The Lives of Children in America

American Studies 152, Spring 2000 ------ CRN # 75051


Time & Place: Tuesday & Thursdays, 2-4 p.m, 55 Roessler

Instructor: Jon Wagner <>

Reader: Carmina Brittain <>

Overview: This course is designed to help students develop a critical, interdisciplinary understanding of how ideas about childhood and adolescence have been represented, contested, studied, and enacted in American culture. Reading materials and examples are drawn from history, anthropology, sociology, psychology, folklore, media studies and literature. Lectures and course assignments help students examine how adults portray and conceptualize childhood and how children see and portray themselves.

Course Format: The course meets twice-weekly for two (2) hours. Class sessions combine lectures, small-group discussions and exercises, in-class and out of class writing assignments, and student presentations.

Required Readings: In addition to a Course Reader (available through Off Campus Books), the following three books are required: Merry White, The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America ( 1993); Joel Best, Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims (1990); and Jon Wagner (Ed.). "Seeing Kid's Worlds," Visual Sociology, #14 (1999). See the syllabus for a schedule of reading assignments.


Students are expected to complete all assignments, attend all class sessions and come prepared to discuss required readings and assigned writing or field exercises. Late Paper Alert: All papers must be turned in on the day they are due. Points will be deducted from grades assigned to late papers.

Guidelines for written work: In terms of format, see the attached "Guidelines for American Studies Papers." Look also at the attached "rubric." This is what I will use to evaluate student written work for this course. Read the rubric carefully, ask questions if you have any, and use the rubric to assess your writing as you work towards a completed paper or assignment. You will also receive a grading sheet for each paper. I place a premium on being precise, clear and thoughtful. Don’t just generalize about a text or a set of materials; examine them closely and use evidence to illustrate and support your understanding.

Grading: Grades will be based on the points earned by each student on the assignments noted above and according the following scale: 90-100 = A; 80-89 = B; 70=79 = C; 60-79 = D; below 60 = F. Additional points may be awarded to a student on any assignment for truly exceptional work. Note: all assignments are required of all students. Students who fail to complete any of the required assignments will receive a final grade for the course that is one letter grade lower than their overall point total would otherwise warrant.

Course Evaluations: Students are expected to assist the instructor in conducting mid-term and end-of-term evaluations of the course.

GE Credit: AMS 152 is a General Education course in Contemporary Societies under the old GE program. Under the new GE program the course counts in all three categories: (1) as a breadth course in Social Science or Humanities; (2) as a writing course; and (3) as a course in social and cultural diversity.

Course Themes and Issues: Assignments and course readings are designed to help students examine children’s’ lives and childhood by looking closely at a wide variety of "materials" and "ideas." The materials we will examine include still photographs and moving pictures; fiction and non-fiction writing (and some oral accounts); social science essays and analyses (oral and written), and a variety of artifacts and objects linked closely to children or childhood. Many of the ideas we will examine propose different ways of thinking about children and childhood. However, we will also look at different ways of thinking about "materials" themselves and the relationship between materials, ideas, and social life.

Cutting across course readings and assignments is a distinction between American children (as a group of young people living in America) and American childhood (a set of ideas about what is expected of young people living in America). We will also examine ideas about the diversity of children’s’ social worlds; contrasts between children and adult perspectives on childhood; competing moral and political perspectives on childhood; and contrasting images of the "American child" — i.e. attributions of innocence and vulnerability, aggression and passivity, the natural and the artificial, the victim and victimizer, and so on. Course readings and assignments also attend to key contexts of children’s lives. These include circumstances defined by the home, school, neighborhood, marketplace, and mass media; children’s material circumstances; various kinds of symbolic "frames" (e.g., play, work, inquiry, etc.); and children’s engagement in relationships, networks, and projects of their own design.


Learning to Conduct Interdisciplinary Scholarship:

Students enrolled in this course are expected to develop skills of interdisciplinary scholarship. These skills contrast somewhat with what students may be used to from courses in other departments, but they are central to other courses in the American Studies Program. We’ll talk in class about what scholarship entails, and students will receive specific guidance for exercising this kind of scholarship on individual assignments. However, the following notes may be useful to you in understanding how "ideas," "materials" and "evidence" will be examined in this course:

In some academic disciplines, relatively clear conventions exist for what kinds of "materials" constitute evidence and for how these materials should be interpreted. In the social sciences, for example, experimental results, field notes, census department statistics, interview transcripts, video tape documents or a set of survey responses are typically regarded as "data" that a researcher analyzes to develop a defensible interpretation, or theory of what she or he is interested in. In the humanities, the same process applies, but the "data" here are more likely to be passages from a literary text, images of a work of art, or historical information about authors, artists and related works.

Staying within one academic discipline, we can use the conventions and rules of that discipline to assess the quality of a scholar’s interpretation in three different ways: We can see whether it holds together on its own (i.e., is it coherent and clear?). We can also see how well it is supported by materials that members of that discipline regard routinely as "evidence." And we can see how well it fits with other theories already respected within that discipline. Both social scientists and humanists undertake disciplinary scholarship of this sort, in which ideas are developed and tested by looking at evidence. They differ, however, in the kinds of materials and evidence they look at, the theories to which their own ideas will be compared, and what their ideas are about.

In trying to understand the lives of American children — and American ideas about childhood — we can learn a lot by working within different academic disciplines: psychology certainly has something to offer, as do literary and historical studies, and so do anthropology, sociology, economics, and scholarship in the visual and performing arts. But we can also learn something by looking across these disciplines, and that’s a large part of what we’ll be doing in this course. Yes, we will examine short stories as works of fiction and films as works of art and try to figure out where they go within American literary and movie-making traditions, but we’ll also look at them as "data" amenable to the same kinds of analyses that social scientists perform with interview transcripts and survey responses. And yes, we will look at survey responses and interview transcripts as useful social science data, but we’ll also examine these transcripts and surveys as "texts" and subject them to the same kinds of interpretation that we apply to short stories and Hollywood films.

Thus, some of the different ways that we’ll approach "materials" and "ideas" within this course include the following:

We’ll also look at how materials and ideas are used to construct different representations of childhood. How do visual images of childhood differ from stories, for example, or arguments, observations, prescriptions, policies, questions about childhood, and so on? How and when do children and adults convert images into stories, or vice versa? How and when do they transform stories and images into policies, questions, or prescriptions?

The risk of looking at materials and ideas about children in all these different ways is that everything can turn to mush. If we apply the same kinds of analysis to short stories and interview transcripts and missing children posters does that mean that we think there’s no difference between them? Well, no, just that there are both differences and similarities. If we take our analysis far enough, for example, we recognize that all cultural materials — including consumer products, works of art, laws and regulations, folk creations, and texts developed by scholars in the humanities and social sciences -- are produced, distributed, used and interpreted by different people in different ways, through distinctive networks and in response to different social circumstances. It’s not that there are no differences between the short story, interview transcript, and missing children poster, it’s just when we want to know more about American culture, some of the most intriguing differences appear when we go beyond looking at the "texts" themselves to the circumstances in which they are produced, distributed, and used.

Here’s an example: If we’ve never seen them before, school photographs can reveal lots about American childhood that we otherwise might not know. But how can we characterize what those things are? And what else to do we need to know to use school photographs in that way? To use such photographs as "data" in trying to answer questions about the lives of American children, we would need to consider how visual materials of this sort are produced, edited, organized, and distributed. To understand how students appearing in such a photograph feel about school, we would need to seek other kinds of evidence about their lives. To understand how students themselves "see" a photograph in which they appear, we might need to ask them about it. Much the same applies if we want to know how their parents, teachers, or the school photographer see the photographs. Or how we see the photograph. Indeed, we can also learn something about American childhood from our individual and collective reactions — as ex-children living in America — to photographs and other materials of this sort.

In an effort to work across disciplines without having everything turn to mush, we will need to look closely not only at "materials" that refer, in one way or another, to American children, but also at how different people produce, distribute and interpret these materials. Through questions about the circumstances within which all this happens, I will affirm constantly the need for students to use evidence to generate and examine ideas, and to clarify ideas by referring to different kinds of evidence. I’ll be stressing this kind of "scholarship" in assigning and evaluating student work and in guiding class discussions about the various "materials" and "ideas" we consider. This approach may be confusing at first, but a primary goal of the course — and the reason for putting so much of this in writing -- is to assist students in learning how to conduct interdisciplinary scholarship. AMS 152 is about American children and American childhood, but it’s also about developing inquiry strategies that students can use to learn more about this and other aspects of American life.


AMS 152: Writing Assignments & Projects

Paper #1: Recollected Childhoods (750-1000 words) 20% of grade Choose a, b, or c

(a) Chose a key dimension of contemporary social and cultural analysis (race, gender, class, sexuality, etc.) and examine how it is reflected in two or more of the childhood narratives

(b) Examine two or more of the childhood accounts in terms of Coleman’s argument about changes in the "social capital" available to families and children.

(c) With Margolis’s essay as a model — and against the background of the childhood narratives we’ve been reading — analyze a multi-generational family photo collection to determine what it includes and does not include about the lives of children.

Paper #2: Projective Childhoods (750-1000 words) 20% of grade

Using Best’s book as a point of departure write an essay in which you analyze the rhetorical construction of a contemporary "problem" associated with the lives of American children. Possibilities include recent child abduction cases; episodes of school violence; violent and anti-social content in youth music, children’s television, movies, computer games, etc.; children’s access to cyber-porn on the world wide web; children’s vulnerabilities to drugs, alcohol and other restricted substances; or the specter of AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses. Write your essay as an editorial calling for a reasoned understanding of serious threats to children’s well-being. Note: For this assignment, it is important to select a topic that has generated enough public "texts" for you to analyze. You can look at daily newspapers, weekly news magazines, radio and television broadcasts (but take verbatim notes or get a transcript for any of the text you want to use), posters and public service advertisements, brochures and reports, etc.

Group project: Folk Culture and Mass Culture 20% of grade (10% project, 10% commentary)

Do all of the following: Choose an artifact of children’s material environment and investigate its origins and use. (a) Prepare a set of web pages that exhibit your analysis of this artifact on the "Kid’s Stuff" web site created for this course; (b) write a brief essay of 500-750 words in which you comment on the Kids’ Stuff web exhibits in terms of a concept or theme examined by Merry White in The Material Child.

Paper #3: Families and Institutions (750-1000 words) 20% of grade. Choose a, b, or c

(a) Review the recollected childhood narratives we read earlier for what they reveal about how children negotiate boundaries between family, peers and either schooling or the medical profession

(b) Examine a pair of movies or films that depict interactions between children and either schooling or medicine in terms of the themes examined by Herndon, Dyson, Anyon, Clark, or Rich and Chalfen.

(c) Examine the interface between children’s folk culture and a social institution for a particular child you know and can talk with.

Take-Home Exam (750-1000 words) 20% of grade Choose a, b, or c

Select one or more popular propositions about American children’s lives (I will provide a list) and examine it in terms of one of the following kinds of evidence: (a) everything we’ve read this quarter; (b) a narrative account based on your own childhood or that of a sibling, relative or friend (use the narrative accounts we read in class as models); (c) the complete book from which one of the narrative accounts we read in class was excerpted; (d) detailed observations of a particular child or group of children who use an artifact included, or similar to those included, in the Kid’s Stuff web exhibit or described in Merry White’s book, the Material Child.


Required Reading



Joel Best, Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims (1990)

Jon Wagner (Ed.). "Seeing Kid's Worlds," Visual Sociology, #14 (1999).

Merry White, The Material Child: Coming of Age in Japan and America ( 1993)


Recollected Childhoods -- Narrative Accounts — Course Reader Part I

Angelou, Maya. From, I know why the caged bird sings (Random House /Bantom), 1970), pp. 1-37.

Crews, Harry. From, A childhood: The biography of a place. (Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 47-72

Dillard, Annie. From, An American childhood (Harper & Row, 1987), pp, 15-49.

Erdrich, Louise. From, Love medicine. (Bantam, 1984), pp 40-56.

Kingston, Maxine Hong. From, The woman warrior: Memoirs of a childhood among ghosts (Random House/Vintage, 1977), pp., 189-216.

Miller, Henry. From, Tropic of cancer (Grove Press, 1961), pp. 124-146,

Soto, Gary. From, Living up the street: Narrative recollections. (Strawberry Hill, 1985), pp 51-79.

Stegner, Wallace. From, Recapitulation (Univ. of Nebraska ,1979), pp. 31-60


Observing and Analyzing Other Children — Course Reader Part II

Anyon, Jean. (1980). "Social class and the hidden curriculum of work." Journal of Education, 162, 67-92.

Coleman, James. (1987). "Families and schools." Educational Researcher, 16, 32-38.

Coles, Robert. (1992). From, Their eyes meeting the world: The drawings and paintings of children. New York: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 0-12, 40-48

Dyson, Anne Haas. "The trials and tribulations" of Emily and other media misses: Text as dialogic medium," In Writing superheroes: Contemporary childhood, popular culture and classroom literacy (Teachers College, 1997), pp. 86-112

Herndon, James. (1971). From, How to survive in your native land. New York: Simon and Schuster, 22-51.

Wakefile, Hollida & Underwager, Ralph. "The application of images in child abuse investigations." In Jon Prosser, Ed. Image-based research: A sourcebook for qualitative researchers. (Falmer, 1998), pp. 176-194)


American Studies 152: Spring 2000 Assignments and Readings





Work Due


April 4-6

Childhood and Children’s Lives


April 6: Bring children’s artifact to class



Recollected Childhoods:

Adult accounts of their former selves

















April 18: First paper draft



April 20-- First paper final due



Projective Childhoods:

Adult investments in shaping children’s welfare

Best, Threatened Children 1-6








Best, Threatened Children 7-9

Wakefile & Underwager-R



May 2 — Second paper draft



May 4 --Second paper final due



Folk Culture and Mass Culture:

Children’s lives in context

White, Material Child 1-5






White, Material Child 6-8

Hethorn & Kaiser-SKW


May 16--Group project due


May 18 — Commentary due



Families, Neighborhoods and Institutions :

Children’s lives in context






May 25 — Third paper draft due


May 30- June 1


Rich & Chalfen-SKW




May 30 --Third paper final due


June 6-8

Imagining Children in America’s Future


June 12th 12:00 noon

Take-home exam due


* ‘R’ = Reader; ‘SKW’ = "Seeing Kids’ Worlds"