David Carr’s Syllabus

No one will ever be able to take this course again. But you can still learn from it. Just read the syllabus.

Feb 14, 2015 · 5 min read
David Carr, speaking at BU. Photo by Photo by Katherine Taylor

Yesterday I re-read David Carr’s syllabus. He taught a course called Press Play at Boston University’s College of Communication where I teach. We didn’t know each other well. We talked a few times. He knew of my interest in digital media.

The Internet had disrupted both of our industries — advertising and journalism. We had other things in common. We both liked Clay Shirky.

David hung out with him.

He was excited about Medium and planned to teach his new class using the platform. I told him I had been an early beta user and admired its simple elegance. He cared more about its collaborative features.

He knew everyone in digital media. When he had visiting speakers who he thought would interest me, he invited me to sit in on his classes. Usually I was too busy. I wish I had taken him up on more offers.

He died yesterday.

In the pages of the New York Times, where he wrote his Media Equation column, colleagues remembered him.

On Twitter, readers expressed their sadness.

He taught but 12 or so students in his only class at BU. It met once a week on Monday. This semester his students didn’t get to spend much time with him. Snow cancelled all but one of their classes.

Often, from what I am told, celebrity professors don’t work all that hard. Many of us have 65 students. They have a dozen. We teach three courses. They teach one.

They can mail it in. They know it’s hard to get fired.

James Percelay, a friend of David’s told me David put in many long hours. He wanted Press Play to be great. He worried about being good enough.

You can see it in his syllabus.

He wasn’t an academic. Some course descriptions put you to sleep. David’s grabs your attention and holds onto it. His energy comes off the page.

He was interested in digital content and new ways of storytelling. The business of media, too.

Journalism needs to change. David seemed determined to jumpstart the process.

He used the verb “to make.”

We must become makers of media. I agree.

As my very accomplished colleague Tobe Berkovitz said, “I’ve been teaching at BU for 25 years. David Carr was a rookie professor. His syllabus is a masterpiece.”

This course, Press Play, aspires to be a place where you make things. Good things. Smart things. Cool things. And then share those things with other people. The idea of Press Play is that after we make things we are happy with, that we push a button and unleash it on the world.

The goal is that you will leave here with a single piece of work that reflects your capabilities as a maker of media.

He inspired collaboration

He insisted that students make use of Medium’s note feature. Read the NY Times Innovation Report. It, too, calls for better collaboration. Even across departments. The lesson will serve students well. No matter their ultimate endeavor.

While writing, shooting, and editing are often solitary activities, great work emerges in the spaces between people. We will be working in groups with peer and teacher edits.

….evaluations will be based not just on your efforts, but on your ability to bring excellence out of the people around you.

He emphasized the importance of getting your content distributed and seen

Writers and creators have to market their content. The old “if we build it they will come” mindset no longer applies. Endless bits and fragmented media pose opportunities. But also challenges.

….once we get stories up and running, we will work on ways of getting them out there into the bloodstream of the web.

He didn’t use a textbook

But his students read everyone from Alexis Madrigal to Zach Seward.

I’m not sliming you with a bunch of textbooks, so please know I am dead serious about these readings. Skip or skim at your peril.

He recognized how technology informed storytelling

His lessons explored diverse formats. He referenced collaborations between Arcade Fire and Google. He shared links to leaked emails that became news events.

What good is the fact that we now have the tools do almost anything on the Web if we don’t do anything with them? A look at the new forms of storytelling, using data, video, sound, and scrolling to tell sticky, remarkable stories.

He fought against boredom

How many times have you read a cover letter where every sentence begins with “I?” They probably won’t be from David’s students.

We will talk about the uses and abuses of a writer’s voice, how to express yourself in copy without using the “I” word, and why ending stories with a quote from someone else is often the coward’s way out.

He left us this guide to teaching

As teachers we struggle with how to tell students that their work sucks. Because often it does. We need to inspire. We need to help students find their voices and their courage.

We will make things — in class, in groups, by our lonely selves — we will work to make those things better, and, if we are lucky, we will figure out how to beckon the lightning of excellence along the way.

But they have to do the work themselves.

If you don’t show up for class, you will flounder. If you show up late or unprepared, you will stick out in unpleasant ways. If you aren’t putting effort into your work, I will suggest that you might be more comfortable elsewhere.

Excuses: Don’t make them — they won’t work. Stories are supposed to be on the page, and while a spoken-word performance might explain everything, it will excuse nothing.

My accomplished colleague Tobe Berkovitz said, “I’ve been teaching at BU for 25 years. David Carr was a rookie professor. His syllabus is a masterpiece.”

Obviously, I won’t end with that quote.

Instead, I’ll close with a suggestion.

Read Press Play. The class is over. But the lessons live on.


Below: Some other much better pieces.

A.O Scott remembers Carr.

Carr on Teaching: An Interview

BU Today on David Carr at Boston University.

Creativity _ Unbound

Ideas and observations about advertising, creativity, the social web and what interests me.


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Documentary Photographer / Creative Director / Writer / Author / Original Partner, Chief Creative Officer MullenLowe US / Former Professor Boston University

Creativity _ Unbound

Ideas and observations about advertising, creativity, the social web and what interests me.