Teaching the Recent Past with Music

This semester I’m teaching America in the Nuclear Era: 1945-1968 (syllabus linked). I recently divided my 1945-present elective into two halves to allow for better exploration of the moments in the years covered and develop a more thematic approach.

As with all my courses, I include a significant amount of popular culture.

For the previous version of the course, I created “listening” homework in the form of Spotify playlists for each week of the course. Now I’m revising them for the two courses. In the first half, this semester, I’m including them as a kind of “extra credit” item. Students will have the links, which are on my website and posted each week to Blackboard. They can earn extra participation points by raising suggested tracks for each playlist.

When I teach the second half, 1968-present, however, thing are going to get a little more exciting.

In that iteration, I plan to make the playlists front and center to the questions we ask in the course, asking students to consider the links between media, entertainment, and the developments we study in American politics and culture.

Their final research projects, built through a semester of research and connecting sources to historical articles and books, will be a listener’s guide to recent American history, an online discography of sorts. In it, they will interpret musical works, researching their production, dissemination, critical review, and resonance through culture and politics. They will group and connect their various sources, putting them in conversation with one another. They can select tracks I’ve already added to the playlists, suggest additions, or create new playlists of their own.

In the meantime, take a look at the playlists I’ve curated, and please feel free to suggest additions!

WWII Legacies

The Cold War

1950s Suburbia

The Birth of Rock


The Civil Rights Movement

The Great Society

The Vietnam Era

The Counterculture


Cultural Nationalism

Watergate and the “Me” Decade

Deindustrialization and City Spaces in the 1970s

Reagan’s America

The Internet Age

A Post-9/11 World (very much a work in progress)

One thought on “Teaching the Recent Past with Music

  1. I feel that Green Day’s “American Idiot” or “21st Century Breakdown” could make either of the last two lists, and Flogging Molly’s “Don’t Shut ‘Em Down” could make the last one.

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