Course Syllabus

CTCS 585: Seminar in Film/TV Critical Theory + Production
Activism in the Digital Age

Professor Tara McPherson
Fall 2016
SCA 110
Tuesdays 10:00 - 12:50 p.m.
Office Hours: Tuesdays, 1:30-2:30
+ by appointment.  Just email me.
Main Office Phone: 213-740-3334
TA: Katie Robinson,

Course website:


From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, the last decade has seen a variety of competing claims about the role digital media might play in activist struggles for social change.  Through a series of case studies that will center on issues of race, gender, sexuality, privacy, and class, the course will explore the ways in which digital media intersect with and possibly reconfigure activist practice in the twenty-first century.  This class is also a practicum of sorts, so students will be asked to engage with media making tools and activities in a variety of contexts.  Theory and practice will be integrated across the semester, and each mode of expression will be valued.  Throughout the semester, the guiding frameworks of the class will be those of cultural theory, digital media studies, feminism, and critical race theory, and we will constantly link our exploration of old and new technologies to investigations of social change, aesthetics, and efficacy. 

As we collectively shape the contours of the class, I hope that we will address questions like the following: "How do technologies shape our sense of self and other?", “How does technology impact social organization and forms of community?”, "What continuities exist between activism before and after the web?", "What potential do tactical media offer activists?", "How do digital activism and other forms of activism intersect?", and "Do digital media enable new ways of imagining social change?".

We will also explore the impacts of digital media on strategies for organizing through the exploration of concrete case studies. In order to explore issues of organizational strategy, consensus building, and deliberation, several weeks of the semester are as yet unmapped.  Students in the course will collectively author the contours of these sessions, deciding upon four case studies, assigned readings, hands-on activities, and other materials. We’ll talk more about this process in the next few weeks.

Finally, the course takes seriously the notion that digital media are re-jiggering the relationship between theory and practice, illuminating new possibilities for activism, art, and daily life.  As such, a few hands-on labs and other excursions will give students the opportunity to explore various elements of digital activism, particularly in relation to the creative expression.  A subset of these labs is organized through USC’s Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study.

Required Texts:
All course texts will be freely available online via Blackboard or other resources. There may be some costs for possible field trips during the course.

Classroom Technology Use:
PLEASE BRING A LAPTOP OR TABLET TO ALL CLASSES!!!  That said, please also be aware that I may, at times, ask you to disengage from your devices for focused attention in class.  Thus, it’s also a good idea to have old-fashioned writing supplies on hand.
Class Requirements:

Advance Homework Assignments (30%): 
During the semester, you will be required to post a variety of homework assignments to the class website.  The assignments for the first few weeks are noted below.  Additional assignments will be created for each of our four case studies. You should also feel free post to the website whenever you are moved to do so.  Ideally, the site will become a communal space for the class, one used to address and ponder course themes and to point your peers to interesting and relevant materials.  You are, of course, expected to read the site regularly and to comment on your peers’ posts and assignments.

Participation, Attendance + Labs (10%): 
It should go without saying that students are expected to attend all classes and to arrive at class prepared and ready to participate (i.e. having finished and thought about the day’s materials.)  Absences will affect your grade.  Additionally, all assignments are due on time; late assignments will rarely be accepted. 
Additionally, there will be a few hands-on labs associated with the course.  Some of these will be run through USC’s Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study in Doheny Library. Details on these will be posted on the blog in the next two weeks. Others may be constructed ‘on the fly’ as part of our experiments in flexible course design for the info age. 

Class Session Design (30%):
A significant concern of this class is the exploration of participatory digital activism.  Such activism involves complex dynamics of cooperation, consensus building, organization, and struggle.  In such processes, the virtual and physical intersect and shape one another. How might such endeavors shape the very design of graduate education, particularly in relation to media studies? Might we think of course design differently, as more collaborative and bottom-up?  Presumably, you’re each in this course because you have some interest in digital activism of some type.  I could shape the course via my own predilections and interests but that strikes me as the wrong approach to take given our course themes. Working as a team, we will collaboratively take charge of designing four case studies for the course schedule.  For these weeks, a small group of planners will be responsible (with ongoing input from me and from classmates) for selecting the case studies for review and for selecting readings, screenings, links, field trips, class visitors, or other illustrative materials pertinent for that topic.  You will also design at least one homework activity of some type. You are encouraged to be creative in tackling this portion of the semester.  Some potential topics to get you started might include the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, climate change, electoral politics, indigenous land rights, mass incarceration, sexual violence, trans politics, or Palestinian liberation.  Or you might choose something quite different, busting out of the confines of the seminar space altogether.  For instance, we might choose one case study and pursue it in and beyond the classroom for several weeks.  How would you remake the graduate seminar in the digital age?  What really interests you about activism today?  This is an opportunity to try out your ideas.

Final project (30%):
Students will be required to produce a final project for the class, but the form of this project will be open.  You could produce a conventional seminar paper addressing course themes, but I strongly encourage you to consider other formats that your project might take including the creation of web resources around key issues, a performance, a video, or some type of coordinated action. You should schedule a meeting with me to talk about your ideas for the project at some point during the semester.  We will also discuss this further as the class begins to take a more defined shape.

Course Schedule: 

(Note: hands-on homework assignments are due the day they are listed)

8/23:  Class Introductions
Plus speed dating and case study discussion
Paper Tiger TV, “Oldies and Goodies: A Paper Tiger Sampler”
Ant Farm, Media Burn, 1975 edit,

8/30:  Media Activism before the Web: Guerilla TV, Video Art + Farmworker Futurism
Patricia Mellencamp, “Video Politics: "Guerrilla TV", Ant Farm, "Eternal Frame"
Christine Tamblyn, “Qualifying the Quotidian: Artists Video and the Production of Social Space”
Martha Rosler,  “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment”
Curtis Marez, “Cesar Chavez’s Video Collection” Available online:

Pre-class homework:  Peruse the Paper Tiger TV video archive ( and watch a few videos of interest to you.  Create a 2-5 minute video of your own that addresses an issue of your choosing that in some way reflects the aesthetics and/or tactical strategies of the various activists and artists we’ve read about for this week.    Production values are not the key issue here (as the readings should make obvious.) A “talking head” video is certainly an option if it suits your goals.

9/6:  Media Activism before the Web:  Considering ACT-UP
Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk, From ACT-UP to the WTO (selections)
Alex Juhasz, AIDS TV (selections)
Douglas Crimp, “The Boys in my Bedroom”
John D’Addario, “AIDS, Art and Activism: Remembering Gran Fury” Available online:  (Please follow the links in the article too, particularly the Manifesto and the Art Forum interview.)

Pre-class homework: Look through various sites chronicling the graphic visual strategies used by AIDS activists in the 1980s  (see for instance,  Create a graphic image of some type in relation to an issue you of concern to you.  You may create a purely digital piece or work with other materials (and document the piece photographically.)  Reflect on your design choices in 150-300 words, and post both your image and your rationale to the blog.

9/13:  Activating the Web: Tactical Media + Cyberfeminism
Critical Art Ensemble, Digital Resistance: Explorations in Tactical Media (esp. Intro and Chapters 1-4); online at  (NOTE: this link appears to be down this week.  Try )
Maria Fernandez, Faith Wilding, Michelle M. Wright, eds., a subRosa project,
Domain Errors: Cyberfeminist Practices! [selections: Introduction; Situating Cyberfeminisms; Cyberfeminism, Racism, Embodiment; subRosa Manifestations; Refugia! Manifesto for Becoming Autonomous Zones (BAZ)] Online at

Pre-class homework: Review the Gran Fury Manifesto from week 2 and the Refugia Manifesto from this week.  Create a 1-2 page manifesto for an issue of your choosing and post it to the class blog.

          Emilia, Mary
Required readings:
--Ratto, Matt “Critical Makingfrom Open Design Now (Feel free to browse the whole book!)
--Dunne and Raby, Hertzian Tales, Ch3-4 
--Neff, G., Jordan, T., McVeigh-Schultz, J., Gillespie, T. Affordances, “Technical Agency, and the Politics of Technologies of Cultural Production”  (via Blackboard)
·     --Milberry, Kate. “(Re)making the Internet: Free Software and the Social Factory Hack," in Ratto, M., & Boler, M. (2014). DIY citizenship: Critical Making and Social Media. Chapter 2. (via Blackboard)
      --Luiza Prado de O. Martins, "Questioning the “critical” in Speculative & Critical Design"

Hands-on assignment:

Drawing from the articles assigned for this unit, identify a project you would describe as operating in the spirit of “critical making.”  Prepare a brief, 5-7 minute presentation on this project.  Be sure to explain why you see the project as fitting within the rubric of critical making, why you think the project succeeds and/or fails in this regard, and what might be learned from the project for activist endeavors in the digital age.  Make sure to time your presentation so that you can stay within the time limits.  While not required, you’ll likely want something to “show” while you present: a website, a Powerpoint, etc.  Have these materials easily accessible and ready to go before class begins.

           Emilia, Mary

There are no readings for this week but please engage with the interactive technology, Do Not Track. It has several episodes and will engage you as a viewer/user among several registers.

         Eszter, Maria, Jennifer

  • The Movement for Black Lives Policy Brief + Platform statement.  (Read the Platform and also look other parts of the site.)

Assignment: Everyone should bring a proposal for an activist activity related to #BLM either for the following week or for something to be developed over the next few weeks. Think about the work we've considered thus far, from graphic images to memes to street theater and performance art. The proposals can be for physical activities, digital resources, hybrid forms, etc.

         Eszter, Maria, Jennifer

This Tuesday will be a work session.  You should have received a Google doc link from Eszter that lists tasks as agreed upon in our last class.  If you did not finish the readings/viewings for 10/4, please do so.  Also, if you are in the 10/18 and 10/25 planning group, please get to work on that front too!

           Alia, Biayna

Charlie Furman in class.

Required Readings/Viewings:
-Nick Mirzoeff, “Visualizing the Anthropocene”  from Public Culture (on Blackboard)
-Erin Robinson, “Sharing Stories: The Role of Personal Narratives in Community Mobilization” (Blackboard)
-Beatriz da Costa, “Reaching the Limit: When Art Becomes Science” Chapter 21, Tactical Biopolitics
(Download here, only chapter 21 is for class:
-Pigeonblog by Beatriz da Costa:
-Caustico by Joshua Dawson
-Silent Spring by Liam Young

Additional, optional resources. Our class focus for these two weeks will be on environmental activism and art, so peruse some of these sites for 10/18 and 10/25:

Artists and Climate Change:
Climate Stories Project:
DEL Laboratory:  (esp. see viewbooks under Media Laboratory > Publications)
The Arctic Circle
Indigenous Environmental Network:
The Cape Farewell Project
“Climate Justices Means Real Solidarity”
Green Cloud by HeHe:
Lists of artists working on climate change/the environment (some better than others):
People’s Climate March
Generation Anthropocene: podcast about climate change
Resources on Sustainability and Social Justice:
Democracy Now Compendium on Dakota Access Pipeline:
Timeline of DAPL:

           Alia, Biayna

11/1:  Prepare a one-page prospectus for your final project.  Send it to Tara by 11/7, 5 p.m.  (UPDATE: Class should meet to continue current planning process.)

          Ariel, Amalia, Harry

Sex + the Campus:
Sara Ahmed, Against Students:
Jennifer Doyle, Campus Sex, Campus Security (excerpt)
Artist's Response: Emma Sulkowicz’s Ceci N’est Pas Un Viol,

Broadening the Frame:
Renee Tajima-Peña, “Más Bebés?”: An Investigation of the Sterilization of Mexican-American Women at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center during the 1960s and 70s:

View before class: The Hunting Ground (2015) (available on Netflix)

Additional Optional Resources:
-Syllabus on Rape Culture (a compendium of resources, many historical and arranged by topic):
Hands-on Assignment: Everyone should bring a proposal for an activist activity related the readings and current issue. Given that we have two ongoing activities underway, this proposal should focus on a more discrete, targeted intervention. Such ideas might circle back to strategies we considered when looking at tactical media, visual memes, stickering, etc. Be ready to present your idea along with a rationale for why you are proposing it.

          Ariel, Amalia, Harry

11/22:  SPECIAL GUEST:  Alex Juhasz


Required University Caveats + Info:

Academic Conduct

Plagiarism – presenting someone else’s ideas as your own, either verbatim or recast in your own words – is a serious academic offense with serious consequences. Please familiarize yourself with the discussion of plagiarism in SCampus in Section 11, Behavior Violating University Standards Other forms of academic dishonesty are equally unacceptable. See additional information in SCampus and university policies on scientific misconduct,

Discrimination, sexual assault, and harassment are not tolerated by the university. You are encouraged to report any incidents to the Office of Equity and Diversity or to the Department of Public Safety
safety/online-forms/contact-us. This is important for the safety of the whole USC community. Another member of the university community – such as a friend, classmate, advisor, or faculty member – can help initiate the report, or can initiate the report on behalf of another person. The Center for Women and Men provides 24/7 confidential support, and the sexual assault resource center webpage describes reporting options and other resources.

Support Systems

A number of USC’s schools provide support for students who need help with scholarly writing. Check with your advisor or program staff to find out more. Students whose primary language is not English should check with the American Language Institute, which sponsors courses and workshops specifically for international graduate students.

The Office of Disability Services and Programs provides certification for students with disabilities and helps arrange the relevant accommodations.

If an officially declared emergency makes travel to campus infeasible, USC Emergency Information will provide safety and other updates, including ways in which instruction will be continued by means of blackboard, teleconferencing, and other technology.

Course Exam, Project and Paper Retention Policy

It is the responsibility of all students in Cinema and Media Studies Studies courses to retrieve all papers, projects, assignments and/or exams within one academic year of completion of a course. These records may be essential in resolving grade disputes and incompletes as well as assist in verifying that course requirements have been met. The Cinema and Media Studies Division will dispose of all records from the previous academic year in May of the current academic year. No exceptions. Please be in contact with your TA or Professor about collecting these documents while you are taking the course.