On my first day as a brand new assistant professor a student came up to me, introduced himself, and announced, “I am a visual learner.” The class was a reading and writing intensive freshman seminar with a predetermined syllabus. I knew we had a problem, but I had limited agency to remedy the situation.
This year I decided to see if I could match my long-since graduated student’s need for visual stimulus with my own desire to make students delve deep into the documents that reveal the mental landscape of the past. I integrated video presentations into the middle portion of each three-hour seminar.
The visual interlude fixed one pedagogical problem and revealed another. Although academic historians of colonial America know that all the world was not New England, word has yet to reach the filmmakers. Three Sovereigns for Sarah captures Salem’s witchcraft crisis and Mary Silliman’s War strips the romantic Revolutionary myths away from a tense civil war in Connecticut. When I wished to illuminate my own area of expertise, the colonial mid-Atlantic, I came up short. No film of which I am aware follows Conrad Weiser through Penn’s Woods or brings to life the ascetic world of the Ephrata Cloister. In the realm of video pedagogy, the years between witches and independence and the geography between Puritans and plantations cease to exist.
New England’s comparative simplicity garners it a disproportionate amount of attention. The Pilgrims and Paul Revere bookend schoolchildren’s understanding of colonial history, with a brief pause for the horrors of Salem and slavery. Thus our politicians and the voters who elect them imagine a past of Protestant purity marred by slavery and superstition. Historians seek to disabuse students of this dangerous misperception. However, in a visual age, we need the assistance of historical films.
No doubt, my plea to move beyond New England in a blog from Boston seems strange. I suspect that it requires the Puritans’ descendants to call for an expansion of the past beyond the Hudson. A clarion call from Harvard Square to the monied classes with expensive cameras might just do the trick.