San Francisco: Biography of a City

This course meets the following requirements: Upper Division UD-C: Arts and/or Humanities, SF State Studies: Environmental Sustainability, GE Segment 3.


Electronic version of course syllabus: HUM 376 SUMMER 2017

Please note: This course uses iLearn extensively. There will be two fully online days listed in the course syllabus. The rest of the class days will be in class.

Header image: Ocean Beach SF, 1975, from The Cliff House Project

Course Description

This course explores the unique cultural history of San Francisco in relation to modernism / modernity. What is San Francisco Modernism? How do we read the unique forms of human expression, such as art, architecture, music, literature, photography, film, and politics associated with the city and their relation to modern life? We will explore these and other questions by tracing our own unique history of the present of San Francisco. Rather than a simple chronological re-telling of dates, facts and major events, we will endeavor to creatively enter into the historical life of the city, thereby changing and expanding our conception of San Francisco. Close attention will be paid to major historical events and cultural locations in the life of the city, such as the gold rush, immigration, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality, Chinatown, the Chinese Exclusion Act, modernity, World’s Fairs, censorship and the Beat Generation, vice and sin, cinema and literature, photography and music. By the end of the semester, students should come away from the course with a greater knowledge of the cultural history of San Francisco, and, hopefully, a new experience of the city in relation to its past.

You must purchase the required books (there are only 4 of them), as well as download the required essays, which are available here (and on iLearn as PDF files).

Required Books (available at the bookstore):

  • Barbara Bergland – Making San Francisco American: Cultural Frontiers in the Urban West, 1846 – 1906
  • Jessica Ellen Sewell – Women and the Everyday City: Public Space in San Francisco, 1890-1915
  • Clare Sears – Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco

Optional Books

  • Allen Ginsberg – Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions (optional)

Required Essays and Book Selections (will be available as PDF files at course website/iLearn):

Study Questions (some course study questions will be included in the online forums in iLearn):

These are films we will either watch in class or you will be required to watch at home online within iLearn. You will be tested for the content of any of the required films. For documentary films watched at home, there will be online forums that you will be required to participate in.

Required Films (viewed in class or on iLearn, listed alphabetically by director):

  • Rick Butler – Hidden Cities of San Francisco: The Fillmore (1999)
  • Felicia Lowe – Carved in Silence (1987)
  • Felecia Lowe – Hidden Cities of San Francisco: Chinatown (1996)
  • Arthur Dong – Forbidden City, USA (1989)
  • Alfred Hitchcock – Vertigo (1958)
  • Jill Nicholls, The Weird World of Eadweard Muybridge (2010)
  • Riff and Roberts – Ishi: The Last Yahi (1992)
  • Michael Rohde – Madams of the Barbary Coast (2008)
  • Pam Rorke – Hidden Cities of San Francisco: The Mission (1994)
  • Jeffrey Schon, American Cinema: Film Noir (1995)
  • or,  Gary Leva, Film Noir: Bringing Darkness to Light (2006)
  • Stryker/Silverman – Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2010)
  • “Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope: Setting Time in Motion” (2010) (short)

Detailed instructions for the course writing, exam, and participation requirements. These need to be successfully completed in order to pass the class.


Students are responsible for completing all the assigned course work and are expected to regularly attend and participate in course discussions. Students are expected to come to class prepared. Prepared means that you have done the assigned reading, have thought about it, and have something relevant to say. Always bring the assigned reading material (for each particular day) to class. Always take notes. My lectures, comments, and rants constitute an important “text” for the course. Be aware that my style is casual and approachable—this should not detract from the seriousness of the work we do together  (this style of presentation is meant to make it easier for you to grasp the material). There will be 2 “formal” papers required (following the requirements for segment III, see below). There will be a mid-term essay 5-pages in length, and a final essay 5-pages in length (typed and double spaced). There will be a handout on the essay assignments before each essay is due. Each essay must contain 5-pages of formal college level writing. Your essays must demonstrate mastery of the reading material and course lectures for the assignments (your grade will be based on this). All essays must be critical. No grade will be awarded for non-critical writing. No papers will be accepted via e-mail. No rewrites of written work. No late papers accepted. Plagiarism in any of the course assignments, in any form, will be dealt with harshly and will be forwarded to the Dean’s Office for appropriate action. Plagiarism on any assignment will also result in a grade of F for the assignment. (Please note that Wikipedia is NOT a critical source and cannot be used for college writing. The same is true of IMDB.) Students are responsible for all of the course content and materials even if they are absent (absences of more than two class sessions can result in your final grade being substantially lowered). No incomplete grades will be given. Part of your final essay will require you to research and write about an SF film noir of your own choosing. Detailed instructions for this part of the final essay assignment are on iLearn.


There will be a final exam for the course. The final exam will consist of 10 questions and may cover all of the material from the course. The questions will be short answer questions. Generally, it should take no more than 30 minutes to complete the exam.

Please note: the 6th floor of the San Francisco Public Library is devoted to the SF History Center.


If you are caught text messaging in class, surfing the web, or playing video games, or engaging in any other non–course related activity, you will be required to leave the classroom. No eating in class (unless you bring enough to share with everyone). No electronic recording in the classroom.

Enrollment in this course constitutes your agreement to abide by all of the above rules and policies.


To meet the segment III writing requirement (for any students still on the Segment Three track), you will be required to write 10 pages of writing. These papers are “formal” and will be read and graded by the professor. You will be expected to argue coherently, to support your arguments with detailed examples from the works analyzed, to edit your papers for spelling, grammar punctuation and agreement, and to meet recognized standards for notes and bibliography when relevant. All of the above will be taken into account in the grading of these assignments. This course satisfies part of the General Education, Segment III requirement. Ten pages of formal critical writing, which will be graded by the professor for style and content, will be required (see below).


Students with disabilities who need reasonable accommodations are encouraged to contact the instructor. The Disability Programs and Resource Center (DPRC) is available to facilitate the reasonable accommodations process. The DPRC is located in the Student Service Building and can be reached by telephone (voice/TTY 415–338–2472) or by email:


SF State fosters a campus free of sexual violence including sexual harassment, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking, and/or any form of sex or gender discrimination. If you disclose a personal experience as an SF State student, the course instructor is required to notify the Dean of Students. To disclose any such violence confidentially, contact:  The SAFE Place – (415) 338-2208; Counseling and Psychological Services Center – (415) 338-2208; For more information on your rights and available resources:


Students who do not attend the first class meeting will be dropped. It is the students’ responsibility to drop the course after the first class session. Students who stop attending but do not drop will be given a WU grade. Please be aware that a WU grade is counted as an F for GPA purposes.


Attendance and participation: 10% | Midterm Essay: 40% | Final Essay: 40% | Final Exam: 10%