Mad Men Class

In the past few weeks I have begun to teach an independent study with Lynn Reed, a student in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies program at Skidmore College. The topic is Mad Men: Serialized Television Narrative and Depictions of Social History in the Early 1960s (link is to the class blog). This program allows students to do courses with faculty they approach who have some expertise and interest in topics they want to study, and I'm really grateful to Lynn for getting in touch with me because I have been finding the experience rewarding and (if I can speak for her) I think she has too.

I wanted to mention this here not just to share the syllabus, which I think will be of interest to serious Mad Men viewers, but also to link to Lynn's writings on the show and related readings, and to publicize her good work. Thus far she has written about character motivation in serialized narrative, character goals in the episode "Nixon vs. Kennedy", the dislocation that comes with cultural change, Reisman's ideas about conformity as applied to Don Draper, and "cool" in the 1960s, among other topics.

The course description to follow is Lynn's. The readings and viewings were put together collaboratively.

Mad Men: Serialized Television Narrative and Depictions of Social History in the Early 1960s

The acclaimed cable television drama Mad Men depicts the process of cultural change in early 1960s America through narratives of the personal and professional lives of men and women in a New York City advertising agency.

The series two most central protagonists, creative director Don Draper and secretary-turned-writer Peggy Olson, are attempting to:
-re-make themselves and re-tell their own stories,
-while working in an advertising industry that defines desires and creates narratives to sell products,
-at a time in which the country is re-making itself, re-telling the story of what it means to be an American and who can participate in the telling of that story

In this independent study, we will examine both the social history of the early 1960’s, and the ways in which this serialized television narrative tells the story of cultural change in this period (1960 – 1965).

From that examination, we will also look at larger questions. Contemporary politics and popular culture debate the meaning of “the sixties” through broad symbols and shorthand references. Does this study of Mad Men and the social history of the early 1960s tell us something about the current cultural fault lines that are seen as resulting from “the sixties”? Can it tell us something about which cultural changes have been accepted and absorbed by American culture and which are still up for debate?

Reading and Viewing Assignments:

The book Mad Men: Dream Come True TV, a collection of scholarly essays on Mad Men edited by Gary R. Edgerton, will be published April 26, 2011. The essays will be assigned reading and integrated with the syllabus as appropriate. (MN note: this is the language as we drafted it in the syllabus; this book has now been published and I just got my copy this week.)

Week 1-2 -- Overview of Television Storytelling & Serialized Narrative

“From Beats to Arcs: Towards a Poetics of Television Narrative”, Michael Z. Newman
Storytelling in Film and Television, Kristin Thompson
Serial Television: Big Drama on the Small Screen, Glen Creeber

Mad Men episodes:
1.6 “Babylon”
2.7 “The Gold Violin”
2.12 “The Mountain King”
3.6 “Guy Walks in to an Advertising Agency”
3.11 “The Gypsy and the Hobo”
4.4 “The Rejected”

Week 3-4 -- The “Crisis of Conformity” in the late ‘50s

The Conquest of Cool, Thomas Frank, chapters 1-3
The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman
“The White Negro”, Norman Mailer
The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, Barbara Ehrenreich

Mad Men episodes:
1.1 “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”
1.8 “The Hobo Code”
2.11 “The Jet Set”
3.7 “Seven Twenty Three”
4.7 “The Suitcase”

Week 5-6 – Changes in Advertising and American Culture

Conquest of Cool, chapters 4 – 8
The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard
A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, Lizabeth Cohen
The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida, chapters 1-2

Mad Men episodes:
3.2 “Love Among the Ruins”
3.13 “Shut the Door. Have a Seat”
4.5 “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”
4.7 “The Suitcase”
4.11 “Chinese Wall”

Week 7-9 – Feminine Mystique and the early Women’s Movement

The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, Stephanie Coontz
Sex and the Single Girl, Helen Gurley Brown
Bad Girls Go Everywhere: The Life of Helen Gurley Brown, Jennifer Scanlon
Shaky Ground: The Sixties and Its Aftershocks, Alice Echols, chapters 1-4

Mad Men Episodes:
1.3 “Ladies’ Room”
1.13 “The Wheel”
2.6 “Maidenform”
3.8 “Souvenir”
4.9 “The Beautiful Girls”

Week 10-12 – Political Change and Social Change / Re-telling the American Story in the Early 1960s

Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Todd Gitlin, chapters 1-7
Port Huron Statement
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, Taylor Branch

Mad Men Episodes:
1.12 “Nixon vs. Kennedy”
2.13 “Meditations in an Emergency”
3.3 “My Old Kentucky Home”
3.12 “The Grown-Ups”
4.13 “Tomorrowland”


Brett Boessen said...

Very nice syllabus -- did the two of you work together to craft it, or was it entirely her proposal? And how long before the class officially began did you start working on it together?

I have undergraduate I do independent studies with, and I always have trouble getting them to think ahead.

michael z newman said...

Thanks for your comment, Brett. The readings were a product of collaborative effort. Most of the episode viewings were Lynn's suggestions. The breakdown into topics was hers. This all came together within a couple of weeks if I remember correctly. I do mostly grad independent studies, and I would guess in general that undergrads need twice as much direction.

Brett Boessen said...

That's a nice way to divide the labor on an independent study -- student identifies the primary texts and topics/research questions, and faculty identifies the theoretical and other secondary texts.

Since you mentioned you do a lot of these, is there a particular reason you chose to blog about this study?

michael z newman said...

Why did I blog about it? (1) Lynn was making her writing for the class public and I wanted to call attention to it. (2) People (and readers of the blog) seem to be interested in Mad Men.

Brett Boessen said...

Makes sense to me. :)