Today, in an environment of web-enhanced workplaces, schools, and shopping malls, we routinely speak of living in an "information society". But what does this term mean and where did it come from?

How has information -- in oral, print, broadcast, and now digital/networked forms -- been tied to notions of democracy, capitalism, social justice, and "progress" in American history?

And if we really are living in a "information society," a "postindustrial society," or a "networked society" today, what does such a world mean for our understandings of our fragmented selves, our cultural affiliations, and our social responsibilities to each other?

Through both lecture and discussion, both readings and films, and both offline and online experiences, this course will guide students in interrogating the information society.

As a Comm-B course open to all majors, students will both experiment with new personal publishing tools like weblogs and wikis, and hone more traditional skills of academic argument and presentation.

Key goals

Besides introducing you to some key concepts for thinking critically about information in modern global, technological society, LIS 201 serves two particular functions:

  • Communication-B requirement. No matter what your major or eventual career, each of you will need to communicate clearly and effectively through the spoken and written word. This course fulfills the campus Communications-B requirement for these skills. You will spend time outside class, as well as in weekly discussion sections, refining your critical communication skills through oral presentations, written assignments, peer review, and revision. Please note, however, that our TAs are not expected to teach you the basics of spelling, grammar, usage, and proper sentence construction. (That's what high school is for.) 
  • Digital Studies Certificate. An interdisciplinary group of faculty has put together a new Digital Studies Undergraduate Certificate involving a range of courses offered by various L&S departments: Art, Communication Arts, English, Journalism & Mass Communication, and Library & Information Studies, just to name a few. LIS 201 is designed to count for this new certificate program (in fact, it makes a good introduction to the field!) 

Hybrid organization

LIS 201 is a new and somewhat experimental "hybrid" course -- even though it is meant for on-campus, full-time students, it contains some elements of online education usually used for "distance" or "asynchronous" learning. What this means in practice is that our four-credit course is divided into three bite-sized portions each week:

  • A weekly 75-minute lecture by the professor every Tuesday. We don't normally take attendance in this lecture but anything said here is fair game for quizzes and tests, so you really should show up. Take notes, and if you miss a day, get the notes from a friend. The professor will post copies of lecture slides to the web site on the day after each lecture, but these slides only summarize and do not capture all of the content of a live lecture. And if you bring your laptop to lecture, follow Twitter hashtag #uwlis201 to participate in a realtime conversation about lecture. 
  • A weekly 75-minute discussion section with your TA during the time you registered for. These sections are capped at 18 students each, so you will get to know your peers as you practice your public speaking and academic writing skills. You will also discuss each week's lectures and readings in discussion section. See the course timetable for section times and locations. 
  • An independent online activity to be completed each weekend. Usually this will be a sort of online scavenger hunt with detailed instructions to read, view, and explore various web resources. You will write up the results of your online activities on your discussion section weblog, and comment on the experiences of your fellow students.  

Electronic resources

As a hybrid course, LIS 201 utilizes many new media technologies. We do this both to deliver the class in a way that alters the traditional space-time relations of education (allowing you to participate at a distance, or at odd hours, or asynchronously, or through written text) and to expose students to some of the many collaborative online tools in use today.

We choose "outside" tools on purpose, because we want you to become familiar with systems "at large" in the world, not just at UW-Madison. Sometimes these tools may not work as well as we would like; we should consider these moments of reflection, not frustration.

Please note that most of these tools are publicly visible, so students (and instructors) should practice a civil and respectful tone. Always be aware when you might be revealing personally identifiable information.

  • This class-wide web site and news feed, listing the assignments and schedule for the whole semester. Bookmark this web site in your browser, and use it as a regular reference! 
  • A class-wide file repository storing electronic versions of the required and optional readings, as well as downloadable slides and video associated with each week's online lectures.  (Click here to explore the file repository.)
  • A discussion section blog for students to collaboratively ponder the readings and write about online assignments. Blogs are publicly visible; even the authors of your assigned readings might stumble across them.
  • A discussion section wiki for students to post written drafts of papers and view their digitally-recorded speeches. The wikis are not publicly visible; only your classmates and instructors will see your work.

To participate in a class with all of these electronic tools, you will need to have regular access to a computer. All of the UW dorms have their own computer labs, and you may also use the College Library computer lab.

There are plenty of other software tools available on campus for producing and consuming online content. Check out the DoIT software training for students web site for ideas.

Discussion sections

LIS 201 relies on five instructors: the professor plus four paid graduate teaching assistants (TAs). Graduate students must apply for the job of TA in our class.  Not only do they come with extensive new meida and writing experience, but also they receive intensive pedagogical training at the start of each semester.  Each TA manages two discussion sections of up to 18 students a piece (the professor only manages one). The TAs and the professor meet regularly every week, and both the professor and the TAs hold regular in-person office hours.

Each section has its own blog, where students can discuss weekly readings and respond to weekly online assignments.  (Links to these are on the sidebar to the right.)

Each section also has its own wiki, where students can assemble and present the materials relating to their readings, papers, peer reviews, slideshow, and final book review.  (Links to these are also on the sidebar to the right.)

We encourage students to communicate with us through email; however, please compose your email as if you were writing a short letter or office memo, and not as if you were text-messaging a friend. You should plan on at least a 24-hour turn-around on emails (longer over weekends).

See the sidebar on the right for links to your discussion section blog and wiki.

Texts to purchase

There is no textbook for this course. Instead, we will read key articles on the information society selected by the instructor. We have produced a xeroxed, non-profit, bound "reader" for you to purchase from Student Print containing these articles. The reader should cost about $35, which is half to one-third the cost of a standard textbook. You can expect anywhere from 25-75 pages of reading (two or three articles) each week.

UW-Madison students may also download any of the required or optional readings as PDF files (you will need your standard UW NetID login and password) by clicking on the titles of the readings in the syllabus.   However, all students are expected to bring a paper copy of each week's readings to discussion section.

You will use these articles as the basis for your speaking assignments, as resources for your writing assignments, and as study material for exams. Read them.

Book to purchase

Besides two articles each week from your course reader, each student will choose and read a full-length book dealing with the information society. Your book may be either fiction or non-fiction, but it needs to be a substantial and serious work. You will choose your book as part of your online assignment during the middle of the semester.  Your chosen book must be approved by your section TA.

Because several students may decide to choose the same book and local libraries may not have enough copies, you should plan on purchasing this book (which will likely cost about $15). You may wish to order this book through a local independent bookstore (like the University Bookstore or Rainbow Books) or through an online bookseller (like Amazon).

Special needs

Persons with disabilities are to be fully included in thiscourse. Please let me know if you need any special accommodations to enable you to fully participate. I will try to maintain confidentiality of the information you share with me. To request academic accomodations, please register with the McBurney Disability Resource Center.

Academic honesty

Academic honesty requires that the course work a student presents to an instructor honestly and accurately indicates the student's own academic efforts. If you are unsure about what qualifies as academic dishonesty, consult the Academic Misconduct Guide for Students.

Two points in particular to keep in mind:

  • copying, patch-writing, or paraphrasing material from books, articles, or web pages without proper quotation and citation is plagiarism 
  • copying, patch-writing, or paraphrasing material from fellow students, even material posted online, is plagiarism 

While we encourage students to use both their course wikis and in-person meetings to study for the exam together, remember that the essays you write in class and that you turn in for paper assignments should be your own. If, for example, a student were to turn in an assignment or write an exam essay that was drawn verbatim or near-verbatim from the social networking web site Study Blue, that would be a clear case of academic misconduct.

Any plagiarism may be sufficient grounds for failing a student in the entire course.

Classroom respect

The UW-Madison is committed to creating a dynamic, diverse and welcoming learning environment for all students and has a non-discrimination policy that reflects this philosophy. To be disrespectful in behavior or comments addressed towards any group or individual, regardless of race/ethnicity, sexuality, gender, religion, ability, or any other difference is unacceptable in this class, and will be addressed publicly by the professor.

Laptop policy

I believe that in the modern university, and especially in a class on the information society, laptops, PDAs, and other digital devices can be acceptable student tools for notetaking and realtime online research in the lecture hall.

However, with ubiquitous, broadband, wireless Internet connections, laptops also pose a unique temptation to inattention and disrespect, providing the ability to check Facebook, shop for vintage Star Wars minifigures, or play Kingdom of Loathing while someone else is spending time and money to provide you with a quality educational experience. And you need to realize that what seems like private web-browsing to you appears like an effective 32" television screen of distraction to the students sitting close beside and behind you.

Because of this, I have several rules for laptops in lecture:

  • The front few rows of the lecture hall will be laptop-free zones. Students who wish to listen and take notes by hand should not have to stare at your glossy LED widescreen. 
  • If you wish to spend the whole lecture surfing the web, please skip class instead. You wouldn't come to lecture and sit hidden behind a printed newspaper for 75 minutes, would you? Show us the same respect with your laptop. 
  • If you have your laptop online during lecture, make use of that wifi connection for course purposes. Fact-check what I'm saying and raise your hand if you find an alternative explanation or point of view. Offer up additional information or questions. Or follow the topic #uwlis201on Twitter to engage in a realtime side-conversation on the lecture. 
  • Donate your extra laptop processor power to a useful research cause. Download the free BOINC research software and mobilize your computer's in-between processor cycles to help scientists fold proteins, decode DNA sequences, or search the universe for ET. 

Military call-ups

We recognize that those students serving in the armed forces may be called to active duty at any time. The university has posted guidelines for students who are called to duty detailing options for withdrawing from, dropping, or completing courses. In general, students called to military service may receive credit for this class if leaving after the midway point of the course, at the discretion of the instructor, based on the student's earned grade up to the time of departure.


In an effort to reduce our waste production, we will not be handing out paper syllabi in LIS 201 and students will submit rough drafts of papers to their discussion section wiki for online peer review.

In addition, our course reader is printed on recycled paper, which costs students one cent more per page than non-recycled paper.

About the professor

Greg Downey is a professor with a 50 percent appointment in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and a 50 percent appointment in the School of Library and Information Studies. His teaching and research both center on the history and geography of information and communication technology and the often hidden human labor behind it.

Downey joined the UW faculty in 2001. He holds a B.S. and M.S. in computer science from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, an M.A. In liberal studies from Northwestern University, and a joint Ph.D. in history of technology and human geography from the Johns Hopkins University. Before coming to Madison, Downey spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography and the Humanities Institute at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

His industry experience as a computer analyst includes three years at the Leo Burnett advertising agency in Chicago, and three years at Roger Schank's Institute for Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. He has held short-term volunteer positions with both the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago and the Community Information Exchange in Washington D.C. And he used to draw a daily comic strip when he was an undergraduate, believe it or not.

Downey is currently an Associate Dean in the College of Letters & Science, and the Director of the UW-Madison Center for the History of Print and Digital Culture.