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a born-digital, open-review volume edited by Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki

The Necessity of Video History (Fall 2011 version)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The title of the book you’re reading is Writing History in the Digital Age. You’d think the key word here is “digital,” an exciting term synonymous with all that is new and promising in our tiny corner of the world. I’d like to argue, however, that the key word in the title is “writing,” a familiar term that is neither new nor very promising at all. If we are to write history in the digital age—and that’s what the title suggests—then we must be assuming that someone will read history in the digital age. As I’ll explain below, I think that’s a bad supposition and, as such, should lead us to look for something else to do with history in the digital age. I suggest we make videos instead.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 We Like to Read—They Don’t
We academics are of the species homo lector—we love to read and put reading at the center of our teaching and public outreach efforts. We write books and articles and we expect everyone to read them. Reading, we say, is good for you. It’s no wonder, then, that we put writing at the center of our book about how to practice history in the era of digital communications. Writing is what we do and have always done. We write and they—our students and the public—read. We use different physical media when writing—clay, papyrus, parchment, velum, paper, electronic means—but we write all the same.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 The trouble is that our students and the public—the audience we are duty-bound to educate about history—are not of the species homo lector. They are homo sapiens, and homo sapiens by and large finds reading difficult, unnecessary, and unpleasant. The evidence on this score is plain. Here are some telling facts about humans and reading:

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  • Humans do not have reading organs.1 Our hands were not evolved to hold pens or type on keyboards. Our eyes were not evolved to read tiny script on smart phones. Our brains were not evolved to encode and decode natural language into and out of visual signals. Our lack of writing and reading organs explains why writing and reading are hard to learn and hard to do. We weren’t built for literacy. In contrast, we were obviously built to watch, listen, feel, taste, and smell, which is why we have finely adapted organs that do each of these things remarkably well. And because we have said purpose-designed organs, watching, listening, etc., don’t have to be learned at all and are easy to do.
  • Humans have avoided reading for almost all of their existence.2 For some 175,000 years, humans neither wrote nor read a word. They either couldn’t because they lacked the mental capacity or because they didn’t need to. The former seems unlikely, but we don’t know for sure. We know that by about 40,000 years ago humans definitely had the brains to write and read because they made symbols, some of which survive to this day. But they didn’t, doubtless because they didn’t need to. Once humans began to write and read about 5,000 years ago, only a very tiny sliver of them elected to do either. Once more, the vast majority of people didn’t need literacy. Interestingly, they still didn’t need literacy when they finally got it, at least in nineteenth-century Western Europe and North America where mass literacy first appeared. Rather, reform-minded elites–literate all–forced the unlettered masses to learn to read and write via compulsory schooling in an effort to “improve” them. Arguably, they are still doing so today.
  • Even literate humans avoid reading. In a 2002 survey, 43 percent of adult Americans reported that they had not voluntarily read a book in the past year.3 According to the American Time Use Survey (2007), adults in the United States spend on average about twenty minutes every day reading for pleasure. They spend about twenty-three minutes on weekends and holidays.[1. The American Time Use Survey, 2007 (Washington, DC: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2008), table 11.] Apparently most Americans, literate though they are, have better things to do than read.

Permalink for this paragraph 3 The conclusion to be drawn from these points is clear: text is not a very good way to teach most people. We academics seem to be the only folks who don’t realize this simple fact. Clerics have know it for millennia (see “Smells and Bells”). Politicians have known it for almost as long (see “Pomp and Circumstance”). And, more recently, business types have learned this lesson (see “Advertising”). No clergyman, government official, or CEO would use masses of dense text to send messages to his or her clients. It just wouldn’t work. Yet, despite the obvious fact that most people don’t really like to read, we academics stick to text like glue and do so unashamedly. It’s as if we are saying to our audience: “We’ve done our job by writing books and articles; it’s not our fault if you are too lazy to read them.”

Permalink for this paragraph 2 Yet in our heart of hearts we wish people would read our books. What author doesn’t? Our students and the public probably wish they read them too. Who doesn’t think they should know more history? But wishing doesn’t make it so. The public is not going to read what we write, at least not very much. The last hundred years—a period in which the historical profession, history publishing, and the literate public all grew mightily—have demonstrated this fact with crystalline clarity. In that time we’ve written and presses have published thousands and thousands of serious history books for millions and millions of readers. Our books were made readily available, both in physical terms (you can get them at libraries, bookshops, and, now, on-line) and in economic terms (checking them out is free, and you can get some for the cost of shipping on-line). The supply of history books, as the economists would say, became great and the cost-per-unit fell to remarkable lows. Yet people still did not read our books, abundant and cheap as they became. The hard truth is that you could give serious history books away and still people wouldn’t read them. Another hard truth is this: the only way to get large numbers of people to read serious history books is to compel them to do so. That’s what we do in our classes and, if my experience is any guide, they resent us for it.

Permalink for this paragraph 1 Perhaps that’s the way it has to be. After all, you might say, almost no one picks up a math book for fun, but that doesn’t mean mathematicians aren’t doing their jobs. True enough. This clever analogy, however, will not get us off the hook. Many academic subjects are necessarily inaccessible to novices. They take years of training to understand well and will not be enjoyed until they are understood well. Yet history is decidedly not one of these subjects. It takes virtually no training to understand and, if rendered correctly (a point to which we will return), can be enjoyed by novices from the get-go. The reason for the difference between the inaccessible and accessible disciplines is simple: humans do not have a native mental capacity to understand and enjoy, say, combinatorial matrix theory, while they do have a capacity to understand and enjoy stories, including the historical kind. Again, everyone seems to grasp this difference except us. Take movie producers. They do not make films about geometric representations of symmetric groups, but they do make films about the return of Martin Guerre. 4  They know no one could understand or enjoy the former, while anyone could understand and enjoy the latter. And they do.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 In comparison with those who practice the inaccessible disciplines like math, chemistry, and physics, we are in a very advantageous position: they can’t really communicate with masses of people, while we can. But tragically we don’t and, even more tragically, we know exactly why: because we stubbornly insist on communicating with our students and the public through a medium that they just don’t favor—writing. So we have a choice. We can either—as the title of this book suggests—continue only writing history in the digital age and thereby fail to achieve our core educational mission or we can do something different in the hopes of fulfilling it.

Permalink for this paragraph 3 They Like to Watch
But what “something different” should be do? The answer to this important question is not far to seek. Consider this. As we said, the average adult American reads for about twenty minutes a day and almost never reads a book for pleasure. That same average adult American, however, spends three hours a day watching television and another two to three on the Internet.5 So it seems that Americans—and probably everyone else—like to watch more than they like to read by a very wide margin. The reason is clear: humans were built to watch. We have watching organs, so watching is easy. We have psychologies that reward watching, so watching is enjoyable. You don’t need to be much of a student of human nature to predict that easy and enjoyable (watching) will beat hard and not-very-fun (reading) almost every time. But we don’t have to guess; we can rely on hard data. Over the past half century we’ve conducted a massive test of the relative attractiveness of watching and reading. At any given moment, we gave millions upon millions of people the free choice of “consuming,” so to say, video or text. Which they choose? Video. The people have spoken: they like to watch.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 We need, then, to give them something historical to watch if we want them to pay attention. Now you might say that they already have something historical to watch, namely, period movies like “The Return of Martin Guerre,” historical documentaries, and the sundry offerings of the History Channel. True enough. But in comparison to the number of serious history books there are—the books written by you, me, and all the other historians in the world—there really isn’t much of this stuff around and most of it is decidedly bad. Thousands of historical monographs are published each year; only a handful of serious historical movies, documentaries, and television shows are made. Almost all of the published historical monographs meet the professional standards of academic history; virtually none of the historical movies, documentaries, and television shows do. So in reality the people we serve don’t have much to watch outside “Ancient Aliens,” “The Bible Code: Predicting Armageddon,” and “How Bruce Lee Changed the World.” 6 I think we can agree that these shows—all currently featured on the History Channel—don’t really count as serious history.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 It Won’t Count, But You Should Do It Anyway
What would count? The truth is that we really don’t know because we—meaning professional historians—have not explored the genre of video history very thoroughly. There are two reasons for our failure in this regard: 1) we get no official, institutional credit for things like films (only books and articles count); and 2) producing films has heretofore been prohibitively expensive (unless you happen to be Steven Spielberg). In order to begin investigating the possibilities of video history, one or both of these conditions has to changes. Will that happen?

Permalink for this paragraph 1 As to the first condition, it’s unlikely that video history is going to be made to count anytime soon: no one knows how to evaluate a historical film for the purposes of hiring, tenure, and promotion, so no one is going to try. Our reluctance to make video count means that we are still going to have to write books and articles to get a seat at the academic high table. That’s actually a good thing for reasons that have nothing to do with the virtues of video history. In point of fact, books and articles are an excellent way to array complex information and circulate it among people who like to read, like professional historians. Moreover, books and articles are also an excellent way to teach students to work with text, a necessary skill in most modern lines of employment. In short, we can do essential things in text that we cannot do in video and we can do essential things in video that we cannot do with text. We need both, even though only one counts for hiring, tenure and promotion now.

Permalink for this paragraph 2 As to the second condition, the cost of making good video has declined dramatically in the past decade. It is now possible for nearly anyone to produce and disseminate a Ken-Burns-style historical documentary of reasonably high quality. The technology is inexpensive, easy to use, and the films can be distributed on the Internet for free. For example, I recently ran a class in which we used a dead-simple video-editing program called Photo-to-Movie ($49.95) to produce and publish almost 200 short “historical video essays” on iconic photographs.7 Over the past year, these videos have been view nearly 400,000 times on YouTube. In another course I asked students to use the same software to make expository videos on each chapter of Azar Gat’s survey War in Human Civilization (Oxford University Press, 2011).8 The result was a “book-in-videos.” And in yet a third class I assigned students the task using Photo-to-Movie as well as more advanced video-editing software (e.g. iMovie) to produce short films based on historical monographs. These “monograph films” included video interviews with the authors (who, incidentally, are members of my department).9
Note that all of these films were made by undergraduates with no training in script writing, video-capture, or video editing.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Whether any of these three models of how to translate serious historical writing into serious historical video is the “best practice” we need to accomplish our mission, I don’t know. No one does and no one will until historians get deeply into the business of turning their books and articles into movies. Here we need to be bold, especially those of us with tenure who have a bit of latitude to experiment with things that don’t count. Whether we will be bold is an open question. For all that we are deemed “radical” by the press, academics in general and historians in particular are an awfully conservative bunch. The way we historians do things was founded in the late nineteenth century and remains fundamentally the way we do things today. This is especially true of the way we present our work to each other and the public: Ranke published books and articles and we publish books and articles. Of course we should continue to do so because, as I’ve indicated, writing is a terrific means of intra-scholarly exchange and working with text is something that our students must learn how to do. But we should also admit that text does not appeal to our collegiate and popular audiences the way that it appeals to us. We are different in many ways, but the most significant of them for these purposes is that we like to read. Most people don’t; they like to watch. So if we are to reach our students and the public we must not only give them something to read, but also something to watch. If we don’t, they will continue to pay us little regard outside contexts in which we can compel them to pay attention, that is, in the classroom.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 This, then, is the challenge of video history: to take what is now available only in unattractive text and to make it available in attractive video. If we do not meet this challenge, we will remain unheard; if we do, we will begin to educate our students and the public about matters historical in a more effective way than we ever have.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 About the author: Marshall Poe teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the host of “New Books in History” and the editor-in-cheif of the “New Books Network.”

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  2. On the psychology of learning to read and write and of reading and writing, see Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of Reading (New York: Harper, 2007).
  3. On this point and what follows, see Marshall Poe, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), chapter 2.
  4. Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America (Washington, DC: NEH Research Division Report 46, 2004), table 1.
  5. Le retour de Martin Guerre, directed by Daniel Vigne (France, 1982).
  6. The American Time Use Survey, 2007, table 11. On Internet use, see Joshua Brustein, “American Internet Use Catches Up With TV Use,” The New York Times (December 16, 2010). The proportion of time spent on the Internet reading (vs. watching) is not clear.
  7. For these shows, inter alia, see the History Channel’s online catalogue (http://www.history.com/shows/).
  8. See the playlist “History through Images” at http://www.youtube.com/user/marshallpoe
  9. See the playlist “A History of Warfare: Eras” at http://www.youtube.com/user/marshallpoe
  10. See the playlist “History at the University of Iowa” at http://www.youtube.com/user/marshallpoe