Historical Object

This is an extended independent study project. Sign up for your topic on Blackboard.

Annotated bibliography due Mon., Oct 27 (template)
Review essay due Fri., Nov. 7 (draft); Mon., Nov. 10 (revised)
Historical ad study (a blog post) due Monday, Dec. 1
Ad campaign to be presented during the week of Dec. 1


Beginning your research

Each student will choose an object, invented or discovered before 1990, that has changed the way we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel, or the way we think about seeing, hearing, etc.

You should begin your research with general questions, such as:

  • What led to its invention?
  • Did everyone use it the way it was intended to be used? (Recall Claude Fischer on the telephone.)
  • Whose lives did it change the most? (Youths or older adults? Working women or stay-at-home mothers? The mainstream or the margins of society?)
  • In what ways did the new technology reflect older social values, norms, or expectations? (Recall Jessica Sewell on the bachelor pad and Maggie Lange on feminine-sounding robots.)
  • In what ways did it shift those values? (Recall Aimee Mullins and Sara Hendren on prosthetics, or Carlo Ginzburg on fingerprinting)
  • Environmental and health concerns

Once you narrow down your sources and begin the literature review, you should have a more specific question in mind–one that excites you and that isn’t immediately obvious.



Annotated bibliography

There should be at least 6 sources, of which at least 3 are scholarly and peer-reviewed, and at least 2 disciplines or professions are represented. Each entry must follow the MLA rules for listing works cited. Pay attention to the difference between books and journal articles, and between print and web sources.

I recommend that you follow the template for annotated bibliographies (PDF). You can either create a table like the one in the example, or include the same information in paragraphs. [Instructions for building tables in Word, Google Docs, OpenOffice].

Rubric (PDF)


Review essay

Unlike your bibliography, where each item stood on its own, the review essay is a synthesis of what you’ve read. (In general, a “literature review” appears near the beginning of a longer work, as a way of signaling the discoveries that have led up to your own work. A “review essay” is published as a stand-alone article.) “A review generally supposes that the audience has not the read the book, and considers whether it is worth your (the reader’s) time and money. A review essay is less constrained by the need to judge, operating more at the level of an idea […]. It may take its cues from the work in question – or (even better) a cluster of related works – but does not necessarily need to remain bound by them, or do them full justice. […] In any case, the review essay should be worth reading in its own right – but then again, so should a good review.” –Hedley Twidle

Write a review essay concentrating on 2 or 3 sources which pertain to your chosen object. At least one source should be scholarly. The others may be either scholarly, journalistic, or primary (movies, blogs, legal documents, etc.). Develop an argument about these pieces of writing. It should have something to do with your object, but it probably won’t be only about that object, nor exhaust every aspect of it (this isn’t Wikipedia). For example, if my chosen object were the telephone, my review essay might be titled “Teenagers and Phones: A Century of Moral Panic,” “The Cultural and Political Significance of Eavesdropping” or “What Makes a Voice ‘Comforting’?”

Here are a few starting questions you might find helpful :

  • Did people ever disagree over the definition or use of your object? Where do you stand, after the reading you’ve done?
  • Identify key trends or theories that swerved the study or representation of X. (This is different from listing inventions or events that physically altered X.)
  • Do public perceptions of X square with academic understandings of it? Why or why not? (Science fiction can be very good for this kind of questions.)
  • Think about the way the authors’ profession, academic discipline, and/or methods (e.g., rhetorical analysis, laboratory testing, data mining) informs their approach to X.

You can use the articles by Deborah Cameron, John Plotz, and Sigrid Schmalzer as models, but above all, choose a structure that makes sense to you.

Choose articles/books around which you can draw a meaningful comparison. These will express a distinct opinion, advance a theory, or narrate a personal experience. A source which contributes no research or viewpoint of its own (e.g., “The 10 coolest cameras ever designed,” or “Stages in the development of the flu vaccine”) will not work well.


Ultimately, your exposition and comparison of the texts is more important than the thesis statement (which should be clear nonetheless).

Length: 1000-1500 words (4-6 double-spaced pages). Include a Works Cited list in MLA format.

A complete or near-complete draft is due on Friday, November 7, for in-class workshop (submit on Blackboard and bring 4 hard copies).

Revision due on Monday, November 10, at 9:00 on Blackboard.



Historical ad study

Guidelines (PDF)
Due Monday, Dec. 1, at 9:00. Post on the class blog. You can include links to the original ads, but don’t upload images to this page.



Ad campaign

Imagine that your object has just been invented. To whom would you market it? How would you make it alluring to those groups of people? Design an ad campaign and present it to the class. Aim for a 3-5 minute presentation, with 2-3 minutes for Q&A. The project is due in hard or digital form the day of your presentation. Sign up for a time slot in your class section: 8:00 class, 9:00 class, 1:00 class.

Evaluation criteria

  • Understanding of cultural contexts: This assignment doesn’t ask for a direct analysis of source materials, but what you’ve learned over the last two assignments should still be evident. How would you improve upon the advertising strategies of the past? All of your choices, including the medium of the advertisement, must be justifiable.
  • Effort and ethos: I don’t expect you to have the skills of a professional artist, but I do expect you to have put some time and thought into the way your presentation looks and sounds. You convey a sense of credibility by making eye contact, speaking at an even pace, being in control of any supporting materials, and answering any questions appropriately.
  • Pathos and creativity: This project requires you to make something old seem new. You might try to evoke any number of emotions (laughter, nostalgia, fright, etc.). Treat your classmates as potential customers or investors. Hint: if you’re bored, you’ll bore the audience.
    Students can also lift their participation grade by asking specific, pointed questions and offering constructive feedback.