In yesterday’s post I commented in passing that Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary should be used with great care in the classroom. I’ve used it every semester in my own Civil War course as it is both entertaining and pedagogically useful in a number of ways. The documentary should be used as an interpretation of the war. This means that the teacher must engage the students in an active manner with some type of activity. One of the easiest ways – though not the only way – is to pose a set of interpretive questions that can be discussed by the entire class following the segment.
Begin with the various voices: What role does the narrator (David McCullough) play in the documentary? How much (if any) authority should his own words carry compared with the other "talking heads"? [Students should have a bit of background here in reference to McCullough’s notoriety as a popular historian.] What is the role of the "talking heads" such as Shelby Foote? [I also give my students a little background on Foote.] What specific role does Foote play in the documentary (i.e. historian v. entertainer). I will admit that I jump back and forth in terms of the usefulness of Foote. At times I see him as a major distraction while at other times he is a magnet for those who are new to the subject. More often than not it is a combination of the two views.
Themes that can be tracked by students: How are Grant and Lee or Davis and Lincoln interpreted in terms of both content and the voices that portray them? Does the documentary do a good job balancing between the battlefield and homefront; eastern v. western theatres; North v. South (Union v. Confederate); enlisted men v. officers; commoners v. elite? How representative are Sam Watkins of Tennessee and Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Rhode Island? Students can compare and contrast their experiences as portrayed in the documentary. What role does the music play in various segments?
These are just a few questions/themes that students can explore while watching this documentary. I should say that I do not use the entire series as it is much too long. Students should come away with a firmer understanding that documentaries are interpretations. Any discussion can easily be expanded to other visual mediums. Given the number of hours that high school students spend in front of the television it is important that we give them the tools to engage with these images and messages.
I will post other ideas as to how to use Ken Burns as the semester progresses.