Issues in Modern America: The Information Wars

Syllabus, Spring 2003


Jeff Gundy

Centennial Hall 318—ph. 3283 or 358-5425 (before 10 p.m.)


Course web page:


Life in the Information Wars. To act responsibly in the world, we need reliable information. There is no shortage of information in These Modern Times; in fact, as we all know, there’s too much—no one person can possibly read/view, much less assimilate, all the data that is produced and transmitted daily through the various media, much less catch up with the vast and ever-increasing stockpile of earlier knowledge and information. Much of the data available is produced by people with some kind of vested interest—political, economic, religious, etc.—in influencing our images of the world. But those vested interests are often not made clear.


We can’t know everything, and yet we have to act in the world. Without knowledge we’re merely blundering through the dark without a map or a light. Ignorance is no excuse, according to the law, but how do we avoid it? If we want to be responsible members of American society and the human community,  I would suggest, we need somehow to be intelligent bystanders, if not actual participants, in the information wars. We must learn to sort out what’s reliable, relevant, and useful from what isn’t.


This course will consist of an experiment in exploring information. I will provide some of it, through the assigned texts and films. You all will contribute, not only by reading and viewing those sources but by exploring, evaluating, and sharing other sources of information. By the end of the course we will have created an expanded set of resources on issues in modern America, still relatively small but chosen with some self-awareness, that we have found to be valuable and at least relatively trustworthy.


Some premises. First, I assume that all sources of information and opinion are “situated” somewhere, come from a person or organization with some particular set of reasons for producing and distributing information. Thus there are no totally “objective” sources.


Part of our task as consumers of information, then, is to evaluate sources, to examine their assumptions, premises, values, and biases. What sources do they use? How careful are they to provide evidence for their claims, and how convincing is that evidence? What do we find when we check into their ideas and look for our own evidence to confirm or counter what they say?


I trust most those sources that are clear about their own biases and make an effort to provide evidence for their assertions that I can check out on my own. Like everyone else, I also tend to trust most those sources that share my own values and opinions. Thus I personally find sources that favor reconciliation over militarism and define “us” as widely as possible more congenial than those that recommend unilateral violent strategies for dealing with problems. But I try my best to pay close and respectful attention to sources that challenge my own views; that is, indeed, one of the main things that education is about.


Procedures: We will begin with the Juhnke and Hunter book The Missing Peace, and spend several weeks reading through it. It presents a view of American history that is frankly unusual, that challenges the kind of history most of us learn in school. We will read it not as “the truth” but in light of the approach outlined above: as a source of information to be examined, discussed, and tested against what else we know and can find out.

See Appendix A for information about the course journals, an important part of class.


We will read three other books: The Color Purple by Alice Walker, War Memorials by Clint McCown, and Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. As we read and discuss these texts, we will also use them as the basis for discussing the wider issues and realities that they contain and suggest. Color Purple, for example, deals with race, but gender, family structure, and economic issues are perhaps even more important to it. War Memorials will lead us into discussion of the lingering effects of wartime experience—even when that experience is rarely mentioned aloud. Nickel and Dimes will enable us to explore issues of economics, labor, and justice in contemporary America.


We will also view the films Platoon, Do the Right Thing, and Bowling for Columbine (if it’s available on video in time). Each of these movies presents its own provocative set of images and information about issues in modern America.


A Side Note: I hope and expect that some of you will sometimes be skeptical of the perspectives of Juhnke and Hunter and the other authors we read, and will search out sources that call their versions of American history and society into question. I hope that we will accumulate a wide range of perspectives and ideas. All I ask is that you look for responsible, well-documented, well-argued materials, and that you be willing to consider adjusting your own views in small or large ways in response to what we find. I expect the same of myself.


The other major class activities will include a research project  or service learning project (see Appendix B1 and B2) and a poster presentation of the results of that project (see Appendix C).


The course web site, located at, has a wide variety of links and information: this syllabus, many research and news links, and lesson plans and materials from earlier courses, including a very similar version I taught in spring 2002.


Regular attendance and timely completion of all course assignments are expected. Grades will be lowered for late assignments, and more than minimal absence will affect your grade.


This course takes place under the Bluffton College Honor System; it is expected that you do your own work on all course activities and give proper credit for all sources that you use.


Evaluation will be based on these activities:


Five Responses                        20%

Project sections (3x5%)           15

Complete Project                     15

Poster Presentation                   10

Midterm Exam              15

Final Exam                               25

            Total                          100%



Appendix A: Responses


The class will be divided into four groups, and members of one group will respond to the reading every fourth class day (i.e. every other Tuesday or Thursday). Email your response (ca. 300-400 words, about one typed double-spaced page) to the reading for that day to by 8:00 a.m. 


These responses will serve at least three purposes: first, they will encourage you to read actively, to respond to the readings before we consider them in class, and to explore for materials related to the events and ideas that the readings present. Second, they will help me to prepare for class and to shape the discussion in light of your reactions and the materials you discover. Third, they will help you to take a more active part in class discussions.


The responses should be similar to the journals many of you have done for First Year Seminar or other classes. They need not be carefully constructed essays, but should be thoughtful and substantial responses to whatever elements of the reading seem most interesting or controversial to you. “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” may be a starting point, but the focus should be on analysis and reflection rather than simple evaluation. I especially encourage you, given the nature of this course, to think about the readings in connection with current events and issues. A good deal of our class time will be spent exploring such connections as well.


I will use your responses to prepare for class, and will often ask you to talk to the whole class about what you said and what you found, so print out a copy of your response and bring it with you. I will also place these responses and links on the course web site, so that we will accumulate a set of resources that we can all make use of.


            -See the end of the syllabus for a list of group members.

            -Due dates are noted on the course schedule.


Appendix B1.  Paper Assignment and Guidelines.


A.  The paper itself:  This assignment will culminate in a 12-14 page term paper on some contemporary American social issue. This paper will describe the issue, including its historical origins, and will present some possible solutions or new representations that have been offered to solve this problem.  Lastly, the paper will evaluate both the issue and these different solutions in light of your own ethical/religious framework. You will be free to decide on the particular problem you would like to analyze, and the particular angle you'd like to explore, but choose a significant topic and focus it carefully. This should be a substantial piece of research and thinking. For instance, you might examine:


·      the rise (and recent decline) in crime rates; or more specific aspects, such as the problem of crime in the African American community or the ways crime and violence are represented in the media.

·      fictional violence in American media (movies, tv, etc.) and its relation to “real” violence.

·      the causes and shape of homelessness in America, or a focus on the homeless in particular.

·      the moral and policy implications of homosexuality and the struggle to represent gays, lesbians, and other non-heterosexuals orientation in various ways (e.g. the “God hates fags” movement and the Gay Pride movement).

·      the continuing effects of Vietnam as a powerful symbolic event in recent American history, social experiences of Vietnam veterans during the war and its long aftermath, resistance to the war and its ongoing effects.

·      the rise and (seeming) fall of affirmative action, or the current argument that race no longer matters.

·      issues related to gender, feminism, the “men’s movement,” and related matters.

·      issues related to the Sept. 11 attacks, the “war on terrorism,” domestic security policies, etc.


Whatever the topic, pick something that interests you; you will spend a lot of time on it this semester.  Also, consider your approach to the topic carefully.  The course will explore numerous disciplinary approaches to issues (history, sociology, psychology, literary studies, communication, etc.).  Your paper should use whatever combination of approaches you find most useful in developing a deep understanding of your particular issue and possible solutions.


B.      Stages of the paper: This paper is due in FOUR stages; please make a note of these due dates and adhere to them faithfully.  Your final grade on this assignment will be lowered for every day that you are late for any one of these due dates.


1.     The first stage, 1-2 typewritten pages: a topical statement. What is the particular contemporary social issue you'll be focusing on? Why does it interest you?  What directions do you envision your study taking?  What particular aspects of the problem will you consider, and why? What do you already know about the topic, and what do you still need to discover?  MOST importantly, this statement must include 3-5 bibliographical citations of sources beyond the class material that you might rely on in your research.  (Use standard MLA format.) Browse these sources before writing your topic statement to get an overview of the subject, what kinds of information are available, what the main issues/debates in the area are, etc.  This topical statement is due at the beginning of class on Thursday, Feb. 6.


NOTE:  Material found on the Internet (World-Wide Web) must be evaluated rigorously and used carefully.  Web sources will enrich many of your projects, but do not expect to rely solely, or even mainly, on Web sources.  Because Musselman Library is now part of OhioLink, books and journal articles are easily available from other libraries, usually in two or three days, and a wide range of data-bases are also easily accessible.  You can access the OhioLink catalog through the library’s web page; for further help, contact the library staff.


2.     The second stage, 3-4 typewritten pages:  historical overview of the issue.  What are the historical roots of the problem you are exploring?  How and why did the issue develop into a pressing one in contemporary America?  What depictions of the issue have been most important in creating the public image of the problem?  This overview should take the shape of a smaller paper in itself, with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Cite your sources clearly and include a Works Cited list. (Please note that you should focus on more recent historical developments – WWII and afterwards.)  Due at the beginning of class on Tuesday, March 18.


3.     The third stage, 3-4 typewritten pages:  lay out possible solutions and/or policy options that have been offered for the issue you are exploring. In describing and summarizing these options, present opposing or conflicting solutions and representations.  You should convey a sense of the range of solutions and policy options that have been offered, and present the various options clearly and objectively. Again, cite your sources and include a list of Works Cited. Due at the beginning of class on Tuesday, April 1.


4.     The fourth stage, 12-14 typewritten pages:  the final paper.  For evidence, this paper should draw on both the class material and AT LEAST SIX OTHER SOURCES BEYOND THE CLASS MATERIAL (again, web sites must be evaluated rigorously and used carefully).  The final paper should have four main sections: an introduction; a historical overview of the issue; a description of possible solutions and policy options; and an evaluation of these options and controversies in light of your own value framework (which of these solutions/options do you find most acceptable or most objectionable?  why?  how does your response evolve out of your own value framework?); and a conclusion. NOTE:  You should be able to integrate material that you have written in stages one, two and three into the first three sections of your final paper, and make use of comments on the pieces you submit during the quarter to improve the final paper.


The final paper is due at the beginning of class on Tuesday, April 23.



Appendix B2: Service Learning Assignment

            This option is to do tutoring at the WORTH Center in Lima or another site as an alternative to the four-stage term paper described in Appendix B1.  Since this assignment replaces the research paper, it will also be worth 30% of your grade in total.

            The WORTH (Western Ohio Regional Treatment and Habilitation Center) Center provides education in academic subjects and life skills, as well as chemical dependency counseling if needed, to residents who have committed a felony but are non-violent, often first-time offenders. These often include people arrested for DUI, first offense trafficking in drugs, and other crimes who are not considered high-security risks and are good candidates to get their lives back on track.  It is located at  243 E. Blue Lick Rd in Lima, (across the street from Lima Correctional Institute).  The Center needs tutors to help its residents in basic reading and writing skills, mostly in preparation for the G.E.D.

            If you would like to pursue this option instead of the term paper, then you will need to decide so within the first two weeks of the course. Here are the criteria that you’ll need to meet:


1. Complete 10-15 hours of tutoring/service work over the course of the semester (students who complete nearer to 15 than 10 hours can expect to see this reflected in their grade). You will have some flexibility in arranging when you’re able to tutor, but once you’ve made a commitment to a certain number of hours and a particular schedule, we will expect you to keep that commitment. 


2. Keep a course journal  on your experiences there.  The general rule of thumb will be to journal 1-2 pages for each of your tutoring sessions.  Here are some questions you might address in your journal:


What kind of people did I expect to encounter, and are my initial expectations being fulfilled?  What surprises have I encountered?  How did my students end up in trouble -- what factors in their lives led them to this place? How do those factors contrast with the circumstances that led me to Bluffton College?  What are their attitudes towards education?  Can I perceive any changes in these attitudes?  What specific events or encounters seem most important, confusing, or meaningful? What might what I observe teach me about the American criminal justice system?  About matters of class, race and gender? Are these students being rehabilitated – what do you make of their future life chances?  Do you think this program is successful -- is it a good use of taxpayer money?  Do you see changes in the residents?


I will collect your journals at three different points in the semester (the same days that I collect parts of the research paper assignment).  Your completed journal will be due on the last day of class, Wednesday, Dec. 5.


3. You will also write a short (4-5 page, typewritten, double-spaced) paper in which you evaluate your experience and connect it to some of the wider issues in Modern America that we’ve been discussing as a class.  For example, you are quite likely to encounter issues like drug addiction, racism, poverty, child abuse, or the limitations imposed by social class. In this paper you should explore how you saw these issues affecting the lives of the individuals that you encounter, and reflect on what you have learned from these individuals about ways of addressing these social issues.  You may want to quote selectively from your journal, but you also will want to make explicit connections to the course material and perhaps to some outside research as well.


In sum, this option provides you with a different but equally rewarding avenue to learning about Issues in Modern America.  If any aspects of this assignment are unclear, or if I can be of any help to you as you complete this assignment, please don’t hesitate to contact me.


Appendix C. Guidelines for Poster Presentation & Poster Presentation Days


Designing your poster presentation….

1.     The poster needs to fit in a 43 inch (width) X 32 inch (length) space.

2.     Include the title of your paper/topic and your name at the top of the poster.

3.         Remember that the medium for your presentation is visual.  This means you should think in the same terms as you might think of a Powerpoint presentation.  Long typed paragraphs of text do not tend to work well in this medium.  Instead, short lists and/or comments (that you could then explain in more depth to those reviewing your poster), pictures or graphics will work best here.  I would be happy to consult with you if you have questions re: what to include in your poster presentation.

4.  Use large print! Imagine trying to read this from 3 feet away!

5.         Be selective: what are the most important/interesting things you learned? Perhaps some striking details from your historic overview, and a bulleted list of the policy options/solutions?

6.         If you choose the tutoring option, your poster presentation should be a kind of preview of your final paper: it should focus on a particular issue or issues that you encountered during your tutoring experience. 

The goal of a poster presentation is to stimulate interest in the work that you have done among the people attending the poster presentation.  You know that you have done a good job of this when people stop to ask you questions!


On the day that you’re presenting your poster….

1.     The posters will be displayed on bulletin boards in the Marbeck Center Kiva.  Pushpins will be provided.  You should be at Marbeck Kiva a few minutes before class time to set up your poster. 

2.     You will need to be available in the Kiva during the regular class period to discuss your paper with your classmates and with any other visitors to the exhibit. 

3.         You should exhibit a professional attitude when discussing your topic with others. 


On the day you aren’t presenting your poster…

1.     Be at the Kiva during class time to look at your classmates’ posters and engage them in discussion. 

2.         Exhibit a professional attitude when discussing other students’ work with them.

3.         Write a brief summary of your reaction/response to at least three of your classmates’ poster presentations and turn this in by the end of the poster session.


Grades for poster presentations will be based on….

1.     the quality of your display, both in terms of presentation format (how the poster looks) & its content. 

2.     the quality of your response to questions/discussion by your classmates & other visitors.

3.         the quality of your responses to your classmates’ poster presentations.


Course Schedule Spring 2003 (Subject to Change)


Tuesday                                                                                 Thursday                                              

1/7 Course Introduction


1/9 Read Zinn, from “The American Ideology” and Needleman on “Founding America” at

Group A responses

1/14 MP 9-51


Group B responses

1/16 MP 53-102                    


Group C responses

1/21 MP 103-138


Group D responses

1/23 MP 139-174



1/28 MP 175-214



1/30 MP 215-254



2/4 Platoon

(showing to be scheduled)


2/6 MP 255-276


Topic Statements Due

2/11 Color Purple

2/13 Color Purple



2/18 CP



2/20 CP



2/25 Review and catch-up



2/27 Midterm Exam




3/11 War Memorials


A & B

3/13 WM



3/18  WM


D Historical Overview Due

3/20 Nickel and Dimed



3/26 Nickel and Dimed



3/27 Nickel and Dimed



4/1 Do the Right Thing

(showing to be scheduled)

D Possible Solutions/Policy Options Due

4/3 Catch up/ Planning Last Weeks

4/8  Poster Sessions


4/10  Poster Sessions



4/15 Final Explorations and Conversations


4/17 Final Explorations and Conversations



4/23 Final Explorations and Conversations


Final Paper Due