COMM 292 | FALL 2014

Tuesday 6:00 – 8:45pm | 227 Frable Moved to 205 Main Bldg
Professor – Dr. Zack Furness
Email –  *Please give me up to 24 hours to respond
Office – 106B Main Building | Office Hours – W 1-4, Th 12-1, and by appt.
Office Phone – 412-675-9153  *Email is best as I’m in my office infrequently
Course Website –
Turnitin password (if needed) – politics

Course Description
This course examines how media and political institutions interact to shape public thinking and debates around social problems, cultural norms, policies. and both media and politics themselves. The course explores how media technologies, practices, and formats shape political decision making; how political forces influence media institutions; and how public opinion and media audiences are formed. Students will gain an understanding of these issues through in-depth readings, class discussions, written assignments, and social media technologies that help students to develop their own informed views and to learn to express them constructively. The course is designed for both Communications majors and any students with an interest in media and politics.

Credit Information
This course fulfills 3 credits in General Humanities (GH) and also fulfills one of the ‘Common Requirements’ for the BA degree in Communications. There are no prerequisites for enrollment in this course.

Course Texts

  • There are no required texts that you have to purchase for this class. All reading assignments will be distributed for free, in PDF format. NOTE: Given the extensive use of electronic documents in this course, students who do not own a laptop may wish to purchase a cheap e-reader or tablet as a way to simultaneously eliminate printing costs (in this and other classes) and ensure that readings are accessible during class discussions.


Grading Rubric
Media Critiques – 30%
Final Paper/Project – 20%
Leading Class (with a partner) – 20%
Participation (Social Media) – 20%
Participation (In Class) – 10%

  1. Media Critiques (30%): You will write several extended blog posts (roughly 1,500 words each) throughout the semester. The purpose of these blog posts is to make sure that you understand and can apply the media criticism that we will be reading. If you don’t understand how and why audiences might object to content, you won’t be able to create content listeners, readers, and viewers will want to consume. You will need to identify the critical model you are going to employ and use this model to criticize a contemporary film, television show, podcast, song, etc. Guidelines for this assignment will be posted on the course website within the first few weeks of class. All blog posts must be posted by 9 pm on the date which they are due, with a link to the text tweeted to your professor. Your blog posts will be graded according to a standard grid, which will be posted on the website alongside of the assignment so you can better understand my expectations. Although I will not provide extensive written comments on your blog posts, I will be happy to meet with you during office hours to talk about your posts and the grades you received.
  2. Final Paper/Project (20%): This can be done individually or within small groups (collaboration is encouraged!).  Details on the assignment will be posted on the course site. DUE DURING THE LAST FRIDAY OF FINALS WEEK.
  3. Leading Class (with 1 or 2 partners) – 20%: Guidelines will be will be posted online and discussed early in the semester. Responsibilities will include but are not limited to: 1) Reading additional material and presenting information to the class, 2) Providing students will some kind of handout or guide, 3) Taking the lead on facilitating class discussion for the day with discussion questions and a relevant media example.
  4. Participation – Social Media (20%): This grade derives from your successful creation of both 1. A personal, customized blog and a Twitter handle (5%) and 2. Your regular use of each format (15%). ‘Regular use’ entails at least two short blog posts per week, and at least five tweets per week (using the hashtag #COMM292). Both the blog posts and tweets should pertain to issues and themes raised in the course, but I will not be grading you on the content itself (it only needs to related to media and politics). I will discuss more about this aspect of the assignment on the first day of class, and specific instructions will be posted on our course website.
  5. Participation – In Class (10%): Participating in class is not to be confused with simply showing up and occupying the same space as your fellow students. Participation means coming to class ready to ask questions, discuss weekly reading assignments, and engage in thoughtful, respectful conversation with your peers (and the professor). In short, your participation grade is not a ‘freebie’; it is earned and I do not give A’s as a reward for just paying attention in class (this much is expected of you in any college course).

Grading Scale
As a general rule of thumb, the following grading scale shall apply to all assignments:
A = 93-100% Excellent (excellence consistently achieved)
A- = 92.9-90% Outstanding (nearly always top quality)
B+ = 89.9-87% Very Good (extremely solid performance)
B = 86.9-83% Good (better than average performance)
B- = 82.9-80% Respectable (demonstrates solid potential)
C+ = 79.9-77% OK (average performance)
C = 76.9-70% Acceptable (meets minimum requirements)
D = 69.9-60% Less than acceptable (shows some ability)
F = below 60% Failure (Does not meet minimum standards)


The Learning Center
Students in need of tutoring and/or extra help with study skills are encouraged to stop by the John H. Gruskin Learning Center, located in the Kelly Library, Lower Level.  To schedule an appointment, call 412-675-9088.  Appointments are encouraged, but not required.

Disability Services
Penn State encourages academically qualified students with disabilities to take advantage of its educational programs. It is the policy of the University not to discriminate against the disabled in its admission policies, procedures or its educational programs, services and activities. No qualified student with a disability may be excluded from participation in or denied the benefits of any course or course of study on the basis of disability.  Applicants to Penn State Greater Allegheny or prospective students who wish to request accommodations based on a disability should contact the Disability Contact Liaison, Victoria Garwood (, 412-675-9070). Students requesting accommodations must complete requested intake forms and participate in an intake interview. Documentation supporting the request for accommodations must be submitted and cannot be more than three years old. Documentation is specific to the type of disability that a student has. Individual Education Plans (IEPs) from high school are not acceptable.  Additional information can be obtained on the Office of Disability Services homepage at

Read Carefully

1. Email
All students are required to make use of their Penn State email accounts. While I recognize that you all have your preferred email addresses, you will still be expected to check your school email account on a regular basis, and I will use this address to contact you throughout the semester. With respect to our correspondences, please give me up to 24 hours to respond to emails. In addition, make sure to consult the syllabus and any relevant documents (such as paper assignments) on the course blog before emailing me with questions that I have already explained and/or addressed in writing. I am more than happy to answer questions via email, but I receive 20-40 emails a day and strongly prefer not to answer questions about things that are clearly posted online. As a general rule, please avoid emailing me through ANGEL and just send an email directly to my school address.

2. Attendance
Students are expected to attend all classes and read the assignments so as to be prepared for class discussion. Experience shows that there is a direct relation between attendance and performance in the course. Absences hurt your ability to learn and they hurt your grade. In short, come to class! Signing up for this class indicates that you are committed to being here for the full class period each class meeting. It is your responsibility to inform the instructor regarding your absence ahead of time. If you do miss a class, you are still responsible for whatever was covered in lecture and discussion that day. You do not have to email me after an absence in order to ask about what you missed…just check the course website or talk to one of your classmates. Students who miss an unreasonable number of classes in a given semester run the risk of earning a failing grade: In a once-a-week course, I consider any more than 2 absences to be ‘unreasonable’, particularly if one or more of those absences falls on a speech day.

  • The University Faculty Senate Policy on attendance is located here. The policy recognizes that on occasion, students may opt to miss a class meeting in order to participate in a regularly scheduled university-approved curricular or extracurricular activity, or due to unavoidable or other legitimate circumstances such as illness, injury, family emergency, or religious observance.
  • Whenever reasonable, a student should submit a class absence form a week in advance.
  • Religious observance can be a legitimate reason for an absence. Academic Administrative Policy and Procedure R-4, Religious Observances, provides further information and a link to an all inclusive list which provides both major and minor religious holidays, maintained by the Center for Ethics and Religious Affairs.

3. Late Arrivals and Early Departures
Your professor finds people entering and leaving the classroom during lecture to be very unpleasant and distracting. Please be on time for class, and if you know that you must leave early on a given day, please let him know before class starts. Please make your visits to the bathroom and drinking fountain before and after class. If you arrive late or leave early (or if your excretory system presents you with an emergency in the middle of class) enter or leave the classroom quietly. If you are more than 15-20 minutes late, then please don’t come to class. Repeat offenders will find their semester grades reduced.

4. Assignments and Extensions
Reading assignments and paper assignments will be provided well in advance of due dates. Missing a class assignment will mean an F for that assignment. Late assignments will not be accepted without a verifiable, documented excuse.

  • Clear and coherent writing is an important factor in your success in this class. I urge you to visit the Learning Center on campus and make use of their tutoring services before you hand in written work. I will also be more than happy to look at rough drafts during my office hours.
  • A note about computer/printer problems, software issues, email access, etc: I recognize that computer, printer, and email problems can and do arise. Be sure to back up your work on an external hard drive, or simply email copies of your work to your school account (and preferably an additional email account). Always keep back up copies of your papers. Problems related to computers, printers, software and/or email are your responsibilities to address; they are NOT legitimate excuses for late work, incomplete assignments, and so on.

5. Academic Integrity and Plagiarism
Plagiarism consists of using someone else’s ideas as your own in formal writing. If you use someone else’s ideas, you are expected to cite them. If you use someone else’s exact words, even if it is just part of a sentence, then you must put quotation marks around the phrase or sentence and properly cite the author. I may not be the smartest person in the entire world, but you can rest assured that my research skills, as well as my ability to spot plagiarism, are of a Bruce Lee caliber. In short, plagiarism will not be tolerated. If I catch you doing it, you will receive an immediate ‘F’ for the course and all further discussions on the matter will take place between you and the head of Academic Affairs at Penn State Greater Allegheny. If you have any questions about academic integrity policies and procedures, please see me and/or consult Penn State’s guidelines at: – 49-20

6. Grading Policy
Grades shall be assigned to individual students on the basis of the instructor’s judgment of the student’s scholastic achievement.  Grades are final and I grade exams and assignments based on your performance, not your intentions.  Effort will be recognized in your participation grade for the course.  I am eager to help you do well on exams and assignments before they are due.  Please visit me during office hours to ask questions when you are working on an assignment or reviewing material. Here are the circumstances under which I would change a grade: (a) if I have made an error, or (b) if I have failed to hold you to the same standard as everyone else. In the event that you feel you received an undeserved grade, you should make your case in writing to your instructor within two weeks of receiving the grade.  Finally, there are very few circumstances in which the professor will award a grade of “incomplete” for the course. If you feel like such circumstances apply, please discuss it with me near the end of the semester.

7. Nondiscrimination Statement & General Code of Conduct
As a professor at Pennsylvania State University, I value equality of opportunity, human dignity, and racial/ethnic/cultural diversity. In addition to the Penn States’s official nondiscrimination policy, and within the bounds of the course, I also do not discriminate on the basis of political creed. In the simplest terms possible, this means that you do not have to agree with me in order to do well in this course. So long as you demonstrate an understanding of (and engagement with) the course material, you are under no obligation to agree with the professor, your classmates, or anything we read (you don’t even have to agree with yourself all the time). If there is something I can do to make the class more hospitable, please let me know. Be assured that I will treat students with respect, and I will promote a safe and conducive environment for learning.  I expect all students to do the same.  In accordance with college policies, I will not tolerate discrimination or harassment in my class, whether on the basis of race, gender, class, religion, national origin, age, sexual orientation, veteran status, or physical ability.  If you have questions about the school’s policies, please consult the Student Code of Conduct online at:

8. Respectful College Classroom Behavior
One of the ways in which college differs dramatically from high school or the workplace is that you are all here by your own choice. As tuition-paying adults who have made the conscious decision to take a course that either sparks your curiosity or is required for your major (or both), I presume that you want to be here and that you are eager to learn. As your professor, you can presume that I also want to be here and that I am eager to teach you everything I can about the subject matter. With this mutual understanding in mind, there are no circumstances in which I should have to remind you about the kinds of disrespectful behavior that make it difficult for your peers to learn and for me to teach. But in the interest of having everyone on the same page from the beginning of the semester, here are some basic guidelines that constitute what I perceive to be respectful classroom decorum:

  • NO cellphone conversations. Turn off your phone (or set it to vibrate) and put it away.
  • NO texting. Texting in class is rude and disrespectful to your professor. Don’t do it.
  • NO laptops unless they are being used for note taking only. Class is not the place to check Facebook and screw around online.
  • NO talking during lectures or film screenings. I strongly encourage participation and dialogue in my classrooms but it is rude and disrespectful to talk while your professor is trying to lecture and explain concepts to the class. If you want to sit and talk to your friends there are plenty of other places to do it.
  • NO sleeping. If you need to sleep please find somewhere else to do it.
  • NO excuses for not bringing the readings to class. We can’t have productive and intelligent conversations about course material if you don’t bring (digital or print) copies of the assigned readings to class.
  • NO leaving class unless it is absolutely necessary. Walking in and out of class is distracting and disrespectful. The longest you will ever be in my class (before a break or before the end of the period) is an hour and 15 minutes. If this presents a legitimate problem for you physically then you need to make me aware of your situation at the beginning of the semester.

Since you are now aware of my classroom ‘rules’, please do not put me in the terribly awkward position of having to reprimand you in front of your peers – it is not something that a college professor should ever have to do, nor is it something that I am willing to do on a regular basis for any individual student. Consequently, if I have to wake you up during a nap, or repeatedly ask you to stop texting or talking, then I will simply ask you to leave class that day. In addition, I reserve the right to permanently eject students from my course who engage in disrespectful behavior on a regular basis.

9. Reproduction of Course Materials (with a nod to Jonathan Sterne)
Students are encouraged to take notes and share them with one another. However, they may not be sold or otherwise monetized for personal gain by students or third parties (for instance, by for-profit note-taking services), without the professors expressed, written prior consent. Photos or audio- or video-recordings of class proceedings are explicitly prohibited without the professor’s expressed, written prior consent. Under no circumstances may they be posted online.

10. Academic Calendar
For important dates pertaining to adding/dropping courses, withdrawal, etc. please consult the Penn State Academic Calendar for Fall 2014.

11. Compliance

By staying enrolled in this class, you acknowledge that you understand and agree to abide by my policies, as well as Penn State’s official regulations (i.e. the accepted codes of conduct and academic integrity). Failure to follow the letter and the spirit of these reasonable guidelines can result in a reduction of your final grade, failure of the course, and/or other penalties set by the university.


Week 1 (Aug 26) – Introductions

Week 2 (Sept 2) – Democracy and the Political Economy of Media

  • Robert McChesney, “Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times,” in The Political Economy of Media (Monthly Review Press, 2008), pp. 425-443.
  • Screening of Robert McChesney and John Nichols on ‘The Death and Life of American Journalism,’ Democracy Now! 2010.
  • Keywords: political economy, corporation, conglomeration, democracy

Week 3 (Sept 9) – Propaganda as Social Control

  • Excerpts from Edward Bernays, Propaganda *This won’t take you long to read, and we’ll go over the juicy quotes in class.
  • Excerpts from Stuart Ewen, PR: A Social History of Spin * Give yourself some time to read this one, and be sure to take notes in places where you have questions or need clarification from me in class (in addition to things you find interesting, odd, or even problematic). 
  • DUE TODAY: Both your Twitter handle and your blog need to be 1) created by today’s class, and 2) utilized throughout this week, per my instructions in the syllabus. Additionally, each of you need to 3) send me an email, prior to the start of class, that includes the URL address of your blog and your Twitter handle – I will post them as links on the front page of our website, so that you can engage with each other’s writing outside of class (should you choose to do so).
  • Keywords: propaganda, public relations, stereotype

Week 4 (Sept 16) – The Politics of Advertising

Week 5 (Sept 23) – Theories of News Media and Power, Part I

Week 6 (Sept 30) – Theories of News Media and Power: The Environment

Week 7 (Oct 7)  – Info Wars, Part I: Hackers & Leakers

Week 8: Oct 14 – Info Wars, Part II: Surveillance Society

Week 9: Oct 21 – Policy Wars, Part I: Copyright and IP

  • Read – Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Copyright and American Culture. Ideas, Expressions, and Democracy,” Copyrights and Copywrongs, pp. 17-34.
    • Suggested reading: Siva Vaidhyanathan, “Hep Cats and Copy Cats. American Music Challenges the Copyright Tradition,” Copyrights and Copywrongs, pp. 117-148.
  • Read – Rick Prelinger, “Yes, Information Wants to be Free…” in The Anti-Capitalism Reader.
  • In-class screening – The Internet’s Own Boy
  • Keywords: copyright, piracy, intellectual property, the commons

Week 10: Oct 28 – NO CLASS (Prof Emergency)

Week 11 (Nov 4) – Policy Wars, Part II: Net Neutrality

Week 12 (Nov 11) – Fighting Back w/ Media I: Culture Jamming

  • Read Andrew Boyd, “Truth is a Virus: Meme Warfare and the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore),” in (ed.) Stephen Duncombe, The Cultural Resistance Reader (New York: Verso, 2002), pp. 369-378.
  • Read Ricardo Dominquez, “Electronic Disturbance: An Interview,” in (ed.) Stephen Duncombe, The Cultural Resistance Reader (New York: Verso, 2002), pp. 379-396.
  • In-class screening: Yes Men
  • Keywords: meme, culture jamming, cultural resistance

Week 13 (Nov 18) – Fighting Back w/ Media II: Political Art

Week 14 (Nov 25) – NO CLASS for Thanksgiving

Week 15: Dec 2 – Music & Politics, Part I – Hip Hop

  • Read excerpt from Robin D.G. Kelley, “Kickin’ Reality, Kickin’ Ballistics: ‘Gangsta Rap’ and Postindustrial Los Angeles,” in Race Rebels.
  • Listening assignment
  • Screening of Slingshot Hip Hop (a documentary about hip hop in Palestine and Israel).
  • Keywords: hip hop, postindustrialism, representation, counter hegemonic

Week 16: Dec 9 – Music & Politics, Part II – Punk

  • Read Mark Andersen, Chapter on Fugazi & Positive Force in Political Rock.
  • Excerpts from interviews with Kathleen Hanna, Los Crudos, and Negativland, in (ed.) Dan Sinker, We Owe Your Nothing: Punk Planet – The Collected Interviews (New York: Akashic Press, 2001).
  • Keywords: punk, hardcore, DIY, activism


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