course
American Cultural Criticism

May 2020

I almost slept on this class, and it ended up being one of the highlights of my time at Columbia, so I feel like I owe it a detailed review. If you are interested in literary non-fiction, aesthetics and art criticism, or just reading the back pages of the New Yorker, you’ll probably enjoy most of this syllabus, which goes from Walt Whitman to Lionel Trilling to Robert Warshow to Ralph Ellison to Susan Sontag. A few of the central texts were John Dewey’s Art as Experience, Ruth Benedict’s Interpretation of Culture, and Constance Rourke’s American Humor. We also discussed Andy Warhol, John Cage’s 433’ ,and LeRoi James’ treatise on the Blues, among other artistic projects from the 20th century. You’ll learn a little about the avant-garde, a little about the mid-century Partisan Review(-adjacent) cultural critics and their interaction with the political Left, and a little about the intellectual histories of Harlem and Columbia. The syllabus for this class truly runs the disciplinary gamut (history, philosophy, political science, anthropology, art history, and film studies), but is pegged on a couple of thru-line inquiries about the relationship between art and class & culture, and its particular role in a diverse and pluralistic society. Professor Blake started each seminar discussion with a short lecture on the readings at the beginning of each class, which were usually supplemented with some multimedia something or other, like a scene from a pulpy midcentury gangster film, or a recording of Amiri Baraka’s spoken word, or Gordon Parks’ Invisible Man photographs. Prof. Blake knows a lot about the intellectual lineages of these writers/artists/thinkers and his care for the subject really shows. Our class was fairly enthusiastic about the texts, and there were definitely times when, counterintuitively, discussion suffered a little because of this. Blake is an accommodating seminar leader and clearly wants to cultivate a space in which everyone feels comfortable speaking up, so on weeks with especially good readings, this meant a lot of students pitching in thoughts without much of a structure to pen the conversation in. But Prof. Blake is genuinely interested in listening to what we have to say about these works, and is good at honing in on particularly good student points and drawing them out for the rest of the class. He is by no means a prescriptive teacher, as some intellectual historians can be. He cares a lot about undergraduates so GO to his office hours. You don’t even need to come with a class-related issue — he will actively make the effort to ask YOU questions and learn more about your background, your academic interests, your own thoughts about contemporary art and culture. It is also worth noting that he also dealt with the coronavirus pandemic with a lot of grace, empathy, and generosity. We were originally supposed to do 3 essays (the first one, which was a lot of fun, involved going to the Dorothea Lange exhibit at the MOMA), but he ended up removing the last two from the syllabus and had us complete written responses (“journal entries) in response to the texts instead. I believe he also reduced the reading load. For me, this class was honestly one of the few that actually “held up post-campus evacuation in terms of quality of seminar discussion and how engaged people seemed to still be. He also invited us to bring our pets to the last official Zoom session — it was cute! TL;DR: I learned a great deal about the mid-century American cultural critics and the artistic and political movements they were responding to, and felt like I was reading for pleasure — and not school — all semester long!

Jun 2017

Casey Blake deserves a good and recent review, so I'll offer one now. Prof. Blake is outstanding. He's not particularly funny (until you get to know him); he doesn't go for cute effects or snarky commentary. Instead, he pretty much stands at his lectern, looks out at the class, and lectures. But if you're serious about your intellectual and academic pursuits, if you care not only about what you're doing but also about what you're thinking, and how, and why, Prof. Blake is the man for you. He's wildly smart; he's articulate; he's kind and caring. His lectures are well-organized (he projects an outline overhead), and if you've done the reading, easy to follow. His reading assignments (for both Intellectual History and Am. Cultural Criticism) are perfectly reasonable in page numbers--maybe even on the light side for a history class--though they tend to be dense and intellectually challenging, so they take a while. If you commit to doing the readings before class and to giving them the attention that they deserve, the lectures are interesting, the discussion sections are engaging, and the exams are reasonable. His papers are certainly challenging, but only because they require you to totally understand the material and to think creatively and analytically about it. Prof. Blake takes his classes very seriously, and he expects you to do the same. Food, computers, phones, and tardiness are prohibited. He demands good, clear writing and doesn't put up with empty thoughts papered over with 7-syllable words. In office hours, he is thoughtful and generous. He wants to get to know you and to hear what you're thinking and reading about, so go talk to him! It's not every day that you find a professor at the fore of his field who's willing to take your thoughts so seriously. True, he's a little awkward--be willing to wade through that. It's worth it. A note about US intellectual history: it's essentially a class on the ideas that have been prevalent at different times in US history; it's about the way that people have thought about culture and politics at different moments in time. If you're looking for a class in which to learn about what war we fought when, this is not the one. But if you're looking to understand where today's ideas come from, if you're looking for ways to think about the world around, if you're looking for the company of brilliant thinkers, this is TOTALLY the class for you.

Mar 2017

Casey Blake deserves a good and recent review, so I'll offer one now. Prof. Blake is outstanding. He's not particularly funny (until you get to know him); he doesn't go for cute effects or snarky commentary. Instead, he pretty much stands at his lectern, looks out at the class, and lectures. But if you're serious about your intellectual and academic pursuits, if you care not only about what you're doing but also about what you're thinking, and how, and why, Prof. Blake is the man for you. He's wildly smart; he's articulate; he's kind and caring. His lectures are well-organized (he projects an outline overhead), and if you've done the reading, easy to follow. His reading assignments (for both Intellectual History and Am. Cultural Criticism) are perfectly reasonable in page numbers--maybe even on the light side for a history class--though they tend to be dense and intellectually challenging, so they take a while. If you commit to doing the readings before class and to giving them the attention that they deserve, the lectures are interesting, the discussion sections are engaging, and the exams are reasonable. His papers are certainly challenging, but only because they require you to totally understand the material and to think creatively and analytically about it. Prof. Blake takes his classes very seriously, and he expects you to do the same. Food, computers, phones, and tardiness are prohibited. He demands good, clear writing and doesn't put up with empty thoughts papered over with 7-syllable words. In office hours, he is thoughtful and generous. He wants to get to know you and to hear what you're thinking and reading about, so go talk to him! It's not every day that you find a professor at the fore of his field who's willing to take your thoughts so seriously. True, he's a little awkward--be willing to wade through that. It's worth it. A note about US intellectual history: it's essentially a class on the ideas that have been prevalent at different times in US history; it's about the way that people have thought about culture and politics at different moments in time. If you're looking for a class in which to learn about what war we fought when, this is not the one. But if you're looking to understand where today's ideas come from, if you're looking for ways to think about the world around, if you're looking for the company of brilliant thinkers, this is TOTALLY the class for you.