What do politics, power, and Playboy magazine have in common? They were all prominent in the American mindset during the 1960s. They were also core themes in a history research seminar at Virginia Tech, “America in the 1960s.”

The course, taught last spring by Marian Mollin, an associate professor of history, culminated in a 161-page volume authored by the students in the seminar. The book was published in the fall of 2019 by the Department of History in association with Virginia Tech Publishing in the University Libraries at Virginia Tech

"Politics, Power, and Playboy" is part of a student book series that began in 2018 with "Welcome to the Beatles." Both books were authored and edited by Virginia Tech undergraduate history students, who worked with the staff of Virginia Tech Publishing to produce the final product. The books are available online at no charge or in an inexpensive paperback edition through Amazon.

This growing collaboration between the Department of History and Virginia Tech Publishing exemplifies one of the ways in which University Libraries is evolving its services to support student research and education in the 21st century. 

“This publication series is a great example of how today’s humanities classroom is evolving to incorporate new and creative modes of experiential learning,” said Peter Potter, publishing director in University Libraries. “When most people think of a history classroom, they probably conjure up images of lectures, tests, and research papers that will only ever be read by the professor teaching the class. In today’s world, new digital technologies have made it possible to think in grander terms. Why not inject new life into the classroom by having students actually publish a book they can give as a present to friends and family?”  

Mollin agrees. “The students loved the idea of writing a book,” she said. “It created a level of excitement throughout the semester that could never have been replicated by my having them simply write a paper for submission to me alone. While the process was rigorous and arduous, and even stressful for them at times, they all expressed great satisfaction in knowing they would produce a tangible and lasting project from their efforts.”

The book is organized into three sections that mirror the book title — politics, power, and Playboy. The politics section illuminates electoral politics, public support for President John F. Kennedy from his run for office through his assassination and beyond, and the making and implementation of foreign and domestic policy over the course of the 1960s.

The second section discusses social, cultural, and political power struggles in America’s 1960s. The book’s student writers also focused on the complicated relationships among race, identity, and power.

The third section is a reflection of the shift in ideas about women’s sexuality and beauty standards as a byproduct of the cultural, political, and social power struggles of the times. It discusses changes in the way magazines and newspapers like Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Ebony portrayed women’s sexuality and beauty to national audiences.

The students’ in-depth research into the tumultuous decade allowed them an opportunity to reflect on similarities and differences between the past and today.

“Every writer brings their unique perspective to a historical research project,” said Mollin. “As such, our students bring a unique collective generational perspective to the history of the 1960s, a field that has been studied a great deal, but by participants in that era’s events and established scholars who are quite a bit older than the students in my class. What they choose to write about and how they choose to approach their subjects says as much about the present day as it does about the past that they have chronicled in their chapters.”

“This book project was incredible,” said Kayla Mizelle, a student co-author and citation editor. “It not only allowed us to create something tangible that we wanted to work toward, but it allowed us to write about something we really cared about from our own unique perspective. We often talked in class about how we really wanted to get this right because we cared so much about what we were working on and we wanted to do the history justice.”

Claire Ko, a student in Mollin’s class and recent graduate, was a co-author and line editor for the book. Through this project, she realized how much she loved research and writing.

“I’m attending a master’s program at Virginia Tech in the spring for secondary education for history and social sciences,” said Ko. “After my experience with writing this book, though, I’m contemplating pursuing a career in research. The project opened my eyes to another career path I could thrive in.”

Mollin said her students not only created a significant book of published historical research but also honed skills that will benefit them in the future.

“The students learned important skills in critical thinking and analysis, how to engage in rigorous research, and how to overcome intellectual and logistical obstacles to success,” said Mollin. “They honed their writing skills and gained practice in how to work collaboratively with others as a part of a team. These skills will serve them well in the future, no matter what paths they choose and what types of careers and jobs they pursue.”

Potter is not surprised to see the idea catching on elsewhere at Virginia Tech. “We were approached last year by Andrea Baldwin and Anthony Kwame Harrison from the Department of Sociology,” said Potter. “Both were intrigued at the idea of a class book project.” 

Baldwin was offering for the first time a graduate course on black feminisms. Harrison was teaching his popular Foundations of Hip Hop course. Both classes have since resulted in newly published books: “Standpoints: Black Feminist Knowledges” and “The Foundations of Hip-Hop Encyclopedia.”

Potter said the process never gets old. “It’s fun to see how the students in each class tackles the book project in their own way. This means that each book is different, so we’re all learning as we go along.”

Written by Ann Brown