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

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.

This class is fully online via iLearn.

Electronic Version of Course Syllabus HUM 376 Syllabus FALL 2018

Additional costs: $2.50 streaming rental for Forbidden City, USA. 

Course Description

This course studies the cultural life of the city from its days as a Spanish settlement named Yerba Buena to the present. This particular version of the course treats the historical and cultural life of the city as coextensive with modernity—modern capitalist development, including “progress” and its ideologies. Because the City of SF is bound up with modernity, it is something that is still happening, something that we are all participating in and working through. This is why my versions of the course have been subtitled A History of the Present.

This is a fun class where we learn about all the dirty stories from the 19th century, the gossip, and the unique characters of San Francisco. But we will also think seriously about place and exclusion, the genocide of native peoples, and the history of race in the city. We will also study gender and its constructions, sexuality, nature, commodification, technology, prostitution, trans history, image and spectacle as they relate to everyday life in SF modernities. Significant cultural works, places, and events, will be studied in relation to the material history of the city.

What is San Francisco modernism? The term modernism is defined differently by different people. Since it’s impossible to accurately represent entire periods of human history, for the purposes of this class, when we talk about modernism, we are primarily talking about a concept that seeks to think an entire series of cultural practices, techniques, and relations specific to the 19th century that inform and shed light on how we got to our present moment. Thus, our questions and concerns will be based on contemporary experiences. Our work, in that sense, remains grounded in often urgent problems of the present—for example, race, gender, sex, and class—in relation to their material history.

How do we read the unique forms of human expression, such as art, architecture, music, literature, photography, film, and politics associated with this 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, literature, and photography. 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.

Everyone is welcome in this class. The online forums are, above all, a space where students are allowed to have a voice. It’s really important, especially with what is going on in the world, that we support each other and strive to be respectful of our differences, our contributions, and our points of view. From the subject matter we will study, to many of the primary texts used in the course (written by women and sexual minorities), to the work we will do in the online forums, this is an inclusive class.

You must purchase the required books (there are only 3 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
  • Allen Ginsberg, Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript, and Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence (Harper Collins, 2006)
  • 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

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

Optional essays:

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

These are films we will watch online. 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 online, listed alphabetically by director):

  • Rick Butler, Hidden Cities of San Francisco: The Fillmore (1999)
  • Rick Burns/Li-Shin Yu, The Chinese Exclusion Act (2017)
  • Felecia Lowe, Hidden Cities of San Francisco: Chinatown (1996)
  • Arthur Dong,  Forbidden City, USA (1989)
  • 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)
  • Stryker/Silverman, Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria (2010)
  • “Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope: Setting Time in Motion” (2010) (short)