We’ve already seen college courses based on shows like The Wire and The Simpsons, so I suppose this news shouldn’t get filed so much under “Surprising” as “Still Kind of Cool and Newsworthy, Seeing as the Final Season Premieres in Less Than a Week” (smaller file), but here goes, in either case: A college professor has developed an entire course based on Mad Men.
Anne Helen Petersen, a media studies professor at Whitman College, wrote about her experience teaching Mad Men: Media, Gender, Historiography in an essay at Slate. If you’re thinking this is a blow-off class, think again, bub.
Each student signed up for a Netflix account; before each class, they’d watch between two to five episodes assigned by me. They’d also read an article or book excerpt—the vast majority of which were written at or around the time in which the series is set. For an understanding of the divide between Don’s suburban and urban life—one of the many roots of his unhappiness—we read Revolutionary Road, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Meditations in an Emergency. For a notion of Peggy and Joan’s life in the city, The Best of Everything and, later, Sex and the Single Girl. To make sense of Kinsey and Midge, Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro”; for Betty’s ennui, The Feminine Mystique; for Sterling Cooper’s milieu, David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man.
The course also digs deep into criticisms of both the show and the real-life era, specifically whether the series glorifies a period of American history that featured huge amounts of inequality. But you probably figured as much from its title. I bet all you really want to know at this point is what the final exam is like. Well, here you go.
For 24 students, the Mad Men class modeled an engaged, historicized, self-reflexive approach to the media we love. Their final exam was to answer one of two deceptively simple questions: “Who is Don Draper?” or “Who is Peggy Olson?” Instead of articulating what they loved or hated about the show, they were forced to consider the how and the who, the cultural and narrative and aesthetic forces that produced characters whose place in television history is already secure.
My advice to these students: Take my post about Pete Campbell getting eaten by a bear, copy it word for word (you have my permission), then write out the URL for the GIF below. You’ll fail miserably, but you’ll do it with style.