Course Description

For centuries, the notion of the “American dream” has been a concept that has resonated through major political movements, civil rights activism, American advertising, and legal debates over how to interpret the nation’s foundational written documents. “The American Dream,” the political scientist Cal Jillson has argued, “has always been, and continues to be, the gyroscope of American life. It is the Rosetta stone or interpretive key that has helped throughout American history to solve puzzles of how to balance liberty against equality, individualism against the rule of law, and populism against constitutionalism. The American Dream demands that we constantly balance and rebalance our creedal values…” (“The American Dream and Its Role in American History” 5). And yet this concept is imagined and carried out quite differently by different groups of people. From where did the term originate? Is there more than one “American Dream”? How has the meaning of this concept changed over time? Who were the first American dreamers? Do certain groups have more trouble attaining the dream than others? Answering these and other questions, we will trace the ways in which the “American dream” is formulated in writing—from historical documents, such as speeches and treatises, to contemporary literature and essays. Students will respond to these works using a variety of critical approaches, from the personal essay to the research paper, in order to explore the ways in which an “American dream” is presented as both a stable force that resists change as well as a national myth that reflects shifting priorities.

Rationale for Assignment Sequence

The essay assignments for this course progress towards the final research paper, which is an intensive engagement with primary and secondary sources requiring writers to analyze textual evidence in support of a central argument or thesis. The first assignment asks writers to consider themselves and their families as primary sources in order to reflect on the ways in which “American Dreams” is a concept with which they already have some experience. Though this is a personal narrative, it is also a thesis-driven essay that develops writers’ organizational, citational, and rhetorical skills. The second essay asks writers to develop an argument about the tension between historically significant speeches made by those in positions of political or cultural authority, prompting them to explore the powerful impact that language and writing have on visions of national identity. Identifying and analyzing these and other major conceptions of “the American Dream” leads directly into the final project of the course, which is broken up into two major assignments: an annotated bibliography, in which students critically engage with and compare various primary and secondary sources that attempt to define or debate “American Dreams,” and a final research paper, in which students use original research that includes both primary and secondary sources to develop an analytical argument about the role that “American Dreams” plays in the lives of women, immigrants, or the working class.

The materials and description for this course were revised in 2012.

Course Documents

Previous versions of the syllabus:



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