Monthly Archives: October 2011

Teaching History Through Feature Films

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Teaching History through Feature Films

Historian Robert Rosenstone has mused that commercially made feature films have become “the chief conveyor of public history.”[1] Consequently, today’s college students will most likely know more about recent German history from movies like Das Leben der Anderen and Good Bye, Lenin! than from books or other traditional scholarly sources.   Anglo-American historians like Rosenstone have been eager to promote the study of feature films as a valid source of historical knowledge.[2] Recent pedagogical studies such as those edited by Alan Markus (Celluloid Blackboard, 2006 and Teaching History with Film, 2010) offer concrete suggestions on how to use film effectively in secondary schools,[3] but there are few practical resources for college-level teaching.[4] How can we teach our students to read critically what Hayden White has called historiophoty, “the representation of history and our thoughts about it in visual and filmic discourse”?[5]

Generally, scholars have moved beyond the question of how factually accurate feature films are or can be.  Few reject the feature film outright as falsification of history due to its conventional devices of collapsing time, merging characters, inventing dialogs, and focusing on individuals over events and processes.  Yet one of our primary challenges as educators is to provide students with basic historical knowledge and a frame of reference so that they can learn to distinguish between fact and fiction.  Moreover, we are faced with a balancing act between teaching students how to develop analytical skills, acquire comprehensive historical knowledge, and appreciate the unique manner in which cinema engages with the past.

I would like to address several on-going areas of scholarly debate that can be productive material for teaching history via the movies.  Firstly, how does one incorporate a nuanced discussion on the very nature of historiography in a course devoted to cinema (in practical terms: how much Hayden White can a Freshman digest in an introductory film course?)  Secondly, does the perennial question on the merits of art-house versus mainstream cinema contribute to a preference toward “serious” and “experimental” films or can we learn important history lessons from conventional B-movies or even movies that “get it wrong”?[6] Finally, I would like to conclude with some remarks on how we can encourage students to move beyond passively consuming history and help them to become active arbitrators of what the past means to us today.  What should students be doing before, during, and after watching a movie?  What activities can help students to recognize the constructed nature of historical analysis and the need for multiple perspectives?

Commentary: Teaching German Film

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Response to the GSA Panel on Teaching Film

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First let me thank Stephen Brockmann, Christian Rogowski, and Mary Beth O’Brien for providing such helpful papers, filled with practical advice, suggestions of websites and texts, advice on teaching strategies, how-to’s and not-to-do’s.  Indeed the three presenters complement each other well as their presentations speak to each other insofar as one mentions teaching strategies that in fact respond to questions raised by another.  Thus, I will not address so much the nuts and bolts of logistics, or how to seduce our students into paying careful and deliberate attention, or what it means to teach German history through film; rather I will focus on more general strategies of teaching.

I will begin, however with a personal comment of where I fit in: I feel like a dinosaur – one of the early (or first?) generation who started teaching German cinema in the late 1970s.  It is sobering to think that I have become the history that Stephen and Christian refer to in passing.  While this in itself does not make me especially competent to comment in this forum, since witnesses also construct their narratives in particular ways, as I am sure Mary Beth would concur, nonetheless I can attest to the fact that many of the challenges and practical issues mentioned by the presenters have been with us from the very beginning, be they access to films and finding subtitled versions, how to integrate the screening experience, what textbooks or texts to choose, how to balance breadth and depth, what kind of assignments to require, etc.  At the same time, the speakers make clear that we are confronted with a dynamic situation: film distribution and screening technologies are changing, so are student viewing habits, and of course approaches to film analysis and film theory continue to evolve along with the changes in film production and accessibility.  Hence, echoing their insistence on establishing context, I remind you that there is a context for this discussion of teaching German film courses in our institutions of higher learning, one that goes as far back as the late 1970s.  I do not intend to reconstruct that context for you, but I do want to recall three important aspects of that early phase:

Moving Pictures, Moving Targets

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Moving Pictures – Moving Targets

While preparing for this panel on teaching German film, I came across a remarkable phrase in an essay on teaching literature, written by Amherst College’s new president, Biddy Martin: “Learning to read requires suspending the demand for automatic intelligibility.”[1]1 This aphoristic statement strikes me as the best formulation of what lies at the heart of a liberal arts education in general, and the humanities in particular: learning involves not only the acquisition of new information and skills, but also the ability to let go of preconceived notions, to open up to new perspectives, to endure uncertainty, and to aim for a deepened understanding.  Teaching, then, to a large extent, involves an undoing, helping students in this process of letting go.  Learning to “read” in the metaphorical, general sense I take Martin to mean, requires time and effort: slowing down to engage with the material at hand; working hard to achieve a different, non-“automatic” intelligibility.  Given the ever-accelerating pace of life for both ourselves and our students and the erosion of attention spans – hopefully, not our own, but primarily those of our students! – what are the implications of this situation for the teaching of German film?

When I first started teaching German film, some twenty years ago, the students who would take German film courses taught in English could easily be divided into three distinct groups, with minimal, if any, overlap: some came with considerable expertise in film studies – let’s call them “the cinephiles” – who were attracted by a largely auteurist interest in the great names of directors, or by the allure of a mythologized period, such as the Weimar Republic or the New German Cinema.  Such students tended to have strong skills in visual analysis but limited or no knowledge of German history and culture.  The second group of students had a background in German – let’s call them “the Germanophones” – and usually had a neutral interest in the topic; they took the courses to fulfill the requirements of their German Studies major, or they were heritage learners with a decent grasp of literary or cultural history but little or no specific skills in visual analysis.  The third group consisted of random students without background or interest in either skill set – let’s call them “the clueless” – who may have been vaguely attracted to a course they thought would be “easy” and “fun” since it promised to involve “watching movies.”