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Journal of American History

Taking Seriously the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning

Section Introduction
Gary J. Kornblith & Carol Lasser

Uncoverage: Toward a Signature Pedagogy for the History Survey
Lendol Calder

Ways of Seeing: An Introduction
Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O’Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

Thinking Visually as Historians: Incorporating Visual Methods
David Jaffee

Confronting Prior Visual Knowledge, Beliefs, and Habits: “Seeing” beyond the Surface
Peter Felten

What’s the Problem? Connecting Scholarship, Interpretation, and Evidence in Telling Stories about Race and Slavery
Tracey Weis

Moving beyond "the Essay": Evaluating Historical Analysis and Argument in Multimedia Presentations
Michael Coventry

Connecting to the Public: Using New Media to Engage Students in the Iterative Process of History
Cecila O’Leary

Ways of Seeing: A Conclusion
Michael Coventry, Peter Felten, David Jaffee, Cecilia O’Leary, and Tracey Weis, with Susannah McGowan

Confronting Prior Visual Knowledge, Beliefs, and Habits: "Seeing" beyond the Surface

Peter Felten

Students enter our classrooms with knowledge, beliefs, and ways of thinking about both past events and the study of history. Although many of our students were born in the late 1980s, prior schooling and popular culture have helped them construct well-defined "cultural memories" of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War, and even more ancient history. Indeed, we all bring into the classroom knowledge, beliefs, and habits of thought that shape how we make sense of class material. Older students and faculty who have lived through a historical period being studied cannot rely on personal recollections for an objective version of the past. My scholarship of teaching and learning research explores how visual sources can be used to reveal and disrupt such historical and cognitive assumptions, helping students take necessary steps toward more complex understandings of the past. 16

The first time I taught a senior seminar on the United States in the 1960s at Vanderbilt University, I came to understand just how powerful cultural memories could be. Most of my fifteen seniors, nearly all history majors, entered the course with a shared and deeply ingrained vision of the decade. The typical student story, which I attributed to the film Forrest Gump, went something like this: The 1960s began with a unified nation (except for some backward white southerners) making bold progress in all endeavors, but the Vietnam War and assassinations tore the country apart, leaving chaos and fragmentation at the end of the decade.17 That story emerged repeatedly during the semester as many students struggled to reconcile our course work with their prior understandingsóand when conflicts emerged, Forrest Gump's simple narrative often trumped more complex views of the decade. Many white students, for example, regularly shifted the rise of black power to the end of the decade, implicitly assuming that only the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. could have produced such militancy. Throughout the semester, I seemed to repeat: "It's more complicated than you think."

The next time I taught the course, I began the semester with an exercise designed to confront student beliefs about the decade. Before we even discussed the syllabus, I gave the students ten primary sources from the 1960s, including excerpts from Richard M. Nixon's 1969 inaugural address and from King's "I have a dream" speech and photographs from demonstrations for civil rights and arms control. I also played for them a Janis Joplin song and the 1971 "Hilltop" television advertisement for Coke. I then asked pairs of students to put the sources in chronological order and to explain why they placed each source where they did. After thirty minutes, I called the class together to compare notes. None of the pairs had sequenced the sources correctly, but that was not really the point. Instead, as students talked about each source, they began to see the holes in the Forrest Gump narrativeóand then students began saying, "It's more complicated than I thought." Because this experience disrupted knowledge and beliefs about the 1960s that students brought to class, we were able, together, to use the semester to develop new and more complex understandings of the decade. In a little over an hour on the first day of class, the source-sequencing exercise had transformed the course and had taught me how interrogating visual knowledge could disrupt students' constructed narratives and habits of analysis.

This experience confirmed for me what cognitive scientists have found: that people "come to formal education with a range of prior knowledge, skills, beliefs, and concepts that significantly influence. . . . their abilities to remember, reason, solve problems, and acquire new knowledge."18 Our students live in a highly visual world, where images are fundamental in shaping their understandings of history before they ever enter our classrooms. I now realized that I must recognize and confront my students' prior visual knowledge and cultural memories to help them move beyond a Forrest Gump version of history.

The source-sequencing exercise began that pedagogical process, but it also demonstrated that my students often struggled to interpret primary sources, particularly visual ones. To give my students practice making historical sense of complex sources, including images, I interspersed a series of short source-reading exercises through the semester. In each, I provided students with a packet of three or four primary sources (typically including photos and excerpts from newspapers, letters, or speeches). I instructed every student to answer the question "What significant things do you know, and don't you know, about each source?" I also asked students to rank the items according to their reliability as historical sources and to explain their rankings.19

Although I expected these exercises to reveal a range of student capacity to read sources, over multiple semesters I found a troubling consistency in student response to visual images. A few students could offer fairly sophisticated readings of photographs, asking, "Who took these pictures? What is context of the last photo?" and even probing how and why each picture was taken. But most students, including the most sophisticated readers, fell back on cultural assumptions about photographs when asked to assess their dependability as sources. Colin, one of my most capable students, wrote: "These pictures record a moment that clearly happened. Pictures shot candidly tend to not have inherent prejudices, though it is easy to interpret them as you will. Pictures are basically neutral." Other students echoed this view. Melanie noted that "the Photo Collection is the most trustworthy sourceóimages often speak louder than words." Jane referred to the photos as "snapshots of what actually happened." Marvin summarized the typical student analysis when he wrote, "Photosóthe almost most objective evidence there is."

Just as students had brought the Forrest Gump narrative into the classroom, they had also brought beliefs that shaped how they made sense of historical sources. "The myth of photographic truth" overruled what my students had learned in history classes (including mine) about the constructed nature of any source.20 At the same time, many students spent far less time evaluating visual sources than textual ones, resulting in facile readings that typically ignored aspects of analysis they routinely applied to texts. In one class exercise, for instance, Jill began her close reading of two textual sources with comments on the author and audience. But she failed to consider such issues when examining two photographs; instead, she performed a quick reading of the people depicted in the photographs, concluding, "You know the man pictured [Bobby Seale] must be at least slightly liberal by his hairstyle." Jill, it seemed, read the photographic sources as she might read a pictorial spread in a magazine, rather than transferring the analytical techniques for reading primary texts that she had developed in history classes.

Yet the same source-reading exercises that raised troubling questions about students' understanding of photographs as constructed sources demonstrated that they could perform sophisticated analysis of documentary film footage. Student readings of video-based sources often paid particular attention to the ways moving images are edited and produced. Angela, who struggled with photo analysis, performed expertly with one video excerpt.

Don't know contextósetting of events also unclear. Don't know who filmed or what was purpose of film. Don't get to hear from anyone being filmed . . . so don't know their intentions. Don't know how film has been editedówhat it doesn't showóonly a few minutes excerpted from several days. Can get more of an idea of state of mind of protestors by watching body language than through other sources which rely on descriptionógive good feel.
Other students identified similar issues. Lilly noted that "[I] don't know the persons or organizations responsible for the film and any biases they may have." Mark wondered, "Who directed it? What were the judging criteria for what clips made the video? Is there other footage which might have contradicted the video's overall theme?" Colin asked similar questions about the video production ("Who shot it? Who compiled it?"), but he took his analysis one step further: "Does [the video] have legitimate claim to the omniscient tone with which it narrates events?"

In marked contrast with readings of photographs, then, students consistently noticed the constructed nature of the documentary film source, asking how both the video images themselves and the video editing shaped the source. Maria highlighted what appeared to be the central distinction for most students: "Video [is] similar in content to photos but editing . . . can put a spin on images." Marvin echoed this view: "The clip is an edited representation of those events and even though the footage may be authentic, the editing [is] not."21 For Marvin and many of his peers, the constructed nature of the video robbed the images it contained of the inherent objectivity of stand-alone photographs. The editing process corrupted the fundamental "photographic truth" of video.

By understanding the rich but problematic visual knowledge, beliefs, and habits that students bring to the history classroom, we can develop new and more effective strategies to help students learn historical content and reasoning. In my class, I have tried both to work with students' visual liabilities, using images to confront the popular but flawed history they bring into the classroom, and to build on their visual assets, helping students transfer techniques for reading moving images to the analysis of still ones. Thus, the scholarship of teaching and learning offers us an opportunity to attend systematically to the prior visual understandings and the habits of looking that students bring to our classrooms. In my own work, I will continue to collect and analyze evidence of how students read and reason from visual sources and use such evidence to help them develop more critical and contextualized visions of history.

16 Peter Seixas, "Preservice Teachers Assess Students' Prior Historical Understanding," Social Studies, 85 (Jan.ñ Feb. 1994), 91ñ95; Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 232ñ55; Sam Wineburg, Susan Mosborg, and Dan Porat, "What Can Forrest Gump Tell Us about Students' Historical Understanding?," Social Education, 65 (Jan.ñFeb. 2001), 55. See also Marita Sturken, Tangled Memories: The Vietnam War, The AIDS Epidemic, and the Politics of Remembering (Berkeley, 1997).

17 Forrest Gump, dir. Robert Zemeckis (Paramount, 1994).

18 John D. Bransford, Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, 2001), 10.

19 I adapted the ranking question from Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 75; and Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York, 1998), 91. For a detailed explanation of both the source-sequencing exercise and its results, see Peter Felten, "'PhotosóThe Almost Most Objective Evidence There Is': Reading Words and Images of the 1960s," Reader, 52 (Spring 2005), 77ñ94.

20 Marita Sturken and Lisa Cartwright, Practices of Looking: An Introduction to Visual Culture (New York, 2001), 17.

21 This aligns with Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen's findings that films and television are widely considered to be untrustworthy sources of historical knowledge. See Rosenzweig and Thelen, Presence of the Past, 91, 97ñ101. It seems, however, that some people may internalize a historical narrative presented on film or TV (such as Forrest Gump) even though they tell researchers and teachers that such video sources are of dubious historical value. Emphasis added.

Next essay: Tracey Weis, "What's the Problem?" >