Welcome to Spring 2017


My name is Dr. Alex Sayf Cummings, and I am delighted to work with you this semester as we explore the intersection(s) of historical scholarship and digital technology.  This is an introductory course, meaning that we will survey a wide range ideas and tools as we think about how to convey history to many different audiences.  The course is meant to be starting point for you to embark on your own engagement with technology, and your fellow students and I are here to help you go wherever that takes you.

You can learn more about me and my work here.


3 thoughts on “Welcome to Spring 2017

  1. Louise Milone says:

    Media as Propaganda, Media as Art

    Media as Propaganda – alternate facts?: Listening to NBC’s “Meet the Press” this morning I encountered a new concept – “alternate facts.” It was espoused by Kellyanne Conway, Special Counselor to President Donald J. Trump. Chuck Todd, program host, was asking Ms. Conway why White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer felt moved to aggressively confront, and tell a provable lie, to the White House press corps about how many people attended President Trump’s inaugural. Ms. Conway demurred. She said that Mr. Spicer was not lying, he was just putting out “alternate facts.”

    This was a new concept for me. I always thought that facts were, well, facts. Two thoughts came to mind: 1) we now had our own version of Joseph Goebbels sitting in the chair of the White House Press Secretary; and 2) Theodor Adorno had warned us about this when he talked about the loud speaker rantings of Goebbels put out on the streets of Germany in the 1930s. I don’t know if he used the term “alternate facts,” but he certainly used the product.

    In Introducing Media Studies, Zaiuddin Sardar and Borin Van Loon talk about “Cultivation Theory,” put forward by George Gerbner. Our authors explain it as “long-term effects which are small, gradual, indirect but cumulative and significant (29).” Is that what would make it possible for a special counselor to the president of the United States to put forward for a national television audience the ridiculous, terrifying concept of “alternate facts?” Are we now suffering “mean world syndrome (29).”

    Media as Art – to see the artist in the work or not: in Immediacy, Hypermediacy and Remediation, David Bolter and Richard Grusin first discuss immediacy, the ways in which artists/engineers who design what we see on our computer screens seem to disappear from their work and we see only the work itself, not the artistry behind it. They go on to discuss photography, mentioning William Henry Fox Talbot’s The Pencil of Nature, in which he sees photography as the ultimate art form of immediacy, where nature and light are the artist (27). I want to see the artist’s vision in their work, including digital graphics. I have friends who are digital graphic artists and who are photographers. In the first, their vision is clear. It gives their work vibrancy and me great pleasure. In the second, the creative use of lenses and light have shown me everything from volcanos to bison in completely new and exciting ways.

    That said, I was totally drawn in by the similarities the authors highlighted between digital media and baroque cabinets and the photographic examples of the cabinet and the stereoscope (35-38). The consistent references to media throughout history was enlightening and a very engaging way to describe the three ideas they were explaining. Hypermediacy was not a concept with which I was acquainted. I now know that what I enjoy about many paintings and photos have that in common, a way of bringing the viewer into the art through the eyes of the artist. I also had not thought of newspaper or photomontage as hypermediated, but I can see why the authors would say of the USA Today example they use, “The paper attempts to emulate in print…the graphical user interface of a web site (40).” As someone who laid out papers when you cut out copy from galleys and used glue, I appreciate both the concept of the website design and the east of using Publisher.

    Finally, I was glad to see the statistics put forward by the piece published by the Economist. I find the many digital books I read on my Kindle easier to annotate and to physically handle. It is great to be able to carry in my medium size purse 5 books on a trip or to a class and to be able to do a simple search to find the exact section or quote I am looking for. However, I greatly value my collection of books, which I can hold in my hand and look through the pages seeing my many unusable notes. Of course, some of those books have been my friends for 50 years. That makes me old, and this may be one of the many ways in which it shows.


  2. Kia says:

    This week’s readings were perfectly timed given the recent focus on “fake news,” and propaganda during last year’s election process.
    The article “Why Should we Study the Media?” should be required reading for everyone as it presents the media in such a way that media consumers should want to investigate their sources for facts. This investigation may also be applied to not only mass media (news, reality TV, etc.) but may also apply to outlets that are presenting us with historical facts as well. Additionally, this article also serves as an introductory piece to the study of media.
    “Why Should we Study the Media?’ manages to cover all forms of media such a television, advertising, internet, Hollywood entertainment, etc. Each outlet exposes us to potential propaganda that doesn’t only pertain to political propaganda. As mass consumers, we are often exposed to propaganda via advertising, which according to the author “ is almost impossible to escape.” (pg. 4-5). The propaganda through advertising is usually geared toward playing on our insecurities, forcing us to believe that we need the product of X, Y, and Z to be acceptable in society. We are often oblivious to this form of propaganda, not knowing that it can be just as detrimental as other forms of propaganda.
    This article also mentions that the reason we should study the media is because essentially when we study the media we are studying ourselves, and social trends. At times, we can study the trends in the media to tell what was going on within that period in history. This article was informative as it provides the reader with an in-depth understanding of terminology used in media studies, as well as the many theories used in media studies. Including the thoughts of scholars such as Marshall McLuhan and Roland Barthes with regards to studying the media was also helpful in understanding how media studies works as well as how the scholars in the field have contributed to media studies and how they affected the direction of media studies over the years.
    The article “Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation” was a little more challenging to digest and dissect, however the overall theme appears to be about forms of digital media, and media as an art form. Digital art is more common now that in the past, especially with regards Hollywood productions. When I think of digital art, I think of 3D animations, graphic art, and virtual reality. Both art forms have extended our thoughts of what we consider “art.” When we think of art, we seldom include art created by digital tools even though these digital forms of artwork are more common today than we realize. With digital media such a Photoshop, we also have question the validity of the source, especially knowing that media can be altered digitally.
    Another interesting subject in “Immediacy, Hypermediacy, and Remediation” is the act of remediation and repurposing other forms of digital media through adaptations of past films, or television programming. The article discusses how common refashioning of popular films is more commonplace in today’s media. Was this mentioned so that consumers can investigate the origins of the entertainment that we’re consuming? The answer to that question is not as clear to me while reading this article.
    While both articles were informative and highly critical for this course, I found the article about Media Studies much more fascinating, timely and informative.


  3. Evan Meehan says:

    Reading Bolter and Grusin feels less like reading history and more like reading philosophy. The title for instance includes two words that I knew, although as I suspected when I first glanced at the reading, not in the context they were using them and one word I did not. What emerged was esoteric, and yet eminently relatable. The concept of immediacy for example rang through loud and clear, particularly in conjunction with Sardar and van Loon’s graphic essay. Put simply the world, when perceived directly, is immediate. Anything put in between the viewer and being portrayed serves to mediate the experience. Some things mediate more than others: a window pane mediates far less than a kaleidoscope. Bolter and Grusin argue that since the Renaissance human efforts towards depiction have strived for a greater sense of immediacy. The simplest example of this fact is that painters try to hide their brush strokes, effacing the efforts of their work in order to have the image of what they are portraying be rendered more directly. In the then emergent field of user-interface, Bolter and Grusin note that immediacy is the gold standard that all interfaces are striving for, writing that:
    “Virtual reality, three-dimensional graphics, and graphical interface design are all seeking to make digital technology “transparent.” In this sense, a transparent interface would be one that erases itself, so that the user is no longer aware of confronting a medium, but instead stands in an immediate relationship to the contents of that medium.”
    This position is intriguing, not so much because it served as an accurate bellwether or advances to come, but because of how resistant to this type of change technology and users have been. Windows 8 is a perfect example of a “transparent” interface. The windows that Windows was named for were gone, replaced with full screen applications. Want to close the application? Simply drag it away (top to bottom of course). Want to resize it and place another application next to it? Drag it left or right, and it will automatically click into place and present you the options that can sit next to it. Uniting these gestural controls was the fact that they were essentially invisibly added to a much reduced GUI. And they were nearly universally hated and maligned by the general public and the tech-community. Where did the value of immediacy go? Was the tendency towards immediacy really just progress towards an unidentified feature that happened to meander along the path of immediacy?
    The answer may be more complicated than the question indicates. As Sardar and van Loon point out there are contradictory theories of how media is consumed. On one side there are proponents of passive receivers and on the other there are viewers with agency. While Windows 8’s unpopularity does not dispel the notion of passive media consumption, it does argue strongly for viewers with a sense of their own agency and control. Responding to popular opinion (or perhaps as it should be rephrased: market forces), Microsoft updated Windows 8 to make it more like the hypermediated previous versions, and ultimately Windows 8 would be incredibly short-lived, replaced by Windows 10 which returned almost entirely to the earlier interface style.


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