Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Mirror Crack’d-History Reflected by Hollywood

Academic Exchange Quarterly has an interesting article titled The Mirror Crack’d-History Reflected by Hollywood. It is by Paul D’Amboise and Avery Plaw. This article examines how mainstream (Hollywood) history films can be productively incorporated into high school and university history classrooms. It presents the findings of an experimental case study of the use of mainstream film in an Advanced Placement high school history course, and based on those findings suggests a sample module for a twentieth century history course combining film and text-based approaches to history.

Movies used included:

A Man for All Seasons (1966)
Elizabeth (1998)
1492: The Conquest of Paradise (1992)
The Quiet American (2002)
The Path to War (2003)
Thirteen Days (2000)
We Were Soldiers (2002)

From the site:

As the habit of reading continues to decline, especially among the young, history teachers are increasingly confronted by students whose impressions of the past are shaped by the mainstream historical films that Tony Barta has called “the most powerful engine of popular history in our culture.” (Barta, 1998, 2) The most prominent of these films are popular, Hollywood-style releases that characteristically sacrifice historical accuracy to the imperatives of emotionally-satisfying narrative resolution and commercial success. As a result, many students arrive in class with a deep background of historical misperception.

Faced with engrained historical misrepresentation, history teachers can respond with two basic strategies. Firstly, they can swim against the tide of increasingly cinematic history and continue to insist on the traditional text-focused curriculum, dismissing more popularized depictions of their course material. Secondly, they can attempt to adapt to the changing times by beginning to strategically incorporate popular historical films into the classroom despite their frequently dubious accuracy.

While recognizing that the first pedagogical strategy is not without merit, it is the second strategy whose potential we wish to explore here. We suggest the following merits of the second strategy warrant a closer examination of how it could best be accomplished: (i.) historical films provide a richer visual depiction of events than equivalent texts, are (ii.) an experience the class can more easily share, and therefore (iii.) are simply more inclined to instigate wide-ranging discussion than equivalent texts. Furthermore, (iv.) historical films will continue to exercise an enormous influence over most students; thus it only make sense to equip students with critical viewing capabilities. In addition, (v.) students have an enduring affection for unmasking manipulation, and the honing of this skill is likely to enhance the interest of history as a subject. Finally, (vi.) incorporating film into the core curriculum in no way necessitates the exclusion of relevant texts. On the contrary, historical films will generally give a visual immediacy to the events described in history texts, and thereby enhance their interest. Moreover, the employment of relevant texts in debunking the inaccuracies and manipulations of mainstream films will tend to enhance rather than diminish their importance. Indeed, it is the critical symbiosis produced by integrating dramatic visual narrative within a rigorous text-based curriculum that holds the greatest promise for enhancing historical understanding in the long term.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Free Medieval History Courses

Several universities are putting complete courses online for free now. Visitors can peruse course materials and watch lectures even if they do not get any academic credit for it. MIT is probably the best known for this but some other schools are as well including Notre Dame and the University of Washington.

Here are three example courses dealing with medieval history:

Medieval Economic History in Comparative Perspective - This MIT course is from the fall of 2006. The course features an extensive list of readings and assignments. A list of useful Web sites is also available in the related resources section. This course also features archived syllabi from various semesters.

Europe's Awakening - This is an Open University course in the UK. The site notes, "One of the most remarkable features of modern European history is the gradual emergence of that theoretical reasoning and experimental practice focused on the natural world that today we call science. In this unit we throw light on that eventual emergence of modern science in Europe by examining its beginnings in Greece and making comparisons with the early achievements of Chinese and Islamic science.You then return to medieval Europe in order to understand the intellectual and social origins of what has been called the 'scientific revolution'."

The Dark Ages - This UMass course is from the Summer of 2008. Beginning with the decline of the Roman Empire, this course discusses German, Muslim, Viking and Magyar invasions, the development of Catholicism in Western Europe and of Eastern Orthodoxy in the Byzantine Empire, the Arabic contribution to mathematics, science, and philosophy and the institutions of feudalism and manorialism. The course concludes with the economic, demographic and urban revival which began around 1000 AD.