Conspiracy in the Classroom

Finishing the first week of a new school term always leaves me feeling as though I’ve launched some kind of ship — like I’ve broken a bottle of bubbly against the side of a vessel that then rolls proudly out of drydock. (Not that I’ve ever performed this particular action in real life. Like so many of my mental referents, it’s a composite of media memories: scenes from movies like Titanic, or the wonderful, ballsy opening shots of Star Trek: Generations, in which a champagne bottle tumbles through space to smash across the prow of the Enterprise-B.)

In this case, we’re talking two inaugural voyages: the first, a retooled version of my Animation and Cinema class, and the second, an entirely new course called Conspiracy. I’ll detail the Animation rethink in a future post, but for now, I want to share the Conspiracy syllabus, which I’m pretty proud of. Putting it together was a pleasurable summer’s labor: I watched dozens of movies, read reams of articles, and basically dug deep into the viny undergrowth of suspicion and speculation that anchors the U.S. political system (or at least our collective perceptions of it). The original inspiration for the class was simply my love of The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974), which seemed marvelously strange and icily labyrinthine when I first watched it in the early 1980s. It, along with Phil Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Peter Hyams’s burnt-sienna cheese platter Capricorn One (1978), and Sydney Pollack’s 1975 film Three Days of the Condor (which has not aged well, sad to say) still exerts a special hold on my imagination, and I’m thrilled at the opportunity to explore it and other texts with a class of talented students.

What’s odd, of course, is that what once seemed in the fantastic sweep of its paranoia to be a close cousin of science fiction — indeed, in movies like Capricorn One and Coma (1978), the generic boundaries dissolve almost entirely — today comes across as naive, obvious, or both. Conspiracy narratives in the 1970s were like hushed whispers of a truth too terrible to dredge into daylight, yet too destructive to ignore; now our ears are deafened by the angry bellows of right-wing pundits, angry town-hall protesters, and certain Republican party leaders who believe our President is a socialist, that health-care reform involves the instigation of death panels, and that vaccinations cause disease. Those who aren’t actively enraged are cynically passive: why fight the system when it’s already become, Matrix-like, the fabric of everyday life? As with another topic I teach, fandom, the cultural polarities of conspiracy seem to have reversed themselves over recent decades: subculture becoming superculture, margin becoming mainstream. And if fandom is by and large about the production of pleasure within convection currents that link fringe and center, then conspiracy, following similar fluid dynamics, generates a darker miasma of dread and distrust.

The syllabus that follows is built around two topoi: the assassination of John F. Kennedy anchors the first half of the semester, the events of 9/11 the second. I’ve tried to address all the major permutations of conspiracy theory in the United States, including supernatural and feminist variations, yet I know there’s much more we could be looking at (and I welcome any suggestions for tweaking the lineup). The fun part has been coming up with a reading list that mixes “authoritative” academic perspectives with raw, disreputable textual troublemakers from the heart of conspiracy country. One of my hopes is that the course will take us from a time when conspiracy seemed an isolatable, nameable, unusual thing to one in which the digital remapping of media culture has multiplied the theories, speculation, and accusation to an unnerving din. Another hope is that students will ultimately come to think self-reflexively about their own practices of textual production and legitimation, and by implication the larger politics of a college education: their place in a system that turns economic capital into cultural capital. And maybe, by the end of the term, this small shared plot, this classroom conspiracy (it tickles me to note that conspire literally means to breathe togetheran apt description of our biweekly meetings) will yield, for them and for me, some major insights.


FMST 43: Conspiracy – Fall 2009

This course investigates the texts, narratives, and cultures of conspiracy as they are constituted in film, television, digital, and print media. We will concentrate less on the “truth” of any given conspiracy than on its popular and public impact and meaning — what it says, or might be saying, about ourselves, our world, and our times. The subject, then, is both conspiracy theory and theories about conspiracy. As this is a Film and Media Studies course, we will also pay attention to factors such as representation, technology, narrative, audience, and industry, and their relationship to both dominant and resistant ideologies.

Our focus is on the half-century dating from the late 1950s to the present, a period that extends from the Red Scare, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the Apollo moon landings to Waco, 9/11, and contemporary controversies about Barack Obama’s citizenship and an all-encompassing New World Order. Confining ourselves to the United States, we will explore the ways in which public perceptions of conspiracies spread and evolve through media practices both inside and outside the mainstream, as a mode of education, entertainment, and political activity. Areas we will explore (moving from specific to general) include:

  • The tropes, recurring patterns, and characteristic forms of conspiracy
  • The role of different media in shaping perceptions and understandings of conspiracies
  • The relationship of conspiracy narratives/theories to other media modes such as journalism and documentary, and genres such as horror, science fiction, and mystery
  • The light shed by conspiracy narratives on the production and legitimization of knowledge
  • The possibilities and limits of “diagnosing” conspiratorial trends in relation to specific historical and cultural moments
  • Conspiracy theory as an element of democratic discourse, grassroots political movements, and ideological critique

Textbooks & Readings

  • The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories. James McConnachie and Robin Tudge. Rough Guides Reference, 2008.
  • Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture. Mark Fenster. Revised and Updated Edition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
  • Additional readings marked [PDF] will be distributed via Blackboard.


15% —Participation: assessed throughout term; for more, see note below.

25% —Activity on class blog: will be assessed three times during term for frequency and content of contributions. For more, see blogging handout.

25% —Midterm paper: due October 8, this 5-7 page paper will respond to the first half of the term by locating a pattern, theme, or idea that ties together a group of conspiracy materials (visual, written, or other). These texts should include both academic and nonacademic content we have looked at together in class, along with material you have explored on your own. In addition to identifying and defining a unifying element, the paper must make some kind of interpretive argument about its significance.

35% —Conspiracy wall display and reflection paper: due the penultimate week of class, this project represents the culmination of your experiences in and thinking about Conspiracy. Working in teams, you will create a public display at McCabe Library, a “conspiracy wall” of texts and images mapping out an existing conspiracy or one of your own design. You will also turn in a 3-5 page reflection paper that discusses the conspiracy and the presentation you have given it. Further details will be given later in term.

A Note on Materials and Methods

In this course we will explore a range of content from different points on the cultural spectrum, from academic articles to photocopied screeds and angry websites, from Hollywood blockbusters to digitally-shot and -distributed underground video. Navigating this material will mean paying attention to origins and rhetorical stance (i.e. where it’s from and what it’s saying) while simultaneously setting aside too-quick distinctions between true/false, logical/illogical, legitimate/illegitimate. While I don’t want to lose sight of “common sense,” I also don’t want the course to devolve into arguments about who really shot JFK. Our assumption will be that we can dabble in conspiracies and conspiracy theories without buying into them — or their counterarguments.


Week 1 (Sept 1-3): Course Introduction; Types of Knowledge

Read for Thursday: Fenster, “Introduction: We’re All Conspiracy Theorists Now”; Birchall, “Know It All” [PDF], Lisker, “The MADE Manifesto” [PDF]

Screen: Conspiracy Theory (Richard Donner, 1997)

Week 2 (Sept 8-10): Reading and Paranoia

Read for Tuesday: Shapiro, “Paranoid Style”; for Thursday, Fenster Ch 4, “Uncovering the Plot” (pp. 100-117)

Screen: The Game (David Fincher, 1997)

Week 3 (Sept 15-17): Red Scares and Pod People

Read for Tuesday: Fenster, Ch 1 “Theorizing Conspiracy Politics,” Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” [PDF]; for Thursday, Steffen-Fluhr, “Women and the Inner Game of Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers“?[PDF]

Screen: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956)

Week 4 (Sept 22-24): JFK

Read for Tuesday: Marcus, excerpts from “The Manchurian Candidate“?[PDF]; for Thursday, Fenster Ch 4 “Uncovering the Plot” pp. 118-142, Simon, “The Zapruder Film” and “JFK” [PDF]; Hidell, “The Center of the Labyrinth” [PDF]

Screen: JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991). Watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962).

Week 5 (Sept 29-Oct 1): The Seventies

Read for Tuesday: Kael, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” [PDF]; for Thursday, Simon, “The Parallax View” [PDF], “Project Mind Kontrol” [PDF]; Hidell, “Who Killed John Lennon?” [PDF]

Screen: The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974). Watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufman, 1978)

Week 6 (Oct 6-8): Feminism and Other Science Fictions

Read: Tiptree, “The Women Men Don’t See” [PDF], Valerius, “Rosemary’s Baby, Gothic Pregnancy, and Fetal Subjects” [PDF]; Hidell, “Is There a Satanic Child Abuse Cover-Up?” [PDF]

Screen: Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968). Watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: The Stepford Wives (Bryan Forbes, 1975)

Due: Midterm paper

Fall Break

Week 7 (Oct 20-22): Space Invaders I

Read: Fenster Ch 5, “Plotting the Rush”; Bara, “The Secret History of NASA” [PDF]

Screen: Excerpt from Capricorn One (Peter Hyams, 1978), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Moon (Bart Sibrel, 2001), Astronauts Gone Wild (Bart Sibrel, 2004). Watch on own time: Mythbusters, “NASA Moon Landing Hoax”

Week 8 (Oct 27-29): Space Invaders II

Read: Fenster Ch 4, “Uncovering the Plot” pp. 143-end; Graham, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been? Conspiracy Theory and The X-Files” [PDF]; Bell and Bennion-Nixon, “The Popular Culture of Conspiracy/The Conspiracy of Popular Culture” [PDF]

Screen: Episodes of The X-Files TBA; Conspiracy, “Area 51”

Week 9 (Nov 3-5): Politics and Race in the Digital Era

Read: Fenster Ch 3, “Finding the Plot” (review material on Clinton); Knight, “Fear of a Black Planet: ‘Black Paranoia’ and the Aesthetics of Conspiracy” [PDF]

Screen: The Clinton Chronicles (Patrick Matrisciana, 1994); watch on own time The Obama Deception (Alex Jones, 2009)

Week 10 (Nov 10-12): New World Orders

Read: Fenster Ch 2, “When the Senator Met the Commander”; Heimbichner, “The Idiot’s Guide to the Cryptocracy” [PDF]; Weidner, “The Culling: A Speculative Look into the Global Apocalypse” [PDF]; Weston, “FEMA: Fascist Entity Manipulating America” [PDF]

Screen: Endgame: Blueprint for Global Enslavement (Alex Jones, 2007); watch on own time Waco: The Rules of Engagement (William Gazecki, 1997)

Week 11 (Nov 17-19): 9/11

Read: Fenster Ch 7 “A Failure of Imagination”; Helms, “Lingering Questions about 9/11” [PDF]; Meigs, “Afterword: The Conspiracy Industry” [PDF]

Screen: Loose Change (Dylan Avery, 2007); watch on own time before Tuesday’s class: United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)

Week 12 (Nov 24): Looking Forward to the End of the World

Read: Fenster Ch 6, “The Prophetic Plot”; Marrs, “What Will Happen in 2012?” [PDF]; Wallace, “Four Horses of the Apocalypse: A Color-Coded Key to the Cryptocracy” [PDF]

Screen: TBA

Thursday (Nov 26): Thanksgiving Break

Week 13 (Dec 1-3): Encoding/Decoding History

Screen: The Da Vinci Code (Ron Howard, 2006), National Treasure (Jon Turtletaub, 2004)

Due: Conspiracy Wall displays and reflection papers

Week 14 (Dec 8): Last day of class

Student evaluations

14 thoughts on “Conspiracy in the Classroom

  1. As always, Bob, an erudite and engaging approach to a very contemporary topic. Sounds as much a cultural studies course as “film and media studies,” which I’m very interested in.

    Could you tell us, is this for upper-level FMST students? Are there pre-reqs? I assume this course would be one of a handful your majors could take as electives? Or does your program organize courses differently?

  2. Brett, thanks for the kind words and astute observation about the course’s guiding spirit. I started my graduate career in cultural studies at the University of North Carolina, and find that the courses I’ve developed since coming to Swarthmore — Conspiracy and Fan Culture among them — draw heavily on that early training in questions of textual play, negotiated meanings, and subcultural formations.

    As for the position of Conspiracy on FMST’s curriculum, it’s a little nebulous, out of necessity; we’re renumbering and expanding our course offerings, and amid the flux, I’ve relaxed the prerequisites somewhat. Ordinarily, students have to take our foundational course (Introduction the Film and Media Studies) before going on to anything in the 20s or above. But I’ve let in students who are new to the program, and I’m doing some remedial work in the first weeks of the term to bring them up to speed on the vocabulary of formal film analysis.

    Hope all is well with your own teaching and research!

  3. Hey, Bob. Wanted to suggest Jack Bratich’s Conspiracy Panics as a possible addition. Course looks great.

  4. Bob,
    I enjoyed reading your blog. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Incidentally. I’m taking a similar film studies and sci-fi approach to my course at Rutgers, Mediated Communication, analyzing historical films – Metropolis, 2001, Blade Runner, etc. alongside futurists’ writings – William Gibson et al. to examine popular culture’s anxieties and dreams about tecnology and media/literary representations of the relationship between “man”a nd machine. Lemme know if ya wanna see the sylabus.

  5. Jill, your course on Mediated Communication sounds great. I’d love to see the syllabus.

    Shawn, thanks for the tip! I’ll be sure to check out the Bratich book.

  6. Hi Bob,

    This syllabus looks great! I hope you have a terrific semester. Maybe you could have President Obama brainwash, I mean, make a public address to your class?


  7. Great course! I love the idea of the Conspiracy Wall assignment – can you document these for the web? Or maybe have students devise multimedia walls? The public display is great, but it seems like a shame to have them so temporary…

  8. Jason: I’m glad the course seems sound to you; I think my conversations with you over the years have broadened my sense of what one can do with a good topic and a good group of students. Happily, I seem to have ended up with one such group this term.

    Hmm, the question of how public to go with the public displays. I worry about this myself; it’s the first time I have tried such an assignment. I feel confident that my students will do wonderful things with this assignment, but I don’t want to pressure them unnecessarily with the prospect of “public speaking,” despite the fact that so much conspiratorial discourse is already in the air today.

    What do you think the tradeoffs involved in terms of public vs. private exposure are (if any), given that I asking these folks to produce work that is openly, proudly irrational? I just worry that, since I am asking them to talk about such weird theories, they risk being tagged as “weird” themselves if I make the class an object of general attention. I feel torn.

  9. Good questions – personally, I love the idea of encouraging public oddity, but you’re definitely right that if there’s no context for the projects, they might seem more sincere (and maybe even dangerous) than intended. Is there a way to frame them publicly as “art projects,” implying a bit of ironic detachment? Or maybe if they do something online, they can make them more meta-discourse, attributed to a fictional creator (but with a clarifying page framing it as a parody or commentary)? I just hate the idea of such creativity and innovative pedagogy being so unable to be shared more broadly.

    We had a student at Middlebury a few years ago who did two great video projects that seemed like personal documentaries exploring his hometown and family, but slowly became more odd and paranoid, and were ultimately ambiguous as to whether they were fiction or factual. He screened them publicly with no explanation – but that was his own initiative and choice. It’s a lot different when it’s a class assignment… Good luck figuring it out!

  10. Bob,
    This sounds like a fun, stimulating, and timely project. I’m a little concerned, however, that you may be backing away from the responsibilities it entails. Your note on materials and methods hints at a relativism that, in these times, is frankly something of a cop-out. In these days of birthers, tea parties, and deliberate death-panel disinformation, not to mention holocaust-deniers and their ilk, scholars (especially those in the humanities) have obligation to call bullshit what it is (perhaps in more subtle terms) and teach their students how to spot it. I’m talking good old-fashioned unsexy “logocentric” critical reasoning here. Maybe you only intend this relativism to be methodological, so as to see the texts/artifacts in question more clearly, but if at the end of the semester you end up with students who still can’t keep their heads above the sea of nonsense we’re all swimming in these days, then . . . something important will have been missed.

    (And on another level, a course like this might be designated to fulfill some sort of collegiate critical thinking requirement, if there is one at Swarthmore and if you play your cards right).

  11. Mike: good points, as always. You’ve put your finger on one of the faultlines running through the course design, and correctly surmise that it is a strategy on my part (to set aside preconceptions about truth value and logical reasoning) that may backfire. Still, I’ve found that with Swarthmore students, you can rarely go wrong by reflecting the question back at them as an exercise in self-reflexive rigor. So … mind if I share your thoughts with them?

  12. Please do share share my thoughts with your students if you think doing so will benefit them in any way. That’s probably the closest I’ll ever get to teaching students like that or a course like that. *sigh*

    For future reference, I hereby give you my permission to reproduce anything I post publicly in this forum.

  13. The site may be a handy resource related to this topic, they link to articles about conspiracy theories in the news media. I’m not sure how scholarly their book is but I believe they attempt to answer some of the questions you are asking in your course, mainly: “how and why do these theories gain traction?”

Comments are closed.