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PWR 1GMD: A History of Innocence: Stories We Tell about America

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Girl with American Flag. Frank McKenna. Unsplash licensed.

In 1978, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas penned a retroactive manifesto for New York City. Confronted by its contradictions (a “new Amsterdam” that bore no resemblance to the real Amsterdam, narratives that erased the millions who lived there for millennia before), he concludes that what we take to be rational behavior is often the product of fantasy, delusion, desire. We are, he claims, very much like the surrealists who substitute delusional images for the objective world: through systematic and apparently rational means, we manage to find only evidence that supports our beliefs. In this class, we will be looking at several stories in American history, examining how and why and what these stories put forward for evidence. Texts for the course will span a range of genres and topics including: essays and documentaries on race in America, journalism on “leftist paranoia,” and feminist perspectives on genius and power.

We will also ask, with equal care, to what extent are our own most intractable beliefs—about race, success, equality, democracy, love—the product of just such a surrealist “Paranoid Critical Method”? What are the desires and fears that motivate our delusions, what data feed them and, not least, what are the consequences of living by the stories we are told and tell ourselves.

Major Assignments

Rhetorical Analysis

(1500-1800 words; 5-6 pages)  After researching for a few weeks, you will select a primary source that exemplifies the problem you want to explore. In your RA, you will attend to the rhetoric of that source. The goal is to study and write with such attention that you reveal what was not already apparent, what was not already given in a source. For example: How does the rhetoric of Stanford’s acceptance letter problematize the very goals of the University, as given in its magazines and web pages? Or, what does a cultural success narrative, as told by first generation African immigrants to the US, tell us about race in America?

Texts in Conversation

(1800-2400 words; 6-8 pages) For this assignment, you will be asked to continue your research and then carefully select only those voices that profit from being in conversation with each other—in the sense that they help you add to, problematize, rethink your own ideas on this topic.

Research-Based Argument

(3600-4500 words; 12-15 pages): For this assignment, you will extend the work in your RBA and your TIC to generate a new form, a research essay. The goal of the essay is not only to analyze a particular way that PCM is working in America, but also to reflect deliberately, always, on your own methods—the biases, fears and desires that shape your research and writing. Past essays have examined the “Of course I’m a feminist” stickers on campus, San Francisco’s Chinatown—its facades, its hidden interiors and history—and its relationship to Asian-American stereotypes, the forgotten founding of our National Parks.