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Keywords for American Cultural Studies
Keywords for American Cultural Studies - book cover
what is a keyword assignment?

A keyword is a term that marks a site of significant contestation and disagreement, not consensus. If it can be defined in a stable and agreed-upon way, the term is not a keyword. Keywords reward repeated exploration and reflection because debates and research about culture and society can be enhanced—rather than settled or shut down—by an increased understanding of the genealogies of their structuring terms and the conflicts embedded in differing and even contradictory uses of those terms.

The individual contributors to Keywords for American Cultural Studies found a variety of ways to address the conflicts and contradictions embedded in their keywords. Some began from dictionary definitions or popular usages and complicated them. Others started from existing research conversations about the term and then moved to historical and political examples. Still others worked from a broad sense of archival sources. All of the contributors wound up with essays that discussed the multiple existing and emerging meanings of the term in question. Most marshaled arguments about where research and reflection on the term should go in the future. 

Paying Attention to Usage
Students can be challenged to figure out how to tell the story about shifting usages of a term. One way to start is to push them to pay attention to its usage in what they read and hear. Many keyword assignments ask students to archive and annotate the usage of their keyword in their course readings. The first step can be simply to note where and how often they encounter their keyword. The next step is to ask what the word means in this particular context. After that, they can discuss—in class, online, in the Collaboratory—the links across writers and speakers who share the same approaches, assumptions, or theoretical frameworks, as well as the differences between usages. When they notice these shifts in meaning and usage, they have begun to think through keywords.

Writing a Keyword Essay
Many keyword assignments ask students to produce—individually or collectively—a keyword essay resembling those in the book. A good keyword essay usually includes information about the term's genealogy and links between the term and other keywords. It also contains an argument about the lines of inquiry that usage of the term opens up or closes down. The goal of a keyword project is not to produce an agreed-upon, dictionary-style definition of a word. Rather, it is to generate critical and creative thinking, to inspire work that analyzes and evinces the ways in which keywords are, as Raymond Williams put it, both “binding words in certain activities and their interpretation” and “indicative words in certain forms of thought.” 

The editors of Keywords for American Cultural Studies attempted to capture this complex understanding of words and their usages by asking contributors to address four basic questions as they wrote their entries. These questions may be of use to students as they embark upon a keyword project.

  1. What kinds of critical projects does your keyword enable?

    • In other words, what lines of thought, research agendas, and activist projects have emerged or could develop that emphasize this keyword?

  2. What are the critical genealogies of the term and how do these genealogies affect its use today?

    • It may be useful (like Raymond Williams in his Keywords) to start with the definitions and usage examples from the Oxford English Dictionary. For others, the U.S.-centered usage examples and etymologies in the American Heritage Dictionary may be more helpful. If the keyword assignment is about a word already in the book (or another keywords book), starting from there may be helpful. In some cases the longer etymology may be less essential than the discussion of the term's usage in the specific research conversations that make up the course readings and the ways in which those usages converge or conflict with one another. Also important may be to discuss the way the keyword entered the field covered in the course from another, related research conversation, such as American studies; cultural studies; Marxist theory; ethnic studies; feminist film theory; science studies, etc.

  3. Are there ways of thinking that are occluded or obstructed by the use of this term?

    • This question is an opportunity to explore the limitations and problems raised by usage of the keyword. Put another way, students need not be cheerleaders for their keyword. Some essays in the volume, for instance,  argue that their term has been overused to the point that it is losing its meaning, or that certain metaphorical usages are problematic.

  4. What other keywords constellate around it?

    • In other words, are there closely related keywords that are either similar in meaning or antithetical to the keyword being discussed?

Scope, Archive, and Form
It is important for students to be aware that their keyword assignment has a limited scope and that they are working with a limited archive; there is no way to tell the entire history of a complex word's usage in a short essay. The contributors to Keywords for American Cultural Studies did not write about their keywords' usage in all of American culture; rather, they wrote about its usage in the intersection of two interdisciplinary fields: American studies and cultural studies. 

So, the scope of a keyword assignment may be a specific research undertaking, historical period, or geographic space. The corresponding archive may be limited to the readings of a particular course, a set of ethnographic interviews, the qualifying exam lists of graduate students, or a structured discussion of an ongoing scholarly or popular debate. 
Assignments need not focus only on single terms. Some have combined terms contained in the volume (sex-nation-race), mixed terms in the volume with others that do not appear there (community-participation-ethnography), or worked on new terms (labor) and combinations of new terms (labor-technology). Some projects have produced essays that read like those contained in the volume. Others have diverged from that form by commenting on existing essays, annotating dictionary definitions, or creating archives of textual, audio, or visual materials. We encourage creativity and innovation in these assignments; none of what we write here is meant to be prescriptive or restrictive. 
It is also important to note that keyword essays tend to be quite concise. Contributors to the volume were assigned one of three word ranges (700-1000; 1400-1700, and 2400-2700). Such compression forces students to be synthetic and analytic, rather than imagining that they can be comprehensive.

Consider Using the Keywords Collaboratory
It is possible to construct a keyword assignment that students do individually and write as a standard essay. But we urge you to have a look at the Keywords Collaboratory, which is designed as a space for this kind of assignment and enables students to learn to write collaboratively and publicly. To set up a keyword collaboratory for your class or working group, follow this link.

Further Reading
Read more about the Keywords Collaboratory.

Take a look at the Resources for Instructors page if you are thinking about using the book or the Collaboratory in your course.

Explore sample assignments and syllabi that incorporate keyword essays and the Collaboratory.

Share Your Project
New keyword essays written by students and other researchers in the Collaboratory can be published on this site. If your course or working group has produced a keyword essay or artifact that merits further circulation, please contact us about publishing it on this site and copyrighting it through a Creative Commons license

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