Stockton College at Medford University
American Culture Lecture Series
Dr. Kristin J. Jacobson
Assistant Professor of American Literature and Women’s Studies
The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey
This lecture series surveys a range of literary, musical, and visual texts spanning the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries in order to examine the “educational force” of American culture. “Educational force” is what cultural critic Henry A. Giroux connects to “public pedagogy,” or an educational practice that recognizes “the production, dissemination, and circulation of ideas emerge from the educational force of the larger culture.” The series will uncover this force, helping the participants understand “how people learn to be political agents,” and it aims to produce the “educational work . . . necessary within many kinds of public spaces to enable people to use their full intellectual resources to both provide a profound critique of existing institutions and struggle to work towards fulfilling the promise of a radical global democracy” (Giroux). In other words, the lecture series models several ways for participants to understand and engage critically in American culture–past and present.
This public humanities program examines the American experience from a variety of perspectives. The six topical, multimedia lectures interweave the intensive study of literature, music, and film/television. The lectures discuss a range of scholarly, folk, and popular texts, including, for example, excerpts from Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz, the film Songcatcher, and folk music from Harry Smith’s Smithsonian Anthology of American Folk Music. The lectures examine American ideals and realities to uncover how we define American identity and how others define it for us. The texts’ histories as well as their aesthetic and political significance will be explored.
Adopted from an undergraduate course taught at both The Pennsylvania State University-University Park and Stockton College, the lecture series on American culture runs for six consecutive Tuesdays in the fall (September 11-October 16). Each hour-long lecture presentation will be followed with a half-hour discussion. The lectures are designed so no prior reading or knowledge of the topics is needed; however, participants will be given a list of music, films, television shows, essays, and literature for further study.
Session 1: Introduction to the Study of American Culture
This lecture will address the question: what does it mean to study American culture? It will outline the theory and practice of cultural critique. The lecture will also define four key terms to our study of American culture: high, low, folk and popular culture.
Session 2: American Identity and Roots
This lecture will define American Identity by examining American roots music and its connections to a variety of musical forms as well as American ideals. An analysis of the poem “Brown Country” will serve as the lecture’s touchstone for thinking through dominant and marginalized understandings of American identity.
Session 3: White Trash: Archetype, Type and Stereotype.
In a capitalist, materialist society, can you be both poor and American? In what ways do money and success define the American experience? This lecture examines such questions and the role of class consciousness in America by looking at representations of “White Trash.” The film Deliverance, Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina, and the novel’s film adaptation will serve as the lecture’s touchstone examples.
Session 4: America’s Art: Jazz and American Modernism.
The fourth session introduces participants to American modernism, the Harlem Renaissance, and Toni Morrison’s novel Jazz. The lecture features examples from the visual arts, music, and literature to understand jazz’s forms, history, and cultural significance and legacies.
Session 5: The Model American Home: Then and Now.
While the popular ABC reality television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition may initially strike us as thoroughly modern in its execution and technology, its rhetoric and ideology actually hold much in common with nineteenth-century domestic texts. This lecture compares the model homes in Extreme Makeover with the ideals and practices expressed by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular 1869 treatise the American Woman’s Home, arguably the domestic manual of the nineteenth century. The lecture uncovers uncanny connections between Extreme Makeover and the American Woman’s Home.
Session 6: The Marketing of New Frontiers: Cultures of the Extreme.
The extreme appears in everything from sports to laundry detergent to home improvement television shows. Americans can purchase, view, and participate in a variety of cultures of the extreme. Whether as armchair or actual adventurers, Americans are fascinated by extreme triumphs and tragedies. This session will analyze this phenomenon in contemporary American culture. The lecture will feature an analysis of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book about the 1996 Everest tragedy, Into Thin Air.
Web Background Image Credit: Ross Palmer Beecher, “Radio Flyer Flag,” 2006