How did a UT history class help inspire one of the most popular podcasts of 2019?
“I received an email from a writer at RadioLab saying that they were all talking about the piece in the New York Times about the Dolly Class,” said Lynn Sacco, associate professor of history at UT.
Sacco, who for three years taught an honors course for history majors, Dolly Parton’s America, soon found that the popular RadioLab podcast took the course’s name. In return, they devoted nearly an entire hour-long episode based on hours of interviews they conducted with UT honors history majors. Episode 7, airing December 3, features these students discussing what East Tennessee and Dolly have meant to them. Dolly Parton’s America
The more RadioLab listened to UT students, faculty, and staff reflect on Dolly, the longer the series became. The nine-part podcast examines the life and cultural influence of Parton and what they say about the United States. For the podcast, host Jad Abumrad and his co-writer and producer Shima Oliaee conducted more than 12 hours of interviews and followed Parton for two years.
Some of that time was spent here in Knoxville and Sevier County with Sacco and her students.
“Jad visited our final class one semester and then came back to campus with Shima for a full day of interviews with students,” Sacco said. “They both turned to me at one point and said, ‘These are the voices of young people from the South that need to be heard.’”
Sacco came up with the idea for the thesis seminar class in 2016 as a way to provide students with a new way of thinking about the past by examining someone they think they know all about – Dolly – to reflect on their own roots and place in 21st century America. How did a poor mountain girl become a nine-time Grammy award winning artist who received an honorary doctorate from UT in 2009 after being voted the least likely to succeed as a student at Sevier County High School? The answers surprised us all.
The class is one of four history honors courses, which faculty rotate teaching. Sacco’s class used historical sources to look at the world from the view of a poor Appalachian girl in the mid-20th century and how she, in turn, transformed how the world looks at ‘her people.’ It examines Parton’s book, Dolly: My Life, and others, such as Hillbilly and Dear Appalachia. A watch list includes a range of media: The Beverly Hillbillies and trailers for Roots, Saturday Night Fever, and Coal Miner’s Daughter—pop culture sources 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 paper answering the question, “What was Dolly Parton’s America?”
“Dolly Parton’s America is the ideal place of our dreams, one in which we all live up to the qualities that Dolly has exemplified: hard work, generosity, acceptance of others, faith, family, and not least – joy,” Sacco said.