In preparation for the presentations starting this Friday, be sure to review our course expectations for speaking. You might also want to spend a few minutes watching this conversation with Profs. Poppinga and Kooistra, in which they share some advice on preparing for oral presentations.
Okay, my turn to weigh in on your question for this week. By which criteria should we evaluate historical movies and TV series? I actually wrote a three-part series on this last summer for the Patheos Evangelical blog, The Anxious Bench. I started with the Civil War film Free State of Jones, then recommended two cable TV series: the feminist time-traveling drama Outlander and the Cold War spy thriller The Americans. Here are the four criteria that I suggested:
Is it entertaining?
Like several of you, I thought we had to start with the fact that the task of the filmmaker is not to be a historian: “…historical or not, any good feature film does need to be entertaining, in ways that aren’t required of histories published by tenured academics through nonprofit presses. It does need to be ‘gripping’ — and moving, evocative, engrossing, and more.” In short, historical filmmaking is first and foremost a kind of entertainment. But I added that we should consider the other meaning of that word: “…to entertain is also ‘to have people as guests,’ and I think the two meanings converge in a well-done historical movie, since it diverts our attention from our world by inviting us into another — perhaps in ways that an academic history cannot.”
Is it truthful?
Here I was less concerned than many of you about “accuracy” and more interested in another way of describing truth — one that’s closer to Shawn’s emphasis on “details”:
This doesn’t mean that historians do wrong to point out inaccuracy in such movies and suggest complementary reading that will provide a better understanding of “what happened.” But ultimately, filmmakers and novelists are after a different kind of truth than historians.
I do think it’s reasonable to expect verisimilitude. Put negatively, a lesser historical film will tend to ring false less because it condenses a timeline or overstates a character’s role than because something about the acting, writing, costuming, sets, etc. will be anachronistic or otherwise fail to evoke a sense of what it felt like to live in that place among those people at that time.
Is it actually interested in the past?
To my mind, historical movies and TV series can have “deeper problems than inaccuracy.” Namely, “when filmmakers just don’t seem all that interested in the past on its own terms…. a film or TV series can look and sound as much like its historical setting as possible, succeed in entertaining the audience, yet also make clear that its makers are simply using the past as another dimension of the set.”
Does it prompt the audience to engage in historical thinking?
While I think we err if we confuse the calling of a (historical) filmmaker with that of a historian, I do think it’s fair to expect that a good historical film will get the audience “to think historically about the past.” First, by making them want to turn to the work of actual historians to learn more. Second, by starting to get viewers to engage in at least one or two of our “5 C’s of historical thinking.” For example, I noted that many reviewers of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln appreciated how it showed historical complexity.
Do you think I’m on to anything with these criteria? What would you add, remove, or modify? Or, which movies and TV series fare best by these standards?
Here’s when each group will present their usable past project:
Friday 5/5: National Heritage; Religious Heritage
Monday 5/8: Escapist Past, Inspirational Past
Friday 5/12: Past as Engine of Change (followed by some final discussion of “usable pasts”)
Expect to attend even on days when you’re not presenting, since peer review will be a major component of each group’s grade and feedback.
How should we assess historical movies and TV series? Several of you emphasized that the starting point for such storytelling is necessarily entertainment (and commerce). Others argued that this kind of historical storytelling — despite inaccuracies — can help inspire viewers to learn more about history.
NELSON: …it is important to understand that the main job of a film crew is to make their respective project entertaining and make money. Often times this means that the crew must take certain “liberties” in order to make their film/series a better sell. One such case is the movie of Hacksaw Ridge; it shows Desmond Doss volunteering to go to war, but in reality Doss was drafted. The movie does this (I think) to better portray Doss as having a strong moral sense of duty to fight for his country. While the movie does take other “liberties” it still is enjoyable and entertaining, and that’s the point. The job of entertainers, in this case the film crew, is to entertain; often times they are not history buffs, and while they have to be well versed in the history they are filming, they cannot be expected to have every detail memorized or in some cases even want to include them. Their job is to sell and sometimes certain historical facts are not welcomed in the pockets of buyers, so they are excluded.
LAUREN: Hollywood is mainly concerned with two things: money and excellence. So, does the film have financial success, or the hope of it, and is it made well, are both crucial questions. If the film is not well made, meaning that it is not convincing in its production design, or just poorly visualized, audiences will not like it, and it will also fail in the sense that it probably will not make as much money.
However, for me, the question comes down to the creativity of the filmmaker and writers, and how much the craft is sacrificed for the art. The Academy Award-winning film The King’s Speech, about the stuttering King George VI, even if it has its inaccuracies, succeeds in humanizing a powerful historical figure, a man who was never supposed to and did not want be king. Beautifully shot, and cleverly written, its themes are the takeaways, supported by facts, balancing art and craft. This is the most common quality of successful period drama.
AIDAN: …when I think about Hollywood and other parts of popular culture portraying historical things, I am all for it, because that is how I learned to love history. It doesn’t matter that some parts are fictional or that there are some historical inaccuracies. When I look back on my own experience it was a work of fiction [Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, the source material for the film Gettysburg] that caused me to love history, and then it was this love of history that then caused me to read more studious well thought out books. If another work of fiction causes somebody else to fall in love with history and causes them to learn more about that event and what really happened then I think that is worth any historical inaccuracies that the work had. That being said if you are going to write historical fiction remind people that it is based on a true story, but is not an actual one.
Historical movies and TV series often catch flak for “taking liberties” or “dramatic license” in their interpretation of historical facts. At least for some of you, that was a key line to hold: a good historical movie is an accurate historical movie.
SARAH: In attempting to evaluate the historical accuracy of a movie, attention much be focused on specific criteria while keeping in the mind the time limitations of film. While details may be omitted due to constraints, historically accurate films do not seek to oversimplify an event and instead stay focused on the complexity of the past. A particular agenda should also not be apparent, and facts and details should not be ignored in an effort to merely get the attention of the audience.
MATT: Assessing historical movies and or TV series must begin with the essential question of accuracy. Is what the director of the adaptation actually accurate to what historical study tells us regarding the specific time and/or place and/or figure true? Often we consume something that we believe to be historically accurate, that ends up being merely historically inspired. With this in mind, I believe that the primary criteria for assessing historical movies and TV series must being with the accuracy of that which is being betrayed…. While based on and in a historically true family and location, Medici: Masters of Florence is not a historically accurate television series, [c-creator Frank] Spotnitz himself says that “We begin the show with ‘what if’…” which is a dead giveaway on the historical inaccuracy of the show. While it paints a true and accurate picture of the location, and possibly even the culture of the Medici family and dynasty, it is certainly not telling a historically accurate story thus failing the standards I set forth above.
SHAWN: The two things that would take to assess a historical movie or a tv show would be “Historical accuracy” and “ Historical detail.” The two might sound more of the same, but the difference are that accuracy in a movie is trying to bring back to life what had happened in the past accurately. With detail, the movie or the TV show is trying to show the detail of the even from the past and not just an overlay of a certain event, this is trying to show the whole picture and not just parts of the whole story. Also within detail being able to have the scene in the movie look like the same location or be the same location is key.
What’s the most accurate historical movie you’ve seen? (How do you know it’s accurate? How closely do you investigate this before or after you watch something?) Do you take Shawn’s point about the difference between “accuracy” and “detail”?
Our friend John Fea recently shared a link to a post entitled “23 of the Best Jobs for History Majors.” Compiled by James Mulvey, an English major-turned-software marketer, it lists “careers that pay well, complement the skills taught in History departments and have long-term growth.” While some would probably come to mind quickly — journalist, museum exhibit designer, perhaps political campaign manager, several prizing research skills — others are much more surprising.
In particular, let me point out that several of the 23 are cutting-edge jobs that lie at the intersection of history, coding, and design: e.g., web developer, CMS editor, content editor and content strategist, UX designer, social media manager. So if any of those career paths intrigue you, then you definitely should be taking DIG200 Intro to Digital Humanities this fall with Prof. Goldberg!
Another counter to the notion that Americans are disinterested in the past is the enduring appeal of historical movies and TV series. For example, one of last year’s biggest movies was Hidden Figures, about African American women who worked on the Space Race of the 1960s. It received a Best Picture nomination, as have recent historical films like Hacksaw Ridge, Selma, Bridge of Spies, The Imitation Game, and 12 Years a Slave (the 2013 Academy Award winner). Two of the most popular drama series on cable TV are set in earlier time periods: The Americans (at the end of the Cold War) and Outlander (moving back and forth between 18th and 20th century Scotland).
Yet historians often have qualms about how such storytelling treats the past. For this week’s assignment, submit a 300-word response before noon on W 4/26 to the following questions:
How should we assess historical movies and TV series? Suggest two distinct criteria, illustrating them by discussing specific examples of movies or shows that either meet — or fail to meet — your standards.
I’ll put together two or three blog posts for Wednesday afternoon that share suggested criteria, then we’ll continue to discuss them here at the blog through Friday afternoon. Plan to share at least one blog comment by 5pm that day.
(I’ll also add my own two cents partway through the conversation, but I’ll try to stay out of it at first so that more of you feel free to weigh in.)
Your last response paper isn’t due until the last week of classes (W 5/17, noon), but I’m going to give it to you now so that you can set things up in plenty of time. It will be a last chance to think through history as a calling before you write your final essay on that topic.
1. Start by identifying a Bethel alum who majored or minored in History and has since entered a career that you find intriguing. I’ve compiled a list of forty such alumni who are eager to interview our students. I’ll share that spreadsheet separately. Pick the person you want to interview as soon as possible, since I’ll only allow 1-2 students per alum. (You can pick an alum not on the list, but clear the choice with me first.)
2. Contact your chosen alum and schedule an informational interview for no later than M 5/15. Ideally, try to do the interview in person — better yet, at the alum’s workplace. But if you’ve picked someone who doesn’t live in the Twin Cities or otherwise isn’t able to meet in person, you can talk over phone, FaceTime, or Skype. (Don’t do this by email or texting.)
4. Conduct your interview. Be on time, dressed appropriately, and take notes.
5. As a follow-up, send a sincere thank you to the alum.
By noon on Wednesday, May 17th, upload to Moodle a 300-400 word response paper in which you reflect on the interview in the process of answering at least two or three of the following questions:
How relevant is undergraduate study of history to the career you chose to explore? What connections between historical study and their professional work did the alum make in your interview? (Did they identify other benefits of studying history that may be less directly connected to job and career?) In what ways was a history major or minor by itself insufficient to prepare the alum for their career path? Did the interview largely confirm your sense of calling, or did it shift/challenge it in some way?
Note that you’ve answered similar questions before, on the basis of reading interviews with other History alumni. You might reach similar conclusions this time, but you should clearly be interacting with this particular interview; be sure to reflect on or respond to quotations or paraphrases from the alum.
Unlike most other response papers, this assignment will be worth 15 pts. After these papers are turned in, I’ll share some responses here for a final round of blog commenting before the last day of classes.
Here are the five groups for the usable past projects:
- ESCAPIST PAST: Andrew N., Andrew Z., Logan, Matt
- INSPIRATIONAL PAST: Aidan, Dustin, Jake, Nelson
- NATIONAL HERITAGE: Bonita, Collin, Haley, Lauren
- PAST AS ENGINE OF CHANGE: Braeden, David, Omar, Shawn
- RELIGIOUS HERITAGE: John, Mikalah, Sarah
Your only midweek assignment is to meet as a group for a good 45-50 minutes and start brainstorming and planning. We’ll next meet as a class on Friday afternoon in CC 120. Be sure to bring your copy of Why Study History? — we’ll be discussing chs. 3 and 7, and you should expect an open-book quiz.
For the rest of April into May you’ll be working on your second group project. Working with three other students, you’ll prepare a 20-minute oral, multi-media presentation to be delivered in early May, on how Americans use the past.
We’ll form groups over the Easter Break using a Google Doc that I’ll send separately. (You need to join a group no later than 5pm on Easter Monday.) You have five options to pick from, each a “usable past” from ch. 2 in Why Study History?
- How do Americans “use the past… as a source of inspiration”? (pp. 30-33)
- How do Americans use the past as “an escape from the pressures and anxieties of modern life”? (pp. 33-35)
- Two on identity/heritage (pp. 39-42): How do Americans use the past to promote “a particular understanding of… national identity”? Or how do Christians and other religious Americans use the past to promote “a particular understanding of… religion”?
- How do Americans use the past to promote social reform or political change? (pp. 43-45)
You’ll then spend the rest of the month looking for examples of your chosen “usable past,” looking to popular culture (movies, TV, music, video games, advertising), public history (museums, monuments, memorials), social media and blogging, politics, hobbies… any “past-related activities” that go beyond the academic discipline of history. I’ll leave it to each group to determine how best to conduct this research, but I’ll expect you to get started by meeting as a group during the middle of next week. (You don’t have class, reading, or a response paper, so you should have plenty of time available for initial planning and brainstorming.)
We’ll have three days of presentations: M 5/1, F 5/5, and M 5/8. For now, plan to go on May 1st, with the final schedule to be set later this month.
CRITERIA FOR GRADING
Your grade (50 pts) in the presentation will be based on a mix of instructor and peer evaluation. Both will use the speaking criteria laid out in the Course Expectations section of the syllabus. I’ll just add a few elaborating comments here.
Command: My general expectation here is that when you give an oral presentation, “You should come off as being knowledgeable about your topic (both specific details and the bigger picture).” For this assignment, it means two things. First, that you should have a handle on the nature of the “usable past” and how the examples chosen illustrate it. Second, that you should demonstrate the ability to think critically about this kind of engagement with the past — and to compare and contrast it with the academic discipline of history (or what McKenzie has called “thinking historically”).
I fully expect each member of the group to demonstrate this command, even if the 20 minutes aren’t divided into perfectly equal segments.
Collaboration: “It should be clear that you can work well with others in the group” is how I framed this in the syllabus. Specifically, what that means for this presentation is two-fold: (1) that each team member should do their fair share of research and planning for the presentation; and (2) that during the presentation itself, each team member should know when they’re supposed to speak and for how long, that individual segments should feel interconnected, not detached, and that there shouldn’t be drastic variation in quality within the presentation.
To be sure, some people are more naturally comfortable speaking in front of a crowd — so if you’re one of those people, do what you can to help your teammates who are nervous about it. Conversely, if you’re an introvert who’s great at research, help your extroverted teammate who’s struggling to find good examples from pop culture.
(Next week I’ll post a faculty video conversation about oral communication, and you already have one up about working as part of a team. So while there’s no response paper this week or next, it’s well worth your time to watch those conversations and pick up some pointers.)
Preparation, Delivery, and Use of Multiple Media: Beyond what I say in the syllabus on these expectations, let me just emphasize:
- That I do expect you to use multiple examples of popular uses of history. The best presentations will incorporate examples from multiple genres.
- While the use of media should help make for a more dynamic presentation, make sure that your own voice is coming through — don’t just line up fifteen minutes of ads, TV clips, and photos and leave almost no room for your own voice to add commentary.
- Be sure to rehearse. You should be familiar with the computer and classroom A/V equipment in CC120 before you use it.