Marketing and Performing History

By Sabrina Völz

As far as I can tell, his­to­ry has a bit of an image prob­lem among future Eng­lish teach­ers. It does not seem to be one of those top­ics that receives much atten­tion in Eng­lish class­rooms across Ger­many. I mean, real­ly, who is inter­est­ed in a bunch of dead peo­ple, dates, bat­tles, and maps? Well, to be hon­est, I’m not and prob­a­bly you aren’t either. But luck­i­ly for us, his­to­ry is much more than a col­lec­tion of dull facts and arti­facts. His­to­ry is about peo­ple, places, and events. It is about greed, pas­sion, pow­er, lead­er­ship, and betray­al. It is about achiev­ing suc­cess and admit­ting fail­ure as well as mak­ing good and bad deci­sions. In essence, it is about life. In fact, I am so bold as to sug­gest that his­to­ry can be as fas­ci­nat­ing as any good nov­el. In Joyce Car­ol Oates’ mas­ter­ful short sto­ry, “Death Watch,” the nar­ra­tor writes: “Truth must be mar­ket­ed like any oth­er prod­uct.”[1] Okay, so let’s mar­ket history.

There are many rea­sons to study his­to­ry; in fact, with­out some gen­er­al knowl­edge of the past, it is near­ly impos­si­ble to under­stand life today. This semes­ter, I am teach­ing a course enti­tled, “The Unit­ed States in the 21st Cen­tu­ry.” Apart from read­ing schol­ar­ly texts and ana­lyz­ing pri­ma­ry lit­er­a­ture as well as film, I’ve added to my syl­labus a col­lec­tion of pic­tures and short two-to-three minute film clips pro­duced by the His­to­ry Chan­nel. Today’s YouTube gen­er­a­tion tends to read less; we all know that. So let’s meet our stu­dents halfway. These visu­al images will help set the con­text for my class dis­cus­sion on the lega­cy of slav­ery, which also includes ana­lyz­ing Steve McQueen’s award-win­ning film, Twelve Years a Slave. The His­to­ry Channel’s short video clips cov­er numer­ous sub­jects, rang­ing from the ori­gins of slav­ery, the Under­ground Rail­road, and Har­ri­et Tub­man to the fif­teenth amend­ment. I par­tic­u­lar­ly appre­ci­ate Ker­ry Washington’s per­for­mance of Sojourn­er Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman.” She lit­er­al­ly makes his­to­ry come alive, which brings me to my sec­ond point.

Dra­mat­ic read­ings and role plays are mak­ing their way into the uni­ver­si­ty class­room. As part of Stan­ford Pro­fes­sor Clay­bourne Carson’s free online African Amer­i­can his­to­ry sem­i­nar on Aca­d­e­m­ic Earth, he invit­ed Awele Make­ba to give a lec­ture. Make­ba weaves short per­for­mances of inci­dents in Rosa Parks’ life into her lec­ture based on court records. Make­ba is amaz­ing. Amaz­ing with a cap­i­tal A. Until I saw her per­for­mance as Rosa Parks, I was skep­ti­cal. Isn’t such a per­for­mance dumb­ing down acad­e­mia? Role plays—aren’t they for ele­men­tary school? Real­ly? At the uni­ver­si­ty? You’ve got to be kid­ding. No, I am not.

A few years ago, I decid­ed that if his­to­ry reen­act­ments are good enough for a top uni­ver­si­ty such as Stan­ford, then they cer­tain­ly would be good enough for my uni­ver­si­ty. Since then, future teach­ers and stu­dents in my gen­er­al edu­ca­tion class­es on Amer­i­can his­to­ry have, from time to time, had the choice to give a tra­di­tion­al pre­sen­ta­tion or stage a role play based on his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments. A num­ber of stu­dents have used let­ters, mem­oirs, doc­u­men­taries, and gen­er­al his­tor­i­cal texts as a basis for their per­for­mances. Role plays not only pro­vide a change of pace from the sea of Pow­er­Point pre­sen­ta­tions, they ini­ti­ate deep learn­ing and fos­ter empa­thy. It’s a win-win sit­u­a­tion for every­one. So why not give Amer­i­can his­to­ry a try?

[1]. Joyce Car­ol Oates, Faith­less: Tales of Trans­gres­sion, New York: Harper­Collins, 2001.
Leuphana stu­dents prepar­ing for their role play on Ger­man immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States at a local Lüneb­urg Gymnasium. 



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