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What explains California?

This course explores this question through place and bioregion, individual histories and collective narratives of identity and culture, ideals and representation–all of which feed into the “California dream.”


Panama California Exposition, 2015

Students will explore the historical myth and material reality of the Golden State through indigenous cultures and narratives of exploration; waves of immigration and demographic change; the presence of racism and multicultural history and identity; water, orange groves, and agribusiness; cities and suburbia; political corruption and capital crimes; money and Hollywood moguls; technological booms and busts; film, fiction, and fashion; popular music and poetry; sex, drugs, rock and roll; narratives of self-actualization and alienation; the emergence of surfing and skateboarding; skiing, mountaineering, and rock climbing; television, sports, and celebrity culture.

What explains California?


Safeway – United Farm Worker’s Grape Boycott, National City. Herman Baca Papers. MSS 0649. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego


Marie Ueda. 1978 San Francisco Gay Day Parade. Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Historical Society. San Francisco


Page of First Edition of Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain


W.D. Carter. Overland Mail Route to California Broadside. 1866. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley


Herman Baca, San Diego-based Chicano activist, 1979. Herman Baca Papers. MSS 0649. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego


California Grown

Final Project Notes

Congratulations: Our conferences this week have been productive and rewarding as your projects take shape. Most of the projects using Word Press, Tumblr, Wix, or another platform, are enabling you to gather your primary materials. Most of you have then worked to describe the materials as a body of work–describing the objects and artifacts, making connections and telling a story that expands and deepen our understanding of the natural and /or cultural history of California.

Your research into the natural and cultural history of California—and your answers to the question, “What is California?”—is significant. During the second half of your semester together we have shared the responsibility for directing our learning as we continue to study natural and cultural history of the Golden State. Your work is compelling evidence of the generative intellectual work that is possible in a first-year college course.

Below I offer a few reminders and the criteria I handed out in class a couple of weeks ago. In addition to your conference with me, please be in touch by email with updates and with questions. I am also able to meet with anyone next Tuesday or Wednesday.


Moving Towards Completion: After we wrapped our symposium sessions on Tuesday I encouraged you to attend to the following elements of your project during the week you have before the final version of the project is due:

  • Title and Subtitle: when a user navigates to your site the title and subtitle should offer an orientation to the subjext and the orientation of your project
  • Project Statement: the project statement will elaborate, albiet briefly, what is implied in the title
  • Design: the design of the site should provide access to the content. In conferences we have discussed the use of hashtags on Tumblr and pages and categories on Word Press. We have also explored the relationship between images and text and the use of themes
  • Analysis and Interpretation: It is imperative that your project have a narrative of some kind. There is no length requirement here. But without the analysis and the interpretation the project will have less significance and impact.

Checklist: I include the assessment criteria that I handed out a few weeks ago. This is the list that I will use to help determine your final grade.

  1. Symposium Contributions
  • Preparation and teamwork: Is the group work during the symposium workshops efficient and effective?
  • Progress and Meeting deadline: Is a revised title and project abstract sent to Mark by Thursday April 14 at noon?
  • Session contribution: Does the session provide the class with relevant and engaging materials that help explain California? Does the group effectively present the materials to the class (e.g. a series of written points or questions to help with discussion, visual materials using tools such as a powerpoint, prezi, or blog?) Do group members take responsibility for maintaining the flow and quality of the discussion whenever needed?
  1. First Version of Project
  • Meeting deadline: Is the first version of the project submitted by Thursday April 21?
  • Project development: the challenge of creatively and critically assessing a collection of primary materials takes place over time. It is also a challenge to use secondary materials to first describe and then to interpret the materials gathered. Does the first version of the project demonstrate progress commensurate with one month of work?
  1. Individual Conferences
  • Preparation and Reflection: Is there evidence of sufficient work prior to the conferences so that the conversation is driven by questions and problems and challenges?
  • Engagement and Purpose: Is the conference used to answer specific questions about the project, to explore complications, to address problems?
  1. Final Project
  • Offers a clear and distinct organization of the primary materials
  • Uses secondary materials to introduce or tell the story the materials suggest
  • Presents the materials in an organized manner, whether in a print essay or using a digital platform such as Word Press or Tumblr
  • Offers a thoughtful and evidence-based description of the materials
  • Makes clear what the project is doing to expand and deepen our understanding of the natural and /or cultural history of California

Dear Class

First, I want to thank each and every one of you for your projects. The work you are doing is significant. Your research into the natural and cultural history of California—and your answers to the question, “What is California?”—is of great value for others. Not incidentally, at this point in the semester, you are each sharing the responsibility for coauthoring the course. Your work is directing our learning as we continue to study natural and cultural history. And it is demonstrating the intellectual work that is possible in a first-year college course.

At the same time I need each of you to make progress before our conferences next week. As I have been intimating in the questions I am asking in the symposium we are conducting, it is not enough to compile primary and secondary materials. The next step is to organize and describe the materials. The use of blogs is working very well in this regard and I encourage those not using these digital tools to consider them as they offer affordances that are not possible in a more static product.

But it is also not enough to offer a descriptive account of the objects and artifacts that you have gathered. You are organizing and describing your objects and artifacts to offer insight into the richness and complexity of culture. To understand a place or a culture requires interpretation, and interpretations offer interesting and useful answers to the question we are asking: What explains California?

Second, I need you you to put in the time and the intellectual work before we meet next week in our individual conference. By the time we meet for our conference every one of you should have gathered your materials. You should also have organized and described the materials. The more you can do the more productive our conference session will be. In addition to putting in the time necessary to do good work, I want you to come to our meeting prepared with questions. The questions can be about design (for example, how to organize materials, or the relationship between organization and interpretation) or interpretation (what is the significance of these materials when gathered together). By this point your project statements should be crisp and clear and accessible to a reader. These statements will most likely be the final piece that you are tinkering with but the more times you work on them the better they will be.

If you have not sent me your URL or a document with your work I need you to do so. Conferences will be held in my office, 206 Parker Hall. Bring your laptop, if you have one.


Writing with Sources

Please remember that it is your responsibility to quote accurately all material you cite, paraphrase, or summarize. If you do not understand the obligation to attribute words and ideas of others please talk with me, refer to a handbook, such as Diana Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference, or consult the Keene State College Policy on Academic Honesty.

  1. Identify the speaker or writer of the quotation. Usually precedes the quoted material. (“Takaki proposes, . . .”).
  1. When you introduce a quotation, consider using verbs other than “says.” “Argues,” “adds,” “contends,” “points out,” “admits,” “comments,” “insists.” Or, with just the right verb, consider the use of a transitional phrase: “In an apparent contradiction, Takaki goes on to argue that. . . .”
  1. Distinguish between short and long quotations. Enclose short quotations (fewer than four lines of type) in quotation marks. Set off long quotations (more than four lines of type). Do not use quotation marks. To set off a long quotation, begin a new line, indent ten spaces from the left margin, and double space throughout. Note well that long quotations need adequate introduction and are most often immediately preceded by a full sentence ending in a colon.
  1. Don’t introduce a long quotation into the middle of one of your own sentences. Too often the reader will get lost as you transition from your own writing into a long quotation. It’s better to use a short introductory tag (as described above) and then follow the quotation with your own sentence.
  1. An embedded quotation (that is, a quotation embedded into a sentence of your own) must fit grammatically into the sentence of which it is a part.
  1. Quote exactly. Check your quotation for accuracy at least twice. If you intend to add or substitute a word in the quotation (to conform with 5), enclose the words in square brackets. Indicate omissions of material with an ellipses (three periods, with a space between each period). If you omit words at the end of sentence, indicate the omission with three periods (an ellipses) and end punctuation (a period).
  2. Use punctuation accurately. Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. Semicolons and colons go outside quotation marks. Question marks, exclamation points and dashes go inside if they are part of the quotation, outside if they are your own.
  1. Use single quotation marks for a quotation within a quotation. “Listening to the conversation following Howard Dean’s speech, I overheard an audience member say that she had ‘never encountered such a frank and honest politician.’ She went on to say, ‘I don’t know what to make of him. But I like him.’”
  1. Enclose title of short works in quotation marks. Longer works should be underlined or italicized.

A Few Examples

In his essay “The Making of Mountains and Rivers Without End,” Gary Snyder describes the poetic sequence Myths and Texts as his “first venture” into “the challenge of interweaving physical life and inward realms” (154). The challenge Snyder faces is more than this statement might suggest. For the “interweaving” of the physical world must take into account not only its present but its past state. “The piles of stone” stacked by earlier miners in “The Canyon Wren” and the “dendritic endless fractal streambed riffs on hillsides” in “The Mountain Spirit” together reveal evidence of the history of human presence on the land as well as the landscape’s “endless” geological transformations. These ongoing human and the natural processes are vividly evident in the following lines from the first two stanza’s of “Finding Space in the Heart”: . . . . Similarly, the “inward realms” of Snyder’s imagination are constructed out of history and not simply the more limited psychological realm of the poet. The indigenous traditions of North America and the cultural traditions of East Asia are just two of the inward “realms” present in Snyder’s imagination. . . . .

The most stunning and simple formulation of this crucial argument in favor of comparative thinking is by Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist at Harvard University. Kleinman’s “Eight Questions” do more than merely guide the medical practitioner toward the step of gathering information about cultural background. The questions prompt a reevaluation of one’s own cultural perspective as one that is not universal. As Kleinman explains, “If you can’t see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else’s culture?” (Qtd. In Fadiman 261). This position requires a radical reorientation from simply considering “the other” as outside the norm to understanding one’s own normative cultural conventions. This provocative reversal makes possible. . . .”

Whitman Ah Sing’s resistance to the hyphen (and the binary thinking about identity it perpetuates) is further illustrated near the opening of the final chapter in the novel, One-Man Show”:

There is no East here. West is meeting West. This was all West. All you saw was West. This is The Journey In the West. I am so fucking offended. Why aren’t you offended? Let me help you get offended. Always be careful to take offense. These sinophiles dig us so much, they’re drooling over us. That kind of favorableness I can do without. They think they know us—the wide range of us from sweet to sour—because they eat in Chinese restaurants. . . . I’ve read my Aristotle and Agee, I’ve been to college; they have ways to criticize the theater besides for sweet and sourness. They could do laundry reviews, clean or dirty. Come on. What’s so ‘exotic’? (308)

The tirade is triggered by the reviews of his play. Whitman is offended by the “sinophiles” who consider themselves knowledgeable about the experiences of the “Chinese.” Of course as the language of this passage suggests, Whitman is performing—he is on stage, speaking to the audience, waving the reviews in his hand. His veiled reference to Wu’s The Journey to the West reminds his audience, as he puts it elsewhere, that “we allthesame Americans” (282). His rambling monologue therefore has a very particular rhetorical end” to challenge his audience to see how easily they construct a binary opposition that forces him (“I’m common ordinary”) to be either American or Chinese.

Tripmaster Monkey’s critique of the critic’s cultural construction of ‘Orient’ as a system of representation shows how easy it is to essentialize a biologically inferior and culturally backward, peculiar, and unchanging other. Whitman’s on-stage tirade is consistent with Edward Said’s seminal argument that the Western discourse of “Orientalism” functions in other discourses on the other. As Said argues, this way of thinking provides the West with its conceit of cultural and intellectual superiority as well as its rationale for imperialism. For Whitman, the cultural conceit of intellectual superiority is projected both unwittingly and pervasively. In the third chapter, in conversation with Tāna, he elaborates on the pervasive way an apparently neutral descriptive taxonomy re-inscribes the discourse of the other:

Annnotated Works Cited

Diane Simmons. Maxine Hong Kingston. New York: Twayne, 1999.

Twayne’s United States Author Series provides the reader with a general critical overview of the life and work of its featured authors. The volume on Maxine Hong Kingston begins with a biographical essay. The book then traces the development of major themes in hong Kingston’s books The Woman Warrior, China Men, and Tripmaster Monkey. The biographical essay and six additional chapters are especially attentive to the cultural reception of Kingston’s work following the publication of The Woman Warrior in 1978. An Appendix includes an interview with Maxine Hong Kingston by Diane Simmons and a useful (but now incomplete) bibliography of sources.

Hunt, Anthony. “‘The Hump-Backed Flute Player’: The Structure of Emptiness in Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 1.2 (Fall 1993): 1–24.

Anthony Hunt is among the most knowledgeable readers of Gary Snyder and this article offers new information about the making of Gary Snyder’s Mountains and Rivers Without End. Although Snyder completed MRWE in 1996, this essay illuminates a crucial part of the text, “The Hump-backed flute player,” a poem that appears as the final poem in the second section of the 1996 edition. The image of the Hopi Kachina figure is especially important, argues Hunt, in understanding Snyder’s ecological/Buddhist themes. The presence of Kokopilau registers a cultural awareness grounded in the creation and migration stories of the Hopi as well as the Zen-inspired meditation on interdependency, emptiness, and impermanence.

The Hmong Resource Center  www.hmongcenter.org/

The Hmong Resource Center provides a comprehensive collection of Hmong-related literature, scholarly research, and multimedia materials. The site includes links to census data, bibliographies, Hmong arts, a recently revised Hmong dictionary, and the online Hmong Studies Journal.

The Hmong Studies Journal    www.hmongstudies.org/

The Hmong Studies Journal is a unique and established peer-reviewed Internet-based academic publication devoted to the scholarly discussion of Hmong history, Hmong culture, Hmong people, and other facets of the Hmong experience in the U.S., Asia and around the world. The Hmong Studies Journal has published 6 online issues since 1996. The Hmong Studies Journal is the only peer-reviewed scholarly journal in the world devoted to academic studies related to the Hmong diaspora and Hmong culture and history.

“Snyder, Gary. “Remarks for the California Biodiversity Council, Grass Valley / Nevada City, 6 June, 1996.” http://ceres.ca.gov/biodiv/snyder.html



Wall art explains California

Public Murals have been a part of the cultural landscape of southern California since the early twentieth century. A brief history of the social mural movement is available at the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). The vision of SPARC is rooted in the Mexican social mural movement as expressed by David Alfaro Siqueiros: “We repudiate so-called easel art and all such art which springs from ultra-intellectual circles, for it is essentially aristocratic. We hail the monumental expression of art because such art is public property.”

city of passion

Ernesto de la Loza, “City of passion,” 1800 West Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles

The brief history includes an abridged version of of an article by the Artistic Director and Founder of SPARC, Professor Judith F. Baca, written in 2001, entitled Birth of a Movement. In the article, as recounted on the SPARC site, she describes “how the ideals of the Mexican social mural movement inspired Los Angeles muralists in the 1970’s and how her work painting murals with at-risk youth formed the basis of the first city-wide mural program and eventually led to the creation of SPARC.”


Dogtown Coffee, the site of the Zephyr Skate Shop, 2003 Main Street, Santa Monica

Robin Dunitz Slides of Los Angeles Murals, 1925-2002 This digital collection consists of more than 2,000 digitized 35mm slides of murals in Los Angeles photographed by Robin Dunitz. The murals date from 1925 to the early 2000s and were photographed by Robin Dunitz in the late 1980s and early-mid 1990s to early 2000s. Dunitz, was a long time resident of Los Angeles, and an independent researcher on the city’s murals.

Elliot Pinckey pillars of progress _0

Elliott Pinkney, “Pillars,” Santa Fe Ave. at Artesia Blvd. (under 91 Freeway) Compton

Dunitz’s archival collection on Los Angeles murals is housed in the University of Southern California (USC) Architecture and Fine Arts Library. A listing of the contents of the archival collection may be found in the finding aid at Robin Dunitz California and Los Angeles Murals Files.

Since 1987, the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA) has worked to restore, preserve, and document the murals of Los Angeles. The MCLA works to protect the legal rights of artists, prevent the loss of significant works of public art, and preserve the artists heritage of Los Angeles as one of the mural capitals of the world. The MCLA maintains a database of Los Angeles’ Mural History linking artists, murals and neighborhoods.


Charles Felix, “Mestizo,” 1516 Grande Vista, Los Angeles

The City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) has a Citywide Mural Program

Further Reading

James Prigoff (co-author). Walls of Heritage, Walls of Pride: African American Murals. Pomegranate Press, 2000

Street gallery: guide to 1000 Los Angeles murals. Revised edition, RJD Enterprises, 1998

James Prigoff (co-author). Painting the towns: murals of California. RJD Enterprises, 1997

FatCap is a graffiti and street-art resource that provides examples of public art in cities around the world

Form and Function: a Blog?

I have talked to a few of you already about using a blog to organize your project for this course. In fact, Abbey has already set up a blog that will serve as the platform for presenting her project: check out the Judy Garland Blog.

There are a number of blog platforms, including Blogger, Tumblr, and Word Press. I’m going to offer you instructions for setting up a Word press blog here.

  • Go to the Word Press Get Started Page. You can also go directly to WordPress.com. You will be prompted to choose an address, user name and password. For the address, you may use the following convention (first initial + last name + course number or if you would like you may use a pseudonym (pen name, nom de plume, or alias).
  • Once you have registered the blog, you will need to configure your blog. Use the  Get Started page for a step-by-step guide.
  • Once you have set up your blog, you can Click on the “Dashboard” and add pages or posts. You can upload materials from the web or your desktop. You will need to learn the difference between pages (as opposed to posts) and widgets (such as a tag cloud or a list of links that you can use to customize your page and make it easier for a reader to navigate). If you would like to add images to your site or to postings, you will learn how simple this really is. The Word Press tutorials help. The eleventh tutorial, titled “Insider Tips,” is helpful. The “kitchen sink” icon in the post/page editor, to take one example, reveals formatting options, enabling you to create headings and indent text, or to use the “paste from word” button that will carry over formatting from a word document.


I will be happy to meet with you at any time if you have questions about the basic features of the WP platform. However the best way to learn how to use WP is to experiment. As you will see, changing the look and organizational structure of your blog is simple.

Research Notebooks


Big Trees of California Southern Pacific Company San Francisco, California (public domain)

Your Research Notebook is due on Thursday April 7 in class. The Notebook will record the materials you have gathered as well as your thoughts about the materials.

The most important element of the research notebook is the primary sources. Your primary sources may include a range of materials: photographs, documents, newspaper pages, political cartoons, works of art, diaries, transcribed oral histories, advertising, film or YouTube videos, drawings or illustrations, maps, memoir, autobiography, government documents, nonprofit board minutes, etc.

The secondary sources you have gathered for your project are part of your research; however, these secondary sources are best understood as other people’s projects-their explanations of California. That is, your work is to create your own project and then to use each secondary source (from, say, an artist, music critic, historian, or journalist) to help you do your work, to tell your story, to help you (and us) explain California.

Your Research Notebook will have five parts:

A Working Project Title. Please give the title some thought. The title should be descriptive. It should represent the progress you have made since the project proposal due date of March 10.

A One-Sentence Summary of the Project. The summary should describe the project and the purpose of the project. The purpose is how the project offers an interesting story on the natural and/or the cultural history of California.

A List of Primary Sources. Include the URL or print citation for each of the sources and write a one-sentence annotation for each source that describes the source and how you are using it.

A List of Secondary Sources. Include the full print citation (or the URL) for each of the sources and write a one-sentence annotation for each source that describes the source and how you are using it.

A Process, Method, and Product Statement. This statement will be 1-2 pages in length. I want to hear specifically what you have done during the past few weeks, what you are currently doing, and what you plan to do before submitting the first version of your project for review on Thursday April 21. Describe the changes that have taken place in your understanding of your project. Describe what you have learned. Describe what you want to share and why what you have to share matters. In almost every case the materials your are gathering will change what you set out to do. As you gather and organize materials you will be learning from each object as well as from the ways that the objects are beginning to fall into a relationship of some kind.

If for some reason you are unable to be in class on Thursday April 21 you will need to email me the project, or the link to the project site, no later than our class meeting time.

Primary Source Examples

The Shirley letters from California mines in 1851-52 

A series of twenty-three letters from Dame Shirley (Mrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) to her sister in Massachusetts, and now reprinted from the Pioneer magazine of 1854-55. Includes a synopses of the letters, a foreword, and a list of typographical and other corrections and emendations. The Shirley letters offer insight into the living conditions of a woman who came to California during the Gold Rush in the 1950s.

Mary Cone, Two Years in California 1876

A resident of Marietta, Ohio, Mary Cone spent two years in California in the 1870s. Two years in California offers a nineteenth-century view (by a woman) of the the state’s history, climate, agriculture, and geography and a description of its regions: Southern California (San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara), the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys (with chapters on individual Sacramento ranches), Northern California’s redwoods and Mount Shasta and the same region’s other tourist attractions (San Francisco, Mount St. Helena). Separate chapters discuss the Chinese in California and the author’s visit to Yosemite.

Kim Stringfellow. The Mohave Project. mohaveproject.org. Accessed March 22, 2016.

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary that explores the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The themes of the project offer different but complimentary perspectives on the California Desert: Desert as Wasteland; Geological Time vs. Human Time; Sacrifice and Exploitation; Danger and Consequence; Space and Perception; Mobility and Movement; Desert as Staging Ground; Transformation and Reinvention.

Secondary Source Examples

Jo Ann Levy. They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2014.

This book adds to the literature of the Gold Rush the experiences and stories of women in the California Gold Rush through letters, journals and reminiscences. The book offers excerpts from primary materials that will be useful for my project and a secondary source that helps add women’s experiences and social presence in California during the 1850s.

Albert L. Hurtado. Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California. U of New Mexico P, 1999.

This book focuses on the history of the American frontier from the 1760s to the 1850s when the territory was controlled by Spain, Mexico, and the United States. The book focuses on sex and gender and race through social activities and family life in Native American, Anglo American, Hispanic, Chinese, and mixed blood persons and communities.

Please post questions about the project process in the “Leave a Reply” column at the bottom of the post. I will respond to the questions. And the whole class will have access to the questions as they arise. 

On Thinking and Making California

American Studies offers students the experience of thinking and making: of joining in the dialogue, thought, and conversations about the past and the present. By engaging in the project of explanation and understanding we can elevate our lives by making connections, and discovering the questions about ourselves, and our world, that might matter.

The second half of the semester will be organized around your thinking and the way that thinking takes shape in the projects you make. Below are inspired (and inspiring!) projects that open us up to the natural and cultural history of California. Spend some time with these projects. They will help you begin to answer questions about your own project methods, and lead you to think about how to design your own.

Kim Stringfellow, an artist and educator residing in Joshua Tree, California, teaches photography and multimedia courses at San Diego State University in the School of Art + Design. Her web site offers a window into the natural and cultural history of California and her projects provide inspiration for organizing creative investigations and explorations.

The Mojave Project is an experimental transmedia documentary that explores the physical, geological and cultural landscape of the Mojave Desert. The project reconsiders and establishes multiple ways in which to interpret this unique and complex landscape, through association and connection of seemingly unrelated sites, themes, and subjects thus creating a speculative and immersive experience for its audience.


There It Is—Take It! is a self-guided car audio tour through Owens Valley, California
along U.S. Route 395 examining the controversial social, political, and environmental history of the Los Angeles Aqueduct system. The tour illuminates various impacts this divisive water conveyance infrastructure has created within the Owens Valley over the last one hundred years of the aqueduct’s existence. Stories of the aqueduct are told from multiple perspectives and viewpoints through the voices of historians, biologists, activists, native speakers, environmentalists, litigators, LADWP employees, and residents from both Los Angeles and the Owens Valley.

Jackrabbit Homestead is a published book, photographic exhibit, and web-based multimedia presentation featuring a downloadable car audio tour exploring the cultural legacy of the Small Tract Act in Southern California’s Morongo Basin region near Joshua Tree National Park. Stories from this underrepresented regional history are told through the voices of local residents, historians, and area artists—many of which reside in reclaimed historic cabins and use the structures as inspiration for their creative work.

imgres.jpgInvisible-5 is a self-guided critical audio tour along Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Invisible-5 is a collaboration between three artists and two organizations. The collaborators on Invisible-5 are artists Amy Balkin and Kim Stringfellow, audio lead Tim Halbur, and organizations Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, and Pond: Art, activism, and ideas. The project uses the format of a museum audio tour to guide the listener along the highway landscape. Invisible-5 investigates the stories of people and communities fighting for environmental justice along the I-5 corridor, through oral histories, field recordings, found sound, recorded music, and archival audio documents. The project also traces natural, social, and economic histories along the route. Sites along the tour, which can be driven in either direction, include Livermore, Crows Landing, Kesterson NWR, Kettleman City, and Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles. The free, downloadable program in MP3 format along with the printable PDF booklet is available at the project’s website.

California Humanities is a non-profit that promotes the humanities in California in order to help create “a state of open mind.” The work of California Humanities is designed to inspire Californians to learn more, dig deeper, and start conversations that matter among the dramatically diverse people in the state.


California Documentary Project is a competitive grants program that supports documentary film, radio, and new media productions that enhance our understanding of California and its cultures, peoples, and histories. Projects must use the humanities to provide context, depth, and perspective and be suitable for California and national audiences through broadcast and/or distribution. Since 2003, we have awarded approximately $4 million to projects that document the California experience and explore issues of significance to Californians. CDP grants support projects at the research and development, production, and public engagement stages.

Negro_Notebook_2Bible of Black Travel During the era of Jim Crow, many African Americans relied on this “Bible of Black Travel” to navigate safe passage and find sustenance and respite while on the road. This oral history project will identify and interview individuals who are connected to historic sites of refuge in Los Angeles – hotels, motels, restaurants, gas stations, and other businesses. Stories will be presented through public programs, an interactive website, and provide material for a book and exhibit that will document a little known chapter in California history and provide opportunities to re-examine America’s troubled history of race relations.

 An American Mosque is a documentary about religious freedom and the struggle against intolerance set in a rural California town.  Sparked by the destruction of a mosque, the documentary film explores how a farming community responds to hate through painful but ultimately positive discussions about the perception of Islam in America and our responsibility to defend everyone’s constitutional right to worship.

Cynthia Hooper: A few weeks ago we looked at the work of the artist Cynthia Hooper through her interdisciplinary media project that features six short observational documentary videos and accompanying essays that examine and interpret the built environment of Humboldt Bay—California’s second largest estuary.


A Negotiable Utopia: The Humboldt Bay Project is made up of six short observational documentary videos and accompanying essays. The project investigates the bay’s natural resource economy and infrastructure (including timber, fishing, and aquaculture), its transportation (including roads, rails, and ships), as well as the bay’s power infrastructure—including formerly nuclear, fossil fuel, and renewable energy. The project also documents Humboldt Bay’s natural and municipal watersheds, as well as its varied conservation zones and complicated shoreline.




All the News, Fit To Print

In a recent piece in NeimanLab, “California Dreaming: How the LA Times is introducing new beats and platforms to grow its audience,” Joseph Lichterman includes a conversation with S. Mitra Kalita, the Times managing editor for editorial strategy, to learn more about her efforts to expand the types of stories the paper covers. “When the Los Angeles Times announced in June that it was hiring a reporter, Dexter Thomas, to cover Black Twitter,” explains Lichterman, “the Internet had many opinions and was not shy about expressing them.”

Kalita’s interest in developing and refining new styles of newspaper journalism is interesting for us as Phillip Fradkin, a former reporter at the Times, weaved into his story of California how the Chandlers controlled the news:

Like the Mexicans, the blacks were an invisible minority in the mid-1960s. Raphael J. Sonenshein, a professor of political science at California State University, Fullerton, wrote, ‘Blacks were still invisible still, especially in such citywide media outlets as the Los Angeles Times.’ He added, ‘It took massive civil violence to unmistakably express Black concerns and command the full attention of the city. Another researcher counted only one hundred inches of news space devoted to the black community since 1943, and those stories were either short, concerned only crime, or originated from city hall handouts about municipal projects. (392)

The new journalism model will include new beats and new platforms for storytelling, from SoundCloud to Snapchat, expanding the Times’ audience beyond the readership Chandler envisioned for his paper. “I see an opportunity in framing broader stories through the California lens and achieving audience in our state and throughout the world,” Kalita explains in her conversation.

What explains California? In this case, the news. However what we are seeing is that who controls the news, and to whom the target audience is envisioned to be, will in large measure determine what is included (and what is not).

News from High and Low Country

In the most recent issue of High Country News Paige Blankenbuehler’s article “The disappearing wetlands in California’s Central Valley: Where water is scarce, waterbirds pay the price” explains the effects of the recent drought in the Central Valley. Her focus is on the effects of drought on wetlands in the Valley and the birds that depend on the wetlands. Sena Christian’s “A dry future weighs heavy on California agriculture: Something’s got to give in Central Valley farming. The only question is what” offers a look at the effects of the water future on farming practices.

What explains California? High Country New. The online presence of this worthy little publication boasts its own “California” topics news page that is worth reading. And while visiting the News let me suggest that you take in how humor explains our regional exploration through the Rants from the Hillcolumn by my buddy Michael Branch who muses monthly on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert that edges on the state of California. Check it out!

Project Proposals: Making a Start

Project Proposal: What Explains California?

In these studies I have sought to re-name the things seen, now lost in a chaos of borrowed titles, many of them inappropriate, under which the true character lies hid. In letters, in journals, in reports of happenings I have recognized new contours suggested by old words so that new names were constituted. . . . it has been my wish to draw from every source one thing, the strange phosphorous of the life, nameless under an old misappellation.

—William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain

Due Date: Thursday March 10th “What Explains California? Project Proposal

Proposal Description We will complete our reading of Phillip Fradkin’s The Seven States of California by Spring Break. The second half of our course will be organized around individual writing projects.

The first step in the process is you working to design the project around primary source material. You have over a week to explore the materials I have put on the course web site. You need to explore the materials to find what most interests you, and to begin articulating for yourself what that interest really is. The examples we will go over in class are primarily digital archives that include both primary and secondary materials available on the web

Organization of Proposal The four-part proposal will include the following elements:

  • A one-sentence summary of the project: name the materials and/or artifacts you are working with and the archives you are accessing. (Include the URL for each of the archives.)
  • A one-page, single-spaced description and elaboration of your project: What interests you about the material you have chosen? What do you hope to find out? What are the key terms that are associated with the artifacts or materials?
  • A list of primary sources: Drawings and sketches, Photographs, Correspondence, films, first-person narratives, journals, government documents, ledgers, etc.
  • A list of secondary sources: articles, books, curated document or digital collection introductions

Primary Materials for What Explains California? Projects

“American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.

—James A. Baldwin

“California is America—only more so”

—Carey McWilliams)

Where do I begin? A Case Study of Oakland Museum Collections 


Mexican worker arriving in the U.S. during early days of the Bracero program in 1942. First Braceros. ca. 1942. Dorothea Lange. Collection of Oakland Museum of California

Picture This: California’s Perspectives on American History is an educational resource that features primary source images from the Oakland Museum of California’s collections that reflect the rich cultural diversity of California.

 Iconic Images of the 60’s in California The 1960s were an extraordinary time in California. These are a few images of some of the amazing things that were happening.

 Immigration Exhibit I am interested in showing how contemporary America at the turn of the century and throughout have documented immigration through the use of photography. This exhibit allows to showcase a unique lens from the photographer.

More Featured Exhibits

A Highlight of Materials Accessed through Digital Portals Below I highlight some materials and collections from two digital portals: Selected Digital Collections and Materials at the Library of Congress and selected collections and materials at Calisphere: a gateway to digital collections in California’s public libraries, archives, and museums.


Before and After the Great Earthquake and Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897 to 1916 This collection consists of twenty-six films of San Francisco from before and after the Great Earthquake and Fire, 1897-1916. Seventeen of the films depict San Francisco and its environs before the 1906 disaster. Seven films describe the great earthquake and fire. The two later films include a 1915 travelogue that shows scenes of the rebuilt city and a tour of the Panama Pacific Exposition and a 1916 propaganda film.



Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio leading student protestors at the University of California, Berkeley. Nov. 20, 1964. Chris Kjobech,. Oakland Museum of California. The Oakland Tribune Collection.

Lawrence and Houseworth Collection In 1867 the Library of Congress acquired a set of more than 900 albumen silver half stereographs published by Lawrence and Houseworth of San Francisco. The acquisition also included the third edition of Gems of California Scenery, a catalog listing titles for all the views published by the firm. This was one of the Library’s earliest photographic acquisitions. The images date from 1862 to 1867. The photographs depict major settlements, boom towns, placer and hydraulic mining operations, shipping and transportation routes, and such points of scenic interest throughout northern California and western Nevada as the Yosemite Valley and the Calaveras Redwoods. The collection also includes an extensive pictorial survey of mid-nineteenth-century San Francisco.

Ansel Adams’s Photographs of Japanese American Internment at Manzanar Digital scans of both Adams’s original negatives and his photographic prints appear side by side allowing viewers to see Adams’s darkroom technique, in particular, how he cropped his prints. Adams’s Manzanar work is a departure from his signature style landscape photography. Although a majority of the more than 200 photographs are portraits, the images also include views of daily life, agricultural scenes, and sports and leisure activities (see Collection Highlights). The web site also includes digital images of the first edition of Born Free and Equal, Adams’s publication based on his work at Manzanar.


 California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1840-1900 The books in this collection are first-person accounts from the time of the Gold Rush and California statehood through the turn of the century. They provide detailed information about localities and people important to the state during the latter half of the nineteenth century, when large numbers of English-speakers flowed into the far West, encountering a variety of Native American groups and the Spanish-speakers who had preceded them to the region. The accounts convey a sense of America’s westward movement in the post-pioneer era and offer the emigrants’ reactions to the wilderness environment they traversed and settled.


The Evolution of the Conservation Movement: 1850-1920 documents the historical formation and cultural foundations of the movement to conserve and protect America’s natural heritage, through books, pamphlets, government documents, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and motion picture footage drawn from the collections of the Library of Congress. The collection consists of 62 books and pamphlets, 140 Federal statutes and Congressional resolutions, 34 additional legislative documents, excerpts from the Congressional Globe and the Congressional Record, 360 Presidential proclamations, 170 prints and photographs, 2 historic manuscripts, and 2 motion pictures.


The WPA California Folk Music Project The WPA California Folk Music Project [1938-40] was the result of a joint effort of the Work Projects Administration, the Library of Congress, and the Music Division of the University of California, Berkeley. It was officially sponsored by the University of California at Berkeley and co-sponsored by the Archive of American Folk-Song, then in the Music Division, at the Library of Congress.

The Ethnographic Experience: Sidney Robertson Cowell in Northern California From 1938 to 1940, while in her thirties, Sidney Robertson, ethnographer and collector of traditional American music, single-handedly organized and directed a California Work Projects Administration project designed to survey musical traditions in Northern California. The result of the project was a remarkable, and quite modern, multi-format ethnographic field collection–the WPA California Folk Music Project. Not only did the project generate a wealth of musical and cultural documentation from a wide variety of groups at a certain point in California history, it also provided, through the ebullient presence of Sidney Robertson, a vicarious experience of what it means to do ethnographic fieldwork. The value of this multi-faceted collection is that one is invited to hear the voices, see the faces, and sample the cultural context of the performers being recorded.

Humboldt State University


Mary Ann Frank, carrying driftwood in a burden basket. Roberts Photography Collection. Humboldt State University Library

The Roberts Photograph Collection documents life on the Yurok Indian Reservation along the lower Klamath River in northwestern California during the period of 1915-1933. The private collection of Mrs. Ruth Kellet Roberts contains 536 photographs, many of them taken by Mrs. Roberts. They include photographs of her many friends in the Yurok Indian community and their daily activities and ceremonies, early photographs of the town of Requa, of the Pecwan-Johnsons area, and various landscape features of the surrounding area

The Ericson Collection depicts a wide variety of everyday northwest California scenes and activities from the 1880s through the 1920s. Lumber industry, Native Americans, city and village street scenes (primarily Arcata ), Schools, portraits, and scenic views are the featured subjects of this collection. The primary photographer represented is A.W. Ericson with some by his son and business partner, Edgar.

Riverside Public Library Fruit Label Collection The Citrus Label Collection consists of citrus labels (mostly orange, but some lemon and grapefruit examples) mainly from the southern California counties of Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, and Orange. The collection ranges from early naturalistic labels like Gypsy Queen (1891) to a later example of commercial art, Terra Bella (1952). The subjects featured on labels in the collection vary widely and include sports ( Athlete); animal and floral designs ( Mallard and Camellia); architectural and natural landscapes (Mission Bridge and Yosemite); portraits of women and children (Co-Ed and Vulture ); marine scenes (Chinook); western and other historical images.