Literature, Mass Media, and Pop Culture

Thursday, August 18

The biggest takeaways from today are these:

  • the definition and gist of Semiotics (signifier + signified = meaning)
  • the cyclical relationship between Mass Media and Pop Culture
  • signs and symbols (and the messages they send) are deeply subjective
  • we will focus on storytelling through print, audio, and visual media, which includes a good bit of history, so come prepared to take notes in class.

We’re starting with Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, an award-winning journalist and excellent storyteller. He initially wrote about Chris McCandless in a 1993 article in Outside magazine, but there was more to tell of Chris’ story. After all, what makes a college graduate walk away from his entire life and run off to the Alaskan wilderness? The answer is someone who was so deeply moved by the works of Henry David Thoreau, Jack London, and other writers who romanticized a life of great adventure that the only logical answer is to leave every material thing behind – including cash – and live off the land and the goodness of whoever he encountered.

A Quick Note: Do not Google Chris McCandless or seek out any other info on him. I want you to learn about him and his life in a certain order. Start with this book, and we’ll add more to the story after next week.


Read this excerpt from Walden and then read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire”. Then, read Ch. 1-6 in Into the Wild.

When you’ve finished reading, great a new Google Document, copy/paste the following questions into your document, and answer them substantively.

  1. In your own words, define and explain semiotics.
  2. Explain the cyclical relationship between Mass Media and Pop Culture. 
  3. One of the most commonly quoted passages in Walden is: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Does this sentence resonate with you at all? How and why? If not, what other passage from Walden speaks to you? 
  4. List a few of the fatal mistakes the man makes in “To Build a Fire”?
  5. After reading an excerpt from Walden and “To Build a Fire”, can you see anything in those two works that might prompt someone to drop everything and see a life spent in the Alaskan wilderness?
  6. Why do you think Chris changes his name, telling people his name is Alex?
  7. We learn quickly that Chris does not get to live out his dream in the raw Alaskan wilderness. His body is discovered by some hikers off The Stampede Trail. What are your initial thoughts about this, considering we’ve just met Chris (as a character and person)? 
  8. This quote comes from Ch. 3: “The trip was to be an odyssey in the fullest sense of the word, an epic journey that would change everything. [McCandless] had spent the previous four years, as he saw it, preparing to fulfill an absurd and onerous duty: to graduate from college. At long last he was unencumbered, emancipated from the stifling world of his parents and peers, a world of abstraction and security and material excess, a world in which he felt grievously cut off from the raw throb of existence.” Put this concept into your own words. Try to connect with the idea of external forces (authority figures) pushing you into a box that doesn’t fit your own ideas and plans. 
  9. What do you think about Chris ignoring what seems like basic common sense rules – that he might need some money, that it might be nice to give his parents some peace of mind that he was alive, that a simple fix could’ve meant his car lasting longer… How do you view his frame of mind? Why is he so resistant to accept help?
  10. Mrs. Westerberg says on pg. 67, “He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs.” In what ways do you live out your beliefs? 

Share your document via email no later than Wednesday night.


This is a multimedia English class for 11th and 12th graders that looks at storytelling from many perspectives. We’ll read novels, memoirs, fairy tales, and articles. We’ll listen to podcasts and catch a few films. We’ll endeavor to connect old ideas to new trends in pop culture. Sometimes it will feel like a history class, but that’s only because students need to know when different mediums were created. 

Students will need a Google Drive account (via gmail) and access to podcast platforms, such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Soundcloud. Note: We will be listening to the second season of Serial, which is an award-winning series that originated through This American Life on NPR. The series covers the story of Bowe Bergdahl, an Army private who walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009, was captured by the Taliban, and held as a prisoner for five years. Read more about Serial Season Two here:

Parents, please review the series and notify me BY OCTOBER 1  if you’d prefer I assign your student different podcasts.

Students will be expected to answer weekly response questions and fully participate in class discussions. (I understand some students are shy, but this class is designed to share ideas and opinions.) Students will take a few tests throughout the year, as well as give a 10-12 minute presentation on the fairy tale, folk story, or myth of their choice at the end of the spring semester.

Fall Required Reading: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, Persepolis (Volume 1) by Marjane Satrapi, Serial Season Two (podcast series), The Time Machine by HG Wells

Spring Required Reading: The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins; Short stories and fairy tales will be provided   

Tests are open notes, so your ability to pay attention, take notes, and keep organized is always rewarded. Bring a writing utensil and your notebook to class every week.