“Reading” Film in the History Classroom

Published on: 29 Apr 2019

Dominique Brégent-Heald is an Associate Professor in the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland. There, she teaches courses in American film history and culture. Together with Daphne Crane (Senior Instructional Designer at Memorial’s Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning), she was recently conferred the CNIE-RCIE Award of Excellence in Technology for an online survey course, HIST 2610: USA History since 1865. The award acknowledges innovative and seamlessly integrated uses of technology in the learning environment. The course employed embedded photographs, images, and videos to engage learners. She is the author of Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico and Canada during the Progressive Era (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015) and is currently working on a history of the tourism film in Canada during the first half of the 20thcentury.

Brégent1.    What needs to be done at the level of teaching and learning to foster more engagement with history in universities and more broadly? 
While I cannot speak to this question comprehensively, I can discuss what I find has worked in my experience. One of the challenges in teaching history is finding ways to make course content relevant to today’s learners. I engage students through film and popular culture more broadly by employing historical methodologies. Most students love movies! The challenge, however, is to teach students to move beyond viewing motion pictures as simply entertainment. Rather, they can be a window into aspects of American culture and society. I use film as a primary source to help students understand the concerns, attitudes, and beliefs of Americans at the historical moment in which these cultural products were first produced and consumed. In my first-year class, we examine continuities and changes over time in terms of on-screen representations of race, ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality in mainstream Hollywood films while making connections to broader shifts in American history. Students learn how to ‘read’ films as cultural texts, to develop different perspectives on American history and culture, and to recognize and analyze several concepts and theories associated with cultural studies and the sociology of human difference within a historical framework.

2.    How has learning changed since your undergraduate years and where do you think it is going? 
I was an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto (Trinity College) during the 1990s, so I remember the agony of dial-up modems and dot matrix printing as well as the joys of browsing the stacks at Robarts Library. Today, it has become habitual to recognize that we live in a media-saturated age and that university students are daily digital users. They have immediate access to any piece of information, as evidenced by those students who quickly turn to Google in the middle of a lecture when my frazzled middle-aged brain fails to remember the year a particular film was released. Certainly, technology has also made it easier for instructors such as myself to download and embed photographs, images, and videos in our lectures to engage diverse learners. But my goal is to teach students how to move beyond seeing visual media as merely a means to illustrate or adorn written content. Rather, I encourage students to think critically about images. Today’s technology has enabled me to help students develop their visual literacy skills and to engage in the practice of doing history. This is not simply memorizing facts or chronicling events, but contemplating processes and developing the techniques of inquiry and an evidentiary-based approach to understanding the past.

3.    What has been a particularly effective assignment or pedagogical strategy for you? 
In my experience, I have found that essays based on the analysis of primary sources have proven to be particularly effective learning opportunities for most students. In my first-year film and American history class, students research, analyze, and contextualize one feature-length fictional motion picture produced in the United States for the domestic marketas a primary source. They examine how the movie addresses larger cultural and social themes in American history at the time of its production, specifically in terms of race, class, gender, and/or sexuality. This assignment gives students a chance to demonstrate their understanding of the social, economic, political, and cultural environment in which the film was created. They also learn that practicing history is an interpretive act. There are no right or wrong answers, but there are diverse perspectives based on evaluating the evidence and making a reasoned argument.  


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