Film and Media

Re-Visions of American History Explored at NYU Media Conference

AHA Staff, January 1992

More than fifty scholars, historians, media specialists, and independent film and videomakers gathered at New York University on September 27–28 to explore—and to affirm—the use of independent, ethnically diverse film and video within the American history curriculum.

The conference, drew participants from around the nation, was sponsored by the Media Alternatives Project (MAP), a special initiative of NYU's Bobst Library funded by the Rockefeller Foundation's National Video Resources program. It combined screenings, presentations, and workshops aimed at discovering effective ways of teaching with this media.

According to MAP Director Catherine Egan, "Mainstream media—commercial television and Hollywood films—have largely shaped how we see the world. Alternative visions from independent filmmakers of color offer fresh perspectives that lead students to question, and, hopefully, broaden their view of history."

A striking example was offered at a session about Civil War representations. The Massachusetts 54th Colored Infantry, by independent filmmaker Jacqueline Shearer, was screened and the ensuing discussion focused on the vastly different ways independent film can present American history, especially in light of mainstream productions such as the Hollywood movie Glory and the PBS series The Civil War. According to Chon Noriega, American studies professor at the University of New Mexico, "Independent works such as Shearer's challenge our presuppositions about who makes American history, and about the ways that history can be told."

"One enormous barrier to incorporating alternative media into the classroom is simply that many people do not know it," said Barbara Abrash, administrator of the MAP project. To help correct this situation, MAP will shortly publish the first comprehensive guide to alternative video resources in American history and culture. Entitled Mediating History: The MAP Guide to Independent Video by and about African American, Asian American, Latino and Native American People, this sourcebook will be a valuable tool for educators and media selectors. It is scheduled for publication in late spring. It includes an annotated listing of more than 100 exceptional independent videos as well as essays by a number of respected scholars on how these works can be interpreted and taught.

In the coming months MAP will work to implement the recommendations that came out of this conference. These include visual literacy workshops for teachers and students and the production of videotapes to make independent media more widely known. Regional MAP projects will be explored as well as future conferences and publications.