By Glenn Hendler

About Glenn Hendler

Glenn Hendler is Professor of English and American Studies at Fordham University.  He is the author of David Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and co-editor of Keywords for American Cultural Studies.

1. Introduction to Keywords Now

What should we call what happened in and around the Capitol building on Wednesday, January 6? A coup or an attempted coup? An insurrection? A white supremacist riot? Vigilante antidemocratic paramilitary violence? Did those who tried to overturn the election results commit acts of sedition? Treason?

There are solid arguments for any of these terms. The reason any or all of them can seem right is not a sign of intellectual sloppiness or lack of specificity, even as media commentators go to great lengths to come up with specific definitions of the terms they’re arguing for and against in order to make their cases. But no amount of defining can resolve the debate, because other thinkers and writers  can come along and define their terms in ways that make their argument plausible.  Language is social, not indexical.

That the definitions of these terms are contested across time and space means …


A project that spans fourteen years accrues a lot of debts. As we did in previous editions, we want to start out by thanking all of our contributors. We rushed them, then we delayed, then we rushed again, and brought new contributors on board with very little lead time. The intellectual and pedagogical work this volume does is due to their brilliance, but also to their patience with us as we requested revision after revision. Whether you joined the volume in the month before it was completed or have been in it since the 2007 first edition, we thank you.

The idea for this publication emerged, developed, and was tested through interactions with a series of collaborators, interlocutors, and audiences, including the American Cultures workshop at the University of Chicago; the Americanist Workshop at the University of Notre Dame; the Columbia American Studies Seminar; the Simpson Center for the Humanities …

Keywords: An Introduction

I. What Is a Keyword?

Why are you reading Keywords for American Cultural Studies? You may have been assigned some of the print or digital essays in this volume as part of a class. You may be seeking help making your way through some challenging works of scholarship, and hope Keywords will help you develop the vocabulary you need to understand them. You may be reading around in the essays to help you enter into one of the many scholarly conversations going on in interdisciplinary American studies, cultural studies, or some related field. Or you may be reading Keywords simply because it looks interesting.

These are all good reasons. But for your reading to be useful for any of these purposes, it will be important that you understand what a keyword essay is and what it can and can’t do. For Keywords for American Studies is not what it …

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 …


“Society” is a word too often used in a sloppy or vague way. When teachers share their pet peeves about student writing, they frequently name “society” as the word they would most like to ban. There are typically two reasons given for this antipathy. First, the term falsely implies universality (when you say “society,” do you really mean to refer to every single person in the world?). Second, it attributes agency to an abstraction (how can “society” actually do anything like oppress someone or believe something?). Baked into such usages is often a simplistic if widely recognizable story about how an amorphous “social” pressure is applied to equally amorphous “individuals” who either succumb to that pressure or resist it by “being themselves.” You can find versions of this story in a blog post about how well the free market organizes “society,” a sociology paper about gangs’ “antisocial” activity, or a

Syllabi and Assignments

Since the publication of the first edition in 2007, thousands of students have read Keywords for American Cultural Studies in courses across a wide range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary fields, and at every level from first-year writing courses to advanced graduate seminars.

The materials on this page supplement our “Note on Classroom Use” by providing examples of how instructors have used Keywords for American Cultural Studies.

If you have found a way to use the publication in your courses, please send your syllabus or assignment to, along with the information included in other sample syllabi and sample assignments on this site.

Course Planning: Questions and Considerations


New! Asynchronous Online Syllabus and Assignment

“American Studies Principles and Methods”, Kennesaw State University, Rebecca Hill

“Keyword Assignment Appendix”, Kennesaw State University, Rebecca Hill


Sample Syllabi and Assignments

“Major Developments in American Culture,” Fordham University, Glenn Hendler

“Reading Fiction (Survey

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