Beyond Google: Teaching Humanistic Research Skills/ Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 2 (3)









Beyond Google: Teaching Humanistic Research Skills

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier Vol. 2 (3) Fall 2014
Co-editors Alice Leppert and Anthony Nadler

Table of Contents

Researching Media Industries: Understanding Business as a Cultural Text by Karen Petruska

Surfing the Archive: Teaching Humanistic Approaches to Historical Research Using Online Media Archives and Digital Databases by Colleen Montgomery

Breaking it Down, Building it Up: A Research Exercise for First-Year Media Studies Students by Susan Potter, Yvonne Griggs, and Dugald Williamson

Case Studies of Local Film Exhibition: An Undergraduate Research Assignment by Jonah Horwitz and Andrea Comiskey


Alice Leppert and Anthony Nadler

For many media studies instructors, teaching research skills often sounds about as exciting as inputting grades—it can seem like one of the more perfunctory and uninspiring aspects of teaching. What does it mean to teach humanistic research to undergraduates? Showing students how to conduct library and web searches? Talking about primary and secondary sources? Convincing students there are more powerful ways to find insight than simple Google searches? It can be hard for instructors, passionate about the subject matter they are teaching, to choose to devote much class time to these questions when it means sacrificing time spent on substantive content.

Yet it’s just those areas of teaching that appear the dullest that are probably most due for fresh thinking. So we put out the call for essays for this issue, thinking that there had be creative and meaningful approaches to teaching research skills among media scholars, though fearing there would be a lack of enthusiasm in response. Fortunately, those fears were put to rest as we started to see proposals and essays describing thoughtful approaches that went far beyond setting students up to start searching online or at the library to gather sources for a final research paper.

Each of these essays tackles the notion that learning how to conduct research is not just acquiring technical skills and procedural knowledge. Rather, learning to practice humanistic research means learning how to think like a humanistic researcher; it entails cultivating a sensibility for posing and investigating problems. As Potter, Griggs, and Williamson suggest, the term ‘humanistic’ here represents a “placeholder for a bundle of thinking processes and skills, and related techniques of analysis, argument, interpretation and inquiry.” The challenge of teaching humanistic research is at least as much a matter of helping students experience the pleasure and satisfaction of making critical judgments for finding and analyzing material as it is about imparting the know-how for following operational procedures. A colleague in journalism was recently telling us about the imperative of feeding and cultivating the “journalistic instinct” in students. Even more than technical proficiency and practicing journalistic conventions, young journalists need to gain a good a sense of how to ask interesting questions, where to look for important conflict and controversy, and how to find the voices to bring their stories to life. Something quite similar is necessary in the genre of humanistic research.

The essays collected here all demonstrate ways to avoid the end-of-the-semester research paper crunch, where students often lack the time and energy to undertake careful, sustained, and original research. All four of these essays describe nearly semester-long research projects that require multiple steps to complete, ensuring that students take the time and make the effort necessary to complete substantial research.

In her Media Industries course, Karen Petruska asks students to study a single media conglomerate over the course of the semester, completing small research-based tasks leading up to a research paper. Students examine the conglomerate’s self-presentation by studying its website and press releases; they learn about the importance of corporate boards of directors and investor prospects through studying SWOT reports; and they collect a series of articles from industry trade journals to further refine their research questions. These assignments, along with several meetings with their instructor, shape each student’s research paper. Petruska has found that not only have students produced sophisticated arguments in their papers thanks to this structured research process, but they have also brought more depth of knowledge to class discussions.

In her Film History course, Colleen Montgomery’s students compile a research portfolio of primary and scholarly documents pertaining to a film of their choice, an exercise that privileges the process of inquiry rather than the product of a paper. The combination of primary sources and scholarly literature allows students to “analyze how film texts both make meaning and have meaning ascribed to them by their particular sociohistorical and cultural contexts.” Students gather primary documents such as marketing and publicity materials, reviews, censorship documents, and oral histories, while simultaneously reading about the politics of archiving, encouraging them to question not only what they find, but what they do not. Students also produce an annotated bibliography of scholarly research on their topic, allowing them to compare their primary research with existing scholarship.

Susan Potter, Yvonne Griggs, and Dugald Williamson describe a three-part research activity they have developed for a large introduction to media studies course for both online and on-campus students. The authors discuss the pedagogical philosophy guiding the design of this assignment that led them to approach research skills in an holistic, humanist fashion as “interrelated cognitive thinking and research-related capacities, including the ability to read, analyze, describe, and articulate concepts through writing.” The assignment they discuss plays off the tension between breaking down this conception of research into discrete components, which can be managed in small and focused steps, and recognizing the need for students to integrate their skills. Their assignment hence disaggregates, then combines, different learning foci such as making analytical comparisons, wisely selecting sources and databases, and synthesizing evidence to support an original argument.

Jonah Horwitz and Andrea Comiskey discuss an assignment they developed for Horwitz’s post-1960 U.S. Film History course that asks students to investigate the history of film exhibition in a small city or large town. The assignment allows students to deeply engage with the core theme of changes in movie-going and exhibition in the postwar, post-classical Hollywood period, as they chart changes such as number, location, type, and ownership of theaters, as well as shifts in clientele and ticket prices over several decades in one locale. Armed with a list of potential online and offline resources, students write a research paper telling a synthetic story of the changes they observed. Students can compare their own findings to the broader history of exhibition trends that they learn from class lectures and readings, as well as to the findings of other students in their discussion sections.

Most of the essays here discuss approaches to teaching research skills that share several common features. First, the authors have all done significant preliminary vetting to direct students to research topics and resources likely to lead to success. Such a tactic obviously adds constraints on students’ choices, yet often the most open-ended assignments fail to give students the initial direction they need before they have a sense of what kinds of topics and questions speak to existing lines of media studies inquiry. Second, most of the authors have broken down their research projects into multi-step approaches focusing on particular skills or types of research sources at different moments en route to larger integrated projects. Third, most of these essays describe how the instructors offer students opportunities to compare their own research with what is being modeled and explored in class. Lastly, some of these essays discuss approaches that introduce critical understandings of standard archiving and research practices at the same time as students learn to participate in these activities. They do this through leading students to interrogate questions about historical preservation, and the social construction of archives.

Each of these essays demonstrates the careful design that goes into constructing well-crafted assignments guided by specific pedagogical philosophies. We hope the work these writers have put into designing their assignments and research modules can be built upon and modified by other instructors.


Alice Leppert is Visiting Assistant Professor of Media and Communication Studies and Film Studies at Ursinus College. Her work has appeared in Cinema Journal, Genders, Celebrity Studies, and In Media Res, and is forthcoming in two edited collections.

Anthony Nadler is an Assistant Professor in Media and Communication Studies at Ursinus College.  He is working on a book that explores efforts to popularize U.S. news online and in print and broadcast over the past four decades. His work has appeared in Politics and Culture and FlowTV. He co-founded

Jonah Horwitz is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is completing a dissertation on the connections between live television and feature film in the 1950s and 1960s. His work has been published in Cinémas and Directory of World Cinema: France.

Andrea Comiskey is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she also serves on the editorial board of The Velvet Light Trap. Her publications include articles in the journals Post Script and Iluminace and the anthologies The Classical Hollywood Reader and (forthcoming) Special Effects: New Histories, Theories, Contexts.

Dr. Karen Petruska serves as the Project Lead for the Media Industries Project’s Connected Viewing Initiative, a collaboration with Warner Bros. Home Entertainment based at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Research interests include digital distribution, television history, and feminist studies. Dr. Petruska has published in Creative Industries, Spectator, and Popular Communication, and she has written two book chapters. An essay about 1970s original content syndication is forthcoming in Velvet Light Trap. She has taught a course called Media Industries at Georgia State University and Northeastern University.

Colleen Montgomery is a SSHRC Doctoral Fellow and Ph.D. student in The Department of Radio-Television-Film at the University of Texas at Austin, where teaches media studies and film history courses. She currently serves as the UT Co-coordinating Editorial Chair of The Velvet Light Trap. Her research interests include film sound and music in Disney/Pixar animation and the distribution, translation, and exhibition of American films in France in the post-WWII period. She has published in Cinephile and Animation Studies. She also co-chaired a film history pedagogy workshop, “Surveying Film History New Approaches to the Problems of Teaching the Introductory Film History Course” at the 2014 SCMS conference.

Dr Yvonne Griggs, Dr Susan Potter and Professor Dugald Williamson teach in Media and Communications in the School of Arts at the University of New England (UNE), Australia, a regional university that has a long history of providing distance and online education. Potter has tutored and convened both theoretical and practice-based film and media studies courses in New Zealand and Australia. Griggs has convened a range of film and media studies courses at university and high school level in Australia and the UK. Williamson has developed media and communication studies focused curricula in Australia, both at UNE and prior to that at Griffith University.


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