Rebooting Studies of Film Authorship by Curating in the Classroom at Michigan

Cinema Journal Teaching Dossier         Teaching with Primary Sources Vol 4(3) Matthew Solomon, Vincent Longo, and Philip Hallman
University of Michigan

Recently, the “major directors” course in the Department of Screen Arts and Cultures at the University of Michigan was rebooted as “authorship and the archive”–a course in which undergraduate students have the unique opportunity to explore the Mavericks and Makers collections in the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, which document the careers of Robert Altman, Orson Welles, John Sayles, Alan Rudolph, Nancy Savoca and exhibitor/distributors Robert Shaye and Ira Deutchman. In winter 2013, students curated an exhibition that showcased the Altman papers, and in winter 2015, students created an exhibition of the Welles collections. In fall 2016, a new course was approved that will go into regular rotation in the curriculum: “Authorship and the Archive: Exploring the Film, Theater, and TV Collections of the U of M Special Collections.” The co-authored contribution below reflects on the rebooting process from three distinct points of view: First, Matthew Solomon, the professor who taught the course in 2013 and 2015 (and is scheduled to teach it again in 2018) discusses some of the challenges encountered and lessons learned in the process. Second, Vincent Longo, who took the course as an undergraduate and is now a doctoral student, describes how he has incorporated some of those lessons into his work as an award-winning mentor to students in the undergraduate research opportunity program. Third, Mavericks and Makers curator Philip Hallman reflects on his work as the participating librarian in the four different courses that incorporated major archival research components, and offers a series of concrete tips for those interested in creating comparable assignments. In the style of Rashomon (1950), we have not attempted to reconcile our distinct perspectives, although we believe our three texts complement—rather than contradict—one another more in the manner of A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

Matthew Solomon:

The original syllabus for my “Authorship and the Archive” course was comparable to those of other film authorship courses, and included a carefully sequenced series of assigned readings and screenings, with the additional requirement that students curate a library exhibition rather than write term papers or take a midterm or final examination. (This course outcome was made possible only through the tireless efforts of collaborating librarian Philip Hallman.) The exhibition was scheduled to open on the last day of class and it comprised some 50% of the students’ final course grades. This proved to be a very successful choice of course outcomes, but what preceded it on the syllabus was inadequate preparation for the students’ task. It quickly became clear that the course design had not appropriately factored in the time-consuming nature of hands-on archival research nor did it provide much for the fact that students required explicit instruction in the actual processes of primary-source research. Perhaps even more problematic was the way the course was implicitly framed as an extension of existing scholarship that necessarily hewed closely to established paradigms for analyzing these filmmakers, stipulating, for example, that Altman could be usefully treated as a genre revisionist. In doing so, students were fundamentally misled about the nature of their task as neophyte archival researchers and unintentionally hampered in their ability to generate original findings from these very archives.

In general, University of Michigan undergraduate students enter the university with excellent academic preparation and great motivation for academic success. As such, by the time they take upper-level SAC courses, they have generally become fairly adept at writing thesis-driven research papers that marshal an array of published secondary sources. This is what might be called a “top-down” approach to research since it tends to involve fairly specific research questions that can be partially answered through a process of hypothesis-testing and attempts to reconcile, verify, refute, or complicate published research findings. Students are less comfortable with more open-ended research assignments, which are often greeted with some version of the following (expressed with varying degrees of impatience and frustration): “I don’t understand what you want us to do/look for/find.” The preferred reply, however unsatisfactory, challenges the students to figure it out for themselves, and sounds something like this: “I don’t know. You tell me [what interests you and/or what you found, but hopefully both].” One of the more successful assignments asked students to present and contextualize a single item from the collections and make an argument for why it might be significant. Despite its “show-and-tell” quality, this vague prompt generated some of the more interesting findings in the course.

Vincent Longo:

As a student who first encountered the work of Altman and Welles through their archives as an undergraduate enrolled in “Authorship and the Archive” in 2013, I have understood the study of authorship in an unusual way. Instead of watching a filmmaker’s work for stylistic and thematic patterns, I instead learned about Altman and Welles first by looking through their letters, budgets, contracts, and other surviving documents before watching many of their films. This has made me acutely aware that style and content are often dependent on the material conditions of a film’s production, while alerting me to the potential importance of overlooked, seemingly unimportant, or unproduced projects that can often provide crucial contexts for films that were produced. It was in this course that I stumbled upon a 1946 telegram Solomon_Figure 1.JPGbetween Welles’s agents that led me to eventually hypothesize that Welles’s archetypal noir film The Lady from Shanghai (1947) was in certain respects an unorthodox adaptation of his Broadway musical comedy Around the World, which was about to close after only 89 performances while Welles was rewriting the script for his next film. I arrived at this idea as a result of an assignment for the class in which students chose a single archival document—anything from a photograph to a script page—and were asked to make an argument about the item’s significance to the director’s career as a whole by contextualizing it in relationship to other primary and secondary sources in the form of a brief illustrated presentation. The hypothesis eventually spawned my honors thesis and led me to apply to Ph.D. programs.

As a doctoral student currently charged with the responsibility of mentoring a team of four undergraduates assigned to research Welles’s unproduced 1939 production of “The Heart of Darkness,” I have used my experiences as an undergraduate in “Authorship and the Archive” to formulate an efficient pedagogy for teaching archival research. Central to this pedagogy is a method I term “archival recalibration.” Underlying this concept is the aphorism “let the archive speak for itself.” More specifically, it is a system of adjustments that experienced researchers instinctively utilize to mitigate the uncertainty of what they will or will not find in the archive. Less experienced researchers must be taught these techniques. Archival recalibration consists of a series of safety checks of student progress incorporated into a regular series of assignments that involve note-taking, reflective prioritization, and carefully plotted research itineraries, along with weekly presentations. Each activity forces students to apply analytical concepts to unfamiliar examples, find pertinent materials, and—if needed—change their research trajectories.

 Many archival collections are so vast that it would take months, if not years, to systematically research all the material. As teachers and students, our time is always limited by numerous other commitments; thus, we need to prioritize our research. Even with limited information, there are productive ways to set limits. Even though our students’ archive is on campus, I have students create their own research itineraries and box limits, pretending that they are on research trips abroad for a limited amount of time. Students go through the finding aid and select the boxes and folders they believe are most pertinent to the topic, ranking them in order of potential utility, with a rationale for each item. The level of detail in their rationales allow me to quickly assess whether they have a firm grasp of the assignment and their research questions. After the students complete the research, they then re-rank the sources in order to see how much their research focus shifted as a result of the materials they discovered.

Weekly presentations have been an effective way of guiding the research process. The format of this activity is similar to the one that sent me around the world looking for surviving documentation of Around the World. My version of this assignment often takes up much of our weekly hour-long sessions: in five to ten minutes, students begin by describing the materials they examined that week, and then, after choosing one document, they analyze and an argument for its relevance and significance to the research questions. This process consumes a considerable proportion of instructional time, but keeps students on schedule and yields invaluable results. Archival research rarely produces “smoking guns” that themselves explain why they are relevant to a student’s research. Each document needs critical analysis and context to gain meanings. These presentations are opportunities to sharpen analytical skills and discuss possible contexts and future sources. Lastly, weekly research presentations help students know when and how to re-prioritize their research focus and questions. One of the research questions I proposed and prioritized for my current research assistants was to better understand how Welles intended his unique first-person narration style to work in his adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. After none of the students presented any related findings on this question for several weeks, we deprioritized it. By contrast, after we discovered all the research Welles commissioned on Nazi colonization efforts in Africa, and the extensive ethnographic research files he and his assistants compiled in preparing the script of the film, we worked together to pose new questions about Welles as a researcher and a proponent of anti-fascism and anti-racism.

Archival recalibration can be inserted into any class, but the considerable amount of classroom time required results in an environment that focuses more on methodological approaches to archival research than on the work or the career of an artist—much less theories of authorship. Archival research teaches versatile skills about how to answer questions using materials that are severely incomplete. Indeed, teaching students when and how to recalibrate is an important lesson for all our undergraduates in the media studies classroom: filmmakers, engineers, and even biologists.

Philip Hallman:

Now in its fourth iteration, we have collectively developed a learning outcome assignment that asks students to curate in a single semester a multi-paneled exhibition based on research they have done using archival materials. These exhibits are no small feat. They do not consist of one or two glass display cases or lobby units featuring a few key documents and books propped open to illuminate a single page. Rather, they feature a minimum of eighteen highly designed and curated individual panels that cover a range of topics relevant to the subject, hanging banners, video display monitors, as well as original archival materials. Our ambitions were high from the beginning and the students have delivered. During the four-month course, the students are introduced to the director through readings and discussion, the director’s work through screenings, what archives are and how they function and differ from libraries, and what an exhibition is and its purpose. Additionally, with the assistance of myself and a designer, they select a variety of objects that are then digitized and work in teams to write the panel text and labels for the final display in lieu of a traditional end-of-semester research paper. They are driving in fourth gear beginning on day one!

Bursting with pride at the opening of the exhibit generally held on the last day of class, what has become obvious through trial and error is that students simultaneously have an individual and collective learning experience. They, not you, are in control. The collaborative learning and outcome approach used during their media production courses is in full effect for our film production students, which gives them confidence that they can be both researchers and creators. The curation process forces them to synthesize their newfound knowledge and present it jargon-free to an audience unfamiliar with the material. When students discover a unique artifact within the holdings, the discovery empowers them. They claim it as theirs. We have observed that this approach allows them to gain mastery of the subject quickly and expedites their empathy with the artist. Quickly, the romantic notion of the film director as a mythological figure or abstraction dissolves. Unlike using a database or secondary source for gaining information in the research process, they grasp how an individual letter, for example, fits within the context to the collection as a whole. They make big-picture connections and see the beginning, middle, and end of the artist’s career.

For those who might see opportunities on their campus for trying something similar, here is a sample of mantras we chant under our breath:

Let go of the lecture-driven approach typically associated with humanities classes and allow the students the opportunity to put their production-student hat on while taking a film history class.

Stay open, positive, and aware of bumps in the road. They will occur. Expect initial confusion on the part of the students. They are being asked to do something they have never done before.

Limitations are good. Suggest they only work with a portion of the entire archive. No one is expecting this to be the definitive exhibition of the artist’s career.

Intangibles and the unknown should be embraced, not rejected.

Be very clear about deadlines.

Expect the writing portion to be weaker. Writing the text for the exhibit panels has continually proven the most challenging part. Decide if you are comfortable with writing that is problematic or if you will insist on re-writes. Will you yourself ultimately rewrite work if it still doesn’t rise to the expected level? Remember, students have had it drilled into them for years to prove a thesis. Exhibit writing is more descriptive and does not aim to prove a point. Suggest that students look at other exhibits on campus or elsewhere in order to understand how exhibits are constructed. Allow them time if possible to turn in early drafts of text.

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