Publication Date

April 1, 1999

Film and video are among the historian's most effective teaching tools. They are fascinating primary documents to analyze; they provide vivid cultural and social contexts to complement and enrich assigned readings and lectures; and they make powerful arguments about historical interpretation useful for classroom debate. They engage today's visually attuned students in a direct, visceral manner that written documents may have difficulty achieving.

But as with any tools, they must be used skillfully. Too often, instructors fail to explore the full potential of video and film. They show movies to avoid an onerous lecture or to fill up time when a faculty member must miss class. The tendency is to turn off the lights and turn on a video—so-called teaching, but without a challenging lesson plan to engage students in active analysis and interpretation. Such "video babysitting" is the reason why the use of film and video in the classroom is often rightfully criticized. Historians with little experience in visual analysis nervously avoid the classroom use of films, and regretfully, others remain reluctant to consider popular culture and media studies subjects for academic consideration. Media's sullied reputation in teaching is why, for example, a Virginia high school principal recently prohibited the showing of feature-length films during class periods—a decision that dismayed the instructors who had incorporated powerful films such as the Civil War epic Glory into their history curricula.

Students' reaction to the use of film and video can also be an obstacle. Today's students have been trained since infancy to sit passively in front of the television set, causing them to tend to take in entertainment movies, instructional videos, and documentaries alike without contemplation or questioning of the images and ideas being presented. Such conditioning, combined with the reputation of video babysitting, can cause students to assume that courses that extensively use visual media are intended to be easy. This reaction can make for a self-fulfilling prophesy, with students collectively inferring that because little effort is expected, then little effort is what they put out.

Because of my interest in the pedagogical promise of film and video, and the potential pitfalls, I recently posed a question to colleagues who successfully used media in their classes: how can we overcome the obstacles to incorporating film and video into our teaching so that we can unlock their potential for our students?

Films as Primary Documents

Karen Ward Mahar of Siena College has students examine early films to locate cultural assumptions underlying the social order at the turn of the century. "For my U.S. women's history course, I rent several shorts from the Em Gee Film Library in Resada, Calif., at (818) 881-8110: What Drink Did (1909), Her First Biscuits (1909), The Grit of the Girl Telegrapher (1913), and Mabel, Fatty, and the Law (1915). I have students analyze them for clues regarding gender and class in the early 20th century. We have informal discussions between films, and I guide students to look at clothing and manners, and to think about who made the films and why, and who was likely to be viewing them. [While similar films may be available on video] Š I like the raw quality of using the film shorts as they are.”

I myself show the Clara Bow film It (1927) in my U.S. social history course at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and have students analyze how the narrative and characters illustrate the promise and limits of the sexual revolution and rise of a culture of personality. Students compare the film with historical interpretations by Warren Susman, John D’Emilio, and Jean Friedman. Few of my students have previously seen a silent film. To help them make sense of this lost art form, I give them a brief introduction to film reception theories, discuss the social context of moviegoing in the 1920s, and point out silent film’s focus on facial expressions and reliance on visual cues to convey ideas.

Video as Cultural Context

Documentaries are integral to the African and Caribbean history courses Bernard Moitt teaches at VCU. A BBC series from 1987, Africa, provides powerful visual images that enrich the concepts he presents to students through lectures and readings. “I can tell students all I want about the trans-Saharan trade, vital to an understanding of African history from the17th century onward; I can lecture about traders and the items they sold like gold and salt. But when they see the images of lines of camels, and the blocks of salt tied on each animal’s back, it creates a whole different impact for them.” Videos on relevant aspects of Caribbean and African culture are uniquely illuminating for students, Moitt finds. He uses documentaries focusing on gender and the construction of identity that feature African women talking about their own perspective in their own voices.

Students in John Herman's 20th-century China course at VCU have the option of viewing five modern Chinese feature-length films such as To Live (1991) and Blue Kite (1995) outside of class and writing essays on them in lieu of taking a final exam. The assignment not only broadens students’ understanding of the complexities of Chinese culture and encourages them to write about these issues at length, but it also has the beneficial side effect of getting students “hooked” on current Chinese cinema. Afterward, they actively seek out foreign films.

Film and Historical Interpretation

Jill Ehnenn incorporates mainstream feature films as historical documents, as bearers of cultural ideologies, and as the starting point for film theory explorations into her British literature course at George Washington University. She asks students to compare different cinematic versions of Henry V, focusing student inquiries on Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film as a propaganda piece used to bolster British confidence during World War II and the Kenneth Branagh 1989 version as a post-Vietnam critique of war. “We also talk about how the texts are abridged differently for each film (and the political reasons for this) and how the representation of women changes. The point, apart from trying to make a difficult and distancing text accessible to students, is to open discussion about several complex issues—that texts ‘change’ over time; that history is ‘fluid’; that texts play upon and/or alleviate certain cultural anxieties; that authorial intention is not always what the consumer ‘gets’ from a text (and that that’s OK); and that texts become canonized when they fulfill particular cultural desiderata.”

Catherine Mooney teaches a senior seminar at VCU in comparative history that examines the roles of gender, religion, and authority in the lives of four women—two from medieval Europe and two from early modern and contemporary Latin America. "I ask students to compare and contrast the extant writings of each woman with filmic depictions. The documentary regarding the 12th-century Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, for example, presents a series of talking heads interspersed with quotations from her works, depictions of medieval manuscript illuminations that she supervised and that portrayed her own religious visions, and footage of the countryside where she lived. The film weaves all of these elements together to make a certain argument about Hildegard that has some distinctly modern twists to it. (Students note that she is represented as a woman who started out unsure of herself, gradually grew in self-confidence, and eventually stood up to many male authorities, including bishops, popes, and kings. She is also portrayed as an environmentalist.) Students also read the letters of the 12th-century Abbess Heloise and the following week watch a Hollywood rendition of Heloise's passionate and ill-fated love affair with Abelard. This movie has many historical inaccuracies, both in minor details and in major themes, that generate an excellent discussion of historical consciousness, the uses of the past, and modern gender stereotypes."

Steve Ross at the University of Southern California has developed a course called "Film, Power, and American History" that examines how American filmmakers across the 20th century have represented or misrepresented such social problems as industrialization, urbanization, war, poverty, crime, race, class, and gender conflict to mass audiences. He uses films of the period as primary documents, contrasted with historical overviews, film industry records, and other primary sources. "It's the student's job to figure out which of these perspectives seems most convincing, why it seems so, and the implications of one form of knowledge being more powerful than another." Often he gathers excerpts from feature films, newsreels, and documentaries to show in class. "My goals are to show how filmmakers create visual stereotypes (or discourses) that are used over and over again by other filmmakers to convey ideological messages."

Do be wary of showing a documentary or film with historical subject matter primarily to point out such historical inaccuracies as nonperiod clothing or weapons. While it makes for an amusing scavenger hunt, no historical recreation can be 100 percent accurate. As Dick Gollin of the University of Rochester reminds members of the online discussion list H-Film, scholars should not ask the question whether filmmakers distort reality or not. The creators of any narrative film (or novel, play, or historical monograph) choose and arrange images, facts, and dialogue to construct a dramatic story or compelling argument. Rashomon (1950) is a classic example of a film presenting varying and sometimes contradictory interpretations of a single event.

For new approaches and ideas on the teaching and study of film, history, and American culture, instructors can consult such fine books as Steve Mintz and Randy Roberts (eds.), Hollywood's America: U.S. History through Its Films (1993); Robert Rosenstone (ed.), Revisioning History: Film and the Construction of a New Past (1995); Robert Brent Toplin, History by Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (1996); and Peter Rollins (ed.), Hollywood as Historian: American Film in a Cultural Context (1998). Books, films on videotape, and documentaries on African, European, Latin American, and Asian cinema and history are becoming more widely available so that faculty and their schools can build teaching libraries.

Visual Literacy and Media Analysis

Instructors teaching in film studies programs tend to focus on film form and narrative structure; thus, many such who answered my query on the H-Film discussion list were taken aback that students would concentrate primarily on the information conveyed in a film. Media content does matter to historians, but we must be sure to show students that film is no more "objective" than any other written or verbal source. Students have grown up thinking that if they see a film or video news clip of some event, it is "true." They have been exposed to many visual images, but they have not necessarily developed sophisticated skills of visual literacy and media analysis.

Faculty should develop visual literacy skills themselves to make better analytical use of media in the classroom, advocates John O'Connor. His helpful guide, Teaching History with Film and Television (1987), published by the AHA, includes a section on “Visual Language: An Introduction for Historians and History Teachers,” which discusses the functional components of moving-image media—the elements of a shot, how the editing process creates meaning from a series of images, and the interplay of sound and image. O’Connor outlines four frameworks for the study of films as historical documents: as representations of history, as evidence for social and cultural history, as evidence for historical fact, and as evidence for the history of film and television. He urges instructors to focus students on questions of image content, production, and reception. “Almost every course in the history curriculum lends itself to at least some dimension of relevant film or television analysis,” O’Connor writes. “In addition to helping communicate subtle aspects of historical subject matter, the structuring of a critical analysis of visual materials within the context of historical methodology helps to teach students the basic elements of historical thinking, gives them firsthand experience in the process, and aids them in dealing more intelligently with the kinds of communications media they will face outside of school.”

"Thirty years ago, students had to be taught to read the newspaper critically, to identify bias, and to distinguish between factual reporting and editorializing," O'Connor continues. "Today, when more people claim to get their news about the world from TV than from newspapers, students also need to learn skills of critical evaluation for the viewing of film and televisionŠ.Students need to understand how the construction of the typical TV news interview is an expression of technological limitations and media conventions. Similarly, they should learn to be sensitive to the ways political television commercials may unconsciously appeal to their feelings and emotions rather than to their intellectual judgment.ŠThe freedom a democratic society allows to media producers implies a direct challenge to educators to teach students to interpret critically and evaluate everything that they see in the media. There is no more appropriate person for teaching these lessons than the history or social studies teacher, and no more appropriate place for such learning to take place than in the history classroom."

Jill Ehrenn incorporates such a framework into her critical thinking courses. "Another effective use of film has been my attempt to get the students accustomed to reading culture, especially popular culture, as texts. I often use readings that perform close analyses of films and television in order to show that cultural assumptions and prejudices about race, gender, and sexuality strongly underlie much of our entertainment, and therefore reinforce ideologies. Students initially are resistant to such claims, and respond that the critics are 'reading too much into a text that is meant only to be pure entertainment.' However, once the students have read several articles and then viewed clips of films they critique (for instance, horror movies when talking about representations of gender, science fiction when talking about popular anxieties about miscegenation, summer romance films when talking about gender and compulsory sexual norms), they actually begin to see what the critics are talking about. They begin to accept that such dominant ideologies are prevalent in our culture. I generally know that I've succeeded with the critical thinking component of my class when students write in their journals that I've 'ruined' films for them—that they can no longer watch TV or movies passively and that they begin to see ideology at work everywhere."

Encouraging Student Analysis and Interpretation

How can faculty members get students to interact with the film or video they are showing? Have students make notes on the film while they are watching it and then turn them in to make sure they are engaging with the film to some extent. Other instructors suggest giving a quiz immediately after the film or assigning an in-class writing exercise that asks what the main point of the video was. How well and through what narrative or visual aspects did the filmmakers demonstrate their themes? Instructors can focus class discussion and analysis on specific scenes, or on structure of the narrative rather than having students construct an overly generalized film review.

Marty Feeney of Central College suggests showing videos on the largest screens available, utilizing the campus video studio instead of a small TV set, if possible, so that the images will have greatest impact. He provides students with a packet of informative materials on each film he uses: "I provide a transcript which highlights scene-by-scene breakdown, character names, dialogue segments which I think will focus on outcomes related to reasons why I am showing this film. I do try to mention recurring themes and visual motifs. The first two pages usually include thoughtful review quotations which again focus on why I am showing this film." His students write one- to two-page responses before the next class, when they will discuss the film. "When I show the film I stand just off the side of the screen and comment on what we are seeing and hearing, so that it is a laboratory experience and not just Saturday night at the movies."

Vivien Sandlund of Hiram College suggests stopping a feature-length film or long documentary part of the way through and asking questions and generating discussion then, so that students can immediately deal with issues they might forget about by the end of the film or at the next class meeting.

Donnette Crow previews the videos she intends to use in her classes at Oklahoma City University and makes a second tape on which she includes copies of selected scenes; thus she wouldn't have to search through an entire video in class to find the appropriate segments. She uses these taped scenes to sum up the film experience of the previous class, reinforce main points, and re-focus students on the issues under discussion.

Rather than providing a ready-made list for students, Jacquelyn Miller asks her Seattle University students to work in small groups to develop and evaluate their own questions about the film to bring back for larger class discussion. Students learn how to craft insightful questions whose answers are not too obvious and which elicit thoughtful classroom discussion. She suggests using as a student model for the analytical process the segment of the video documentary The American Cinema in which a number of film directors and scholars give differing critiques of the film Scarlet Street (1945).

Film and History at the Center of the Classroom

Victoria Brown of Grinnell College created an in-class film and history exercise that brought many of these elements together: as primary source document, as political ideology made manifest in an entertainment form, as a narrative capable of bearing various levels of interpretation, and as an unusual source that generated active student analysis and lively discussion. "This semester, I assigned It's a Wonderful Life (1946) for students to write about at the post-World War II moment in the U.S. history survey course. I asked that they delineate the different economic ideologies presented in this film. They did a very nice job of talking about Mr. Potter as the old laissez faire capitalist and about George as, at first, the 1920s individualist who comes to learn, in the course of the New Deal, that we’re all in this together and that communal economic action is more satisfying and admirable than self-aggrandizement. Of course, they also picked up on the fact that George is also a symbol for the American individual: without him, the whole town would rot, and too, he’s the great white male taking care of the Italian working class. While he’s conflicted about individual ambition and family obligation, Mary has no conflicts whatsoever. So, they unpacked a lot in that old chestnut and it works nicely because its such a sappy old chestnut that the students are surprised to realize that the film their moms make them watch every Christmas actually has some politics in it.”

As Marty Feeney concludes, "You really have to know why you are using a particular film and how it fits into the concepts, themes, and principles you are trying to teach. This method takes a lot of thinking and work but when it all fits together you reify for this generation of students ideas, contradictions, situations that have often only endured a moment after the bluebook is closed. The film you choose can visualize and reinforce [concepts] for a much longer time. Plus it's more fun this way!"

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