Media History, Fall 2005

COMM 6160

Course Description

This class will examine the history of media in the United States in the Twentieth Century. We’ll cover a range of mediums, including radio, television, movies, music, comics, and computers. The class will combine a broad perspective on historial change with the close-up analysis of primary texts.


There are five required books, each covering different American media.

Radio and Television: Michelle Hilmes, Only Connect
Movies: Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America
Recordings: Greil Marcus, Mystery Train
Comic books: Gerard Jones, Men of Tomorrow
Computers: Ted Friedman, Electric Dreams

Rather than read the books one at a time, we’ll be reading them alongside each other as we work our way chronologically through the twentieth century.

Only Connect, Movie-Made America and Mystery Train are available at the GSU bookstores. Men of Tomorrow is not in the bookstores – it can be ordered online from,, or Electric Dreams will not be published until December; copies of the galleys will be distributed in class.


Screenings will be held on Tuesdays at 5:15 in 1020 1PPS, following the Communication Department’s PhD Proseminar. The screenings are cosponsored by the Communication Graduate Students Association, and guests are welcome. Viewing every film before class is required, but attending every screening session is not. If you can’t make it in person, you will need to track down your own copy of the DVD. Some of the films are available in the Library Media Center. Most can also be found at Movies Worth Seeing (1409 N Highland; 404-892-1802) and Videodrome (617 N Highland; 404-885-1117). In addition, all films should be available through the online Netflix DVD rental service (

Email Group

All students will be signed up to the class email list. I will regularly forward media news and cultural criticism to the list. You’re encouraged to forward other interesting information, post your reactions to recent movies, respond to other postings, or continue any other ongoing discussions from class.

Class Schedule

8/22    Introduction

8/29    The Origins of Mass Culture
Hilmes Chapters 1-2
Marcus pp. ix-xvi, 1-7
Sklar Chapters 1-4
Friedman Introduction, Chapter 1
Jones Prologue

9/5    No class

9/12    1920s: The Jazz Age
Hilmes Chapter 3
Sklar Chapters 5-9
Silent film comedy shorts

9/19    1930s Part I: Fantasies of Affluence
Sklar Chapters 10-14
Hilmes Chapters 4-5
Gold Diggers of 1933

9/26    1930s Part II: Pulp Fictions
Marcus pp. 11-35
Jones Chapters 1-8

10/3    1941-1945: War Years
Hilmes Chapter 6
Sklar Chapter 15
Friedman Chapter 2
Jones Chapters 9-10

10/10    1945-1955: Postwar Tensions
Hilmes Chapter 7
Sklar Chapter 16
Jones 11-14
Sunset Boulevard

10/17    1955-1965: The Rise of Youth Culture
Hilmes Chapter 8
Marcus pp. 120-175
Friedman Chapter 3
Rebel Without a Cause

10/24    1965-1975: The Real Sixties
Hilmes Chapter 9
Sklar Chapters 17-19
Marcus pp. 39-119, 176-177
Friedman Chapter 4
The Godfather

10/31    1975-1985: Backlash
Hilmes Chapter 10
Sklar Chapter 20
Friedman Chapter 5
Jones Chapter 15
Raiders of the Lost Ark

11/7    1985-1995: High Concept
Hilmes Chapter 11
Sklar Chapters 21-22
Friedman Chapters 6-7
True Romance

11/14    1995- : Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Hilmes Chapters 12-14
Friedman Chapters 8-10, Conclusion

11/21    No class

11/28    Colloquium I

12/5    Colloquium II

Screening Schedule

8/30    No screening
9/6    Silent film comedy shorts
9/13    Gold Diggers of 1933
9/20    Scarface
9/27    Casablanca
10/4    Sunset Boulevard
10/11    Rebel Without a Cause
10/18    The Godfather
10/25    Raiders of the Lost Ark
11/1    True Romance
11/8    Tarnation
11/15    No screening
11/22    No screening
11/29    No screening
12/6    No screening


I. Class Presentations – 20% of final grade for each presentation.

You will research, screen, and lead class discussion of two media texts. Here’s how this will work:

A. Pick your era and program/comic

First, you’ll sign up in a group of 2 or 3 to give a presentation on either a radio program, TV program, or comic book produced during the era covered in a specific week’s class. Film, music, computer games and other media forms are off-limits – movies will be addressed through the outside screenings, and I’ll cover the other media forms in class.

Here are the options for the first batch of presentations:

9/19    1930-1940 – radio programs
9/26    1930-1940 – comic books
10/3    1941-1945
10/10    1945-1955

Here’s the schedule for the second batch of presentations:

10/17    1955-1965
10/24    1965-1975
10/31    1975-1985
11/7    1985-1995
11/14    1995-2005

Once your presentation week is set, your group will collectively choose the radio show, TV program, or comic book you want to discuss. You’re welcome but not required to choose a program or comic specifically addressed in the class readings. Pick a program or comic whose heyday was in the era covered in the week’s class. You’ll want to make sure the example you screen in class is from that era, although the program/comic doesn’t need to have originated in that era. For example, for Superman, you could give a presentation on Superman in the 1930s on 9/26, and discuss the first issue of Superman – or, you could give a presentation on the image Superman during World War II on 10/3, and hand out a comic from that period.

Accessibility of materials shouldn’t have to be a factor in your choice of topic. I will work with you to help you track down episodes of your radio and TV shows and issues of your comics. I have access to collections of radio programs and comic book reprints. Shows from all eras of television history are now widely available on DVD for purchase or rental through Netflix. And you can find all sorts of wild stuff on eBay.

B. Watch episodes and/or read issues of your program/comic

You may not have time to watch every episode of your show, or be able to track down every issue of your comic, but try to absorb enough to at least feel like a knowledgeable fan. I will work with your group to track down media.

C. Research the contexts your program/comic

Once you’ve picked an era and a program/comic, start doing research on the historical contexts of its production and reception. Try to answer these questions:

What was the production context of the show/comic? What was its budget? How was it marketed? What were the reputations of its creators and stars?
What was the audience response to the show/comic? How was it reviewed on first release? How much money did it make (or lose)? Has the perception of the show/comic changed since the time of its original release?
What have critics and scholars had to say about the show/comic? What interpretations have been offered? What kinds of critical approaches have been employed? What debates exist?

Strategies for media history research will be addressed in a separate handout.

D. Choose the specific episode/issue to screen in class.

The class discussion will be based on the sample of the program or comic you present in class. Your options for what to screen in class are:

A 30-minute radio program, presented with our without advertising (your choice).
A 30-minute television program, presented with our without advertising (your choice).
A 60-minute television program, presented without advertising (to keep the screening length down to 45 minutes or so).
A complete, single issue of a comic book, copied (in black and white) and distributed to the entire class.

E. Plan the topics for the class to discuss.

Meet with your group to hash out the issues you want to raise in class discussion. Try to choose two or three key themes in the episode/issue  which relate to topics addressed in the week’s readings. These issues might include questions of gender, labor, race, national identity, technology, environment, and so on.

F. Prepare and distribute a handout

The handout should include the following information:

Key credits for the show/comic, including the creators, producers, and dates of production.
Key credits for the specific episode/issue, including title, writer, director, and date of production.
Any available economic data, including budget, ratings, DVD sales, etc.
A brief summary of audience and critical response, including some very short quotes (a line or two).
A brief agenda listing of the key themes to be addressed in class discussion. This should be just a skeleton outline – no more than a few phrases. (You can prepare more detailed notes for your group, of course. You just don’t need to hand them out.)

G. Lead the Discussion

Begin by addressing the historical context of your show/comic, expanding up the information in the handout. Then, begin raising the questions listed in the agenda. I’ll jump in with my own questions and comments, as well.

II. Final Project: 20% of final grade for presentation at end-of-semester colloquium; 40% of final grade for submitted version

You have two options for your final project:

Write a 15-20 page essay on a subject relating to the history of media
Produce a creative work which engages questions of media history. The project can be a short film, a screenplay, or a multimedia work. When submitting the final version, include a 5-page paper relating your work to ideas from the class.

For either option, the deadlines are the same:

A one-page prospectus is due October 10. I will schedule individual meetings with you to discuss the prospectus.
You will give a 15 minute presentation on your project at one of the colloquia. Written projects will be presented orally; film and multimedia projects should include a 5-minute oral introduction and a 10-minute screening of the work in progress.
The submitted version of the project – in hard copy or on DVD – is due December 12.

III. Attendance Adjustment
As Woody Allen put it, “80 percent of success is showing up.” It’s less than that in this formula, but the bottom line is that you can’t contribute to the class if you’re not there. You’re allowed one unexcused absence for the semester. After that, each unexcused absence subtracts one point from your grade total. Excused absences include medical and family emergencies. You will be expected to schedule any employment responsibilities around this class, or accept the consequences of missed classes for your grade. If you do need to miss a class, please contact me ahead of time, and make arrangements to catch up on missed material.


Academic Honesty
The university’s policy on academic honesty is published in On Campus: The Undergraduate Co-Curricular Affairs Handbook, available online at The policy prohibits plagiarism, cheating on examinations, unauthorized collaboration, falsification, and multiple submissions. Violation of the policy will result in failing the class, in addition to possible disciplinary sanctions.

Students withdrawing on or before the midsemester point will receive a W provided they are passing the course. Students who withdraw after the midsemester point will not be eligible for a W except in cases of hardship. If you withdraw after the midsemester point, you will be assigned a WF, except in those cases in which (1) hardship status is determined by the office of the dean of students because of emergency, employment, or health reasons, and (2) you are passing the course.

Incompletes may be given only in special hardship cases. Incompletes will not be used merely for extending the time for completion of course requirements.

Changes to the Syllabus
This syllabus provides a general plan for the course. Deviations may be necessary.

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