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Politics and Culture

Lehman College, Fall 2023

Instructor: Asher Wycoff Email:
Time: Tuesday/Thursday, 12:00–1:15pm Office hours: Tuesday, 2:00–3:00pm

Course Overview: Culture is usually conceived in the social sciences as a set of shared meanings we depend on in both our political and personal lives. In polarized times like ours, however, shared meanings can be hard to come by. As trust in government and media institutions declines, people increasingly disagree not only on matters of opinion, but matters of fact. We might worry about what this means for the future of democracy. Is the basic democratic idea of public deliberation between citizens jeopardized by strained public institutions, escalating political tensions, and a general environment of distrust?

This moment provides us an opportunity to ask questions about the core functions of our political system. What does a healthy democratic civic culture look like? How have media institutions shaped the "public sphere," historically? How have digital media changed the relationship between the people and the state? What opportunities for political action do our current institutions and technologies provide? At what cost are they purchased? What tools do we have to address the challenges of the twenty-first century?

Course Modality: This is an online course, and sessions and materials will be delivered over Zoom and Blackboard. We will meet synchronously (Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon) to discuss assigned material, but you will be asked to complete most assigned work on your own schedule, aiming for the listed due dates.

The course is divided into five modules, each of which lasts two or three weeks. Each one includes a modest exercise, usually a short quiz or written response, to be completed in Blackboard. Each module also corresponds to a discussion board, where you can briefly respond to one of a few questions about the material and related themes.

I will hold office hours over Zoom every Tuesday from 2:00–3:00pm. If this time does not work for you, please email me to schedule an appointment.

Texts: This is a ZTC (Zero Textbook Cost) course, meaning that all assigned readings will be available on Blackboard. The reading for any given week won't be particularly long, but it may be challenging, so set aside the necessary time to complete it. Meeting time will center on the readings, so please complete the readings ahead of class and come prepared with comments and questions.

Expectations and Grading: The course will be oriented around discussion primarily, including participation in both synchronous meetings and asynchronous discussion boards. Active and thoughtful engagement is necessary to make discussion productive. As such, I strongly recommend you take notes on assigned readings and come to synchronous meetings prepared with comments and questions about the text. I also urge you to remain respectful of other students' perspectives, and respond to opposing views thoughtfully.

Formal (i.e., graded) requirements are as follows:

Course Requirement Points Possible
Synchronous participation 10 points possible
Discussion board contributions (four) 20 points possible (5 points each)
Module exercises (five) 25 points possible (5 points each)
Midterm exam 20 points possible
Final exam 25 points possible
Total 100 points possible

Since the course as a whole is graded out of 100 points, your raw score at the end of the semester is also your percentage score in the course. I assign letter grades by the usual scale: 93–100 is an A, 90–92 is an A-minus, 87–89 is a B-plus, 83–86 is a B, 80–82 is a B-minus, and so on. Feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns about grading over the course of the semester.

Conduct Guidelines: In all interactions with the instructor and other students, but especially in class discussion (whether synchronous or written), please communicate as respectfully and constructively as possible. Disagreement with other students or arguments in the assigned readings is to be expected, but it should be taken as an opportunity for substantive engagement, not dismissal.

Academic Integrity: This course includes a number of written assignments, so it is necessary to include the usual warnings about plagiarism. Plagiarism is any act of presenting someone else's (or, if you're using a large language model, something else's) ideas or words as your own. Faculty and administration at Lehman College are committed to fostering an environment without plagiarism. Students are independently responsible for knowing what constitutes cheating and plagiarism and avoiding both. If you are unsure what qualifies as plagiarism, you can consult the full CUNY Academic Integrity Policy by clicking here.

I cannot award credit in cases of malicious plagiarism, such as intentional submission of an assignment whose text is lifted wholesale from somewhere else. This is not particularly common, but it does happen! Please don't do it. More common things that are technically plagiarism—i.e., "patchwriting," close paraphrase without attribution—I will point out, but usually not penalize very harshly. I do require parenthetical citations with author and page number after direct quotes, like this: (Habermas, 136).

Accessibility: In order to receive disability-related academic accommodations students must first be registered with the Office of Student Disability Services (SDS). Instructions for registering with the Office can be accessed by clicking here. If you have already registered with the Office of Student Disability Services, please provide me with the appropriate documentation and discuss your specific accommodation with me, and I will do my best to provide the necessary accommodations.

Course Schedule

Week 1 (Aug. 29): Introduction to the course and its core concepts

No class Thursday, Aug. 31 — instructor at conference.

Module 1: Civic culture and legitimacy

Week 2 (Sept. 5–7): Whom do we trust in times of crisis?

Week 3 (Sept. 12–14): Is liberal democracy stable?

Module 2: Traditional media and the public sphere

Week 4 (Sept. 19–21): Democracy and the nation-state in historical perspective

Week 5 (Sept. 26–28): National identity and the nation-state

Week 6 (Oct. 3–5): The national public sphere

No class Tuesday, Oct. 10 — classes follow Monday schedule.

Module 3: Digital media and the public sphere

Week 7 (Oct. 12): Social media and political action

Week 8 (Oct. 17–19): How "active" is online activism?

Week 9 (Oct. 24): Midterm review and check-in

Midterm exam due by Thursday, Oct. 26.

Module 4: Political problems of the digital world

Week 10 (Oct. 31–Nov. 2): Human inputs and computer outputs

Week 11 (Nov. 7–9): Physical logistics of the digital world

Week 12 (Nov. 14–16): Producing digital technologies

Thanksgiving break is Nov. 22–26.

Module 5: Challenges of the twenty-first century

Week 13 (Nov. 28–30): Was the pandemic bad for democracy?

Week 14 (Dec. 5–7): Is climate change bad for democracy?

Week 15 (Dec. 12): Reading day (scheduled office hours, but no class)

Final exam due by the end of the day on Tuesday, December 19.