Emotions and history

As my colleagues in the social-studies education program at USF would point out, one goal some teachers have for history is using a form of (past) culture shock to develop students' empathy. I think some version of empathy is useful for reading primary sources and identifying potential interpretations and questions, but "developing empathy" is not a particularly central goal for history, at least for me.

Then you come across something like the Boston Globe display of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii's color pictures, taken roughly a century ago across imperial Russia, and I've heard from a number of friends almost the same reaction I had, a visceral and immediate gasp. They're beautiful, and they're stunning, and they make me rethink my marginalization of empathy and emotion in teaching history.

Is there anything special about images? When Eileen Tamura showed some images of the Japanese-American internment camp at Manzanar in her talk at the History of Education Society meeting last fall, I discovered that some highly-esteemed colleagues had never seen any camp images before that day (something that explains a part of the audience reaction). But I had driven by Manzanar with my family almost every year when I was growing up, and what Tamura's presentation did for me was remind me of my dominant thoughts every time I've visited: "Damn, it's cold in winter. It's desolate. I probably would go nuts if I were interned here." When I show late-19th century photographs in class, such as of Chinese immigrants working on western rail lines, it usually evokes a thoughtful pause from students as they orient themselves to the image.

I am not sure whether the orientation is any faster for less obviously unusual or "socially distant" images. For example, when I show a picture from David Tyack and Elizabeth Hansot's Learning Together, something from a mid-20th century algebra class in the District of Columbia, students still pause though the image shows a familiar scene (students writing on chalkboards). Vivid images bring a form of immediacy, but I don't know how the context and familiarity plays into first impressions.

My guess is that photographic conventions encourage some heuristic shortcuts in reading images, shaping the salient questions that arise when we look at them. Last week, I asked my undergraduate students to bring a primary source from their own lives to the second class. About half of the class brought pictures or something with pictures (albums/scrapbooks). A few brought in bureaucratic documents (one driver's license [yes, I know there's a chance the student used that after forgetting the assignment, but it fits with the next two…], one car title, and one moving-violation citation). One brought in a middle-school athletics trophy. I asked students to write down privately why they chose the primary sources but restrict what they told other students to provenance (or origins). Then groups of students took primary sources from outside the group and answered questions I will ask them to answer for primary sources for the rest of the class… and we discovered we made a bunch of assumptions about the materials, such as the candid black-and-white photograph of a club gig made by a friend of the student that could have been a professional publicity photo, or the mother-and-baby picture that looks posed but was candid.

Those assumptions often derive from experiences with social conventions. Maybe some of the surprise with the Prokudin-Gorskii photographs is how many of the conventions appear in the images: formal poses, panoramic views, intimate shots of indoor industry, etc. You forget for a few seconds that some of the conventions derive from the technology of early photography, when film was expensive and the opportunity to take images was both rare and laborious. In most of the images in the set, both the foreground and background are in focus, which implies a narrow shutter opening and thus longer exposure time. Of course people are going to be posed for that! (For those who wonder about the serious expressions from posed photographs of that era, try to look in a mirror with a relaxed smile that does not move. Then think about cultural assumptions regarding social smiles and seriousness about the enterprise at hand.)

What I've read about the use of photographs and video in history is on the research side: how do we think about those materials critically? I don't know if there is a formal literature on teaching history with images. When I teach about journals and diaries and other primary sources, there are frequently passages that reveal the writer in vivid ways, revelations that engage students. But it's a little easier to disentangle the issues in writing, I think, than in images. Songs, similarly, have lyrics that you can read carefully.

But the people who responded when I posted a link on Facebook are primarily academic friends. We all know that Russian peasants often had colorful clothing, that early 20th century Russia had some industry, that some Russian Orthodox churches have been painted colorfully for a long time, etc. Yet I gasped. There's something about staring into the eyes of a woman who posed for the Tsar's photographer… if not empathy, wonder at what she was like, what she was thinking of the photographer, and what she thought about her own life. Though nothing in the images surprised me, they nonetheless gave me a sense of wonder about that time and place.

The term sense of wonder is sometimes used as a label for the works of SF writers who describe an imaginary world so well that it comes alive. Part of the joy in reading Ursula Le Guin, Larry Niven, Octavia Butler, and others is discovering the worlds they have built as much as the end of a story. I think there's a parallel in the color images of a century-old Russia. The skill of the photographer makes that time and place more vivid than even an accurate historical imagination.

So is an emotional sense of wonder a useful tool in teaching? To engage students, yes. To provide a potential check on a student's understanding of history? Maybe, but we read images through our experiences with social conventions, so that requires some scaffolding on reading them as historical documents. How do you mesh that immediacy and engagement with the critical analysis? That's a challenge.

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