Recently Taught Courses
“As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State “What does it matter to me?” the State may be given up for lost.”
-Jean Jacques Rousseau
“Ask not what your country can do for you–ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
-John F. Kennedy
What is the role of the twenty-first century citizen? Does citizenship involve action or engagement, or is it merely an identity marker or state of being? Is being or becoming a citizen a privilege or an entitlement? Is it earned or bestowed? Who gets to be or to become a citizen and who decides? As citizens, to what or whom are we accountable? What rights and/or responsibilities should citizens have? Freedom? Equality? Work? Suffrage? Due process? Why is it that citizen status not only can be conferred, but also can be revoked or denied? What does it mean to be a second-class citizen? What does it mean to be a stateless person? Reconsidering historical documents from the Constitution to the Voting Rights Act (and its recent repeal), while also revisiting historical periods of civic engagement, such as Reconstruction, ERA, and the Civil Rights Movement, we will explore key historical episodes and cultural forms in order to revisit the citizen as symbolic, as an identity marker, as invoving the activity of civic engagement, etc.
The gangster, an iconic figure in American history and popular culture, has achieved an almost mythic stature. Media from journalism to fiction and film have romanticized historical gangsters like Al Capone and Bugsy Segal, and fictional gangsters like Jay Gatsby and Michael Corleone, to the extent that their notoriety has become a cultish popularity, resulting in the gangster becoming a protagonist or hero in a shared narrative about the mythical pursuit of the American Dream. Hollywood gangster films since the 1930s have profoundly influenced how gangsters are represented in other countries, particularly in French Film Noir & Japanese Yakuza films.
Whereas the outlaw is a regional American criminal embraced by folklore, the American Gangster is a product of modernity and modern imagination; however, the arc of the gangster’s life and death as a modern, urban figure alludes to classical myth, tragedy, drama, and encomium. With few exceptions, the American Gangster emerged from ethnic, immigrant, and class subcultures, rising primarily from urban street gangs in Irish, Jewish, and Italian neighborhoods in cities like Chicago, New York, and Detroit, in the 19thcentury.
In the 20th century, the gangster figure goes on to influence marginalized subcultural groups, especially the urban street gangs and Gangsta Rappers who useparticular aspects of gangster culture, gender identity, style, and language—much of which is rooted in traditional American values and much of which informs social criticism of issues like poverty, police brutality, racial discrimination, and economic disparity. Contemporary iconic American Gangster figures continue to influence mainstream popular culture through music, film, and, most recently, fashion, in order to bring our attention to problems in our world.
Despite engaging in criminal activity, the American Gangster’s actions are in accord with fundamental values and beliefs about individuality, hierarchical social relations, and capitalist economic enterprise that has shaped our country from its founding. Despite this, our fascination with American gangsters extols particular American gangsters, while disparaging or refusing to acknowledge others. Is the root of American fascination with gangsters/gangster culture—what defines the American Gangster as American—hidden in the paradoxes, contradictions, and prejudices that comprise our claim to and understanding of American identity? We will explore and, more importantly, analyzeseveral representational guises of the American gangster as a representational celebrity figure & trope, tracing its development and charting its echoes in literature, film, music, & multi-media sources in order to fulfill our most important course objective: analyzingAmerica’s fascination with and romanticizing of gangsters and gangster culture.
The expression “I see” often conveys understanding, and our sense of sight is often regarded as superior to other senses in acquiring knowledge of the empirical world. Ocularcentrism, or the overreliance on vision and privileging of visual knowledge over other ways of knowing, has predisposed western society to value seeing, sight, and vision over other senses in the acquisition of empirical knowledge. Seeing Is Believing will examine vision and seeing from Ancient Greece to the present, considering the development and evolution of visual technologies and the empowering of visual knowing over other sensory ways of knowing, such as hearing. Questions about the consequences of vision that is mediated or controlled by others span ancient and modern times, from Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” to Foucault’s theory of Panopticonism. In the early Victorian period, however, new visual technologies involving mechanical reproduction of images started to replace how reality could be represented—and to influence the seeing subject in terms of what and how the observing eye could see. Cameras, plate glass, photographs, and film introduced new ways of seeing that still conveyed information and entertained audiences, but also enticed and managed consumer subjects in the capitalist marketplace. We will continue an analysis of seeing as paradoxically emancipatory yet simultaneously and dangerously enthralling by applying theories and technologies of vision to the racially “other” human subject’s visibility-invisibility-hyper-visibility, and the social/political ramifications of being seen vs. unseen. Our examination of vision and seeing will culminate in imagining the impact of ocularcentrism and the continuous barrage of visual images and technologies on us not only as viewers, but also as social, political, consuming subjects of info, entertainment, commodities, news, etc. Can we trust what we see? Is seeing believing?
What Is Work?
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
—Phillip Levine, “What Work Is”
When you were young, how did you answer the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Were your aspirations tied to duty, education, career, title, salary, or social class? Was your decision based upon the mental or physical labor that different work involves? In this course we will explore the interconnectedness of work, value, and identity. Why, for example, do we ask people what they do when we really mean: “How much money do you make?” or “How much are you worth?” Why do we try to avoid doing work, yet find the activity of working satisfying? Why do we privilege certain work for ourselves, yet take for granted or undervalue the work that others do and that we find mundane, beneath us, dangerous, or even exploitative? Why are the most difficult, dirty and dangerous jobs so poorly paid? What is work anyway?
Philip Levine, an American working class poet who died in 2015 and was honored as US Poet Laureate in 2011, starts to answer the question of our course title, “What Is Work?” in the title of his famous poem “What Work Is.” Beginning with Levine, your reading, thinking, and writing—your work in this class—will enter into conversations about work in four units focused on the Language of Work, Gender and Work, Alienated and Exploited Labour, and the Future of Work. We will examine controversial contemporary work issues like “right to work,” DWYL, workaholism, unions, minimum wage, white-blue-pink collar work, the low-wage working poor, invisible labor, Occupy Wall Street-the Occupy Movement, the wage gap, glass ceiling vs. glass escalator, slavery (past and present), discrimination in the workplace, and universal basic income.
Fashion & Identity
“For the apparel oft proclaims the man.”
–Polonius to Laertes, William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, Scene III
“Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others.”
—Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac
Fashion is not just about aestheticism, haute couture, vintage iconography, the art of fashion design, or retail therapy. Rather, fashion is fraught with contradictions and misconceptions about how clothing—and economic processes related to its production and consumption—influence our identity as consumers and as citizens. While the two sayings posed in the above quotations simplify fashion, they also offer a starting point to understanding fashion theory: (1) that our clothes define us and (2) that we dress to please other people. Additionally, although fashion has historically influenced the dressing habits of both men and women, it is still socially-constructed as a feminine phenomenon. In the 20thcentury, fashion critics have explored the many ways that fashion identifies masculinity and influences men, and countered beliefs that women consumers were “fashion victims” or “slaves to fashion” with assertions that creativity and agency are integral elements of any forms of self-appareling.
Similar to other capitalist enterprises, fashion has a dark side: firstly, the fashion industry is exploitative: histories of sweatshop labor both in the United States and outsourced to third-world countries continue to haunt both the fashion industry & American consumer consciousness; secondly, fashion advertising and visual merchandising have historically been related to conditions such as anorexia nervosaand kleptomania; thirdly, escalated credit card debt, credit card theft, and acts of sartorial violence suggest that shopping has become yet another form of social pathology, not to mention another 20thcentury addiction.
Students will engage in the processes of reading, writing, critical thinking, and metacognition in relation to the aesthetic, cultural, gendered, social and economic processes and practices that comprise fashion. Course texts will be comprised from a variety of print & visual media sources: literature, film,, photography, advertisements, academic and newspaper articles, & sartorial objects.
Courses in Development
Body Doubles: Automata, Doppelgangers, Avatars, & other Virtual Humans [Expository Writing 1213/1223 in Spring 2020]
Wall Street: From Hamilton to Bartleby to the Bailout and Beyond
Peripatetic Worlds: Walking from Pilgrimage to Psychogeography