Coursework: Dolly’s America

FOCUS: History honors students look at how a “hillbilly” girl from Appalachia grew up to become an international one-word sensation. The course pulls students in to study someone they thought they already knew and familiarizes them with analyzing popular culture as a historical source. Reading about how hillbillies and feuds began as made-up characters and tropes in novels and cartoons to the rise of hillbilly music to Christian entertainment and the thread of tourism, students see the processes by which fiction often becomes fact, and how heritage is a blend of the real and the imagined.

IN THE MAJOR: This thesis seminar is the first of three that history honors students are required to take. The topic of the course varies from semester to semester, but the goal is to prepare students for the next two courses and the creation of original historical research.

STRUCTURE: Materials assigned for this class include Dolly Parton’s book Dolly: My Life and other books about Appalachia like Hillbilly and Dear Appalachia. The wider watch list includes a range of media like the TV show The Beverly Hillbillies and trailers for Roots, Saturday Night Fever, and Coal Miner’s Daughter—pop culture sources that are generally overlooked by historians. Students keep journals, making notes on topics like the perceptions of Appalachia in pop culture. At the end of the class, each student writes a 10-page work answering the question “What was Dolly Parton’s America?”

TAUGHT BY: Lynn Sacco, an associate professor in the Department of History.

PHILOSOPHY: Learning how to analyze materials, to put them into their historical and social context so that we understand what historical figures meant by their words and actions, is a skill prized by historians. Students in history classes learn how to make fine distinctions between what we think we know and what we can prove. History honors students leave UT with a piece of original history they have produced. They have spent three semesters (including summer) locating, sifting through, and thoughtfully synthesizing all kinds of materials; analyzing arguments and having to defend their own, repeatedly; and writing up their analysis at the end of all this work: why what happened matters.

BROADENING YOUR EXPERIENCE: Every history requires readers to put themselves in another person’s shoes. This act of empathy is not the same as agreeing with any historical figure. Nor is reading history just about the facts. Historians must tell us why people in the past made the decisions they did—no historical event is predetermined.

Watch a video about the class at, or find out more about the History Honors program at

2 Comments on “Coursework: Dolly’s America

  1. I hope that we are able to read some of the Student’s analysis’. I find this fascinating. I was raised listening to Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn’s music. Coal Miners Daughter is an old favorite of mine. I would love to know why this topic, these people’s lives, specifically, were chosen.
    Good luck to the students and I hope you find joy in your studies.

  2. Would you possibly post your complete syllabus? I was a history major and also have my masters and I love Dolly. I’ve always found the story of Appalachia to be one of the most compelling and under-told stories in American history.

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