Topics in American Cultural Studies

The Business of America is Business: The American Entrepreneurial Spirit and Popular Culture

Mondays, 3.15-4.45pm
(regular class time; see schedule for up-to-date information)
largey online due to SARS-CoV-2

(1) About the Course

When Donald Trump ran for office in 2016, he offered the American public, and the rest of the world, a persona that is the product of a narrative which is as American as the proverbial apple pie: The rags-to riches story of someone who supposedly elevated themselves into a higher social position through hard work, savvy business strategies, and entrepreneurial acumen. Of course, the rags-to-riches narrative rarely holds up under scrutiny—and President Trump is simply one of many cases in point. Nevertheless, Mr. Trump embodies in a highly condensed and perhaps perplexing fashion a discursive formation which continues to confound non-Americans: The American entrepreneurial spirit.

(2) Course Objectives

By way of a concerted, semester-long group effort, our class aims to explore the multifaceted origins and complex development of the American entrepreneurial spirit within a decidedly interdisciplinary and intersectional framework. Students will learn about the latent, systemic tenets of the American entrepreneurial spirit (institutional, spiritual, political, popular cultural). By tapping into key historical documents and popular culture artifacts, and by contextualizing them vis-à-vis secondary scholarly sources, students will begin to comprehend the vast reach and cultural power of the American entrepreneurial spirit. By way of hands-on textual work, student will become intimately familiar with entrepreneurial contexts across a broad sweep of history as well as a number of profiles of American entrepreneurs.

(3) Course Resources

The primary resource for this seminar is this website. You will get your user data after our first class. On the website, you will find everything you need, from assigned readings to the films.

(4) Grading

900–1,000 points = A
800–899 points = B
700–799 points = C
600–699 points = D
0–599 points = F


There is a maximum of 1,000 points. There are no minimum requirements for any of the grading pillars. In other words, you may decide not to sign up for a student-led class, but you may still pass the course.

(5a) Course Project (max. 400 points)

We are very open to suggestions here, but this project may take one of two general directions:

(a) examine a local company and its links to the U.S.
We would ask you not to take an "obvious" example such as local McDonald's franchisees or AVL. Instead, try to find small or medium-sized companies that have ties to the U.S. (this is rather broad: a product or service that is "American," a small local company that primarily sells to the U.S., a company with an American owner/CEO, etc.). Ideally, you will interview the owner/CEO and look at the company history, their products/services, etc. Explore the interrelations between Austria and America in terms of business and culture.
possible formats: short "documentary," video essay, website, or online portfolio

(b) compare marketing materials of U.S. and Styrian companies in the same sector (breweries, clothing, etc.)
This is easy enough: a comparative study of marketing materials companies operating in the same sector use. Try to disentangle what the respective advertisements "do"—what types of customers do they try to address? What ideas do the marketing materials try to sell? How do the marketing materials use ideas pertaining to "Americanness" (or a regional variety thereof) and "Austrianness"/"Styrianness"?
possible formats: video essay, website, or online portfolio

If you have an idea that goes into a similar direction but is nevertheless decidedly different from these two basic ideas, just approach us.

Number of students per project: 1–4.

You'll need our approval for your project. The sooner, the better. Pitch your project—what you will do and what your goals are.

Deadline: June 30, 2020, 11.59pm CET.

(5b) Assignments and Participation (max. 400 points)

This is a rather vague descriptor that covers both your participation in online sessions and the various assignments that replace face-to-face communication. For the assignments, see the corona forums (only accessible to students in this course).

(5c) Playing Entrepreneur

We ask you to play one digital game with business components in the course of the semester. The obvious examples are, of course, business simulations and business games. However, we very much welcome you exploring the business components of other genres, as well. For example, any video game that values world-building will have some sort of an economic system operating in the background (resource gathering/exploitation, trade/market mechanics, etc.).

We ask you to submit short, about 500-word-long, reflective pieces on your playing experiences (i.e., one on the analog game; one on the digital game) by the end of July (we would urge you, though, to try to play—especially—the board games during the semester, ideally with other participants in the course; and to write the reflections soon after the actual playing experience). In particular, what functions does business effectively play in the games in question? We'd like you to focus on the games per se; not the surrounding culture and paratexts (such as marketing). Similar to the questions/statements, please submit these through the website. You do not need to cite any secondary sources here.

(6) Plagiarism Policy

Plagiarism equals instant fail—no matter whether you plagiarize in your final project, your reflection on the games, your statements/questions, or your presentation. Whenever you quote (from) or paraphrase someone else’s ideas, you must mark your quotation/paraphrase in some way to emphasize that these ideas are not yours.

(7) Communication Policy

All students are issued a university email address. We will use this email address to communicate with you. Indeed, we are not allowed to provide any information on e.g. grades to emails other than your university email address.

You are expected to read emails sent to your university account on a regular basis. Failure to do so does not absolve you from knowing or complying with the content of our emails.

We address students on a first-name basis. We don't expect you to treat us differently.

Whenever you send course-related emails, please send them to both of us.

We offer virtual office hours--just drop us a line and we'll find a suitable date and time.