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?