The Junto has published a number of posts about early America in popular culture and media. Until the last few years, films and television shows about early America have been relatively scarce, outside a number of multi-episode public television and cable documentaries. However, in addition to HBO’s John Adams, there are a number of projects in the works including a television series about the Sons of Liberty and another about John Brown. As the semester nears and my teaching duties turn to the American Revolution, I have inevitably been thinking about early American multimedia in the undergraduate classroom.
I am admittedly new to this but I don’t see the value generally in using television-type documentaries in an undergraduate classroom. If I am wrong on that, I hope someone will let me know. That said, I think there may be real potential value in the use of dramatic representations.
The prime example I am thinking of is, rather predictably, HBO’s John Adams. Despite there being a number of problems regarding historical details, there are also numerable scenes that I feel did a very good job of capturing the climate and atmosphere of various Revolutionary and early republic political moments. The scenes from the Second Continental Congress particularly those surrounding the debate over the Lee resolution are highly dramatic, which was no small task when a majority of the dialogue was taken from disparate primary sources. Nevertheless, I think they can convey to students unfamiliar with the subject a sense of the reason and validity of the moderate position as well as of the broader divides within the Congress, whether they be intellectual, political, or geographical. Also, despite its Carlyle-ish portrayal of Adams and Washington, the nuts and bolts of the debate and other various scenes portraying individual interactions can help students to see various founders as individuals grappling with an uncertain and shifting political landscape rather than as lifeless statues or, perhaps worse, literary characters.
The purpose of my post today, however, is not to promote my unlearned pedagogical opinions but rather to solicit more learned opinions from our readers. What multimedia have you found useful in teaching early American history to undergraduates, be it the Revolution or any other topic? Are there specific challenges involved in using early American history multimedia and, if so, how have you addressed them?