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BA Drama and English Literature / Course details

Year of entry: 2021

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Course unit details:
Progressivism in the United States

Unit code AMER30581
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by English and American Studies
Available as a free choice unit? No


During the period between 1870 and 1920, the United States was transformed from a largely agricultural and rural nation to one that was industrial and urban. In addition to spectacular economic inequality and class conflict, the nation wrestled with social problems concerning race, gender, and immigration. President Theodore Roosevelt fittingly described these decades as a period of “fierce discontent.” Progressivism emerged out of this context. By the turn of the century, a newly radicalized and resolute middle class launched an epic program of reforms. These self-identified “Progressives” took up a wide range of social, economic, and political problems, including child labour, women’s rights, and racialized violence. Their efforts produced a set of reforms and policy resolutions that would shape the nation for more than a century. This course focuses on the major issues of the period. Readings will emphasize primary sources—including novels, poetry, journalistic essays, magazines, and reports—produced by Progressive authors.



  • To develop student understanding of key texts and issues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries;
  • To engage deeply with selected historical studies of the American Progressive Era;
  • To deepen analytic skills in the understanding of social class in the United States;
  • To develop understanding of how activist texts from the period interact with their cultural and historical contexts.

Teaching and learning methods

The course will involve a 3-hour weekly seminar. Shorter primary texts and all the secondary critical reading will be made available via Blackboard.


Knowledge and understanding

  • Identify and demonstrate through written analysis familiarity with major questions and issues addressed throughout the course;
  • Demonstrate understanding of critical debates concerning Progressive reform;
  • Demonstrate a good understanding of the political/social/intellectual collaborations and fault lines that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries;
  • Demonstrate awareness of significant literary genres and innovations that emerged during the period under consideration.


Intellectual skills

  • Ability to speak and write clearly and with precision about the cultural significance of literary and historical study;
  • Ability to synthesize and analyse a diverse range of primary texts;
  • Evaluate competing/conflicting historical perspectives and arguments;
  • Ability to reflect critically upon the relationship between historical formations including gender, race, class, nation, and sexuality, particularly in the early twentieth-century U.S. context.


Practical skills

  • Ability to close read, analyse, and respond to complex literary, historical, and critical texts, especially through comparative readings;
  • Ability to work collaboratively with peers, identifying strengths and making constructive suggestions for improvement where appropriate. 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Produce written work that demonstrates skill with language and awareness of rhetorical audience;
  • Ability to work independently over a sustained period of time;
  • Demonstrate the ability to improve one’s own learning through effective communication with others and respect for the common goals of the collective group.


Employability skills

This course enhances employability by providing students with an opportunity to develop a wide range of transferable skills. Through the completion of combined independent and collective/group study students will develop the following: advanced research skills, good oral and communication skills, resourcefulness in the ability to gather and interpret primary and secondary sources, time management skills.

Assessment methods

Portfolio of weekly assignments 40%
Essay 60%


Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Numerical grade and written comments on essays within 15 working days


Face-to-face meetings if requested



Recommended reading


  • Dora Apel, Images of Lynching: Black Men, White Women, and the Mob (Rutgers, 2004).
  • Nancy Bentley, Frantic Panoramas: American Literature and Mass Culture 1870-1920 (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2009).
  • Brittney C. Cooper, Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women (University of Illinois Press, 2017).
  • Paula J. Giddings, Ida, A Sword Among Lions: Ida B. Wells and the Campaign Against Lynching (Harper, 2009).
  • Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR (Vintage, 1955).
  • Laura L. Lovett, Conceiving the Future: Pronatalism, Reproduction, and the Family in the United States, 1890-1938 (University of North Carolina Press, 2009).
  • Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent: The Rise and Fall of the Progressive Movement in America (Simon and Schuster, 2010).
  • Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982).

Study hours

Independent study hours
Independent study 0

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rachel Nolan Unit coordinator

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