I am fairly sure I’m not using this term entirely in the classical Greek sense. However, my understanding of its meaning as “places”–especially in the way used by classical Greek rhetoricians to indicate categories of knowledge for a given topic–is one I reflect on often in thinking about how to organize my “New Media” course. If one attempts to subdivide theory and criticism of the various social and cultural dimensions of the communication media developed since television, one question that always crops up is “What should be covered each week?”

I don’t have a pat answer for this; I’ve taught this course twice and I’ve organized it differently each time. One fundamental question to ask is whether organization by medium is appropriate: e.g., a course unit on the Web, a unit on video games, one on cell phones. This raises several related questions, such as whether these three media represent the most prominent new media, whether selection on the basis of “prominence” is better than “influence” or “intellectual potential,” and whether there might be other technologies that also ought to be included. But I tend to stay away from this kind of organization for another theoretical reason, which is how such an arrangement will necessarily privilege a degree of technological determinism, whether strong or weak. Students pick up on things like course structure in subtle ways, and I don’t want mine starting off with a bias in favor of such a theory of media. (On the other hand, I’m equally aware of the fact that any course structure belies an implicit characterization of the topic along theoretical lines, so you’re damned if you do….)

Recently, I’ve been using a modified form of the BCS-developed “Circuit of Culture,” in which five “moments” in a cultural artifact’s life are considered: representation, production, consumption, regulation, and identity. We spend a week or two doing some broad ontological theory of new media, trying to define some boundaries for our topic, if fuzzy ones. Then I ask students to think about how new media representations shape our culture; how production practices in the computer, technology, and media industries that tend to produce new media artifacts literally mold those technologies; how patterns and practices of new media use necessarily alter our understanding of new media; how the laws and social conventions (and their enforcement) in various cultural milieu both activate and constrain certain behaviors with regard to new media. I personally have reservations about the prominence of identity in the model, not least of which is that at the very least it probably ought to be “identification” instead to match the process-based nature of the other four moments. So I tend to continually raise the question of identity in class, but don’t make it a separate unit. I also don’t currently spend really any time actually explaining the Circuit itself–the model is sortof silently embedded into the course structure.

Even though this is precisely the point of this post, let us not dwell too deeply on whether this choice of unit-level categories is the best approach, and for now move on to the next level down, which is “Given these four categories, what should be the weekly or daily topics around which to focus students’ attention?”

With a 14 week semester and 2 weeks for general theory, we’ve got essentially 3 weeks per unit, with 2 or 3 class meetings per week (it’s Monday/Wednesday, with Fridays officially on the schedule but I tend to reserve them for workshops, so usually no new theory is considered on the third day of a week). So that leaves about six or possibly seven topic days for each unit, assuming equal weighting, which I also don’t tend to do because production is a slightly less prominent dimension of current new media theory than the other three (though that is certainly one assumption of this discussion I’m open to thinking about more deeply).

And the question remains: what six or seven topics in each of these four areas best address the broad, inter-disciplinary field of “new media” I’ve set for myself and my students? How can we best consider the topic in a systematic but fruitful way that leaves them both with clear routes to pursue to learn more but also raises an array of new questions?

I’d like to make this the first of five posts: in each of the other four, I will explore the topics of one of these units in depth. I may also write a postscript 6th post reflecting on what I’ve learned in the process. See you in the next post, but feel free to comment now if the mood takes you.