Note on Classroom Use

We emphasize in “Keywords: An Introduction” that one of the primary aims of Keywords for American Cultural Studies 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 want our readers 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 order to make good on this desire, we built a website as a complement to the first print version of Keywords for American Cultural Studies in 2007. This site included an interactive forum, which we called the “Keywords Collaboratory,” where readers could work individually or collaboratively to create new keywords essays. Between 2007 and 2014, over five hundred readers used the site to that end, with the vast majority of those uses taking place in the context of college courses in which all or parts of Keywords for American Cultural Studies were assigned. These courses included first-year writing sections, large undergraduate lectures, small upper-division seminars, and advanced graduate courses. They focused on topics ranging from American studies and cultural studies research methodologies to gender and ethnic studies to video-game studies. Our goal in this “Note on Classroom Use” is to catalyze further experimentation on the new site, now that Keywords for American Cultural Studies is a fully print-digital publication. To this end, we focus on classroom use of the print book and digital site, though we also welcome other possibilities, including revisions and additions produced by individuals and collectives located inside or outside higher education.

Syllabi and assignments from courses that have used Keywords for American Cultural Studies are available on this website, as are selected essays, published here after being edited and reviewed by us. We have learned from this emerging archive that keyword essays can play many different roles in courses. It is possible to assign them to provide background for other materials that students are reading or research that they are undertaking, though this approach tends to be successful only with advanced students who are prepared to digest the critical debates they encounter. In discussions with instructors who have used Keywords for American Cultural Studies in introductory or survey courses, we have consistently heard that it is important to teach the 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, 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, the risk is that students will 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 for instructors who want to teach Keywords for American Cultural Studies as a methodology, not just a mapping of clusters of important concepts and terms.

Other instructors have moved beyond using Keywords for American Cultural Studies as a map of the fields it surveys or a primer in critical methodologies. With great success, they have asked students to produce keywords projects of their own, accepting the invitation we offer to our readers to respond to the publication by producing new knowledge themselves. Some assignments ask students to revise or supplement published keyword essays; others invite them to create essays about terms not included there. Both types of assignments have often begun 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?

These prompts were intended 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 compositions will be more limited in scope than those published in Keywords for American Cultural Studies and will draw 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 materials encountered in their particular 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 types of 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 an individual course’s subject matter.

Instructors have taken a wide range of approaches to assigning students to compose a keyword essay, but most have broken 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 students read that uses their keyword, though the 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 gathering. 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. This portion of the assignment typically asks students to tell a story about the various usages they have logged of 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 and may involve written, visual, or multimodal composition strategies.

While instructors have structured their assignments in a variety of ways to suit their specific course goals, we do provide a location on this site that is designed to catalyze these sorts of activities: the “Keywords Collaboratory.” Dozens of courses have used the Collaboratory, allowing students to grasp and internalize the intellectual and theoretical points implicit in a keywords project. Sometimes students have been divided into small working groups of three to five, each focused on a different keyword that runs through or is central to the course. Sometimes an entire course or seminar has worked together on a single keyword. In each case, the students need to be taught to collaborate both on the ideas and on the mechanics of the essay composition, whether it is written, audio, visual, or some combination of the three. This approach tends to jolt students out of the idea that writing and composition has to be the solitary and individualistic activity typical of college classrooms, especially in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. The Collaboratory is, in this sense, an illustration of 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 assessing those assignments. The Collaboratory teaches this lesson since it is open to the broader public, not only to the students in the course but also to anyone who wanders onto the site. Instructors using the Collaboratory have found that an orientation toward a larger public encourages students to think more carefully and, often, more ambitiously about their writing and composition choices.

We urge instructors to use this site to look over the technological options, sample assignments, and syllabi provided by instructors who have used Keywords for American Cultural Studies in the past and to consider adapting them or inventing new assignments. If you devise your own, you will find on this site a way of sharing it with others, along with tips about what worked and what did not. This site is meant to promote collaboration not just between students in a single course but also among instructors. We urge you to experiment with using the Collaboratory to link students and courses across two or more institutions by developing assignments through which they can work together on the same keyword or keywords. In any one of these contexts, your own students can learn more effectively by contributing to the production and dissemination of knowledge at the core of research and scholarship.