Media Anthropology and Pedagogy

Anand Pandian, assistant Professor at Johns Hopkins, shared the site for his Fall Semester undergrad course on The Anthropology of Media. The syllabus is comprehensive and tight. Students were asked to do a semester project on some aspect of the media, and the range of projects runs the gamut from the predictable (facebook) to the intriguing (Industrial Mix Tape: Baltimore’s Diverse Music Scene) to the kitchy (The Indian Chuck Norris).

I asked him why the projects look the way they do (I was thinking, what’s up with the 1990s web vernacular aesthetic?). The answer is illuminating, because it reflects how challenging it is to do a class like this and make students focus on the anthropology and not on the media. I don’t believe that this generation is any more digitally equipped than the last, and I hate it when journalists assume that it is (as they frequently do, given the number of requests I get to do interviews about how new media are causing children to evolve into large-thumbed, ADHD-addled, hacker-loving codemonkeys). In reality, some students have mad skillz, others have none. Focusing a class (of 50+ students) on the issues and asking them to produce a “new media” project that does not automatically activate different creative skills is challenging, so I was surprised by what Pandian’s class web site looked like. Of course, some students wanted to break out of the constraints (which results in some internal-link bizareness in some cases) I think it’s a measure of success, and it demonstrates one way to produce comparability in this medium.

Of course, one way to really get students thinking about the effects of media is to have them explore all the challenges, ins and outs of media production, but then the trade-off is that you risk running a course in web-production, rather than one in anthropology. In any case, an excellent case of experimentation.


Christopher M. Kelty is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He has a joint appointment in the Institute for Society and Genetics, the department of Information Studies and the Department of Anthropology. His research focuses on the cultural significance of information technology, especially in science and engineering. He is the author most recently of Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software (Duke University Press, 2008), as well as numerous articles on open source and free software, including its impact on education, nanotechnology, the life sciences, and issues of peer review and research process in the sciences and in the humanities.

One thought on “Media Anthropology and Pedagogy

  1. I think this is a cool idea for a class, and it would be great if there were more courses like it. Especially since so much information that we all receive is visual. It makes sense.

    I also think you bring up a good point, namely that we can’t assume that kids will all be super media savvy or advanced. It’s like writing or anything else…some will be good at it, others won’t.

    Understanding different forms of media should be a part of the methods training in anthropology, IMO, just as writing is. We should definitely understand the processes through which anthropological information is disseminated.

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