US History in Film (Honors)
Fall 2016
HIST 329
11-12:15 TR

Jeffrey McClurken
Office: Monroe 219/HCC 419 (contact me)
Office Hours:  MW, 9:00-11; T, 2-3 (by appointment)

Course Description

This course examines historically oriented motion pictures as both primary and secondary sources of information about the past.  It starts from the premise that the content in films, as with written sources, can (and should) be critically analyzed for its perspectives, interpretive choices, biases, and reliability.  The course examines the relative successes or failures that major films have had in portraying the past, and analyzes how present events, cultures and attitudes shape our view of the past.  As historians we typically analyze and use traditional primary and secondary sources (e.g., historical documents and scholarly articles and monographs); it is possible and helpful to apply many of those same skills (and much of the same skepticism) to our approaches to non-traditional sources, such as these films. This course counts in the History major and the American Studies major, as well as the Honors Program.

Departmental Learning Objectives

  • Ability to utilize technological resources in research, data analysis, and presentation.
  • Appreciation of the diversity of methods and processes.
  • Ability to communicate in a group setting.

Honors Program Objectives

As part of the Honors Program, this course also will help students to formulate an academic argument with appropriate research documentation; articulate the value of the goals of the honors program as it relates to the liberal arts as an multidisciplinary, systematic approach to knowledge; apply specific academic solutions to broader, interdisciplinary fields of study; integrate multiple viewpoints involving different cultures and/or perspectives.


Course Requirements

Students are expected to attend all classes, read all assigned texts, watch all assigned films, and participate in class (including posting to the course wiki).  They are also expected to create a digital research project and take a midterm and a final.  [Projects are due at the start of class on the day they are due.  Projects are considered late if posted or changed anytime after they are due.  Late projects will be penalized one full letter grade or, after 24 hours, not accepted.]



Each week we will be discussing a particular movie.  I have reserved our classroom from 6 to 10 pm on Tuesday nights if any of you would like to check the movie out from the library reserves and watch it together here.  Regardless, you will have to make arrangements to see the movie somehow, including watching it on your own in the Library (outside of the 6-10 Tuesday slot) or renting it from Netflix (DVD)/Amazon streaming, or some other service.  However, be warned that not all of these movies (such as Matewan) are readily available elsewhere.  Watching these movies is your responsibility, so don’t wait until the last minute to do so!  [Note that there are no movies to watch outside class during weeks 1, 8, or 13.]



Students are expected to attend all Thursday discussion classes having watched the movie for that week, having read the material, and having prepared 2-3 questions, comments, or potential debate topics.  These should be posted to the appropriate week in the class wiki no later than 7 AM on Thursdays ( The questions/comments/topics should be aimed at provoking class discussions on the reading and the movies.  [Since the goal is to prepare you for class discussion, late questions will not be accepted.]  Class participation requires actively participating in these discussions, watching the movies, submitting questions/comments/topics, and co-leading one of those Thursday discussions. Bonus participation points will be available if you Tweet reactions while watching the movies with the hashtag #HIST329.


Final Grades

Final grades will be determined based on class participation, including leadership of class discussion (30%), on performance on the midterm and final exams (20% each), as well as on the online, research-based historical analysis of a film (30%).  [Unsatisfactory mid-semester reports will be reported for anyone with a grade of D or below on work completed at that time.]  Completion of all assignments is required to pass the class.



Robert Brent Toplin, Reel History.

Many other readings are available as online selections linked to from the course site.

Research Project Assignment

You must create an original online research project analyzing a particular film dealing with a United States History topic.  Much as we will do in class each week, your project should analyze the portrayal of the past in the film, exploring the perspective (including biases or objectives) of the filmmakers, the historical accuracy of the portrayal (in a detailed and a broad sense), and the relative success and reliability of the film as a primary and secondary source of historical information.  You should use a combination of primary and secondary sources for your evidence.  You must cite all images, clips, facts, ideas, paraphrasing, and quotes, in footnotes and bibliography, using either Turabian (7th edition) or the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), including the movies themselves and any reviews of them that you have used.  [For more details on citations, see the history department resource guide at]

1) Your project must be presented online as blog pages in a WordPress site created within your Domain of One’s Own account.  Let me know where it is located–in other words, what is its URL/web address?—by the start of class on Thursday, Sept. 8.  [Don’t have a Domain of One’s Own account or need a refresher? See the documentation here first, but the DKC can also help you get started.]

2) Your historical film choice and bibliographic citations of ten or more significant (non-encyclopedic) sources are due by the start of class on Thursday, September 15 for my approval.  Failure to successfully complete this assignment on time will result in a full letter grade off of your research project grade.  [Since I will only approve one person to work on a particular movie, you should probably request approval for your movie via email before September 8.]  There is a list of potential choices at the end of the syllabus and the list of movies already taken will be at the course blog at

3) The research project (1,500-2,500 words, not including citations and bibliography, with at least one “greenscreened” video clip with your commentary/critique) is due at the start of class on Tuesday, November 8, November 15. [Worth 30% of overall class grade.]  The Honor Pledge and your name should be clearly viewable.  Projects will be graded on content (including originality and the quality and use of evidence), historical analysis and quality of the video clip(s), additional multimedia features, overall site presentation, grammar, and proper formatting for historical writing (including footnotes and bibliography).  [Again the DKC can help with technical aspects of these projects, including the video clip.]

4) By Tuesday, November 22 everyone needs to have looked at the other projects.  The class will vote on the top 5-8 projects.  These will join the 20 projects picked from the 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014 classes in an online US History in Film site.  More on this later in the semester


Honor Code

I believe in the Honor Code as an essential, positive component of the Mary Washington experience.  You should know that if you cheat or plagiarize in this class, you will fail, and I will take you to the Honor Council.  So, do not do it.  On the other hand, I also believe that having friends or family read and comment on your writing can be extremely helpful and falls within the bounds of the Honor Code (assuming the writing itself remains yours).  If you have questions about these issues, then you should talk to me sooner rather than later.



If you receive services through the Office of Disability Services and require accommodations for this class, please make an appointment with me as soon as possible to discuss your approved accommodation needs.  Bring your accommodation letter with you to the appointment.  I will hold any information you share with me in the strictest confidence unless you give me permission to do otherwise.  If you need accommodations, (note taking assistance, extended time for tests, etc.), please consult with the Office of Disability Services (x1266) about the appropriate documentation of a disability.

Readings and class schedule