Course Syllabus

Fall 2016

Situation Critical: Digital Cultural Criticism and the Contemporary Museum

Keay MCA exhibition Without You I'm Nothing.jpg

Without You I'm Nothing: Art and Its Audience, exhibition at MCA Chicago, 2010-2011 (Photo: Nathan Keay).

"…A statue has never been set up in honor of a critic!" — Jean Sibelius


Dr. Michael J. Kramer

History & American Studies


Office hours: Th, 2-3pm or by appointment

Office location: 212 Harris Hall


Course Number

Hist 393-0-22/Am Studies 310-0-20/Art Theory Practice 372-22/Hum 325-6-21



Fall Quarter 2016

Tu 3:30-8 pm; Th 3:30-4:50 pm 



Parkes Hall 224 and various museums in Evanston and Chicago (The Museum of Contemporary Art is located across the street from the downtown Northwestern campus and is easily accessible by the Intercampus bus shuttle—free with your Wildcard. The schedule for the shuttle is available at; the Block Museum is located on the Evanston campus at



What is the history of cultural and arts criticism in the United States? Where is it headed? How do its past and future relate to each other? This methods course combines historical examination with fieldwork in the setting of contemporary art museums. Students read extensively in the history of cultural criticism while experimenting with new, digital modes of critical writing. The course convenes in seminar form on the Evanston campus with visits to museums in the Chicago area, in particular the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago as well as the Block Museum on the Northwestern campus. Students can also pursue fieldwork at other galleries, theaters, and performance spaces in the area. Over the course of the quarter, we will meet with museum professionals and professional critics. Expect extensive discussion of readings, films, artworks, digital projects, performances, and more. Assessment in the course revolves around multimedia and digital modes of cultural criticism. Students will write about exhibitions, performances, educational events, and more (no extensive computer experience required, just a willingness to dive in and experiment with digital approaches to cultural criticism). The course concludes with one final, more scholarly, multimedia essay on a topic related to the contemporary museum, cultural and arts criticism, or a student’s particular interests.


Course Objectives

  • Deepen understanding of the history of arts and cultural criticism in the US.
  • Sharpen critical and interpretive skills as active thinkers and writers.
  • Sharpen historical research skills (wielding primary sources to produce convincing, fresh, compelling interpretations in conversation with past historical arguments, evidence, and methods).
  • Improve digital literacy and multimedia skills.
  • Learn about what museum professionals and cultural critics do. 

Ellen Willis.jpg

Ellen Willis, circa 1968. 


Available at bookstore, through online booksellers, or at NU Library reserve desk.

  • AO Scott, Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth (New York: Penguin, 2016), ISBN-13: 978-1910702550
  • Matti Bunzl, In Search of a Lost Avant-Garde: An Anthropologist Investigates the Contemporary Art Museum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), ISBN-13: 9780226418124
  • Joshua Clover, 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This To Sing About (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) ISBN-13: 978-0520267879
  • George Cotkin, Feast of Excess: A Cultural History of the New Sensibility (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015) ISBN-13: 978-0190218478
  • Claire Bishop, Radical Museology: Or What's Contemporary in Museums of Contemporary Art? (London: Koenig Books, 2013) ISBN-13: 978-3863353643
  • Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (New York: Verso, 2011) ISBN-13: 978-1844677610
  • The New Yorker magazine "back of the book" reviews section (
  • Chicago Reader arts sections (
  • New City arts sections (
  • 3rd Coast Review (
  • Time Out Chicago (
  • Additional articles, films, and websites on course website and/or on reserve at NU Library, see our Canvas course page.





7 assignment posts (40%)

  • Original post of cultural criticism. See rubric and assignment instructions.

7 assignment responses (15%)

  • At least one substantive and thoughtful comment on a fellow classmate’s post. Be critical, ask questions, respond meaningfully, but do so constructively and supportively.

1 final assignment (30%)

  • See rubric and assignment instructions.

Class participation (15%)

  • Please come to seminar meetings prepared to discuss the following: What is the most important point you learned from today’s materials? What is the most important question you have about today’s materials? 
  • Please attend museum visits prepared to ask our hosts questions and prepared to engage fully with what you view at museums.

 Each student will receive a short midterm evaluation, detailed evaluation of final project, and final term evaluation in the course.


Assignments: Students must complete all assignments to pass the course. These are designed to be fun, but they are also demanding—and perhaps for some, frustrating. Please be aware that cultural criticism and historical analysis are not a science in the strict sense of the term. There is no purely objective, machine-like way to develop interpretation within the traditions of historical or musical meaning-making (even though we are using computers). This means there is not some perfectly standardized way to evaluate your work. There is, however, a craft to these modes of thinking, writing, describing, evaluating, and reasoning. It is that craft that this course strives to help you access, participate in, and through which you can improve your capabilities as a thinker, writer, observer, citizen, and human being. Your task is to develop effective and compelling evidence-based arguments informed by close attention to what you observe or witness and enhanced by your attention to history.


Rubric: Your essays (when called for in assignments) must be well written in order to communicate a convincing, compelling, and precise argument that is driven by our description of and analysis of meaning in materials drawn from the course (and other sources if needed). Evaluation is based on the following rubric: (1) presence of an articulated argument, (2) presence of evidence, (3) compelling and precise connection of evidence to argument by comparing and contrasting details and their significance, (4) logical flow and grace of prose: an effective opening introduction; the presence of clear topic sentences; the presence of effective transitions from one part of the assignment to the next; a compelling conclusion, (5) effective use of multimedia and digital elements (weight given to experimentation and innovation).


Late/Extension Policy: Please communicate with your instructor ahead of time if you require an extension for an essay. Reasonable, occasional requests will be granted, but may involve a slight deduction in points to be fair to students who complete work on time. Late assignments without extensions granted will lose 1 point per day.


Writing Consultation: You have not one but two writing centers available for consultation at any stage of writing, from "brainstorming" and outlining an essay to drafting and revising it. Use these services! Appointments and walk-in hours are available at The Writing Place: The History Department also maintains a writing center  available for students working on your assignments. Students wishing to contact the History Department Writing Center should email Website:


Notes on Using a WordPress Course Blog

We will be using an NU Sites WordPress website as the main arena for writing, conversation, and digital research and publication. The url is Log in using your Northwestern Net ID and password. WordPress is very simple content management software, but it can be stretched and expanded in productive ways. For basic instructions on using WordPress, see: I suggest simply diving in and experimenting with it as the platform is fairly intuitive (we'll discuss how it works in class as well).


Please note that by enrolling in the course, you agree that it is acceptable to share your classroom work publically. I will generally ask your permission to do so, but the hope is that your best work will be published for an audience beyond our seminar. If you have any concerns—technical, personal, ethical—about public uses of your coursework, please feel free to confer with me to make arrangements. Generally, I advocate what has become known as "open access" in digital work, but there can also be very important and worthy exceptions to this philosophy. If you are curious, here is more on the ethics of public blogs for classroom use here:


Academic Integrity

All Weinberg College and Northwestern policies concerning plagiarism and academic dishonesty are strictly enforced in this course. See for more details. If you have any question as to what constitutes plagiarism or academic dishonesty or copyright violation, please feel free to contact the instructor. Please note that under WCAS and Northwestern policy, the instructor is required to report any suspected instances of academic dishonesty. The instructor also reserves the right to assign a failing grade for the course if a student is found to have violated college or university policy concerning academic integrity.


Special Needs

Students with special needs and disabilities that have been declared and documented through the Northwestern Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) should meet with the instructor to discuss any specific accommodations. For further information, see the Office of Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) website:

Syllabus Assignments as List

Course Summary:

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