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Four Student-centred and Student-led Postgraduate Research Workshops in Screen Studies and Visual Culture

Author:
Daniela Berghahn, department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway, University of London

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Keywords:
Postgraduate research; student-led learning; screen studies; transferable skills; student diversity; employability agenda

Abstract:
Four Postgraduate Research Workshops in Screen Studies and Visual Culture were designed to foster student-centred and student-led learning by enabling PhD students to develop and practise transferable skills in a research context, closely aligned with their ongoing doctoral research projects. The Workshops also aimed to combat the social and intellectual isolation PhD students may experience by providing a platform for dynamic teamwork. It is anticipated that the range of transferable skills which students developed will enhance their employability, thereby addressing the needs of the scholarly community while simultaneously engaging with the skills and employability agendas that feature so prominently on the government’s agendas.


When I took on the role of Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2008, I wanted to provide our approximately thirty postgraduate research students with the opportunity of combining their research skills with more practical skills associated with working together and promoting and organising research-related events. Furthermore, postgraduate research, in particular in the arts and humanities, can be a lonely activity and academic progress may slow if students become too isolated. In fact, student feedback had indicated that many of our PhD students were not coping well with the loneliness of research. They expressed a keen interest in collaborative projects with their peers that would allow them to foster on-going relationships. Given the interdisciplinary scope of their research, they also wanted to network with postgraduate students in related disciplines at Royal Holloway and other University of London colleges.

The series of four Postgraduate Research Workshops was designed to complement the comprehensive, generic research skills training provided by the Graduate School at Royal Holloway with a more discipline-specific focus with the aim to enable postgraduate research students to put transferable skills into a research context closely aligned with their ongoing doctoral research projects. The Workshops were student-centred and student-led in so far as the students planned, organised, advertised and managed the events. Following my successful bid for funding, this initiative was generously subsidised with £1,200 by the Graduate School. This meant that students had a budget of £300 per workshop at their disposal, which they could spend on the guest speaker’s travel expenses, a speaker’s fee and a social gathering after the event.

At the beginning of the academic year I convened a briefing meeting to which everybody who had expressed interest in this new initiative was invited. Pairs of students with similar research interests formed teams and began planning and organising the Workshops, which were held in the autumn and spring terms of the academic year 2008-09.
   Berghahn 1ABerghahn photo 1
Media Arts PhD student Elif Akçalı designed posters to publicise the Workshops

The format of the Workshops usually consisted of a presentation by an invited guest speaker (a well-known academic or figurehead from the industry whose particular expertise matched that of the Workshop convenors), followed by the two students’ presentations and a general discussion. Particular emphasis was placed on giving extensive feedback to the Workshop conveners. While the guest speaker would comment on the content of the students’ presentations, staff and fellow students would give feedback on formal aspects of the presentation so as to help the students enhance their presentation skills. For the convenors, the interaction with the guest speaker prior to, during and after the Workshop at a social gathering provided a useful networking opportunity with an expert in their particular research area, whom they might meet again after graduation on job interview panels or in a number of other professional contexts.

The Four Themed Postgraduate Workshops in Screen Studies and Visual Culture were devoted to the following themes:

  •  World Cinema in the Context of Postcolonial Studies (guest speaker: Professor Paul Willemen)
  • Experiments with Narrative Cinema (guest speakers: Professors Jean Matthee and David Surman)
  • Problems of Film and Television Historiography (guest speaker: Professor Jonathan Bignell)
  • The State of the British Film Industry (guest speaker: Joe Oppenheimer, BBC Film)


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Mohsen Biparva, Professor Paul Willemen and Ayça Tunç at the First Postgraduate Workshop


Workshop conveners Barnaby Dicker and Elif Akçalı report on the Second Postgraduate Workshop (posted on the Media Art’s departmental website at www.rhul.ac.uk/media-arts/research/reports.shtml)
The second workshop ‘Experiments with Narrative Cinema’ was designed to address the way in which narrative cinema has been inspirational for artists as a tool to create new visual forms. The workshop also explored how narrative films experimented with discontinuity and fragmentation in style. We were pleased to welcome Professor Jean Matthee from Trondheim Academy of Fine Art and David Surman from Newport School of Art, Media 
and Design as our guest speakers at the event.
Professor Matthee gave an extensive account of her work over the last thirty years; reflecting on it via her wide knowledge of cultural theory and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Beginning with her involvement in the film co-op movement, Matthee explained how her personal need to explore the Hollywood presentation of women in her own films conflicted with the ideas of many of her colleagues at that time, for whom any representation of women was taboo. To illustrate this work, Matthee screened Descent of the Seductress and an extract from Neon Queen. Matthee described how, following the collapse of the co-op movement in the late 1980s, she felt unable to cross over into the mainstream, as some of her colleagues did. In an attempt to make sense of this situation, Matthee began to attend art events and talks almost daily; which quickly became a habit. Matthee then discussed how she brought her films into the digital age by re-presenting her work as an installation in a 'celebrity club', which she called Draining It and Scattering It; an event that itself was extensively filmed.  When it was recently pointed out to her that she is the most featured person - as an audience member - of the Tate's video archive of its events, Matthee was struck by the way her very attendance and her occasional interventions had taken on videographic form; for Matthee, this indicates and advances a type of critical practice that she long felt had been lost.
David Surman presented an essay (then, in-progress) entitled 'When Gothic meets Cute,' included in the forthcoming collection Gaming After Dark, edited by Bernard Perron and published by McFarland. He writes, 'This essay examines the complex relationship between cute and horror aesthetics in the PS2 videogame Gregory Horror Show (Capcom, 2003). The game folds together several disparate and contradictory styles and aesthetic registers to create a unique experience that warrants academic study; to tease out this complexity it [is] necessary to indulge several detours into design, film, literature and popular culture. First instincts might place cute and horror on opposite ends on an aesthetic axis, where cute signifies safety, security and familiarity, and horror signifies mystery, danger and discord. I...argue [that] cute and horror begin to merge in the contemporary conceptualisation of the gothic'. Surman used the work of Sadie Benning and Michael Almereyda, through their shared use of Fisher-Price PixelVision cameras, as key examples; especially the latter's 'horror' film, Nadja.
Barnaby Dicker discussed Avant-Garde 'exploitation' of Hollywood as an introduction to Professor Matthee's work. He considered the different ways Joseph Cornell, Ken Jacobs and Kurt Kren have all re-presented Hollywood material. Dicker also took this as an opportunity to consider some of the problems of any 'aesthetics of fragmentation.'
 Berghahn 3
Barnaby Dicker and Elif Akçalı at the Second Postgraduate Workshop

Elif Akçalı presented a question rather than an idea: How do we define discontinuity in narrative cinema? She pointed at the problematic use of the word ‘discontinuity’ and explained that this word is usually used to refer to disruptions in relation to narrative rather than style. Using examples from Last Year in Marienbad and Memento, she suggested that Bazin’s idea of human beings’ obsession with ‘preserving life’ is mostly an obsession with narrative continuity.
Wednesday 10th of December's Workshop, ‘Experiments With Narrative Cinema’, was well-attended, festive and interactive.

Developing Transferable Skills
While the Graduate School’s research skills training programme is an essential component of the postgraduate experience at RHUL, students in Media Arts expressed the need for a type of training that would allow them to combine their subject-specific expertise with transferable skills and that would provide them with relevant hands-on experience for a career in academia or the media industry. Networking, convening seminars and conferences and collaborating with other academics is an essential aspect of academic life, especially at a time when funding councils are prioritising collaborative research projects. Teamwork and the ability to initiate collaborative projects are equally important in the media industry and in most other professions.

All students who had participated in the Workshop initiative were invited to provide detailed feedback. They were encouraged to critically reflect on their perceived learning experience, the challenges and problems they faced and were asked to make suggestions on how to improve the format of the Workshops in future. The questionnaires with open-ended questions and discussions at the Department’s Postgraduate Student Staff Committee Meetings offered useful insights into students’ learning experience. In terms of organisational skills, students mentioned that they developed or enhanced their time and project management skills. These included advertising the event well in advance; managing the budget; juggling various duties at once and being prepared for the eventuality that the invited speaker drops out at the last minute. Students had the opportunity to practise a range of communication skills:  in addition to the most obvious one, improving their presentation skills, they advertised the event via relevant mailing lists (e.g. the biggest Media Studies list in the UK, MeCCSA) and supplied information to the School of Graduate Studies and departmental administrators across RHUL and the University of London. Students were also asked to write news items for about the four Workshops, which were posted on the Media Arts Postgraduate web pages with links to the Graduate School website (see: www.rhul.ac.uk/media-arts/research/reports.shtml).

Several students identified interpersonal skills, such as networking with the guest speakers, liaising with administrators and negotiating important issues such as the choice of speaker, venue, dates, etc. with their co-convenor, teamwork and conflict resolution as the greatest challenges. While some teams appear to have struggled with this particular aspect, others have forged close bonds and are now continuing to meet up on a regular basis to discuss their research projects. Several students perceived the Workshops to have had a beneficial impact on their research project. One student commented that, in contrast to conferences she had attended in the past, the Workshop had a clear thematic focus and therefore provided a good opportunity to discuss ‘subject specific issues around the topic of my research with people who share the same interests’, while an informal chat with the guest speaker over dinner offered significant insights that helped this particular student with her research project.

Addressing Student Diversity and Employability
Through fostering dynamic teamwork, the Workshops not only aimed to combat the social and intellectual isolation PhD students are facing but also to address the increasing diversity of backgrounds. The Workshops endeavoured to treat student diversity not as a problem, but as a positive asset to be exploited and one from which other members of the team can profit. As a department that combines theory and practice, Media Arts at Royal Holloway attracts students who come straight out of university with an M.A., either in Film and Television Studies or related subjects, as well as mature students who have already worked or are still working in the media industry in various capacities (as archivists in the British Film Institute, as independent filmmakers, film producers or programme assistants at the BBC). Typically, students with experience in the industry choose topics for their doctoral dissertations that draw on their professional background. As a result, the Workshops that suit their particular needs are likely to follow a different format.

For example, the Fourth Workshop entitled ‘The State of the British Film Industry’ differed from the preceding three in that the most appropriate guest speaker was someone from the industry rather than an academic. The choice of Joe Oppenheimer, board member and executive producer of BBC Films, also had consequences for the structure of the Workshop: instead of a traditional academic paper, followed by student presentations, feedback from the guest speaker, peers and staff and a general discussion, the students chaired a panel discussion. They had prepared a number of detailed questions and hypotheses relating to their own doctoral dissertations on ‘Low-budget film production in the UK’ and ‘An Assessment of the UK Creative Industries Policies’ and used the opportunity to discuss them with an expert from the industry. The chosen format was not only more appropriate in relation to the students’ research topics but also made the most of Oppenheimer’s expertise and skills.

 Berghahn photograph 4
J. C. Crissey, Joe Oppenheimer, Maud Mansfield and Dr. Daniela Berghahn at the Workshop on ‘The State of the British Film Industry’

The range of transferable skills that the students developed in designing these Workshops is anticipated to be of use in the world of work outside academia as well as boosting their chances of securing an academic position after the completion of their studies. As Dr Seán Allan (Associate Professor at the University of Warwick and Chair of the Arts Faculty Teaching and Learning Forum) noted in his evaluation of the Workshop initiative: ‘Indeed it is hard to think of an approach to student learning that more elegantly addresses the needs of the scholarly community while simultaneously engaging with the skills and employability agendas that feature so prominently on the government’s agendas’.


Making the Workshops Even Better

The multiple benefits of the Postgraduate Workshop initiative were formally recognised by Royal Holloway earlier this year: I was awarded ‘The College Teaching Prize for Innovation’ and the Graduate School agreed to support a series of Workshops and a Postgraduate Conference during the academic year 2009-10.

To make the Workshops even more beneficial a number of changes are envisaged. Some students are keen to organise a bigger event and are planning a Postgraduate Conference with a nation-wide call for papers and several guest speakers.  Students want to determine the composition and size of their teams and, in some cases, collaborate with other departments. Each team will put together a formal proposal, outlining the research area, provide a rationale for the choice of suggested speakers, identify a good venue and submit a budget plan. A committee consisting of three PhD students and three members of staff will vet the bids and only the best proposals will attract funding. This new format introduces an additional ‘real-life-aspect’ to the process in as much as funding is allocated on a competitive basis. Moreover, the students serving on the evaluation panel will be able to gain insight into developing evaluation criteria and assessing research proposals.

Contact info:
Daniela Berghahn
Department of Media Arts
Royal Holloway
University of London
Egham
Surrey
TW20 OEX

E: daniela.berghahn@rhul.ac.uk
T: 01784 443838


Biography:
Daniela Berghahn is Reader in Film Studies and Director of Graduate Studies in the Media Arts Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. Before joining the Media Arts Department she lectured at Oxford Brookes University, where she founded the B.A. in Film Studies programme. She was leader of an international AHRC-funded Research Network investigating Migrant and Diasporic Cinema in Contemporary Europe (www.migrantcinema.net). Her publications include Hollywood behind the Wall: The Cinema of East Germany (Manchester UP, 2005), Unity and Diversity in the New Europe (2000), Turkish-German Dialogues on Screen, special issue New Cinemas (7:1, 2009) and European Cinema in Motion (forthcoming 2010). She is currently researching the diasporic family in cinema.

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