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"An unexamined life is not worth living."
on January 8, 2009
Socrates would be pleased with Signs of Life in the USA, as it questions the implications of the ideologies put forth by the hydra-headed media of the 21st century. Employing semiotic analysis by association and differentiation, the editors offer students an explicable means by which to begin critically examining the popular culture that comes at them from every conceivable direction.
As a professor of writing and popular culture, I have used various editions of Signs of Life over the last ten years with students ranging from timid freshmen to cocky upper-classmen. The reason? I can get them to open the book.
Students love popular culture. They also like to show their friends how much they know about popular culture. Thus, if they are going to be forced to read something, they will more readily read an article that can give them insights on television, movies, music, and video games that they can use immediately in conversation (texted or otherwise). Secondly, the editors approach the students as knowledgeable insiders, validating their experience while teaching them new ways to think about it. The excellent introductions (for the book as a whole and for each chapter) present scholarly, and often historical, approaches to the subject in very clear and accessible prose, yet do so with a tone of mutual curiosity; there is a playfulness that coaxes students out of passivity. One of the greatest challenges in the classroom - particularly in a writing course - is to get students interested. Signs of Life makes this easy.
A most appreciated attribute of the book for me is its great flexibility. While the material is presented in such a logical sequence that one can work systematically through the textbook, there are also recurring themes that weave through the chapters, allowing instructors to carve out courses that meet their own interests and needs. One can emphasize the critical theory or simply focus on the topics. The articles are quite diverse in length, purpose, complexity, style, and viewpoint, providing material for numerous pedagogical goals. It is true that some are typical examples of the obfuscated, jargon-ridden gobblety-gook that so many academics have found de rigure; however, these are juxtaposed to numerous examples of clear, communicative prose. One hopes that students can recognize the difference, emulate the latter, and change the nature of academic writing.
Last semester I used Signs of Life in a freshman composition course; next semester I will use it in an upper division popular culture class. While some readings overlap, the book is rich and diverse enough for me to be able to satisfy two different purposes without having to change texts. One fewer book in the bag (and the mind) is always a help to an over-worked instructor.