Using Images and Film

I’d like to frame this blog post based on the questions I answered for my entry titled “Teaching History Today.” In answering these questions again, I will apply the use of images/film to lead students to deeper historical inquiry and discovery.

1. How do I make history relevant to students?

I believe that images and films are vital components of teaching history. Never should they drive the content; however, they can be used to spark intellectual inquiry and to analyze and provide sub-text, text, and context. Images and film can also be used to make history relevant to students in ways that lectures and readings cannot. Aside from the fact that many students are visual learners, images and film can also complement content and inspire critical thinking when compared, contrasted, and discussed. It is for these reasons that I use many images in my courses — and see media as valuable on multiple fronts as primary sources, as case studies, and as part of a more comprehensive presentation of content.

2. How do I make teaching history interdisciplinary?

While I cannot assess my effectiveness as a history teacher who approaches teaching from an interdisciplinary perspective, I can confirm that I strive to teach history this way. At some point in each U.S. history unit the class has a lesson on the era or period’s art, music, science/technology, and primary video clips (when applicable). For example, when I begin teaching Manifest Destiny our first lesson involves analyzing paintings related to the theme including Gast’s American Progress among six others. I use the lesson as a jumping off point for the unit. In terms of film, when studying the Cold War I use video clips of “Duck and Cover,” “Red Menace,” and 1964 campaign ads as part of our content. For our unit on the Civil War I do a lesson called “God is on our side,” and the classes analyzes and listens to several Civil War era songs. We begin with the lyrics and then move to performances of the songs by various artists and groups. Songs include “Bonnie Blue Flag,” and “Lincoln and Liberty” among others. One final example of interdisciplinary teaching is during our study of the Gilded/Progressive Era where students, in groups, each choose a discipline-based theme and create a historic newspaper with articles written by the students that reflect issues relevant to that time period. So in many ways, the use of images and film in my class are what makes my teaching history more interdisciplinary.

3. Why do I teach history, and should the method matter?

I will repeat the first part of my answer from the original post and then apply the use of images/film to the second part of the question.

“The first part is easy. I love it. The most consistent feedback I get on evaluations, going back 15 years, is that I am passionate about what I teach.”

Absolutely the method matters. Perhaps more important — effective and varied methods matter.  It doesn’t matter if you use primary sources if you don’t use them in a way that influences and increases student learning. Dr. Caldor, in his theory of “uncoverage” mentions that in trying to redesign his course he taught one semester with primary sources, hoping that this approach would transform his classes and lead to greater historical thinking. He admits it was a failure, painful, and was in some ways more dry than just lecturing. Varying pedagogical methods and using them effectively lead to student engagement and it is only when students are engaged that deep and critical learning can take place. Films and videos are keys to creating a pedagogical “tool bag” that can enhance such student engagement.



User Research Findings

Nashville Skyline, 2009. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and in the Public Domain.

This timing of this module was serendipitous. I have a great-aunt and great-uncle (Jean and Ben) who are in town for the next two days, and I was able to interview them tonight at dinner. They did not come to Nashville to visit me, but rather asked me to dinner because they were here. This perhaps made the small talk easier, but I was surprised by some of their answers. Ironically I learned quite a bit about both of them during the process of the interview as the subject and purpose of the questions were unrelated to family. I have lived in Nashville for several years, but I had no idea that they attended college at Belmont University (then Belmont College) in the 1960s. They said they have always loved Nashville and feel connected to Belmont, but the reason they come to visit is based on the music and cultural scene of the city. They like country music, but are not part of the “honky tonk crowd” per their description. They are both retired teachers who grew up and have lived most of their lives in northeast Georgia. Ben and Jean love to come to Nashville every 1-2 years as a “getaway” and prefer it to Atlanta because of the downtown district, museums, good restaurants, and its walkability. Their plans included a Valentine’s Day concert featuring Frankie Valli and the Nashville Symphony, which plays in the amazing, yet often overlooked, Schermerhorn Symphony Hall located in the heart of downtown.

My great-aunt and great-uncle both like history, and particularly southern history, but their knowledge of Nashville history is fairly basic. For example, they knew Andrew Jackson lived in Nashville and that Fisk University played a role in the Civil Rights movement, but did not know that James Polk was from Tennessee or that Nashville was largely occupied by Union forces during the Civil War. Jean and Ben love music of all genres and are nostalgic about blue grass and the Grand Ole Opry in particular. They thought that my project sounded great and both would be interested in using it as a walking-tour guide of important historical sites. Even though they are staying in a hotel downtown and have walked around the downtown area, they described it as “wandering around” with no real sense of purpose or geographical pattern. Their question for me, and one that I did not include in my original interview, is important if this project is to succeed. They asked, “How would we find out about this website and project?” This is something that I am going to have to consider. One option is involving the Chamber of Commerce and local hotels. Another option, which I have discussed with the Metropolitan Historical Commission (which manages the historical markers) is to add some kind of brief leader line, info, the web address to the physical historical markers themselves. This could perhaps be added to the back of the markers but would require MHC and Metro Council approval since it is public, tax-funded property.

The second potential-user interview was completed retrospectively. A friend of mine recently hosted a couple who traveled to Nashville from Vermont for vacation. My friend asked if they would mind being interviewed and they agreed. I called and interviewed John and Pat Buttrick this week, following their recent visit. They were drawn to Nashville because they have never visited and, in their words, “kept hearing about how great it was.” Both of them are middle-aged working class Caucasians who save up and take a one-week vacation each year. The Buttricks knew very little about Nashville’s history other than the fact that there were Civil War sites. They were drawn primarily to “see the sights” and visited the Johnny Cash Museum, Ryman Auditorium, spent time in records shops and honky tonk bars. They reminded me that “Yankees like country music too.” I asked if they saw any of the historical markers downtown and they said they read several as they walked around downtown. Pat commented that they took a picture with one entitled “Birthplace of Bluegrass” that is positioned in front of Ryman Auditorium. They also visited the Hermitage (approximately 15 minutes from downtown) and rented a car to visit Mammoth Caves, a vast system of underground caverns that is approximately an hour from Nashville. They said that they chose not to do a trolley tour because it was too expensive and took too much time, but a project such as mine would be very appealing to them.  When I asked what would make useful for tourists, they said, “It would be great if you added good restaurants near each location and the prices/hours of museums.” Both John and Pat noted that they also came to Nashville for the food, and in particular, “barbeque.” While this may be beyond my scope and purpose – particularly for a project sponsored by local government, I could perhaps provide links that already exist for food, museums, etc.

I learned several things from both my initial interview protocol as well as potential user interviews. My research has validated the need and usefulness of as an engaging tool for visitors, whether they are in Nashville for the first time or are frequent guests with a prior connection. I found that many of my original interview questions were not very effective because they assume, to an extent, that the average visitor to Nashville knows little about the subjects of my questions. Prior historical knowledge about Nashville, and the context of Nashville’s history when compared to other southern cities and U.S. urban areas is minimal and largely generalized. From my research and interviews I was able to determine what people are interested in knowing about Nashville. Albeit with my prompts, all those interviewed were curious about Nashville’s role in, for example, the Civil War or Civil Rights movement once I gave them basic bullet points. Another subject of great interest is music, and so the historical markers related to historic events or sites of music history will be important to the project’s success.

The interviews also provided me with new challenges. For example, how can I design the project so that people can and will use it? How can I market it so that visitors or residents know that it exists? Can I make it educational and engaging in a way that complements the physical historical markers? And finally, how do I navigate an independent project within the constraints of local government rules and regulations?