General Classroom and Research Projects

Whereas the previous section on “lesson plans and talking points” seeks to offer teachers ideas for structuring a presentation, lecture or class on different topics, the materials here are geared to specific projects that both scholars and students might undertake, perhaps as exercises and assignments, as term papers, or even as major research ventures. Some of the project ideas are in the form of fully fleshed-out (and classroom-tested) exercises and assignments; others are mere stubs of ideas that will need some developing by teachers and scholars. If you happen to flesh out one of these project ideas in your class or research, let us know how it turns out—and send us what you’ve created (if it’s not too big), since we’d love to post it here.


Idea 1: Analyzing ads, from then and now (suggested by Verna Kale, Hampden-Sydney College)

Verna has had success with an assignment that puts a twist on the standard rhetorical analysis of the ad: instead of asking her students to focus on a single ad, she has them do a comparative analysis of two ads, one drawn from a magazine or newspaper that was published before 1940, the other drawn from a current periodical—and the second ad that students work on has to be for a product similar to the one in the earlier ad (e.g., they may choose a pair of ads, then and now, for automobiles, or shoes, or Quaker Oats, etc.).

Students begin the assignment by visiting the library and exploring periodicals for their two ads.  Once they have their two documents, they are asked to analyze them “in order to explain 1) what argument each ad makes on its own and 2) how those two arguments compare.” Verna also provides some questions students can use to direct their analysis:

  • What arguments do the ads make?  What images support the argument?  Does text support the argument or do the images stand alone?
  • Are the tone and style of the ads appropriate to the situation and the publication?  How are the ads organized?
  • Do the ads demonstrate ethos, logos and pathos?  Which of these three appeals is dominant?  Why?
  • What is the significance of how the two ads compare?  What has changed in the intervening years?  What has stayed the same?  Is this change or stasis historically significant?  Rhetorically significant?  What might the ads say about American culture?

The end product is a 5-page (double-spaced) essay with a strong thesis statement supported by evidence from the ads and (if necessary) external sources.

Idea 2: Ad disorientation as a trigger for social history research

Ads from old magazines regularly afford us glimpses into a world that’s vastly different from our own. Here’s an exercise that uses ads’ flashes of strangeness to flesh out for our students what living in that other era was like. Give students a handful of magazines that were published during the time period you’re studying in class (say, the early 1910s), and ask them to keep reading the magazines’ ads until each of them encounters something that doesn’t make sense to them. For instance:

  • An ad for Hinds after-shave cream (in Colliers, October 22, 1910: p. 32) reads this way: “Men who shave at home are fast learning that this standard toilet cream is just what they require to keep their faces in a comfortable, healthy condition” (emphasis added). But where would men shave if not at home?
  • Later in that issue of Colliers (on p. 33), an ad for Pompeian Massage Cream makes this claim: “The ‘automobile complexion’ has come to stay, except when Pompeian is used to overcome it.” In fact, automobile complexion has come and gone: so just what was “automobile complexion,” how did one get it, and how wide a problem was it?
  • An ad for Peter’s Milk Chocolate (in The American Magazine, October 1910: p. 6) comes with the following boast: “Digestible food and dessert combined.” Okay, but does an ad really need to claim that their food product is digestible?

Once students locate an ad that confuses them in some way, ask them write out their confusion in the form of a question (perhaps as we’ve done in our examples above) and then have them answer their own question by doing research on their topic—ideally so they’re no longer confused. In class the next day, each student will then hand out a copy of their ad and give a quick 5-minute report on their findings. By the end of the class, you’ll have fleshed out, from a wide range of unexpected angles, a social history of the period that foregrounds how different it is from ours.


Book Reviews

Reviews of Modernists and Modernists as Reviewers (assignment contributed by Gayle Rogers, University of Pittsburgh)

In this assignment, for a survey of modernism from the 1890s to 1945, Gayle asks his students to search the MJP database for book reviews about the modernist authors they are studying in class, as well as book reviews written by those authors themselves, and he then has them analyze the reviews to extend and complicate class discussion. Follow the link above for Gayle’s description of the assignment, along with the assignment itself.


Magazine Layout

Idea 1: How magazines fill a page, or the significance of blank space

Flip through a wide cross-section of magazines to see how much space is left blank on any page, and then consider the following questions:

  • Do some magazines seem to minimize (or avoid) blank spaces, while others seem to indulge in it?
  • Does it seem that different kinds (or genres) of magazines use space differently? If so, why?
  • Are different kinds of items within a magazine (like articles, fiction, poetry, letters, criticism, ads) treated the same way or differently when it comes to the space surrounding them (i.e., are some items aired out more than others)? If so, why?
  • Do magazines that minimize blank spaces have a set of items they repeatedly use as page filler, like quotes, illustrations, decorations, even poems? Do these kinds of items appear as well in magazines that don’t try to fill each page?
  • Select two magazines, one that avoids blank pages and the other that doesn’t: what meaning or value does blank space have for either? What might the use of space say about the magazine as a whole, or about its target audience?
  • What effect does the blank space (or lack of it) surrounding a text have upon how you read that text in these magazines? What effect does it have upon how you relate that text to other texts in the magazines?

Idea 2: The significance of text columns

One might also survey a variety of magazines to determine how and why they use text columns:

  • Based on your quick survey, which is the most popular layout choice for a page of text: one column, two columns, three, four, five?
  • Does there seem to be some rationale for how (or whether) magazines divide text into columns? Do similar kinds of magazines seem to use columns similarly? Is this choice instead a function of the magazine’s physical size?
  • Is all text within a magazine made to fit into the same set of columns (e.g., two columns per page), or does the number of columns vary from page to page?  If the latter, what explains the variation? Are different kinds of text typically fit into a different number of columns?
  • Do some kinds of text (e.g., poetry) violate the magazine’s column system entirely? If so, why?
  • Do any of the magazines you surveyed change, over time, their column system–moving, say, from two to three columns per page? Why the change?


Magazine Lifespan

Idea 1: Magazine mutations

Some magazines, clear about their identity and purpose, steadily provide the same product to readers over the course of their life. More often, though, magazines begin at one place and wind up somewhere else entirely, or they undergo other transformations (small and large) in identity, look, and purpose as time goes on. (The Dial may be a good example.)


Select a magazine that has a sizable run, and then investigate the different ways it evolved over time. Some questions you might consider: What kinds of changes did it undergo, and how “deep” are they: i.e., superficial or fundamental? What explains these changes? Are they a result of the magazine’s natural growth (do magazine’s grow naturally)? Are they instead a result of external circumstances that impinged on the publication?  If the magazine experienced multiple kinds of changes, or if changes occurred at different times, might a common cause be responsible for some (all?) of them? Or are the multiple changes best explained by multiple causes?  If changes in the magazine came in spurts, or periodically, what accounts for that ? Finally, what didn’t change over the course of the magazine’s history, and what allowed this continuity in the face of the other changes it underwent?

Idea 2: The coroner’s report (when journals die)

We usually have a pretty good idea of why individual journals were created (the magazine’s first issue may even spell it out for us), but rarely do journals tell us why they died—and when they die, they tend to die unceremoniously (or ingloriously), when the next issue advertised never comes out.

Pick a journal that has gone out of existence, study its origins and how it changed over time, and then try to diagnose—from internal and external evidence both—why it ceased publication.  Your account will probably involve several causes; here are a handful to consider: the funding ran out; the editors ran afoul of a sponsor; the magazine was sued—or ran afoul of the law; strife divided the magazine’s inner circle; circulation declined (i.e., readers stopped buying the magazine); circumstances in the market (or society at large) changed; the editors lost interest and moved on to other ventures; the magazine was subsumed by a rival. You may also want to evaluate the magazine’s passing: was this a necessary or fortunate end to the magazine, or could it (should it) have been prevented? Can you imagine a better time and way for the magazine to die?

Idea 3: Magazine reincarnation

Sometimes when magazines die, they come back to life (hurray!) in a different form—perhaps with a new name, new design, new purpose, new owners, new editors. Below is a list of paired magazines (as well as groups of three) that underwent dramatic overhauls like this.  Select one pair/group and compare the new magazine with its former self; then try to make sense of the transformation, perhaps by asking questions like these: How is the reincarnated magazine both like and unlike its former self? If the resemblance is strong, should we see the new magazine as a continuation of the old? If the resemblance is slight, should we see it as an entirely different journal? Why did the magazine die/revive? What could the new magazine do that the older one couldn’t? Was it necessary for the old magazine to die and then return to life (or begin anew), or could the old magazine simply have been retooled in less drastic ways? Did the reincarnation improve the paper, or make it more profitable? When the new magazine eventually died, was it done in by what killed the old one?

  • The Freewoman (1911-1912), The New Freewoman (1913) and The Egoist (1914-1919)
  • The Masses (1911-1917), The Liberator (1918-1924) and The New Masses (1926-1948)
  • Scribner’s Monthly (1870-1881) and The Century Magazine (1881-1930)

Idea 4: The Leviathans

By “leviathan,” we don’t mean a whale, or the giant sea creature from the Bible, or even Thomas Hobbes’ famous political tract from 1660 that laid out his social contract theory, but rather the cheesy horror film by that name from 1989 in which an undersea monster grows to terrible dimensions by assimilating into itself the bodies of a doomed submarine crew. Some magazines act like that: they grow big by absorbing into themselves their rivals. Pick such a periodical leviathan and try to explain how it succeeded while its rival(s) succumbed to assimilation/reincorporation.  Here are a few famous examples:

  • The Argosy absorbs Munsey’s in 1929

Idea 5: The immortals

Most magazines eventually cease publication, but others—a select few—go on and on, seemingly impervious to the mortal threats other magazines face. Select a magazine that is publishing today that began at least a hundred years ago, and try to explain the secret of its longevity. Here are a few to consider:

  • The Atlantic Monthly (1857 – present)
  • The Crisis (1910 – present)
  • Harper’s Magazine (1850 – present)
  • The Nation (1865 – present)
  • Poetry Magazine (1912 – present) 
  • Scientific American (1845 – present) 


Idea 1: Make a manifesto #1.

Quite a few MJP journals, often early in their runs, published a manifesto (or similarly functioning editorial statement of purpose) that spells out the outlook, values, and goals of the magazine. Some of the journals, however, do not. Have students study a journal that doesn’t have a manifesto, and then have them write one for it.

Serialized Fiction

Reading Novels Periodically (contributed by James Murphy, Harvard University)

In this linked text, James describes a reading assignment he’s created that lets students (in his words) “experience the periodicity of the periodical” by “using magazines to recreate the historical experience of reading a novel serially.”

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