Popular Communication: Self-Help


COMM 2725 <2022-SP> Office hours Content
TU/FR 1:35–3:15
Ryder 209
TU appointments at 15:30+
Prof. Reagle, <j.reagle>
Comm Studies, 215 Holmes Hall
Tip: Enter at 41A Leon St.

Course description & objectives

Genres of popular communication – be they self-help books, speculative fiction, or fashion blogs – reflect the aspirations and fears of a people at their moment in history. Simultaneously, popular communication shapes people’s sense of identity, purpose, and worth. In this course, we will engage with a specific genre, using historical and critical methods, so as to better understand this reciprocal relationship between a people and their moment.

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 partaking in class and group discussions, participating in class exercises, and sharing and relating what we learn to the larger world.

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.


There are 1000 points at stake over the term. This is converted to letter grades based on thresholds, without rounding. For example, 870 is a B+; 869 is not. 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 and bibliography must be in the APA style. No APA cover page is required. Include your name and submit the electronic version via Canvas before class.

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

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 18 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 21 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 28 Fri - SHAM

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

Feb 01 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. Are there any that you like or dislike?

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 04 Fri - Quackery vs science-based medicine

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

Feb 08 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 also differ with Grodin? What interpretive communities exist today? Also, review the description of and quotes from a self-help book mentioned by Lichterman.

Feb 11 Fri - Film discussion

Review the Film analyses assignment and writing requirements. 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 15 Tue - Hacking life

Feb 18 Fri - Time management

Have a look at Hamberg to get a sense of how GTD works and then consider Gregg’s critiques and if you think them fair.

Feb 22 Tue - Hacking time

Feb 25 Fri - Posture and p-hacking

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

Review the Be a guru assignment and writing requirements. Turn in your “Be a Guru” assignment.

Mar 01 Tue - Hacking motivation

Mar 04 Fri - Stuff

In this eclectic group of short readings, we’ll encounter the gendering of our relationship to stuff, past and present; the origins of “KonMari”; as well as a short-story about one man’s obsession (make note of a quote for discussing in class).

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.”

Mar 08 Tue - Hacking stuff

Mar 11 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 15 Tue - NO CLASS

Mar 18 Fri - NO CLASS

Mar 22 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 dangers of gurus and superstition?

Mar 25 Fri - Cosmetic surgery

Cosmetic surgery is the most corporeal type of self-help and improvement. What are it’s implications for well-being of the self and others, especially in light of narrow and bigoted beauty standards? (This is a student nominated topic.)

Bring a specific quote from Elliott that you’d like to share.

Mar 29 Tue - Film discussion

Review the Film analyses assignment and writing requirements. Turn in your film response and be prepared to discuss in class. There’s no reading response today.

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.

Apr 01 Fri - Health & self in modernity

Apr 05 Tue - Hacking health

Apr 08 Fri - Relationships

Apr 12 Tue - Hacking relationships

Apr 15 Fri - Meaning

Apr 19 Tue - Hacking meaning

Apr 22 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 26 Tue - Conclusion

Review the book analysis assignment and writing requirements. Turn in your book analysis. Remember the writing guide 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 29 Fri - TRACE

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

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