Activism & Dissent in American History

Required and Recommended Texts, Manuals, and Supplies:  Ralph Young, Dissent: The History of an American Idea (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2015). [ISBN: 9781479819836] All other texts will be provided.

Grading Standards:

  • Participation & Professionalism: 10%
  • Reading Discussion Grade: 25%
  • Student-Led Discussion: 10%
  • Film Review: 10%
  • Primary Source Activity: 10%
  • Protest Materials Project: 10%
  • Final Project: 25%

Course Requirements:

Participation & Professionalism: Things that may reduce your Participation and Professionalism grade include—but are NOT limited to—being tardy to class, failure to actively participate during lecture and engage with colleagues during small group activities, working on assignments not related to the course, and misuse of electronic devices during class. Things that may improve your Participation and Professionalism grade include answering questions when asked, contributing to discussion and group assignments, taking notes, asking questions, completing in-class assignments, etc.

Reading Discussion Grade: The purpose of this course is to introduce you to the complex history of American activism and dissent over the course of nearly 600 years. The readings are also designed to engage you with critical discussion in class. For each set of readings, I will have a series of discussion questions, but students will also be expected to come to class with at least three questions of their own. If you are supremely uncomfortable with talking in class to the degree that it causes you crippling anxiety, I have an alternative option for you: You can ask questions and provide a critical overview of each day’s readings in a short write-up that you submit to me via email prior to the start of class. I can then incorporate your written work into the day’s discussion. You can then answer questions raised in class and send to me via email before the next class.

Student Led Discussion: Once during the semester, you will be responsible for leading the class discussion of a class period’s readings. When it is your turn, you will be responsible for coming up with ten to twelve thought provoking questions to engage your classmates in discussion. During your discussion time, you may also choose to include videos, primary sources, or other activities that can help further foster discussion.

Film Review: You will choose one film from those listed under the Pre-Approved Film list below (or run a suggestion by me) to write a critical review of. You will take notes about the movie on a Film Study worksheet and use these notes—as well as the reading material, both primary and secondary, we’ve used in class—to compose a two to three page critical reflection paper. Each question on the worksheet can help you compose paragraphs, but you do not necessarily have to use them all. Using knowledge you’ve gained in the classroom as well as your notes from the movie, critique this film for things like historical accuracy, entertainment value, problems with representation, and impact. Some questions to consider would be: What would you change to improve the film/program? How much do these films/programs affect our ability to educate the public on history? How do we determine fact from fiction? How well does this film represent particular activist events or acts of dissent? You might also choose to do a comparison/contrast of multiple films across a particular theme or time. You will then give your film a rating (0 to 4 stars) with an explanation as to the pros/cons and whether you recommend the film.

For film reviews check out this website:

Primary Source Activity: Once during the term, you will engage with one of the critical activities of a historian: analysis of primary sources. A brief review of primary sources can be found under the “Primary v. Secondary Sources” section of the syllabus. You will be given a set of primary sources to analyze using questions from the National Archives Primary Source Worksheets to help guide you. In the In-Class portion of the assignment, you will work with an assigned partner to complete the worksheet. Once the worksheet is completed, you will individually write up a written version of your own analysis in short essay form, conducting a sort of comparison/contrast between the two sources. You will submit both the worksheet and the write-up and will be assessed on both parts. This will serve as practice for the final project, which requires you to examine seven primary sources.

Protest Materials Project: Think of this as a precursor to your final project. This is designed to get you familiar with how activists come together and share their message in a clear, effective way. You will choose one historical example of activism/dissent and you will create a series of protest materials that you think clearly convey the movement’s historical roots, purpose/mission, goals/objectives, audience, and membership base. Materials can include things like protest songs, a marching route, memorabilia (t-shirts, buttons, etc.), posters and fliers, paperwork (of the goals/objectives, mission, etc.), and even slogans/catchphrases. Get creative! This will be step one of your research for your final paper and help you put all the pieces into place to either write your paper or to create your “visual” product and artist analysis statement.

Final Project:

Option A (Popularly known as an Unessay): To get you used to working with both primary and secondary sources and introduce you to the field of public history, you will create a public history product on a topic of your choice related to the course themes. Options may vary widely, but suggestions include: creating website, designing a museum exhibit, filming a video (think Drunk History or CrashCourse), making a physical artifact, writing a pamphlet (such as those used for historical tours), creating an interactive and explanatory historical timeline (such as Tiki-Toki,, designing a public history blog, or even creating a “live-tweet” series of an event on Twitter! I’ve had students perform magic tricks, design their own choreography, and give historical tours! The options are nearly endless! A short explanatory/analytical write-up will accompany your “visual” product.

Option B (Research Paper): This option is also designed to get you used to working with both primary and secondary sources. Rather than crafting a public history project, you will write a traditional eight to ten page academic paper on a topic of your choice related to the course themes. A key element of this project is using both primary AND secondary sources to create a compelling historical argument (also known as a thesis).

Primary vs. Secondary (v. Tertiary) Sources: A Brief Review

A primary source is a document or artifact created in the past that scholars use as evidence of how people thought and lived in the period they are studying. A newspaper article, a diary, a speech, a court transcript, a map, a photograph, a building, a will, a political cartoon, a census report created at the time of your topic–all of these different types of documents could count as primary sources. Primary sources need to be viewed critically; they can have intent (to persuade the reader of a certain point of view), or be factually wrong, or be from a limited, individual perspective–all of which you need to take into consideration when using primary source evidence. Just because something is old does not automatically make it primary. For example, a newspaper article from 1823 about King Philip’s War (1675-1676) would not be primary because it was written nearly 150 years after the event.

A secondary source is a work that discusses and interprets such documents and artifacts in order to reconstruct the past (your paper will be a secondary source) and offer an argument about that reconstruction. Sometimes there is considerable debate about many issues in American history; historians are often at odds in their interpretations. If there are conflicts within the primary or secondary sources, it will be your job to evaluate the arguments, and decide which is most persuasive. The most common secondary sources you will encounter are books and academic journal articles (like you might find in a database like JSTOR).

Tertiary Sources are consolidations of primary and secondary sources. These include textbooks, encyclopedias, and websites, like Wikipedia or While they can be informative, tertiary sources are generally not acceptable for academic research, and should be used sparingly for assignments.


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