This research seminar studies history by focusing on American popular culture (institutions, forms, expressions, and behaviors that are familiar to the general population). It begins in the 19th century with the appearance of “Indian Fighter” Buffalo Bill and the invention of silent film; and ends in the 21st century with Netflix series like Black Mirror and social discourses on the internet. Although the focus is on the United States, the class looks beyond the nation’s borders to explore the ways that foreign countries, like the Netherlands, interpret American icons, like ‘the Marlboro Man,’ to serve their own national agendas.
Three convictions steer the course. First, popular culture provides insight into contemporary society. A Hollywood ‘blockbuster’ tell us something about the global audiences that applaud the film. Second, culture that is popular shapes daily life. Associations of crime with race seen on ‘the’ news, for instance, reinforce the idea that racial groups are inherently criminal. Third, cultural forms and expressions question, challenge and uphold commonly held ideals and convictions. Narratives, film footage, music, artifacts and art, like posters of protest calling for ‘we the people’ across the globe to resist attacks on humanity, illustrate my point. Throughout the term the class explores these claims in the readings and presentations that study the past and deepen understanding of the present. In the second half of the semester they choose and explore a research topic. Some study a familiar subject from a different angle. Others delve into new topics. Most use their analysis in applications to internship and graduate programs in fields ranging from History to Media Studies. All learn to question the familiar and unfamiliar in the past as well as the present.
- Teacher: Nancy Mykoff