Download a PDF of the Syllabus

In this course, you learn about the relevant scientific, social, and ethical dimensions of major public health debates and problems; the generalizable theories, frameworks, and methods that scholars use to analyze them; and the implications for effective public communication and personal decision-making. Assignments include facilitating class discussion, short analysis papers, an annotated bibliography, and a research paper on a relevant topic of the student’s choosing. By the end of the course, you will have gained an integrated understanding of the different roles that you can play in public health debates as professionals, advocates, and consumers. In doing so, you will have improved your ability to find, discuss, evaluate, and use expert sources of information; assess competing media claims and narratives; write persuasive essays, analyses, and commentaries; and author evidence-based research papers.


  • Discussion Leadership and Translation (10%): For each class topic, 2-3 students will be designated discussion leaders and will provide 1-2 page summaries of each reading.#
  • Three Analysis Papers (45%): Students will be completing three 1,500 word analysis papers specific to case studies and topics covered. These papers will assess and integrate the assigned readings and other sources; and be written in a broadly accessible, persuasive, and engaging style. Students will be expected to revise papers after initial grade and review by instructor.
  • Annotated Bibliography (15%): Students will be compiling an annotated bibliography of approximately 15 quality academic or research sources on a topic relevant to the course. Based on the bibliography, students will prepare a detailed outline for their final paper subject to feedback and discussion.*
  • Research Paper (30%): Drawing on their annotated bibliography and other sources, students will author a 5,000 word paper synthesizing and applying research to their topic, written in a style that is broadly accessible and engaging.

# Students should compile their reading summaries into a single PDF document and email the document to Prof. Nisbet by the Monday evening before the class sessions. These summaries will then be posted on the course page in advance of class.

*Compiling an Annotated Bibliography

An annotated bibliography is a list of citations to scholarly books, book chapters, journal articles, and reports.  Each citation – usually around 300 words — is followed by a brief descriptive and evaluative paragraph called “the annotation.”  For your annotated bibliography, you should be able to find and describe in your own words relevant journal articles, book chapters, and books on your topic.  The journals, edited volumes, authors, and fields referenced in this course are good places to start to search for relevant sources.

Primer on Getting Started with Your Research

Primer on Using APA Style in Your Writing


Caulfield, T. (2012). The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Gallagher, W. (2009). Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York: Penguin.


  • First short analysis paper due Oct 14 via e-mail.
  • Annotated Bibliography due Oct 26 by 5pm EST via e-mail.
  • Second short analysis paper due Nov 2 via e-mail.
  • Third short analysis paper due Nov 30 via email.
  • Final research paper due Dec 11 via email.


Sept 11 — Course overview


Sept 15  — Framing, metaphors and perceptions of obesity

Summary of Readings


  • Barry, CL, Brescoll VL, Brownell KD, Schlesinger M (2009). Obesity metaphors: How beliefs about the causes of obesity affect support for public policy. The Milbank Quarterly, 87: 7-47. [PDF]
  • Sanger-Katz, M. (July 24, 2015). Americans Are Finally Eating Less. The New York Times. [HTML]
  • Sanger-Katz, M. (July 28, 2015). How Changing Attitudes Went Along With a Drop in Calories. The New York Times. [HTML]

Discuss Excerpts from Videos:

  • HBO Films’ The Weight of the Nation, Part 4: Challenges, Chapters 1 – 5. [Video]

Supplementary Readings:

  • Barry, CL, Jarlenski M, Grob R, Schlesinger M (2011). News media framing of childhood obesity in the United States from 2000 to 2009. Pediatrics, 128-32. [PDF]

Sept 18  — NO CLASS

Sept 22 & Sept 25  — Food marketing, obesity, and consumer choices

Summary of Readings


  • Harris, J.L., Pomeranz, J.L., Lobstein, T., & Brownell, K.D. (2009). A crisis in the marketplace: How food marketing contributes to obesity and what can be done. Annual Review of Public Health, 30, 211-25. [PDF]
  • Roberto, C. A., Baik, J., Harris, J. L., & Brownell, K. D. (2010). Influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferences. Pediatrics,126(1), 88-93. [PDF]
  • Schuldt, J. P., & Schwarz, N. (2010). The “organic” path to obesity? Organic claims influence calorie judgments and exercise recommendations. Judgment and Decision Making, 5(3), 144-150. [PDF]

Discuss Excerpts from Videos:

  • Documentary “Merchants of Cool” [Video] (See Sprite discussion @ 10 min)
  • Documentary “Fed Up” [Video]

Supplementary Reading

  • Schuldt, J. P., Muller, D., & Schwarz, N. (2012). The “fair trade” effect health halos from social ethics claims. Social Psychological and Personality Science,3(5), 581-589. [PDF]

Sept 29 & Oct 2 The exercise industry, celebrity, and body Image

Reading Summaries


  • Caulfield, T. (2012). The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press (pp. 1 – 42).
  • Grabe S., Ward L.M., Hyde J.S. (2008).  The role of the media in body image concerns among women: a meta-analysis of experimental and correlational studies. Psychological Bulletin, 134 (3), 460-476. [PDF]
  • Taubes, G. (2007, Sept. 24). The Scientist and the Stairmaster. New York magazine [HTML]
  • Beck, J. (2014, July 31). Why Would Anyone Want to Workout Until they Puke? Atlantic magazine. [HTML]
  • Broad, W. (2012, Jan 5).  How Yoga can wreck your body. The NY Times Magazine. [HTML]

Discuss Videos / Listen to Podcast:

  • BBC Horizon (2012). The Truth About Exercise. [Video]
  • Crossfit: The Test of Fitness [Video]
  • NPR Fresh Air: The Risks and Rewards of Yoga [Podcast]

Supplemental Readings:

  • Weisenthal, B. M., Beck, C. A., Maloney, M. D., DeHaven, K. E., & Giordano, B. D. (2014). Injury rate and patterns among CrossFit athletes. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 2(4), 2325967114531177. [Library Gateway]


Oct 6 & Oct 9  Shifting narratives about diet and health

Reading Summary


  • Caulfield, T. (2012). The Cure For Everything: Untangling Twisted Messages About Health, Fitness and Happiness. Boston, MA: Beacon Press (pp. 43 – 98).
  • Taubes, G. (2011, April 13). Is Sugar Toxic? New York Times Magazine [HTML]
  • Mozaffarian, D. & Ludwig, D. (2015, July 9). Why Is the Federal Government Afraid of Fat? The New York Times. [HTML]
  • Bora, S.T. & Bouchoux, A. (2009). Effects of Science and the Media on Consumer Perceptions of about Dietary Sugars. Journal of Nutrition, 139, 1214S-1218S [Library Gateway]
  • Specter, M. (2014, Nov. 3).  Against the Grain: Should You Go Gluten Free? The New Yorker. [HTML]
  • Nisbet, M.C. & Fahy, D. (2015). The Need for Knowledge-based Journalism in Politicized Science Debates. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 658, 223-234. [PDF]

Discuss Videos:

  • TEDX: Robert Lustig “Sugar: The Elephant in the Kitchen” [Video]

Oct 13 & 16 —  The vegetarian, organic, and local food movements

Reading Summary


  • Pollan, M. (2010, May 20). The Food Movement Rising. The New York Review of Books. [HTML]
  • Hurst, B. (2009, June 3). The Omnivore’s Delusion. American magazine. [HTML]
  • Bellows, A. C., Alcaraz, G., & Hallman, W. K. (2010). Gender and food, a study of attitudes in the USA towards organic, local, US grown, and GM-free foods. Appetite, 55(3), 540-550. [Library Gateway]
  • Fox, N., & Ward, K. (2008). Health, ethics and environment: a qualitative study of vegetarian motivations. Appetite, 50(2), 422-429. [Library Gateway]
  • Ellin, A. (2009, Feb 25). What’s Eating Our Kids? Fears about “Bad” Foods. The New York Times [HTML]
  • Cloutier, C. (2015, Sept. 14). Demand for local foods helps Mass. farming find its footing. The Boston Globe [HTML]

Discuss Videos:

Supplementary Readings:

  • Bittman, M. (2014, May 6). Leave Organic Out of It. The New York Times [HTML]
  •  Valera, J. H., Ruiz, P. A., Valdespino, B. R., & Visioli, F. (2014). Prevalence of orthorexia nervosa among ashtanga yoga practitioners: a pilot study. Eating and Weight Disorders-Studies on Anorexia, Bulimia and Obesity, 19(4), 469-472. [Library Gateway]

Oct 20 & 23 —  The debate over genetically modified food

Reading Summary


  • National Academies (2015). Public Engagement on Genetically Modified Organisms: When Science and Citizens Connect: A Workshop Summary. Washington, DC. [Fill out information & download PDF of full report]
  • Spector, M. (2014, Aug 25). Vandava Shiva’s Crusade Against Genetically Modified Crops. The New Yorker [HTML]
  • Brody, H. (2015, June 8).  Fears, Not Facts Support GMO Labeled Food. The New York Times. [HTML]
  • Kolindinsky, J. (July 29, 2015). Study: GM food labels do not act as a warning to consumers. The Conversation [HTML]

Discuss Videos:

  • Food Inc [Video]
  • PBS Frontline “Harvest of Fear” [Video]


Lecture Slides

Oct 27 & 30 — Attention, Motivation, and Well-Being


  • Gallagher, W. (2009). Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. New York: Penguin, pgs 1-28; 99-132; 145-218.
  • Kahneman, D., & Deaton, A. (2010). High income improves evaluation of life but not emotional well-being. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 107(38), 16489-16493 [HTML]
  • Short, K. (2014, July 7). Here is the Income Level at Which Money Won’t Make You Happier in Each State. The Huffington Post. [HTML]
  • Quenqua, D. (2015, May 12). Lower paid lawyers are happier. The New York Times. [HTML]

Discuss Videos:

  • TED Talk Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness [video]
  • TED Talk Daniel Kahneman: The riddle of experience vs. memory [video]

Nov 3 & 6 — Attention and Distraction in the Digital Age

  • Wilson, T. D. et al. (2014). Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345(6192), 75-77. [HTML]
  • Carr, N. (2008). Is Google Making Us Stupid? The Atlantic [PDF]
  • Read the full New York Times series “Your Brain on Computers” [HTML]
  • Ragan, S.R., Massey, J.D., Jennings S.R. (2014), Unregulated use of laptops over time in large lecture classes. Computers & Education. [Library Gateway]

Discuss Videos:

  • PBS Frontline “Digital Nation” [Video]

Nov 1o & 13 —  Technology and the Mindfulness Movement

  • Ricard, M., Lutz, A., & Davidson, R. J. (2014). Mind of the meditator. Scientific American, 311(5), 38-45. [Library Gateway]
  • Kabat-Zinn, J., & Hanh, T. N. (2009). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Delta. (pgs   ). [Handed out to class]
  • Widdicombe, L. (2015). The Higher Life: Mindfulness Guru for the Tech Set. The New Yorker. [HTML]
  • Horgan, J. (2015, July ). Meta-Meditation: A Skeptic Meditates on Meditation. Scientific American.com. [HTML]
  • Grant, A. (2015, Oct. 9). Can We End the Meditation Madness? The New York Times. [HTML]

Discuss Videos / Listen to Podcasts:

  • CBS 60 Minutes “Mindfulness” [Video]
  • Jon Kabat-Zinn “How Mindfulness Can Change Your Life” [Video]
  • Mindful America: Tricycle magazine podcast interview with Jeff Wilson [Podcast]
  • Interfaith Voices: From Sacred Buddhist Practice to Billion Dollar Industry [Podcast]

Nov 17 & 20 — Media Violence, Video Games, and Public Health

Lecture Slides

  • Stossel, S. (1997). Man Who Counts the Killings: George Gerbner… Is So Alarmed about the Baneful Effects of TV That He Describes Them in Terms of” Fascism. The Atlantic Monthly, 279. [HTML]
  • Bushman, B. J., & Anderson, C. A. (2001). Media violence and the American public: Scientific facts versus media misinformation. American Psychologist,56(6-7), 477. [PDF]
  • Bushman, B. J., Jamieson, P. E., Weitz, I., & Romer, D. (2013). Gun violence trends in movies. Pediatrics, 132(6), 1014-1018. [PDF]
  • Strasburger, V. C., Donnerstein, E., & Bushman, B. J. (2014). Why is it so hard to believe that media influence children and adolescents?. Pediatrics, 133(4), 571-573. [HTML]
  • Markey, P. M., French, J. E., & Markey, C. N. (2015). Violent movies and severe acts of violence: Sensationalism versus science. Human Communication Research, 41(2), 155-173. [HTML]

Discuss Video:

Supplemental Readings

  • Bushman, B. J., Romer, D., & Jamieson, P. E. (2015). Distinguishing Hypotheses From Hyperbole in Studies of Media Violence: A Comment on Markey et al.(2015). Human Communication Research, 41(2), 174-183.

Nov 24 – TBA

Nov 27 – NO CLASS


 Final research paper due Dec 11 via E-Mail