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Peer Review

Doing As they Can: Slave Life in the American South



Overall Numeric Rating:

3.5 stars
Content Quality: 3 stars
Effectiveness: 4 stars
Ease of Use: 3 stars
Reviewed: Jun 28, 2012 by History Editorial Board
Overview: The web site is actually a portal to CUNY's online store for the American Social History Project's center for Media and Learning. It contains brief excerpts of a variety of documentary films. "Doing As They Can: Slave Life in the American South" is but one of the nine documentaries offered here. The documentaries are a nine-part series focused on the "Who built America?" theme and intended to accompany two textbooks: "Who Built America?" and "Freedom’s Unfinished Revolution " Other documentaries offered are about the Boston Tea Party, the Lowell factory girls, New York City's Five Points slum, the annexation of the Philippine islands and the resultant war, female immigrant workers, and the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. Each documentary is narrated in the first person by a fictional character who would have lived during/participated in/witnessed the events shown in each documentary. These documentaries are about 30 minutes in length, and are for sale at prices of $20 to $30 each.
Type of Material: Videos and Documents plus brief narrative and activities for teachers and students. It includes links to related external sites, a bibliography and suggests classroom activities for teachers. A DVD containing the material is offered for sale.
Recommended Uses: The materials are useful as an assignment for students to do outside class. Video portions could be used in classroom to generate discussions among students and teachers.
Technical Requirements: High-speed internet connection with access to Adobe Acrobat Reader and to YouTube
Identify Major Learning Goals: Students will gain knowledge of the conditions of slavery and develop a deeper understanding of the personal experiences of slaves and their owners.
Target Student Population: Students in high school and lower level college American history courses would benefit from use of these materials.
Prerequisite Knowledge or Skills: Basic ability to use the web is required. General knowledge of early American history assumed, as this material would appropriately be used within the context of a survey course.

Evaluation and Observation

Content Quality

Rating: 3 stars
Strengths: A wide variety of material is presented, some of it quite useful. It includes videos and documents, links and other media. If well organized, it could be very useful.
Concerns: The opening page shows a brief description of the project and a video clip, which after viewing leads to other clips. It also has links to other unrelated project, a link to a viewer's guide, etc. There is no clear discussion of what is to be presented. The first video presented seems aimed to elementary or middle school level. It is almost a caricature of the condition of slavery. There is no overview of the video sequences, and no way to select or know what you are going to see. No introduction to nor explanation of the individual videos is provided. The viewer's guide PDF dies not guide the viewer--it is a brief narrative of the conditions of slave life. There is also a link on the first page to buy the video for $20.00, along with others for sale on different topics. Descriptions of the various videos are not very explanatory. A number of the videos are excerpts from “Roots.” There is a Nigerian TV logo on the screen of several of them. The episodes are not presented in any apparent order. One of the first episodes depicts an auction with a young African being sold, along with a conversation between two white slave owners. The boy tries to escape, and it is presented as something of a game, the accompanying music suggesting a playful mood. The boy is smiling, as if enjoying it. There is no mention of credits for the Roots episodes, and no coherent introduction to any of the videos, including the Roots segments. As each one finishes, several others are presented in thumbnail format, with no indication of the contents or source of each video. Some are apparently “homemade” and are of very uneven quality. Some of the video links have numbers as titles, but it is not clear what the numbers mean. Some videos are set at an annoyingly loud volume. Some are very amateurish or unintelligible. The entire project could be compared to a library containing a collection of books, many of them fine, but they are arranged randomly on the shelves and there is no card catalog. Some page mention podcasts, but there are no links to them, or if there are, I could not locate them. Nothing on the podcast page leads anywhere useful.

Potential Effectiveness as a Teaching Tool

Rating: 4 stars
Strengths: A rich source of materials on slavery of various types.
Concerns: The collection is very poorly organized, which is unfortunate, because if molded into a coherent presentation, it could be a highly effective learning tool. I had to return to it repeatedly to fathom what I was viewing and how it related to the rest of the presentation. Being very familiar with the content (I have taught the Civil War many times) I could recognize everything, including most of the documents, but for someone not familiar with the material, I believe it would be confusing.

Ease of Use for Both Students and Faculty

Rating: 3 stars
Strengths: As mentioned earlier, much of the content is very good.
Concerns: Very poorly organized and explained. It needs a well constructed home page with individual links to each section of video clip, with a brief explanation of each.

Other Issues and Comments: The web in its current state of evolution is a very comprehensive history text. Numerous excellent resources can be found everywhere, from YouTube, to Wikipedia, to Yale's Avalon Project, to recordings of famous documents going back as far a Booker Washington's reading of his own Atlanta Compromise and a Theodore Roosevelt speech, as well as hundreds of other sources. A fine history course could be constructed just from links to various media. This site has all the elements of a good collection (a few parts excepted) but lacks coherence.