Theoretical Concepts for American Studies

Week 12: Review and Consolidation

Natalia Cecire |

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Part I: Materialism and value
Week 2Materialism and commodities
Week 3Ideology and ideology critique
Part II: Social structures and the self
Week 4Cultural capital and habitus
Week 5Reading week; no lecture or seminar
Week 6Melancholia
Week 7Sexuality and subjectivity
Part III: Configurations of power
Week 8Nation
Week 9Surveillance and discipline
Week 10Intersectionality
Week 11Neoliberalism and "freedom"
Week 12Consolidation and review

Keyword Essay (30%)

This assessment is inspired by the cultural materialist Raymond Williams's classic 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which unpacks the cultural meaning and use of loaded and complex words, such as "nature" and "society." John Pat Leary's project Keywords for the Age of Austerity is conducted in a similar spirit. Your keywords will be a bit more specialized than the ones that Williams investigates, though, and instead of the historical deep dive that Williams does, you'll build on your reading and thinking from this module.


  • 1500 words
  • must focus on one of the concepts in the list
  • must include an original example of how the concept is useful, drawn from an American Studies context (can be historical, cultural, literary, etc.)
  • you should cite appropriately using Chicago, MLA, or MHRA style. If you use an automatic citation generator, you must check to ensure that the metadata is correct. There is no excuse for listing a translator as an author or formatting a journal article like a book.


Explain, using specific quotations from relevant theoretical sources and one example of your own choosing, a concept from the list provided. Your explanation must be rooted in knowledge of theoretical texts; i.e. you are not being asked to riff on your personal feelings about "power." (Rather, explain what Foucault has to say about power.) You will not be able to explore every aspect of your keyword, so choose a dimension on which to focus. For instance, if you are writing about "sexuality," you may choose to focus on the historicization of the idea of "homosexuality."

Most of the keywords listed are not simple, tidy ideas that can just be applied; in fact, many of them (such as "value" or "sexuality") are here precisely because they are too often taken for granted and need to be denaturalized, questioned, and analyzed. A good essay will recognize this and respond to tensions and complexities in the keyword.

You may choose a concept that you wrote about for your Portfolio, but if you do so then your Keyword Essay must go substantially beyond the response paper in question (i.e., you cannot submit the same work twice).

You must include an original example drawn from American history and/or culture. Your example should demonstrate your understanding of the concept or keyword that you are discussing; you should choose an original example rather than reusing an example from the module reading or lectures.

For instance, you might show how the concept of intersectionality helps us understand the courtroom scenes at the end of Richard Wright's novel Native Son, or how the concept of nationalism helps us understand a specific media representation of drone warfare. (It will be better to look closely at a specific instance than generalize about a trend.) It is up to you to decide how to balance your explanation of the concept with your exploration of how it applies to your example.

One way to approach this essay would be to choose a (focused!) topic or cultural object in American Studies that interests you and then work out how one of the theoretical concepts listed below can help us think about it.

I strongly recommend choosing a single primary source to analyze.

Your essay should draw on module readings and, where appropriate, other high quality scholarly sources. If, for example, you are writing about melancholia, other related works by Freud, or works (articles, books) by relevant subsequent theorists and scholars like Melanie Klein or Heather Love count as high quality scholarly sources. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or some rando’s Tumblr do not.

This is not primarily a research paper, so it is much more important to explain the concept and how it applies to your example than to find related resources.

Quoting other people's explanations is not an adequate substitute for your own analysis.

Favor depth over breadth.


valuerepressive hypothesissurveillance
ideologydeployment of alliance and deployment of sexualityintersectionality
culture industrypower (be specific about what you mean by this)freedom (be specific about what you mean by this)
cultural capitalnation or nationalismneoliberalism
habitusimagined communityhuman capital

Sample essay plan

You are not required to structure your essay this way. This plan is offered as a guideline.

I. Introduction (300 words)

II. Example (300 words)

III. Development (600 words)

IV. Conclusion (300 words)

I. Introduction (300 words)

  • Introduce your keyword; describe or define what it is and/or the problem(s) that it poses
  • Provide relevant context: what key theorist(s) will you focus on, what disciplinary and/or philosophical contexts do we need to explore this keyword
  • If you are focusing on a certain aspect of the keyword, explain this.
  • The argument: here is what this keyword helps us understand and why.

II. Example (300 words)

  • Introduce and describe the example
  • Explain why it illustrates or otherwise engages the keyword

III. Development (600 words)

  • Further analysis of the example, drawing on theoretical writings about the keyword
  • Explain what theoretical writings about the keyword help us understand about the example, what problems it reveals (and whether they can be resolved), what unforeseen connections the keyword helps us make and why.

IV. Conclusion (300 words)

  • What we now know about the example that we didn't know before
  • What the example helps us see about the keyword that might not have been obvious, and/or limitations of the keyword in accounting for the example

What kinds of things could we write about?

Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and my children are now free! We are as free from the power of slaveholders as are the white people of the north; and though that, according to my ideas, is not saying a great deal, it is a vast improvement in my condition. The dream of my life is not yet realized. I do not sit with my children in a home of my own. I still long for a hearthstone of my own, however humble. But God so orders circumstances as to keep me with my friend Mrs. Bruce. Love, duty, gratitude, also bind me to her side. It is a privilege to serve her who pities my oppressed people, and who has bestowed the inestimable boon of freedom on me and my children.

Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, 1861

Trevor Paglen, Untitled (Predator Drones). C-Print, 60 x 48 inches (2010)

How the slogans "Make America Great Again" and "Stronger Together" functioned in the 2016 election

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Paul Revere's Ride," 1863

The Uber website

Beyoncé's country song "Daddy Lessons," performed at the Country Music Awards with the Dixie Chicks in 2016

This presentation was made using reveal.js 3.5.0, created by Hakim El Hattab / @hakimel.
The background color is Sussex Flint (Pantone 309C).

book cover for The Gift of Freedomphotograph of Mimi Thi Nguyen

Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Duke University Press, 2012.