Emily A. Owens is an assistant professor of history at Brown University.
The Choices Program produces videos for new U.S. history curriculum.
On a recent March morning, the Choices Program took over a room in Rhode Island Hall, a building on Brown’s College Green, and transformed it into a video set. There were two cameras and a host of lights, and at the center of it all was scholar Tony Perry, a PhD candidate in the University of Maryland’s Department of American Studies who studies the environmental history of slavery. Perry’s research breaks new ground. In a recent article, “In Bondage When Cold Was King: The Frigid Terrain of Slavery in Antebellum Maryland,” Perry illustrated how cold weather was both an afflicting as well as empowering force for enslaved people.
For almost an hour, Perry spoke about his area of expertise, answering questions from Susannah Bechtel, Assistant Director of Curriculum Development and Andy Blackadar, Director of Curriculum Developmen. He talked about what daily life was like for enslaved people in the United States; how enslaved people resisted slavery and how they built a sense of community among themselves.
“You can’t begin to study U.S. history without understanding what slavery was and what slavery meant,” Perry explained during the interview.
The content in Perry’s interview goes hand-in-hand with the new U.S. history unit. Titled A New Nation, the unit chronicles the period from the end of the American Revolution through 1830. It’s the first in a series of U.S. history units that will roll out over the next few years.
The Choices Program has been using video to augment published content for the past 10 years.
“We think that video is another method to convey information that students and teachers may find engaging” explains Blackadar. “It also allows us to illustrate complex ideas and highlight particularly important or difficult concepts. Hearing and seeing someone say something is different from reading words on a page and can help with comprehension.”
Videos can be found online on each unit’s page, and generally feature three to four scholars, from both Brown and other institutions, answering questions relevant to the unit subject, along with photos, maps and other educational imagery.
Once interviews are complete, it takes several months of editing to turn the videos into the two- to three- minute clips that are posted on the Choices website. All videos are publicly accessible, so that teachers, not just those that have purchased a unit, can utilize the content in their classrooms.
“I call it the democratization of leading scholarship and knowledge,” Blackadar says. “We try to make high-quality university scholarship accessible and usable for students and teachers who might not have access to it otherwise.”
Perry was asked by the Choices team to film an interview after they heard he was planning to visit campus to give a lecture. It was a rare opportunity to hear from an expert on a subject – slavery and the environment – few scholars are studying and one the team couldn’t pass up. Thanking him after the interview, Blackadar told him as much. “I’m so excited about this video because what you’re doing is something most high schoolers aren’t thinking about but are hungry to hear.”