The New Tools of the Trade: How You Can and Why You Should Become a Documentary Filmmaker or Digital Historian
The digital revolution is profoundly altering aspects of the historical discipline, and this "dual session" focuses on encouraging historians to collaborate with others in order to use digital tools that broaden historical scholarship, teaching, and public outreach.
Our first session, "Stephen A. Douglas and the Fate of American Democracy," features an example of what professional historians can achieve as filmmakers. The film emerged from a collaboration between the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, The Stephen A. Douglas Association, The Bronzeville Historical Society, and Saint Xavier University in the fall of 2012, with undergraduate students in historian Graham Peck's Historical Documentary Filmmaking course developing the rough cut. The film leveraged Peck's expertise on Douglas, and over eighteen months it developed into a feature-length documentary that featured five historians, approximately 250 historical images from a variety of physical and online archives, voice acting from leading Douglas and Lincoln reenactors, and contributions from many others, including Saint Xavier University art professor Nathan Peck. The film is now installed as a permanent exhibit at the Douglas Tomb, and is likely to be broadcast on public TV this coming year. It demonstrates one way that traditionally trained historians can make a film.
Our second session, "The New Tools of the Trade: How You Can and Why You Should Become a Documentary Filmmaker or Digital Historian," shows how two collaborative classroom projects are developing the digital skills of students and faculty alike. At Saint Xavier, Professors Peck and Peck are co-teaching a documentary film class that meets interdisciplinary studies and community-based learning requirements. Their course integrates art and history to teach students how to make a film on the Sisters of Mercy. The process has been collaborative throughout: the creation of a shared syllabus, the integration of a community-based partner, and student work to produce a film. Consequently, the course will not only produce a film, but also faculty who have learned to do history in new ways. At Colorado State University, Professors Jordan and Payne respectively have put undergraduate and graduate students to work on ambitious public history projects with paying clients. These projects began with collaboration between the faculty members, who pooled their intellectual resources to teach discrete courses to different student populations, thus enabling subsequent collaboration between students, clients, and technical experts. In the end, the students produced work that burnished the reputation of the department and its public history graduate program, and created public history resources that, at core, flowed from faculty scholarship and technical skill. Here is the value of digital history.
These projects underscore the critical importance of historians broadening their understanding of what constitutes scholarly and professional work. Defining our work narrowly as written history reduces our influence on the broader public, insulates us from others who are interested in history, and precludes us from learning about the past in new ways. Consequently, each session concludes with thirty minutes Q&A to help historians understand why they should and how they can collaborate to use digital tools.