Note on Classroom Use

Please be aware that some of the essays that are part of Keywords for American Cultural Studies are available in the print volume and e-book, while others are on the web at If you are reading this note on the web site, please look at the sixty-plus essays in print. If you are reading this in either the paper or electronic version of the book, please know that there are as many provocative and useful keyword essays available on the web site as there are where you are reading now. There are many brand-new essays, and many of the essays in print and in pixels have been newly revised for this 2020 edition. In constructing a syllabus or assignment, a list of recommended readings for your students, a qualifying exam list, or using keyword essays in any other way, please do take into consideration all 120-plus essays that make up Keywords for American Cultural Studies.

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One way to teach with Keywords for American Cultural Studies is to assign print and online essays either as central readings for your course or as supplementary texts that will help students understand the vocabulary of your course’s field of study. If you are teaching, for instance, Sojourner Truth’s “Ar’n’t I a Woman” speech or the Combahee River Collective Statement, either would pair well with Daniel Martinez HoSang’s essay on “Intersectionality,” which provides students with a term they can use to interpret those documents and their resonance with both contemporaneous and current issues. The same essay could pair just as well with a recent work of scholarship that uses “intersectionality” in a prominent manner, raising productive questions about that work’s deployment of the keyword. “What does this scholar mean when they say “intersectional?” can be a generative question in a class discussion; the keyword essay can help them respond to such a question.

In any of these contexts and especially in introductory or survey courses, it is important to teach the assigned keyword essays by providing some time in class to unpack them, rather than simply assigning them and assuming their immediate legibility. The reason for this caution is not that the essays are particularly dense or jargon laden. Rather, we and other instructors have found that students need to learn how to approach a keyword essay, to understand it as a specific genre of writing and mode of inquiry. If this preparatory work is not done, students may misread the individual essays and the publication as a whole as a reference guide whose aim is to define or fix the meanings of terms. If they adopt this approach, they will be frustrated, largely because the essays quite deliberately take a more critical, self-reflexive, and speculative stance in relation to their objects of inquiry. We wrote “Keywords: An Introduction,” in part, to provide a resource if you want to teach Keywords for American Cultural Studies as a methodology, not just a mapping of clusters of important concepts and terms. You may not usually ask students to read a textbook’s introduction, but we suggest that you consider assigning this one, or reading it yourself and discussing its main points with your students.

For these reasons, we urge you to follow the strategies developed by other successful instructors by using Keywords for American Cultural Studies as something other than a traditional textbook that provides a map of the fields it surveys. We emphasize in “Keywords: An Introduction” that one of the primary aims of this project is to provoke readers to engage in self-reflexive, open-ended, and future-oriented forms of inquiry as they conduct research on and make claims about “America” and its various “cultures.” We encourage our readers – including students in your courses – to respond to the online and print essays by revising them or adding to them and, in doing so, supplementing the collective argument of the whole.

In that spirit, many instructors have had great success with assignments that ask students to produce keyword projects of their own. Some assignments require students to revise or supplement published keyword essays; others invite them to create essays about terms not included there. Some are individual assignments; others are collaborative. Many of the most successful have divided the process into two stages:

  1. Archiving usages of a particular keyword. Many assignments begin by asking students to archive usages of their keyword. Archiving can involve simply copying or typing out every sentence they read that uses their keyword. That archive need not be textual. It can also involve images and sound, conversations overheard on the street, or exchanges on a bus. Depending on the course, the process of archiving can build core skills in close reading, participant-observation, and other forms of data collection. These processes usefully focus on the nuances of language and inflection in students’ readings and interactions, but can also reveal the tensions and contradictions in that language, underscoring the crucial point that keywords are sites of contestation. It can be useful to ask students to keep a usage log in which they record the spatial and temporal location of a specific use of the term.
  2. Composing a keyword essay. Once students have constructed this archive of usages, you can ask them to draw on that archive to tell a story about their keyword. From reading essays in Keywords for American Cultural Studies, students should already know that it is rarely possible to produce a linear narrative about a complex term; the effort to do so themselves underscores this point. Especially in an interdisciplinary context in which students are asked to make sense of an array of materials that use different vocabularies and methodologies, the effort to bring together the varying usages of a single keyword can make the content of the course clearer and more coherent. Ethnographic assignments can serve a similar function by asking students to attend to the contexts of specific usages. Depending on the context and objectives of any given course, these types of assignments can be completed either individually or collaboratively. They may involve written, visual, or multimodal composition strategies.

It is possible to assign the first part of this two-step process without the second. The process of archiving usages of a keyword can increase students’ attentiveness to the language of criticism in productive ways even if they do not produce their own essays. Doing the second part without the first has been less successful when it has been tried, because without specific usage examples to draw on, students (and others) tend to write about themes or concepts without paying attention to language and usage.

Assignments that do include the essay-writing stage often start from a version of the prompts we asked our authors to use in constructing their essays:

  • What kinds of critical projects does your keyword enable?
  • What are the critical genealogies of the term, and how do these genealogies affect its use today?
  • Are there ways of thinking that are occluded or obstructed by the use of this term?
  • What other keywords constellate around it?

We intended these prompts to spur our contributors to map the contemporary critical terrain as they see it developing through their keyword. They can serve a similar purpose in relation to student work, so long as students understand that their critical terrain is more limited in scope than those surveyed by the essays in Keywords for American Cultural Studies. After all, your students are drawing on significantly different (and usually smaller) archives. Our contributors work primarily with historical and contemporary research in American studies, cultural studies, and related fields. For students assigned to compose a keyword essay, the primary archive is often the materials they encounter in a particular course. Indeed, it can help to tell students that while the essays they have read are from Keywords for American Cultural Studies, the essays they are writing are for an imaginary volume titled Keywords for this Course, with the imagined audience being other students in the course. Since the meanings and connotations of keywords are never settled and depend significantly on the local context in which they are used, students can write original essays based on these narrower or more focused materials. They can produce essays on terms that may not be keywords for the broader field, but are crucial sites of debate and conflict within the scope of your course’s subject matter.

On this website, built for this book and others in the series (, we include several sample assignments that we and other instructors have developed as we have taught with previous editions of Keywords. Many of them follow the two-stage model just described, archiving usages followed by composing an essay. But there are other models represented there as well. Some of these assignments were developed and implemented on the interactive forum built for the first edition of Keywords, which we called the “Keywords Collaboratory and which housed, between 2007 and 2014, assignments in courses that included first-year writing sections, large undergraduate lectures, small upper-division seminars, and advanced graduate courses. Since that time, interactive and collaborative platforms have proliferated and become widely and easily available to instructors and students. Most Course Management Systems such as Blackboard and Canvas include internal wikis, and Google Docs is easily accessible. As a result, it no longer seemed necessary to build and maintain a wiki specifically dedicated to this project. Thus the Keywords Collaboratory is no longer active. If you are interested, a link to a sampling of student writing from the Collaboratory can be found at

As you develop your own assignments using whatever platform is at hand, you may opt to encourage or require collaboration among your students. For instance, you can break your class into working groups of three to five, each focused on a different keyword that runs through or central to the course. You can then create two Google docs for each group: one where they will build an archive of usages of their keyword there; and one where they will collaborate on an essay based on that archive. You can use a wiki or a blog in similar way. Alternatively, an entire seminar can work together on a single keyword. Either way, producing a keyword essay, rather than just reading them, helps students to grasp and internalize the intellectual and theoretical points implicit in a keywords project.

In these assignments, instructors have found that collaboration itself is a skill or form of knowledge-production that has to be taught to students. You cannot always assume that students have experience collaborating on the platform you use – whether it is written, audio, visual, or some combination of the three – let alone that they know how to collaborate in the development of ideas. Here again, the two-step process is a practical approach, since the students learn the mechanics of adding text to the online platform when they are archiving usages, and only later need to develop the more complex skill of collective composition.

One value of this approach is that it tends to jolt students out of the idea that writing and composition must be the solitary and individualistic activity typical of college classrooms, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. As such, these assignments illustrate a point made by some of the most ardent advocates for the digital humanities: digital work tends to push scholars in the cultural disciplines toward more collaborative research methodologies and composition practices. It also makes clear one point that college instructors labor to teach: the audience for classroom assignments is not limited to the person who is grading them. Our earlier Collaboratory made this point especially vividly because it was completely open to the public, but even a collaborative Google Doc read by the other students in the class is more “public” than an individualized missive from a student to a professor. This orientation toward a larger audience encourages students to think more carefully and, often, more ambitiously about their writing and composition choices.

We urge you to go to to look over some of the technological options, sample assignments, and syllabi provided by instructors who have used Keywords for American Cultural Studies in the past, along with tips about what has worked and what has not. If you try one of these suggestions—or devise your own—we want to know how it went. You will find on the site a means of communicating with us, and of sending us your own sample syllabi and assignments. If your students produce especially strong work, we would like to see that, too. We look forward to hearing from you, to learning from your teaching experiences, and to sharing your pedagogical ideas with others.