Coming Fall 2013: True Crime!

Update: Please note this course syllabus has been modified significantly. You can find the most recent version here. (8/24/13)

I’ve spent a fair amount of time proclaiming how awesome Paul Bond during last semester’s Hardboiled Freshman Seminar. But proclamations are one thing, taking it all to the next level is another, and that is what Paul and I will be doing this Fall when we morph the Hardboiled class into a survey seminar of 300 years of crime non-fiction in the U.S. It’s a course-de-force that will explore and analyze the cultural transformations of crime from the colonial period until now.

Paul has already posted some ideas for media-inspired assignments, and I’m psyched by the possibilities. And what’s really cool is that we just got the official go-ahead from the Freshman Seminar committee to frame two major assignments for the course as full-on produced television episodes. At mid-semester and during the final’s week we will  broadcast three live episodes (six in all) that will be created by three groups of five students (we may switch up groups after mid-term depending on the work relationships). The TV episodes themselves need to adopt a particular format and use it to frame specific research they have done, interview preeminent scholars in the field, as well as inject some creative takes and mashups on the literature we’ve read. I’m really excited about the possibilities with this. We alos are keeping the Wikipedia article research assignment as part of the course—a carry over from Hardboiled—and we hope to plan and execute this even better this time around.

We have an approved syllabus that we may still fine-tune and change-up a few readings (or even cull parts depending upon the timing), but I love the fact that UMW continues to provide a space to experiment with teaching and creating within a first year seminar experience. Take the jump for the full syllabus—it’s actually one week too many, so Paul and I have to talk about what we might cut, any ideas? [It just struck me while formatting the syllabus for this post that we could just as well end the class with OJ Simpson’s murder trial as we could the memoir on gang violence in L.A. during the 1990s. Hmmmm. Recommendations on all fronts would be appreciated 🙂 ]

True Crime: America’s Most Wanted                                                                                            Fall 2013
Mtg. Times and places: TR, 6:00 PM – 7:15pm; Room: duPont 310
Professors: Jim Groom & Paul Bond
Office hours: duPont 310 from 5:00 PM – 6:00 PM or by appointment

Course Description

Over the course of our 15-week term, we will examine the history of True Crime in North America as narrative form from the colonial period up and until the TV series America’s Most Wanted. The particular strain of American non-fiction that we will consider over the course of the semester has been recently termed “True Crime,” ostensibly distinguishing it from the abundance of fictional crime narratives that have seduced readers’ imaginations for the last three centuries. This class will trace the roots of this non-fiction from Puritan execution narratives to 19th century gang narratives to the “golden age” of the form with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me. All the while, analyzing the changing intellectual landscape over the last 300 years surrounding questions of gender, class, race, and morality in relationship to crime. This seminar will attempt to examine how a culture’s changing relationship to “real life” crime narratives over the last 300 years can help us understand the fundamental and complex role criminality plays in defining a people at any given point in time. Course requirements include an ongoing class blog, in-class participation, a midterm, two produced TV shows, and a Wikipedia-based research project.

Required Texts

Course Policy

ATTENDANCE: Attendance is mandatory. You will be allowed no more than 2 absences.  Your grade will be lowered one full letter after each additional absence, unless you have a documented medical excuse. Since your participation is essential, if you are absent 3 or more times, even with a medical excuse, you will need to withdraw from the course.  Be sure to come to class on time. Late arrivals are disruptive and distracting.

READING: I expect everyone to have completed ALL of the assigned reading by the start of each class session, and to be prepared to discuss it in class. For a schedule of readings, consult the course calendar (below).  This class is relatively reading-heavy averaging 150-300 pages a week, so make sure that you can handle your responsibilities. We can’t have an interesting, engaging, and productive class if folks don’t do the reading.  Moreover, the TV productions and research projects will be based on the reading.  Do the reading!

PLAGIARISM: Plagiarism is defined as using the ideas or writings of others and passing them off as your own.  Such practice will result in an F for the course and possible disciplinary action from the University. Familiarize yourself with methods of avoiding unintentional plagiarism when quoting or paraphrasing another’s work. We will discuss these in class.

Requirements and Grades

Your grade will be based on your regular class participation, blogging, two TV projects, as well as a final Wikipedia-based research project.

PARTICIPATION: Participation is required.  I ask that you take an active part in class discussion both in the classroom and on the course blog so that we can make class time lively and interesting.  This means engaging in lively discussion about the readings in class and in the commentary on each other’s sites. The importance of this cannot be overstated given it will be 20% of your grade.

Blogging: Each student will be expected to keep an online space that you will control and maintain to regularly reflect, critique, and share your thoughts about the material we read regularly over the course of the semester. Each student is expected to regularly blog their thoughts about the reading, and everyone is encouraged to use this space to develop a sense of voice, share their findings on various topics, and generally engage the ideas and one another over the course of the semester. These blogs are to be openly accessible, and they will also represent your ongoing work for thsi class.

The True Crime TV Project: Two times over the course of the semester each student will work as part of group to produce a True Crime show reporting on the crimes we have read in a particular fashion. You all will be expected to write, produce and broadcast these shows, they can interview contemporary scholars, create satires, or generally engage the material in interesting and creative ways. Each group will produce two such shows, one at the mid-term period and another during the final period. In addition to the wikipedia project, that will be a reflection of your thinking about the material, your research, and a generally familiarity with the course themes. More technical information on producing this project to follow.

Wikipedia Research Project: Modeled on Jon Beasley-Murray’s radical work in the Spring of 2008,  Our collective goal will be to bring a selection of articles on True Crime narratives we have read about to featured article status (or as near as possible). By project’s end, we will have researched and contributed to at least five Wikipedia articles that do not have a good or featured article status on Wikipedia currently. More details on this project will follow as the semester gets underway.

Your final grade will be calculated according to the following percentages:

Blog Work                                                                                    20%
Class Participation                                                                      20%
True Crime TV Project                                                               30%
Final Wikipedia Research Project                                            30%

Very Tentative Course Calendar

Week 1: Introductions and a brief overview of True Crime as genre
Tue: Introductions Syllabus Review
Thu:     Introduction to the True Crime Genre
*Hand-out/reading from Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature
*Harold Schechter’s Introduction to True Crime: An Anthology

Week 2: Section 1: Colonial Crime
Tue: Cotton Mather’s Crime Sermons

Thu: Sexuality, Crime, and Gender

Week 3: Public Execution: Discipline and Punish
Tue: Michel Foucault’s “The Body of the Condemned”

Thu: Pyrates, Negroes, and Thieves

Week 4:  The American Bloody Register: Crime Publishing in the Early Republic

Tue.      The American Bloody Register

Thu.     Benjamin Franklin “The Murder of a Daughter”

**Introduce Wikipedia Research project

Week 5: Section 2: The 19th Century’s Encyclopedic Approach to Crime on Display
Tue:     An Encyclopedia of Crime

Thu:     Crime on Display

Week 6: Press and True Crime as National News
Tue.    Crime as National News

Thu.    Crime as International News

Week 7: Gang Violence, Street Life, and Gaslight Realism
Tue. Excerpts from Herbert Asbury’s Gangs of New York
Thu. Murder Ballads

  • Poor Naomi, Stackalee, The Murder of Grace Brown, Belle Gunness
  • The Murder at Fall River, Trail’s End

**Follow-up on groups and progress with Wikipedia Research project

Week 8: Video Shows of True Crime

Week 9: The Emergence of the Psychopath
Tue H. L. Mencken  “More and Better Psychopaths”
Thu Joseph Mitchell “Execution”

Week 10: Trials or No
Tue    Jack Webb The Black Dahlia
Thu    Zora Neale Hurston “The Trial of Ruby McCollum”

Week 11: The 1950s — True Crime as Pop Art Emerges
Tue: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1st Half)
Thu: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (2nd Half)

**First draft of Wikipedia Research article due

Week 12:  The 1960s and The Manson Murders
Tue     Helter Skelter (1st Half)
Thu    Helter Skelter (2nd Half)

Week 13: Serial Killers
Tue     The Stranger Beside Me (1st Half)
Thu     The Stranger Beside Me (2nd Half)
**Final Draft of Wikipedia Article Due

Week 14: Mafia, Movies, and the Wiseguy
Tue Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy (1st Half)
Thu Nicholas Pileggi’s Wiseguy (2nd Half)

Week 15: Memoir As True Crime
Tue  James Ellroy’s My Dark Places
Thu James Ellroy’s My Dark Places

Week 16: Modern Day Monsters
Tue Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (1st Half)
Thu Sanyika Shakur’s Monster: The Autobiography of an L.A. Gang Member (2nd Half)

The Course Final Exam period will be dedicated to the second round of video presentations



This entry was posted in True Crime and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Coming Fall 2013: True Crime!

  1. Pingback: The Ice Man Killeth or, Dr Oblivion….is that you? | bavatuesdays

  2. Pingback: Lyall Watson in ‘Dark Nature’ quoted in ‘Fiend: The Shocking True Story of America’s Youngest Serial Killer’ by Harold Schechter | Rafferty's Rules

  3. Pingback: bavatuesdays episode 1: Black Sunday | bavatuesdays

  4. Pingback: Black Sabbath: What is Browning to Bava? | bavatuesdays

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.