critical examination of a “cultural object”

Assignment Objective:
The goal of this assignment is to engage students in a critical examination of a “cultural object”
(eg. an artifact, an image, a tool/device, an advertisement, a speech, a law/policy etc.) with the
purpose of “unpacking” it and making an argument for the larger “meaning” of that object within
U.S. culture—that is, an argument about the complex ways this object has created meanings for
its audiences at various moments in U.S. history. Students are asked to select a “cultural object”
that is relevant to an argument, concept, or keyword discussed in class. Examples include, but
are not limited to: a kind of food, a model of car, a genre of movie, a consumer product like the
iPad, an idea like the “American Dream” or debt, an institution like high school, college, or the
Army, Dorothea Lange’s photograph “Migrant Mother”, Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the
USA”, the National Parks system etc.
Assignment Logistics:
• 600 to 800-word argumentative research paper
• Papers must be formatted following MLA guidelines.
For this assignment, students are expected to first conduct research, and then write a 600 to
800word argumentative research paper, in which they will do the following:
i) First, they will describe the “object” in question. Analysis of cultural
objects begins with a careful description.
ii) In addition to the description of the object, students must include in their
paper information about the history, technology, economy, or social relations in the
given society from which the “object” emerged, and illustrate how/if these have
changed over time. Students must consider the following stages in the cycle of the
“cultural object”: its production, its reception/consumption, and its representation.
iii) Then, students will consider the “story/stories” this object has to tell, and
they will make a case for why “this story/these stories” matter;
iv) The “story/stories” of the object will subsequently yield insights into the
intersecting social, economic, political, and cultural structures from which the
“object” emerged;
v) Subsequently, students will develop an original argument about the way(s)
in which the object they have selected represents “American culture”. To do this, they
will relate the object to one (or more) of the central questions asked in the class, and
use theory, concepts, and terminology from the field of American Studies.
Since students must conduct research to complete this assignment, they need to include a
Works Cited page at the end of their paper, listing all primary and secondary sources used in
A great resource for this assignment is the essays section of the Object Lessons Project by
The Atlantic available at
The paper must be formatted according to MLA standards for research papers (double-spaced,
Times New Roman 12, fully justified, 1-inch margins, in-text citations, bibliography etc.). The
heading on the upper left-hand corner must include the following information in this order: the
student’s full name, the class code, the instructor’s name, the assignment, the date submitted, and
the word count.

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