Full disclosure: I’ve always had a pretty strong animus towards documentary videos in my classrooms. Really, against the use of almost any videos, but especially against the classic documentary-teaches-everything.
Recently, I was able to pinpoint why.
There are great historical (and non-historical) documentaries out there. But like our textbooks, the overwhelming number of documentaries suffer from the problem of trying to do too much. Like a rambling history lecture, they become obsessed with minutiae and personal side-stories which are deeply interesting but historically insignificant. The entire process becomes more abstract instead of more coherent.
In an attempt to cover everything, they lose their voice and their purpose.
Historical study and historical learning is about the creation of history. It’s about viewpoints, about what is counted and isn’t. History is questions and possible answers, not positivist. Documentaries too frequently don’t have a voice or a stance. They are overly factual and, therefore, uninspiring.
What brought this most into focus for me recently was the discovery of numerous podcasts – historical and current – which are so much more powerful for precisely what they are not. They are not behemoths of fact. Rather, quite frequently, a podcast might include just once voice. One historian or author. One event. One viewpoint.
Podcasts are tightly focused. They are miniature (sometimes not miniature) essays. Roundtables, where history is not simply told, but argued.
History is not simply told, but argued.
New litmus test for classroom media: is it just a textbook made of pictures? Is it simply your lecture spoken by a voice-over artists? If so, skip it.
But, if like a good lecture or activity, the media brings an argument to life and becomes a model to our students – how to build, support or frame a discussion – then let it roll.
This post was largely inspired by a colleague’s sharing of the BBC’s “History of the World in 100 Objects,” and specifically the episode, “Suffragette Coin.”