[ last updated January 18, 2020 ]
Politics and Culture (Spring 2020)
Tues./Thurs., 11:00am–12:15pm & 12:30–1:45pm • Carman Hall 327
Instructor: Asher Wycoff • awycoff (at) gc (dot) cuny (dot) edu
Office Hours: Tues./Thurs., 2:00–3:00pm • Carman Hall 357
Course Overview and Objectives: How do mass media shape our perceptions of reality? How can we express our opinions and values to one another without being misunderstood? What does it mean to live in a democracy, or to belong to a nation? Across three units, this course will approach these questions by considering three conceptions of culture common in social science: culture as resources, culture as practices, and culture as identity. The first concerns media institutions and the means of communication, the second the negotiation of shared values, and third the formation of collective identities. In addition to examining different conceptions of culture and its political significance, this course aims to build familiarity with a range of core concepts in Political Science, and with the conventions of academic writing more generally.
Texts: I am asking you to purchase two books for the course — one for the first unit, and one for the third. They will be available in the campus bookstore:
- ⇒ Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador, 2004.
- ⇒ Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London: Verso, 1983.
All other readings will be provided in PDF on Blackboard. A central objective in this course is to get you comfortable with reading academic social science literature, so readings will often be written in dense or difficult language. Over the course of the semester, we will explore various methods of identifying and breaking down arguments in this kind of literature. This means we will spend a significant amount of class time looking at the assigned texts. Make sure to complete readings ahead of time and always bring the assigned texts to class with you.
Requirements: Class sessions will include a mix of lecture and discussion. The point of lecture is to contextualize the readings and provide background on key concepts, while the point of discussion is to foster critical inquiry. Active engagement is necessary to make course activities worthwhile. As such, I expect you to take notes on both lectures and readings. Formal (i.e., graded) requirements are listed as follows:
- You will be graded on participation. Grading on participation is not black and white, but if you do not consistently come to class prepared with the assigned readings, your participation grade will be affected. Your participation grade will also be affected if you routinely have your phone out during class, or if you are otherwise disruptive during class discussion. Your final participation grade, out of ten points, will be awarded at the end of the semester.
- You will be expected to turn in two response papers. At the end of each unit, you will have the opportunity to turn in a response paper of approximately three pages engaging with two or more course readings. You are expected to turn in two over the course of the semester — if you turn in all three, the lowest grade will be dropped. Each paper will be graded out of 15 points according to the rubric on Blackboard, for a total of 30 points for the response papers overall.
- There will be five reading quizzes. At five points throughout the semester, I will distribute half-sheet short answer quizzes, worth two points each. Each quiz will concern the assigned reading for that week, and they serve mostly to check if you did it. These quizzes are unannounced and cannot be made up if missed.
- There will be a midterm and a final exam. A modest midterm exam will be administered about halfway through the second unit. I will distribute a review sheet with sample questions a week before the exam date, which I suggest you go over in groups. The midterm exam will be graded out of twenty points, and it will be a combination of multiple choice and short answer questions covering material from the first half of the semester. You will have the full class meeting to complete it. The final exam, for which you will have two hours, will be graded out of thirty points. It will be structured like the midterm, but slightly longer. It will be cumulative, but with heavier emphasis on the second half of the course.
In the event that you will miss an exam, we can try to schedule an alternate time to take the test. Failing that, I will happily provide a written take-home. If you will require a rescheduled or make-up exam due to illness, a family event, or religious observance, please let me know as soon as possible, and we will arrange something. If you know that you will require a make-up exam, you must notify me prior to the exam date.
Here's a breakdown of how the course is graded overall:
|Response Papers (two)||30 points (15 points each)|
|Reading Quizzes (five)||10 points (2 points each)|
|Midterm Exam||20 points|
|Final Exam||30 points|
|Total || 100 points possible|
Since the course as a whole is graded out of 100 points, your raw score is also your percentage grade for the semester. I award letter grades according to the usual scale, so 93-100 points earn you an A; 90-92 points earn you an A-minus; 87-89 points earn you a B-plus; 83-86 points earn you a B; 80-82 points earn you a B-minus; etc.
Conduct Guidelines: Although I do not grade on attendance directly, students are still expected to attend class regularly having completed and prepared to discuss the required reading. As not just quantity but also quality of participation is important, I strongly recommend that you stay on topic during class discussions.
I do not permit cellphone use during class, and I also encourage you to avoid using other electronics whenever possible. While I conditionally permit laptops and tablets, I reserve the right to change my mind if they become too distracting. If you use a laptop or tablet in class, please only use it for purposes directly related to the course (consulting readings, note-taking, e.g.). You are encouraged to print out Blackboard readings for in-class use.
Academic Integrity: In written assignments (and this includes short answer questions on tests), it would be really great if you didn't plagiarize. Plagiarism is the act of presenting someone else's ideas or language as your own. The faculty and administration of Lehman College strive to foster an environment free of cheating and plagiarism. Each student is individually responsible for knowing what constitutes cheating and plagiarism and avoiding both. For the full text of the CUNY Academic Integrity Policy (a real page turner), click here. If a faculty member confirms a violation of academic integrity, and/or if the student admits the violation, the faculty member is contractually obligated to report the violation to administration. That's a headache for all involved, so please familiarize yourself with CUNY's policy on academic integrity and avoid violating it.
Accessibility: In order to receive disability-related academic accommodations, students should register with the Office of Student Disability Services (SDS). For instructions on how to register with SDS, please click here. If you have already registered with the Office of Student Disability Services, please provide me with the appropriate documentation and discuss your specific accommodations with me, and I will do everything I can to provide them.
- Tues., 1/28 — Introductions, syllabus overview
Unit 1: Culture as Resources
- Thurs., 1/30 — Setting up: media institutions in our political environment
Topic: Fact vs. Opinion
- Tues., 2/4 — Positive vs. normative claims
- Thurs., 2/6 — Editorial perspective vs. bias
Topic: Frames and discourses
- Tues., 2/11 — How do mass media change the way we speak?
- Thurs., 2/13 – How can mass media shape political behavior?
Topic: Mass media and power
- Tues., 2/18 — Media, markets, and states
- Thurs., 2/20 – Mass media and political action
Book Club: Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others
- Tues., 2/25 — Documenting disasters
- Reading – Sontag, ch. 2, pp. 18–39
- Thurs., 2/27 — Knowing vs. acting
- Reading – Sontag, ch. 3, pp. 40–58
- Tues., 3/3 — What can/can't photographs tell us?
- Reading – Sontag, ch. 5, pp. 74–94
- Thurs., 3/5 — What do mass media images do?
- Reading – Sontag, chs. 7–8, pp. 104–118
- First response paper due by 11:59pm
Unit 2: Culture as Practices
Topic: The public sphere
- Tues., 3/10 – Democracy as deliberation between citizens
- Thurs., 3/12 – Public and private spheres
Topic: Pluralism and its requirements
- Tues., 3/17 – Speaking politically, not metaphysically
- Thurs., 3/19 – Deliberative democracy exercise
- Tues., 3/24 — Midterm Exam
Topic: Democracy as performance
- Thurs., 3/26 — Film: What Is Democracy?
- Tues., 3/31 — Conceptualizing "the people"
- Thurs., 4/2 — What are the boundaries of democracy?
- Tues., 4/7 — Wednesday schedule (no class)
- Second response paper due by 11:59pm
- April 8–16: Spring Recess
Unit 3: National Identity
Book Club: Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities
- Tues., 4/21 — The people and/as the nation
- Reading – Anderson, ch. 2, "Cultural Roots"
- Thurs., 4/23 — What came before the nation-state?
- Tues., 4/28 — Origins and meanings of national identity
- Reading – Anderson, ch. 3, "The Origins of National Consciousness"
- Thurs., 4/30 — Common language, common territory
- Reading – Anderson, ch. 5, "Old Languages, New Models"
- Tues., 5/5 — Codifying national identity
- Reading – Anderson, ch. 6, "Official Nationalism and Imperialism"
- Thurs., 5/7 — Inclusion and exclusion
- Tues., 5/12 — Inclusion and exclusion, continued
- Reading – Anderson, ch. 8, "Patriotism and Racism"
- Thurs., 5/14 — Wrap up and review
- Third response paper due by 11:59pm
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- Final Exam dates:
- 11:00am section: Thursday, May 21, 11:00am–1:00pm
- 12:30pm section: Tuesday, May 19, 11:00am–1:00pm