Putting the “Pop” into Popular History: Pop Culture Videos in the Classroom

Kanye West may not be ready to enter our historical surveys, but there are other pop culture references that deserve more attention.

President Kanye West may never become a reality, but I’d like to think he’d choose a Secretary of Education who’d endorsed creative pedagogy.

Kanye West’s presidential ambitions remind us that American history is full of fun surprises—even if most of them are short-lived and forgettable. Although it’s probably too much of a stretch to make the entertainment of #Kanye2020 relevant to American history—though Donald Trump’s candidacy perhaps proves that nothing is outside the realm of possibility—I do love to find pop culture references and videos and bring relevance to what students might see as staid topics.

I’m declaring this post a judgment-free zone so that I can be frank: I have a tough time keeping the attention of the freshmen students in my undergraduate survey class. But I have found that one thing that works well is video clips, and so I find myself drawing from youtube nearly as much as I do from powerpoint. Luckily, I’m a TV-show junkie, and so I have have a lot of background at my disposal. (Finally a way to justify my Netflix binges!) Indeed, my use of videos in class is one of the constant positives in my students’ evaluations, so I know it’s not just me who enjoys this approach.

But I’m always curious—what clips are other historians using in the classroom? Consider this show-and-tell: I’ll start by sharing some of my favorite clips that I use in my American history courses, as well as how and why I use them, and then I hope you’ll do the same in the comments below.

The obvious clips are those from movies/shows/documentaries that actually do seek to reconstruct the past, which make them an easy fit into a classroom setting. (Though I usually like to use them as primary sources for my students to decipher what these videos tell us about how we view and use our past.) I like these clips from the John Adams documentary for instance, and there are several clips from Spielberg’s Lincoln that I have the class dissect. I have a host of clips from Twelve Years a Slave that work well when talking about slavery. Yesterday in my Age of Jefferson class we tore apart a Schoolhouse Rock video on the American Revolution by exploring what it tells us about how we want to view our founding moments. And this clip of the Alexander Hamilton rap is always a classroom favorite. Just for fun, my students love the College Humor videos on “Columbusing” and The War of 1812, Drunk History’s telling of the Jefferson/Adams debate, and Soomo Publishing’s “Too Late to Apologize.” And the list goes on.

But I also like to make things a bit more difficult by drawing in pop culture references and videos that may not seemingly have anything to do with American history, but actually hint at a central tension, issue, or dynamic at play. For instance, one of my favorites clips is actually one that was suggested in a comment here at The Junto a few years ago: the scene from the Truman Show where Truman recognizes everything in his “world” (in this instance, traffic) is orchestrated around him:

I like to use this clip when talking about how we, as Americans, like to view native populations prior to and during European colonization: they merely appear when we need them to, and the only time they show up is when they are convenient to our Anglo-Protestant narrative. Otherwise, they’re off in the break room somewhere not being important to the story. I also like to add this meme to my powerpoint presentation to drive home this idea:


(And yes, I know that The Truman Show is not the most current cultural reference. But enough students have seen it that I build some social capital.)

Another clip I love to show is from True Detective (Season 1, of course). This is the scene where Rust and Marty are witnessing a throwback religious revival meeting. I’d embed it, but it’s forbidden for this particular video, so you have to click this link. I use this video when we discuss how different “Founding Fathers,” especially those of the deist persuasion, view religion: even if they doubted Christianity’s veracity, they still saw its moral usefulness. (I joke that it’s an exaggerated dialogue between Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine.) In a similar vein, when we discuss the utility of founding myths, I like to dissect this clip from Game of Thrones (blanking the screen when it shows the corpse, of course).

When we discuss the religious debates between those who argued for determinism and free will, I like to show clips from two television shows that are the perfect embodiments of either side of the divide: The Wire (on behalf of determinism—and I could include a number of clips from the show), and Breaking Bad (on behalf of free will):

One final example before I open it up for suggestions. This one comes from the most recent season of Game of Thrones. (No, not that scene.) Make sure to start at the :42 mark of this video. I first give a little background to this scene: that the common populace had grown upset with the corrupt royalty, and a new radical sect was drawing more and more adherents through their anti-establishment teachings. I then explain that a common social reaction to a nation seemingly out of control is an upstart, counter-cultural religious opposition. I use this to preface my lecture on the rise of fringe religious movements during the antebellum period, most notably the Mormons, the Shakers, the Millerites, and the Oneida Community, and we discuss how these religions reacted to what they felt were the pitfalls of America’s democratic culture.

I’ll quickly add that I know a lot of these video clips are a stretch. I never present them as facts or spot-on commentaries on our historic topics. Rather, these are often ice-breakers to get students talking, a fun way to show my students that there are tensions and issues that can transcend historical contexts and still seem relevant to today.

Now it’s your turn. What clips do you like to show in class? What have you found to work well, and what hasn’t worked so well? How do you use video clips, if you use them at all? It might be too much to ask, but it’d be great to get a thread full of suggestions that can then serve as a repository for pedagogical use in the future.

13 responses

  1. Nice post, Ben. I also love the War of 1812 College Humor video.

    Adding mine:

    For a way to discuss ideas about patriarchy (drawing on Sara Damiano’s post [https://earlyamericanists.com/2014/06/20/summer-book-club-week-2/] on Kathleen Brown’s _Good Wives_), I also use a Game of Thrones clip: the one where Tywin is hell-bent on marrying off all his children for political purposes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bVfClyxJOHA

    For colonization of Jamestown, I love the “Glory, God, and Gold” clip from Pocahontas as a way to break down and challenge ideas about English colonization compared to French and English–plus there are rats going on board, which leads into a tie-in to the Columbian Exchange, and plenty to say about the idea of “catching” an Indian. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ne2tzfxQ6T4

    This “Ask a Slave” episode is fantastic for driving home the point that abolitionists were racist too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AEaNduN88DQ

    Finally, I plan to use a clip from Orange is the New Black to emphasize the fact that white ideas about Revolution were understood differently by black people, which will lead into a lecture on Saint Domingue. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I0RQ2WqLjkE

  2. Ben, this is a great idea for the start of the semester. I can share one or two in addition to what you already have.

    In the survey I have students read a sample of Parson Weems’ biography of George Washington. That day, I begin class with this Dodge Challenger commercial (first released for the Super Bowl a few years ago):

    Rumor also has it that this clip of a young artist performing at the White House is popular:

  3. The Tracy Jordan biopic on Jefferson, and the subsequent brawl on a talk show, are favorites of mine (video clips of the former are tough to find online, but the latter is at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVZs0hRxdYQ). I also like to use the first few minutes of Malick’s The New World: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFkyAD9gS6g
    When I taught Cangany’s article on Detroit and the manufacturing frontier, I used another car commercial, GM’s “Imported from Detroit” ad: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SKL254Y_jtc
    Finally, when teaching about whiteness, I used the trailor from “Dear White People”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwJhmqLU0so

  4. Thanks for this post, Benjamin–honest and very valuable!

    I’ll add a couple:

    I’ve used John Green’s Crash Course American History to cover things I’m not going to spend much time on in class: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8dPuuaLjXtMwmepBjTSG593eG7ObzO7s (I realize most of us don’t know who John Green is, but they definitely do–author of “Fault in Our Stars” and other wildly successful young adult books–and the history is pretty good, too!)

    There’s always good “WTF Columbus Day” clips from the Jon Stewarts and John Olivers of the world–last year I used https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eKEwL-10s7E

    For talking about the non-disappearing native, I like the trailer for the documentary “American Native”: https://vimeo.com/68924266

  5. I made a joke about the Lego movie in class today and had to explain it. I’ve never been in the position of having to explain pop culture jokes because they were too recent for students to have seen them before.

  6. For what it’s worth, in my survey class I use Ned Flanders to talk about Puritan ideas of ‘sainthood’ and the difficulty of always comparing yourself to your neighbours.

  7. Ben, great blog post and discussion.

    Here’s one I’ve shown for 1950s America, which looks at the Puritans, but suspiciously looks and feels just like watching Leave it to Beaver, providing great commentary on imagined history, gender roles, religious freedom, indigenous/european relations, as taught to a 1950s white audience. This almost utopian white view opens up well to discussions of the 1960s, which deals with children who came to question this narrative of their parents and educators.

  8. Pingback: Putting the “Pop” into Popular History: Pop Culture Videos in the Classroom | Pop Goes the Classroom

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