Print Culture 101: A Cheat Sheet and Syllabus

The shortcut to getting up to speed on the debate over the future of reading, writing, and media


Editor's Note: So, people no longer just read ink printed on paper. Now that the electronic word has become embedded in our lives, we have a new perspective on what might have been special and specific about the last few hundred years of information dissemination. Think of this annotated syllabus from C.W. Anderson (@chanders) as your cheat sheet for the print/digital culture debates. (Oh, and I put a special visual treat the end, so make sure you read to the end.)

When I said that I was busy putting a syllabus together for a course on "Print Culture" at CUNY's College of Staten Island this fall, Alexis Madrigal asked me if I'd be willing to share the syllabus development process with the larger online community. I was more than happy to oblige -- and also a little bit scared. It's one thing to put your course outline up at your own website which you're pretty sure no one will read it but your captive students; it's quite another to put yourself out there publicly when you're teaching a class for the first time. But I'm hoping that one of the things this post might do is to serve as a larger space for discussion and feedback about how, exactly, we should teach this history of print media in a digital age. I know there are experts out there -- and I'd love for them to weigh in. As Dan Gilmor wrote in another context, my audience knows more than I do. So help me out in the comments section.

(By the way-- if you're interested to get actual page numbers of the readings and occasional pdf's to download, check out my course website, which be be online sometime early next week).

The specific title of the class is "COM 230: History of Print Media." I'm calling the class "a history of print culture." The primary goal of this class is to teach students about the culture of "print media" in an era when that culture is being joined (and in some cases, overtaken) by a culture that we might variously call digital culture, online culture, or the culture of the web. What does "print" mean in our digital age? And what does "culture," mean, for that matter? By culture I mean something that is not reducible to "economics," "technology," "politics," or "organizations" -- although culture emerges out of the nexus of these different factors, and others.  In other words, I want to disabuse my students of the notion that new technologies or new economic arrangements can create digital or print culture in the same way that a cue ball hits a billiard ball on a pool table.

The second theme of the class is an "anti-eschatological" one. I want to convince my students that different media cultures don't replace each other in any sort of straight line. Rather, a culture of orality joins up with, and mixes with a culture of printing, which itself mixes with (but is not vanquished by) digital culture, and so on. Different technological aspects may predominate in different times and under different circumstances, but they never dominate completely, and old media forms often pop back up in unexpected ways. I think this point was nicely made by Matthew Battles in his series of reviews of Nicholas Carr and Clay Shirky last month. (And in a different context, by Alexis Madrigal, too.)

I also mentioned I wanted to share a caveat, which is this: this is a class for undergraduates, which makes it tough to know how to include certain important readings. For example, take Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. It's a-- perhaps the-- classic book on the arrival of the printing press in Europe in the late 15th century. But unless I want to make my students read all of it, it's hard to know for sure what to excerpt, since so much of the book is concerned with (a) scholarly debates and (b) presumes a certain prior knowledge.

The Books

I'm drawing on four books in this class, and am supplementing them with a number of other readings.The first book, recommended to me by the aforementioned Matt Battles, is A History of the Book in America: Volume III: The Industrial Book, 1840-1880.It's a collection of essays written by prominent historians that deal with various aspects of book culture in the United States in the 19th century. It covers some great subject areas. The second book is A Short History of the Printed Word, by Warren Chappell and Robert Bringhurst. The great thing about this book is that it tackles printing from a technological perspective, talking about the evolution of print from the 1400's to the present. It does a good job of showing that printing has changed over the centuries; it isn't a single, static thing that's now getting replaced by computers. The third book is The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture From Consumerism to Control, by Ted Striphas. Striphas does a nice job of countering some of the techno-determinism present in many proclamations about the digital age, discussing how books and the book industry actually operate in the early 21st century. He's also got a great blog, which I'm thinking will be just as valuable for the class as the book is (which, by the way, you can actually download in Creative Commons format here).

Presented by

C.W. Anderson teaches journalism and media sociology at the College of Staten Island (CUNY). He has also been a visiting fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation. He occasionally writes for Harvard's Nieman Journalism Lab.

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