Popular Communication: Self-Help


COMM 2725
Office hours Content
TU/FR 9:50 - 11:30 am
Ryder 126
Joseph Reagle, Ph.D., <j.reagle>
TU appointments starting at 15:30
Comm Studies, 215 Holmes Hall
Tip: Enter at 41A Leon St.


Course description & objectives

Get Stuff Done within a 4-Hour Workweek by following The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Take a Clarity Cleanse during The Year of Yes to be well and wise. Master The Game to bed a hottie or follow The Rules to marry them. The self-help genre reflects popular aspirations and fears across work, wealth, health, relationships, and meaning. They are also laden with assumptions—and biases—about what is worthwhile and worthy. You’ll work to understand how this genre of popular communication reflects and shapes our sense of identity, purpose, and worth. You’ll even have a chance to write some self-help of your own.

Successful completion of this course enables you to:

  1. recall, compare, and give examples of key concepts and theories in popular communication (e.g., popular & mass communication, ideology, audience reception studies);
  2. understand how the popular shapes and is shaped by its people;
  3. understand the historical context of the self-help genre;
  4. critically analyze self-help with respect to social, economic, and political values and events;
  5. demonstrate proficiency in communicating your analyses.


Active learning and the Web

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

This is an active learning course meaning that you will be engaged with activities such as class and group discussion, participating in and designing class exercises, collaborative note-taking, and peer assessment.

I also make much use of the Web. For instance, this syllabus is a Web page that I update; I expect you to bookmark it and to follow links. (If you find a broken link or typo, let me know!) You can easily find things on this page with ⌘+f. You can open links in new tabs with control-click. We will also make use of Google Docs. In emails I often use markdown conventions and respond below your quoted (‘>’) text.

Academic policies

In short, come to class on time and with the readings and assignments completed; be respectful and willing to collaborate. There are no provisions for missed exams or late assignments.

In general, if you have an issue, such as needing an accommodation for a religious obligation or disability, speak with me before it affects your performance. Do not plead afterwards. Instead, beforehand, offer proposals that show initiative and a willingness to work.

Academic Integrity is of utmost importance: “The promotion of independent and original scholarship ensures that students derive the most from their educational experience and their pursuit of knowledge.” Violations include cheating, plagiarism, and participating in or encouraging dishonesty. If you cheat on an exam, you will receive zero credit and be referred to the Office of Student Conduct. If you plagiarize seven or more words in a row, the same will follow.

We sometimes use devices in class as part of an activity, but the default policy is for gadgets to be silenced and put away. If you want to use a device throughout the course, email me a device proposal with your intended usage. Device users might also be called upon you to perform tasks such as looking things up or taking collaborative notes. Deviations from classroom professionalism and respect may result in dismissal from class and demerits against your grade. See full course policies for more detail.


NOTE: During this time, we’ll probably be on our devices all the time. It’ll be doubly important, then, that you contribute in person or remotely and can’t be mistaken for being distracted. Also, I think having our cameras on makes for a better experience. Feel free to turn your camera off if you need to attend to something; if you have a larger concern/issue, please let me know. Aside from the first few days of class (for students that join later) my preference is not to record our classes, but this, too, is something we can discuss and if you have a specific concern, please let me know.


There are 1000 points at stake over the course of the term. This is converted to letter grades on the basis of thresholds; they are not rounded. Due dates are included in the schedule.

Writing requirements

Assignments must be double-spaced, 12 point font, 1-inch margins. (One page contains approximately 250 words.) Pages must be numbered and stapled together. Citations must be in the APA style. No APA cover page is required. Include your name.

Your work should be reviewed by two peers relative to the writing rubric. Make use of Hacker’s Pocket Manual and my writing tips handout. On the due date, assignments are due at start of class (and the digital version must be submitted via Canvas/TurnItIn.) If you have permission to revise a written assignment for re-assessment, please see these revision instructions.

Grading Rubric

Communication Studies courses are expected, on average, to have a GPA of no more than a 3.3 (B+); this means those receiving an A or A- are in the minority. The course rubric notes that “A” students have all of the following attributes.

  1. show mastery in assignments. Their work demonstrates impressive understanding of readings, discussions, themes and ideas. It is fluid, clear, analytical, well-organized and grammatically polished. Reasoning and logic are well-grounded and examples precise.
  2. have virtually perfect attendance. Their commitment to the class resembles that of the teacher.
  3. are prepared for class. They always read assignments and participate fully. Their attention to detail is such that they occasionally catch the teacher in a mistake.
  4. show interest in the class. They look up or dig out what they don’t understand. They often ask interesting questions or make thoughtful comments.
  5. have retentive minds. They are able to connect past learning with the present.
  6. have a winning attitude. They have the determination, initiative, and self-discipline to succeed.


Many links to my public wiki are found through-out this syllabus (remember, ⌘+f is your friend), but I’ve gathered some of the most important ones below.


Most readings are linked to from this page, if not check this zip file . You will need access to the following two films.

I highly recommend you get a copy of:

Like other skills, bibliography is something you learn to do well. Technology can make it easier. EasyBib is popular, and Northeastern makes RefWorks and EndNote available to students.

Note that for selections, I specify the chapter (ch=) or pages (pp=) to read.


Sep 11 Fri - Introduction

Welcome! We introduce ourselves, cover class logistics, and begin our semester of discussion. Specifically, why is Goop so popular?

Also, bring a mnemonic that connects your name with a memorable image: “Imagine me …” I could say: “Imagine Prof. Reagle being chased by beagles.”

Sep 15 Tue - Self-help: History and ideology

We’ll continue our discussion of why self-help is popular and ask what ideological assumptions underly the advice given?

Sep 22 Tue - SHAM

Salerno is a harsh critic of self-help. Absent a specific prompt, summarize and engage.

Sep 25 Fri - A self-help classic and a classic critique

In 1984, Janice Radway published Reading the Romance, an important piece of pop-culture criticism that investigated the romance genre (and its readers). This type of work came to be known as “audience reception” research, and in 1991 Debra Grodin did the same for self-help; she asked self-help readers about their motivations and thoughts about the genre. Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking is mentioned and is a classic biblical-based instance of self-help. I include a link to some Peale quotes and an article describing his book.

When you read Grodin, ask yourself if contemporary self-help works fulfill a similar role and do today’s readers have similar motivations? (Ask your friends!)

Sep 29 Tue - Quackery vs science-based medicine

What is quackery and how do we distinguish it from science-based medicine?

Oct 02 Fri - Self-help as “thin culture”

We continue with our second “audience reception” study of self-help. Now that we’ve read Salerno’s harsh critique, note how Lichterman claims such critiques are missing the point. Also, what did Lichterman find that differed with Grodin? What interpretive communities exist today? Again, I provide a description of and quotes from a self-help book mentioned by Lichterman.

Oct 06 Tue - Film discussion

Turn in your film response and be prepared to discuss in class. No reading response today as it’d be redundant with the assignment.

If you wish to reference a portion of the film prior to your point or question, have the exact time stamp at hand, and I might be able to cue it up.

Oct 09 Fri - Hacking life

Oct 13 Tue - Time management

Oct 16 Fri - Hacking time

DUE: 1st half of reading responses, including today. Please send me the link to your Google Doc, with sharing set to “viewable by anyone with link.”

Oct 20 Tue - Body language and p-hacking

A popular TED talk about the “life hack” of good posture exposed the frailties of social science.

Turn in your “Be a Guru” assignment.

Oct 23 Fri - Hacking motivation

Oct 27 Tue - Stuff

In this eclectic group of short readings, we’ll encounter the gendering of our relationship to stuff, past and present, as well as a short-story about one man’s obsession.

Oct 30 Fri - Hacking stuff

Nov 03 Tue - Aspirational work

We’ve seen how the hacker ethos is well suited to the authorpreneurs of the creative class. We’ve also seen it associated with masculine culture. Duffy speaks to a different set of entrepreneurs trying to make it online. What similarities and differences do you see between her subjects and life hackers?

Nov 06 Fri - Film discussion

Turn in your film response and be prepared to discuss in class.

If you wish to reference a portion of the film prior to your point or question, have the exact time stamp at hand, and I might be able to cue it up.

Nov 10 Tue - Health & self in modernity

Nov 13 Fri - Hacking health

Nov 17 Tue - Relationships

Nov 20 Fri - Hacking relationships

Nov 24 Tue - Meaning

Nov 27 Fri - NO CLASS

Dec 01 Tue - Hacking meaning

Dec 04 Fri - Presentations

In five minutes, present your self-help analysis and thesis. See presentation tips and rubric.

If you wish to use visuals during your presentation, link to your slides in the Slides Doc and make your deck public to everyone, not just Northeastern, so I can display them if necessary

Dec 08 Tue - Conclusion

Turn in your book analysis. Remember the writing tips handout.

DUE: 2nd half of reading responses, including today. Please send me the link to your Google Doc, with sharing set to “viewable by anyone with link.”

Dec 15 Tue - TRACE

DUE: Evidence of TRACE completion due at 12:00 ET.

© 2014-2020 Joseph Reagle. Please reuse and share! Creative Commons License