Course Assignments

Lisette Model, Fashion Show, Hotel Pierre (1940-46)

In addition to asking you to do course readings (as well as viewings and listenings) and to participate in seminar discussion, I’ll ask you to complete one major assignment in this course and a few additional minor assignments. 

Research Project

The major assignment is a final research project (15-20 pp or equivalent) offering an original interpretation of some aspect of the literature or cultural life of New York City in the 1940s.  This assignment can be completed in a variety of ways. You can complete a traditional, scholarly research paper.  Alternatively, you can put together a media-rich web page.   Or you can create a podcast, with accompanying documentation.  Or finally, you can construct the design for a museum exhibition. 

update: collaborative research projects are permitted and encouraged, so long as you provide me on completion a one paragraph explanation of the parts of the project for which each member of the collaboration has assumed primary responsibility.

Whichever option you choose, I’ll ask you to post your final project on the course blog. 

As you think about this project, keep in mind that it should aim to serve one or more of these three main purposes:

Critical-scholarly: your project aims to expand or revise our understanding of the significance of one of the cultural innovations of life in New York City in the 1940s.  To complete the project, therefore, you will draw on and engage with the important, existing discussion of the topic and seek to add to that conversation.

Archival: your project aims to unearth and bring to attention publications, artifacts, or information that is not now easily accessible or widely known.  To complete this project, therefore, you will carefully document, explain, and, to some degree, interpret the material you uncover.

Curatorial: your project aims to make some aspect of cultural history accessible and meaningful to a public audience.  To complete this project, therefore, you will work to present the material and its history in a way that is lucid, engaging, and illuminating. 


Any particular project might well combine two or even all three of these goals.  But to give your particular project definition and focus, it may be helpful to think of it as giving one of these approaches preeminence.  Here are some more specific examples of the different kinds of projects:

One example of a “critical-scholarly” project might be an essay about the way Ralph Ellison’s experience of the changing social and cultural life of Harlem in the 1940s shaped the vision he created in Invisible Man.  Or, say, I might write about the way Tennessee Williams’s experiments in creating a new type of psychological drama were similar to the ideas about the expressive powers of art that his contemporaries among the Abstract Expressionist papers emphasized.  Or, another example: I might consider the way Auden’s poetry reflected his affinity for the existentialist philosophy that became popular in New York intellectual circles during the ‘40s.  In any of these examples, my goal would be to bring a new light to the main subject with the hope of fostering a fuller, richer, and more accurate understanding of its significance.  (In keeping with the particular slant of this course, each of these examples emphasizes the importance of the context of New York City to the growth of the artist at the center of discussion.)  To develop arguments like these, I would need to familiarize myself with the important scholarship on these writers and look for ways to contribute to the interpretation of the subject.

As an example of an “archival” project, I might look into the publishing history of an influential magazine or journal of the era, or I might investigate the history of an important institution of the period.  For example, I might look into Holiday magazine and provide an account of its history and samples of its offerings.  Or I might look at the creation of the little magazine Commentary and discuss the editors and writers that worked there and representative examples of its publications.  (This is a rich vein for exploration, and one that I’m particularly interested in.  There were a lot of influential little magazines, quarterlies, newspapers, anthologies, and magazines that sprang up in NYC in the 1940s.  Some, like The New Yorker or Partisan Review are famous and have been much discussed.  But many have been all but forgotten and are ripe for bringing back to light.)  Or, I might present an account of the history of the Greenwich Village émigré institution, The New School for Social Research, or of the exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art and The Art of this Century Gallery where the Abstract Expressionist painters came to the fore.  With any of these examples, my aim would be to give a clear account of the way a significant cultural institution functioned, along with examples or illustrations of its important products.  

With a “curatorial” project, my aim would be to present some feature of New York cultural and intellectual life in the 1940s to a broader public audience.  (You can think of this mission as similar to what historians mean when they talk about “public history.”  My goal would be to assemble, synthesize, and present the fullest current understanding of the subject in a way that should make it vivid and meaningful for a general audience.  For example, I might construct a website on the history of bebop or of abstract expressionism or of existentialism in America, or of the “New York Intellectuals.”  In presenting any of these developments, I would want to make use of publications, photographs, recordings, documents, maps, etc. so as to make the phenomenon as concrete and rich as possible.  But I would also want to draw on the most recent and best academic scholarship on the subject so as to give my audience the most enlightening view possible. 

Whichever approach you emphasize, your project will probably need to draw on at least one of its complements as well.  (For example, you can’t really curate an exhibition or a webpage without presenting a critical interpretation of your material or without making use of some archival research.)  Likewise, whichever approach you emphasize, the more original, thoughtful, and carefully presented your project, the more successful you will be.  Finally, whichever approach you take, you must make careful use of protocols of documentation and of responsible scholarly practices..  That is, you must be careful to cite your sources, to treat your sources and interlocutors carefully, and to avoid plagiarism. 

Assignments Prefatory to the Research Project


To help you on the way to completing the research project, you must also complete three prefatory assignments:

A one-paragraph proposal for the research project that explains—broadly, if necessary—what subject you’d like to investigate and which approach you expect to take.  This is not a contract.  You can change your mind at any point.  The aim is just to get you thinking and working as soon as possible.

A review essay on the secondary or critical literature on your subject (5-10 pp).  This essay should discuss 3-5 important interpretations of your material, summarize their major arguments, and discuss the important ways in which they differ and what approaches or premises those differences reflect.  To complete this project, you will need to make use of the library catalog and of some of the scholarly indexes and databases (e.g. the MLA index, JSTOR, Project Muse) available through the library home page.

For example, if I were preparing a project on the development of Abstract Expressionist painting, I might discuss the formalist-historical approach of Clement Greenberg, which interpreted Abstract Expressionism as the realization of inherent tendencies in the logical development of the art of painting, and I might compare Greenberg to the social history provided by Dore Ashton, who emphasizes the social life of New York painters and their mutual influence on each others, and the political-institutional approach of Serge Guilbaut, who stresses the way the “New York School” painters suited the political climate of the early Cold War. 


An annotated bibliography of critical and research sources you have gathered.  The bibliography should include at least 8-10 entries (or equivalent), each one appended with two- or three-sentence summaries of their major claims or their significance.  


Additional Assignments

Finally, there are three additional assignments:

Three, short response papers (3-4 pp) on any aspect of the assigned reading, viewing, or listening.  You may choose the dates on which to submit these essays, provided that the first essay is submitted by 2/23, the second by 4/6, and the third by the end of the semester.  Papers should discuss some aspect of the material assigned for the day they are submitted, and they should provide a reasoned and clearly explained interpretive argument about the meaning or significance of the material.  In other words, these papers should not be random thoughts or arguments, but carefully constructed essays.  These essays will be graded for the originality and depth of their arguments and for the clarity of their expression.


One annotation of the course Google map.  Choose one day from the course schedule and note your reservation on the course wiki provided for this purpose.  By class time of the scheduled day, add at least three markers (using the edit tool to drag and drop a balloon) to the course map noting locations that are relevant to the reading or viewing for that day.  Such annotations might include important locations in the narrative; residences of the artists; locations of a relevant institution or publishing venue.  For example, for our second meeting, I might add markers for the offices of The New Yorker where E. B. White worked, for the Lafayette Hotel he described, for the site of the new U.N. building whose creation he invokes, and for the probable location of the East Side garden he paints in his final lines.  What to mark is up to you and depends on your sense of what’s important and illuminating. 


 Attendance at any two lectures held at the Center for the Humanities this semester.  Please indicate on the course wiki provided for this purpose the two lectures you will attend.  Though probably all of these lectures will be stimulating and enlightening, those scheduled for 1/31, 2/21, 4/4, and 4/11 are likely to be most relevant to the subject of this course. 

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