Kevin Mattson: It's worthwhile teaching film history

When asked to teach a course called "History Through Film," Kevin Mattson, a professor of contemporary history at Ohio University, was ambivalent at first. "It struck me as the give-them-a-little-history-in-a-fun-sort-of-way type of course," he writes. Then he thought, "Who could deny that watching a film might tell us just as much about the past as reading a history book or presidential speech?"

Films reflect the zeitgeist of the period in which they were made, according to Mr. Mattson, and in this way can be as useful as a primary-source document. Take Saturday Night Fever, he says. "I know, your mind's eye sees John Travolta gyrating in a white sport suit with wide lapels, finger stabbing the air," he writes. But the movie also explores issues from everyday life in the 1970s, he argues, such as "ethnicity, working-class woes, strained relations between the sexes, and urban life on the skids."

Yet there is often little pedagogical reflection among professors about how to use films in class, writes Mr. Mattson. "Too often when someone says they're showing a film in class, what they really mean is, I have a conference to attend that day."

In agreeing to teach the course, the author says, "I had entered the world of the postmodern academy." He describes that type of academy as "a place where consumerism and entertainment seep in." It can be "summed up by the omnipresent student center that looks like a megamall replete with food courts," he writes. The postmodern academy is "a place where 'party-school rankings' are as desirable as research rankings, and where teaching is done on the cheap -- usually by graduate students and adjuncts."...

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