This semester I taught “Persuasive Influences in America” in the Media Studies Department at The University of Tulsa. In this class of 29 students, 60% were in their first year and just over 10% were the first in their families to attend college. Expanding beyond the typical focus on “how we make choices,” we took a multifaceted approach to interpreting, historicizing, and critiquing persuasive influences in the United States. After working to define persuasion, its ethical stakes, and how it works, we read four texts whose primary aim is, in one way or another, persuasion. Taking on topics like self-help literature, advertising, the environmental movement, and the global food system, we unpacked how and why these particular texts were, and continue to be, both persuasive and influential in American society and culture. In each case we began with the text itself, then considered in turn audience reception, critique (often representing dramatically opposing viewpoints), and contemporary connections.
We first read the 1936 manual How to Win Friends and Influence People, penned by Dale Carnegie, often referred to as “the grandfather of self-help books.” We considered the text’s Depression-era roots, its best-selling status over many decades, and Carnegie’s own (in)sincerity. Through the Museum of the City of New York’s photo collection, we imagined ourselves in one of Carnegie’s courses. We read period book reviews, comparing their evaluations to contemporary reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Conceding the guide’s ongoing popularity and self-help’s place in U.S. culture, we pondered critiques of the self-help-ification of U.S. nonfiction. We wrestled with the concern that this genre persuades us to work on ourselves rather than change our systems, power structures, or societies.
We next read Vance Packard’s The Hidden Persuaders and took a seat in the audience for his 1957 Books and Authors Luncheon, where Packard defended his polarizing book. With his mid-century critique of motivational research into consumers’ inner desires, Packard irked, but also influenced, the advertising industry. Although some readers (including some in our class!) remained deeply enamored with advertising, Packard informed the public’s media literacy. We also discussed his warning cry regarding our increasingly expansive and wasteful consumer culture. Drawing connections to today’s social media influencers (with sponsored posts, fake views, and bot followers), we pondered if they might be today’s hidden persuaders.
We followed the themes of consumerism, waste, and regulatory transparency through to Rachel Carson’s lyrical and compelling Silent Spring, whose 1962 publication launched the environmental movement as we know it. We watched her 1963 CBS special and considered how her identity (as a single woman without a PhD) shaped industry’s vehement responses, summarized as, “Silence Miss Carson!” Despite Silent Spring‘s significant influence, we discussed the challenge of persuading audiences about problems with longer term consequences, including not only chemical pesticides, but also climate change, an issue whose urgency shifted beneath our feet during the semester.
We concluded our class reading Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. As a twenty-first-century companion to Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Schlosser’s text endeavors to persuade the public through the stomach (concern for oneself) and the heart (concern for others, justice, and equity). First published in 2001, the book remains both persuasive and relevant, perhaps depressingly so. Despite the many limitations of fast food, however, we pushed our thinking even further as we read Julie Guthman‘s critique of organic salad mix and Suzanne Zuppello’s recent essay critiquing slow food’s elitism. Their arguments broke down the all too easy dichotomy between fast food and slow food, pushing us to consider labor, power, and access throughout the food system.
At its most basic level, persuasion is a conscious attempt to influence attitudes and actions. Studying persuasion proved an effective mode for developing and enhancing critical thinking skills applicable in our class and lives. We realized how often persuasion is about power and agency, context and complexity, culture and ethics. These stories aren’t easy or simple; or as one student wrote, “nothing is black or white.”
As my students reflected, the course challenged them to “always think deeper and critically about the information given,” especially as they were exposed to “different perspectives” and “varying world views” so “to keep an open mind, and not to be afraid of change or opposing ideas.” These lessons made one student “more aware of how people treat me when they need something, how Amazon recommends a product specifically for me, how treating my grass affects the land, and most importantly, definitively now knowing without question what’s in the meat,” while another student developed “a different curiosity about essential things in my life such as business, readings, advertisements, food, etc. Persuasion is everywhere.”
Building on this new knowledge, students had the opportunity to select and develop their own research on a persuasive phenomenon, interpreted broadly and creatively, and distilled into an 8-to-10-page paper. For many students, this was their first research paper, ever, a challenge I hadn’t foreseen, but one that we met together. Students researched the persuasive appeals of movie trailers, food labels (particularly for contentious components like gluten and genetically modified ingredients), social media advertising (especially for regulated substances like alcohol and tobacco), presidential communication (from FDR to Trump), cult leaders like David Koresh, “trash talking” athletes like Conor McGregor, and workplace behavioral assessments—just to name a few.
I’ll be teaching this course again in the spring and can’t wait to see where it takes us.