Teaching the sixties: what do you think?

ValleyoftheDollsposterMy colleague and co-conspiritor in teaching History of Sexuality in America over the past several years, Ruth Alexander, has suggested that we develop and co-teach another course on the 1960s. She has correctly deduced my excitement over the multi-media primary sources that modern historians can use–primarily video and audio clips that are available widely on the internet, as well as material culture and clothing that we find at Goodwill and garage sales! Wow!

When we had Carrie Pitzulo, author of Batchelors and Bunnies:  The Sexual Politics of Playboy as a special guest in our class last term to talk about her article on Hugh Hefner’s and Playboy‘s engagement with feminism, I couldn’t believe that there was an entire episode of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line on YouTube, starring Hefner and engaging his ideas about the sexual revolution and feminism!  Amazing.  It’s also fascinating as a style of TV production that never happens now, even on PBS.  Buckley draws Hefner out on “the Playboy philosophy” and where it fits in American intellectual history.

The sad truth about teaching the early modern period is that the video is totally inferior.

On the other hand:  what do I know about the history and culture of the U.S. in the 1960s, aside from reading Gore Vidal’s essays and watching old movies like Valley of the Dolls (1967), which I saw for the first time the night before last.  Yes, it’s a camp classic, but I think that kind of viewing doesn’t give the movie its due.  It’s all about feminism about to explode in the mainstream, as well as the tensions and excitement of the sexual revolution.

(SPOILER ALERT:  Why won’t Lyon marry Ann?  What’s with the liberal use of the words “f*g” and “f*gg*t”–is it just evidence of past prejudice, or was it in fact revolutionary for the time in that VoTD acknowledged the prevalence of gay men in show business?  Just why does Neely think “Ted Casablana is not a f*g!  And I’m the dame who can prove it.”?  I can almost understand Jennifer’s decision to commit suicide rather than live without her beautiful breasts.  Why are all of the songs in this musical such dogs?)

(True confession that shows how little I know about the 1960s:  I thought the “dolls” in the title referred to the exploitation of female youth and beauty.  I had no idea that “dolls” was also a name for uppers & downers!  This also shows how little I know about drug use in general.  I’m such a dork!)

So, to summarize:  I am interested in teaching a class on the sixties, and I’m sure I’d love the reading and book discussions in this class, as well as the hunting for little primary source bagatelles like the one above.  But I’m woefully ignorant of the period, and I’d have to do hella reading and preparation in order to write good lectures.  (I can’t put that all on Ruth.)  What do you think?

Here’s another idea that would take advantage of Ruth’s and my breadth of expertise like the History of Sexuality course:  what if we taught a course on “the sixties,” only it was the 1760s and the 1860s, as well as the 1960s?  Does anyone else do this?  I think it kind of makes sense, as all three of these decades (we might need to include the 1770s as well, to account for the slower rate of communication) were decades of revolutionary ferment.  What do you think about that?

Let me know if you’ve taught courses like this–what’s your advice?  If you know of other universities that offer courses like my comparative sixties idea, let me know.  If you’ve dramatically shifted your teaching from one field or period to another, I’m especially interested in hearing your reflections.  It’s a whole wide world for me now that The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright is in production.

cowgirlbeerSummer 2016 is all mine just to read, research, and reflect on whatever the heck I want.  But don’t put a beer on this coaster just yet–I might be evolving into a whole new kind of historian.

37 thoughts on “Teaching the sixties: what do you think?

  1. I teach an undergraduate senior seminar on the United States in the 1960s and I teach an upper-division course on the history of sexuality in America. I have to add the Hefner interview to one or both of those classes! I recently re-watched VotD and was disappointed in how very inferior it is to the novel. You really, really have to read that.

    I love your idea of a course on The Sixties that stretched across three centuries. In my seminar, we do talk about periodization, so the course actually begins in the 1950s and ends in the 1970s.


    • Great point on covering “the long sixties.” When Ruth and I have talked about it, we’ve been talking about a course that really covers at least 1954-1970s. (Plus, I love the idea of showing The Louds for a class like that, along with assigning Natasha Zaretsky’s book on family in the 1970s, No Direction Home!) There’s a pretty good interview Dick Cavett of Lance Loud that was on YouTube–we showed it in our Sexuality course a few years ago.


    • Thanks, Jason–this new course potentially wouldn’t just be about sexuality, but about revolutionary ferment of all sorts. I’m sure sexuality will be one of the lenses that we will use, but with 3 different centuries to cover I think we’ll focus on the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.


      • There was plenty of foment going on in the 1660s, if you also think about England and the continent 🙂

        (But the video for the 1660s is really lacking!)


    • Great idea! (I’ve never read it myself!)

      I’ve also considered God and Man at Yale for a Long 1960s course. I’ve read that–it’s fascinating how very similar Buckley’s critique of higher ed is to the contemporary right-wing complaints about it. It’s kind of amazing–the world changes all around them, but the right wing has the same complaints about the same “subversives.”


  2. Ah, early modern videos, where art thou? I would be so happy to have those kind of sources!

    For feeling more at home with the material of contemporary history, I’d pull out Potter & Romano, “Doing Recent History” – I grabbed that to help me with teaching graduate methods for my mostly modernist students and it’s been awesome. (Of course, seeing as who are the editors, amirite?)

    I like the idea of the multiplicity of sixties as a course concept. You could also choose to highlight not just “sixties” but “revolutionary eras” which might allow you to pick and choose some eras where cultural ferment could be juxtaposed against the 1960.


  3. Martha Bailey at University of Michigan. (If you’re not anti-economic-historian…) She has sooo much great stuff on the 1960s. She’s also got an edited volume on the War on Poverty that is pretty good. Also there’s some great work on the Voting Rights Act (Elizabeth Cascio and Ebonya Washington).

    1860 seems like a bit of a turning point in the opposite direction for women– the beginning of tightening of controls rather than a move towards progress (though I suppose one could argue that women’s rights are more of a 1970s thing). But for black civil rights, it’s kind of astonishing how nicely the civil rights movement lines up with the Civil War in terms of ’60s.

    I don’t know what was going on in the 1760s, but Revolution does seem to be a theme for the other two decades.

    Now I have Welcome to the 60s from Hairspray stuck in my head. Oh oh oh.


    • HA-ha. Hairspray! Thanks for the tips on economic history. I’m afraid the postwar/Cold War expansion is really important for understanding the social and political ferment of the era. Interestingly, it’s kind of true about the 1860s (given the massive stimulus of wartime spending in the Union), but not at all true of the 1760s, which sees a post-7 Years’ War recession. And yet, we have the Stamp Act crisis. . .


      • The increased legal controls on women were really starting in the 1850s too, prior to the civil war, though they ramped up in the 1860s… and kept increasing to the 1960s. Man, a that’s really depressing thought. All my life things have been getting mostly better legally, and it’s only recently (with the repeal of voting rights, legal suppression of women’s bodily autonomy that mirrors that of the late 19th century, etc.) that things seem to be getting worse.


  4. I do have to say how funny it is that my view of the 1960s seems to be split. On the one hand, I have a vision of the world from the perspective of all the research I’ve read, which is mostly about minorities, the working class, poverty, politics, NASA, and all of the excitement going on with social movements and activism. But then on the other hand, there’s the hollywood version with TV (dragnet, get smart, etc. etc. etc.) and movies (<3 Shirley MacClaine) and bright colors and drugs and music, even books (I used to love Phyllis Whitney)… which is a very upper-middle class and somewhat polished view of the world. It's hard to see them co-existing, even though they must have.


  5. I love the idea of these courses, either the “sixties” (1860s, etc.) or the 1960s. Other possibilities besides The Valley of the Dolls: Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything or Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place, which are late 1950s novels where you can see the 1960s starting to emerge; the cultural reception of these would be fascinating in itself. (Also, the movie versions are worth watching.) Sara Davidson’s Loose Change, which is a memoir about 1960s radicalization, or Marge Piercy’s Vera, a novel about a woman radical, could be good. Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room is later but made a splash when it appeared; it’s a “roots of feminism” novel about the sixties.

    Great topic!


  6. I just ran into Ruth–she’s all for teaching a comparative course, but thinks we’ll both be reaching a bit in the 1860s. But she started out in the 19th C, and I’m moving closer to the 1860s than I thought I’d ever get in my lifetime, so I think we can patch something together.

    The big story in the 1860s is of course emancipation by proclamation, then by the 13th Amendment, and then the massive backlash against African American civil rights and economic autonomy. But there’s the NYC draft riots, there’s also Victoria Woodhull running for president in 1872, there’s Anthony Comstock and his backlash against sexual and contraceptive knowledge, and there’s temperance (with Lemonade Lucy Hayes’s husband Rutherford B. elected, or rather SElected president, in 1876.) Maybe all of our target decades will need effectively to be courses on the 50s-70s. After all, a decade is an arbitrary temporal designation, right?


    • Much like today, the anti-abortion movement started before the anti-birth control movement.

      There’s a really neat book called “Gaylaw” by William N. Eskridge Jr. that has a list of all the anti- laws (not just anti-homosexual laws) by state and year throughout the long 19th century, so you see all the other movements going on. It’s also a fun read.


  7. I would incline against the comparative approach, like the radio station jingle… 1760s, 1860s, 1960s, and TODAY… because too many things that would seem compellingly interesting at the “wow, let’s do it” stage would end up feeling hokey and contrived (like last year’s Nehru Suit) when they actually came off. Everything tastes good after midnight when the hashish kicks in. Just my guess, but you can already see the expansive forces at work in the suggestions here. Pretty soon you might be thinking about the “Viking ’60s,” whenever that was. The amount of ephemera that got produced and probably archived in the actual 1960s would probably sustain a two-semester seminar format.


    • But all courses are just gimmicks in their periodization and geography. Who says that “The (U.S.) Progressive Era” is a real thing that defines 1880-1920? (African American historians call that “progressive era” the Nadir, instead.) Who says that looking at the U.S. through both world wars is a coherent period and place to study?

      Ruth seemed pretty excited about the comparative sixties course–and limiting it to 3 60s-70s decades would make the course more coherent & focused on the growth of the U.S. (Another reason the 1660s just don’t make sense for a course like this.) So no need to fear including the 1460s or the 1060s too. In many respects, this would be the course more focused on U.S. national identity than I’ve ever taught, even including the “first half” U.S. survey course (1492-1877).


  8. Well, as someone who was there … an small individual view from down amongst the weeds.

    All the movies and writing and stuff you see and hear doesn’t begin to capture the feeling. Most people were ordinary, just as they are now. Not fomenting or living revolution, and they seemed mostly bewildered by it all. (Also, I guess, just as we are now. I mean, Trump? ?? Whaaat?)

    But if there was a feeling that was widely shared that’s different it was a feeling of possibilities. What everyone hoped for was different, hippies or suburbanites or rocket scientists didn’t all hope for the same things. But there was a general sense that we could shoot for the stars, any damn fool could hit the ground.

    That faded away somewhere in the mid-to-late 70s. My sense is that the final blow came from Ronzo when he made greed good.

    (Side note on the use of f*gs for gays. It was just a word. It didn’t imply the huge weight it does now. Think of how “fuck” is used now. People scatter it around like birdseed. But its punch depends on it meaning “rape,” not “oh, go make love.” If it was the latter, “that’s so fucked up” would mean nothing. “F* you!” would be wishing someone well. In future times, people will be boggling that we could all be such gross misogynists.)


    • Thanks for your testimony, quixote.

      “But if there was a feeling that was widely shared that’s different it was a feeling of possibilities.” This is something that I think unites the 60s decades across the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, and I think it’s worth exploring.


  9. Pingback: How is Raven like a writing desk? | Historiann

  10. Totally biased here, of course, and way over on the cultural-history side, but Seventeen magazine during the 1960s is kind of all over the place in some interesting ways. 1964 and 1965 are fascinating — you really see the British invasion (the Beatles! And suddenly everyone looks like Twiggy!) in some colorful ways. (At least I assume they’re colorful, I’ve been working from black-and-white microfilm). The book review and “In My Opinion” columns cover some striking ground (there’s an entire review of William Styron’s Confessions of Nat Turner, by a teen girl, published in 1968 and referring directly to the 1967 riots).

    Sad black-and-white microfilm is sad, though, and for a class like this I’d check out eBay etc. for actual issues.


  11. I have colleagues – a historian and literary scholar – who teach a 60s course that is always packed…but they explicitly engage the history/lit issues.


  12. I use the 1960s as the topic for my section of our required methods class. I use Farber and Bailey’s Columbia Guide to the 1960s. I’m also having them read Andre Millard’s book Beatlemania – I hope they don’t hate it but it’s a way to sneak in history of technology so I thought I would try it


  13. One of the most popular classes taught in my department is about the US in the 1960s. Students are genuinely interested and excited about it. As long as you and your colleague are fired up about it, you can do no wrong!

    Personally, I think a comparison between the 1760s, the 1860s and the 1960s would be totally rad. But I love comparative history. That said, it sounds like a lot of “reading up on the literature.” I think that maybe you ought to be kind to yourselves and just pick one of the decades to compare to the 1960s. Maybe use it as a sorbet or break in the middle of the class so that you can remind your students that Americans in the 1960s did not invent sex, drugs, or rock’n’roll.

    Also, at this point the 1860s, 1660s, 1760s or 1960s are all equally submerged in the historical past for our students. They might have some stories from their grandparents, or some artifacts but really that is about it. Its not as far away as ancient Assyria, but its a foreign land to someone born in 1996.


    • I wondered about whether a course on the 60s would still be of interest to our students. When I arrived at CSU 15 years ago, a senior colleague of mine co-taught a class like this with a political scientist on the 1960s, but students in the early 2000s were born in the late 1970s/early 1980s, so had probably grown up hearing stories from their parents about this decade.

      As you point out, our undergrad students now are all born in the late 1990s, 30 years after the 1960s, so I wondered about their connection to this decade. I think it’s probably stronger (not to mention fonder) in cultural memory on the Left than on the Right–and most of our students are probably a little Left of center, at least at this point in their lives.


  14. So we had a course called “The Sixties” that was the 1860s and the 1960s for hs students. It didn’t go well. In part, students were really frustrated by the long amount of time spent in the 1850s just getting to the Civil War and they really wanted to do military history. I didn’t teach the course, but I think a comparison between 1850s and 1950s is stronger. Then again, when I’ve taught the 1960s course, I often don’t get to 1963 until the midterm. (I use the atomic platters CD and DVD collection for all my nuclear history/Cold War resources. See if your library will purchase).

    Granted I could watch, Boys Beware, Girls Beware, and Are You Popular over and over again.

    The problem with the 1960s course is there is so much damn stuff. It has always tested my precept of “History is the process of leaving things out.” I want to do the history of the Interstate, feminisim, suburbanization, as well as Civil Rights and Vietnam.

    You might look at Andrew Needham’s new book on Phoenix, Power Lines, which has been winning all kinds of prizes. My review is here: http://benthamorfoucault.blogspot.com/2015/03/history-is-what-happens-when-you-are.html


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.