This week, we have been reading and thinking about being history educators who may use historical films.
I was struck by Natalie Zemon Davis’s chapter “Film as Historical Narrative” from Slaves on Screen: film and historical vision (2000). Davis notes: “In its usual story form, the feature film can recount the past in the mode of historical biography and ‘microhistory’ (6), and she goes on to elaborate about these topics, the use of narration, and critical evaluation of film techniques. Writing “The Historian and Film: Challenges Ahead.” for the AHA four years earlier, Robert B. Toplin cites Davis as one historian who was consulted for historical films. In his piece, he presents many different types of questions that historians can ask about films. Also writing during the mid-1990s, Peter Seixas discusses his observations of the way that students view films and the types of critical questions that they need to be asking. “What Do Students Learn from Historical Feature Films?” suggests a methodology for teaching with films. I thought that the author’s idea to “Use older films in the beginning of the year as a touchstone experience for critiquing a film’s accuracy and realism” was an interesting one. Finally, in his 2001 piece “Movies as the Gateway to History: The History and Film Project.” , Paul B. Weinstein shares a fascinating assignment that he gives to his students. He assigns each student a film to analyze:
“Students must analyze the assigned film as history and compare its portrayal of the past to the academic representation of history presented in class, in texts, and in other sources. In their comparisons, students must utilize critical and scholarly resources and present their conclusions in a four to six page paper” (29).
All of these readings, in addition to earlier readings on historical thinking by Sam Wineburg, Stéphane Lévesque, Lendol Calder and others, are helpful as I contemplate ways to use films in the classroom.
I have a passion for inductive research, and I find the 2002 film version of A.S. Byatt’s Possession (the book is much richer than the film, but the film works as a teaching tool) as an effective way to get students excited about the process of historical research. As they watch the characters in the movie utilize many types of resources to find the historical answers they are looking for, I believe that students begin to appreciate the research process and to understand their history professors a little bit better. I also find the scene in the beginning of the movie where a letter is “taken” from an institution to be a teaching moment about ethics and historical research.
During our course activities this week, we each discussed a film which we would use in a course or an exhibit. I selected the 2008 John Adams film, especially the scenes about Boston Massacre and its trial. I agree with what Davis said about historical biography and microhistory, and the John Adams film is an excellent way to teach about the historical topics presented and about critical approaches to the way that they are presented in the film.
Over the last decade, I have been studying the life and career of Georgie Hale, a very talented dancer, dance director, and both theatre and film producer of the first half of the twentieth century. His grandson asked me to research Georgie’s life, and it has taken me years to piece most of his life story together. I have presented on him in academic venues, but I also use him for teaching. Just this week, I utilized a PowerPoint presentation which I have made about Georgie to teach students about his life and the films which he was involved in. I showed clips from the films and asked many critical questions about their production and historical context. I’d love to teach students Omeka, to assign each a film, and to ask them to watch it, analyze it, find historical reviews about it, research its producers, distributors,and consumers, and create an item record about it. That way, film and digital humanities could work together to teach historical inquiry.