“What Would You Say to an Alien?” The American Culture Portfolio

Fox, Roy F.

I would say, “Let me show you what it means to be human.” And then I would take them to the theater, the symphony hall, the opera house, the movies, the museums. I would…read poems, tell stories…take them to see the paintings of da Vinci, Georgia O’Keefe, and Picasso, to a Greek tragedy or a comedy by Shakespeare, to hear Louis Armstrong, Mozart, and Oklahoma! I would show them the grace of dancers, the elegance of a bow passed across a violin’s strings, and the profundity of a child drawing a picture of her mother…. And then I would ask them, “What is art where you live?” (Leonard Nimoy, Actor and Director)

“Go back! You can get killed here!” (Edward G. Rendell, Mayor, Philadelphia)

At last! An impartial jury for the O. J. Simpson trial. (Joseph Duffy, Director, U.S. Information Agency)

I suggest that we go out to meet them buck naked, our hands empty and palms up, extended and open. And I suggest we say only this: “Help us. We are very young and we want to know.” (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Poet)

Shown these answers to the question, “What would you say to an alien?” students were asked to write what they would say to a friendly alien. We then shared our responses and talked about them: How many were funny? Serious? Scary? And what did our answers seem to reveal about American values?

This lesson, created and taught by a small group of students for a college class of future English teachers, was part of a longer project, “Aliens: The Media’s Meaning.” This entire thematic unit contained many artifacts, background material, instructions for teaching about the artifacts, lessons employing electronic media, and other materials. This detailed guide, in addition to each student’s “Analysis and Connection” papers and other writings, makes up the American Culture Portfolio. When students collaborate to create such portfolios, they read and write in varied forms, as well as collect, analyze, and synthesize an array of artifacts. Students also put these portfolios to immediate use when they teach their peers about their topic.

While the examples in this article come from undergraduate English Education majors, such a portfolio (and the processes involved in developing it) is also easily adaptable for other students, from those enrolled in freshman college writing and humanities courses, to middle and secondary students enrolled in English/Language Arts, Social Studies, and Cultural Studies classes. The students described in this article use their portfolios as examples to show their own high school students. These students, in turn, engage in the same processes their teachers did: selecting a topic, researching it, gathering information, analyzing it, synthesizing it, and writing it all up. Then, students put this work to immediate use by teaching their peers about their new area of expertise.

When students of any age immerse themselves in a topic of their choice, it’s only another natural step for them to teach this material to their peers. People who become involved in what they are discovering about the world often feel a need to share it with others.

This journey, of course, has never been mirror-smooth, but it’s always been intriguing, due mainly to the constant need for students to discover, to invent, to organize, to plan, to evaluate, to reflect. In short, this project requires students to be constantly active, to constantly engage in critical thinking and reflection.

In the following sections, I will explain what students create and what they actually do. Next, I will describe how teachers and students work together to prepare for all of this work—how teachers can help students develop the critical thinking skills they need for this complex project. Finally, after describing some potential problems with this approach and how, possibly, to avoid them, I will explain why I chose this approach in the first place.

Exploring Venus (and America): What Do Students Do?

So—what happens when students work in small groups to create (and then teach) American Culture Portfolios? First, some groups can get started by reaching consensus on a topic that they most want to investigate. However, most groups need to delve into several actual artifacts or test the waters, before they make a final decision.

Diving into Artifacts. After tentatively agreeing on space aliens as their topic, Chris and his group submerged themselves in several relevant artifacts or texts, which are to come from several categories, including art, fiction classics, advertising, everyday objects, television, science and technology (see Appendix A, “Portfolio Requirements for Teaching American Culture,” for the complete list and options).

The Alien group’s artifacts included the following items: a list of the top ten moneymaking films (e.g., Star Wars, E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial, Return of the Jedi, Independence Day); a poster advertising the 1950’s film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; ads for toys based upon the film, Men in Black; a catalog of “alien toys”; an audio tape and written transcript of Orson Wells’ 1939 War of the Worlds radio broadcast; a Weird Science comic book of “incredible science fiction stories”; old issues of Life Magazine featuring American space triumphs and tragedies; James Dickey’s poem, “The Moon Ground”; film reviews of Aliens, Predator, and The Andromeda Strain. Also included were these gems culled from cyberspace: “UFO Sightings by Astronauts” and “List of UFO Bodies Allegedly in the Possession of the United States Government.” More on Web sites later!

Chris’s group used a three-ring binder to organize the portfolio, which included actual artifacts (or representations of them, such as a smaller, color copy of a poster), the group member’s own written analyses of the texts, background material, time lines, reflective introductions and other evaluations, an “About the Cover” page and an “About the Authors” page. This portfolio also contained several detailed lessons for teaching others about these artifacts. Each lesson contains a rationale, goals, materials needed, and step-by-step instructions that include discussion questions, informal and formal writing activities, etc. (see Appendix B, “Sample Lesson Plan for Teaching American Culture”).

With so much material, students must organize it according to the themes that they see emerge from their assorted artifacts and background readings. For instance, the Aliens group focused on how Americans’ collective perception of aliens seems to fluctuate according to our views of the larger social climate. During times of economic prosperity, we may view visitors from other worlds as a challenge. In bad times, we may regard them as a source of salvation. Other themes within the Aliens portfolio included, “Invasion of the Body-Snatching Communist Aliens: The Red Scare” and “Alien vs. Predator: The Vietnam War.” Finally, I ask that students synthesize their themes into a single idea that should appear as the title of their portfolio. All of the alien material ultimately boiled down to a portfolio titled, “Aliens: The Media’s Meaning.”

Constructing such thematic lessons demands that students learn about the specific texts and culture which produced them—as well as how to involve others in actively learning about them. Hence, on a scheduled date, students presented an overview of their portfolio to their peers. Next, two or three successive days are devoted to the group “trying out” some of these interactive and interdisciplinary teaching ideas with the class. Because Chris and his group chose their own material, they learned it well. However, like teachers, they really knew the material after teaching it—after living and demonstrating their knowledge. And during the process of students teaching each other, the “teachers” invariably learn from their “students.”

Connecting Artifacts to the Culture which Produced Them. One lesson created by Chris’s group explored the public reactions of panic to the War of the Worlds radio broadcast in 1939. Then, the group moved the class to the 1950’s by exploring a unit called “Aliens and Da Bomb,” in which we evaluated two-dimensional alien characters from pulp novels and comic books—a portrayal which changed with the development of the atomic bomb, as aliens became more complex and sinister. With the growing awareness of “the bomb,” the Red Scare of McCarthyism, and the onset of the Cold War, aliens became portrayed as creatures to be feared. This portfolio also contained plans for teaching us how Americans’ perceptions of aliens changed yet again during the Civil Rights era of the 1960’s, as aliens were transformed into the “racial other.” A later lesson in the sequence explored how depictions of aliens parallel America’s current focus on diversity, with aliens representing the ultimate “diverse” population.

Focusing on the Heaven’s Gate cult followers of Marshall Applewhite, the Aliens group created a lesson which examines how aliens can serve our needs for religion, how the possibility of their existence helps some of us with our unanswerable questions about life and death. For example, the group paired a discussion (with film clips) of the movie, Contact, starring Jodie Foster, with a discussion of the Carl Sagan book it was based upon, along with a study of the technology employed by the SETI Institute (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence). In examining Roswell/ Area 51 incident (in which aliens are alleged to have crashed in New Mexico in the late 1940’s) and the video of the purported “Alien Autopsy” (along with related sources), students engaged in photography, documentary criticism, technology, and the elusive search for truth in a postmodern land.

Chris and his cohorts did not focus just on the somber, scary, and weird. One lesson on “Aliens in Comedy,” featured TV’s Alf, the film, Men in Black, and an assignment which asks students to answer the same question with which Omni Magazine surveyed its readers: “What would you say to an alien?” However, before students do all of these things and regardless of the cultural artifacts they choose to learn and teach about, they first need practice in applying several “analytical tools” or “systems of inquiry”—ones that they can apply to any type of artifact, text, or media.

Making Missions Possible: How Do Students Prepare?

The study of American culture demands critical thinking. When students steep themselves in artifacts which keenly interest them, they become more willing to “deconstruct” them—to read and analyze an artifact’s constituent parts and wholes, to eventually detect its dominant ideologies and values residing within. Students, of course, need practice in analyzing artifacts in systematic ways, before it can become more of a holistic and “automated” response.

Mucking Around with Artifact Analysis. Many cultural critics (e.g., Fiske 1993) define America’s dominant ideology in terms of values such as, capitalism, competition, consumerism, materialism, and patriarchy. Of course, students soon find other minority or “oppositional” values within texts, too, since readers often bring their own meanings to bear upon their understanding of an artifact. Since most students have considerable experience with popular culture, they begin artifact analysis on more of a “level playing field,” than, say, they do when taking up the study of print literature. Analyzing films, television, posters, music, clothing, architecture, and toys (for example) along with fiction and nonfiction print, helps students to understand the broader purposes for constructing meaning from texts—to understand its values and ideologies and, if they think necessary, to work to change them. Students, then, often begin to see that the study of literature, for example, is not a pointless, academic exercise. As well, reading and interpreting artifacts enables students to engage in contextualized critical thinking, debate, and reflection (versus pondering problems in a vacuum).

As a whole class, students prepare by devoting several weeks to informally analyzing a wide variety of artifacts—those selected by the instructor and those that students themselves bring to class. During these practice and “play” periods, I try hard not to grade students’ work, because I am encouraging them to “think aloud” about things they have usually never before considered. Freed from grades and the tyranny of “saying the right thing,” students will take more risks in their thinking and hence learn more.

The first stage, “Artifact Show and Tell,” should be simple and fun. I ask students to bring to class some common, everyday object that intrigues them for some reason, although I don’t expect them to fully articulate those reasons. Rather, we go around the circle, showing and thinking aloud about the object’s uses, appearance, design, and, eventually, the object’s possible cultural meanings. Students bring in Beanie Babies, Calvin Klein jeans, bottled water, political campaign buttons, Nike shoe boxes, Cabbage Patch dolls, Barbie dolls, Hulk Hogan action figures, Post-It Notes, designer cell phones, packaged health foods and vitamins, and plastic, digital fortune cookies. Such lively, informal discussions allow students to muck around in the symbolic and intellectual richness of American culture—something that, amazingly, most students are doing for the first time. Students are typically not accustomed to controlling their culture as much as they are to being controlled by it. Students’ first whiff of what it feels like to control the signs of their own culture can be—should be—at least a little intoxicating.

The second stage of artifact analysis requires several class periods, where we analyze different artifacts with different tools, one text and analytical strategy at a time. For example, we might read John Updike’s short story, A & P, and then deconstruct it for its “binary oppositions”: Sammy, the main character, is a young man, and Lengel, his older boss, serves as his opposite. Also, the bright outdoors of the beach community setting is “opposed by” the darker, more rigid interior of the store where Sammy works. Next, we might analyze a print ad, using Rank’s “Intensify/Downplay” schema (1976). Then, we might explore a popular song (audio and printed lyrics) from the viewpoints of different groups, determined by race, age, gender, and socioeconomic class. Applying a variety of critical tools to a variety of artifacts provides students a repertoire of approaches, which they “play with” and apply, one at a time. After students become more experienced and confident, they begin using bits and pieces from several approaches and/or using the most appropriate system for the artifact at hand.

Applying Analytical Tools

Although there are many ways to teach students to analyze texts, I will summarize those approaches that have worked best for me. Most important, these strategies have to be fairly accessible to students and applicable to any type of text—print, images, music, etc. The following summaries of approaches appear in roughly the same order in which I introduce them to students. Once students have practiced, I encourage them to read and interpret artifacts more “intuitively” and “holistically,” to avoid becoming hamstrung by one specific approach or its jargon.

1. Objectively Describe the Artifact. Engage students in sustained, close, objective description of an artifact. They should avoid judging the artifact and just describe it. When demonstrating this with a whole group, ask a student to record the descriptive phrases on the board or overhead transparency. The point is that enough close description often naturally leads students to an overall evaluation, judgment, or conclusion (i.e., value) about the artifact. For example, with Edward Hopper’s painting, “Nighthawks,” students typically respond with phrases such as, “The café is located in a big city in the middle of the night”; “Only a few people are in the café”; The inside is brightly lit, but the outside is dark”; “People are alone and there’s lots of space between them,” and “It’s very quiet and clean inside the café.”

2. Speculate about the Values Suggested by the Artifact’s Description. From this base of objective description, students then suggest some possible values communicated by the artist: isolation, alienation, loneliness, quiet despair. If students cannot “move” from their concrete descriptions toward more abstract statements of values, ask them instead to describe the “overall mood” of the painting—and then work “backward” to some specific elements which point viewers toward this overall mood. Then ask students to identify any values associated with this mood and the details contributing to it. Regardless of how students “get there,” the important point is that they link their more general statements of values and ideologies to the more specific details used by the artist to construct the painting.

3. Ask Why. Whenever they are contemplating an artifact, remind students to ask, “Why?”—over and over. Then ask them to record their responses. If a student describes the people in Hopper’s painting as located far apart from each other, ask why, and brainstorm some answers (e.g., “They’re tired and/or depressed and they don’t want to talk”). Why? “Because they’ve been working all day or looking for a job.” Why? Because the setting looks like the 1930’s and lots of people were out of work then.” And so it goes.

Also, continually apply the why-question to specific features of the artifact. For instance, “Why did the artist create such a contrast between the inside and outside of the café?” Why are the colors so muted, especially on the outside?” “Why is there so little movement?” “Why did the artist choose ‘Nighthawks’ for a title? “Why did the artist position the viewer on the outside looking in?” For all such questions, ask students to strive for more than one possible answer for each question, and then, eventually, articulate which of the responses make the most sense and why.

4. Tell the Artifact’s Inside Story and Outside Story. Students should understand that narrative is a legitimate way to “read” any artifact. Print ads, for example, often tell or imply a longer story inside the ad—a sequence of events leading up to the moment depicted in the ad, as well as what occurs after this moment. For example, a liquor ad portrays two men and a woman standing inside a docked boat. The man holds a bottle of vodka and a full glass; the two people next to him also have drinks in hand. Standing directly in front of them, on a step ladder on the dock, a woman holds a paint brush. The boat is partially painted, and the word, “SUEBILLANNJOE” is newly painted on the front of the boat. The ad’s large print states, “Friends are worth Smirnoff.”

What is the story “inside” this ad? Who are these people? What do they do for a living? What is their connection to each other? Why is only the woman working and the others watching? Is it because she is the only one sober? The only one drunk? Do these people drink and operate the boat at the same time? Does “SUEBILLANNJOE” refer to the two men and one woman in the boat (i.e., “Sue, Bill, and Joe”), who stand just above this label? Or, does this sign refer to four people: Sue, Bill, Ann, and Joe? If so, where is the fourth person? Is Ann the woman working? If so, why? Are these people old friends or new acquaintances? Will they remain friends? How do they define friendship? Teasing out the possible stories inherent within the text directs students toward its underlying values.

On the other hand, what is the story “outside” this ad? A text’s external story focuses on the creators of the text and the decisions they make in producing it. In this example, why did the Smirnoff Vodka company choose this ad for this particular publication? What is the primary and secondary readership for this publication? Do the people portrayed in this ad “match” this readership? Where else does Smirnoff advertise and what kinds of ads does it use? What are the ages and income levels of the people who buy this brand of liquor? Pursuing the outside story, more than anything else, reminds students that artifacts are always constructed and “mediated” by many other people and organizations, each of whom have specific purposes and reasons for constructing the text the way they do.

5. Determine which of the Artifact’s Elements are Intensified, which are Downplayed, and Why. Hugh Rank’s (1976) “Intensify/Downplay” schema is an elegantly simple strategy for helping students analyze propaganda expressed in any form (e.g., Rutledge 1994). In this schema, which fits onto a single page, a message is intensified (i.e., emphasized or highlighted in some way) through the uses of repetition, association or transfer, and composition. On the other hand, a message can be downplayed (i.e., obscured or toned down in some way) through the uses of omission, diversion, and confusion. Each of these elements is described by Rank in the diagram. Elements of any message, then, can be intensified, while others are simultaneously downplayed. Often, a communicator will intensify her own “good” qualities, while downplaying her “bad” ones. By the same token, she will often downplay her opponent’s good qualities, while intensifying the bad ones.

For example, in the liquor ad discussed earlier, we could say that its creators intensified recreation and friendship, while they downplayed boating safety. More specifically, by positioning the ad’s three people above and apart from the woman holding the paint brush, the creators are intensifying partying and downplaying working. Finally, the point of the Intensify/Downplay schema is one of balance: if a person detects intensification of some element of the artifact, his response should be to downplay it—to discount it more than he’s being guided by the text’s creator to do. By the same token, if he detects something being downplayed, his response should be to intensify it—to find out more information about it.

6. Determine whether Meanings “Rub Off” from One Element to Another. Understanding association or transfer is crucial for reading and interpreting artifacts. Association occurs when qualities of one thing “rub off” onto another thing—just because they are positioned closely together (even when such things do not normally “go together”). A presidential candidate who makes a TV commercial showing him visiting a flag factory or riding in an army tank is probably hoping that the qualities of flags and tanks (patriotism, commitment to defense spending, etc.) will transfer to viewers’ perception of him as a leader.

Magazine ads and TV commercials are a good place to begin teaching association. After examining an ad and eliciting students’ open responses to it, ask them if the ad is selling something “invisible”—something in addition to the actual product advertised (Fox 1996). For example, the TV commercial mentioned earlier depicts a brother and sister discussing the boy’s dandruff. As the boy plays with the basketball, his sister enters the room, carrying books. She peers down at his head, notices his dandruff, and advises him that, when he meets his “dream girl,” he will “never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Here, the shampoo is the visible thing being sold, but “popularity” or “sex appeal” might be the invisible things being sold. When shampoo is associated with popularity and physical attraction, viewers may, naturally, transfer the qualities of one to another, in effect making them much the same thing. Once students articulate such “invisible things being sold,” they are also identifying the values or ideologies being advocated.

7. Break the Artifact Down into its Oppositional Pairs. In this approach, students explore the text for whatever “opposites” they can detect. Do this initially with the large group and record the opposites on the board or overhead transparency. Afterward (or as you go along), try to place the items of each pair into one of the two columns. Oppositions within the shampoo commercial discussed earlier might appear like this:

* Male

* Female

* Active; plays basketball

* Passive; carries books

* Receives advice (student)

* Gives advice (teacher)

* Has dandruff

* Has perfect hair

* Does not know how girls will respond

* Does know how girls will respond

Next, ask students if they think the creator of this commercial is “privileging” one side over the other. Does the creator of this text assign more “weight” or importance or validity or truth to one of the columns over the other? If so, why? Does the column privileged represent one of America’s dominant ideologies? What evidence in our culture (such as specific events or actions of specific people) makes you think this?

8. Examine the Artifact from the Viewpoints of Specific Groups of People. Present students with an artifact and ask them to assume that they are a member of a specific group of people—one mainly defined by age, gender, ethnicity, or socioeconomic class. Ask students to read and interpret the text as a member of that group might do it. Assign different “reading positions” to each group and then reconvene as a whole group to compare notes. For example, a member of an ethnic minority might ask why all of the people in Hopper’s “Nighthawks” painting (as well as in the shampoo commercial noted earlier) appear to be white and middle-to-upper class. A female might inquire why the boy in the commercial was portrayed as the basketball player and not the female. A male might ask why the boy was not portrayed as a reader. Once students begin asking such questions (or critiquing) from “vested” points of view, they are beginning to uncover the text’s values and ideologies.

These are only a few strategies to help students dive into cultural artifacts. Other effective approaches include applying principles from general semantics and propaganda analysis (e.g., Fleming 1995; Hayakawa 1994), such as the two-valued orientation (i.e., the either/or fallacy); classification; levels of abstraction; denotation vs. connotation; emotional language (e.g., snarl words and purr words), and the importance of context. Once students have developed some confidence in analyzing artifacts, I ask them to apply and demonstrate what they have learned by writing “Analysis and Connection” papers, the topic of the following section.

Writing Analysis and Connection Papers. Once students have “played” with analyzing several different artifacts—from TV programs, to toys, to children’s book, to furniture, to popular songs—I ask them to choose an artifact, analyze it in detail, link it to its larger culture, and write the whole thing up, using one or more strategies we’ve already demonstrated in class. I encourage students to “match” their artifact with the most appropriate analytical approach. For example, binary oppositions may work effectively with a poster for the film, Titanic, but not for an episode of Ally McBeal. All plans, drafts, and revisions of these 5-7 page papers (peer and instructor-reviewed) become part of the portfolio (see Appendix C, Guidelines for Analysis & Connection Papers and Appendix D, Rubric for Analysis and Connection Papers). The following summaries should give you a flavor of what these projects can entail:

1. Fight the Red Menace: The Children’s Crusade Against Communism (a series of cards for children, produced by Bowman Gum, Inc., 1951). Each colorful card portrays a specific scene, such as General Douglas MacArthur saluting, as a tank burns in the background. The back side of each card explains the scene. The MacArthur card begins,

North Korean Reds attacked South Korea in what is believed to be part of a communist plan gradually to conquer the whole world. The United Nations pitched in to help the South Koreans, like your dad would help the folks next door if some bad men were beating them up.

This student observed that,

The very name of these cards indulges in the propaganda technique of name calling. They shove all the Communists and Socialist countries into one convenient label, ‘Reds.’ They do not explain the subtle differences between Chinese and Soviet Communism, or between Socialist and Communist ideologies. Information is not their goal. Readers are supposed to respond to the negative label, not to the evidence. Red trials. Red attack. The Reds. Reds rule—the word appears everywhere on these cards (repetition). On the eight cards in this set, the general term, ‘Reds menace’ includes the Soviets, Hungarians, Bulgarians, North Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

2. The BeeGees Singing Group (5’ x 4’ poster from the 1970’s. According to this student, the men depicted on her poster—Robin, Barry, and Maurice Gibb—are dressed in “full disco attire, gold necklaces glistening and chest-revealing vests fully open.” The writer delves into her poster’s visual message by closely describing it, which, I believe, helps lead her to analysis and evaluation of the poster. This writer also employs two strategies discussed earlier, which I note in brackets:

The poster is typical of BeeGees merchandise and is an interesting reflection of the popular disco culture. The background is blue behind what looks like a crinkled sheet of plastic or cellophane. The wrinkled plastic is all around the three BeeGees: behind them, under their feet, over their heads. The plastic is shiny, slick, clean. The wrinkles in it do not make it seem messy or unkempt; instead, they seem to enhance or emphasize the glistening effect of the plastic sheeting [intensify/downplay]. The light blue behind the plastic, when coupled with the plastic itself, almost makes the background seem heavenly or other-worldly. The BeeGees are not of this earth; they are above and beyond us common mortals [transfer/association].

3. The Berenstain Bears: No Girls Allowed (children’s book by Stan and Jan Berenstain, 1986). In this picture book, Sister Bear is forbidden to join the boy cubs’ new clubhouse because she can outperform them in traditional male activities. Using some of the analytical tools practiced in class, this student concludes that,

This book attacks the value of group superiority. The obvious analogy is that these boy cubs represent the white, male power system at a time when being a white male carried a stigma never before imagined. This idea is intensified through the cover of the book, which features three evil-looking boy cubs glaring at Sister from within the impenetrable fortress which they have built. Sister’s innocence is visually intensified: she stands in her pink outfit with hair bow next to a bunny rabbit which evidently has nothing to fear from Sister. The inside title page continues to intensify the villainy of the boys. It shows the same scene, but this time, from inside the club house, as the boys sneer at Sister’s helplessness.

Once students analyze and interpret a text (including a summary of its historical and social contexts), they are standing on the doorstep of its values and ideologies, if they are not already there. The previous excerpts from critiques of the cards, poster, and children’s book directly state or strongly imply the values and ideologies at work within each text.

To help students identify and articulate their artifact’s values, I ask them to work from the following readings, which we discuss in class: Workman’s (1992) brief discussion of “dominant American values”; Plummer’s (1989) description of how traditional American values are evolving into new ones, and Postman’s analysis of thematic patterns and values in TV beer commercials (1987). To serve as a foundation for these readings, students can read and discuss several accessible selections which provide rationales and examples of cultural analysis. I assign these while the whole class practices analyzing artifacts (described earlier). One good source for such readings is Maasik and Solomon’s Signs of Life in the USA: Readings in Popular Culture (1994).

When a student connects a specific artifact, such as the BeeGees poster, to a specific culture and time (America of the early 1970’s), they must do in specific ways. That is, students should link their artifact to 1) similar artifacts and 2) specific events and people from the same culture and time period. In short, I am not interested in students floating around in amorphous generalizations about some vague notion of cultural relativity or shapeless social musings. Students must draw clear lines linking artifact to cultural events and people.

For instance, the Fight the Red Menace cards could be linked to another primary text on the same topic, such as Lillian Hellman’s nonfiction account of the McCarthy era, Scoundrel Time (1983). Or, the student could link the cards to a secondary text, such as a newspaper editorial about the cards themselves, or about America’s fight against Communism. Perhaps more importantly, students should also anchor their artifact to specific events and people. To link the cards to events, the writer might articulate how the message of the cards reflect the comments made by Senator Joe McCarthy at a specific press conference or interview. The writer might also connect the cards to examples of the work performed by that era’s House Committee on Un-American Activities, or to the Hollywood “blacklisting” of writers and actors.

Ongoing Reflection and Evaluation. Reflection and evaluation should occur throughout students’ reading, writing, and teaching of American culture, so that students can better understand what they are doing and why. Such metalanguage is especially crucial because many students are encountering the study of cultural artifacts for the first time—they have never before thought of a BeeGee’s poster as a “text” that can and should be read and interpreted. The following descriptions illustrate how and when such reflection might occur. All written reflections and evaluations are titled, dated, and included in each student’s final portfolio.

1. Periodic Freewritings. While students are experimenting with the application of analytical approaches, ask them to freewrite about what they have just done and what they think about it. Encourage students to ask questions and then to speculate upon possible answers; if possible, to include more than one answer to each question. Students can trade these informal writings and respond to the writers. Volunteers should read some freewrites and responses aloud to the whole class, for further oral discussion.

2. Written Minutes of Small Group Meetings. While collaborating in small groups to create their project, students should keep written minutes of every meeting. These minutes should conclude with a brief description of the work that’s left to do, who will do it, and the time of completion. Students can assume specific roles for accomplishing their tasks, such as, Teaching Coordinator, Secretary or Recorder, Liaison (with the instructor and other student groups), Copy Editor, and General Editor (see Appendix E, “Requirements for American Culture Unit and In-Class Teaching”). The group which created the Aliens project met for a total of 20 times, mostly outside of class, though I allow groups to meet during class on those rare occasions when we have 15 minutes at the end. Here is an excerpt from that group’s minutes for their eighth meeting:

We met at 2 p.m. at Jen’s house and shared ideas for our lessons. We chose to do the introductory lesson for our in-class teaching and worked out the details. There were lots of ideas and discussion. We watched clips from various movies about aliens. We discussed the practicality of showing these 5 clips to 5 groups. We tried to figure out if these brief film clips would create a good discussion about the themes we saw in them. We ended this meeting with slight uneasiness and decided to talk to Dr. Fox about it.

Written minutes not only clue instructors in on who showed up for outside meetings (“those present” must be listed), but also help teachers know what problems the group is encountering and how they plan to solve them. When students must articulate in writing their dilemmas, they seem to move closer to solving them on their own.

3. Self, Peer, and Instructor Evaluations of In-Class Teaching. Most students, middle through college levels, can teach their peers—especially if they are steeped in texts that fascinate them. When this happens, sharing with others is the next logical step. The teaching of the thematic units within these portfolios can require a couple class periods and as much as several weeks, depending upon how many types of artifacts the small groups investigate (see Appendix A, “Portfolio Requirements”) and/or how much time you and your class want to devote to each topic. A final factor is how much material you want to select for in-class instruction. I collaborate with students in deciding what (and sometimes how) they should teach their peers.

After each group presents an overview of their portfolio to the class—its topic, main theme, sub-themes, etc.—they involve their peers in discussing, writing, and problem-solving through interacting with a variety of artifacts and contexts. When a group finishes teaching, each member completes a self-evaluation (Appendix F, “Self-Evaluation”). Also, class members complete an evaluation form on their peer teachers (Appendix G, “Peer Evaluation”), which concludes with a rating scale for overall teaching effectiveness. Respondents sign their names in the upper right-hand corner. After I read them, I cut off names and hand them to the teaching group.

I also give each group a letter responding to their teaching, which contains comments and questions, usually focused on clarity and interest of the project overview, organization, selection of materials, transitions between segments, pacing, uses of small groups, and effectiveness of leading discussions. These letters can also suggest a letter or numerical grade. At the same time that students conclude their teaching, it makes sense to evaluate the portfolios themselves, which I usually collect the following week. The first group to complete the portfolio and teaching becomes advisors to the remaining groups.

4. Written Reflections on Analysis & Connection Papers. Students write brief reflections on each paper, commenting on processes and final product. In the following examples, students clearly describe the contours of their thinking-within-a-specific-context, but they also reveal minds willingly immersed in material from the outside world.

In my paper on the 70’s style living room, I kept referring back to the photo and then to my research, trying to see how it all fit together. With the “Bewitched” TV program, I saw right away that the mortals and witches were binary opposites, and this then became my focus.


It finally came to me—I could do a paper on the Bomb Pop ice cream bar! I hadn’t thought about it before, but it seemed kind of a patriotic little thing, all red, white, and blue…. My research of the time period when the Bomb Pop was created (50’s) kind of matched the artifact to a patriotic time in history. It was not all that long after the end of World War II, the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the hydrogen bomb was being developed. America was definitely the strongest military force in the world. It was interesting that the Bomb Pop came out when all this military power was evident.


I began by listing the different symbols for the car ad and jotting down what I thought they meant…. Several times I thought I was done, only to discover something else within the artifact. Every time I picked up the ad, I saw something different, asked another question, and searched for more answers. I turned this paper in three days ago, and I still think about what it means. In retrospect, I know there are a thousand things I missed. There seemed to be a European motif and the windows were rounded, like the car, and what about the comment about skin, haunches, and tail? While I ponder these questions, I ask myself this: Am I really interested in the ad—or have I become more reflective? I know I have….

While some students, of course, have more difficulty with Analysis and Connection papers, these students’ comments are not unusual. They seem involved in their artifacts because 1) they chose their own artifacts for analysis; 2) they are convinced that artifacts embody values and ideologies; and 3) they feel challenged by “writing their way out” of the puzzles formed by a unique text, its stated or implied values, and the culture which spawned it.

5. Written Reflections on Complete Portfolio and Class. Exploring American culture—let alone creating curriculum from the ground up and teaching parts of it—is such a novel experience for most students that, by the end of the class, they have definite perspectives, which they articulate on the final written reflection, which focuses on the entire experience:

I realized that too often I had accepted the big picture, allowing the general effect of an artifact to wash over me. Yet when I actually began to look at color, text, layout, and the elements of design, some other messages were unveiled.


The beauty of our portfolio (“Get Your Motor Runnin’: America’s Obsession with the Automobile”) was its ability to suck you into the topic. We were incessantly finding new artifacts to include—even the day before our teaching began. We’d see a new car ad on TV, relevant to a lesson we had thought of doing, and would want to shove another section into our portfolio.


When I came to college, I had little experience with literary criticism. My literature professor was less than exemplary, to say the least. So I was amazed when classmates would talk about complicated meanings they were finding in texts, while I struggled to find even a basic, obvious theme. I wondered how I could do what they were doing, how I could dig up the treasures they seemed to find on the surface. If only a teacher would have shown me that I already had the tools for criticism. I just needed to start out with smaller questions: What are the opposites? What is being intensified? Downplayed? And then ask the bigger questions.


These A/C papers did not lend themselves to the topic sentence, bullshit explanation, thesis statement formula. A/C papers forced me to think for myself. For that reason, I realized again that I could own my writing—that I did not have to use someone else’s words, someone else’s research, to make a point and argue it. It was difficult and scary, but these papers were as much an exercise in self-reliance, as they were in developing my thinking and writing.

These comments speak to issues of ownership of learning and autonomy and confidence in analysis and connection-making. They also hint at the joys of inquiry and discovery within contexts. In short, these students seem to have made considerable strides in becoming critical thinkers.

Spaceship Turbulence and How to Avoid It (Maybe)

Helping students become critical thinkers and writers about their own culture is one big ship to fly. If this approach seems like you are turning over teaching to your students, that’s because, to a considerable degree, you are. But it doesn’t mean you will be out of commission. On the contrary, these projects demand from instructors a ferocious energy. Also, of course, the ideas herein invite problems, a few of which I will mention here, along with possible solutions.

The first bump of turbulence is communicating what “cultural studies” is. Some students are invariably skeptical when I tell them that, “anything is a text; anything can be ‘read.’” I try to explain this in 34 jargon-free ways (e.g., “Many things, even everyday objects, like microwave ovens and “Tommy” logos on tee shirts, carry meaning and values, just like a novel does”). But students don’t really become convinced until they participate in open discussions in which they “think aloud,” as they read and interpret an artifact, linking it to certain values and ideologies. Therefore, work on this first. Then do it several more times, with different artifacts—some that students select and some that you bring to class. At the beginning of such discussions, some students will jump right to a value they see, which the text represents. If so, take them back to the artifact: ask them to identify specific features of the text that “point toward” this value.

A second wave of turbulence to smooth out is to help each group of students select a topic that will motivate them over a period of time. If you sense that the group has glommed onto a topic out of convenience or “lack of objections from anyone,” then it probably is not lighting fires anywhere. In essence, you’re telling students, “Okay—you’re in charge now; it’s up to you not to make school ‘boring.’”

I urge groups to find the “biggest toy” they can imagine, that satisfies the whole group. I must approve all topics, and I have never regretted asking a group to go back to the drawing board. If a group is not entirely sold on a topic, I ask them to put things on hold, until they have researched it further and reported back. If enough group members find enough enticing “openings” or “entrees” into the topic (and are hence more enthused about the possibilities), then I will give the go-ahead. If students do not find this, they should abandon the topic and start over.

A third jolt of turbulence is that students can forget that specific artifacts must reside at the core of all of the processes and products involved in this project. Everything must stem from an artifact. Students can sometimes forget this, and if they do, then problems follow. Regardless of whether students are writing a paper, constructing or executing a lesson, an artifact must reside at the center of all activities. If students want to teach their peers about the culture that produced the hoola-hoop, then I require that a specific text be the focus of this study. In short, students are not allowed to teach about generalities by using generalities. Artifacts (and specific features of the artifact) must anchor everything. If they don’t, then students can veer into stereotypical thinking and over-generalizations—none of which are rooted in the artifact itself.

Fourth, even if students do indeed anchor their work in specific artifacts, they can still fall victim to easy generalizations, such as, “The 1950’s was an era of great conformity; everyone wore poodle skirts.” Or, “During the Sixties, everyone smoked a lot of dope.” When such generalizations occur (and after your initial cringe), ask students to supply a morsel of evidence for their conclusions. Ask them if their mother or grandmother ever owned a poodle skirt. In fact, this can be an excellent “teachable moment” to help students evaluate thinking. Encourage students to build such “reality checks” into their teaching plans.

For example, students can interview people or read their accounts, to match direct experience with conclusions arrived at through secondary sources. A student who focused on 1930’s radio programs interviewed his grandfather about them. After a lesson on clothing styles of the 1920’s, another group showed family snapshots, to illustrate the fact that “not everyone dressed like flappers.” Another group showed old high school year books to demonstrate how they did not necessarily match the impression communicated from other artifacts. Such strategies remind students that cultural and media representations can be more image than reality, that the word is not the thing and neither is the image.

Fifth, this project requires that students engage in extensive research—which means that they will work with many Internet Web sites Some students will accept as gospel anything they see on a computer monitor, much as we tend to believe whatever we see in print. Hence, when you are practicing analyzing artifacts, include some Web sites Make overhead transparencies or use a Smart Board to show certain screens for critiquing, for determining what’s intensified or downplayed, for applying propaganda techniques to the site’s text, graphics, and video.

Finally, because this project demands that students take risks with their thinking and hypothesize how an artifact embodies values and how it links to its culture, it’s normal that some students will “under-read” artifacts, while others will “over-read” them. To correct both tendencies, students must monitor and qualify their own thinking. For example, students must realize that an “illustration” is not the same thing as “proof” or “evidence.” That is, an illustration or specific manifestation of a value does not necessarily prove they are connected; it only suggests that they might be. Thus, when students make connections—the name of the game here—encourage them to play devil’s advocate and mention additional possibilities. For students to be satisfied with one possibility is to under-read the text, to fall short of all its possibilities. Once students describe several options, then they can select the most logical or fruitful of the lot and explain their thinking.

Similarly, students can sometimes over-read a text, making unwarranted leaps about what an artifact means, especially when linking it to a cultural event. Hence, students need to remind themselves that there is little or no cause-effect in the study of culture, that all interpretations are up for debate. While this lack of black-and-white answers will make some students nervous, such ambiguity can also generate their best thinking. Roaming throughout the wide-open spaces of American culture is nothing less than democracy in action, possibly the main attraction of these spacious skies.

Back to Earth: Why Do All This?

I won’t recount here the endless statistics of America’s media saturation (e.g., the number of hours of TV watched annually: 250 billion). I won’t even harangue you about the effects of television commercials on students in American public schools (e.g., Fox 1996). However, I will admit that I love helping students regain ownership of their own culture. If they don’t, then that culture will own them. When students explore American culture, widely and deeply, they follow a Freierian path—from awareness, to analysis, to reflection, to action. As students repeat the cycle, each process can occur at a deeper level.

First, American culture portfolios require students to actively use language for specific purposes, with specific artifacts or texts. Here, students do not study language apart from their own lives and the world around them. Applying language to artifacts, values, cultural contexts, and events plants the best seeds for critical thinking. When students analyze the details of an episode of Dawson’s Creek, and then link them to similar texts, to implied values, and to culture, their thinking ranges from the concrete to the abstract, from the specific to the general. Such movement of mind best exercises critical thinking.

Second, when students focus on media and culture, they operate on a much more level playing field than they do with, say, studying only literature. Far more students are steeped in television, film, popular music, and other media, than they are in literature of any kind. Of course, this does not mean that we should abandon printed texts. On the contrary, I am merely suggesting that we begin with media and culture and then move to print as a natural part of them, rather than the other way around. For students (and their parents) reared on media, this approach seems more natural and logical. As well, students seem far more motivated to analyze language when it’s integral to other forms of communication, such as a film or website. Once students accomplish this, they are then more willing and skilled at analyzing the language of books and other publications. And when all these things occur within larger cultural contexts, students better understand and accept the reasons for doing it.

Third, when students choose their own topics, research and gather more material than they can use (and then must omit material), when they select their own themes and lessons for teaching, they are forced to make many hard choices—and because they are in small groups, these choices must be debated. In short, students’ best critical thinking occurs when they must chart their own course. Students’critical thinking is mainly fueled by their own interests. In short, I believe that interest precedes analysis.

Fourth, students must again construct their own meaning when they attempt to reconcile the many contradictions and multiple meanings inherent in cultural studies. Sometimes, of course, students will simply omit or downplay contradictory material, in the service of their theme. More often, though, students grab such contradictions and make them the focus of lessons and discussions and assignments. In fact, I often ask students to word their titles, lessons, and themes so that they reflect the material’s major contradictions or oppositions (e.g., “The Technology Conundrum” and “The 1950’s: Reality or Fantasy?”). In this project, students themselves model that questions and oppositions should be sought after and played with—not avoided.

Fifth, these portfolios are intended to be used—not just for evaluation purposes, but also for students to actively teach their peers. By teaching it to their peers, students must demonstrate what they have learned. However unfairly, portfolios have suffered from the perception that they are glorified shells—mere containers for students to hold aloft and proclaim, “See what I’ve done.” As valuable as this is, portfolios need to have active purposes and uses beyond merely serving as display cases. Portfolios need to be used in specific, active ways.

Finally, American Culture portfolios lead students to something more important than answering such questions as, “What would you say to an alien?” What students learn is not so much what to say to an alien, but rather, what to say about an alien—what to say about American culture and its representations, meanings, values, and ideologies. Such thinking helps us to pry open the doors for social change, as well as to communicate more rationally and humanely—with aliens, earthlings, ourselves.

Works Cited

Berenstain, Stan and Jan. 1986. The Berenstain Bears: No Girls Allowed. New York: Random House.

Fleming, Charles A. 1995. “Understanding Propaganda from a General Semantics Perspective.” Etc.: A Review of General Semantics. Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring.

Fox, Roy F. 1996. Harvesting Minds: How TV Commercials Control Kids. Westport: Praeger Press, 184-185.

Hellman, Lillian. 1976. Scoundrel Time. Boston: Little Brown, 1976.

Maasik, Sonia and Jack Solomon (eds.). 1994. Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers. Boston: St. Martin’s Press.

Murphy, Erin. 1995. What Would You Say to an Alien?” Omni. January: 38-47.

Plummer, Joseph. 1989. The Futurist (January/February).

Postman, Neil, et al. 1987. Myths, Men, and Beer: An Analysis of Beer Commercials on Broadcast Television. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, (39-51).

Rank, Hugh. 1976. Teaching About Public Persuasion: Rationale and a Schema.” Teaching about Doublespeak, edited by Daniel Dietrich, 3-19. Urbana, IL.: NCTE.

Rutledge, Kay Ellen. 1994. The Art of Duck Hunting: Analyzing Visual Persuasion.” Images in Language, Media, and Mind. Edited by Roy F. Fox, 204-217. Urbana, IL.: NCTE.

Workman, Brook. 1992. Teaching the Sixties: An In-Depth, Interactive, Interdisciplinary Approach. Urbana, IL.: NCTE.

Appendix A

American Culture Portfolio Requirements

This course assumes that language and thinking primarily develop from actively using language in purposeful, specific contexts—in writing, reading, speaking, observing, drawing, painting, acting, and listening about things that interest us, that intellectually engage heart and mind. Another major principle of this course is that language and thinking are best developed through an interactive, interdisciplinary, and multiple-ways-of-knowing approach (i.e., multiple kinds of texts, audiences, purposes, etc.). Also, tthese ways of knowing cannot be taught apart from any text or issue that people learn about.

Your portfolio must include the following elements:

Reflective Introduction. In 2-3 typed, double-spaced pages, reflect upon and evaluate your entire American Culture Portfolio. Focus on strengths, weaknesses; problems, as well as solutions you experienced throughout your work.

Collaboratively written American Culture Unit and accompanying small group presentation. Both should employ a humanities and multi-media approach for teaching some aspect of American culture. These can focus on one thematic decade (e.g., The Fifties: Conformity or Creativity?) OR, on a single theme which cuts across several decades (e.g., Violence in Rural America).

Analysis and Connection Papers. These papers should analyze cultural artifacts from two categories below; the time period is up to you. A&C papers address 3 main areas: 1) they describe and analyze one artifact in detail; 2) this description and analysis of an artifact helps you to arrive at the stated and implied values and ideologies associated with the artifact, and 3) these values are connected or anchored to specific events and people from the time period.

  • Everyday objects/Toys/Children’s books as cultural artifacts
  • Events as cultural artifacts (e.g., rites of passage)
  • Art as cultural artifact (especially painting and sculpture)
  • Television texts as cultural artifacts (including news programs and commercials)
  • Literature as cultural artifact
  • Architecture as cultural artifact (style of home, living room, front and rear of homes, public buildings and spaces, etc.)
  • Music/Dance as cultural artifact

Informal Writings in which you respond to assigned readings, course concepts, etc. Many of these (but not all) will be completed in class when other groups are teaching.

Self and Peer Reflections/Evaluations of all work, including the freewritings completed in class, in which you reflect upon applying an analytical tool; minutes of meetings when your group works on its project; reflective introductions to Analysis and Connection papers, etc.

Appendix B

Sample Lesson Plan for Teaching American Culture

Note: The following lesson, “Different Views of Freedom,” by William Morgan, is from “Get Your Motor Runnin’: America’s Obsession with the Automobile,” a complete thematic unit focused on teaching American culture. This lesson is part of a section called, “The Car as Freedom.” All lesson plans in this thematic unit follow the same format (Goals, Materials, Procedures, etc.).

Different Views of Freedom


The primary goal of this lesson is to help students understand that, while the road and the automobile are often viewed as ways to freedom, what “freedom” actually means varies from person to person. Also, students will see that these same views of freedom are present in literature, including literature written before the invention of the automobile.


Handout #1: Lyrics of the following songs:

  • “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman
  • “Ramblin’ Man” by the Allman Brothers Band
  • “The Ancient Egyptians” by Poi Dog Pondering
  • “Ford Econoline” by Nanci Griffith
  • “Take Me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver
  • “Do Re Mi” by Woody Guthrie
  • “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf
  • “America” by Simon and Garfunkel

Handout #2: Selections from the following works:

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • Moby Dick by Herman Melville
  • “Self-Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson


1. If time, have students listen to a recording of each song, as they follow along with the printed lyrics on the handout. Explain that while they all deal with the concept of “the car as freedom,” they do so from many perspectives. Place students into groups of three, and ask them to divide these songs into separate categories. The titles of the categories are to be chosen by students. Tell them that they will need to justify their choices in front of the class. Remind them to group songs by how they treat freedom, not by other criteria, such as the degree to which they personally like the music, etc.

Students should try to split the songs into three or four categories. Examples might be, “freedom as a means to escape from something” (Chapman, Griffith); “freedom as a way of life” (Allman Brothers, Steppenwolf); freedom to travel to a specific place (Denver, Simon), and “the car as a kind of false freedom” (Poi Dog Pondering, Guthrie, Simon).

2. Pull students back into a large group. Have each group explain the tiles of their categories and justify why they divided the songs as they did. Note the similarities between how groups classified the songs. You might want to share your own categories and reasoning.

3. Ask students to offer current songs that deal with the car or the road as freedom. Discuss which of the categories they would place the song in. This list of current songs should help students to see the distinct division between these varying ideas of freedom.

4. Give students Handout #2. Explain that these are selections from literature that also focus on travel as freedom. Some were written before cars were invented, and some after. Ask students to read the selections and decide where each one would fit in the categories already discussed for the songs. Remind students that some of these selections may not fit neatly into these categories, and that not everybody has to agree about how to group them. Also let students know that they can create new categories, combine previous groups to create a new one, etc.


1. Students should choose one of the literary selections and write a half-page explanation of why they put the excerpt into the group they did. Encourage students to describe similarities and differences between the song lyrics and the literature.

2. On the second half of this page, ask students to complete a ten-minute freewriting on what kind of freedom the road and the automobile offer them and/or their family. Is it the freedom to travel beyond their neighborhood and see new places? The freedom to nurture relationships with friends and relatives? The freedom to drive just for the pleasure of driving? Or, is the car a trap, because the main freedom is to drive to work to earn money to pay for it? Or, is the car a kind of prison in which people are held hostage for certain periods of time? Ask students where they would place themselves in such categories and why.

3. Optional assignment: Ask students to create a more formal writing based upon one or more of the ideas generated above. Ask students to determine their own audience and purpose for writing.


Allman Brothers Band. “Ramblin’ Man.” Brothers and Sisters (audio recording). Capricorn, 1973.

Chapman, Tracy. “Fast Car.” Tracy Chapman (audio recording). Elektra, 1988.

Denver, John. “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Poems, Prayers, and Promises (audio recording). RCA, 1971

Griffith, Nancy. “Ford Econoline” (audio recording). Lone Star State of Mind (audio recording). MCA, 1989.

Guthrie, Woody. “Do Re Mi” (audio recording). Dust Bowl Ballads. Rounder, 1964.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Portable Jack Kerouac. New York: Viking, 1995, 24.

Melville, Herman. Moby Dick: An Authoritative Text. New York: Norton, 1967, 1.

Poi Dog Pondering. “The Ancient Egyptians (A Love Song to Jonathan Richman)” (audio recording). Wishing Like a Mountain and Thinking Like the Sea. Sony, 1990.

Simon, Paul, and Garfunkel, Art. “America.” Bookends (audio recording). Sony, 1968.

Steppenwolf. “Born to Be Wild.” 16 Greatest Hits (audio recording). MCA, 1973.

Appendix C

Guidelines for Analysis & Connection Papers

1. Prewritings: Important: All notes and previous drafts are required along with the final draft on the due dates. We wish to see the evidence that you have worked through or “processed” your ideas thoroughly--before the final draft comes in to us. Hence, please save all prewriting for each paper (notes, doodles, lists, freewritings, first drafts, etc.). If you compose on a computer (and we hope you do), periodically save your text under a different file name. We want to see the evolution of your paper. If we do not see sufficient evidence of your paper’s evolution, we will return it. We want to avoid the syndrome of “Let the instructor tell me what’s wrong before I really revise my paper.” Note that sometimes we will ask for revisions if the writer has engaged in sufficient revising and has still not produced at least “C” level work.

Label, date, and number each draft at the top of the paper. All prewriting must be attached to the end of the draft you submit for review. Once you've received responses from friends, family, or colleagues, and revised, the "Final" goes on top of the stack; the next-to-final draft appears second, and so on.

2. Sample Papers: See the sample papers reviewed in class, in Workman, and on reserve in the Reflector. Take careful note (and please ask questions!) about the papers reviewed in class. Note that the content remains tied to the decade's general theme.

3. Topics: Topics are up to you, although each paper should explore a different type of artifact/text. Choose carefully--topics you're excited about and which show originality. The more interested you are in the topic, the easier (and the more fun) the analysis will be.

4. Main Assertions and Evidence: Anchor your decade's theme to well-chosen, specific examples and illustrations. Your papers must contain generalizations and specifics!

5. Responses: You are not required to obtain feedback from peers before you turn papers in, but it is highly recommended. We will sometimes ask you to revise papers, which will be due on a specific date.

6. Format: Four-to-six typed, double-spaced pages. Include a Works Cited page which follows MLA guidelines.

Appendix D

Rubric for Analysis & Connection Papers

1. Audience and Purposes. Is the paper appropriate for its audience? Primary audience: General educated--your colleagues and instructors; Secondary audience: your own students, grades 9-12.

Does the paper succeed in its attempts to persuade, to inform, and even, sometimes, to entertain?

2. Writing Process and Peer Feedback. Are all previous notes and drafts titled, numbered, dated, and included with the paper submitted? When a peer (or friend or family member) responds to a draft (not required but encouraged), has she or he signed it?

3. Connections. Does the writer make the following connections throughout the paper?

A. Does the writer clearly connect a specific artifact/text (e.g., fiction, poetry, toy, song, movie, TV program, etc.) to its most relevant time span of American culture (no more than a decade)?

B. Does the writer provide some specific representation of this text/artifact, such as a copy of a print text, a magazine cover, article, or news report, or film/TV program summary? Or, if the writer is using broad knowledge of an entire genre of texts (e.g., all poetry by Roethke), does she refer to specific examples from specific poems?

C. Does the writer connect the artifact/text to other artifacts/texts (i.e., signs) within that system or field, examining similarities and/or differences? (See “Popular Signs” article for examples, such as the teen fashion example in which untied laces for sneakers were placed within the Rap Music system or field, which included backward ball caps, loose jeans, etc.

D. Does the writer provide a theme or "generalization" to characterize the decade or time span under discussion?

E. Is the paper’s theme of the times connected or anchored to a few significant events of that period, such as news stories, political changes, or technological changes?

F. Does the writer clearly explain how and why her artifact/text is linked to American values? Use Workman's "Dominant American Values" and/or consider values from both internal (e.g., a character within a poem) and external viewpoints (i.e., the author)? Also if relevant, does the writer consider values other than "dominant American values," and, in effect, take issue with Workman's list? Here, see “America’s Values Are Changing” on reserve in the Reflector.

G. Overall, does the writer focus on the social meaning of the artifact/text--and not his or her own private, personal meaning? (However, you are encouraged to connect your personal meaning to the social meaning--it’s just that a paper analyzing only a personal or private meaning is not enough.)

4. Editing/Format. Has the paper been spell-checked and carefully edited for smooth, clear, and economical style? Is the paper 4-6 typed, double-spaced pages long? Does it have a works cited page which follows MLA guidelines?

Appendix E

Requirements for American Culture Guide and In-Class Teaching

You are creating a guide which takes a humanities approach to studying American culture. You will employ an interdisciplinary, collaborative approach to teaching. Your group may focus on one thematic decade (e.g., “The Seventies: The Real Me Decade”). Or, you may focus on one theme that cuts across time (e.g., “Violence in America,” “Rural Life in America,” “American Fatherhood,” “Aliens: Threat, Myth, or Salvation?”).

Even though I will try to set aside small amounts of class time for your group to plan, you will have to meet outside of class. This project requires lesson plans and expository information. Also, don’t forget that the entire project must be organized, edited, proof-read, and copies made and bound. Hence, make sure the work is evenly distributed.

Please review previous guides (on reserve) as a way of becoming familiar with the overall project and as a way to spur your thinking. However, note that these guides on reserve may not reflect what I am asking of you (e.g., lesson plan format). It is also your responsiblity to meet with me prior to your presentation to review ideas and settle questions.

You may want to assign each member of your group a specific section to complete. Also, assign each person (or two) a specific role (see the suggestions below). Each group needs to turn in to me a list identifying who is performing each role, along with a time line of when jobs should be completed. Use the class List Serve to communicate and please save all such correspondence in case we request it.

Communicator: Contacts everyone about meetings, details, and project changes.

General Editor: Oversees the document's overall coherence, completeness, and clarity.

Copy Editor: Proofreads the document for grammar, spelling, layout and design.

Secretary: Keeps minutes of each meeting--what is decided and who says and does what; also keeps track of the group's agenda--what needs to be done, by when and by whom. Turn minutes in to me.

Teaching Coordinator: Seeks input and selects what activities the group will demonstrate for the rest of the class during the two days the group has for teaching us about the decade. Coordinator also leads in deciding who does what and in which order (pacing).

Liaison: Solves special problems as they arise and consults with instructor and TA and informs group.

For the written guide, you must . . .

1. Create ten statements that evaluate the theme or decade. Workman’s “dominant American values” will serve as our basis, along with the “changing” values sheet handed out in class. Feel free to change these, combine them in some way, or create entirely different ones. However, the values used for your guide should be specific to your decade or theme. Begin by assigning each person one or more areas to research, so that your group can agree upon ten assertions which characterize that decade or theme.

2. Arrive at a single, overall theme. Use the above-mentioned characteristics or values (or other materials and information) to come up with one statement, word, or phrase which reflects the entire decade or theme (e.g., “The Fifties: Appearance vs. Reality”). If your project is constructed around a theme initially, then use this to arrive at a more specific statement of the theme. For example, if your theme is “technology,” then a more narrowed theme might be “The Technology Conundrum” or “The Dark Sides of Technology”). Regardless of your group’s approach, subthemes may be helpful for organizing your material; see the Literature and Language texts on reserve for good examples. This overall theme (which should be reflected in your guide’s title) and ten statements will serve as your guide for selecting materials such as literature, ads, movies, etc.

3. Construct a time line. If you are doing a decade, inlcude major events from that time period in U.S. and relevant international news (politics, government, science, and technology), as well as major cultural events (including literature, sports, heroes, fads, nonfiction, media, art, music, etc.). If you are doing a theme, include a time line of hallmark events related to your topic, as well as major cultural events which coincide (e.g., see “Perceptions of the Bomb” guide).

4. List the decade’s or theme’s key names and phrases. Include a list of key "names and terms" of the decade (see example in Workman and guides on reserve). Include slang, scientific-techno language, political language, etc. Examples: Read my lips; Where's the beef?; 23 Skidoo; Make my day; Watergate; Kleenex; roadster; Teapot Dome, etc.

5. Collect artifacts (“texts”) from the decade or theme. Your guide should address each category in the Primary List. Include one text for each of these categories (except for the fiction category, which requires two books). Your guide must also contain at least one text from one of the “secondary list” of categories.

Primary List: One of each required, except for fiction, which requires two:

    1. Literary fiction text. Use two complete books, preferably one “classic” and one contemporary selection.
    2. Literary non-fiction text. Examples: books or narrative essays by Orwell, White, Trillin, Didion, McPhee, Berry, Dillard, et al. Or art, lit, or film reviews.
    3. Poetry.
    4. Non-literary nonfiction text. Exampels: news report, editorial, obituary, or feature article.
    5. Print ads. Focus students on verbal and visual elements.
    6. Television and/or radio ads. Use script and/or tape for analysis.
    7. Movies, TV, and/or radio programs. Include top-ten lists.
    8. Art. Especially include painting and sculpture.
    9. Science/Technology. In addition to reports and news accounts, try to include actual artifacts (e.g., a diagram and specifications of a new invention).
    10. Music and/or Dance.
    11. Internet Web site.
    12. 3-Minute Video OR a photo essay. Create the assignment for students, then produce 3-min. video as an example, including written ideas, notes, scripts, directions, etc. See handouts.

Secondary List (choose one):

    1. Sports. Include essays, news accounts, stats.
    2. Clothing and furniture styles. Examples: Art Deco, Victorian, Punk, California Mission, Fifties/Sixties Space Age, etc.
    3. Everyday objects. Common objects that were "typical" of that period.
    4. Architecture and design. Examples: public buildings (e.g., Guggenheim Museum), "dream houses" and “dream autos” (e.g., Lloyd-Wright’s “Falling Water”), and typical home designs which “speak for” the time.

6. Design lesson plans for artifacts. Each category must have at least one lesson plan. See the samples handed out in class and/or Fried’s chapter, “Designing a Unit,” on reserve. These lesson plans should use text(s) from that category, but feel free to use more than one artifact in assignments. That is, you may also include other categories when appropriate. For example, an Eighties assignment could use the film, “Wall Street,” the Cabbage Patch doll, and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Or, a Fifties assignment could employ the film, "Rebel Without a Cause"; Hinton's novel, The Outsiders; Donne's poem, "No Man is an Island"; an essay about 1950's drive-in restaurants, and Updike's short story, "A&P."

Also, these assignments should include various combinations of the following elements:

    1. A student-centered environment, emphasizing hands-on, inductive learning, so that students examine material, form hypotheses, try them out, and then revise.
    2. Small and large-group discussion.
    3. Writing-to-learn as well as writing to communicate for a specific audience and purpose.
    4. Some lessons should use several artifacts, but others should ask students to delve deeply into one artifact. In all cases, strive for students to move beyond the surface or obvious when exploring and analyzing artifacts.
    5. 2-3 lessons should focus on skills. These lessons should somehow use ideas and materials that are somehow integral to your theme.

For each assignment, provide explicit, step-by-step instructions, so that your guide is self-contained. Two years from now, we should be able to pick the book up and know exactly what to do.

Your lesson plans will be more complete and more narrative than those you see in Workman and in guides from past semesters. As you describe your lessons, include what you think. For instance, if you are asking students to use binary oppositions, tell readers what you have already found, what you see to be privileged, any ambiguities, etc. In other words, provide concrete examples for teachers reading your guide. When appropriate, provide rationales for why you are doing what you are doing.

Feel free to borrow ideas from Workman and the materials on reserve. Modify them to fit your purposes. Allow lots of opportunities for students to "read" and interpret the artifacts and "texts" of the items listed above. Students should read and interpret these items via writing, talking, reading, listening, thinking, and constructing things in other media.

7. Construct a Table of Contents. Organize the material however you think is most effective. Identify titles of sections, page numbers, and who did what, including editing, proofing, etc..

8. Create a cover and an “About the Cover” page. Design a cover for your unit plan which visually reflects your theme. Cover it with clear plastic. The title (reflecting your theme) should appear on the cover. A separate page, called, "About the Cover," should briefly explain the cover.

9. Create an “About the Authors” page. Provide 3-5 sentences of biographical or other descriptive information about each group menmber.

10. Provide references. Include a complete bibliography of all sources, including those recommended but not used. Make sure that everything mentioned in the text of your unit plan is documented fully here. Do this as you go.

11. Make copies. Your instructor will keep the guide you turn in, so make copies if you’d like to keep one for yourself. Guides are often placed on reserve in the Reflector for students to copy if they desire. Remember, each group member will likely want his or her own copy, too.

How to get started: I suggest that--first thing--you collect artifacts and analyze them (using strategies from class). See what your analysis reveals. Then, look to the historical and cultural contexts to make your connections legitimate.

Guidelines for In-Class Teaching

  1. You could never teach all your material in a single class period! Hence, select (and modify as necessary) only those activities (1-3) that your group agrees are most effective.
  2. As a group, try to use one media artifact and one print text (essay, story, poem, article).
  3. When you present, I am not looking for your group to put on a “show.” Instead, I am looking for the generation of thoughtful, informed discussions and probing activities. You should talk to us about what you found out, what your intentions would be as teachers of this material, and then try out 1-3 of your activities on us. Don’t just talk “at” us; involve us. Consider your group a think tank. Bring artifacts and ideas to the table, discuss them, brainstorm with the entire class.
  4. Use strategies practiced in class--binary oppositions, intensify/downplay, propaganda techniques, etc. Always remember to take the critical step back and analyze, and to connect to the larger context by answering the “So what?” question.

Appendix F


Please respond, informally, to the following questions, after your group finishes its teaching. Use the space below each question to reflect--to think on paper about what you created (your written unit), as well as your feelings about the actual teaching of your ideas.

  1. Evaluate your whole group’s work in constructing the written unit.

  2. Evaluate just your work in constructing the written unit.

  3. Evaluate your whole group’s work in actually teaching our class.

  4. Evaluate just your part in teaching our class.

Appendix G

Peer Evaluation of Teaching

Write your name in the upper-right corner. It will be removed from this sheet before it is given to the teachers of this unit. Please respond to each item. Use the back and/or other paper if necessary.

Names of teachers:__________________________________/Topic:_________________

1. Were you clear about this unit’s focus--what you were to learn and why? Explain.

2. Did the teachers use the “principle of multiplicity,” i.e., more than one sense, medium, genre, style, etc.? Comment.

3. Did the teachers encourage you to use language to construct your own meaning? Explain.

4. Did the teachers give you options, especially when you needed them most? Explain.

5. Comment on the ways in which you, the student, are to be evaluated.

6. Do the handouts contain whatever information you needed? If not, what was left out?

7. Do the handouts contain information that is specific, clear, and useful? Comment.

8. Respond to the teachers’ pace and use of pairs, small groups, and the whole group.

9.  Evaluate the overall teaching quality:

1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8   9   10

Poor         Average          Excellent

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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