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Skidmore College
American Studies Department

Senior Seminar Topic Proposals

Fall 2010 

Preety Aujla
Black Gangs Fight for Legitimacy: A Marginalized Group’s Struggle to Politicize in the 1960s

Gangs are often characterized as sub cultural or illegitimate social groups unable to foster positive development within their communities. Before 1960 black gangs were excluded from formal political and social groups that subsequently isolated the larger black community from American society. During the 1960s black gang leaders were able to transform the role of some gangs into a community building organization with the help of philanthropic organizations and Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society programs. I argue, however, that the increased concentration of black political power and militancy of certain gangs overshadowed the economic achievements of black gangs, which ultimately led to their short-lasting period as a positive social force in American society. Black gangs today suffer from isolation from the formal political and social networks of their cities and warfare on the streets which minimizes their role as a cooperative social group and maximizes internal damage within their black communities.

Brian Connor
Reflections from a Neon Martini Sign: The Symbolism of Cocktails in American Culture

The ways in which people drink are telling of the social constructions and arrangements they create for themselves. Drinking is an outward manifestation and reflection of culture, of how people define their place within the world. I have examined how the cocktail serves as a symbol constructed by dominant thought forms in American culture. Recent reincarnations of cocktail culture represent a self-reflexive, rethinking of traditional social hegemony, and national, personal, and historical identity. The martini and other classic cocktails have been supplanted by a variety of new cocktails which reflect our society’s own shifting attitudes toward traditional social structures.

Elise Fariello
Defining the Millennials: Generational Memory, Identity, and the 21st Century

“Generational Memory” is a cultural phenomenon by which individuals of a particular generation or age-group form a cohesive, collective identity based on shared memories. This generational memory bank can be used to understand the values and create unique identities for a generation. In this paper I examine the functions of generational memory and identity in American culture. Specifically, I explore how we can characterize the current generation of 18-22 year olds by the collective memories they share. I accomplished this by asking 97 students what their most prominent memories of the past ten years are. Through analyzing this data I make preliminary assessments of who this generation is shaping up to be. 

Rainey Ferdinand 
Generation Y: The Impact of Television as a Socialization Agent on the Adviser-Consumer Relationship 

My paper studies the consumerist impulse of Generation Y, especially the ways in which materialism and technology have influenced cultural identity. I focus especially on media advertising, parenting and peer pressure as socializing agents for a generation that has gained the reputation as more narcissistic and self-centered than even the Me-generation.

Suzie Finkel
Managing Superficiality: Corporate Diversity and the New paradigm of Workplace Equality

Corporate employers in the United States have become increasingly concerned with the social diversity of their workplaces. A majority of medium and large size firms have established diversity policies and procedures, and U.S. businesses collectively spend several hundred million dollars per year on diversity training programs. Yet unequal discriminatory employment practices abound. Reoccurring employer-discrimination lawsuits have made it public that institutional underrepresentation and unjust treatment of marginalized social identity groups still thrive in corporate environments.  This paper addresses this paradox through an analysis of the dominant and evolving paradigm of “diversity management.” The fundamental flaws of the contemporary paradigm are exposed through discursive explorations and a social justice critique.. This paper finds that profit-driven rationales and narrow and misguided notions of social equality have contributed to a superficial movement of social progress. These recent conceptual trends in corporate management move further away from amending the institutional hierarchies of power and fail to create widespread, meaningful, and  sustainable change in the corporate sector.

Lavere Foster
Adjusting to Campus Life: The Trials and Tribulations of College Students

My senior seminar paper looks at students at Skidmore College who had trouble adjusting to campus life in their first year, and how those difficulties related to their race, gender, and the neighborhoods from which they came. I went into this research believing that transition problems, from home to college campuses, varied across students’ specific social identities and background locations.  In order to confirm my hypothesis, I surveyed Skidmore students via Survey Monkey. I found out that it is primarily those from “unprivileged identities” who have the most trouble transitioning to college, and my paper explores why.

Leigh Franke
Democracy Comin’ Through!: The Physical Construction and Practice of Building an American Democracy

This paper examines city planning and architecture in Washington D.C. through a political and social lens. Starting with the early design by Pierre Charles L’Enfant and continuing through to later city planning initiatives of the contemporary moment, I discuss street layout, architecture, monuments, redevelopment as part of an architectural history meant to be reflective of American democracy. I also consider public space as the epitome of a democratic space as revealed through protest and activism. Throughout the paper, I question the practice of democracy in the construction Washington D.C. and its symbols.

Kelsey Hastings
Why Americans Hate Soccer (Or at Least Think We Should): Commercialism, Consumerism, and American Fandom

Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, but it has failed to grab the United States in the same way as it has the rest of the globe. Despite continued efforts to establish professional leagues, soccer in America has been relegated to children and teenagers. I argue that this is the result of two pervasive tendencies in American culture at large 1) the habit of viewing non-American sports as “foreign” and therefore un-American; and 2) the American reliance on consumerism to direct our interests. American fandom is dictated as much by commercial culture as it is by personal likes and dislikes, and this relationship between consumerism and fandom has thus far kept soccer on the outskirts of the American periphery. The purpose of this paper is to document these relationships, which I have done by conducting personal interviews, archival research and watching plenty of soccer on television.

Eve Lewis
Spike Lee Does the Right Thing: Redefining Black Cinema

This Senior Seminar paper examines the importance of Spike Lee as a revolutionary black filmmaker who has left a lasting legacy through his thought-provoking cinematic efforts. Lee’s social critiques recapitulate American culture and society in ways that challenge his viewers to be more aware of social injustice, while also making the historical invisibility of the black community in film visible, allowing for representation that is crucial to socio-cultural mobility. To demonstrate the originality and impact of his work, this paper focuses on three of his early films: She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze and Do the Right Thing. Through the consideration of these films, Lee’s many influences and motivations, and the reactions of his audiences (black and white alike), I emphasize the importance of Spike Lee as a creator and leader of socio-cultural paradigm shifts in America.

Kate Neri
America's Most Notorious Cowboy: A Biography of the Marboro Man

The following paper looks at what it means to become a symbol of American culture.  The Marlboro Man, a mythical cowboy created to be the face of Marlboro Cigarettes has become a lasting symbol of American history, culture, and life.  Though he was not a real person, he has come to be just as important to the formation of American identity as any living celebrity figure. I argue that the lives of the imagined heroes of our American past are just as important in making sense of our culture as the living, and that the Marlboro Man is one of the most prominent and most telling American symbols of the last century whose “biography” reveals important things about cultural identity.

Eliza Perkins
Nixon in the 21st Century: A Revisionist's Image

Richard Nixon entered politics as a young and promising congressman and left office thirty years later as the first American president to resign the office. Nixon is remembered for his many bright and important contributions to politics, but he is also demonized and held accountable for the cynicism and corruption in current politics.  Over the course of his tenure in American politics and in the period after his inglorious fall and later in death, Nixon’s image has changed. He is still the subject of comedic critique but a revisionist spirit has also emerged since his death. The memory of Nixon begins with his encouraging future as a statesman, evolves into the portrait of a reviled disgraced president, and ends with a more sympathetic although still ambivalent portrayal. This dissertation assesses Nixon’s image as it moves through these phases and tries to account for its variability.

Courtney Spiller
Impenetrable Silence: The Absence of Black Gay Men in Visual Media

Gay black men have mostly been excluded from visual media, especially television. Using examples from network sitcoms, documentary film, feature films, and reality television I will explore the images of gay black men that exist in media and speculate as to why there are not more. I delve into the different factors that contribute to the invisibility of gay black men on television, including the role of producers, the receptions of audiences, and the perceptions of black communities, all of which contribute to the silence that black gay men endure. Through this paper I hope to have found concrete answers to the question: where are the black gay men in visual media? And What does their absence mean for American cultural identities.

Alex Stavrou
New American Literature: The Role of Serialized Television in the 21st Century

For this paper I examined three television series, The Sopranos, Mad Men, and The Wire and how their heavily serialized nature allows them to tell more complex and interesting stories that require more attention from their viewers compared to episodic television. Serialized television like this is a new artistic medium that has become prevalent in the twenty-first century, telling stories in a way that historically was only told in books. I argue that these series will eventually be studied and have the same cultural implications as books and films.

Eliza Straim
Sexual Assault: At Skidmore and America’s College Campuses

Sexual assault is the number one underreported crime in the United States, and colleges are not the safe havens they were once thought to be. From experiences in my own life and incidents I have witnessed while at Skidmore and traveling abroad, I have developed a passionate interest in the prevention and control of sexual violence. This interest developed into my thesis when Skidmore became a hot bed of talk and activism concerning the revision of the Sexual Assault Policy this semester. In the summer of 2009, two women were allegedly sexually assaulted. When the case was brought to Skidmore’s Administrative Hearing Board, the alleged assailant was found to be not guilty. Throughout this trial, the Skidmore administration and community realized that the old sexual assault policies were antiquated and had been neglected. In November of 2010, a revised and more victim-centered policy was release. In this paper I ask: what makes a college take action and improve the safety of its community? Policies can become more liberal but direct action must be taken to change effectively the sexual culture and behaviors of students. Only with a pledge from the Skidmore College community to become more responsible citizens and bystanders can sexual violence be minimized. 

Mary Ann Weiss
The Underground Soundtrack: Subway Music Performance Art as a Democratic Movement

My paper first looks at the history of the New York City subway system, especially its construction and expansion, and how its operational structure has transformed over time, focusing on the political, social and cultural context of New York City. I then delve into the subway music subculture, breaking down the history of musical performance in subways and then exploring subway musicians themselves. I discuss what motivates these musicians to perform underground and the various challenges they face every day in pursuing their art. I interviewed three wonderfully charismatic subway musicians to gain insight into this subculture--Lyle Divinsky, Natalia Paruz and Theo Eastwind—all three of whom were a tremendous source of help in providing a richer understanding of this art form. My research also heavily relied on Susie Tanenbaum’s Underground Harmonies, and I had the privilege of speaking with her directly through telephone and email conversations. Lastly, my paper focuses on the MTA’s “Music Under New York” permit process, exploring the benefits it creates for subway music as well as the contradictions and ironies it presents as a regulatory body.

Brooke Williams
“Every Woman Should Have a Blowtorch”: Food and Gender in America

America’s relationship with food is complicated and changing.  Food is dangerous and delightful, indulgent and controversial, vital and captivating; it plays a role in our distinction between amateur and professional, our understanding of what is public and what is private, and our perceptions of gender roles.  The history of food in America reveals a strong binary between male chefs and female cooks, and a view of this history can help us to understand the gendered aspects of food and the social implications of its various incarnations.  From the first American cookbook to today’s cooking (and eating) shows, this project offers a portrait of who cooks, who eats, and what’s on the menu.