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

CJ_Final.inddCinema Journal Teaching Dossier
Vol. 2 (3) Fall 2014

Colleen Montgomery
University of Texas at Austin

Like many film history instructors, I find that most of my students enter the classroom with both a wealth of personal experiences with cinema and enthusiasm at the prospect of “watching movies for credit.” Getting my students excited about studying film is not usually a difficult task; most take great pleasure in discussing the aesthetic merits of their favorite or most recently viewed films. Getting my students—many of whom are not film or media studies majors—excited about doing historical research, however, is a more complicated task. This pronounced challenge stems not only from many students’ general lack of familiarity with humanistic research methods, but also from some students’—particularly those looking to pursue careers as media practitioners—increasingly instrumentalist, or what David Hesmondhalgh terms “vocationalist” approach to media studies education. Hesmondhalgh focuses specifically on this vocational impulse within critical media industries research and education. Yet, the “menace of instrumentalism” has widespread implications for all those teaching humanistic approaches to research given the sustained neoliberal attack on humanities-based education and the resultant pressure from within and without the academy, from students and university administrators, to privilege career-oriented media “training” over more broad-based forms of open inquiry.

In an effort to counter this trend, I strive instead—in my course design, screenings, and lectures—to “instrumentalize” students’ appreciation of film as an expressive medium in the service of more critical forms of historical/intellectual inquiry. In this respect, I draw inspiration from Paul McEwan’s assertion that, “as a bridge between the visceral and the reflective, between the emotional and the intellectual, film studies is uniquely situated to convince students of the joys of intellectual inquiry” (94).

Few of the joys McEwan discusses are offered by the traditional final assignment in my department’s film history survey course. For too many students, the final paper either sits half-forgotten at the end of the course schedule or hangs over their heads, forbiddingly demanding ten or so pages of prose during finals week. Of course, many students write excellent term papers, but there is often an equal array of papers that betray frantic last-minute research. The apparent ease of online research, or at least the easy accessibility of material, seems to encourage this tendency: those reading this will have encountered more than a few essays in which the student has cobbled together Google Scholar excerpts, citing properly but reproducing the arguments of others and deferring to their authority. These papers do little to develop what seems to me one of the most important analytical skills and critical competencies those of us tasked with modeling humanistic inquiry should seek to develop in our students—the habit and ability to assess the provenance, context, and larger significance of scraps of data that comprise the vast digital repositories now available to us. And more generally, and in line with the traditional aims of humanistic historical inquiry, the final paper ensures neither the visceral pleasure of encountering a surprising primary source nor the intellectual satisfaction of finding an approach to a film overlooked by earlier scholars. Rather than assigning students a final paper, I require students to prepare a research portfolio of archival and scholarly documents in order to analyze how film texts both make meaning and have meaning ascribed to them by their particular sociohistorical and cultural contexts. To accomplish this, students learn both how to effectively navigate online archives including The Media History Digital Library,, and digital newspaper archives, and how to contextualize their findings using scholarly literature and humanistic analytical methods. The attraction of this assignment, for me, is that it accomplishes three broader pedagogical aims: 1) to help students hone critical and historical reading skills by analyzing academic, popular, and trade discourses; 2) to familiarize them with digital research tools and humanistic research methodologies, and most importantly; 3) to emphasize the broader utility/applicability of such competencies in everyday practices within and beyond the classroom.

More specifically, the assignment consists of five primary components. First, students select a film around which to structure their research portfolio. Students are limited in their choice of film only by the parameters of the fifteen-week structure of the introductory film history survey course, which covers an approximately one hundred-year span of film history from the 1890s to the 1990s. Students are provided with a list of suggested films, selected based on the availability of archival and scholarly resources, but are also given the option to propose an alternate topic of research to allow them to explore particular films, movements, national cinemas, or directors that interest them. Second, students do preliminary research, using the AFI catalogue, and Film Index International to find basic production information for the film. The larger aim here is to encourage them to begin to think about the historical, industrial, and national contexts within which the film was produced, distributed, and exhibited.

After completing this initial work, students are asked to broadly consider which elements of the film (its textual properties and/or extratextual conditions relating to its production and circulation) strike them as the most fruitful avenues of inquiry to pursue. Based on this initial, exploratory inkling they then create a scaffolding of rough research questions to provide a basic entryway into the more involved stages of their research. These questions necessarily shape, but are also, in turn, shaped by the materials they end up working with—a matter to which they will return and reflect upon in the final part of the assignment. The third major component of the portfolio is designed to introduce students to humanistic archival research. In order to begin to consider how their film was discursively constructed in the popular and trade presses at the time of its release, students use a plethora of online archival resources to find four primary documents pertaining to their respective film, including: trade/popular press reviews; advertisements; production code reviews; local censorship board documents, and other public and legal records; program notes; oral histories of participants involved in the production, etc.

One of the major benefits of this exercise is that it affords an opportunity to integrate theory and practice in the classroom. Before students set off on their archival expeditions, they complete a series of assigned readings in class that theorize the politics of archival research practices in film and media studies.[1] To complement this reading, students also spend time in class navigating the Texas Archive of the Moving Image in order to begin thinking about how online media archives collect, curate, and organize their holdings. Most importantly, incorporating such a critical consideration of the archive as a necessarily ideological construct, shaped by the politics and economics of preservation practices, dissuades students from viewing the archive as a neutral repository of historical truth. Instead, it encourages them to approach their archival research with an eye not only toward what is available, but also to what is left out; rather than view archival documents simply as a window onto an empirically retrievable past, they are primed to remain aware of the ways in which these archival platforms and materials frame our understanding of media history.

Putting this understanding into practice, students are then tasked with considering the following questions pertaining to the archival materials they curate: where the material is preserved (in online and/or physical formats) and how it was accessed; the author or creator of the text; its target audience and intended use; where, how, and to whom it circulated; and what information it provides about the film. They then write a short assessment of the evidentiary value of each primary document to their research, outlining what sorts of historical claims the artifact could be used to support or challenge.

To further contextualize their findings, students subsequently complement their archival research with a critical analysis of a small sample of scholarly literature on their topic. Students find four scholarly articles that address their tentative research questions, and compose both an annotated bibliography and a comparative assessment of the authors’ claims. Using a critical reading guide distributed at the beginning of the semester, students are asked to summarize and evaluate each author’s arguments, evidence, and methodology. Ideally, this mini-literature review functions not only as a critical reading project but also as a historiographic one that enables students both to contextualize and interrogate their primary sources and to consider how the historians with whom they are engaging have respectively employed and framed their primary materials.

Finally, for the fifth component of the portfolio, students must synthesize their findings and reflect on how the body of research they’ve accumulated could be activated in a scholarly research paper. Students compose a more refined set of research questions, based this time not only on exploratory impulses but also on the avenues of inquiry suggested and shaped by the primary materials and scholarly literature reviewed. Most importantly, students are asked to identify how their proposed questions engage with and contribute to the existing literature in the field (addressing perceived gaps in the field, expanding upon new/underdeveloped areas that remain to be examined, etc.), how their archival research might help them support their arguments, and the methods and further sources they would employ in seeking to answer their proposed questions.

Ultimately, the utility of such an assignment lies not only in its emphasis on the acquisition and development of (digital) humanistic research skills, but also in its focus on student-directed, open inquiry. Shifting the emphasis of the final assignment away from the product-centered final paper toward a more process-centered evaluation has the benefit of both pushing students beyond an instrumentalist approach to research, but also of framing humanistic research not as an abstract exercise in theory and argumentation, but as a form of intellectual exploration that merges theory, praxis, and pleasure. Pedagogically, the portfolio ensures students leave the film history survey understanding historiography and research practices, better positioning them to succeed in upper-division courses where lengthy term papers are required. Ideally, such an assignment not only enhances and deepens the pleasures students derive from cinema, but also gives them the opportunity to experience historical and humanistic inquiry as pleasurable and potentially joyful activities.

[1] Frick, Caroline. “The Politics of Preservation.” Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. 3-26. Print.; Gilliland, Anne and Mckemmish, Sue. “Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research.” Archival Science 4.3-4 (2004): 149-197, accessed July 18, 2014. doi: 10.1007/s10502-006-6742-6.; Prelinger, Rick. “Archives and Access in the 21st Century.” Cinema Journal (2007): 114-118.; Streible, Dan. “The Role of Orphan Films in the 21st Century Archive.” Cinema Journal 46, no. 3 (2007): 124-128.

Works Cited

Hesmondhalgh, David. “The Menace of Instrumentalism in Media Industries Research andEducation,” Media Industries 1.1 (2014): 26, accessed July 18, 2014.

McEwan, Paul. “Introduction,” Cinema Journal 47. 1 (2007): 94, accessed July 18, 2014.  doi:10.2307/30132000.



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