Putting the “Pop” into Popular History: Pop Culture Videos in the Classroom

By by Benjamin Park

Kanye West’s presidential ambitions remind us that American history is full of fun surprises—even if most of them are short-lived and forgettable. Although it’s probably too much of a stretch to make the entertainment of #Kanye2020 relevant to American history—though Donald Trump’s candidacy perhaps proves that nothing is outside the realm of possibility—I do love to find pop culture references and videos and bring relevance to what students might see as staid topics.

I’m declaring this post a judgment-free zone so that I can be frank: I have a tough time keeping the attention of the freshmen students in my undergraduate survey class. But I have found that one thing that works well is video clips, and so I find myself drawing from youtube nearly as much as I do from powerpoint. Luckily, I’m a TV-show junkie, and so I have have a lot of background at my disposal. (Finally a way to justify my Netflix binges!) Indeed, my use of videos in class is one of the constant positives in my students’ evaluations, so I know it’s not just me who enjoys this approach.

But I’m always curious—what clips are other historians using in the classroom? Consider this show-and-tell: I’ll start by sharing some of my favorite clips that I use in my American history courses, as well as how and why I use them, and then I hope you’ll do the same in the comments below.

The obvious clips are those from movies/shows/documentaries that actually do seek to reconstruct the past, which make them an easy fit into a classroom setting. (Though I usually like to use them as primary sources for my students to decipher what these videos tell us about how we view and use our past.) I like these clips from the John Adams documentary for instance, and there are several clips from Spielberg’s Lincoln that I have the class dissect. I have a host of clips from Twelve Years a Slave that work well when talking about slavery. Yesterday in my Age of Jefferson class we tore apart a Schoolhouse Rock video on the American Revolution by exploring what it tells us about how we want to view our founding moments. And this clip of the Alexander Hamilton rap is always a classroom favorite. Just for fun, my students love the College Humor videos on “Columbusing” and The War of 1812, Drunk History’s telling of the Jefferson/Adams debate, and Soomo Publishing’s “Too Late to Apologize.” And the list goes on.

 

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