Accessibility statement

The Pursuit of Happiness: The Politics of Leisure & Pastime in Twentieth-Century America - HIS00096I

« Back to module search

  • Department: History
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Shaul Mitelpunkt
  • Credit value: 30 credits
  • Credit level: I
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

In 1776 the American declaration of independence defined “the pursuit of happiness” as a key right, just after life and liberty. From the fake “main street” of the Disney World amusement park, through the bingo games taking place in churches across the country, to the mysterious halls of Hugh Heffner’s Playboy mansion, a glance at the contemporary United States would reveal that Americans have followed their pursuits of happiness in many different directions. At the same time, pleasure was rarely a random or personal matter. Ideas about pastime and leisurely pursuits were deeply contested, and bound to structural, political, and economic interests.

This module will use the prism of leisure to examine an array of historical problems in the twentieth-century US. Is there such as a thing as innocent fun? Were Americans encouraged to enjoy certain things more than others, and if so, why? How did certain leisurely persuits help maintain patriarchy and white supremacy? By addressing these questions we will examine how domains of leisure became stages for political, social, and legal battles over terms of race, gender, and labour relations.

Seminar sessions will advance chronologically from the time photographed postcards were a novelty, to the emergence of the Facebook “like” button. Weekly readings will revolve around particular case studies of contested arenas of leisure, grounded in historical context. We will study a diverse set of primary sources (posters, photographs, songs, movies) that will allow us to assess how politics of pleasure played out across different media.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2021-22 to Summer Term 2021-22

Module aims

The aims of this module are:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to study particular historical topics in depth;
  • To develop students’ ability to examine a topic from a range of perspectives and to strengthen their ability to work critically and reflectively with secondary and primary material; and
  • To combine seminar preparation and discussion of the topic being studied with extended independent work on a project devised by the student.

Module learning outcomes

Students who complete this module successfully will:

  • Have acquired a deep knowledge of the specific topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to use and synthesise a range of primary and secondary sources
  • Be able to evaluate the arguments that historians have made about the topic studied
  • Have developed their ability to study independently through seminar-based teaching
  • Gain experience of working collaboratively through an assessed group project

Module content

Teaching Programme:

This 30-credit module is taught through a weekly two-hour seminar run from weeks 2-10 in the spring term and a four week period of project work undertaken in weeks 1-4 of the summer term. Students will complete their group project work within that period and tutors should arrange to be available for consultation with students twice during that time. There will be no formal seminar teaching during this period. 

 Session 1: Introduction – The Politics of Want

 Session 2: Minor Fall, Major Lift: Musical Politics

 Session 3: Gendered Politics

 Session 4: The Politics of Place

 Session 5: Trains, Planes, and Automobiles: The Politics of Travel

 Session 6: Under God: Religion and Pleasure

 Session 7: The Politics of Intoxication and Sobriety

 Session 8: Politics of the Silver screen

 Session 9: Leisure in the Internet Era


Task Length % of module mark
3000 word group project
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
8 hours 67

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

Formative assessment will be a group presentation between weeks 5 and 7 of the spring term.

For summative assessment students take a 24-hour open exam in the summer term assessment period, usually released at 11:00 on day 1 and submitted at 11:00 on day 2. For those taking two Explorations modules the 24-hour open exams are held on consecutive days, with both papers released at 11:00 on day 1 and both due for submission on 11:00 of day 3.

Students also submit a piece of written work for their group project of no more than 3,000 words in week 5 of the summer term.

The exam carries 67% of assessment and the project element 33% for this module.

Students who need to be reassessed in the project component of this module (for example due to Exceptional Circumstance) will be required to submit in the summer reassessment period a shorter individual project (2,000 words) which should include a short reflection (500 words max) on group work, considering how this project could be expanded if a team of three to four people were working on it. Students should consider how they would divide up the research tasks, and reflect briefly on problems which might arise and how they would manage them. Module tutors will advise on the content and design of this project. 


Task Length % of module mark
3000 word group project
N/A 33
Not-online take-home exam (1 day)
24-Hour Open Exam
8 hours 67

Module feedback

Following their formative assessment task, students will typically receive written feedback that will include comments and a mark within 10 working days of submission.

Work will be returned to students in their seminars and may be supplemented by the tutor giving some oral feedback to the whole group. All students are encouraged, if they wish, to discuss the feedback on their procedural work during their tutor’s student hours. For more information, see the Statement on Feedback.

For the summative assessment task, students will receive their provisional mark and written feedback within 20 working days of the submission deadline unless submitted in week 5 of the summer term, in which case these are available within 25 working days. The tutor will then be available during student hours for follow-up guidance if required. For more information, see the Statement of Assessment.  

Indicative reading

For term time reading, please refer to the module VLE site. Before the course starts, we encourage you to look at the following items of preliminary reading:

Cohen, Elizabeth. A consumers' republic : the politics of mass consumption in postwar America. New York: Knopf, 2007.

May, Elaine Tyler. Fortress America: How We Embraced Fear and Abandoned Democracy. New York: Basic Books, 2017.

Von Eschen, Penny. Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.