COM 371 • Civic Media

“Our visions of technology and design and entertainment and creativity have to be married with visions of humanity, compassion and justice.”

Bryan Stevensen

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Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

Office: Bronstein Hall, third floor
Office hours: Wednesday, 10-12; Tuesday 2-3;  and by appointment (e-mail me)
e-mail: (Please allow at least 24 hours for a response. If you don’t get one by then, e-mail me again.) You can also get me on twitter at @jmikelyons.

Course Description

Digital media and the Internet have opened a multitude of new ways for people to engage with issues they care about, everything from repression in the Middle East to homelessness in their neighborhoods. Powerful tools of media production and distribution are in the hands of ordinary people. This is liberating (more people communicating), but it also makes it hard to get your ideas heard (more people communicating).

This course focuses on what people and organizations are doing – or not doing – with this new communicative power. We will observe, listen to and read about how citizens, community groups and governments are using digital tools and platforms to create “civic media,” any media – from graffiti to blogs to Twitter – that intersects the broad areas of participatory digital communication and civic action.

Image from Joanna Kao.

Course Objectives

Our goal by the end of the course is that you will:

  • Develop an in-depth understanding of how digital media is being used to foster civic engagement and social change.
  • Understand the historical antecedents of the contemporary use of digital media for social change.
  • Track and analyze online conversations and action related to civic engagement.
  • Create and share media that contributes to the understanding and awareness of a social issue important to you.


No book is required for the course. Instead we will use a bunch of different articles, podcasts, films, video etc. Many are included in the schedule and more will be added.


Reading/Watching/Listening Responses 

This course requires a lot of media consumption, including reading, watching and listening to assigned texts (these could be book chapters, articles, podcasts, films, etc.). I am asking each of you to respond in writing (or audio) to the reading/viewing/listening that we do for class and share those responses with me in a Google doc. The intention here is to help you express what you did and didn’t understand about the reading, identify some key concepts and terms that are important to know in a discussion of civic media and pose some discussion questions about the readings. Your reading responses are due two hours before class and are due whether you are in class or not.

These reading notes are a fairly substantial piece of your grade, so don’t go out to lunch on them.

Transit ethnography

I will require you to go on a sort of scavenger hunt using SEPTA. I will give you the route and what you need to do. The idea here is to get your feet wet with ethnography as well. Stay tuned on this one.

Project proposal

You and your group will research, write and present a detailed proposal for a civic media project to address a chronic social problem in Philadelphia.


Changemaker profile

You will interview someone in Philadelphia related to the issue you are focusing on who is using media and communication for social change.


Your grade will be determined through a combination of the following:

• Reading Responses/Participation (35 percent)
• Transit Ethnography (10 percent)
• Stakeholder interview (10 percent)
• Midterm (10 percent)
• Final project (35 percent)

Participation and Attendance

Our success as a class requires that everyone attend prepared to contribute. That means having done the readings and required reading notes.

I take attendance. You get three unexcused absences. After that, each absence will result in the loss of half a letter grade. More than five unexcused absences will result in a failing grade.


Projects and assignments are due on the date listed on the schedule. Each day late will result in a letter grade deduction. Reading notes are due two hours before class. They will not be accepted after that.

Academic Integrity

No form of academic misconduct will be tolerated in this course. Cheating and plagiarism will result in an immediate fail and you will be reported to the appropriate official in your college. Plagiarism is defined in the Student Code of Conduct as follows:

1. Submitting another’s published or unpublished work in whole, in part or in paraphrase, as one’s own without fully and properly crediting the author with footnotes, quotation marks, citations, or bibliographical reference.

2. Submitting as one’s own original work, material obtained from an individual or agency without reference to the person or agency as the source of the material.

3. Submitting as one’s own original work material that has been produced through unacknowledged collaboration with others without release in writing from collaborators.

Special Needs

As the father of a child with a learning disability, I am very sensitive to the needs of students with special needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact me about accommodations.

For those who have or think that you may have a disability (learning, physical or psychological), you are encouraged to contact the Office of Student Disability Services as early as possible in the semester. Reasonable accommodations can only be offered to students with current (within 3 years) documentation of the disability and to the extent that such accommodation does not interfere with the essential requirements of a particular course or program.

If you have any questions contact the Office of Student Disability Services.