Are students learning the best way?
by Marshall T. Poe (University of Iowa)
Although we often forget it, reading is a profoundly unnatural act. We were not evolved to read. Eyes are for seeing, ears are for hearing, but we have nothing specifically designed for reading. That makes reading difficult in two ways. First, it’s hard to learn to read, largely because you have to rewire your brain to do it. That takes a lot of time and effort, so much so that some people never learn to read well at all. Second, even if you have learned to read well, it’s often not physically pleasurable. Natural selection gave us psychological reward systems that favor listening and watching. We generally like to listen and watch regardless of what we are listening to or looking at. In short, we were built to enjoy listening and watching more than reading. The proof of that is manifest. Over the past half-century we’ve been testing the relative attractiveness of listening/watching and reading. In that time we’ve been given a free choice to do either at roughly the same cost. Which did we choose? Americans watch TV for three hours a day; they read for pleasure for about 15 minutes a day.
For some time scholars have bemoaned the fact that people prefer audiovisual media to text, because it means the public gets TV’s message and not ours. TV, many of us say, is a “vast wasteland,” while books (or rather our books) are repositories of truth, wisdom, and knowledge. We have never seriously attempted to make the TV desert bloom with truth, wisdom, and knowledge because TV was out of our reach, both financially and technically. Ted Turner could buy television stations; we were sometimes pressed to buy a copy machine, let alone use it. Happily, those dark days are over. It is now possible for nearly anyone to produce and disseminate a fairly good historical documentary. The technology is inexpensive, easy to use, and the films can be distributed on the Internet for free.
I know this from personal experience. For example, I recently taught a class in which we used a dead-simple video-editing program called Photo to Movie ($49.95) to produce and publish almost 200 short “video essays” on iconic historical photographs. Over the past year, those videos have been viewed nearly half a million times on YouTube. In another course I asked students to use the same software to make expository videos on each chapter of Azar Gat’s survey War in Human Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2006). The result was a “book in videos.” And in yet a third class I assigned students the task of using Photo to Movie as well as more-advanced video-editing software (e.g., iMovie) to produce short films based on historical monographs. Those “monographic films” included video interviews with the authors (who, incidentally, are members of my department).
Whether any of those three models for how to translate serious historical writing into serious historical video is a “best practice,” I don’t know. No one does yet, and no one will until historians and their students get deeply into the business of turning books and articles into videos.
But should we get deeply in to the business of filmmaking? Is there any reason to think anyone would learn anything? The short answer is yes, for both filmmakers and film watchers.
You can find all the videos from Marshall’s class here: http://www.youtube.com/user/marshallpoe
Marshall Poe is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Iowa. This article is excerpted with permission from the author and it originally was appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on March 12, 2012. He is also the founder of New Books Network where you can hear audio interviews with book authors.