IAMHIST Masterclass: A PhD Student’s Perspective

IAMHIST Masterclass on Media and History, January 15th 2010 (British Universities Film and Video Council, London): A PhD Student’s Perspective

Panel: Luke McKernan, Jo Fox, David Culbert, Leen Engelen, Roel Vande Winkel, Cindy Miller, Christine Whittaker, James Chapman and Nick Cull

The annual IAMHIST masterclass provides a unique forum for early career researchers and emerging media professionals to present their projects, and gain valuable feedback from a panel of leading media researchers and industry experts. As the organisers point out, the small-group atmosphere also creates an ideal opportunity for networking in a less formal setting than an academic conference. This year, a ratio of nine IAMHIST panellists to nine early career speakers enabled the latter group to benefit from an extensive range of experience, and lengthy engagement with individual papers.

Speakers were asked to give a short introduction to their project and pose some central questions for discussion. There was a heavy academic bias, with all the participants at various stages of PhDs, and just one panel member, Christine Whittaker (formerly of the BBC) from an industry background. The breadth of media history subjects dealt with was nevertheless wide. Julie Ives, a research student at the University of Leicester spoke about the project she has just begun on the history of ITV regional programming in the Midlands, between the 1950s and 1980s. This is based on the ATV and Central Television Regional Programme Collection held at the Media Archive for Central England. Julie aims to provide a broad overview of developments in regional planning, as well as to assess more specifically the influences, content and scope of Midland programming. Her presentation raised interesting issues both of a methodological nature (such as how access to, and survival of programme recordings shapes the way television history is written) and of a thematic and historical nature (what is regional television, and to what extent does programming in the Midlands reveal a Midland identity?).

My own paper raised similar thematic issues concerning identity, but in a very different context. It outlined my research into the role of British film in the promotion of national cohesion and community values (or a ‘people’s war’) on the British home front during World War II, and in the immediate post-war years. I am interested in the range and scope of cinematic projections on these themes, the motivations behind them, and what light public reception of these images can shed on attitudes towards the notion of a ‘people’s war’, and on the nature of British wartime society itself. Key issues that I raised include what constitutes propaganda (with a thesis that ‘people’s war’ ideas were incorporated not only in direct propaganda, but also in many films with a primarily commercial intent), and how adaptable the ‘people’s war’ concept was to different contexts and environments.

Jonathan Theodore from Leicester University had a more tightly focused interest in film history; specifically the work of producer Michael Balcon between 1924 and 1936. Though Balcon’s working relationship with film actually spanned from 1919 to the late 1960s, the limited period for this project coincides with Balcon’s time at Gainsborough Pictures, which he and Graham Cutts founded in 1924. One of the key issues that Jonathan raised was whether this time-span was too narrow, and it was suggested there is scope for moving beyond 1936. Nevertheless, Balcon’s time at Gainsborough is a neglected area of his career, and a shorter time-scale enables a more detailed reading of primary sources and a greater depth of analysis. This dilemma is a good demonstration of the sort of practical decisions that all new researchers have to get to grips with making, and sharing the different choices that we were tackling helped to emphasise common experiences in the sometimes isolating process of undertaking a PhD, as well as shed new light on ways in which we might each approach the methodological choices unique to our own projects.

The project with the most technical methodological choices was that of Maria Valez-Serna of the University of Glasgow on early film distribution in Scotland. Maria aims to use Geographic Information Systems (GIS) tools to explore, both from a geographical and chronological perspective, how the institutions of the film trade took shape in Scotland between 1896 and the post World War I years. For her, the masterclass was a useful opportunity to discuss both the potential and limits of GIS tools for historical research, and to present particular issues that she needed to resolve, such as how to build a database from incomplete archival sources. The discussion also looked at the thematic development of the project, and the potential for the further exploration of subjects and issues that arose from the mapping exercise.

It was interesting to hear Maria’s paper alongside that of Berber Hagedoorn from Utrecht University, because of the contrast in research methodology, interests and aims. Berber’s project entitled ‘Re-purposing Television’s past’ is concerned not with measurable or quantitative outcomes, but with intangible trends in memory and the formation of histories. More specifically, she is investigating how archival television images (particularly non-fiction programmes made in the Netherlands) are re-used in the different contexts of a ‘multi-platform’ media era. This research raises interesting issues in relation to the nature of history and memory, such as whether ‘cultural memory’ exists and how archival clips on television and the internet are used to shape ‘historical consciousness’ (for example what is remembered and how it is remembered).

Two projects had an overlapping theme of women and media in post-war Britain (and beyond). Kristin Skoog from the University of Westminster discussed her thesis on the BBC and post-war women’s radio, for which she is using documents from the BBC Written Archive Centre at Caversham. With particular reference to two programmes, Woman’s Hour with its factual approach, and the fictional domestic serial Mrs Dale’s Diary, Kristin’s work explores the function of radio programmes in the context of contemporary debates about the woman’s role in society, touching on the key issue of the relationship between private and public spheres of life. She also looks at the experiences of women working in various capacities for BBC radio. Gillian Murray, a research student from the University of Leicester, is also interested in the changing role of women in the workplace and the trends in depiction of this role, and spoke about the work she has just begun on representations of working women on the regional television of the English Midlands between 1950 and 1980. Like, the first speaker Julie, Gillian’s work is based upon materials from the Media Archive for Central England, and she aims to examine women’s increasing labour force participation alongside the increasing use of television as a source of news and entertainment in British society.

The final two speakers each presented projects about film in relation to key themes. Tom Vercruysse from the Catholic University of Leuven is engaged in the planning process of a thesis which he hopes to write on representations of the Middle Ages in film, and his paper provoked lively discussion about the directions this project might take. Tom Symmons of Queen Mary University was at a later stage in his research on New Hollywood Cinema between 1967 and 1982, and spoke about his chapter on the film Sounder (1972) in relation to the issue of black racial identity. Drawing extensively upon primary source materials, he looked at the production of this filmic representation, and the reception it received, particularly the divided attitudes towards the film among the Black American community. With his project at a fairly formed stage, Tom was particularly keen to get practical guidance on writing and presenting papers at more formal academic conferences, and panel advice in this area was very valuable, with discussion on how to pull out key points from a body of research to focus upon in a much shorter talk, and recommendations on how to be prepared for inevitable technical hitches – a particular hazard for media historians who want to show audio and audio-visual clips as part of their presentations!

When I agreed to write this report, my first action was to e-mail the other masterclass participants in order to get a flavour of the range of experiences of the day. The overwhelming response was that people had hugely enjoyed the event. There was much appreciation and recognition of the time that panel members had taken to listen to talks and provide feedback, and several people commented that they had already implemented advice they had been given, or followed up on particular references and suggestions for further research. It was widely remarked that the masterclass provided an ideal opportunity for practicing giving a presentation, with its combination of informality and expert advice. The particular value of networking with peers was also raised, and a few people noted that it was helpful to observe the different ways in which other participants, each at different stages in their projects, had conducted their research. Overall, the day has hopefully provided an excellent springboard for encouraging a new generation of researchers to get involved in IAMHIST.

Anna Jones is a PhD student at Durham University in the United Kingdom

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