Popular Communication: Self-Help

COMM 2725
Office hours Content
TU/FR 1:35 - 3:15 pm
East Village 102
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.

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: I usually discourage use of devices during class, but during COVID/NUflex they are necessary. 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 request or 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.) 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.) 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:

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


Jan 19 Tue - 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.”

Jan 22 Fri - 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?

(You can do your first out of five reading responses required by mid-semester.)

Jan 29 Fri - SHAM

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

Feb 02 Tue - 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 fulfills a similar role and do today’s readers have similar motivations? (Ask your friends!)

Feb 05 Fri - Quackery vs science-based medicine

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

Feb 09 Tue - 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. Does Lichterman disagree with Grodin? What interpretive communities exist today? Also, review the description of and quotes from a self-help book mentioned by Lichterman.

Feb 12 Fri - Film discussion

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

If you wish to reference a portion of the film prior during discussion, have the time stamp at hand, and I might be able to cue it up.

Feb 16 Tue - Hacking life

Feb 19 Fri - Time management

Feb 23 Tue - 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.”

Feb 26 Fri - Student nominated topic

Mar 02 Tue - Posture 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.

Mar 05 Fri - Hacking motivation

Mar 09 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.

Mar 12 Fri - Hacking stuff

Mar 16 Tue - The guru and Eastern exoticism

In anticipation of discussing Kumaré and hacking meaning, how ought we understand the “exotic” facets of much of self-help, including the teacher-student relationship and superstition?

Mar 19 Fri - 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?

Mar 23 Tue - Film discussion

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

Mar 26 Fri - Health & self in modernity

Mar 30 Tue - Hacking health

Apr 02 Fri - Relationships

Apr 06 Tue - Hacking relationships

Apr 09 Fri - Meaning

Apr 13 Tue - Hacking meaning

Apr 16 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

Apr 20 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.”

Apr 23 Tue - TRACE

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

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