COMM398T: Digital Culture and Civic Life

I developed this course for the new “Digital communication and media” major at the University of Maryland’s Department of Communication.

This course asks: what does it mean to participate in civic life in a digital age? Students explore their role as participants in digital culture by critically engaging contemporary case studies alongside learning digital production skills. Topics like social media activism, algorithmic bias, and conspiracy theories will be paired with digital projects like video essays and Twitter bots.

Below is a truncated version of the syllabus. You can read the entire syllabus and schedule on Google Docs.

Course Description

“Could I interest you in everything all of the time? / A little bit of everything all of the time /
Apathy’s a tragedy, and boredom is a crime / anything and everything all of the time.” 

Bo Burnham, “Welcome to the Internet,” from Inside

What does it mean to participate in civic life in a digital age? Burnham’s crooning laments the overwhelming experience of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders—inescapably anxiety-inducing in its own right but intermingled with racial violence, voter suppression, insurrection, climate change, social unrest, mass unemployment, etc. And all this, punctuated with the rhythm of the 21st century digital world: anything and everything, all of the time. This course takes seriously how, especially after 1.5 years of the pandemic, emotions, civic life, and digital media all run together. We will explore our role as participants in digital culture by critically engaging contemporary case studies while practicing digital production skills.  

Learning Outcomes 

After successfully completing this course you will be able to:

  • Articulate your personal relationship to digital culture and civic life 
  • Recognize the rhetorical constraints of different digital media, and adjust strategies accordingly.   
  • Conceptualize and create multimedia projects in response to exigent political issues 
  • Engage in critical conversations about public culture and digital media in professional, personal, and civic settings

Potential Professional Outcomes 

After successfully completing this course you may be able to:

  • Show potential employers a portfolio that boasts proficiency in multimedia creation tools like the Adobe Creative Suite (Photoshop, InDesign, Premiere) and digital tools like TikTok and javascript Twitter bots. 
  • Provide examples of teamwork on media production projects 
  • Demonstrate your inventiveness—with radical, creative responses suited to demanding times  

Potential Personal Side Effects 

During the course of this class, you may develop: frustration with the state of this world, wonder for the creativity of others, increased emotional intelligence, long conversations about social media beyond just “the kids these days,” and/or a new tolerance for complicated readings about important issues. 

Course Structure

In Fall 2021, COMM398T is organized around different emotions that circulate in digital culture. The course proceeds in Five “Acts,” with an introduction and conclusion—like a play. As you’ll soon learn, I have a flair for the dramatic.

  • Introduction to the course (Weeks 1-2) 
  • Act 1: Happiness and Joy (Weeks 3-4) 
  • Act 2: Pain (Weeks 5-7) 
  • Act 3: Banality & Boredom (Weeks 8-9) 
  • Act 4: Outrage (Weeks 10-13) 
  • Act 5: Hatred (Weeks 14-15) 
  • Conclusion (Week 16, Finals)

Each act will focus on definitions and ethics (e.g., What is happiness? Is it wrong to disrupt happiness?) as well as specific applications (e.g., where is happiness? How do I make a TikTok to disrupt happiness?)  


Participation – 25% 

  • I recognize that participation looks different for everyone. Thus, I use assignments like this to see if you are engaged with class readings and conversations (instead of just arbitrarily giving you a grade about what I think your participation looks like). The assignments should be easy and quick to complete if you are doing the rest of the work for the course.  
  • Various ELMS and in-person activities meant to assess your engagement: quizzes, short presentations, worksheets, etc. Many will be worth 5 points and graded on completion. Some will be worth more, and graded with a rubric. 
  • These low-stakes assignments will occur about once per week, usually due 11:59pm on a Monday or Wednesday. Your three lowest scores will be dropped.
  • They serve various purposes: giving a chance to provide feedback, helping provide the whole class with notes or resources for discussion, or to check in on what concepts are making sense, for example. 

Emotion Assignments – 60% 

  • Every act has an emotion assignment where you are asked to intervene in Digital Civic Life, guided by the emotion we have been reading about in that act. Each assignment has two parts: 
    • 1. Digital Artifact: You will not be graded on making a professional-quality artifact. There will be achievable parameters set for every new technology we learn, determined in part by each student’s stated comfort with the technology. 
    • 2. Creative Brief: A 500 word argumentative essay that explains your methods. Specifically, the essay should show how your artifact responds to at least three course readings from that unit and some contemporary exigence in digital culture. You should address the limitations (affordances and constraints) of the form. Think of it like an extended caption at a museum. 
  • Act 1: Killjoy TikTok — 10%
    • Identify happiness that needs disrupting. Make a TikTok of any genre (explainer, storytime, whatever) to be a ‘killjoy’ to that happiness, as Ahmed describes. 
    • Group (2-3 people) project. 
  • Act 2: Pain-relieving bots — 10% 
    • Identify a pain in contemporary civic life. Use Tracery to make a bot to respond to that pain, whether it attempts to heal or expose the wound. In the brief, be sure to respond to Misti Yang’s arguments about bots and wounded publics. 
    • Group (3-4 people) project. 
  • Act 3: The Banal, Boring, (un)Bearable Poster — 10%
    • Use Photoshop to address banality, boredom, and/or ratchetry. You can celebrate it, critique it, equivocate on it; you can make something boring or you can make something lively–it’s up to you.
    • Solo project. 
  • Act 4: Redesigning for Outrage — 15% 
    • Use Photoshop and screen captures to create a speculative redesign of a digital platform to make it more amenable to civic life. You should make 3-5 mock-ups of your new design. This creative brief should be 1000-1500 words, and should address the platform you selected, how its design encourages outrage, and how your design would reshape it. 
    • Group (3-4 people) project.  
  • Act 5: Instagram Slideshows to Address Hatred — 15% 
    • Use Canva, Adobe InDesign, and/or Adobe Photoshop to create an Instagram slideshow to address an issue of hatred in contemporary civic life. In the brief, make sure to address the limitations of the slideshow form to address hatred. 
    • Solo or Group (2-3 people) project. 

Final Timed Essay – 15% 

  • During your final period, you will have an open-note, open book exam to be taken on ELMS. (You do not need to be on campus.) 
  • The exam will be a 1-2 timed essay(s) that addresses the course’s guiding questions. You’ll be asked to write approximately 800 words total and use at least 5 sources from the class. 
  • The timed essay format ensures that (1) the exam does not take up too much of your time and (2) that you have met the course learning objective of being able to engage in critical conversations about civic life and digital culture. If you are an engaged seminar student, the exam will be easy. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s