand the film. Multiple viewings generate novel and contradictory insights, and part of your task is to come to terms with those insights and contradictions. The due dates for this assignment are: February 7, February 28 and April 4.

TWO response papers (approximately 500 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: “Our obsession with technological innovation blinds us to how much of technology is focused on keeping things the same.” This paper is due on A2L on February 14.

Response paper #2: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This paper is due on A2L on March 24.

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. Presentations start after the reading break, in week 7 and run until week 11 of the semester. Details and group formation will be discussed further in class.

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. 20-5 minutes), according to the schedule of group assignments. Please, note that I’ve chosen to focus on radio, photography and cinema but your case studies can go beyond these topics. You can choose to present on historical technologies such as the telegraph or contemporary phenomena such as video on demand or digital television.

Final research paper (approximately 2,500 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.

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.





Policy on Missed Work, Extensions, and Late Penalties:

Late submission policy: Late assignments for this class will be accepted without penalty within 5 days from the official deadline. After the passing of the five-day gratis period, I am not going to accept late assignments. If you choose to use the five-day gratis period for submission of your assignments, you are not allowed to use MSAF in pursuit of further extensions.

Announcements: The instructor reserves the right to make adjustments in the schedule.

Regardless of attendance, students are responsible for all announcements made in class, including adjustments to readings and assignments. Students are responsible for regularly checking A2L for any information that may be distributed online.

Classroom Etiquette: During class you are required to switch off and put away all cell phones, electronic organizers, and all other communication devices in order to minimize distractions and foster an environment of mutual respect. Laptops may be used to take notes; however, if it becomes apparent to the instructor that your laptop is distracting other students you will be asked to leave the seminar.

No form of discrimination or harassment will be tolerated in the classroom. Every member of the McMaster University Community has a right to equal treatment with respect to the receipt of education services and related services and facilities without discrimination or harassment on the basis of the following grounds: race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status, disability, gender and identity. For more information visit the Office of Human Rights & Equity Services Website:

Style Guides: In this class you can choose as your reference style APA, Chicago and MLA. However, remember to stay consistent with one citation style throughout your paper(s). Guidelines for how to use these three major citations styles in the humanities, can be found here:







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:

I. Technology as a category of cultural analysis

Week 1, January 10

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


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

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

Week 2, January 17

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

Screening and discussion:

Martin Davidson, Albert Speer: The Nazi Who Said Sorry, 1996

Required reading:

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

Albert Speer, Excerpts from Inside the Third Reich,


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, January 24

Technological progress: freedom or dogma?

Film 1: Screening and discussion:

Jamie Uys, The Gods Must Be Crazy, 1980

Required reading

Martin Heidegger, “The question concerning technology,” available on Avenue,;

Week 4, January 31

Technology and objectivity

Required readings:

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, “The Image of Objectivity,” available on Avenue

Lev Manovich, “What is New Media?” in: The Language of New Media, available on Avenue

Week 5. February 7

Technology and memory

Required readings:

Sigmund Freud, “Dreams as a Wish Fulfillment” and “Distortion in Dreams,” available on Avenue

Henry Krips, “Politics of the Picture,” Psychoanalysis, Culture and Society 18 (April 2013): 17-34, available on Avenue

Week 6, February 14

Technology and ethics: the stem cells research case study

Film 2: Screening and discussion:

Felix Van Groeningen, The Broken Circle’s Breakdown, 2013

Required readings:

Joachim Allgaier, “Bluegrass, Beards, Tattoos and Stem Cells: The Broken Circle Breakdown and the Human View on Science and Technology”, in: The Science and Entertainment Laboratory,

Week 7, February 21

Reading break, no class

II. Case studies: the radio, photography, and cinema

Week 8, February 28

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.

In-class presentation #1: Radio and society

In-class presentation #2: Digital radio and podcasts

Week 9, March 7

Photography, Part 1

Required readings:

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

W.J.T. Mitchell, “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction,” available on Avenue

In-class presentations #1: Photographic representation and objectivity

In-class presentations #2: Digital photography

Week 10, March 14

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

Week 11, March 21

The moving image: cinema, Part 1

Required readings:

Andre Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”, in: Film Quarterly, vol. 13, number 4, available on Avenue.

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

Week 12, March 28

The moving image: cinema, Part 2

Screening and discussion:

Mark Romanek, Never Let Me Go, 2010

Required reading:

Rachel Cusk, “Re-reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro”, in: Guardian, January 2011,

Week 13, April 4