America in the 1990s—Syllabus

AMH 3930-2 | Fall 2023 | Florida State University
Professor Paul Renfro | he/him


This course will trace the history of the United States during the 1990s. It will pay particular attention to the politics of the era, as well as the cultural texts (songs, films, and other phenomena) that both reflected and shaped the period.


At the end of the course, students will be able to: (1) identify and narrate change and continuity in the history of the United States during the 1990s; (2) evaluate evidence using the tools of historical and humanistic inquiry; and (3) recognize the importance of gender, sexuality, race, class, and other analytical frames in US history.


  1. attendance and participation: 25 percent
  2. leading discussion (2): 20 percent (10 percent each)
  3. film response: 25 percent
  4. soundtrack responses (2): 30 percent (15 percent each)
  1. attendance and participation
    • This is a (large) seminar-style course that stresses student engagement and in-class participation. Students should come to class prepared to discuss the texts assigned for that day. Those who attend class—and those who contribute in meaningful ways to our class discussions through insightful observations, analysis, and questions—will earn high marks in participation. Students should consult the participation rubric for more information.
  2. leading discussion (2)
    • At the beginning of the semester, students will pick two of the assigned readings or other texts listed on the syllabus, and on the designated dates (individually or in small groups), they will present those texts to their peers. These presentations will take place on the meeting date for which the text is assigned (unless otherwise noted). They should include summarization and analysis followed by thought-provoking questions, which the presenter(s) will ask as they lead the class. These questions must be sent to the instructor by 5 p.m. on the day before you are scheduled to lead discussion. Presentations should run between eight and ten (8–10) minutes, after which the presenter(s) should open up discussion with their questions.
  3. film response           
    • Students must view the two assigned films (Boyz n the Hood [1991] and You’ve Got Mail [1998]) and write a response to one. These short responses (three double-spaced pages) should be analytical (not descriptive) in nature. They should focus on the context in which the film was produced and released (or the historical period depicted in the film), the argument(s) articulated in the film, and the historical significance of those claims. The responses must engage with at least three other course texts.
  4. soundtrack responses (2)
    • Students will write analytical responses to two assigned songs. Just as the strongest film responses will historicize the assigned movies and place them in conversation with course lectures, in-class discussions, and other materials, the strongest soundtrack responses will build upon the knowledge produced in our class to situate each song within the appropriate historical context. Like the film responses, your soundtrack responses must engage with at least three other course texts, at least two of which should be assigned scholarly readings. Each response should be about two to three double-spaced pages in length. Below you will find a list of songs, from which you should choose two. Your first response must focus on one of the songs from the first batch, and the second response should relate to a song in the second batch.

First batch

  1. Madonna, “Vogue,” I’m Breathless (1990)
  2. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind (1991)
  3. Tori Amos, “Me and a Gun,” Little Earthquakes (1992)
  4. En Vogue, “Free Your Mind,” Funky Divas (1992)
  5. Ice Cube, “It Was a Good Day,” The Predator (1992)
  6. U2, “One,” Achtung Baby (1992)
  7. Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name,” Rage Against the Machine (1992)
  8. Bikini Kill, “Rebel Girl,” Pussy Whipped (1993)
  9. Salt-N-Pepa, “Shoop,” Very Necessary (1993)
  10. 2Pac, “Keep Ya Head Up,” Strictly 4 My N***AZ (1993)

Second batch

  1. Smashing Pumpkins, “1979,” Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (1995)
  2. Coolio, “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Gangsta’s Paradise (1995)
  3. Spice Girls, “Wannabe,” Spice (1996)
  4. Jamiroquai, “Virtual Insanity,” Traveling Without Moving (1996)
  5. Radiohead, “Paranoid Android,” OK Computer (1997)
  6. Shania Twain, “Man! I Feel Like a Woman,” Come on Over (1997)
  7. Janet Jackson, “Together Again,” The Velvet Rope (1997)
  8. Ricky Martin, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” Ricky Martin (1999)
  9. TLC, “No Scrubs,” FanMail (1999)
  10. Eminem, “I’m Back,” The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)


Students are not required to purchase any texts for the class. All course materials will be available through Canvas or the FSU libraries, or they will be presented during class meetings. Students must familiarize themselves with course materials before the class meeting for which they are assigned. For example, if a text is assigned for Tuesday, students should come to class on Tuesday prepared to discuss that text.


This course has a Canvas site. You must have a functional university email account to access the site, on which the instructor will post course materials, announcements, student grades (confidentially, of course), and other information relevant to the class. Students are expected to access the Canvas site regularly and to familiarize themselves with the materials contained therein.


Some course materials contain vulgar, derogatory, violent, lewd, and inflammatory language and imagery to which some students may object. The professor does not necessarily condone this type of content or encourage students to identify or agree with it. Nevertheless, the content has been assigned to stimulate critical thinking, analysis, and civil discourse.


  • Attendance: Students should make every effort to attend all scheduled course meetings. Those who come to class prepared, pay attention, and take diligent notes are most likely to perform well in the class. However, life often intervenes, and students will not be penalized for excused absences, which include documented illness; deaths in the family and other documented crises; calls to active military duty or jury duty; religious holy days; and official University activities. These absences will be accommodated in a way that does not arbitrarily penalize students who have a valid excuse. Consideration will also be given to students whose dependent children and family members experience serious illness. According to FSU policy, you must be present on the first day of class, or you will automatically be dropped from the course.
  • Missed exams/late assignments: Though students should do their best to submit their assignments on time, those with viable excuses will be accommodated. Those who miss (or plan to miss) class meetings should notify the instructor as soon as possible to explain their circumstances.
  • Decorum: Students are expected to treat one another and the professor courteously, to listen attentively, and to maintain a respectful attitude, even toward views with which they disagree. Because of the ongoing covid-19 pandemic, students are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated and boosted.
  • Academic honor policy: The Florida State University Academic Honor Policy outlines the University’s expectations for the integrity of students’ academic work, the procedures for resolving alleged violations of those expectations, and the rights and responsibilities of students and faculty members throughout the process. Students are responsible for reading the Academic Honor Policy and for living up to their pledge to “be honest and truthful and … [to] strive for personal and institutional integrity at Florida State University.” (See Florida State University Academic Honor Policy.)
  • Americans with Disabilities Act: Florida State University (FSU) values diversity and inclusion; we are committed to a climate of mutual respect and full participation. Our goal is to create learning environments that are usable, equitable, inclusive, and welcoming. FSU is committed to providing reasonable accommodations for all persons with disabilities in a manner that is consistent with the academic standards of the course while empowering the student to meet integral course requirements.

    To receive academic accommodations, a student: (1) must register with and provide documentation to the Office of Accessibility Services (OAS); (2) must provide a letter from OAS to the instructor indicating the need for accommodation and what type; and, (3) should communicate with the instructor, as needed, to discuss recommended accommodations. A request for a meeting may be initiated by the student or the instructor. Please note that instructors are not allowed to provide classroom accommodations to a student until appropriate verification from the Office of Accessibility Services has been provided. This syllabus and other class materials are available in alternative format upon request. For more information about services available to FSU students with disabilities, please contact the Office of Accessibility Services: 874 Traditions Way, 108 Student Services Building, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306-4167; (850) 644-9566 (voice); (850) 644-8504 (TDD);;
  • Academic success and confidential campus resources:

    Academic success
    Your academic success is a top priority for Florida State University. University resources to help you succeed include tutoring centers, computer labs, counseling and health services, and services for designated groups, such as veterans and students with disabilities. The following information is not exhaustive, so please check with your advisor or the Dean of Students office to learn more.

    Confidential campus resources
    Various centers and programs are available to assist students with navigating stressors that might impact academic success. These include the following:
Victim Advocate Program University Center A,
Room 4100; (850) 644-7161; available 24/7/365. Office Hours: M­–F, 8–5;
University Counseling Center, Askew Student Life Center, second floor, 942 Learning Way; (850) 644-8255; Health Services, Health and Wellness Center;(850) 644-6230;
  • Free tutoring from FSU: For tutoring and writing help in any course at Florida State University, visit the Academic Center for Excellence (ace) Tutoring Services’ comprehensive list of tutoring options. (See or contact for more information.) High-quality tutoring is available by appointment and on a walk-in basis. These services are offered by tutors trained to encourage the highest level of individual academic success while upholding personal academic integrity.
  • Changes to the syllabus: Except for changes that substantially affect implementation of student evaluation (grading) policies, this syllabus serves as a guide for the course and is subject to change with advance notice. The instructor reserves the right to make changes to the syllabus, including the schedule of assignments, lectures, and the selected readings.
  • Title IX: As a recipient of federal financial assistance for education activities, FSU is required by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to ensure that all of its education programs and activities are free from discrimination on the basis of sex. Sexual discrimination includes sexual misconduct (sexual violence, stalking, intimate partner violence, gender-based animosity, and gender-based stereotyping). If you have questions about Title IX or wish to file a Title ix complaint, please visit the FSU Title IX website or call Jennifer Broomfield, Title IX Director, at 850-644-6271. Please note that as Responsible Employees, all faculty are required to report any incidents of sexual misconduct to the Title IX Office. For information about the confidential on-campus Victim Advocate Program, please visit


Week 1                      

Tuesday, August 29                Introductions: What Were the 1990s?


  1. Nelson Lichtenstein and Judith Stein, A Fabulous Failure: The Clinton Presidency and the Transformation of American Capitalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2023)—introduction.

Thursday, August 31              The End of History?


  1. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” National Interest 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.

Week 2

Tuesday, September 5            No More Cold War


  1. Penny M. Von Eschen, Paradoxes of Nostalgia: Cold War Triumphalism and Global Disorder since 1989 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2022)—chapters 1 and 2, “The Ends of History” and “Out of Order: Discordant Triumphalism and the ‘Clash of Civilizations.’”

Thursday, September 7           New War(s)?


  1. Philip M. Taylor, War and the Media: Propaganda and Persuasion in the Gulf War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992)—“Introduction: Image and Reality in the Gulf War.”

Week 3

Tuesday, September 12          Anita Hill, Then and Now


  1. How History Changed Anita Hill,” New York Times, June 17, 2019.

Thursday, September 14         Los Angeles Rising


  1. Boyz n the Hood, dir. John Singleton (1991).


  1. Brenda Stevenson, The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the la Riots (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013)—preface.

Week 4

Tuesday, September 19          From Los Angeles to Waco to Oklahoma City


  1. Kathleen Belew, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018)—chapter 8 and 9, “Ruby Ridge, Waco, and Militarized Policing” and “The Bombing of Oklahoma City.”

Thursday, September 21         The Chase and the Trial


  1. Toni Morrison, “Introduction,” in Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O. J. Simpson Case, ed. Morrison and Claudia Brodsky Lacour (New York: Pantheon, 1997), vii–xxviii.


  1. W. Joseph Campbell, 1995: The Year the Future Began (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015)—chapter 3, “O. J., DNA, and the ‘Trial of the Century.’”


  1. Your analytical responses to Boyz n the Hood are due on Sunday, September 24 by 11:59 p.m. (via Canvas).

Week 5

Tuesday, September 26          CARE and a Lack Thereof


  1. Paul Renfro, The Life and Death of Ryan White: AIDS, Inequality, and America (draft)—chapters 5 and 6, “‘Too Many Funerals Like His’” and “In Ryan’s Name.”

Thursday, September 28         When Plagues Don’t End


  1. Renfro, The Life and Death of Ryan White—chapter 7, “Whose CARE?”
  2. Andrew Sullivan, “When Plagues End: Notes on the Twilight of an Epidemic,” New York Times Magazine, November 10, 1996.

Week 6

Tuesday, October 3                 A “War for the Soul of America”?


  1. Pat Buchanan, speech at the Republican National Convention, August 17, 1992, American Rhetoric.


  1. Andrew Hartman, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)—introduction.

Thursday, October 5               “As Nasty as They Wanna Be”


  1. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw, “Beyond Racism and Misogyny,”Boston Review, December 1, 1991.

Week 7

Tuesday, October 10               The “History Wars”


  1. Gary B. Nash, Charlotte Crabtree, and Ross E. Dunn, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Knopf, 1997)—chapter 1, “In the Matter of History,” New York Times.


  1. Hartman, A War for the Soul of America—chapter 9, “The Contested American Past.”

Thursday, October 12             Homonormativity


  1. Urvashi Vaid, Virtual Equality: The Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation (New York: Anchor, 1995)—chapters 4 and 5, “The Prevailing Strategy: Mainstreaming Defined” and “The Mainstream Response: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”


  1. Your first soundtrack responses are due on Sunday, October 15 by 11:59 p.m. (via Canvas).

Week 8

Tuesday, October 17               The “New Democrats”


  1. Lily Geismer, “Atari Democrats,” Jacobin, February 8, 2016.

Thursday, October 19             The 1994 Midterms


  1. Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey, Contract with America (1994)
  2. Nicole Hemmer, Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s (New York: Basic Books, 2022)—chapter 5, “The Other Leader of the Opposition.”

Week 9

Tuesday, October 24               “Superpredators”


  1. John Dilulio, “The Coming of the Super-Predators,” Weekly Standard, November 27, 1995.
  2. Michelle Alexander, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote,” The Nation, February 10, 2016.
  3. Leon Neyfakh, interview with John Pfaff, “The Clintons Aren’t to Blame for Mass Incarceration,” Slate, February 11, 2016.

Thursday, October 26             Welfare as We Knew It


  1. Felicia Kornbluh and Gwendolyn Mink, Ensuring Poverty: Welfare Reform in Feminist Perspective (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018)—chapter 4, “The New Democratic War on Welfare.”

Week 10

Tuesday, October 31               Postfeminism?


  1. Yvonne Tasker and Diane Negra, “Introduction: Feminist Politics and Postfeminist Culture,” in Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture, ed. Tasker and Negra (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 1–25.

Thursday, November 2           The Politics of Immigration at the State and Federal Levels


  1. Sarah R. Coleman, The Walls Within: The Politics of Immigration in Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021)—chapter 5, “‘To Reward the Wrong Way is Not the American Way’: Welfare and the Battle over Immigrants’ Benefits.”

Week 11

Tuesday, November 7             The Right and the 1996 Presidential Election


  1. Hemmer, Partisans—chapter 9, “Pitchfork Pat.”

Thursday, November 9           Globalization, Neoliberalism, and the Internet


  1. You’ve Got Mail, dir. Nora Ephron (1998).


  1. Meagan Day, “The Romance of American Clintonism,” Jacobin, October 21, 2020.


  1. Campbell, 1995—chapter 1, “The Year of the Internet.”

Week 12

Tuesday, November 14           The Clinton-Lewinsky Saga


  1. Monica Lewinsky, “Shame and Survival,” Vanity Fair (June 2014).

Thursday, November 16         Silicon Valley and the “Dot-Com” Bubble


  1. Margaret O’Mara, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America (New York: Penguin, 2019)—chapters 20 and 23, “Suits in the Valley” and “The Internet is You.”


  1. Your analytical responses to You’ve Got Mail are due on Sunday, November 19 at 11:59 p.m. (via Canvas).

Week 13

Tuesday, November 21           Columbine and Its Afterlives


  1. excerpts from Dave Cullen, Columbine (New York: Twelve, 2009) and Dave Cullen, Parkland: Birth of a Movement (New York: Harper, 2020).
  2. Marilyn Manson, “Columbine: Whose Fault Is It?Rolling Stone, June 24, 1999.


  1. Eminem, “The Way I Am,” The Marshall Mathers LP (2000).

Thursday, November 23         NO CLASS MEETING

Week 14

Tuesday, November 28           A “Raw Power Struggle Between Capital and Labor”


  1. Corey Robin, “The Battle of Seattle,” Theory & Event 4, no. 1 (2000).

Thursday, November 30         The End of the Decade and the End of the World?


  1. Chuck Klosterman, The Nineties: A Book (New York: Penguin, 2022)—chapter 12, “The End of the Decade, the End of Decades.”

Week 15

Tuesday, December 5             Hanging in the Balance


  1. US Commission on Civil Rights, “Report: Voting Irregularities During the 2000 Presidential Election,” June 2001.

Thursday, December 7          


  1. On Thursday, December 7, please come to class prepared to answer the question: “What were the 1990s?”
  2. Your second soundtrack responses are due on Sunday, December 10 by 11:59 p.m. (via Canvas).

Featured image: Bill Clinton (then-Governor of Arkansas and Democratic presidential candidate) appears on The Arsenio Hall Show, 1992; Kid Rock performs at Woodstock ’99.

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