• Syllabus

    Theories of Popular Culture – FMMC/AMST 0355, Fall 2019


    Professor Jason Mittell (he/him), Axinn 208, 443-3435

    Office Hours: Mon 10:00am – 12:00pm / Wed 2:00 – 3:30pm / or by appointment at https://mittell.appointlet.com

    Class Meetings: T/Th 11:00am - 12:15pm, Axinn 001

    Screenings: Tues 7:30 - 10:30 pm, Sunderland 110

    Reference Librarian: Amy Frazier, http://go.middlebury.edu/amy

    Peer Writing Tutor: Alex Barber


    This writing-intensive course introduces a range of theoretical approaches to study American popular culture, exploring the intersection between everyday life, mass media, and identity and social power. We will consider key theoretical readings and approaches to studying culture, including ideology and hegemony theory, feminist and critical race theory, 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, films to music, to understand popular culture as a site of ongoing political and social struggle. We will particularly be focused on the intersection between categories of identity, cultural politics of taste hierarchies, and power relations as manifested in the production and consumption of popular culture.

    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. As a small advanced seminar, we will work to create a learning community guided by mutual respect and engagement.


    Required Texts & Readings - Books available through the Middlebury College Bookstore:

    Racquel Gates, Double Negative: The Black Image and Popular Culture (Duke University Press, 2018).

    John Storey, Cultural Theory & Popular Culture: An Introduction, 8th edition (Routledge, 2018). [CTPC]

    Carl Wilson, Let's Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste, expanded edition (Bloomsbury, 2014).

    It is the student’s responsibility to get access to assigned readings. All books are on reserve and available at online bookstores as well as through 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 that Thursday’s class.

    Note that this syllabus is a living document that will change throughout the semester – always consult the online schedule for the latest information.


    How This Course Works:

    This course uses an unconventional approach for assessing student learning roughly termed “ungrading.” You will not receive a “grade” for any single assignment, with only a final course grade registered into Banner. While Professor Mittell will register that grade, he will not assign it—you will. Such self-grading means that students are fully responsible for their own learning, and it is meant to fully sever the link between that learning and the “outcome” of grades. This grade will emerge through ongoing conversations between each student and Professor Mittell; while he reserves the right to alter the grade that a student assigns, it is a sign of mutual trust and shared responsibility for learning that he does not anticipate doing so.

    Even though there will not be grades, there will be lots of feedback, evaluation, assessment, and revision—these will all hopefully be channeled toward maximizing learning. Students will create an individual learning plan, write self-reflections on their learning, meet with both peers and Professor Mittell to discuss their progress, and undertake revisions based on feedback. Since all students who pass the course will have achieved the goals for College Writing, the expectations for success are 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 goals. His goal is to help each student achieve their learning goals, and to be transparent about expectations for learning throughout the semester.


    Learning Goals:

    The course design is based around a series of core learning goals, assembled in a hierarchy of sophistication. Students will highlight their own learning goals from this list, as well as devise their own. These are roughly grouped in tiers that correspond to expected grade levels, with each student expected to reflect their particular goals via written and conversational reflection.

    All students who pass the course (C) will demonstrate the ability to:

    • Describe how various theoretical approaches approach the study of popular culture
    • Apply specific vocabulary and concepts to examine 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 accomplishment (B) will also demonstrate the ability to:

    • Analyze popular culture with original insights, effective use of sources, and connections to theoretical models, different examples and cultural contexts
    • Engage in serious conversation about often fraught topics with an ethos of mutual respect and generosity

    Students who achieve the highest level of accomplishment (A) will also demonstrate 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, and provide strong support to peers to facilitate our learning community



    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:

    Formal Writing Assignments:

    Essay #1 – Judging Pop Culture

    Essay #2 – Analyzing Pop Culture

    Essay #3 – Consuming Pop Culture

    Final Essay

    Assignment details will be on Canvas throughout the semester.


    Reading Responses:

    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 made specific arrangements with Professor Mittell due to excused absences. You may choose which days and articles you will write about, with the goal of writing an average of once per week. 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 in your own words, 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.

    A satisfactory response should:

    -   Be submitted on Canvas by 8am on the day the reading is due

    -   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. All essays are considered works in process until the end of the semester, with opportunities to revise pending peer feedback and conferences with Professor Mittell. Many more details to come!


    Active Attendance:

    You are expected to attend all class meetings on time, having done the readings, thought about the material, and prepared the necessary assignments. Students who miss a class should find out what they missed from their classmates and learn the necessary material. Students are expected to actively engage in class discussions, speaking and listening to each other with mutual respect and productive contributions. 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.


    Academic Honesty:

    All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work except as stipulated for a particular assignment, in keeping with the Middlebury College Honor Code. All papers 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.


    Course Policies:

    Any student with a disability or who otherwise needs accommodation or assistance should make arrangements with Professor Mittell as soon as possible, and consult the Disability Resource Center for more assistance. 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.

    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.

    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.

    As a writing intensive course, students may find it helpful to seek academic support for their writing. The Center for Teaching, Learning & Research has many resources available, including writing, time-management, and study skill assistance. The course has a designated writing tutor, Alex Barber—she will know the assignments and approach to the course, but you are welcome to work with any peer or staff tutor via CTLR.

    Printing & Computer Use Policy:

    Writing assignments for this course are submitted via the course website, with no printing required. Many readings are online or pdfs – students are welcome to print or not print at their choosing, with the understanding that students should take notes on electronic readings via digital annotation, handwritten notebook, or a 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 be engaging with course materials, not free-range surfing the web, checking email, social media, etc. Students who do not demonstrate engaged presence in class, whether via digital distractions or otherwise, will be held accountable or even asked to leave class in extreme instances. Please do not use phones during course meetings or screenings unless explicitly authorized to be used in a non-disruptive mode.

    Conversations and presentations within the space of this class—both in-person and online—are considered private, to be shared only among those of us in the course. Any recording, photographs, and screen-capture of voices, images, and text produced by students and faculty alike cannot be shared without permission of those authors. If you wish to share your own work and ideas beyond the confines of the class, you are encouraged to do so.


    Daily Schedule

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


    September 10 – Introduction to Popular Culture


    SCREENING: High Fidelity (2000) – PN1997.H4556 A1 2012B

                Pose, “Pilot” (2018) – reserve


    September 12 – Culture & Civilization Tradition

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 1 – 2**

    Matthew Arnold, “Culture and Anarchy”

    Dwight Macdonald, “Theory of Mass Culture”

    WRITING:       Statement of learning intentions due via Canvas by 5pm, Friday 9/13



    September 17 – Culturalism

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 3**

    Raymond Williams, “The Analysis of Culture”

    Lawrence Levine, ”William Shakespeare and the American People”

    Lester Bangs, “Astral Weeks”**


    SCREENING: My Darling Clementine (1946) – PN1997.M888 A1 2014B

    Pose, “Access” (2018) – reserve


    September 19 – 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?” **



    September 24 – Structuralism & Myth

    READINGS: Roland Barthes, “Myth Today”

    Will Wright, “The Structure of Myth & the Structure of the Western Film”

    WRITING:    Essay #1 due via Canvas before class 9/24


    SCREENING: Casablanca (1942) – PN1997.C352 A1 2008B

    Pose, “Giving and Receiving” (2018) – reserve


    September 26 – Marxism & Frankfurt School

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 4**

    Theodor Adorno & Max Horkhiemer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception”

    Raymond Williams, "Base & Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory"



    October 1 – 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

    Kyle Kallgren, “Casablanca: Cinematic Antifacism” **


    SCREENING: Network (1976) – PN1997.N3875 A1 2011B

    Pose, “The Fever” (2018) – reserve


    October 3 – Hegemony & Post-Marxism

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 7**

    Tony Bennett, “Popular Culture and the ‘turn to Gramsci’”

    Stuart Hall, “Notes on Deconstructing the Popular”

    Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, “It’s Network Nation” **



    October 8 – Negotiation

    READINGS: Stuart Hall, “Encoding/Decoding”

    Christine Gledhill, “Pleasurable Negotiations”

    Ron Becker, “Ideology”

    Susan Jeffords, “Hard Bodies: The Reagan Hero”

    IN-CLASS: Amy Frazier visit


    SCREENING: Die Hard (1988) – PN1997.D489 A1 2007B

    Pose, “Mother’s Day” (2018) – reserve


    October 10 – The Cultural Studies Paradigm

    READINGS: Matt Hills, “Audiences”

    John Fiske & Robert Dawson, “Audiencing Violence”

    Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms”



    October 15 – 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”


    SCREENING: The Lego Movie (2014) – PN1997.2.L4456 A1 2014B

    Pose, “Love is the Message” (2018) – reserve


    October 17 – Postmodernism

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 9**

    Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”

    Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism” excerpted

    Madeleine Hunter, "Bric[k]olage"

    WRITING:       Essay #2 due via Canvas before class 10/17


    Fall Break – no class or screening October 22


    October 24 – Feminism & Popular Culture

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 8**

    Lana Rakow, “Feminist Approaches to Popular Culture”

    Angela McRobbie, “Post-Feminism and Popular Culture”

    Lindsay Ellis, “The Problem of Lady Robots



    October 29 – Gender and Queer Popular Culture

    READINGS:  Judith Butler, “Bodily Inscriptions, Performative Subversions”

    Alexander Doty, “There’s Something Queer Here”


    WRITING:       Proposal for Final Research Paper due before class 10/29


    SCREENING: Barbie Nation (1998) – NK4894.3.B37 B475 2007D

    Superstar: Karen Carpenter Story (1987) – reserve

    Pose, “Pink Slip” (2018) – reserve


    October 31 – Case Study: Barbie

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 10**

    Lynn Spigel, “Barbies without Ken”

    Mary Desjardins, “The Incredible Shrinking Star”


    Special Screening: 

    Halloween event of Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – PN1997.R57542 A1 2010B

    READING: 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”



    November 5 – Race & Representation

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 9**

    Stuart Hall, “New Ethnicities”

    Kristen Warner, “In the Time of Plastic Representation”


    SCREENING:  Pose, “Mother of the Year” (2018) – reserve

    Paris is Burning (1990) – HQ76.2.U52 N57 2005D 


    November 7 – Researching Popular Culture

    Meet in Wilson Media Lab in Davis Library, session with Amy Frazier

    READINGS:  bell hooks, “Is Paris Buring?”

    Judith Butler, “Gender is Burning”



    November 12 – Blackness and Negative Images

    READING:  Racquel Gates, Double Negative, Intro – Ch. 2 (pp. 1-113)

    Alfred Martin, “Fandom While Black”

    WRITING:       Essay #3 due by Canvas before class 11/12


    SCREENING: Basketball Wives, season 2 finale

    Coming to America (1988) – PN1997.C6948 A1 2007D           


    November 14 – Blackness and Negative Images continued

    READING:  Racquel Gates, Double Negative, Ch. 3 – Conclusion (pp. 114-190)

    IN-CLASS: Conversation with Dr. Racquel Gates


    LECTURE:  November 14, 4:30pm, Axinn 232

    Dr. Racquel Gates, “Double Negative: Taste, Politics, and Form in Black Popular Culture”



    November 19 – Identity and Intersectionality

    Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins” [pay closer attention to Introduction and Section 3: Representational Intersectionality, pp. 1282-99]

    bell hooks, “The Oppositional Gaze”

    Richard Dyer, “White”

    Brent Staples, “How Blackface Feeds White Supremacy”**


    SCREENING: Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer (2018)

             Bamboozled (2001) – PN1997.B25744 A1 2001D


    November 21 – Satire & Speculative Fiction

    READINGS: Kobena Mercer, “Carnivalesque and Grotesque”

    “Minding the Messenger: A Symposium on Bamboozled

    Wesley Morris, “Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music?”

    N.K. Jemisin, “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?”**



    November 26 – Politics of the Popular

    READINGS: John Storey, CTPC, Ch. 12**

    Pierre Bourdieu, “Distinction”

    John Fiske, “The Popular Economy”

    WRITING:      First draft of Research Paper due via Canvas by class, 11/26


    November 26 / 28: Thanksgiving break, no screening or Thursday class



    December 3 – 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)

    LISTEN ON OWN: Céline Dion, “Let's Talk About Love


    SCREENING: Almost Famous (Bootleg Cut) (2000) – PN1997.A3248 A1 2011B


    December 5 – Privilege and Taste: GamerGate Case Study

    READINGS: “What Is GamerGate?,” New York Times opinion dossier

    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)


    Final Revisions of All Essays due by noon, Tuesday, December 10

    All students must schedule assessment conferences with Professor Mittell between Dec 11-14