- Course Description
TOPIC: Political Mythologies
What stories does the United States tell about itself? What heroes and villains populate these stories? When this nation seeks to define itself, or to motivate itself to take action, or to bolster itself in times of crisis, the stories it tells often include references to such common themes as: “American Exceptionalism,” “Rugged Individualism,” “Manifest Destiny,” “The Shining City on a Hill,” and “The Closing of the American Frontier.” In this class we will take these and other “myths” seriously, not as false narratives to be debunked, but as familiar tales and figures that continually circulate through US public culture. What effects do these stories have on the relationship between the citizens and the country? What sort of actions, and reactions, do these stories encourage, and discourage? How do these stories differ over time and space, or across different media? How do these stories depict race, gender, and power? Do these stories matter, and if they do, why? These and other questions will guide our reading and our writing throughout the semester, as we hunt for and analyze the political mythologies that await our discovery in films, TV shows, advertisements, election campaigns, legal decisions, and political speeches.
TOPIC: From the Self-Made Man to the Working Girl: Representations of Work and Identity in American Culture
From the childhood question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?” to the motivational advice to “do what you love” (or “be the Leslie Knope of whatever you do”), the assumption that the work we do defines who we are and who we will become pervades American culture. In this course, we will examine the ways in which narratives about work shape—and are shaped by—questions of identity: where do our ideas about the relationship between work and identity come from? How have representations of this relationship changed over time? And what are the implications—personal, social, and political—of the ways in which this relationship has been represented? Throughout the semester, we will explore these questions through multiple perspectives and cultural texts, from Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” to Boots Riley’s controversial satire, Sorry to Bother You.
TOPIC: City State of Mind
The UN projects that by the year 2050, 68% of the world’s population will live in urban centers. Cities are everywhere in pop culture. College grads flock to New York, Chicago, L.A. after graduation to start their “real” lives. We will discuss representations and problems of the city in a variety of media, including literature, maps, films, and podcasts to help us think about the “stuff as [city] dreams are made on.” What makes cities tick? How do we talk about who lives in cities? (How) can we learn to live together… and how do we future-proof city living? Instead of approaching cities as either good or bad, we will analyze their complexities and contradictions in the hope of becoming more aware and critical of our surroundings and our place in the world.
TOPIC: The Devil Made Me Do It
Whether as deal maker, seducer, or sympathetic monster, the devil is a figure that has preoccupied readers, writers, and viewers since Eve's first bite. Never out of style, Lucifer is a figure that not only uses individuals but also one that gets used for multifaceted contextual needs. The list of references for the devil are almost infinite, showing that the devil is deeply connected to and intertwined with the ways in which we, as people both past and present, understand consequences, limitations and pleasures of the human experience. This course will grapple with the complex purpose that the devil serves and how it bridges cultural explorations and questions about desire, gender, embodiment, corporeal limitations and anxieties. By engaging with sources like: recent film The Witch; television series Lucifer and Supernatural; The Rolling Stones and Ariana Grande music videos and songs; primary sources such as Benét, “The Devil and Daniel Webster”; and secondary texts such as Sweeney, “Hell Is a Myth--Actually, a Bunch of Myths,” we will be able to unite past and present through the figure of the devil—a figure whose relevance is meaningful and timeless.
TOPIC: Strange Women Lying in Ponds Distributing Swords: Representations and Adaptations of King Arthur
Camelot. Excalibur. The Round Table. How and why do these aspects of the legend of King Arthur still resonate today? This course will investigate the relationships between Arthurian legend and topics that are central in society today, such as nationalism, race, and gender and sexuality. This course will explore modern representations and adaptations of the story of King Arthur and his court while also providing grounding and context with early versions of the legend. Course texts will thus begin with excerpts from medieval and early modern sources of Arthurian legend before moving onto modern texts like the BBC’s television series Merlin and the recent 20th Century Fox film, The Kid Who Would Be King. The course will culminate in a research-based analytical essay on a course-related text of each student’s choice.
TOPIC: 'Robots and Mechas and Cyborgs – Oh my!' Representations of Mechanical Beings in Sci-Fi Popular Culture
Discussing technological advances in mechanical consciousness, entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk claims, “With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.” The fear of the mechanical “demon” in popular culture depicts mechanical beings as villains and threatening overlords; however, mechanical beings also emerge as friendly sidekicks, companions, and objects of strange desire. This course will explore the cultural implications of mechanical beings that locate them as figures of horror, heroism, companionship, and love for humans by reading Isaac Asimov’s sci-fi collection I, Robot, alongside watching the Japanese anime classics Ghost in the Shell and selections from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Our course will explore portrayals of robots, mechas (giant machines piloted by humans), cyborgs, and artificial intelligence (AI) to consider what this suggests about the connection between the human and the technological.
TOPIC: Analyzing Contemporary Representations of Scandals
What are scandals? How are they represented? And how do we make sense of responses to them? This course considers scandals as a cultural phenomenon rich with discursive meaning and possibilities for critical interrogation. This course aims to evolve students’ thinking about writing and communication as cultural reflection by asking them to define scandal, examine representations of scandal like the Fyre Fest, and analyze responses to scandal through individual and mass media.