Course redesign

I am revamping my courses for the next semester. First up is media interpretation and criticism. I just submitted a course redesign grant (fingers crossed), and here it is, in all its glory


Media Interpretation and Criticism is offered by the Department of Communication. It is listed in the common curriculum within “Understanding the Arts and Literature – Visual Arts, Music, Performance and Aesthetic Production.” It is also one of the foundational courses for the major in communication. Students who complete the course should:

  1. Understand how media texts are constructed.
  2. Interpret media texts, applying communication theories regarding aesthetics, interpretation, and criticism.
  3. Understand the role of ideology in shaping the creation and interpretation of messages, and the role of messages in shaping ideology
  4. Use visual, rhetorical, and technological means to produce media texts.
  5. Recognize the role of active audiences in using media messages to construct meaning and personal identity.

The course redesign incorporates Media Interpretation and Criticism into the Trinity Food Project, “a coalition of students, faculty, support staff, and administrators at Trinity University, provides an inter- and multi-disciplinary lens through which to explore the numerous issues surrounding food” (Trinity Food Project, 2012). Media Interpretation and Criticism supports the TFP’s goals through its combination of theory and practical experience.

Proposed changes

Media Interpretation and Criticism covers two areas: (1) Visual storytelling and graphic design, and (2) theoretical approaches to media interpretation. These components support the goals of the course, and will remain in place. The proposed changes address the following: (1) exploring theories of media interpretation through the lens of food, (2) providing practical experience in graphic design, data visualization, and visual storytelling.

Food as an exploration of theory

For the purposes of this course, media interpretation is a purposeful activity, which is informed by theory.  This includes semiotics, rhetorical analysis, queer theory and other approaches that students can use to examine media content.  In the redesigned course, students will be exposed to a key text (for example, Hall’s The Work of Representation), and will be given additional readings that illustrate the concept(s) through food. The following table provides some examples (see bibliography for full citation):

Topic Primary readings Additional readings
Graphic design/visual storytelling Dick – Selection from “Film, space and image” Kaufman, Debbie does Salad.
Meaning making (representation) Stuart Hall, The work of representation Kniazeva, M., & Belk, R. W.Retzinger, J
Ideology Mittell, Screening America Mohrfeld, J., & Leverette, M
Gender Trujillo (hegemonic masculinity)Ott & Mack, feminist theory SwensonParkin
Queer theory Ott & Mack, Queer analysis To be determined
Race / ethnicity Ewen & Ewen Deck
Postmodernism O’Donnell Miles

Assessment will be take place through two types of activities.

1. Low stakes assignments: Two pass-fail assignments will assess student mastery of the material. First, students are expected to contribute regularly to an online discussion group, where they can share insights and examples that illustrate core concepts, or add to ongoing discussions. They will also complete a series of guided reading responses, whereby they receive two to three questions about the reading, or are asked to deconstruct a media text applying a concept they have read about. These assignments are to be completed outside of class.

2. Theory rage comics: Rage comics are web comics that can be generated easily online. They are commonly used to tell stories. However, comics can also support other learning goals in this course. In this assignment, students will create rage comics to illustrate key concepts within theories covered in class (e.g., encoding/decoding). Students will deliver a 10-minute presentation explaining the concept through the comic. A short 3-to-5-page essay will also be required.  The essay explains the concept, and review contemporary examples of its application in scholarly work.  This assignment will be further developed in Deconstructing Food Advertisements, as it lays the basis for a literature review.

Food as a practical introduction to graphic design and storytelling

One of the goals of the course is to introduce principles, tools and techniques of graphic design and visual storytelling. These activities help students become more aware of the constructed nature of media messages, by creating their own content. Students will complete the following activities:

1. My food poster

Students will document their eating habits for a period of seven days. They will then create an 11 x 17 inch poster illustrating their food/beverage consumption, including information about the nutritional value of food and/or its origin. A short essay detailing their creative decision-making process will accompany the poster. This activity assesses student grasp of graphic design principles (e.g., rule of thirds, contrast, affinity, repetition). An additional benefit might be greater self-awareness about food consumption, nutrition, eating habits, or food sources.

2. Delicious peanut butter & jelly sandwich commercial

Media interpretation and criticism introduces visual storytelling. In the past, the course’s final editing project has been the creation of parody trailers of popular films. In the re-designed course, students will be working in groups to create a 30-to-60 second video that applies a theory and/or concept from the course to an advertisement for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. An alternative version of this assignment would have students create a slide show using power point or keynote. This version will be used in the event of scheduling conflicts and/or equipment availability issues.

Deliverables include: (1) A complete storyboard detailing various shot sizes, locations, sound design, and camera movement, (2) the video itself, and (3) An individual paper detailing the creative process (decisions, technical requirements, difficulties, and suggestions for dealing with common problems). This paper must also explain how theory informed the video. The PB&J project assesses students’ grasp of theory, and their ability to apply principles of graphic design and visual storytelling, including shot composition, basic editing techniques, including the rudiments of sound design. For communication majors, this lays the groundwork for more advanced production courses. For non-majors, it reinforces an awareness of the constructed nature of media.

3. Deconstructing food advertisements

This assignment introduces students to textual analysis, which is a common method of media interpretation. In textual analysis, we are asked to look at the media from a theory-informed perspective, in order to uncover the dominant reading of a text.  Textual analysis also considers the contexts of production and distribution of a text. The textual analysis will assess the following: (1) grasp of theory and ability to produce theory-informed criticism, (2) critical thinking and argumentation, as students must provide evidence as to why they believe their interpretation represents a dominant reading, (3) information literacy, as students must expand their understanding of theories discussed in class through their own research, which will be presented as a short literature review.


Jan 16 – Class starts
Feb 8 – You are what you eat project
Feb 28 – Theory rage comic
March 8 – Delicious PB&J project pitches
March 28 – Deconstructing food advertisements
April 10 – Delicious PB&J Storyboards
May 10 – Delicious PB&J videos and papers
Low stakes assignments are ongoing.

Selected bibliography

Deck, A.A. (2001). “Now then – who said biscuits?” The black woman cook as fetish in American advertising.  In S. A. Inness (Ed.) Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, pp. 69-93. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Ewen, S & Ewen, E. (2008). Tablier Rasa. In S. Ewen & E. Ewen, Typecasting: On the arts and sciences of human inequality (rev. ed). New York, NY: Seven Stories Press

Hall, Stuart. The work of representation

Kaufman, Debbie does Salad. The Food Network at the Frontiers of Pornography

Kniazeva, M., & Belk, R. W. (2007). Packaging as Vehicle for Mythologizing the Brand. Consumption, Markets & Culture,10(1), 51-69. doi:10.1080/10253860601164627

Miles, E. (1993). Adventures in the Postmodernist Kitchen: The Cuisine of Wolfgang Puck. Journal Of Popular Culture, 27(3), 191-203.

Mohrfeld, J., & Leverette, M. (2008). Imbibo Ergo Sum: New Belgium Brewery and the Myths of McEmpire (Joint Top Paper). Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1.

Retzinger, J. (2010). Spectacles of Labor: Viewing Food Production through a Television Screen. Environmental Communication, 4(4), 441-460. doi:10.1080/17524032.2010.520020

O’Donnell, V (2007). Postmodernism. In V. O’Donnell, Television Criticism. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage

Ott, B.L & Mack, R.L (2010). Queer Analysis. In B.L. Ott & R.L Mack, Critical media studies: An introduction.

Ott, B.L & Mack, R.L (2010). Feminist theory. In B.L. Ott & R.L Mack, Critical media studies: An introduction.

Parkin, K (2001). Campbell’s soup and the long shelf life of traditional gender roles. In S. A. Inness (Ed.) Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race, pp. 50-67. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Swenson, R. (2009). Domestic Divo? Televised Treatments of Masculinity, Femininity and Food. Critical Studies In Media Communication,26(1), 36-53. doi:10.1080/15295030802684034