The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered

If you’ve spent much time thinking about narrative, or about truth-telling in general, you have probably encountered the word Rashōmon.

Cover of the Criterion Collection Blu-ray for the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon.

The 1950 film by that name, directed by Kurosawa Akira, made a deep impression on American storytellers and critics. Not only has it been credited with “effectively opening the world of Japanese cinema to the West,” in the words of Roger Ebert. Its title also has given us an irreplaceable metaphor in English: the Rashōmon effect.”

Unfortunately, most Americans’ impression of this film is wrong. It contradicts both the details and the argument of Kurosawa’s movie. (Yes, I appreciate the irony.)

The movie definitely has an argument. The director said so. And the film itself isn’t exactly subtle about it. Of course, viewers should form their own opinions about any work of art, and anyone who tries to tell true stories—including a history teacher—may benefit from watching Kurosawa’s classic film for themselves. But if you do that, I recommend trying to experience it without the preconceptions that American popular culture has grafted onto it.

You may find, as I did, that this great work of art speaks to you in ways we have not been led to expect.

Continue reading “The Myth of the Rashōmon Effect: A Film Misremembered”

My Audiovisual Semester: Using Media in U.S. History II

Renovating my U.S. history course this spring, I added audiovisual primary sources to many class periods that didn’t use them before. Here’s a complete annotated list of the film and audio clips I have presented this semester, should they be useful to anyone else.

In most cases, these clips (or excerpts from them) served as bases for class discussions. A few of these clips, however, were merely illustrative of points I made myself in a lecture.


Gilded Age, Progressive Era, and World War I

“Sky Scrapers of New York City, from the North River” (1903)

This Edison film is simple: It depicts the Manhattan waterfront from the perspective of a boat floating down the Hudson River. I played it before and at the beginning of class in order to convey some sense of the texture of American cities in the Gilded Age.

“A Trip Down Market Street before the Fire” (1906)

This film shows a teeming San Francisco street in the early 20th century from the perspective of a motion picture camera mounted on the front of a streetcar. The scene is chaotic and potentially frightening; pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles, automobiles, and streetcars share the road without any traffic controls at all. For years, I have invited students to discuss this scene as a way to understand Progressive reformers’ desire for new structures of urban order and rationality.

“Why the Trusts and Bosses Oppose the Progressive Party” (1912)

Here, in his own voice, Theodore Roosevelt explains what Progressivism means to him—as a political movement that he believes he leads. The clip provides some insight into Roosevelt’s character as well as into the political era.

“The Third Liberty Loan” (1918)

Richard Augustus Purdy, a New York banker and dramatist known for his Shakespearean lectures and readings, delivers a speech as one of the “Four Minute Men” who whipped up public support for American involvement in the First World War.


Jazz Age, Great Depression, and World War II

“Billy Sunday Burns Up the Backsliding World” (ca. 1926)

This British Pathé newsreel gives a great sense of both the electrifying effect of a Billy Sunday sermon from the 1920s and also the ways spiritual, social, and economic issues intersected in the early fundamentalist imagination.

“Happy Days Are Here Again” (ca. 1930)

Annette Hanshaw’s version of the Franklin D. Roosevelt campaign song, from the film Chasing Rainbows, recorded under the name Gay Ellis.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first Fireside Chat (1933)

A thirteen-minute explanation of the U.S. banking system and the initial steps Roosevelt’s new administration took to address the financial crisis. I played approximately the first 90 seconds in class.

Continue reading “My Audiovisual Semester: Using Media in U.S. History II”

How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II

This spring, I’m teaching a college course called United States History Since 1865. It’s a staple of American curricula. I have decided that it might be interesting to provide a walkthrough of the first lecture.

This should be an opportunity to articulate, step by step, some basic intuitions about how to achieve truthful storytelling in the classroom. (It’s also a chance to show—in a real situation rather than a political taking point—how I handle “divisive concepts” and “widely debated and currently controversial issues” related to American racism, inasmuch as this first lecture was about Reconstruction.)

This lecture was not perfect. It didn’t represent especially sophisticated historiography. But I am going to try to use it now to demonstrate the problem-solving nature of an interactive lecture about a fraught topic.

Specifically, I believe this walkthrough will illustrate the following nine aspects of my method for telling a story in the classroom:

  • Setting scenes
  • Posing problems
  • Integrating primary sources into a lecture
  • Enlisting students in telling the story
  • Showing change over time through examples
  • Identifying specific turning points
  • Explaining the significance of key memorizable concepts
  • Building to a crisis, confrontation, or moment of decision
  • Creating an open or provocative ending

Each of these elements will appear in the description that follows, and most will appear several times.

Continue reading “How I Built a Narrative Lecture: Teaching Reconstruction in U.S. History II”

Qualities and Events in Storytelling

Values are the soul of storytelling. Ultimately ours is the art of expressing to the world a perception of values.

For example, alive/dead (positive/negative) is a story value, as are love/hate, freedom/slavery, truth/lie, courage/cowardice, loyalty/betrayal, wisdom/stupidity, strength/weakness, excitement/boredom and so on. All such binary qualities of experience that can reverse their charge at any moment are Story Values. …

Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? … If the value-charged condition of the character’s life stays unchanged from one end of a scene to the other, nothing meaningful happens. The scene has activity—talking about this, doing that—but nothing changes in value. It is a nonevent.

—Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (New York: It Books, 1997), 33-36

Inner and Outer Problems

Every hero needs both an inner and an outer problem. In developing fairy tales for Disney Feature Animation, we often found that writers, in the early drafts, would give the heroes a good outer problem: Can the princess manage to break an enchantment on her father who has been turned to stone? Can the hero get to the top of a glass mountain and win a princess’s hand in marriage? Can Gretel rescue Hansel from the Witch? But sometimes writers neglected to give the characters a compelling inner problem to solve as well.

Characters without inner challenges seem flat and uninvolving, however heroically they may act. They need an inner problem, a personality flaw or a moral dilemma to work out. They need to learn something in the course of the story: how to get along with others, how to trust themselves, how to see beyond outward appearances. Audiences love to see characters learning, growing, and dealing with the inner and outer challenges of life.

—Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 4th ed. (Studio City, Ca.: Michael Wiese Productions, 2020), 105

Hilary Mantel’s Lectures on Historical Fiction

Hilary Mantel in 2010 (photograph by Chris Boland | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Four years ago, the novelist responsible for Wolf Hall and other acclaimed works of historical fiction delivered a series of five public lectures for the BBC. Collectively entitled “Resurrection: The Art and Craft,” Hilary Mantel’s 2017 Reith Lectures are still available online.

I think very highly of these addresses, which show great sensitivity to the nature of history as well as literature. Anyone responsible for historical storytelling—in fiction or nonfiction—could benefit from them. But they’re a little difficult to find on the BBC’s website, so I’m arranging direct links here.

  1. The Day Is For the Living, June 13, 2017, Manchester (transcript PDF): “Memory, mourning, and how the stories we tell ourselves shape our view of the past—and what happens on the threshold when private and public history meet.”
  2. The Iron Maiden, June 20, 2017, London (transcript PDF): “How does fact pass so readily into legend? Do we use the past as a mirror, and prefer a version that flatters us?”
  3. Silence Grips the Town, June 27, 2017, Antwerp (transcript PDF): “The story of a Polish writer whose efforts to work history into fiction were so intense that they consumed and killed her. Was she a martyr to history? Or just wrongheaded?”
  4. Can These Bones Live?, July 4, 2017, Exeter (transcript PDF): “The task of the historical novelist is to balance the claims of fact against the power of invention. It’s a balance that must be kept phrase by phrase [through] craft and technique.”
  5. Adaptation, July 11, 2017, Stratford-upon-Avon (transcript PDF): “Adaptation [for stage and screen] is not a compromise or a betrayal of an original, but an actual necessary and creative act, one we perform every day.”

To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes

When I started teaching history on my own—working from my own syllabus rather than assisting someone else—I was thrown into a college U.S. history course just a couple of weeks before the semester started. I was still a graduate student, though I had my master’s degree, and I was replacing another adjunct instructor at the last minute. (I would eventually get to meet her at a conference. She’s nice.) She had chosen a set of textbooks that I’d never heard of, much less seen, and I found the department’s description of the course bizarre.

When I walked into the classroom, which had broken desks and obvious water damage, I still didn’t have access to my university email account or the university library. For the first few days, I had to ask the department secretary to come unlock the classroom computer any time I planned to use it.

Did I mention this was going to be the first time I had ever taught my own solo course?

I won’t keep you in suspense: That semester did not end up being my best work.

Continue reading “To Teach in Narrative, Think in Scenes”

Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story

Last weekend, in my response to Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story, I focused on what I think Wilfred McClay got wrong about teaching U.S. history. I wrote that McClay’s version of an American nation-narrative lacks “a sense of real stakes, of divergent possibilities, of the weight of choices and conflicts in their own moments” because it shies away from conflict.

Land of Hope does not want its major American protagonists to have been disastrously, avoidably, mulishly wrong—they can have been badly mistaken, but they must have meant well. It apparently wants history’s apparent losers to have been inevitable victims, doomed by forces beyond anyone’s control or by paradoxes with no way out, rather than to have been acted upon by other people who made choices that could have been made differently, choices against which the oppressed protested and fought at the time. And it does not want national reform to have come through vicious struggles for power.

That last desire, I think, helps explain Wilfred McClay’s strident criticism of the “1619 Project” in other venues, despite the deeply patriotic and humane spirit it shows. The 1619 Project asserted not that America is irredeemably corrupt, as some of its critics seem to think it did, but that everything good about America has come through struggle—specifically, struggle by people who don’t play a very active role in Land of Hope. “Without the idealistic, strenuous and patriotic efforts of black Americans,” Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote, “our democracy today would most likely look very different—it might not be a democracy at all.” That is a contingency Land of Hope cannot seem to face.

The fear of contingency thwarts Land of Hope’s stated purpose of giving students an inspiring and coherent national narrative. Stories without meaningful conflict, without the possibility of different outcomes, are lifeless to everyone except perhaps those who identify most strongly with the actual outcomes. Worse, they are also ahistorical, in the sense that most academically trained historians believe contingency is a core concept of their discipline.

Yet I strongly sympathize with McClay’s goal of producing a student-friendly history of the United States that not only holds together as a story, but also provokes sustained reflection on normative American civic values. I often have been critical of academic training in history that does not teach instructors how to build narratives in the classroom.

I would even say that McClay’s narrative voice is often a voice I recognize in myself. We are both unabashed moralists, at the end of the day, committed to the idea that studying American history can make people better citizens. And frankly, I am quite conservative in temperament; there’s something in the book’s temperature, as it were, that I find comfortable—an inclination to be patient with flawed institutions, perhaps, and a conviction that it is as important to shore up valuable aspects of existing American life as it is to fight for reform.

So what is my alternative to McClay’s approach? How do I think a “great American story” can be told better? How, in fact, do I try to tell such a story in the classroom?

Continue reading “Land of Many Voices: Teaching a Truer National Story”

How to Reframe the Civil War in the Classroom

MusteredOut-medium

If you teach the history of the American Civil War to students anywhere in the United States, you will almost certainly teach at least a few students who have absorbed Lost Cause mythology. In many parts of the country—and not only in the southern states—most of your white students (or at least their families) will believe in at least part of the Lost Cause story. Indeed, many of them will have received this view from their teachers.

Tackling the mythology head-on will often be wise. But there are also subtler ways we reinforce or challenge the pro-Confederate pattern of thinking, usually without realizing it, and we should address those too.

(This post began as a Twitter thread that became popular yesterday. You may want to read the responses of the many teachers and writers who engaged with it directly.)

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How Did You Learn to Tell Stories in the Classroom?

storyteller-tiepolo

This semester marks seven years since I taught the first college course of “my own”—being solely responsible for writing the syllabus, choosing all the readings, designing all the assignments, and planning all the lectures and activities. I was hired at the last minute. On the first day of class, I didn’t even have password access to the classroom computer yet. The bookstore was still selling my students books that somebody else had chosen, which I didn’t intend to use and didn’t have copies of anyway. I don’t think my university email address had been activated.

I’m not absolutely sure, though, because at this point, I barely remember anything about that semester except a general feeling of panic.

What I do know is that one of my biggest challenges was simply learning to narrate history in the classroom. This was crucial because—in a single-semester U.S. history survey course—my students wouldn’t have a traditional textbook to carry that burden outside of class. (And The American Yawp had yet to be written.) The course’s narrative of U.S. history, all of it, both in the overall course arc and in each topic we covered, had to subsist in whatever I could accomplish in the classroom or through short readings scavenged from different sources and posted online.

I had a fair amount of teaching experience, but almost nothing of that nature. I had never been a gifted storyteller in person. (Not even close!) And to my recollection, despite a fair amount of pedagogical development in graduate school, I had never been provided with any specific instruction or advice relevant to this situation.

That first course … probably wasn’t great.

Even if my last-minute hiring made the need unusually acute, I don’t think my situation then was unique. I can’t speak as much to the experiences of primary- or secondary-level educators, but my sense is that in college, many people trained to teach history (or trained in the many other academic disciplines that also teach historical topics) never get any training in the basic task of building a historical narrative in the classroom until they show up in their own classroom for the first time.

But I want to check whether my intuition is right.

If you’re willing to leave a generous comment on this post (or email me if you need to communicate privately), I’d like to know what your experiences have been as a teacher (primary, secondary, college, university, whatever)—in history or any other field where the need comes up.

  • Did you have any formal training in how to build a historical narrative in the classroom?
  • Is this a problem you’re still trying to solve for yourself?
  • Have you found any instruction books, online courses, etc., helpful?
  • What aspects of storytelling or narrative-focused course organization have been the most challenging for you?
  • If you are a naturally gifted storyteller, have you faced any challenges bringing this skill into an academic setting?

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Image: Detail from Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, The Storyteller, 1770s. Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, Texas; via Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.