🤖 Robots and the End of Work (syllabus)

This course is about the relationships between robots and work in American society—that is, the relationships between labor-saving machines and the work/workers that they transform or eliminate. It is motivated by contemporary debates over the impact of automation on both manual and intellectual labor. While machines have been putting people out of work since the industrial revolution, many analysts are now predicting a future of massive unemployment and inequality as a result of recent advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence, and computer processing. The latest machines can not only automate warehouses and fast-food restaurants, but can also replace office workers, journalists, computer programmers, consultants, and a range of other professions that Americans have associated with the middle class. But automation’s impact is not only economic. Since work is one of the dominant ways that Americans find meaning in life, our investigation of automation in this course is also an investigation of the cultural meanings of work and of the possible meanings of life in a post-work society.

🎮 Playing with the End of the World: The Last of Us and Post-Apocalyptic Gaming

American popular culture is fascinated with apocalypse. In fact, it seems increasingly impossible for American pop-culture to imagine the future without assuming that some cataclysm—a tidal wave, pandemic, alien invasion, cyborg revolt, zombie apocalypse, etc.—will destroy the United States, even the whole world. In this American Studies course, we investigate apocalyptic culture by focusing on one particular domain of pop-culture, video gaming, and on one particular game, The Last of Us. The Last of Us is a post-apocalyptic, zombie-survival game produced for the Sony PlayStation by the American developer Naughty Dog. Since its release in 2013, and its subsequent “remaster” for the PS4 in 2014, The Last of Us has sold millions of copies and is considered by many gamers to be one of the greatest video games of all time. Our fundamental task in this course is to play the game in its entirety and to subject all aspects of the game to critical analysis, including its development, design, gameplay, aesthetics, and relationship to major issues in American culture, such as the history of Christian apocalypticism, the culture of gun violence, libertarian distrust of federal government, and representations of masculinity and femininity. Students in this course will learn fundamental theoretical concepts in both American Studies and game studies, and should be prepared to learn how to play games critically, not just for pure entertainment or distraction. You don’t need any prior gaming experience, nor do you need to own a Playstation in order to take this course (although it would be a plus). Women are especially encouraged to take the course, and should note that gender inequality in both the gaming industry and in The Last of Us itself will be central topics of discussion and debate.

🙄 Distraction: Attention, Intelligence, Digital Media

Distraction is the essence of the contemporary media experience. Whether we’re watching a movie or writing emails, listening to music or typing notes on a laptop, we’re usually doing something else at the same time (or maybe even doing all of the above at once). Indeed, it’s almost impossible to focus within today’s environment of ubiquitous mobile media. There’s always another hyperlink to click, the next YouTube video to watch. Our devices constantly buzz and ding as they encourage us to look at a new Instagram photo or the latest reply to a Facebook thread. Accordingly, distraction has become a major keyword in current American debates about the social and cultural impact of media. Critics argue that distraction is changing the structure of the human brain and destroying our capacity for deep concentration. Others argue that we are losing our ability to read, to understand complexity and ambiguity, and to appreciate the value of quiet solitude. In its starkest form, the critique of distraction envisions American society turning into the nation of zombie-like morons portrayed in films like Ideocracy and Wall-E. As a current street slogan puts it: “smart phones, dumb people.” This course seeks to provide students with critical tools with which to evaluate and engage the distraction debate. We will ask: What, exactly, is distraction? What do we mean by its opposite, attention? What must we believe about intelligence in order to conclude that “Google is making us stupid,” as one prominent critic has charged? What social and cultural values influence how we imagine these issues? Since this is an American Studies course, we will focus primarily, though not exclusively, on American materials, including psychology, philosophy, media theory, journalism, film, and literature.

📹 Society of Surveillance (syllabus)

 2016 marked the 15 anniversary of the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, DC on 9/11/01. The anniversary serves as an occasion to assess a major consequence of the attacks: the rise of what some scholars have termed the “society of surveillance.” Although numerous societies have engaged in various forms of surveillance for centuries, the society of surveillance may represent an unprecedented expansion of the scope of surveillance, not only as regards the power of the state, but also as regards data collection by social media platforms. As an American Studies course, “The Society of Surveillance” will examine multiple aspects of the surveillance society, primarily, but not exclusively, in the context of the contemporary United States, and will engage its subject matter through a diverse set of objects, including documentary film, journalism, science fiction literature and film, political theory, media theory, and smartphone video and photography. Major lines of inquiry will include: What are some of the basic elements of the surveillance society? What did Edward Snowden reveal about the NSA? How have NSA practices developed in response to 9/11? What legal and ethical problems does the Snowden affair raise? What role do Google and other social media and telecommunications companies play in the surveillance society? How and why do people enjoy participating in surveillance? What are the ethical and political consequences of this enjoyment? How have popular literature and film represented the surveillance society and its future? What aspects of the surveillance society might be benign or inevitable? Which should be resisted? Why? How?

Frankfurt University, 2013-2015

📚 Introduction to Literary Studies (syllabus)

This course is an introduction to the practice of literary studies as a scholarly discipline. Although the course is open to American Studies, British Studies, and Lehramt, it is neither an introduction to American and/or British literature, nor an introduction to pedagogy. Rather, the course deals with broad principles of literary analysis, and presents foundational concepts and methods that students will need for more advanced work in the subject. We will learn to closely read texts from the three basic genres of literature (poetry, fictional prose, drama), we will explore popular literary forms such as hip hop, and we will engage theoretical keywords in contemporary literary studies such as “identity,” “gender,” “queer,” “canon,” and “culture.” By the end of the course, students will be better equipped to interpret, understand, debate, write about, and enjoy literature in its various dimensions and forms.

🚬 The Beat Generation (syllabus)

A survey of some of the key writings of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, as well as the lesser-known female Beats. Topics include the Cold War, jazz, the beatnik movement in the popular press, and representations of gender, sexuality, and “race.”

👽 Science Fiction

This course offers an introduction to the generic galaxy of American science fiction (SF)—pulp fiction, the novel, radio, film, music, and video games. We start by engaging debates in SF studies about genre and definitions: what is SF? How is it different from related genres like fantasy and horror? Is there a distinct SF aesthetic? Combining these questions with contextual readings of SF in a variety of media, we then interpret the ways that SF engages key moments in twentieth and twenty-first century American social and cultural history.

🙇 Philip K. Dick, the “Shakespeare” of Science Fiction 

Hailed by contemporary critics as the “Shakespeare” of science fiction, Philip K. Dick was perhaps the most prolific, influential, and thought-provoking writer of science fiction in post-1945 America. This class offers close readings of several of his major novels and short stories, adaptations of his work into popular films, and scholarship in the growing field of science fiction studies. Topics include Dick’s infamous presentation of “reality breakdowns” and madness (including his own), the fraught relationship between human beings and technology, Dick’s biting critique of postwar America, and his religious hallucinations toward the end of his life.

🔚 Apocalyptic Narratives (syllabus)

This course investigates the American fascination with the end of the world. While we will start with ancient Judeo-Christian texts, we will focus primarily on the ways that literature, film, and intellectual currents in the post-1945 period have transformed the Judeo-Christian archetypes. How have postwar Protestants sought to preserve apocalyptic narratives in the face of mass entertainment culture and new technologies such as the atomic bomb? If Protestants are attracted to apocalypse’s promise of salvation from a corrupt human world, what attracts ostensibly “secular” Americans to apocalypse? Or is the boundary between religion and secularity more porous than we recognize? What is the role of apocalypse in the fantasy life of the nation? What dreams and desires does it stage, what hopes does it channel, what solutions does it offer to social antagonisms? What are the relationships among apocalypse, dystopia, and utopia? What does apocalypse tell us about Americans’ ability to imagine future societies? Is apocalypse a barometer of mass hopelessness, or does it serve to reinvent hope for the hopeless?

🔥🔥🔥 Atomic America: A Literary and Cultural History (syllabus)

Between 1945, when the world’s first atomic weapons were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 1991, when the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, the United States lived under a cloud of nuclear anxiety. This course studies the cultural history of atomic America through its political and intellectual history, literature, television, cinema, and music.

🌎 Green Futures 

This is an interdisciplinary course that combines American Studies, environmental humanities, and animal studies. Our focus is “green futures”—the possible futures of the environment, as imagined by the natural sciences, speculative literature and film, philosophy, political ideologies, and the environmental movement. What does the future have in store for our warming, overpopulated, and polluted Earth? What are the scientific facts about climate change, and what political viewpoints motivate certain segments of American society to deny the facts so vehemently? What will the future look like if current forms of environmental, political, and species exploitation continue unchecked?  What changes in our economies, political structures, and relations to animals and the physical environment must occur in order to achieve flourishing green futures?

© CC-BY-NC 4.0 Jesse Ramírez