I’ve been trying to pin down recently what I’m actually going to talk about in my thesis or what the focus is going to be because just talking about whether history can be represented in film is kind of old hat by now. Scholars have been talking about that for a while and the consensus that it can has virtually been reached. I always wanted to talk about gender in some way, like depictions of women in history or something like that but recently I started thinking about the kind of reciprocal relationship that the past and the present have when they meet on screen (in my opinion at least). On the one hand the present context affects how we represent the present. In other words, these representations end up reflecting present attitudes. For example, films made now about World War II may be reflecting concerns about the War on Terror. On the other hand, the way the past has been presented may influence how we have come to view it, for instance, one might immediately think of images from Platoon, or Apocalypse Now and the like when thinking of the Vietnam War. In essence, these contextualised representations of a particular point in history can eventually come to typify that history in the public/cultural consciousness. I was thinking about teasing these ideas out by looking at gender politics in historical films and television series and how they reflect both how we understand that period of time (and whether this understanding comes from prior representations/ideas of that period) as well as what they reflect and therefore can tell us about gender politics in the present. I hope that makes some kind of sense. I messed about with these ideas a bit in my Public Audience Essay for Research Literacies so when I get that back, I’m sure someone will tell me if its not working at all. Hopefully.
I’ve steadily been working through Tessa Morris-Suzuki’s wonderful book The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History. This book examines the many different forms history can take outside of the traditional academic written form. She examines the ways that these forms of history, from novels and comic books to museums and films, engage with history and how contemporary audiences or readers engage with them and with the history being presented. The chapter specifically on film and television particularly of note to me so and I thought I might share some thoughts on it.
Morris-Suzuki talks a lot in this chapter about the unique power of film as a means of identification with the past, whether this be through the emotive power of its combined techniques (imagery and sound in particular) or through its individual driven narratives with characters portrayed by famous contemporary actors. What I particularly found interesting was her discussion of film and mythology. She points to the intrinsic power of film to provide and perpetuate cultural and societal myths about the past. For instance, she uses the example of Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997) and how it generates a narrative about US history that seems to suggest that “freedom, justice and racial equality have always been the central themes and support for slavery appears as a kind of temporary aberration” (Morris-Suzuki 2005, 152) whilst ignoring the founding fathers own connections to the slave trade. Following on from this, she points out how the myths that films generate are so important because they are global myths that also reflect inequality in ideas about history. Historical feature films often depict important moments in Western history. This is probably because they dominantly emerge out of the oligarchical Hollywood system (one of the most recognizable forms of American imperialism) which also means that these reach the widest audience and have far more cultural impact than films emerging out of Eastern or African countries dealing with their own histories. This in a wider sense consistently reinforces myths about Western dominance and superiority.
In the closing paragraph of this chapter, Morris-Suzuki made what to me was a really important observation. She argues that is crucial that we, as viewers, reflect thoughtfully on what we see on screen in historical films or televisions shows. How is this engaging us in a historical understanding? What are the techniques it is using? What is the context? The aims of the filmmaker? How does this depiction sit with other depiction? This point is crucial. If we are going to take historical films seriously and we are going to encourage education systems in particular to take them seriously then we need to foster critical thinking about them.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. The Past within Us: Media, Memory, History. London, UK: Verso, 2005.
Truth be told, I thought that ‘Knowledge Translation’ sounded like a really straightforward concept. I thought, ‘oh right, being able to take your research out of the dripping with jargon version that would appear in the thesis and talk about it to or with a non-specialist audience.’ Seems simple enough. I did not anticipate that there would be such different ideas about what it meant and rather naively, I didn’t really think about all of the reasons that its so important.
The first thing Jack really explained to us in the Research Literacies lecture on Knowledge Translation was that this was a concept far more prevalent in the hard sciences, particularly health sciences. Being pretty well confined to the Humanities, I didn’t realise this at all but found it really quite fascinating nonetheless. Although there still seems to be some contention about exactly what it means and involves among scientific institutions, it seems to follow the basic idea of getting the research from the lab to the people that can practically use it in an ethically sound manner. I guess in the Humanities the similar thing would be to use research findings to make recommendations for policy changes or educational reforms or whatever kind of practice the particular research work can be put to. It also involves, for both STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and HASS (Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences) research, the dissemination of the research findings, the sharing of information and new knowledge essentially.
Of course, things in this world are never just about democratisation and social benefit, and money worms its way in here too. To have a chance to get your research funded you have to be able to explain what it is and what its going to achieve. This is knowledge translation too. How do you explain your research in a way that will get your grant application approved?
At the end of the day, I wasn’t necessarily wrong, it is about being able to explain your research to non-specialists, I just hadn’t really considered the wide ranging areas that it can be applied for benefit
or for money. I suppose I should start to view my 50,000 family members asking me what I’m doing and why I would want to do that every time there’s a family get-together as an opportunity rather than a chore. Instead of reverting to the more academic version – “I’m looking into theories about historiography in relation to the representation of history in non-academic sources, particularly feature films, and how that effects how people and societies understand and identify with history” – I should really work on being able to explain my topic in simpler terms – “I’m interested in how movies about history are representing and engaging with it and how these movies can help or hinder us in understanding history.” How’d I do?
Its Week 6 of your first semester of your Master of Research and you sit down to do your reading for your Research Literacies unit. It’s a chapter of your textbook – Rosenwasser and Stephen’s Writing Analytically (2015) – entitled “Finding and Evolving a Thesis.” Now, if you’re anything like me, you’re freaking out. “Thesis? What thesis?” I started to think to myself. I know I have a research area (film and history), I know the questions I want to interrogate (can film engage with history and historical discourse meaningfully and how?), and I know I have an opinion about it (film’s visual and emotional capacity allow it to explore history in creative and experiential ways that are just as valid as written history) but I don’t have a proper question yet, I don’t really have a thesis. Naturally, I started to mildly panic. Once I realised this was the single most unproductive thing to do and actually started reading, I calmed down because this chapter is great. This chapter not only went over what a thesis is and how to work with it and write about it effectively but it told me that I was actually okay and on the right track.
This chapter starts with a really handy definition of what a thesis actually is. Rosenwasser and Stephen summarise a thesis as being “an idea that you formulate about your subject. It should offer a theory about the meaning of evidence that would not have been immediately obvious to your readers” (Rosenwasser and Stephen 2015, 147). I think this neatly sums up what they think a strong thesis is and what it is not. It should not be too broad or too straightforward. There’s no point writing a paper trying to argue something that was common sense in the first place.
The thing that really struck me with this chapter though was the idea that the thesis is not static. It evolves with the evolution of the paper itself. Its probably best not to go into the reading about and writing about a topic all guns blazing with a rigid thesis already in place. This is not to say that we shouldn’t have an idea about the topic, its important that we do as that will guide the research and the writing BUT if we’ve decided that that is the be all and end all then it becomes a case of evidence to fit the theory and we run the risk of ignoring complicating evidence and thus limiting the scope and quality of our ideas and blinding us to better ones (Rosenwasser and Stephen 2015, 148). Rosenwasser and Stephen (2015, 157) use the analogy of a camera lens to describe the thesis and its reciprocal relationship to the subject, “while the lens affects how we see the subject (what evidence we select, what questions we ask about that evidence), the subject we are looking at affects how we adjust the lens.”
Something they suggest (and demonstrate a fantastic example of) is working on exploratory drafts to help evolve the thesis. As you write and explore your ideas and evidence, new and better ideas may become clear as well as errors and problems. The more you draft and explore the thesis, the clearer and the stronger it becomes. Writing as thinking as Jack (our tutor) would say. They provide a six step process to follow when doing this which I’m not going to regurgitate here but it basically involves writing the draft and then identifying the competing thesis statements and complicating evidence that do not fit with the current working thesis and then using these to reformulate your it and then testing the new thesis by doing the process over. Rosenwasser and Stephen (2015, 166) also stress in this the importance of making your process clear to your reader. Basically, explaining to them how you got to where you did. I think that’s really important but also not necessarily something that I’m used to so I should keep that in mind and work on it.
The class for this week and this topic was also really helpful. Jack got us to freewrite about certain aspects of our projects to get us thinking about our thesis and how it fits with the existing literature. Identifying the “interpretive context” of your thesis is something Rossenwasser and Stephen (2015, 150) also emphasize. In doing this exercise, I realised that I actually did know more about what I wanted to do and what other researchers were doing and what they were debating. Importantly, I realised I was able to tease out possible questions, how does film use its unique language to engage history and do what Tessa Morris-Suzuki (2005, 27) calls “historical truthfulness” – how different people and mediums try to make sense of the past.I’m well aware that this needs to be done within the context of a case study and will need to be significantly more specific but I’m working on it. I’m also aware that this time next year, my question will probably not be close to this at all but I guess that’s all part of this process of evolution.
I guess at the end of this week, I felt a lot better than I had at the start. I don’t need to have a thesis right now. I just need to be working on it, reading a lot and writing things down. I have a little more faith in me today than I did before.
Morris-Suzuki, Tessa. 2005. The Past Within Us: Media, Memory, History. London, UK: Verso.
Rosenwasser, David, and Jill Stephen. 2015. Writing Analytically. USA: Cengage Learning.
Image source: https://theleidener.com/2016/03/06/thesis-tips/