COMMS 301: Digital Communication and Practice


COMMS 301: Digital Communication and Practice

icon by by H Alberto Gongora


Mondays 3:00 PM421W-201 (Architecture - West, Room 201)


Lecturer: Dr. Ethan Plaut (

Office: Soc. Sci. Bldg 201E-529

Office Hours: Wed. 2:10-3:10 (and by appointment) 



GTA (weeks 1-6) Thomas Lawley (

Office Hours: 4 pm Thursday, ground floor of SocSci (Bldg. 201E level 4) 

 (and by appointment)


GTA (weeks 7-12) Simon Wilton (

Office Hours: 4-5 pm Thursday, SocSci Bldg 201E-525 (and by appointment) 


Brief Description:

Format: 2 hours of lectures + 1 hour of lab / tutorial per week

COMMS 301 combines creative work of making digital objects (e.g., Twitter bots, animated GIFs, data visualizations, slideshow presentations) with critical discussion of online platforms as well as conceptual frameworks for understanding the roles digital media play in society. At the level of “digital logic & computational thinking” students will learn basic programming skills for the web (no prior experience necessary). At the level of “digital media & configurable culture” students will leverage more user-friendly tools to create, remix, and present multimedia work.

Topics & Structure:

This course is divided into two large units of six weeks each.

The first unit, “digital logic & computational thinking,” will focus on different ways of thinking with and about computers. This will include basic programming skills in the Javascript language (no prior experience necessary). This portion of the course concludes with creation of a Twitter Bot and discussions about artificial intelligence. 

The second unit, “digital media & configurable culture,” emphasizes more user-friendly tools to create, remix, and present multimedia work including animated GIFs, data visualizations, slideshow presentations, and more. 

Assessment Summary:

Six assignments of 10-15 points each = 70%

Three in-class quizzes of 10 points each = 30%

No final exams or papers. 

To succeed on assignments and quizzes, students are expected to attend and actively participate in ALL lectures and tutorials.

image by Vectors Market

Assignments will each be very different (please consult the Canvas "Assignments" tab for further details) but will typically include a "digital media object" of some kind plus a paragraph of accompanying text. Assignments will usually be due at 5pm on Sunday nights. This deadline is chosen to encourage students to take the time to do assigned readings before Monday lectures. 

10-point assignments will be graded on this basis: 

  • 5 or 6 points = reasonable but flawed attempt
  • 7 points = satisfactory work in line with expectations for the assignment
  • 8 points = great job! 
  • 9 points = above and beyond expectations
  • 10 points = so amazing it brought tears to your grader's eyes

Submissions with major problems may receive from 0-4 points. Unless noted otherwise in the assignment, assume late submissions are penalized two points per day. If you are sick or have some other extenuating circumstance, you may seek an extension by contacting GTA before the assignment is due. 

The two larger assignments worth 15 points each will be scored in a proportionally similar way (e.g., satisfactory work will receive approx. 11/15 points, etc.) 

Because this class has a large number of small assignments, each one receives a limited amount of feedback. Students are therefore strongly encouraged to come to office hours to discuss their work in more depth with Ethan and the GTAs. 

img by Oksana Latysheva

Quizzes will be held during lecture and may cover any and all readings, lectures and other materials addressed in the course up to and including the day of the quiz

There will also be two required  but ungraded  homework assignments in Javascript programming. Completing and understanding these assignments is essential to success, especially on quizzes #1 & #2.

Why is this class structure so WEIRD — and how do I succeed in it?

A paper and an exam would not be the right way to teach and assess this material. Instead, our small projects incrementally build on and relate to each other week after week as you develop new skills and ways of understanding. 

This can feel demanding on a week-by-week basis, but at the end of the semester, when your other classes are stressful, this one won't be! 

Although we do not formally take attendance, this course is designed for learning through active participation, and the requirement for consistent, weekly work to succeed includes doing the readings beforehand so you can actively participate in all lectures and tutorials. Please note that we will not usually provide lecture videos or presentation slides. Please do not ask for them.

tl;dr: If you consistently do the readings before Monday class, take meticulous notes in lecture, work in your labs, pay attention to information sent out via Canvas announcements, and submit work before it's due, you'll thrive in this course and learn a ton! 

How To Communicate With Us & Each Other:

Even if you don't have any questions to ask, please come to both Ethan's and the GTAs' office hours. Talking to students is the loveliest part of academia, but for those conversations to happen, you have to show up!  Feel free to bring a random friend or a long list of questions or a sandwich, whatever makes you comfortable, just be sure you come. 

GTA office hours will be held in an open space (probably the big lounge area of the social science building) so you can just show up, work on your own, and ask questions as they arise. 

Although talking face to face is our favorite way to communicate with students, you can also ask questions on our Piazza site. Two ways to find that:

  1. Within Canvas find "Piazza" in the navigation bar
  2. Skip Canvas and go straight to Piazza here: 
    • LINK TBA

Piazza is the fastest way to get answers to most kinds of questions because you can get feedback from fellow students, both of your GTAs, and Ethan all in the same place. We strongly encourage you to answer each other's questions on Piazza! 

Of course you can also email us, especially for personal matters or if the question seems inappropriate to share with the larger group. This guide to emailing your teachers is full of good advice. 

Also: Just be kind. University can be wondrous, especially if we all support each other, but students also struggle in silence with all kinds of things we don't know about each other. (Your teachers are human, too). Respect each other's cultures and identities to build a little community in which we can make mistakes and laugh together. Also, when things get complicated, you can always talk to Ethan about anything at all, and of course the university provides support for both personal and academic issues

Other Important Stuff:

We expect your best original work, held to the high standards laid out in the Student Charter, university policy on academic integrity and copyright, etc. If you are unfamiliar with any of these policies, please look here. The standards for plagiarism and citation when submitting code may be especially unfamiliar, and when creating digital media projects, copyright concerns are often complex, so please ask us questions about these things. (Word of advice: err to the side of caution by citing everything that might be construed as a source in your student work). 

Accessibility and Inclusion: Everyone should be able to succeed in the class. 
If some form of accommodation is needed for you to thrive in here and do your best work, please let me know. Folks with non-visible disabilities are especially encouraged to reach out so we know to consider your needs. I also recognize that parenting and being a student at the same time can be difficult. Breast-feeding babies are always welcome in class, and although we cannot regularly accommodate other children, you are welcome to bring a child to class if there are last-minute unforeseeable disruptions to childcare (e.g., the normal caregiver falls ill without adequate time to find someone else). 

Personal Needs: Students' performance can be compromised when they have trouble securing housing, food, and other basic needs. The Faculty of Arts Student Development and Engagement team is available to help with these issues and otherwise provide support when personal issues overwhelm academic responsibilities. If you are comfortable in telling Ethan about these issues, he will also try to find ways to help. 

P.S. - Syllabi are strange documents. I agree with almost everything Sonya Huber says here in her "Shadow Syllabus" (even if I might say it a bit differently). 

image credits: H Alberto Gongora (hand) Vectors Market (woman speaking) Oksana Latysheva (chatbots) via

Course summary:

Date Details Due