Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Visual Learners and Historical Myopia

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe

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.


Anonymous said...

Looking north instead of south, there is _Black Robe_, my old favorite.

Lisa Clark Diller said...

I so much appreciate reading this and getting some ideas for films that have worked. But I agree, certain elements of history have had more work done on them than others. In World Civ, I try to break the tedium now and again with visuals, but it seems impossible to find anything on, say pre-colonial Africa or Southeast Asia, or Central Asia--or Russian history before the nineteenth century. I sometimes use really out-dated items just to have something/anything.

EJLP said...

I love Black Robe, but as you note it doesn't solve my 18th Century Mid Atlantic problem.

Eric B. Schultz said...

This is a really important topic. I sat through a social media presentation the other day only to discover that the information source of choice for young people is (obviously) no longer an encyclopedia. . .and not Wikipedia. . .and not even Google. . .but YouTube. That's the visual database educating our world.

Randall said...

Enjoyed reading this. I think it's always a good idea to use films in undergrad classes. That does get difficult with certain eras and topics. (Like anything but New England for the colonial era). I wonder if any colonialists here have used the PBS history relaity series Colonial House? Doesn't avoid the regional problem.

Here's a post I did some years back for the blog on Modern West history movies:

Bland Whitley said...

As far as non-New England colonial history goes, what do folks think of Terence Malick's The New World. It is, as many historian-critics have pointed out, problematic in its romanticism, but it is at least different. And like all of Malick's films, it is beautiful and wrestles with his perennial theme of lost innocence. For a less romantic but also less relevant (to this conversation) film, I'll suggest Brazil's "How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman."

Randall said...

Hey Bland: I've used the first encounter scenes of New World in a colonial hist survey. The visuals are stunning. And I think there's something about the interaction of Indians and colonists that captures how it could have been.