Muckrakers & Robber Barons

So I’ve been teaching this writing class at Berkeley that I call “Muckrakers & Robber Barons: the Rhetoric of Corporate Controversy.” The Cal freshmen are great — quite different from my business students at NYU’s Stern school, and also different from the older transfer students I teach at University of San Francisco. For one thing, most of my Cal kids never read the course description; I’ve got smart, sweet-tempered kids from many countries and economic backgrounds interested in almost anything other than corporate controversy.

And yet the class has been a blast (though only intermittently for them, I suspect). I have two classes three days a week in two hour blocks. We’ve written familiar essays, watched full-length documentaries like Supersize Me, read whole books like Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation and Naomi Klein’s No Logo. Today was show and tell, basically, as each student had to present a controversy from the outside world — with some interesting intersections to business — and I refused to speak. Debate bubbled and erupted, even among my mostly non-native speaker class. As Pat Hoy once said, you’ve got to get out of the way.

But then, because I’m me and it’s two hours, I jumped back in. We talked about Klein’s notion of branding as a force more all-encompassing than mere advertising. It’s true, the students said, the only companies they find interesting about are the ones that understand who they are, the ones whose name connotes a feeling. Apple. Starbucks. Nike. Disney. Caterpillar, even. It struck me that this generation is the first to have grown up thinking of Apple as a music company; in an era where the middle-class coffee klatch is the standard for every half-mile; where Disney really is less about family than perpetual youth. They’ve grown up under the centrality of brand as ethos.

We’re going to listen to this great NPR piece Friday on the creation of the Marlboro Man (as anticipated by Jonathan Franzen’s masterpiece of ambivalence, “Sifting the Ashes”).

But today, just to relax into the notion, we watched the pilot episode of Mad Men (AMC’s dark, whipsmart show about an advertising agency in 1960 New York).

It’s a shock for them to admit, but amid all the small group debating and the spinning plates of class planning, the craft of writing’s emerged in full force. And it’s such a pleasure to get out of the way, built into the edifice, as they figure out the world for themselves.

4 thoughts on “Muckrakers & Robber Barons

  1. I have to say I would take your class. It’s sounds like something I would have read the course description for and anticipated with bated breath!

  2. How does one bait breath? Is it a fishing-lure kind of bait or a taunting bait?

    Either way, the breath’s got to be extra minty.

  3. Technically the spelling of the word is debated.

    The meaning is breath held or subdued with anticipation.

    Ask Shakespeare – it’s bated.
    Ask contemp author J.K. Rawling and her editors, it’s baited.

    So who knows. But you’re right, it is likely minty. 😉

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