• Syllabus

    Television & American Culture – FMMC / AMST 0104, Spring 2023

    Professor Jason Mittell (he/him), 208 Axinn Center

    802-443-3435, jmittell@middlebury.edu

    Office Hours: Tues 10:00am – 12:00pm or Thursday 1:00 – 2:00pm, or by appointment at https://calendly.com/mittell

    Class Meetings: MW 9:45–11:00am – Axinn 109

                Screening: M 7:30–10:30pm – Axinn 100

    Jump to schedule

    Television might be the most powerful and important form of communication of the last 75 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 a 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 screenings—screenings on Monday nights will allow for group viewing, but all materials will be available online if you must watch independently before Wednesday’s class meeting. Assignments will demonstrate your comprehension of the course materials and concepts, and allow you to put your television analysis and creative skills into practice.

    Required Texts & Readings:

    Ethan Thompson & Jason Mittell, editors, How to Watch Television (New York: New York University Press, 2020). PN1992.3.U5 H79 2020 (please get second edition!)

    Note: It is your responsibility to get access to copies of the assigned book in the proper 2nd edition – it is on reserve at the library and available as both print and ebooks. All other required readings are accessible through Canvas, including revised chapters of the book Television & American Culture (TVAC). Screenings will be made available through the course Canvas site—the videos are for educational use only, and students agree that they will not keep copies of videos beyond the length of the course or use them for noneducational purposes. When possible, there will be separate subtitled versions of screenings posted for students who require or prefer watching with English subtitles. When available, links to videos available on commercial services like Hulu, Netflix, etc. will be provided—these are typically the highest-quality way to stream screening material, but access is not necessary for the course.

    Note that this syllabus is a living document that will change throughout the semester – always consult this version on the course hub 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 a student 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. If you have any questions about this system, either post in the Canvas discussion or send him an email.

    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; this is particularly relevant in this unusual time. If you strive to get an A in the course and maximize your learning, you should know that you are taking on that work that will challenge you, so be sure that 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:

    • Complete at least 40 engagement activities to a Satisfactory level
    • Complete all 6 take-home essay prompts (at either Basic or Advanced levels) to a Satisfactory level

    B Bundle – Students who complete the following will pass the course with a grade of B:

    • Complete at least 50 engagement activities to a Satisfactory level
    • Complete all 6 three take-home essay prompts 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:

    • Complete at least 60 engagement activities to a Satisfactory level
    • Complete all 6 take-home essay prompts to a Satisfactory level, including at least 5 Advanced level questions
    • Complete the original argumentative essay assignment to a Sophisticated level

    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. Additionally, students who complete all of the A Bundle requirements except for receiving a Satisfactory on the final essay instead of Sophisticated will receive an A– 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:

    • Revise and resubmit a take-home essay (note that the first essay has a built-in option for a “free” revision of one question)
    • Submit an essay assignment up to 48 hours late
    • Add 2 to the end-of-semester tally of engagement activities (note this will be done automatically for remaining tokens at the end of the semester – no need to request this)

    Professor Mittell will track a student’s tokens throughout the semester. Exchanging them for engagement activities 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 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 multiple essays and uses four total tokens, that student would receive a B– for the course.



    Engagement Activities:

    Each week, students have multiple ways to demonstrate their engagement with the course. Most of these are activities that provide opportunities for students to discuss course material with peers & Professor Mittell. Some are specific activities assigned for that week’s content. Students can earn up to six points each week based on satisfactory completion of these activities. There are no late or make-up options for engagement activities unless students run into significant issues warranting a Dean’s excuse. Note that there is flexibility in how students engage in the course, you only need to average 5 points per week to accumulate enough points to qualify for an A grade. Please write the phrase "Who Watches the Watchmen?" in the final question on the student survey by Saturday 2/18 for a bonus engagement activity point.

    Class Attendance:

    Students can earn up to two points each week by attending Monday and Wednesday class meetings and filling out the exit ticket in Canvas at the end of class. If you cannot attend class due to illness, quarantine, or any other reason, there are other ways to earn engagement points.

    Canvas Discussion Forums:

    Each week there will be two prompts for online discussion concerning that week’s content. While these discussion forums are meant to be conversational and informal, students are expected to treat each other with respect and fairness. Students may earn one point in each forum by thoughtfully responding to the prompt and posts by other classmates.

    Screening Responses:

    Each week students will be watching a number of television programs as part of the assigned course materials. By Wednesday morning at 9am, they should post a response to Canvas for that week’s screening; these responses are submitted to Professor Mittell only, not shared with peers. The goal of response is to connect at least one program screened to concepts from the course readings. To earn a point, each post must do the following:

    • Be submitted on Canvas by Wednesday at 9am
    • Consist of at least 300 words
    • Demonstrate that you have watched and read the material
    • Be accurate about the course material
    • Draw 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.

    Weekly Activities:

    Each week, there will be one specific individual or small group activity that will be posted as related to the course materials. Specific due dates for these will be given per activity.

    Take-Home Essays:

    There will be six take-home essay prompts, all of which are required to be Satisfactorily completed to pass the course. Each prompt will be distributed on a Wednesday morning, and due by the following Monday’s class meeting. Students may consult notes, readings, screenings, and other online material, but cannot consult with other people (besides Professor Mittell or writing tutors through the CTLR) during the writing process. Per Middlebury’s Honor Code, all work submitted is pledged to be your own.

    Each prompt offers two options: a Basic and an Advanced version. 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 essay 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 essay automatically allows for one revision without requiring tokens, while the other essays require students to use a token to revise an answer. If a student receives an Unsatisfactory on an Advanced question, they can opt to revise the answer to address either the Advanced or Basic prompt, but cannot “upgrade” a Basic answer to the Advanced 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 revisions on a single question, up to two drafts. 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 essay 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 15 – note that this assignment is not required to pass the course, but if it is not satisfactorily completed, students cannot earn more than a B+ in the course. The prompt 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 on April 3. More detailed specifications will be included with the assignment.


    Course Policies:

    If you are feeling ill, do NOT attend class!

    Academic Honesty:

    All work you submit must be your own and you may not inappropriately assist other students in their work except as stipulated by 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.

    Students who have Letters of Accommodation in this class are encouraged to contact me as early in the semester as possible to ensure that such accommodations are implemented in a timely fashion. For those without Letters of Accommodation, assistance is available to eligible students through the Disability Resource Center. Please contact the ADA office at ada@middlebury.edu for more information. All discussions will remain confidential. If students have situations that warrant a Dean’s Excuse, such confirmation is necessary to avoid receiving 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.

    Students are expected to check their Middlebury email accounts daily and monitor the Canvas site for information – please configure Canvas to notify you (via email and/or text) right away about Announcements, as this will be how most communications to the entire course will be distributed. Professor Mittell will check email 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. 

    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.


    Weekly Schedule

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

     Each week on Canvas will structure & sequence the readings, screenings, and assignments.

    Numerous readings are from The New York Times, which Midd students can free access to.

    Week 1 (Feb 13-15) – How to Study TV


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

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


    Homicide: Life on the Street, “Subway” (1997) and

    Anatomy of a Homicide (1997)

    Brooklyn 99, “Moo Moo” (2017) – Hulu


    Week 2 (Feb 20-22) – Programming & Advertising in the Television Industry


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 2

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

    Sandler, “Modern Family: Product Placement” in HTWTV

    Collins, “Watchmen: Here’s what to know from the comics

    Rao, “Black TV writers have often felt like diversity decoration

    Love, “Damon Lindelof Heard Some ‘Hard Truths’ in the ‘Watchmen’ Writer’s Room


    I Love Lucy, “Lucy Does a TV Commercial” (1952) – Hulu

    30 Rock, “Jack-Tor” (2006) – Hulu or Amazon

    NYPD Blue, "Pilot" (1993)

    Watchmen ep 1 “It’s Summer and We’re Running Out of Ice” (2019) – HBO

    Essay #1 Assigned on Wednesday Feb 22 – Due on Monday Feb 27


    Week 3 (Feb 27 – March 1): Reality TV and Media Regulation


    Read two out of these three HTWTV chapters of your choice:

    • Ouellette, “America’s Next Top Model: Neoliberal Labor” in HTWTV
    • Leonard, "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: Franchising Femininity” in HTWTV
    • Keeler, “The Hunt with John Walsh: True Crime Storytelling” in HTWTV

    Schneider, “The truth behind the TV show Cops” (watch video)

    Catoline, “Editing Trump

    Keefe, “How Mark Burnett Resurrected Donald Trump as an Icon of American Success”

    Poniewozik, "The Real Donald Trump is a Character on TV"

    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 3


    Faultlines, The Trump Show (2017)

    Paper Tiger Reads Paper Tiger (2007)

    Watchmen ep 2, “Martial Feats of Comanche Horsemanship” – HBO


    Week 4 (March 6-8): Television News & Electoral Politics


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 4

    Jones, “Fox & Friends: Political Talk” in HTWTV

    RECOMMENDED: Day, “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: Feminist Comedy” in HTWTV

    Schudson, “News and Democratic Society”

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

    Maza, “You’re Watching Fox News. You Just Don’t Know It” (watch video)

    Confessore, “How Tucker Carlson Reshaped Fox News—And Became Trump’s Heir


    The Brainwashing of My Dad (2016)

    Watchmen ep 3, "She Was Killed by Space Junk"

    RECOMMENDED: Buying the War (2007)

    Essay #2 Assigned on Wednesday March 8 – Due on Monday March 13


    Week 5 (March 13-15): Television Form


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 5

    Butler, “Mad Men: Visual Style” in HTWTV

    Gates, “Empire: Fashioning Blackness” in HTWTV

    Gitlin, “Hill St. Blues: Make it Look Messy”


    Dragnet, "The Big Cast" (1952)

    Hill Street Blues, “Hill Street Station” (1981) – Hulu

    The Shield, “Pilot” (2002)

    Watchmen ep 4, "If You Don't Like My Story, Write Your Own"


    Spring Break March 20-24


    Week 6 (March 27-29): Television Storytelling & Genres


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 6

    Read two out of these three HTWTV chapters of your choice:

    • Lotz, “House: Narrative Complexity” in HTWTV
    • O’Sullivan, “The Sopranos: Episodic Storytelling” in HTWTV
    • De Kosnik, “One Life to Live: Soap Opera Storytelling” in HTWTV

    Nichols-Pethick, “The Multiple Logics of the 21st Century Police Drama”

    VanArendonk, "Cops Are Always the Main Characters"

    Sepinwall, "A History of Violence"

    Blickley, “S.W.A.T. Creator Aaron Rahsaan Thomas Knows Cop Shows Need to do Better


    The Wire, “The Target” (2002) – HBO

    S.W.A.T., “3 Seventeen Year Olds” (2020)

    Watchmen ep 5, “Little Fear of Lightning” – HBO

    Essay #3 Assigned on Wednesday March 29 – Due on Monday April 3


    Week 7 (April 3-5): Television’s Cultural Roles & Representations


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 7

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

    Alsultany, “24: Challenging Stereotypes” in HTWTV

    "Cord Jefferson on Watchmen and the Privilege of Nostalgia


    Father Knows Best, “Betty, Girl Engineer” (1956) – Amazon

    Bewitched, “Be It Ever So Mortgaged” (1964)

    Parks & Recreation, “Pawnee Zoo” (2009) – Peacock

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

    Watchmen ep 6, "This Extraordinary Being"


    Week 8 (April 10-12): Representing Racial Identities


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 8

    Warner, “Being Mary Jane: Cultural Specificity” in HTWTV

    Klein, “Buckwild: Performing Whiteness” in HTWTV


    Monk-Payton, “Blackness and Televisual Repartations”

    Warner, “In the Time of Plastic Representation”


    All in the Family, “Sammy’s Visit” (1972)

    Color Adjustment (1991) – Kanopy

    Watchmen ep 7, "An Almost Religious Awe"

    April 10: Proposal for Final Essay due


    Week 9 (April 17-19): Representing Gender, Sexuality, and Intersectionality


    Douglas, Enlightened Sexism excerpts: "Fantasies of Power" and "Reality Bites"

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

    Warner, “The Racial Logic of Grey’s Anatomy

    Kearney, “Orange is the New Black: Intersectional Analysis” in HTWTV


    Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Love is All Around” (1970) – Hulu

    Grey’s Anatomy, “White Wedding” (2011) – Netflix

    Orange is the New Black, "Lesbian Request Denied" (2014) – Netflix

    Watchmen ep 8, “A God Walks Into Abar” – HBO

    Essay #4 Assigned on Wednesday April 19 – Due on Monday April 24


    Week 10 (April 24-26): Television Viewers & Fans; Children’s Television


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 9 & 10

    Click et. al., “NFL Broadcasts: Interpretive Communities” in HTWTV

    Anderson, “Watching Children Watch Television: Blues Clues"

    Choose one of the following chapters in HTWTV:

    • Scott, “Battlestar Galactica: Fans and Ancillary Content” in HTWTV
    • Jenkins, “The Walking Dead: Adapting Comics” in HTWTV


    United We Fan (2018)

    Pokémon, “Pokémon, I Choose You!” (1998)

    Watchmen ep 9, "See How They Fly"


    Week 11 (May 1-3): Television as Technology


    Mittell, TVAC, Ch. 11

    Stein, “Gossip Girl: Transmedia Technology” in HTWTV

    Christian, “High Maintenance & The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl: Indie TV” in HTWTV

    Ellis, “YouTube: Manufacturing Authenticity (For Fun and Profit!)“ – watch

    Gillespie, “Thinking About Watchmen: A Roundtable


    Generation Like (2014)

    Dr. Horrible’s Singalong Blog (2008)

    High Maintenance, episodes “Rachel” and “Museebat”

    The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, episodes “The Sleepover” and “The Visit”

    Essay #5 Assigned on Wednesday May 3 – Due on Monday May 8


    Week 12 (May 8-10): American Television and Global Streaming


    Mittell, TVAC, Conclusion

    Miranda Hardy, “Bala Loca: Producing Representations”

    Iwabuchi, “How ‘Japanese’ is Pokémon?”

    Choose one of the following chapters in HTWTV:

    • Gray, “The Amazing Race: Global Othering” in HTWTV 
    • Imre,“The Eurovision Song Contest: Queer Nationalism” in HTWTV


    Bala Loca, “Too Late for the Late” (2016)

    Jane the Virgin, “Chapter 1” (2014) – Netflix

    FINAL ESSAY: Must be submitted via Canvas by May 17 at 5pm ET