GIFs from a History Class: Conclusion

The GIFs students utilized in their course work afforded opportunities to engage their audiences, build connections, and express their responses to historical content. GIFs also presented obstacles to students’ practice of historical significance and historical empathy. The media frequently led them to conflate significance with what captured their attention or inadvertently engage in unempathetic practices characteristic of GIFs on the web. Nonetheless, these constraints are not innately part of GIFs as a medium nor the inevitable result of the content of particular GIFs. Instead, these constraints developed due to lack of awareness.

As the instructor, I neither encouraged nor dissuaded students from using GIFs and their extensive use of GIFs took me by surprise. As a result, I was unprepared to address the consequences of GIF use while the course was in session. For students, ingrained social media habits surrounding GIFs left them ill-equipped to critically consider the implications of specific GIFs and the context in which they placed their GIFs. Ultimately, GIFs (like all classroom technologies) require awareness and intentionality if they are to be an effective learning tool.

To leverage the pedagogical potential of GIFs In history specifically, we might do best to focus on the discipline’s love of close reading. Parsing the layers of meaning in a GIF gives instructors and students the opportunity to consider the many contexts and interpretations embedded in a GIF. Close reading is already a best practice modeled in sociological studies of GIFs, such as Brown’s Everyday I’m Tumblin’. Adopting a similar technique in a classroom setting offers instructors and students an opportunity to parse the layers of meaning embedded in a GIF and discern together an image’s usefulness to historical practice. Below, I offer specific examples of what close readings of GIF might entail by returning to two images shared by students in my course.

Example 1: Using GIFs to Highlight the Usefulness of Original Context

In response to our class discussion of the Stoic text, The Enchiridion by Epictetus, @sanjanaC15 tweeted: “I found it intriguing to learn that they were so good at controlling their emotions (this is coming from a gemini 💁🏾).” In the GIF accompanying the text, Spock, the alien First Officer of the Enterprise in Star Trek: The Original Series, declares, “I am in control of my emotions.” On the surface, the GIF intensifies the sentiment expressed in the tweet text (“controlling their emotions” and “control of my emotions” mirror each other). However, the GIF’s original context contradicts the text of the tweet. The scene depicted is from “Amok Time,” an episode in which Spock experiences pon farr, a chaotic biological compulsion to reproduce that overrides the Vulcan’s usually tight rein on his emotions.

Although the GIF runs contrary to @sanjanaC15’s text, understanding the original source of the GIF helps illuminate nuances in The Enchiridion. The central tenet of Epictetus’s work is:

Some things are in our control; others are not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Epictetus, The Enchiridion

Spock is a useful pop culture reference for illustrating Epictetus’s thesis. He tightly controls his responses to every situation. The biological constraints of his species, however, test his restraint. Spock’s struggle as he undergoes pon farr echoes Epictetus’s assertion that the body is beyond human control.

Using this example within a class could entail first calling attention to @sanjanaC15’s tweet and then discussing with students how much control they think Epictetus believes humans have over their emotions, circumstances, and bodies. After establishing a connection between Epictetus’s ideas and students’ perspectives, an instructor could draw attention to the original context by asking students to identify the source material for the GIF.

While students are conducting their search, the instructor might pull up a clip of the original source on YouTube and play it once students have also identified the source. Discussing together how Spock embodies the whole thesis, both the things in our control and the things beyond our control, could provide students a more holistic understanding of how each portion of Epictetus’s assertions informs the philosopher’s perspective.

Example 2: Francis as Disney Princess Revisited

I noted above that students’ correlation between Francis of Assisi and various Disney princesses resulted in context collapse and dissonance, but this was not the only possible outcome. Instead, the imagery of Francis as a Disney princess can be used to shed light on the characteristics of Francis’s time and place if the interpretation is framed by context information. The most illuminating historical parallel between Francis and the Disney princesses is their evocation of the virgin-martyr trope. Celano intentionally drew on early Christian narratives like “The Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas” as the framework for his account of Francis’s early ministry. By connecting Francis to early (female) Christian martyrs, Celano highlighted Francis’s purity, righteousness, and faith.

The Disney films are not tied to early Christian martyrs, but the damsel-in-distress figure in fairytales and films shares a kinship with the virgin-martyr trope. In both instances, young persons of principle are abused by individuals who view them as a threat to power or the status quo. Cinderella’s stepmother locks her in her room; Francis’s father confines him to a pit to punish Francis for giving away profits from the family business to a church. The intervention of a powerful figure, such as a knight-in-shining-armor or, in Francis’s case, the Bishop of Assisi, typically saves the young person from prolonged distress or persecution.

The Bishop of Assisi covers Francis after he strips naked in court. Fresco attributed to Giatto, ca. 1297 CE (via Wikimedia).

Using Disney princesses to understand the life of Francis seems frivolous, but framed contextually the connection potentially unlocks a deeper understanding of Celano’s First Life of St. Francis. Engaging students’ GIFs preserves the pleasure they feel in the connection between past and present. Adding the context knowledge offers them a more nuanced understanding of Francis and his times. In this case, GIFs’ capacity to capture and sustain attention could be a useful tool to help students internalize the value of context to historical study.

Final Thoughts

The fluid relationship between GIFs and context does not necessarily hinder students’ historical thinking skills. Used well, the multi-layered nature of GIFs offers history educators an engaging way to introduce students to the layers of understanding essential to historical interpretation. Considering the meaning of events, persons, ideas, and images in multiple contexts enriches our understanding of historical phenomena and visual media. Intertwining the methods and concerns of visual media cultures with the scholarship of historical thinking enables students and educators to amplify the affordances and minimize the constraints of GIFs as a pedagogical tool in the history classroom.