Seeing is . . . .

A few years ago I picked up a DVD set of the 1974 documentary, The World at War to assist in my teaching. In each of the four class meetings my majors’ course devotes to World War II, we watch a different episode illuminating some relevant issues. For example, we see a historiographic debate play out on screen (”The Two Deaths of Adolph Hitler”) before we tackle interpretative differences in historical biography and start our event-based history discussion with the segment on the Battle of Stalingrad. These end up being some of the most rewarding (and popular) segments in the course.

In my experience, professors seem divided into several camps on the use of videos. There are those who enthusiastically engage in their use, maybe too much so, arguing that the entertainment factor leads to the painless absorption of academic material. Other professors painstakingly extract a few minutes’ snippet of a show at a piece or at a time, pausing to deconstruct each teachable moment — an admirable but often exhausting approach. Still others swear off entirely from using video material in the classroom, whether this be from Luddite tendencies or pedagogical viewpoints, it’s sometimes hard to discern.

I’m somewhere between the first and second group. I usually schedule a few hours of video into my first year class as an introduction or quick summation of a new section or neglected themes in another area. I showed an entire episode of Elizabeth R (The Enterprise of England) in my Early Modern British History class. Yes, I know it’s not all vitally germane, but they’re still bringing up references to what they saw on screen weeks later. Other times I’ll just show a snippet (no more than ten minutes) as a launching pad for discussion.

I find it helpful to preface any film segment with an clear explanation of what I want the students to get out of the experience. I’ll advise them what historical figures they ought to pay the most attention to, what themes to watch out for (conflict? cooperation? motivation?). After the film, we pause for classroom discussion lasting ten to thirty minutes. Since they’re often watching video material that directly correlates with their current course reading, I encourage them to look for parallels or divergences between the two.

It may seem, at first glance, to be an “easy” way out and goodness knows, I’m as guilty as anyone of kicking back when I fire up a video segment for the tenth time or more in my teaching career, yet I still defend these activities as a vital part of their coursework and I can honestly say that each discussion brings new insight into both the topic at hand and process of doing history.

Where do you stand on video in the classroom or in learning? Yea, Nay or otherwise?

6 Responses to “Seeing is . . . .”

  1. terminaldegree Says:

    I do use videos from time to time, especially in intro classes. When I’m teaching music appreciation, I’d rather *show* part of an opera rather than *play* it any day. Same goes for my class lecture on the medieval church and the musician (I show part of the PBS video “Cathedral,” which says what I’d say anyhow, but makes it a lot more fun.) The students seem to enjoy it. I do try to have a worksheet or some conversation questions for them to keep in mind during the video, just to keep them from dozing off!

    On the other hand, one of my friends took a class where she got a credit for watching the entire series of “I, Claudius.” No papers, no exams. Just watch the series, chat for a few minutes, and leave. College credit for that? I don’t think that’s appropriate.

    A video (or a part of a video) shown in the larger context of a class can really keep students interested and get them talking or thinking (and sometimes even both…).

  2. Another Damned Medievalist Says:

    I wish I showed more — one of my long-term goals is to really prep more for the videos I do show. I do try to make sure I integrate the videos in to the class, though. I showed two episodes of the Frank Capre “why we fight” series and then asked the students to discuss them, along with several other forms of propaganda, on their midterm. And I showed “Rabbit in the Moon” last week as a start to our discussion on Japanese internment. Having seen the Capra films, they were much more aware of the effects of the media than they were before.

  3. Dr M Says:

    The 2 segments on WW2 from THE CENTURY: AMERICAS TIME (hosted by the late Peter Jennings) are outstanding. I just showed the one on the WW2 homefront in America and my students loved it. They get used to movies in high school so “movie day” for them is a treat. I always give them a handout with an outline on it, so they can take notes, and I tell them that stuff from the movie is “fair game” for quizzes and tests. They really seem to pay attention although I usually have a few snoozers.

  4. mj Says:

    For both Jane Eyre and Great Expectations I put together rough edits of scenes from two or three different filmed versions. For JE I took the same series of important scenes — Jane being accused of lying as a schoolgirl; Jane meeting Rochester, etc. etc. — and showed three intrepretations, back to back. For GE I did the same thing, with the old black and white version and the Gwynth Paltrow/Ethan Hawke modernization. It’s work, but these are texts I teach often so I will use the tapes again. This technique gives the students some visuals, but more importantly, it makes it plain that a reading is an interpretation, one of different possible readings.

  5. Tiruncula Says:

    I often show videos to give my students a visual and atmospheric context for what they’re learning. I, myself, am a very visual learner, and I realized after a couple of years teaching e.g. the BritLit survey that whether I was talking about Grendel in the mistige moras or a ball in an Austen novel, I was calling on a very concrete sense-world in my own imagination. I have that context (and, indeed, had it before I started college) because I’ve tromped over Dartmoor and dug in Anglo-Saxon mud and handled manuscripts and artifacts and spent days at a time in the costume museum in Bath and danced eighteenth-century country dances and so on, and I’m talking students who, with very rare exceptions, have nothing like that to draw on.

  6. profgrrrrl Says:

    I’m pro-video when I can find relevant ones. I love it when I can find a popular movie with a clip that shows an element of human behavior/communication that happens to tie in with the concept that I’m teaching. The key is to tell students why they’re watching it (as you do) and to debrief it after.