IAH 231C: Themes and Issues, Section


Roles of Language in Society

Language as a Cultural Medium


Michigan State University

Professor Ramona Fernandez

Office: 284 Bessey Hall

e-mail: ramona@msu.edu

 Web page: http://www.msu.edu/user/ramona 

Class web page: follow links from above page!!

Office hours: 1-3 Tu and Th and by appointment

Office phone: 517-353-2945 (only useful during office hours)

(You may call me at home after 9 am and before 9 pm,

7 days a week. 

I prefer a phone call to an email.)

Home Phone: 517-367-6060


231C syllabus.html

Course Description

Human language is the controlling medium of culture.  Language can be defined broadly as all systems humans use to communicate meaning.  This course will include an introduction to the science of semiotics.  How does language mean?  One clear answer:  language creates meaning through what most people call metaphor, that is, language is most definitely not literal.  Language is ‘slant’ to use a metaphor from Emily Dickinson.  To be successful in this course you must begin with that realization.  Language is always approximate, tentative and partial.  Language is most definitely not reality, yet it is our major medium of exchange about reality.

This course will seek to introduce students to the power language has to construct our reality. It will attempt to answer the question: how does language mean?  Contemporary theorists in cultural studies have made the case that language is the controlling medium of culture. This course will examine these theories and apply them to American culture, emphasizing the late twentieth century and early twenty first (with an eye towards earlier cultural roots). We will examine how film and the electronic media intersect with our oral and written language and how American culture is composed of multiple intersecting "cultural" and/or "ethnic" "languages" which the media usually reduces to "exotic" or "racialized" images, gender specific images, class specific images, etc..

Individual assistance is always available with or without an appointment.  I look forward to seeing you during office hours.  Please stop in and have a discussion with me.  We have all needed help at some point in our lives.  If you find yourself not understanding readings, concepts, lectures and/or assignments, please set up an appointment with me.  I have other times available if you schedule ahead.  Also, lunch and ‘coffee’ breaks are possible sometimes before or after class.

Required Textbooks

None.  On line readings will be available through ANGEL.

Professor's Biography

I was born seven miles from Manhattan in Northern New Jersey. After earning my Bachelor’s Degree at the State University of New York, College at Old Westbury, I completed a Master’s at the University of Arizona where I began teaching college when I was twenty two as a graduate student.  I taught for many years at Sacramento City College in California and I earned my Ph.D. at the University of California, Santa Cruz in the History of Consciousness program. My book Imagining Literacy: Rhizomes of Knowledge in American Culture and Literature was one of two finalists for the Frederick W. Ness Book Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.  I am a former Ford Foundation and Smithsonian Fellow.  My scholarly work focuses on race, gender, popular culture (especially science fiction), representations of the body as they relate to the former, and cultural literacy.

Professor’s Teaching Philosophy

There are very few things I enjoy more than learning.  Without books and films and art, my world would have been a narrow, dismal place.  I always enjoyed stretching myself and consider this to be the foundation of any good educational experience.  By definition, education is about finding out new things.    If you don’t come out of a class with a different perspective and a new set of ideas, why sign up or bother to attend? 

Goals and Course Objectives

The main objective is to gain a sophisticated understanding of how language functions inside a human culture.  Eventually, you will all learn the rudiments of the science of semiotics (Wait for it.  This will not become clear overnight.)  I expect all of you to become entry level semioticians by the end of the course.

The second objective is to demonstrate the first through projects, written assignments, tests, quizzes and the discussion forum.

Goal 1


Complete all the readings carefully.  Practice active reading by underlining (you can copy .pdf files and annotate them yourself if you have a fully functional .pdf program.  It is a good idea to print the .pdf files and annotate them manually. 

Goal 2

Be an active learner in the classroom by paying close attention and contributing to the class discussion by responding to the material directly. 

Goal 3

Demonstrate your mastery of the material by being able to write about the subject with clarity, originality and grace. 

Goal 4

Participate in the Discussion Forum to record your own learning and help others think about the course material. 

Goal 5


Learn research methods appropriate to college level work.  Do not, do not, expect web surfing to qualify as research.  Learn Modern Language Association documentation style. Your professor will not review all the details of MLA style because to do that would take the entire semester. Checking the handbook is necessary, even for me. The on-line guides to the MLA style sheet are not complete.


Now that we understand the more general goals of the course, we need to address the specific competencies which students must acquire:


Students will demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of how language functions inside a human culture.  By the end of the semester, students succeed at the process of becoming entry level semioticians by demonstrating the following:


1.   Students will offer informed analysis and sophisticated reasoning concerning how the English language means inside our culture, including especially how race and gender are represented.

2.   Students will analyze and evaluate a number of signs and demonstrate understanding concerning how signs make meaning and how semiosis works inside English and the Western Cultural experience.  Their discussion of these signs will demonstrate informed and sophisticated knowledge concerning how language works to create reality.  They will demonstrate understanding of other cultural realities even given that they cannot experience those realities directly.

3.   Students will demonstrate an awareness of the methods and methodology of semiotic analysis from inside the practice of semiotics and demonstrate understanding that all language is contingent upon interpretation.  They will understand that this applies to them and the meanings they make.  That is, they will demonstrate awareness that language is a cultural process, that meaning is not stable and that there is no ‘right’ answer, that we must learn how to hold the possibilities for multiple, and even contradictory, meanings in our minds while understanding the meanings others make are more or less conditioned by their place inside a culture.

4.   Students will exhibit the ability to understand the perspectives of semiotic analysis and the logical processes which are part of that analysis – understanding semiotic logic from inside the practice of it.  That is, students will understand how and why semiotics helps us understand meaning and how semiotic analysis “makes sense” from inside the practice of semiotics and inside its logical system.  Semiotics is a logical system which gives us tools to analyze meaning. 

5.   Students will demonstrate an awareness of the limitations of their knowledge in general and of semiotics in particular.  They will understand that they ‘think’ inside Western culture and cannot escape it through an act of will.  They will understand that their perspectives are influenced by their spatio-temporal, social, cultural and political experiences and that semiotics gives them to tools to step out of these conditioned perspectives.

6.   Students will enhance their proficiencies as effective writers by writing – drafting, revising, editing – a series of written assignments which will include essay exam questions and other assignments that focus on a specific purpose for a specific audience, that coherently develop a clearly defined thesis supported by reasons and evidence, and that adhere to the conventions of academic discourse, including the unity and coherence of paragraphs; the grammar, punctuation and style of sentences; the syntax, diction and tone of words; and the appropriate use and documentation of sources.


Grading and Assignment Categories

All work will be evaluated on a 100 point scale.  Grades will be awarded on a 100 point scale. 90+ = 4.0; 85+=3.5; 80+=3.0; 75+=2.5; 70+=2.0; 65+=1.5; 60+=1.0.  . A 90 is a solid 4.0 in my grading scale.  I reserve higher numbers for exceptional work.

Types of Assignments and Expectations

1.   Oral participation (separate from in-class presentations) will be evaluated by the professor. Sophisticated class discussion is central to learning critical thinking. Your oral participation will be graded and count as an assignment. It will be weighted x3. In other words, as far as your general average, your oral participation will count as one assignment, weighted three time. As this is subjective, it is particularly important that you speak to me in my office to establish a rapport between the two of us and allow me to know you better.  

2.   Discussion Forum participation, both number of posts and quality of posts will be considered.

3.   Quizzes on class content (e.g. When we view a film, take the opportunity to actively watch by taking notes and writing down questions about things you might want to bring up during the discussion of the film.  The films we see are often dense and require concentration.)  Film and reading quizzes will be posted in ANGEL.  There is nothing more important than reading your assignments previous to class. That being the case, quizzes will require you to read the material on time and with comprehension.

4.   Comprehensive Assignments will include:

·       A project and/or projects which may be written, poster, video or other type of media demonstrating your understanding of a key component of the first third of the semester’s subject matter.  We will decide how to break this up in the first few weeks.

·       A mid-term during the second third of the semester which will include an objective test and short answer/essay questions.

·       A final exam which will include an objective test, short answer/essay questions and a final project which might be an essay or a variant of the poster, video or other type of media presentation practiced in the beginning of the semester.

Assignment Weight

Oral participation


Discussion Forum




Mid-Term Project




Final Exam



Students who do not complete the minimal requirements for a 2.0 may earn a 0-1.5 based on the professor's best judgment regarding his/her overall efforts.  Most students should be able to do well by following the course instructions faithfully.   If you have issues regarding writing or exams, talking to me is a good idea.  A recent study suggested that just taking a few minutes before an exam to write about your anxieties can radically improve your score.  I encourage you to do this before you take on line quizzes, etc.  Anxieties about writing are often the result of waiting till the last minute to complete an assignment.  Taking assignments in stages and pre-planning the time you need to complete a major assignment helps.  Ten hours work on a major essay broken into five separate sessions actually produces better quality work than ten hours from 9 pm to 7am and hurts a lot less.

To earn at least a 2.0

1. Earn an average of 2.0 on all assignments. In other words, if you skip an assignment, it will not destroy your grade, but it will make it very difficult to earn the highest grades. This includes quizzes which will be worth 100 pts. each and be averaged alongside all other work.

2. Make a substantive and careful oral contribution to the class.  Students who do not contribute to class discussion most definitely need to see me in my office for an oral evaluation.

3. Complete all written assignments absolutely on time (only exceptions are documented illness and family emergency and/or professor's explicit permission).  


Required Technologies

Install Mozilla Firefox on your personal computer so that you can use Zotero and other programs as I use them.  Do not use Internet Explorer for our classwork.

Zotero, a research and bibliographic tool created especially for academics for use inside Mozilla Firefox. It works astoundingly well. -- l free for download here: http://www.zotero.org/

If your computer is old and does not have much computing power, you may not be able to run Zotero. You need to check immediately and tell me so we can plan a strategy, e.g. you can run Zotero from a thumb drive on a University computer.

Google Docs, via the Google Apps page connected to your MSU account at: http://googleapps.msu.edu/

Angel system for your reading/class quizzes and discussion forum

Course Web site

You are expected to use multiple technologies: use them all. Become a wizard! If you have problems, contact me immediately. Don't wait.

Banned Technologies

Student’s cell phones must be turned off during class.  Your professor’s stays on.  If you use yours, you will be asked to leave for the day and will earn an unexcused absence.

You may use your laptop.  Indeed it may be very useful; however, if you misuse it in any way, you will be asked to leave for the day and will earn an unexcused absence, in addition, if I find that laptops are being misused, I may ban them for an individual or the class as a whole. This will limit what we can do efficiently. I know that many of you are used to surfing, texting, etc., etc., during class. You get one warning about all this. Consider this your warning.

If you misuse any of the relevant technologies at any time, you will be required to have an in person meeting with me prior to attending class again.

Written Assignments

Extra writing help: See our electronic help page - http://www.msu.edu/unit/wrac/t1/tl

Go to our Writing Center linked here but most importantly, communicate with me

Submitting Written Assignments

Please submit all your formal assignments in 12 point typeface, Times New Roman (or Cambria) via Google Docs. You must learn how to use Google Docs immediately so that you will be ready to submit your assignments via this system.


Formatting Assignments

Please submit all your formal assignments in 12 point typeface, Times New Roman (or Cambria) and according to the MLA Style sheet.  A template of that style is available through your professor for the first written assignment.  Students who do not use the correct format as outlined in the MLA Handbook will lose a minimum of ten points from their grade for the assignment.  Many of the basic MLA formatting styles are available on line, but some are not. I do not memorize these details. I cannot answer them without the book in my hands. If you ask me in the middle of a class how to do such and such, and I do not have the book in my hands, I will not be able to answer. Strange and wonderful things books: they memorize stuff we don't need to bother our brains with.

Posting/Submitting Assignments

Please post all your written assignments to your Google Docs folder.  You must invite me to the folder using my email address: ramona@msu.edu.  Your basic Google Docs applications are available here: http://googleapps.msu.edu/ using your MSU User ID and password.  Any folder or document I share with you and vice versa should appear at that URL.  Create a folder titled: WRAC XXX plus "your last name, your first name" and invite me to share it. You should compose your assignments in Google Docs so that you will not lose your formatting by uploading it later. Save all of your docs to your personal computer as a backup.

Once you complete an assignment, use the Google docs feature to invite me again, this automatically time and date stamps your email, ensuring that you have posted your assignment on time. These emails will be automatically saved in my Google mail account, but I will not open them unless there is a question about when your assignment was submitted and/or where your assignment disappeared to.

Documents I cannot find may be downgraded 5 points for each difficulty I encounter, i.e. if you forget to post, if you post incorrectly, if you mistitle your assignment so that I cannot find it easily, etc. This will be at my option and discretion.

Late Assignments

I do not accept late papers at full credit unless you can document an illness or serious emergency. Your written assignments are due to your Google Docs folder just previous to the beginning of class.  If are ill or have an emergency, contact me as soon as possible.  

Reading/Class/Film Quizzes

It is absolutely critical that students read the texts required for this course.  To that end, this course will require that each student demonstrate his/her absorption of the reading material in these ways:

Reading quizzes on Angel will be available for a set time the night before class until 20 minutes before class begins. It is your responsibility to check for a quiz on Angel.

The readings will require some real work on your part. I will provide summaries and guides for many of these assignments. Reading the summary or guide previous to the actually assignment will greatly aid in your comprehension.

Written Work Standards

You will write in Standard Written English and following the explicit standards set out by your professor. In all cases, the language in these writing assignments will reflect respect for the issues addressed and the collective college environment.


Once a week, you will be required to post three comments on our ANGEL FORUM SITE. The purpose of this forum is for you to feel free to make comments that might otherwise interfere with class process but still have importance. Your professor may or may not respond to post you make; however, you will be given a grade for the thoughtful quality of your work. One original comment and two responses to other students per week will be sufficient. ANGEL provides many systems for evaluating these comments automatically.  3 x15 weeks equal 45 comments.


Attendance is extremely important.  I understand that extenuating circumstances arise that can make this difficult, please let me know via email if something prevents your attendance. 

You may accumulate two unexplained.  Additional absences will be excused on a case by case basis. Please keep a personal record of all your absences and the circumstances surrounding them.   It is easy enough to note the classes you miss in your daily class notes (Obviously, you should be keeping a notebook of some sort for this class).  Absences over the maximum of two will require supporting documentation (e.g. A receipt from Olin Health Center will be sufficient evidence that you were ill.  I do not require an actual doctor’s note unless you have an extended absence.).  Documentation does not automatically result in an excused absence. Your allotted absences should cover illness, extreme problems and emergencies.  However, students should not come to class when they are ill.  It is not necessary; it jeopardizes the individual student and the rest of the class.  Extended illness will be excused with medical documentation. Anyone who does not attend the final class session (i.e. the final exam time) will have his/her final grade lowered 1.0 point.  If you have more than two unexcused absences, your grade will be lowered, sometimes substantially, depending on circumstance.


Students are expected to come to class on time.  Coming late disrupts other students and your professor.  If you have a problem once in a while, this is not serious.  If you routinely come late, that is a problem.  If you are late more than four times, your semester average will be reduced one half point for each late occurrence. If you fall asleep in class, you will be asked to leave and will be counted absent for that day. 

Missed Exams and Assignments

Illness, a death in the family or other traumatic events are unfortunately a part of life.  In general, I do not accept late assignments, but if you have such an emergency, I will find some way of accommodating you; however, you need to alert me as soon as possible. 

Classroom Behavior And Your Responsibilities as a Student

A college classroom is a formal environment. This does not mean it must be uncomfortable. It does mean that starting now: you are in a professional space.   Use appropriate verbal and body language. Side conversations should end once the class session begins. This means only one person speaks at a time. Respect yourself, your classmates, your professor and any visitors.

A professional is a person with a high degree of knowledge or skill in a particular field who exhibits a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace. In addition . . .

1.   Professionals complete all work on a timely basis. This means that for all class meetings class participants expect that you have read the materials and performed the assigned problems. Keeping up with materials will help your performance in this class. Suggested study time is no less than 3 times the number of credit hours or 12 hours per week.

2.   Professionals attend meetings on time as entering meetings late disturbs others.

3.   Professionals understand underlying concepts and theories, and do not just memorize facts. While it is important to understand new terminology and concepts for quizzes, both quizzes and exams in this course will require you to apply concepts.

4.   Professionals fill gaps in their own knowledge by: (1) seeking help from peers by forming study groups, discussing assigned readings, and working together on homework assignments, (2) asking questions in class, (3) attending optional review sessions, and (4) contacting the instructor or student assistant during posted office hours for questions that cannot be resolved through their own research or discussion with classmates or the optional review sessions.

Intellectual discussion can be intense and even emotional, but it does not involve commentary on others in the room. For example, if someone makes a sexist, racist or heterosexist remark or other inappropriate comment, s/he should be challenged but never attacked.

Never put your head on the desk.  If you fall asleep, expect to be asked to leave the classroom and earn an unexcused absence. Sometimes students fall asleep because they are ill. Do not come to class when you are ill. It is never necessary.