BA English Literature and American Studies

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Work and Play in the USA, 1880-2020

Course unit fact file
Unit code AMER20112
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


Why do Americans today work a month longer each year than they did in the early 1970s? Why, if Americans in the late nineteenth century worried about ‘overwork’, is ‘workaholism’ today celebrated by the wider culture? Why are American workers alone in the advanced world in not having guaranteed paid vacation? How in the 1990s did companies like Starbucks train their workforce to ‘treat their customers like celebrities’? This course examines shifting ideas about work in the modern US, alongside the remaking of the concept leisure, which, in the 1880s, was uncoupled from its long-standing associations with idleness, and placed at the core of the country’s labour movement. The module examines the broad transformations in the US economy, from the emergence of the Ford Motor Company’s factory system and ‘scientific management’, to its replacement with variant forms of service work, particularly amid the ‘retail revolution’, and the rise of Wal-Mart and, more recently, Amazon. All of these transformations reorganized not only what Americans did, but also how they thought about work, adjusting the length of the working day, remaking the relationship between work and leisure, and changing opportunities for rest and recreation. Students will consider the recreational activities that won popularity among Americans across the social spectrum between the end of the nineteenth and the start of the twenty-first century, and consider how political, technological, and architectural changes shaped the provision of facilities—from New York’s Coney Island to California’s Disneyland. The module uses a wide variety of texts, including written accounts, as well as photographs, paintings, and films, and a variety of original sources, including The National Police Gazette, and Sports Illustrated. The class begins by considering what the terms leisure and recreation meant in the late nineteenth century US, and what their study can tell us about the structure of American society.  


  • To chart the history of the concept of leisure in the United States between 1880-2000, and to examine the particular forms that concept has taken.
  • To consider the changing place of and ideas about work in American society.
  • Allow students to grapple with historiographical and interpretive trends, namely to have them explain the varying popularity the study of sports, leisure, and recreation has had among scholars of American business, culture, and politics.
  • To develop advanced skills of cultural observation, critical analysis, and contextualization.
  • To improve students' skills at working with primary-source materials across a variety of genres.

Learning outcomes





Knowledge and understanding

  • Knowledge of the history of work and leisure/ recreation in the United States between roughly 1880-2020.
  • Understanding of the history of the concepts of ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ and specifically the changing historical relationship between them
  • Grasp the changing ways in which work and leisure have been depicted and represented in American culture over the course of the long twentieth century.

Intellectual skills

  • Knowledge of different styles of historical analysis, including the history of concepts.
  • ability to analyze and discuss primary historical texts.
  • ability to synthesize relevant historiographical trends.
  • enhanced skills of communication (both written and oral), and research abilities.

Practical skills

  • Ability to effectively analyze and discuss primary sources
  • Ability to carry out research in relevant secondary scholarship, and to use such to present a convincing argument
  • Ability to understand and assess competing interpretations and conceptual approaches
  • Ability to work independently, and with others

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Ability to carry out research, and develop high-level writing skills
  • Development of verbal skills, including active participation in seminars and discussion groups
  • Ability to work independently and in groups.

Employability skills

Analytical skills
Students taking this unit will be able to analyse and evaluate arguments and texts. Above all, committed students will emerge from this course unit with an advanced capacity to think critically, i.e. knowledgeably, rigorously, confidently and independently.
Group/team working
Students taking this unit will be able to work courteously and constructively as part of a larger group.
On this unit students are encouraged to respond imaginatively and independently to the questions and ideas raised by texts and other media.
Students on this unit must take responsibility for their learning and are encouraged not only to participate in group discussions but to do so actively and even to lead those discussions.
Project management
Students taking this unit will be able to work towards deadlines and to manage their time effectively.
Oral communication
Students taking this unit will be able to show fluency, clarity and persuasiveness in spoken communication.
Students on this unit will be required to digest, summarise and present large amounts of information. They are encouraged to enrich their responses and arguments with a wide range of further reading.
Written communication

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written assignment (inc essay) 60%
Portfolio 40%

Feedback methods


Recommended reading

  • Deidre Clemente, ‘Made in Miami: The Development of the Sportwear Industry in South Florida, 1900-1960,’ Journal of Social History 41 (Fall, 2007)
  • Lawrence Culver, The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America (2012)
  • Bruce Kuklick, To Every Thing a Season: Shibe Park and Urban Philadelphia, 1909-1976 (1991).
  • Daniel Rodgers, The Work Ethic in Industrial America, 1850-1920 (1979; 2014)
  • Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City (1983) 
  • Travis Vogan, Keepers of the Flame: NFL Films and the Rise of Sports Media (2014)
  • Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (2007)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 165

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Andrew Fearnley Unit coordinator

Additional notes



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