American Popular Culture:

Cultures, Sub-Cultures, and Resistance

Honors Seminar 292C:  American Popular Culture

Instructor: Bridget M. Marshall


Class Meetings: Tues/Thurs 11:15 to 12:30  Dickinson 109

Web Page: (includes course info):

Office Hours:  Tuesdays 12:30 - 1:30 & by appointment; Goodell Honors Lounge


"Culture is ordinary: that is where we must start" - Raymond Williams

 We all live it, some of us love it, but can anyone really leave it?  Our course will consider the apparently inescapable force of American popular culture.  We will begin by considering the terms "culture" and "popular," and developing working definitions for the purpose of our class.  Our readings will help us question the role of popular culture in our lives, inform our general conversation, and provide us with a theoretical framework on which to develop our own ideas.  As we turn to the second half of the semester, we will consider the possibility of resistance and dissent, as exemplified in sub-cultures and counter-cultures, both historically and today.  What is popular culture doing to us, what are we doing to it, and how (or why) might we change our relationship with this product of our society that seems to penetrate every aspect of our lives?

Course Requirements and Evaluation:

Classroom Citizenship:  25%

Your attendance at our class meetings is essential to the success of our seminar, and is required as a part of your grade.  You are allowed only two unexcused absences (one week's worth of class).  For every class beyond those two that you miss, your final grade for the class will be lowered half a grade.  (I.e., if you have an "A" for the class, but have missed 3 classes, you will receive an "A/B" for your final grade.)  Please be prompt; extensive or repeated lateness will be considered an absence. 

Class participation is also necessary and required.  This includes contributing to the class discussion and actively listening to the thoughts and comments of your peers.  Please be considerate and respectful of your classmates and make the classroom a space where everyone can speak their mind.  We will have full-class discussion, as well as small group work.  If you are not particularly comfortable speaking in the full-class discussion, be sure you are making up for it in the smaller group discussions.  We will occasionally have short in-class writing assignments that I will collect; your completion of these assignments will be included in your class participation grade.

One part of your participation grade will be one day of "discussion framing."  On this day, you and a partner will be responsible for preparing discussion questions related to the day's reading assignment.  Additional information on your role for this day will be explained in class. 

As a matter of common courtesy to your classmates and to me, please TURN OFF your cell phone during class time.

Take-Home Writing Assignments: 35%

There will be frequent take-home writing assignments.  These are noted on the syllabus, and there will be a handout describing each one in detail.  The assignments are focused on the week's theme (i.e., "television," "magazines," etc.).  Generally you will need to "consume" some form of popular culture in a thoughtful and engaged manner, and then write about the experience.  In evaluating these assignments, I will consider the following elements:

˜    Completion of assignment (did you watch/read the particular media)

˜    Details and specifics about the object of study and your response to it

˜    Thoughtful response and inquiry into the subject and your reactions

˜    Engagement with and use of course readings and theory

˜    Clarity of writing

I have posted papers from several former students on the course website.  I strongly recommend that you review these sample assignments to see what a successful writing assignment entails.

Final Project and Presentation: 40%

Each of you will develop a final project studying some element(s), aspect(s), theme(s), or object(s) of popular culture.  You might choose to study a particular television show, a favorite movie or a film genre, a particular advertising campaign, a media issue (social, legal, etc.), or you might use any of our readings as a critical jumping off point for your own theories of popular culture.  The topic is open, although it must be approved by me.  This project may be presented in a variety of forms: it might be a paper, a video, a performance, or something else.  If it is a "something else" you should include some kind of written explanation, introduction, or analysis.  We will have multiple discussions and in-class workshops for developing this project.  There will be some preliminary in-class and take home writing assignments designed to help you conceive and develop your project.  During the last week of the semester, students will present their final projects in a class conference to share our work and celebrate popular culture.


Grading is my least favorite aspect of the course; however, grades are necessary, not only to the University, but also in many cases in order to motivate students.  I will give "checks" for each day's attendance.  Particularly active class participation will earn a "check plus."  Notably lacking participation will earn a "check-minus," or in egregious cases, a "zero."  I will give numbers and/or grades for the take-home writing assignments and for the final project.  The breakdown of the final grades is listed above beside each of the three course requirements.

If you have a concern about a grade or a question about your standing in the class, please talk to me before or after class.  This type of conversation is best suited to an individual conference.  You can see me during my office hours, or schedule an appointment at another time.

A final word on the unpleasant part of grades, specifically the bad ones:  I hope that all my students will strive to do their best work in this course, but if you are determined to do only the minimum amount of work and get the minimum passing grade, you might want to know what the bottom line is.  This much is nonnegotiable: you are not eligible for a passing grade of D unless you have attended at least 11 of 14 weeks worth of classes, and completed 90% of the assignments. 

Course Textbook:

Most readings are collected in the course packet, available at Copy Cat in downtown Amherst.  There is also a copy available at the library reserve desk.  Some readings will be provided in class handouts. 

Calendar of Assignments:

Below you will find a listing of reading and writing assignments for the semester.  If you miss a class, you are still responsible for what was due on the day(s) you missed and on the day you return, so ALWAYS consult the syllabus (or a classmate, or me) if you have missed or will miss a class.   I have noted with asterisks (***) when there are take-home writing assignments due.


What's Due for this class


Thursday 29 January

FirstFirst class meeting: Review a collection of available definitions

Develop our own definitions, consider our own role in and relationships with popular culture


Tuesday 3 February

Hiebert, Ungurait, and Bohn: "Motion Pictures"

***Write one to two paragraphs about any one film from the last 10 years connecting it with the reading (published in 1988). ***

Thursday 5 February

Peter KrĢmer: "‘It's aimed at kids - the kid in everybody': George Lucas, Star Wars, and Children's Entertainment"


Tuesday 10 February

Jane Rosenzweig: "Can TV Improve Us?"

Sonia Sharigian:  "TV's Last Taboo"

Thursday 12 February

Henry Louis Gates Jr.: "TV's Black World Turns But Stays Unreal"

Jane Rosenzweig: "Ally McBeal's Younger Sisters"

***Watch either your favorite television show or a show you have never watched before and complete the writing assignment (3 pages)***

Tuesday 17 February

Marco Portales: "Hispanics and the Media"

K. Connie Kang:  "All-American Girl and Images of Asians in the Media"

Croteau and Hoynes: "The New Media Giants"

Thursday 19 February

Daniel Chandler: "Notes on the Construction of Reality in TV News"

***Watch three nights of news on three different networks (your choice of daytime, evening, or late-night).  Write a comparison/contrast analysis for sharing with the class AND find out who owns each news broadcast.***


Tuesday 24 February

Negativland: "Shiny, Aluminum, Plastic, and Digital"

Steve Albini: "The Problem with Music"

Nick Hornby: "What Does the New Top Ten List Mean?"

**Bring in a CD (or tape) and plan to share one track with the class.**


What's Due for this class

Thursday 26 February

Chuck Klosterman: "The Ratt Trap"

Brian Truitt: "We're Sold on Their Songs"

Carrie McLaren & Rick Prelinger: "Sales Noise: A Timeline of Music and Advertising"

Video Screening in Class: Money for Nothing

Tuesday 2 March

Eric Jaffe: "The History of Punk Rock"

Bryn Chamberlain: "The Quintessential Punk"

***Music Review Due***

Thursday 4 March

Marian Liu: "Buying into Hip Hop"

Deepti Hajela: "Hop-Hop Mogul Simmons Urges Pepsi Boycott"

RJ Smith: "Crossover Dream"

Salim Muwakkil: "Hip Hop Hysteria"


Tuesday 9 March

Leslie Savan: "Addictions and the Drug War"

Frank Ahrens: "New Pitch in Anti-Drug Ads: Anti-Terrorism"

Matt Pyeatt: "White House Anti-Drug Ads ‘Super Bowloney'"

Katharine Q. Seelye: "TV Ads Say SUV Owners Support Terrorists"

Neil Swidey: "The Costly Case of the Purple Pill."

Thursday 11 March

Michael J. Sandel: "The Hard Questions: Ad Nauseam"

Bernice Kanner: "Fast Times at Pepsi High"

Jean Kilbourne: "Beauty . . . And the Beast of Advertising"

***Buy (and read) a current magazine and do an analysis comparing/contrasting advertisement to editorial content, OR an analysis of an individual advertisement/ad campaign. ***

March 16/18

No Class -- Spring Break

Tuesday 23 March

R. Seth Friedman: "A Brief History of Zines"

Hilary Clark: "Photocopied Politics"

Larry Smith: "What Color is Your Alternative?"

***Find and read a zine.  Paper zines and online zines (in which case, print it out) are both fine.  Bring it to class for discussion.  No written analysis is required, just having something to say. ***


Thursday 25 March

Emily Nussbaum:  "Confessions of a Spoiler Whore"

David Plotz: "Luke Skywalker Is Gay?"

Andrew Vontz: "Studio Stormtroopers"

Tuesday 30 March

Brian Ott: "'Oh my God, They Digitized Kenny!'"

***Survey of fan web sites due***


Thursday 1 April

***Brainstorming for final project ideas (bring 3 possibilities to class)***

In Class Screening: Frontline: Merchants of Cool

Tuesday 6 April

Naomi Klein: "Alt. Everything: The Youth Market and the Marketing of Cool"


What's Due for this class

Thursday 8 April

Bridget Marshall: "The Meaning of ‘Alternative'"

Scott Puckett: "How Much Did You Pay for Your Identity?"

Tuesday 13 April

Gabriela Schneider: "Culture Jamming" (excerpts)

Carrie McLaren: "CULTURE JAMMING Brought to you by Adbusters"

Matthew Mirapaul:"The Thing Fights to Stay Online"

"A Legacy Acknowledged"

Joab Jackson: "Gear Jammers"

Thursday 15 April

***In-class workshop on final projects and presentations: One-page proposal/abstract of final project due for in-class review***

Tuesday 20 April

Dick Hebdige: Subculture: The Meaning of Style (selected excerpts)

Thursday 22 April



Tuesday 27 April

Jeff Chang: "Is Protest Music Dead?"

Thomas Frank: "Why Johnny Can't Dissent"

Thursday 29 April

Alicia Rebensdorf: "Capitalizing on the Anti-Capitalist Movement"

Brian Johnson: "What a Gas"

Rene Ciria-Cruz:  "It's Not Yesterday's Peace Movement"

Tuesday 4 May

George Ritzer: "An Introduction to McDonaldization"

Eric Schlosser: Fast Food Nation (excerpts)

Thursday 6 May

Naomi Klein: "The Branding of Learning" (excerpts)


Tuesday 11 May

Class Conference presenting short papers and performances of projects completed in the course

Thursday 13 May

Continuation of Class Conference

Tuesday 18 May

Written version of Final Project due by 12:00 noon

 About Academic Honesty

All University policies on plagiarism apply to all writing assignments in this course.  This means that if you plagiarize an assignment, you will receive an "F" for the course, and you are subject to other discipline (including expulsion from the University) at the discretion of the instructor and the University.

Unintentional plagiarism is still plagiarism.  You must cite all sources that you use, including online sources.  Also, remember that "using" a source includes DIRECTLY QUOTING, PARAPHRASING, AND USING IDEAS from any source.  There is nothing wrong with "getting help" from other writers, just be sure to acknowledge it by using quotation marks and/or author/page citation.  Please take the time to give proper credit to the work of other authors.  It is a matter of respect - for yourself, for other authors, for your classmates, and for me.

If you're having difficulty with a writing assignment, please talk to me.  I can usually offer an extension IF you talk to me (or e-mail me) before the day the assignment is due.  If you wait until the day it is due, the assignment is LATE. 

About the Topics and Readings

No class on American Popular Culture can be complete, and there are obviously many elements of popular culture that are missing from the syllabus and course packet.  Omissions are entirely due to the constraints of the semester timeline, and not because I think any of the missing elements are unimportant or unworthy of study.  I encourage you all to find a final project that matches your own interests, and perhaps one that delves into an area we haven't been able to cover in class.  I have tried to collect readings that will be interesting and diverse, not only in the subject matter that they study, but also in their own form - books, journals, magazines, web-sites - as well as in terms of the kind of writing - academic, "popular" press, journalistic.  In part, this is so you can see the wide variety of approaches to cultural studies, and have models of different ways to approach a pop culture artifact.  Some articles will seem very dated to you, while others are very recent.  I don't think every single reading in our packet is terrific, but I do think there is much to be learned from each one, whether about the object being studied, or the way in which the study is executed.  Popular Culture Studies has become very popular, so we will also at times consider what role our reading and scholarship play in the ongoing creation of our culture.  Even the critical study of popular culture is a part of our popular culture.  I hope that this course will give you grounding in some of the critical dialogue about American Popular Culture, and also encourage you to practice critiquing and analyzing the culture around you.

Image Note: The images on the front page of this syllabus were borrowed from unofficial fan websites.  The Power Puff Girls image came from and the Simpsons image came from .