An Intentional Media Diet

Christina Serkowski
University Prep, English Department


It's not just that we are what we eat, it's that we are what we consume. In the same way that the food we eat becomes our bodies, the media to which we pay attention, and the conversations in which we choose to engage become ourselves. The variety, quantity, and speed of media available to us has grown exponentially; our ability to intentionally choose how we participate in it, arguably has not. Using the lens that "the medium is the message," we examine how changes in communications technologies have shaped society and culture, with particular focus on the effects of digital, networked technologies. Students will assess their own diet of media to better understand what they are "consuming" and how, and will round out the course with an exploration of ways we can be more intentional in our media consumption and participation.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
high school

Course Context:

This course is designed for high school juniors and seniors in a college-prep curriculum but could easily be adapted to lower-division, college-level courses. This course is one of five options offered in the semester that count toward the students' English credit graduation requirement, though the content is interdisciplinary.

Course Content:

1. Introduction

Initial exploration into topics and questions of the course, including a) Why and how we communicate, b) "Passive" vs "critical" consumption, c) Conceptual metaphors: media as a diet; technology as a tool vs. technology as a relationship, d) How communications technologies have shaped human beings as individuals and societies

2. Mural Timeline of Media History

Individuals and small groups create entries for a wall-sized mural timeline to include developments in communications technology as well as key figures, concepts, and vocabulary.

3. Digital, Networked Technologies

Introduction to a variety of critiques and analyses with a focus on the role of smartphones. Students observe and collect data on their own habits of technology use.

4. "The medium is the message"

We consider Leonard Shlain's thesis (chapters 1-3) in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess as an example of "the medium is the message."

5. Digital, Networked Technologies, cont.

Return to the topic of digital, networked technologies applying the lens of "the medium is the message." Explore the role of advertising, programming, "brain hacking," addiction, social interaction, access to information.

6. TAPS Writing Project (mid-term project)

The "TAPS" structure for a writing project helps students keep the important aspects of any communication in mind, and the framework allows for student choice. For example, with this project, all students chose a topic within the broad category of "digital, networked technologies" (the only element of the writing project that was a common requirement). They then made choices about the other categories based on their specific topic and interests. Some students wrote an editorial, some wrote a speech to a specific audience, some wrote an academic research paper, etc.

Because this was a research-based writing project, student investment and the quality of the final writing improves dramatically when students are able to pursue their interests and address an audience that they find compelling. Because students researched different topics and then shared with the class, we were able to broaden our exposure to topics related to digital, networked technologies.

7. Amusing Ourselves to Death

Beginning with a unit on epistemology, students explore Postman's thesis (in his classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death) that television (and now cable TV and the internet) has destroyed reasonable public discourse and whether/how this thesis is applicable to the nature of public discourse in our society today. Discussion includes an examination of the 24-hour news cycle, the role of advertising, and the effects of social media.

(NOTE: The number of references from the 1980's made this book a particularly challenging read, in addition to the abstract topics he addresses. This is not a high school level text.)

8. Contemplation and Reflection

Students engage in a variety of activities meant to stimulate reflection on their media habits and influence as well as provide opportunities to explore different habits. Students write short reflection responses after each exercise to include in a portfolio of writing.

9. Social Networking & the Power of Networks

We continually returned to the role that social networking platforms and digital communications play in the students' experience, so we ended our studies with one last look at these tools, including ways social media has been used to manipulate people's perspectives, and the hidden influence that our networks have on our individual and collective experience.

10. Final Response

Students choose one specific topic from the semester and write an inductive essay exploring how their thinking about this topic has developed over the semester. OR Students compose a media manifesto after reading the book, Program or Be Programmed.

Course Goals:

  1. Students will develop a basic understanding of what "the medium is the message" means through the exploration of several examples.
  2. Students will be able to critically evaluate the ways different media technologies change the nature of the act of communication, and how the medium influences and shapes both the communicator and the audience.
  3. Students will develop a basic understanding of epistemology and how communications technologies shape our understanding of and interaction with the concept of "truth."
  4. Students will examine the ways digital, networked technologies are designed and programmed, including the ways this programming is designed to take advantage of our emotions and the potential impact on mental health.
  5. Students will become more aware of the ways they personally engage with media and technology and how their habits influence and shape their lifestyle and relationships.
  6. Students will be better able to choose, with intention, how to use digital, networked technologies and be more informed in ways to help shape how we develop and use these tools in the future.

Course Features:

A major goal of this course is to provides students with the opportunity to observe and reflect on their own habits. To that end, students engage in a variety of reflection and observation exercises. These exercises could be done together as a unit, or interspersed with other course content.

Body, Mind, Spirit Self-Reflection
This is a heuristic exercise to help students reflect upon the health -- and relative health -- of their body, mind, and spirit. It is helpful to have students collectively define these terms and consider what "health" in each of these categories might look like before completing this exercise for themselves. Students can return to this reflection throughout the course.

Media Habits Reflection and Pie Chart 1
This exercise prompts students to reflect on their habits around news, entertainment and connection. After first reflecting, students translate their reflections into a pie chart.

Media Habits Reflection and Pie Chart 2
This is similar to the previous reflection tool, but assumes that students have reflected on these habits already and provides them with the pie chart format.

Tracking Your Time
Students did gut-level assessments of their habits at the beginning of the course. This exercise asks students to track and more deliberately gather data on their habits. This specific tracking could also be done on the first round of reflection at the beginning of the quarter. The student buy-in to this level of precious tracking was more robust after they had learned how "habit-forming" certain media tools can be. This tracking could also be broken up week-by-week to have students focus on how much time they spend on one specific activity one week at a time. After tracking their time more closely, a media "fast" of some kind was a suggested option. The logistical hurdles to fasting from media during the term were complicated -- ironically.

Media Habits Discussion Questions
These questions formed the basis for small group conversations and later a whole-class seminar on media habits.

Individual Experiments
This activity asked students to create a communication experiment, to determine a new ways of communicating and try it out for a while. Call your friend each evening instead of texting; start a Snapchat "streak" if you never have before; write a letter to your parents about your week.

New Ways to Communicate

This is similar to the "Individual Experiments" above, but is focused on individual, personal communication.

Video Self Observation
This exercise asks students to video record themselves when they know they will be multitasking online. Afterwards, students watched the video of themselves multitasking and wrote a reflection on what they saw in their body language and expressions as they worked.

This exercise asked students to go on an hour-long walk, by themselves, with no companion, pet, or media device of any kind. Afterwards, students wrote a reflection about their experience.

Course Philosophy:

Teenagers today are deeply immersed in technologies with which most of the adults in their lives are much less familiar. They are "digital natives" and engage in online spaces that many adults don't even know exist. However, just because we have labelled them "natives" doesn't mean they know or understand the worlds they now inhabit. Teenagers are not aware of the programming and psychological manipulation that underlies social media platforms. They are not aware of the increasing focus on the self and the need to "curate" a life that seems better than reality ... because they have always done it. They are not aware of how much time their smartphones take up and how these tools are affecting their physical, mental, and emotional health. The good news is that teens today are well aware that these tools present serious challenges and they are eager to engage questions around digital technology use. Many students have expressed the opinion that a course like this should be mandatory before high school graduation. If they haven't had media studies in any depth in high school, perhaps we can catch them before they graduate from college!


Students wrote regular short reflection and response papers and participated in both small-group discussions and whole-class seminars.

Pair summary of Shlain's argument
After studying the main thesis in Leonard Schlain's book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess, student summarize the key pieces of evidence Schlain used to build his argument.

TAPS writing project overview
The TAPS writing project format (Topic, Audience, Purpose/Platform, Style) allows students the opportunity to play with different voices and contexts in writing, helping them to internalize the importance of the platform for delivery of ideas and the most effective way to reach their intended audience.

Amusing Ourselves to Death chapter teaching
After establishing a theoretical foundation and engaging some of the critiques of digital, networked technologies, the class reads Amusing Ourselves to Death, a critique of television culture that is relevant today as well. As it turns out, the reading level of the book was beyond high school level, so we shifted into groups where students read one chapter carefully and in depth and then taught it to the class. The irony of not fully reading the primary book in the course was not lost on any of us...

Final Semester Response
Student compiled their reflection writing throughout the semester, reviewed all that they had written, and wrote one last response piece.

Independent Project
The individual, independent project allows students to explore an area of interest as well as decide how they would most like to convey their learning.


References and Notes:

Carr, Nicholas. "Does the Internet Make You Smarter or Dumber?" Wall Street Journal, Eastern ed., 5 June 2010. ProQuest. Accessed 12 Dec. 2017.

Case, Amber. "We Are All Cyborgs Now." Dec. 2010. TEDWomen, Dec. 2010, Speech.

Christakis, Nicholas. "The Hidden Influence of Social Networks." Feb. 2010. TED, Feb. 2010, Speech.

Davis, Katie, et al. "In Defense of Complexity: Beware of Simplistic Narratives about Teens and Technology." Medium, 13 Aug. 2017, Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

Gardner, Howard, and Katie Davis. The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. Yale UP, 2014.

The Internet's Own Boy. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, 2014.

Levy, David M. Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives. Yale UP, 2016.

McLuhan, Marshall. The Medium Is the Massage [sic]. Compiled by Quentin Fiore, edited by Jerome Agel, 1996 ed., Gingko Press, 1967.

Murphy, Kate. "No Time to Think." New York Times, 25 July 2014, Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

"Net Neutrality: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." YouTube,

"Nosedive." Black Mirror, season 3, episode 1. Netflix.

Pariser, Eli. "Beware online 'filter bubbles.'" TED, Speech.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 2005 ed., Penguin, 1985.

Rushkoff, Douglas. Program or Be Programmed. Soft Skull Press, 2010.

"The Sea Gypsies." CBS News: 60 Minutes,

Shirky, Clay. "Does the Internet Make You Smarter or Dumber?" Wall Street Journal, Eastern ed., 5 June 2010. ProQuest.

Shlain, Leonard. The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. Penguin, 1998.

"60 Minutes: Brain Hacking." Vimeo,

"Things I Mean to Know." This American Life,

Turkle, Sherry. "Connected, but alone?" TED, Speech

---. Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. Penguin, 2015.

Twenge, Jean M. "Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?" The Atlantic, Sept. 2017, Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.

Willingham, Daniel T. "Smartphones Don't Make Us Dumb." New York Times, 20 Jan. 2015, Accessed 1 Dec. 2017.