• Syllabus

    Television & American Culture – FMMC / AMST 0104

    Spring 2017, Professor Jason Mittell

    T/Th 11:00 – 12:15, Axinn 109

    Screening: Tues 7:30 – 10:25, Axinn 232


    208 Axinn Center, 802-443-3435, jmittell@middlebury.edu

    Office Hours: Mon 10:00 am – 12:00 pm, Thurs 1:30 – 2:30 pm

    or by appointment via http://www.meetme.so/JasonMittell


    Television might be the most powerful and important form of communication of the last 70 years, binding together the globe with shared knowledge and experiences, and molding our opinions and outlook on the world. This course explores American life in the last seven decades through an analysis of our still central medium: television. Spanning a history of television from its origins in radio to its future in digital convergence, we will consider television’s role in both reflecting and constituting American society through a variety of approaches. Our topical exploration will consider the economics of the television industry, television’s role within American democracy, the formal attributes of a variety of television genres, television as a site of gender and racial identity formation, television’s role in everyday life, and the medium’s technological and social impacts. We will consider not only why TV is what it is today, but how it might be different. Through the exploration of critical perspectives on television, the course will prepare you for further studies in media criticism as well as enable you to be a more savvy and sophisticated consumer (and potentially producer) of television in your future endeavors.


    This course contains a good deal of reading, providing in-depth analysis and critical approaches to television. We will watch a number of television programs and documentaries about television each week in required evening screenings. Assignments will assess your comprehension of the course materials and concepts, and allow you to put your television analysis and creative skills into practice.


    Required Texts & Readings:

    Susan Douglas, The Rise of Enlightened Sexism (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2010). HQ1233 .D68 2011 

    Jason Mittell, Television and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010). PN1992.6 M58 2010

    Ethan Thompson & Jason Mittell, editors, How to Watch Television (New York: New York University Press, 2013). PN1992.3.U5 H79 2013


    Note: If the bookstore runs out of these titles, it is your responsibility to get access to copies for assigned readings. They are on reserve at the library and easily available at online bookstores. All other required readings are accessible through the course website.


    Weekly screenings will be required for this course, taking place Tuesday at 7:30 pm in Axinn 232; it is up to each student to make arrangements to screen the required materials at the Davis Library if they cannot attend screening.


    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 this approach will be new to most students, 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.



    Learning Goals:


    All students who pass the course (with a minimum grade of C) will have demonstrated the ability to:

    • Describe how American television works as a commercial industry, functions as an aesthetic and communication medium, and both shapes and is shaped by American culture and society
    • Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to explain television’s industrial, formal, cultural, and technological facets
    • Communicate their ideas with fluency and clarity


    Students who achieve a higher level of mastery (with a minimum grade of B) will have also demonstrated the ability to:

    • Analyze television’s industrial, formal, cultural, and technological facets with original insights and connections between different examples and contexts


    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 television 




    Most assignments 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). Unsatisfactory does not mean failure, but rather that the assignment does not yet meet the required specifications. Either an assignment meets the goals, or it does not—there is no gradation of assessment except for the final essay. The final essay 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.


    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 a good deal of 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 four absences, per the attendance policy below
    • Complete at least 7 weekly screening responses to a Satisfactory level
    • Complete all 6 questions (at either Basic or Advanced levels) on the three take-home essay exams to a Satisfactory level


    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 9 weekly screening responses to a Satisfactory level
    • Complete all 6 questions on the three take-home essay exams to a Satisfactory level, including at least 3 Advanced level questions


    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
    • Have at least 4 days in class where Professor Mittell notes engaged participation
    • Complete at least 10 weekly screening responses to a Satisfactory level
    • Complete all 6 questions on the three take-home essay exams to a Satisfactory level, including at least 5 Advanced level questions
    • Complete the original argumentative essay assignment to a Sophisticated level [Note: completing all of the A Bundle requirements except receiving a Satisfactory on the final essay will receive an A– final grade.]


    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 completing 5 Advanced questions on the exams 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 2 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 screening response as Satisfactory
    • Revise and resubmit the questions on the second or third exam (note that the first exam has a built-in revision option)
    • Submit an exam or 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 both 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 three total tokens, that student would receive a B– for the course.




    Weekly Screening Responses:
    Each week, students will watch a selection of television material on Tuesday evening. By Thursdaymorning, students are expected to post a response to Canvas for that week’s screening. The goal of response is to connect at least one program screened to concepts from the course readings. To earn a Satisfactory, each post must do the following:

    • Be submitted on Canvas by Thursday at 9am
    • Consist of at least 300 words
    • Demonstrate that you have watched and read the material
    • Be accurate about the course material
    • Draw explicit connections between ideas raised in the readings to material from the screening
    • Convey something that personally struck you as interesting, compelling, engaging, or otherwise moved you to write about this aspect of the course materials
    • Write 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. Screening responses cannot be revised or submitted late.


    Take-Home Essay Exams:

    There will be three take-home essay examinations, all of which are required to be Satisfactorily completed to pass the course. Each exam will be distributed on a Thursday, and due the following Tuesday. Students may consult notes, readings, screenings, and other online material, but cannot consult with other people (besides Professor Mittell) during the writing process. Per Middlebury’s Honor Code, all work submitted is presumed to be your own.


    Each exam will have two general prompts, with each prompt offering two options: a Basic and an Advanced essay. The Basic essay will require students to demonstrate that they understand and can communicate course material in their own words. The Advanced essay will require students to apply course material to an original analysis, requiring higher-level engagement with the material. Students are free to choose which option they choose for each prompt. For an example of this difference, a hypothetical Basic prompt might ask, “How does the television industry use the Nielsen ratings to sell audiences to advertisers?”; the Advanced version might ask, “How effective are the Nielsen ratings measuring viewer behaviors, and how might this system better serve the interests of television viewers?”


    In order to pass the course, students must earn a Satisfactory on every exam prompt at least at the Basic level; completing more Advanced prompts will allow students to earn a higher final grade, per the description above, by demonstrating more sophisticated levels of learning. Students may opt to revise and resubmit any answer that receives an Unsatisfactory within one week of receiving their essay back. The first exam automatically allows for revisions without requiring tokens, while the other exams require students to use a token to revise answers. If a student receives an Unsatisfactory on an Advanced question, they can opt to revise the answer to address the Basic prompt; sometimes Professor Mittell will indicate that an Unsatisfactory Advanced answer can count as a Satisfactory Basic answer with no revisions nor tokens needed. One token allows for two revisions on a single exam, either two drafts of one question or one draft of two questions. Additionally, if an Advanced answer is still unsatisfactory after the first revision, it cannot receive a Satisfactory for the Advanced prompt, and must be downgraded to a Basic answer. More detailed specifications will be included within the exam prompts.


    Final Argumentative Essay:

    The final paper in the class will be an analytic essay about a television program of your choosing, due on May 20. The basic idea is to write an essay that could function as an additional chapter of How to Watch Television. Because the essay is due during the exam period, revisions will not be allowed after the due date; however, students electing to complete this assignment are encouraged to meet with Professor Mittell and submit drafts for feedback in advance. A proposal for the essay will be due April 6. More detailed specifications will be included with the assignment.


    Active Attendance:

    You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, thought about the material, and prepared to engage in discussion and in-class activities. This is not a lecture course, so active participation and engagement is required. Attendance will be taken regularly—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. Professor Mittell will note which students demonstrate particular engagement during each class meeting, as seen through productive and respectful participation in conversations, which fulfills one of the specifications for the A bundle.



    Academic Honesty:
    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 by the Academic Judicial Board. The definitions of plagiarism and cheating used in this course are consistent with the material in the College Handbook, Chapter V.



    Course Policies:
    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. If students have situations that warrant a Dean’s Excuse, such confirmation is necessary to avoid receiving an absence or an Unsatisfactory for not meeting specifications listed above.


    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.


    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 those readings at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on electronic readings either via digital annotation, or a 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 – and sometimes they will even be required – 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 marked as absent, or even asked to leave class in extreme instances.



    Daily Schedule


    Note - this schedule is subject to change, so always check the online version.


    February 14 – Studying TV?


    SCREENING February 14:

    The Bachelor, “Soccer Date” (2016) – reserve

    UnREAL, “Return” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    February 16 – Introducing the Television Industry

    READINGS: Mittell, Television & American Culture (TVAC), Introduction and Ch. 1

    Thompson & Mittell, How to Watch TV (HTWTV), Introduction



    February 21 – Television Industry: Programming

    READINGS: Banks, “I Love Lucy: The Writer-Producer” HTWTV

    Johnson, “Monday Night Football: Brand Identity” HTWTV

    Lotz, “Netflix isn’t in the business you think it’s in

    Sekyukh, “Big Media Companies and Their Many Brands


    SCREENING February 21:

    I Love Lucy, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1952) – PN1992.77.I253 v1 2005D

    30 Rock, “Jack-Tor” (2006) – PN1992.77.T55987 v.1 2007D

    Friday Night Lights, “Pilot” (2007) – PN1992.77 .F75339 v.1 2007D

    UnREAL, “Relapse” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    February 23 – Television Industry: Advertising

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 2

    Sandler, “Modern Family: Product Placement” in HTWTV

    Thompson, “Onion News Network: Flow” in HTWTV

    Nussbaum, “What Tina Fey Would Do for a SoyJoy



    February 28 – Television Industry: Ratings and Reality

    READINGS: Baym & Gottert, “30 Days: Social Engagement” in HTWTV

    Douglas, “Jersey Shore: Ironic Viewing” in HTWTV

    Catoline, “Editing Trump

    Adalian, “Why New Era of TV Ratings Means More of Your Favorite Shows Might Survive


    SCREENING February 28:

    30 Days, “Minimum Wage” (2005) – PN1992.77.T5598 2006D

    Paper Tiger Reads Paper Tiger (2007) – HE8700.72 .C2 P175 2007D

    UnREAL, “Mother” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    March 2 – Media Regulation and Public Television

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 3

    Ouellette, “Reinventing PBS”

    Holt, “NYPD Blue: Content Regulation” in HTWTV





    March 7 – Television News

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 4

    Jones, “Fox & Friends: Political Talk” HTWTV

    Schudson, “News and Democratic Society”

    Dickinson, “How Roger Ailes Built the Fox News Fear Factory

    Rosen, “Winter is Coming: Prospects for the American Press Under Trump


    SCREENING March 7:

    Buying the War (2007) – DS79.76.B85 2007D

    UnREAL, “Wife” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    March 9 – Television and Electoral Politics

    READINGS: Freedman, “Thirty-Second Democracy”

    Mittell, “Trump Doesn’t Need to Broaden His Appeal

    Poniewozik, “What The Apprentice Taught Donald Trump about Campaigning” and “For Trump, Everything Is a Rating

    Gabler, “Five Ways the Media Bungled the Election

    Exam #1 Assigned



    March 14 – Television & Modes of Production

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 5

    Butler, “Mad Men: Visual Style” in HTWTV

    Exam #1 Due


    SCREENING March 14:

    Hill Street Blues, “Hill Street Station” (1981) – PN1992.77.H455 v.1 2005D

    The Sopranos, “College” (1999) – PN1992.77 .S66 v. 1 2000D 

    The Wire, “The Target” (2002) – PN1992.77.W53 v.1 2004D


    March 16 – Television Narrative

    READINGS: Newman, “From Beats to Arcs”

    Lotz, “House: Narrative Complexity” in HTWTV

    O’Sullivan, “The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling” in HTWTV



    March 21 – Television Genres & Taste Cultures

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 6

    De Kosnik, “One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling” in HTWTV

    Newman, “Everyday Italian: Cultivating Taste” in HTWTV


    SCREENING March 21:

    Father Knows Best, “Betty, Girl Engineer” (1956) – PN1992.77.F38447 v.2 2008D

    Bewitched, “Be It Ever So Mortgaged” (1964) – PN1992.77.B48 v1 2005D

    Parks & Recreation, “Pawnee Zoo” (2009) – PN1992.77 .P3627 v.2 2010D

    Transparent, “Kina Hora” (2015) – reserve

    UnREAL, “Truth” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    March 23:


    Veronica Mars, “Pilot” (2004) –  PN1992.77.V465 v.1 2005D 

    Fresh Off the Boat, “So Chineez” (2015) – reserve





    April 4 – Television’s Cultural Roles

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 7

    Newcomb & Hirsch, “Television as a Cultural Forum”

    Hendershot, “Parks & Recreation: The Cultural Forum” in HTWTV


    SCREENING April 4:

    All in the Family, “Sammy’s Visit” (1972) – PN1992.77 .A589 v. 2 2003D

    Color Adjustment (1991) – PN1992.8.A34 C54 2004D 

    UnREAL, “Fly” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    April 6 – Representing Racial Identity

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 8

    Alsultany, “24: Challenging Stereotypes” in HTWTV

    Gray, “The Amazing Race: Global Othering” in HTWTV

    Proposal for Final Essay due 



    April 11 – Television and Gender

    READINGS: Douglas, Enlightened Sexism, Intro – Ch. 6


    SCREENING April 11:

    Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love is All Around” (1970) – PN1992.77 .M285 v. 1 2002D

    Sex and the City, “The Baby Shower” (1998) – PN1992.77 .S4715 v.1 2000D

    Grey’s Anatomy, “White Wedding” (2011) – PN1992.77 .G74 v.7 2011D

    UnREAL, “Savior” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    April 13 – Gender Representation and Intersectionality

    READINGS: Douglas, Enlightened Sexism, Finish book

    Levine, “Grey’s Anatomy: Feminism” in HTWTV

    Warner, “The Racial Logic of Grey’s Anatomy

    Exam #2 Assigned 



    April 18 – Television, Gender & Sexuality

    READINGS: Becker, “Gay-Themed Television”

    Becker, “Glee/House Hunters International: Gay Narratives” in HTWTV

    Miller, “The Dick Van Dyke Show: Queer Meanings” in HTWTV

    Exam #2 Due


    SCREENING April 18:

    Trekkies (1999) – PN1992.8.S74 T68 1999D

    UnREAL, “Two” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    April 20 – Television Viewers: Effects or Influences?

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 9



    April 25 – Television Fan Cultures

    READINGS: Scott, “Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content” in HTWTV

    Jenkins, “The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics” in HTWTV

    Pearson, “Star Trek: Serialized Ideology” in HTWTV


    SCREENING April 25:

    Pokémon, “Pokémon, I Choose You!” (1998) – PN1997.I143 A1 1998D

    Generation Like (2014) – reserve

    TV Family (2015) – HQ520 .T94 2015D 


    April 27 – Children’s Television and Media Education

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 10

    Mittell, “Phineas & Ferb: Children’s Television” HTWTV

    Anderson, “Watching Children Watch Television: Blue’s Clues



    May 2 – Television as Technology

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 11

    Spigel, “Installing the Television Set”


    SCREENING May 2:

    Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog (2008) – M1500.W46 D7 2008D

    High Maintenance, episodes TBD – reserve

    Burning Love (2012), episodes TBD – PN1992.77 .B878 v.1 2013D

    UnREAL, “Princess” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    May 4 – Television in the Digital Convergence Era

    READINGS: Stein, “Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technology” in HTWTV

    Gurney, “Auto-Tune the News: Remix Video” in HTWTV

    Exam #3 Assigned



    May 9 – Globalization and American Television

    READINGS: Mittell, TVAC, Conclusion

    Amaya, “Eva Luna: Latino/a Audiences” in HTWTV


    Exam #3 Due 


    SCREENING May 9:

    Lady, la vendedora de flores, episode 1 (Netflix)

    Jane the Virgin, “Chapter 1” (2014) – PN1992.77 .J3675 v.1 2015D

    UnREAL, “Future” (2015) – PN1992.77 .U57 v.1 2016D


    May 11 – In Conclusion

    READINGS: Antenna UnREAL forum, parts 12 and 3 

    Virtual roundtable on UnREAL

    Goode, "How Lifetime Became One the Best Places in Hollywood for Women 


    FINAL ESSAY: Must be submitted via Canvas by May 20 at 5pm