FMMC/AMST 0355 - Theories of Popular Culture
Professor Jason Mittell, Axinn 208, 443-3435
Office Hours: Mon 1:30-2:30 / Wed 11:00-12:00 / or by appointment at http://meetme.so/JasonMittell
Class Meetings: T/Th 11:00am - 12:15pm, Axinn 104
Screening: Tues 7:30 - 10:30 pm, Axinn 232
This course introduces a range of theoretical approaches to study popular culture, exploring the intersection between everyday life, mass media, and broader political and historical contexts within the United States. We will consider key theoretical readings and approaches to studying culture, including ideology and hegemony theory, political economy, audience studies, subcultural analysis, the politics of taste, and cultural representations of identity. Using these theoretical tools, we will examine a range of popular media and sites of cultural expression, from television to toys, technology to music, to understand popular culture as a site of ongoing political and social struggle.
This is an advanced course, with challenging reading and expectations of high-level thinking. Additionally, it fulfills the College Writing requirement, and thus there is a good deal of writing and revising required of students.
Required Texts & Readings - Books available at Middlebury College Bookstore:
Will Brooker, Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (New York: Continuum, 2002).
Allesandra Raengo, Critical Race Theory and Bamboozled (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016). [Note – this will be published in October, so it will not be available until midterm.]
John Storey, Cultural Theory & Popular Culture: An Introduction, 7th edition (Routledge, 2015). [CTPC]
Carl Wilson, Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, expanded edition (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014).
It is the student’s responsibility to get access to a copy for assigned readings. All books are on reserve and available at online bookstores as well as the College Bookstore. Other required readings will be available via Canvas. Screenings will be required for this course each Tuesday night; if missed, it is up to each student to make arrangements to screen the required materials on their own before Thursday’s class.
Note that this syllabus is a living document that will change throughout the semester – always consult the online version for the latest information.
How This Course Works:
This course uses an unconventional approach for assessing student learning called specifications grading. (If you’re curious about this approach, see this overview.) Instead of grading each assignment on a measure of “quality,” everything will be assessed as Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory based on whether a student demonstrates the stated learning goals. Assignments will be “bundled” into three tiers that reflect a hierarchy of learning goals for the course. Final grades will be assigned based on which bundles of assignments a student satisfactorily completes—these final grades are not the goal or outcome of the course, but are designed to indicate which learning goals students demonstrate that they accomplished.
Since all students who pass the course will have achieved the goals for College Writing, the bar for success is quite high. In exchange for students’ hard work, Professor Mittell agrees to take however much time is needed to ensure students understand expectations and practices, and are poised to succeed to their desired level within the system. His goal is to help each student achieve Satisfactory levels of learning on all components of the course that they undertake, and to be transparent about expectations for learning throughout the semester.
All students who pass the course (with a minimum grade of C) will have demonstrated the ability to:
- Describe how various theoretical approaches approach the study of popular culture
- Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to analyze popular culture
- Read dense theoretical writings and summarize their core ideas
- Communicate their ideas orally and via writing with fluency and clarity, per college CW standards
- Revise their writing to improve both ideas and communication, per college CW standards
Students who achieve a higher level of mastery (with a minimum grade of B) will have also demonstrated the ability to:
- Analyze popular culture with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections between theoretical models, different examples and cultural contexts
- Engage in serious conversation about often fraught topics
Students who achieve the highest level of mastery (with a grade of A) will have also demonstrated the ability to:
- Create, substantiate, and communicate an original analytic argument that synthesizes multiple facets of popular culture, appropriate types of evidence, and theoretical approaches with sophistication
- Meet class expectations per the assigned schedule with consistency
Most work in the course will be assessed as Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory, with the specifications required for Satisfactory articulated on each assignment. In general, Satisfactory should not be viewed as “minimally competent” (as is typical for a C grade at Middlebury), but rather as a mark of having achieved the assignment’s learning goals and specifications (probably more like a B grade in an average Middlebury course). For reading responses, it either meets the goals, or it does not—there is no gradation of assessment per standard letter grades.
The formal essays in the class will include a third gradation: Sophisticated. This marker of excellence will be given to essays that demonstrate higher-level thinking and analysis, tackling the ideas and examples with complexity and nuance. Each assignment will specify the expectations for both Satisfactory and Sophisticated work.
The only letter grade that will be given in the course will be your final grade, and it will reflect the “bundles” of assignments and requirements you have satisfactorily accomplished in the class. That final letter grade is not an assessment of your intelligence, your abilities, or your value as a person—in fact, Professor Mittell never will grade “you” directly, and grading is never a reflection of who you are as a person. Rather, the grade reflects what you demonstrated that you learned in the course: no more, no less.
Built into this system is some choice as to how much you wish to learn and how hard you want to work to demonstrate and apply that learning. You might choose that passing the course with a C is sufficient for your goals—it is perfectly appropriate and worthy of respect for you to make that choice, especially if it allows you to proactively allocate your time to other endeavors at Middlebury or beyond. If you strive to get an A in the course and maximize your learning, you should know that you are taking on that work and challenge yourself, and should make sure you are in a personal and academic situation to achieve that level of engagement.
C Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of C:
- Actively attend all course meetings, with up to five absences, per the attendance policy below
- Complete at least 8 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
- Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one successful revision
B Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of B:
- Actively attend all course meetings, with up to three absences, per the attendance policy below
- Complete at least 10 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
- Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least one Sophisticated mark and at least one successful revision
- Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least four course meetings
A Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of A:
- Actively attend all course meetings, with up to two absences, per the attendance policy below
- Complete at least 12 reading responses to a Satisfactory level
- Complete all 4 essays to a Satisfactory level, with at least three Sophisticated marks and at least one successful revision
- Actively demonstrate engaged and productive in-class participation during at least eight course meetings
Modified grades of + and – will be used when a student’s Satisfactory activities fall between the bundles. For instance, a student who met the requirements for the B Bundle, as well as receiving 2 Sophisticated marks on the essays would receive a B+, while a student who fell just short of the B Bundle requirements would likely receive a B– final grade. Grades of D will only be given in rare cases where a student meets most of the C Bundle requirements but falls short in one area—typically, a student who does not meet the requirements of the C Bundle will fail the course.
Tokens & Flexibility:
Since every element of the course is assessed on an all-or-nothing basis, it might be stressful to strive for Satisfactory given that the stakes for not meeting that threshold may be significant. To ease stress, to allow for flexibility—and most of all, to maximize opportunities for learning—every student starts the course with 3 virtual tokens that can be “exchanged” for some leniency or opportunities for revision. Using a token will allow a student to do one of the following:
- Eliminate an absence from their attendance record
- Count an Unsatisfactory or not completed reading response as Satisfactory
- Revise and resubmit an Unsatisfactory essay to fulfill Satisfactory expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
- Revise and resubmit a Satisfactory essay to fulfill Sophisticated expectations (due 1 week after essay is returned)
- Submit an essay assignment up to 48 hours late
Professor Mittell will track a student’s tokens throughout the semester. Exchanging them for absences or missed screening responses will happen at the end of the term, while late or revised essays will require spending tokens at the time. If a student uses all three initial tokens and needs to use more for revisions, they can be “purchased” at the cost of one gradation of the final letter grade—thus if a student achieves the expectations for the B bundle, but must revise an essay multiple times and uses four total tokens, that student would receive a B– for the course.
This is a College Writing course, meaning that there will be a significant amount of writing required throughout the semester. If you do not complete all of the essays to a satisfactory level, you will not pass the course:
Essay #1 – Judging Pop Culture
Essay #2 – Analyzing Pop Culture
Essay #3 – Audience Analysis
Assignment details will be on the course website throughout the semester.
The majority of readings for this course are scholarly articles and chapters. To help you develop the skill of being able to identify and engage with scholarly arguments, you will write short reading responses throughout the semester. Each day, you have an opportunity to write a response, of at least 300 words, to one article in that day’s assigned readings. A response may be on any assigned article or chapter except for those marked in the syllabus with ** (note that chapters from John Storey’s book cannot be the primary topic for a reading response, but you should feel free to refer to Storey when discussing other articles). Responses must be posted to Canvas by 8 am the morning of the class meeting for which the article is assigned. You will not receive credit for late reading responses unless you have been absent from class for an excused reason and have made specific arrangements with Professor Mittell. You may choose which days and articles you will write about, with the number of responses completed falling into the grade bundles outlined above. You may not write more than one response for the readings assigned for any one day, even if there are multiple articles.
Reading response papers should accomplish two basic goals: they should briefly summarize the argument(s) of the chosen reading and give you a chance to respond intellectually to this argument. The first paragraph should be an abstract of the essay, summarizing at least one main point and argument from the reading. The second paragraph should connect the reading to your own thoughts, to other examples, to previous readings, to screenings, or other elements related to the course. Responses that simply summarize a reading without exploring any of your own thoughts will be Unsatisfactory. Responses that discuss interesting issues that emerge from the reading are encouraged, but you must tie these thoughts to the readings and your summary of the argument, not just launch into a tangent. These responses are not “thought journals,” but they should provide you an opportunity to present your own reaction to these issues in written form. Writing style and form is important, so be sure to take time to edit and proofread responses, although your writing style may be more informal than the more formal essay assignments – as long as you seriously engage with the relevant issues.
To receive a Satisfactory on a response, it must:
- Be submitted on Canvas by the day the reading is due at 8am
- Consist of at least 300 words
- Demonstrate that you have read the material carefully by effectively and accurately summarizing the argument or arguments of the chosen reading
- Respond intellectually to the argument by drawing explicit and original connections between ideas raised in the readings to other ideas or examples from class, and/or your own experiences or examples
- Convey something that personally struck you as interesting, compelling, engaging, or otherwise moved you to write about this aspect of the course materials
- Be written in a clear manner – your style can be less formal than typical academic prose, but it should be serious and engaged with ideas
- Contain no more than 3 errors to Standard Written English
It is recommended that you compose your responses in a word processor and paste the text into Canvas, as web browsers can crash as you are writing. Reading responses cannot be revised or submitted late.
There are four required essays in the course. The first three will address specific prompts to be distributed throughout the semester. The final essay is an original research paper on a topic of your choosing, to be written in multiple stages. Many more details to come!
Class Participation & Attendance:
You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, thought about the material, and prepared the necessary assignments. Attendance will be taken daily, but it is the individual student’s responsibility to attend class in order to gain the most from their education. Being late two times counts as an absence. Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and learn the necessary material.
In order to earn a grade above a C, students must actively and noticeably engage in class discussions. Such active engagement includes speaking and listening to each other, with mutual respect and productive contributions. This course embraces the tenet of “rhetorical resilience,” a term coined by President Laurie Patton to describe open and honest dialogue about difficult topics, embodying mutual respect and empathy. The course will tackle many challenging issues, so students will be expected to both speak and open their minds, while being mindful of the impact that words and images might have on classmates. Professor Mittell welcomes all feedback on how to best make our classroom a productive space of engaged dialogue.
All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work beyond the confines of a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers and exams must include the statement of the Honor Code along with the student’s name (as a digital signature) in order to be graded. There is a no-tolerance policy for academic misconduct in this course! The minimum penalty for academic misconduct will be a failing grade (F) for the course – further academic and disciplinary penalties may be assessed. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.
Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible. If you know that you will have conflicts due to athletics or other college activities, you must notify Professor Mittell in advance and arrange to make up missed work – athletic absences are not excused and it is the student’s responsibility to make all arrangements.
Watching audiovisual media can be intense, with skilled artists creating emotionally vivid and often disturbing images and sounds. This course assumes that students are able to watch media that is often challenging and disturbing in its representations without need for protection or warning; in fact, engaging with discomfort and challenges is a significant part of a liberal education and an opportunity for discussion and learning. However, there are some instances where a student may have had personal trauma that creates specific triggers for severe emotional distress. If that applies to you, please take responsibility to research the films and television we will be watching ahead of time, and let Professor Mittell know if you think watching a particular screening would create a significant issue for you—we can then work out alternative arrangements. Note that our ongoing screening material around the O.J. Simpson case portrays events at the intersection of spousal abuse, race, and murder, and thus should be approached with care.
Email is Professor Mittell’s preferred mode of communication (besides face-to-face conversation!), generally checking regularly during the work week – if you email him asking for a response and do not receive one within one working day (M-F), assume that your email may not have been received. Office voicemails will typically be answered less promptly. Please do not call Professor Mittell at home.
Printing & Computer Use Policy:
Writing assignments for this course are submitted via the course website, with no printing required. Many readings are online – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on electronic readings either via digital annotation or separate notebook or word processing file. You should bring assigned readings to class each day, either via paper or on a laptop screen. Feel free to use laptops throughout all class meetings except during screenings, where the light from the screen can disrupt the viewing experience. If you are on your laptop, you are expected to engage with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, Facebook, etc. Students who do not demonstrate engaged presence in class, whether via digital distractions or otherwise, will be penalized in the course participation grade, or even asked to leave class in extreme instances.
September 13 – Introduction to Popular Culture
SCREENING – High Fidelity (2000) – PN1997.H4556 A1 2000D
O.J.: Made In America, Part 1 (2016) – reserve
September 15 – Culture & Civilization Tradition
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 1 – 2**
Matthew Arnold, “Culture and Anarchy”
Dwight Macdonald, “Theory of Mass Culture”
September 20 – Culturalism
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 3**
Raymond Williams, “The Analysis of Culture”
Lawrence Levine, ”William Shakespeare and the American People”
SCREENING – O.J.: Made In America, Part 2 (2016) – reserve
The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “From the Ashes of Tragedy” (2016) – PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
September 22 – IN-CLASS SCREENING, Axinn 232
The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “The Run of His Life” (2016) - PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
September 27 – Semiotics & Structuralism
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 6** [only read through p. 131]
John Fiske, ”Surfalism & Sandiotics: The Beach in Oz Culture”
Tom Streeter, “Semiotics & Advertising” online tutorial
Guy Deutscher, ”Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”
WRITING: Essay #1 due via Canvas before class 9/27
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “The Dream Team” (2016) - PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
My Darling Clementine (1946) – PN1997.M888 A1 2014B
September 29 – Structuralism & Myth
READINGS: Roland Barthes, “Myth Today”
Will Wright, “The Structure of Myth & the Structure of the Western Film”
EVENT: Attend performance of Rodney King, Seeler Studio Theatre, 9/30 or 10/1, 8pm
October 4 – Marxism & Frankfurt School
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 4**
Theodor Adorno & Max Horkhiemer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”
Herbert Schiller, “The Corporation and the Production of Culture”
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “100% Not Guilty” (2016) - PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
Casablanca (1942) – PN1997.C352 A1 2008B
October 6 – Ideology
READINGS: Louis Althusser, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”
Jean-Louis Comolli & Jean Narboni, “Cinema / Ideology / Criticism”
Robert Ray, “The Culmination of Classic Hollywood: Casablanca”
Lecture 10/6: Robert Ray, “Vertigo: Why Doesn’t Scottie Recognize ‘Madeleine’” 4:30 pm, Axinn 232
October 11 – Hegemony & Post-Marxism
READINGS: Tony Bennett, “Popular Culture and the ‘turn to Gramsci’”
Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular”
Susan Jeffords, “Hard Bodies: The Reagan Hero”
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “The Race Card” (2016) - PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
Die Hard (1988) – PN1997.D489 A1 2007B
October 13 – Negotiation
READINGS: Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding”
Christine Gledhill, “Pleasurable Negotiations”
David Morley, “Theories of Consumption in Media Studies”
John Fiske & Robert Dawson, “Audiencing Violence”
Fall Break – no class or screening October 18
October 20 – The Cultural Studies Paradigm
Will Brooker, Using the Force, Preface - Ch. 7
WATCH ON OWN: Star Wars (1977) - PN1997.S65956 A1 2004D
Star Wars Uncut (2009)
WRITING: Essay #2 due via Canvas before class 10/20
SPECIAL SCREENING 10/20: Bala Loca, with creator David Miranda Hardy, 4:30 pm, Dana Auditorium
October 25 – Researching Audiences
READINGS: Will Brooker, Using the Force, finish book
Joke Hermes, “Audience Studies 2.0”
Jonathan Gray, “New Audiences, New Textualities”
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (2016) – PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – PN1997.R57542 A1 2010B
October 27 – The Politics of the Carnivalesque
READINGS: Mikhail Bakhtin, “Carnival & Carnivalesque”
Michael Chemers, "Wild and Untamed Thing: The Exotic, ERotic and Neurotic Rocky Horror Performance Cult"
Nicole Seymour, "Rocky Horror, Queer Viewers, and the Alternative Cinematic Spectacle"
WRITING: Proposal for Final Research Paper due before class 10/27
November 1 – Feminism & Popular Culture
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 7**
Lana Rakow, “Feminist Approaches to Popular Culture"
Judith Butler, “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions”
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “Conspiracy Theories” (2016) – PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
Barbie Nation (1998) – NK4894.3.B37 B475 2007D
The Simpsons, “Lisa vs. Malibu Stacy” (1994) - PN1992.77 .S58 v.5 2004D
Superstar: Karen Carpenter Story (1987) – reserve
November 3 – Case Study: Barbie
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 10**
Lynn Spigel, “Barbies without Ken”
Mary Desjardins, “The Incredible Shrinking Star”
November 8 – Race & Representation
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 8**
Allesandra Raengo, Critical Race Theory and Bamboozled, Intro & Ch. 1
Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities”
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “A Jury In Jail” (2016) – PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
Bamboozled (2001) – PN1997.B25744 A1 2001D
November 10 – Case Study: Bamboozled
READINGS: Allesandra Raengo, Critical Race Theory and Bamboozled, Ch. 2 & Conclusion
WRITING: Essay #3 due by Canvas before class 11/10
November 15 – Identity and Intersectionality
Kimberlé Crenshaw, "On Intersectionality" [video]
bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze”
Richard Dyer, “White”
Frances Negròn-Muntaner, "Barbie's Hair"
Amanda Taub, "Behind 2016's Turmoil, a Crisis of White Identity"**
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “Manna From Heaven” (2016) – PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
A Face in the Crowd (1957) - PN1997.F243 A1 2005D
November 17 – Postmodernism
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 9**
Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”
Jim Collins, “Television and Postmodernism”
Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism” excerpted
November 22 – Poststructuralism and Discourse
READINGS: Storey, CTPC, Ch. 6 p. 131-138**
Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power”
Chris Weedon, “Feminism & the Principles of Poststructuralism”
Stuart Hall, “On Postmodernism and Articulation”
WRITING: First draft of Research Paper due via Canvas by class, 11/22
November 22 / 24: Thanksgiving break, no screening or Thursday class
WATCH: O.J.: Made In America, Part 3 (2016) – reserve
November 29 – Taste and Popular Culture
READINGS: Carl Wilson, Let's Talk About Love, p. 1-163
Choose 5 of the responses to Wilson to read, plus his Afterword (281-296)
Dan Ozzi, "Radiohead is for Boring Nerds"**
LISTEN ON OWN: Céline Dion, “Let's Talk About Love”
SCREENING – The People vs. O.J. Simpson, “The Verdict” (2016) – PN1992.77 .A5922 v.1 2016B
Network (1976) - PN1997.N3875 A1 2006D
December 1 – Politics of Popular Taste
READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 11**
Pierre Bourdieu, “Distinction”
John Fiske, “The Popular Economy”
Listen to Undone, "Disco Demolition Night"
December 6 – Privilege and Taste: GamerGate Case Study
READINGS: John Scalzi, “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is”
Lisa Nakamura, “Queer Female of Color: The Highest Difficulty Setting There Is?”
Shira Chess and Adrienne Shaw, “A Conspiracy of Fishes, or, How We Learned to Stop Worrying About #GamerGate and Embrace Hegemonic Masculinity”
Arthur Chu, “Of Gamers, Gates, and Disco Demolition”
Jason Mittell, “Taste Privilege and GamerGate” (read comments too)
SCREENING – O.J.: Made In America, Parts 4 & 5 (2016) – reserve
December 8 – Looking Back at O.J.
READINGS: John Fiske, “Los Angeles: A Tale of Three Videos”
John Fiske, "O.J.: The Juice Is Loose"
Ta-Nehisi Coates, "What O.J. Simpson Means to Me"
Final Research Essay due by noon, Friday, December 16