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Last updated November 7, 2011.

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AMS 311s (Unique #: 30520)

Popular Culture and American Childhood

Fall 2011

Instructor: Rebecca Onion, rebeccaonion at gmail dot com

Class Meetings: MWF, 2-3, Garrison 0.120

Office hours: MW, 3:15-4:45, at Cafe Medici on the Drag

Course Website:

Course Description: This course will look at the development of popular culture associated with children and adolescents in the United States in the twentieth century. Using cultural objects made for and by children and youth, we will ask larger questions about the relationships between children and adults, while addressing topics common to American Studies, including media, consumption, citizenship, class, race, and gender. We will approach these themes through diverse primary sources, looking at literature, advertising, websites, video games, films, television shows, and toys. Because childhood is often perceived as “timeless”, this class will focus on situating these cultural objects chronologically, continually asking how culture for children and youth relates to larger social questions and movements.

Course Objectives: By the end of this class, the student will have encountered a wide variety of primary documents, as well as scholarship and popular writing about childhood. The student will practice asking questions of shared class documents. Then, through analyzing past cultural consumption, the student will think historically about her own cultural experience, critically re-encountering the culture of his own youth. These exercises will help the student learn how to ask questions about a primary source, to use library databases for historical research, and to write for an online audience. Additionally, because students will workshop these short pieces in class, we will practice the skills of peer review and revision. The final paper, designed as an expansion of one of these shorter pieces, will help students practice shaping research questions provoked by primary sources into larger projects. Students will also learn how to use Zotero, a free online citation management system, to keep track of their research and write their papers.

Writing Flag Statement:

This course carries the Writing Flag. Writing Flag courses are designed to give students experience with writing in an academic discipline. In this class, you can expect to write regularly during the semester, complete substantial writing projects, and receive feedback from your instructor to help you improve your writing. You will also have the opportunity to revise one or more assignments, and to read and discuss your peers’ work. You should therefore expect a substantial portion of your grade to come from your written work.

Assignments: Students will write three 750-word (about 3 pages) course website entries about primary sources related to the themes we discuss in class. These short pieces will combine personal reflection, historical research, and comparative analysis. (Note: For students worried about online privacy, pseudonymity will be an option. We will discuss this more before the first assignment is due.)

Students will turn in a graded paper proposal prior to writing their final paper.

Finally, students will write a 2000-word (about 8 pages) final paper that will represent an expansion of one or more of the shorter papers.

Rubrics for these assignments will be provided.


Three website entries, 10% each: 30%

Paper proposal: 10%

Final paper: 40%

Participation/Discussion/Reading Quizzes: 10%

Peer Review Participation: 10%


Attendance/Lateness/Preparedness: If a student in this class misses more than four meetings, they will automatically fail, regardless of their grade up to that point. Attendance will be taken every day.

Arriving to class late is also strongly discouraged. I will often go over “housekeeping” issues in the first few minutes of class, or use that time to set up the day’s discussion; your late arrival annoys your fellow students and myself, and jeopardizes your grasp of the mechanics of the course. Therefore, every three late arrivals (between 5-15 minutes late) will equal one missed class. Students who arrive more than 15 minutes past the start time will be counted as absent for that class.

Late papers will be marked down by half a letter grade for each day the paper is late, including weekend days.

This is a discussion-based class, and discussions don’t go well unless everybody in the room has done the reading. In order to ensure profitable discussions for all, I will administer periodic unannounced reading quizzes.

Computers: Please do not use laptops, tablets, smartphones, or dumbphones in the classroom, unless I explicitly ask you to bring your technology on a particular day. I am a person who is so highly distractible that I must pay a software program to lock me off the Internet when I need to get work done (, if you’re interested—works for PCs as well). This no-computer policy exists just in case you are as Internet-prone as I am.

Contacting Me: I will respond to emails from you within 24-48 hours of receiving your communication. Please read this syllabus and the assignment rubrics carefully before emailing me. I will be posting copies of all course documents on the course website. I will set up a class email list, so that you can contact your peers with logistical inquiries.

For some small questions, email is a suitable forum. However, sometimes email is not the best way to get information. If you find you are writing a question for me that results in a very long email, it is probably an indication that this is a question that can be best dealt with in person. In these instances, you should come to office hours.

Submitting Assignments: Send me your assignments attached to an email, in a Microsoft Word document, by 5 pm on each due date. I will return the documents electronically, using Word’s comments function to input my feedback. I judge whether or not you’ve fulfilled the length requirement by word count, not by the number of pages in the document, so there’s no need to use a specific font or format.

Late Work: For all assignments, late work will be penalized by a half letter grade for each day of lateness. (At 5:01 pm on the due date, your email with attached assignment is officially one day late; at 5:01 pm the day after the due date, it’s two days late; etc.)

Undergraduate Writing Center:The Undergraduate Writing Center, located on the second floor of the Flawn Academic Center (FAC 211), provides free, expert writing help for undergrads on a drop-in or appointment basis.  It is an excellent resource, and I strongly encourage each of you to utilize their services. At the end of a consultation, the consultant will ask you if you want him/her to email me with information about what was discussed; although I can’t promise that receipt of such an email will add to your paper’s grade, I will certainly be inclined to award you more points for class effort and participation. For an appointment or for more information, call 512-471-6222 or visit their website: 


Plagiarism: Plagiarism is a serious matter, and students caught plagiarizing will be penalized in accordance with the University’s academic integrity policy. Students are required to familiarize themselves with this policy, which can be found on the University’s website at

Disabilities: Accommodations for students with documented disabilities are available. Students with physical, mental or learning disabilities should consult the University’s Services for Students with Disabilities for more information.

I reserve the right to change this syllabus and reading schedule if it proves necessary. If such a change occurs, I will alert you of it, and post a revised copy on the course website.


Henry Jenkins, ed., The Children’s Culture Reader (New York University Press, 1998) (available at the Co-Op or on Amazon)

M.T. Anderson, Feed (available on Amazon or at PCL)

Course reader (available at the Jenn’s Copy located at 2518 Guadalupe, near Madam Mam’s)

Articles located in the course reader are marked below with an asterisk.

Articles and pieces that I’ll make available in PDF form closer to the reading date are marked with a double asterisk.

Finally, articles that should be read on the Web are marked with a triple asterisk, and will be posted on the course website (there’s only one of these; it’s a comic, so it won’t print well in B&W).

Note: The readings are listed on the date we’ll be discussing them in class; therefore, you’ll need to be done with them before that date. Plan ahead!


Weds 24: First class. Introductions, syllabus, the usual.

Fri 26: Discussion: What the Heck is “Children’s Culture”? Read Henry Jenkins, “Introduction: Childhood Innocence and Other Modern Myths,” in Jenkins, 1-40.

Mon 29: Unit 1 (Moral Panics) Begins. Discussion: Television, Part 1. Read *Neil Postman, Introduction, Chapter 1, “When There Were No Children,” Chapter 5, “The Beginning of the End,” and Chapter 8, “The Disappearing Child,” from The Disappearance of Childhood (1982).

Weds 31: Discussion: Television, Part 2. Read Lynn Spigel, “Seducing the Innocent: Childhood and Television in Postwar America,” in Jenkins, 110-135; *Gary Cross, Chapter 1, “The Irony of Innocence” and Chapter 5, “Gremlin Child: How the Cute Became the Cool,” from The Cute and the Cool: Wondrous Innocence and Modern American Children’s Culture (2004).


Fri 2 – Discussion: Comic Books. Read *James Gilbert, “Introduction: The Social History of an Idea” and “Chapter 9: Mass Media and Delinquency: A National Forum,” from A Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s (1986); Frederic Wertham, “Such Trivia as Comic Books,” in Jenkins, 486-492.

Mon 5 – No Class, Labor Day

Weds 7 – Research Workshop Day 1

Fri 9-  Research Workshop Day 2

Mon 12- Discussion: Hip-Hop. Read *Robin D.G. Kelley, Chapter 2, “Looking to Get Paid: How Some Black Youth Put Culture to Work,” from Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997); *David Roediger, “What to Make of Wiggers: A Work in Progress,” in Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard, Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America (1998); *Jessica Lussenhop, “’Wigger Wednesday”: Black Student Sues School District Alleging Racism,” City Pages (Minneapolis), August 3, 2011

Weds 14 – Discussion: Gaming. Read *Antonin Scalia, Decision in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association (2011); another reading TBA.

Fri 16 – Discussion: Consumer Culture, Part 1. Read *K.J. Dell’antonia, “Study Shows That Preschoolers Can Recognize Brand Names,”, April 6, 2010; *Stephen Kline, Chapter 6: “Building Character,” from Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing (1995).

Mon 19 – Discussion: Consumer Culture, Part 2. Read Ellen Seiter, “Children’s Desires/Mothers’ Dilemmas: The Social Contexts of Consumption,” in Jenkins, 297-317.

Weds 21 – Discussion: Food. Read Allison James, “Confections, Concoctions, and Conceptions,” in Jenkins, 394-405; ***Allie, “The God of Cake,” Hyperbole and a Half, n.d.; *Michele Simon, “Why the Happy Meal is a Crime—and Not Just a Culinary One,”, January 24, 2011; *Stacey R. Hall, “Should I Blame My Parents Because I’m Fat?,”, August 14, 2011.

Fri 23 – Peer Review - Bring Unit 1 Website Entry, Draft 1, to Class.

Mon 26 – Unit 1 Website Entry Due (Draft 2). Unit 2 (Pink and Blue) Begins.

Discussion: Forming Gender. Read *Jayme Poisson, “Parents Keep Child’s Gender a Secret,” Toronto Star, May 21, 2011; Barrie Thorne, “Boys and Girls Together…But Mostly Apart,” in Jenkins, 318-336.

Weds 28 – Discussion: Pink Sparkly Princesses. Read *Jeanne Maglaty, “When Did Girls Start Wearing Pink?”,, April 8, 2011; **Peggy Orenstein, from Cinderella Ate My Daughter (2011).

Fri 30 – Discussion: Dolls, Part 1. Read Miriam Forman-Brunell, “The Politics of Dollhood in Nineteenth-Century America,” in Jenkins, 363-381; Erica Rand, “Older Heads on Younger Bodies,” in Jenkins, 383-393.


Mon 3 – Discussion: Dolls, Part 2. Read **Elizabeth Chin, from Purchasing Power: Black Kids and American Consumer Culture (2001);  *Meredith Carroll, “Proposed Day Care Rules in Colo. Would Require Dolls of Different Races,”, July 12, 2011.

Weds 5 – Discussion: Girlfans. Read *Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, Gloria Jacobs, “Beatlemania: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” from The Audience Studies Reader (2003); **Melanie Nash and Martii Lahti, “’Almost Ashamed To Say I Am One of Those Girls’: Titanic, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the Paradoxes of Girls’ Fandom,” in Titanic: Anatomy of a Blockbuster (1999).

Fri 7 –Discussion: Girls’ Magazines. Read *Dawn H. Currie, “Girl Talk: Adolescent Magazines and their Readers,” from The Audience Studies Reader (2003); *Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer, Chapter 1: “The Rise,” Chapter 3: “Feminism,” Chapter 5: “Girl Culture,” from How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time (2007)

Mon 10 – Discussion:  Boys in Gangs, Boy Consumers. Read E. Anthony Rotundo, “Boy Culture,” in Jenkins, 337-362; *Lisa Jacobson, Chapter 3: “Heroes of the New Consumer Age: Imagining Boy Consumers,” from Raising Consumers: Children and the American Mass Market in the Early Twentieth Century (2004).

Weds 12 – Discussion: Boys and School. Read *Ann Ferguson, Chapter 4: “Naughty by Nature,” from Bad Boys: Public Schools in the Making of Black Masculinity (2000).

Fri 14 – Discussion: Boys, Girls, and Reading. Read *ScienceDaily, “Gender Bias Uncovered in Children’s Books With Male Characters, Including Male Animals, Leading the Fictional Pack,” May 4, 2011; **Robert Lipsyte, “Boys and Reading: Is There Any Hope?”, The New York Times, August 19, 2011.

Mon 17 – Discussion: Violence. Read *Jason Boog, “The Military-Toy-Industrial Complex,” The Believer, October 2008;  *David Sirota, “How the ‘80s Programmed Us for War,”, March 20, 2011.

Weds 19 – Discussion: Geekdom. Read *Patton Oswalt, “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die,” Wired, December 27, 2010; **another reading TBA.

Fri 21 – No class – instructor at American Studies Association conference

Mon 24 – Peer Review - Bring Unit 2 Website Entry, Draft 1, to Class.

Weds 26 – Unit 2 Website Entry Due (Draft 2); Unit 3 (Environments Real and Virtual) Begins

Discussion: Islanding. Read: *John R. Gillis, “The Islanding of Children: Reshaping the Mythical Landscapes of Childhood,” from Marta Gutman and Ning DeConinck-Smith, eds.,  Designing Modern Childhoods: History, Space, and the Material Culture of Childhood (2008).

Fri 28 – Discussion: The Loss of “Nature.” Read *Richard Louv, Introduction and Part 1: “The New Relationship Between Children and Nature,” from Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (2007).

Mon 31 – No Class. Instructor with family.


Weds 2 – Discussion: Suburbia. Read *Sean Griffin, “Kings of the Wild Backyard: Davy Crockett and Children’s Space,” in Marsha Kinder, ed., Kids’ Media Culture (1999);  ***Kate Murphy, “Playhouses: Child’s Play, Grown-up Cash,” The New York Times, July 20, 2011.

Fri 4 – Discussion: Surveillance and Overprotection. Read *Margaret Nelson, Introduction and Part II: “Parenting and Technology,” from Parenting Out of Control: Anxious Parents in Uncertain Times (2010); *Joan Acocella, “The Child Trap: The Rise of Overparenting,” The New Yorker, November 17, 2008.

Mon 7 – Discussion: Video Games and Mobility. Read *Henry Jenkins, “’Complete Freedom of Movement’: Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” from Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins, eds., From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games (2000); *Ray Bradbury, “The Veldt” (1950).

Weds 9 – Class Release Day – Watch “Hoop Dreams” on your own (available on Netflix Streaming or Hulu Plus, at the Fine Arts Library, or at I Love Video)

Fri 11 –  Discussion: Sports and Mobility. Read (well, watch) “Hoop Dreams.” Read *Robin D.G. Kelley, Chapter 2, “Looking to Get Paid: How Some Black Youth Put Culture to Work,” from Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America (1997).

Mon 14 – Discussion: The Future. Read Anderson, Feed, pp 1-94;  Nicholas Carr, The Atlantic“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”

Weds 16 – Discussion: The Future, Cont. Read Anderson, Feed, pp 95-207; Jim Jensen, Pew Research Center, The Better-Off OnlineWe’ll also sign up for paper conferences on this day.

Fri 18 – Discussion: The Future, The End. Read Anderson, Feed, pp 207-end.

Mon 21 – Paper Proposal Due by Email, 5 pm.

Peer Review – Bring Unit 3 Website Entry, Draft 1, to class.

Weds 23 – No Class – Thanksgiving

Fri 25 – No Class – Thanksgiving

Mon 28 – Unit 3 Website Entry Due (Draft 2), by Email, 5 pm. Conferences about final paper – class is cancelled, but conferences will be held during class time/office hours, so don’t plan to skip town

Weds 30 – Conferences about final paper (see above)


Fri 2 – Last Day of Classes – Some fun/educational activity TBA.

Weds 7 – Final Paper Due.



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