Crossing the Theory-Practice Divide

Crossing the Theory-Practice Divide

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1 Introduction

How might we best teach university students about media? In a continually converging media landscape, media like “television” and “film” become increasingly diffuse and speaking about them increasingly challenging. There seems to be a gap between what is conventionally understood as film and television and how these are still studied and discussed, on the one hand, and how students experience 21st Century media, on the other hand, including games, social media, and other interactive media. In addition, the role of the university in society is changing, and applied science and the humanities are moving closer together. These seem symptoms of a second gap, one between academic generations. We think both gaps need to be bridged.

1.1 Alternatives for the Written Argument

Sarah Barrow, discussing the video essay as a viable alternative to written academic output, argues that ‘it is time to normalise alternative ways to publish and circulate ideas.’1 Thommy Eriksson and Inge Ejbye Sørensen, discussing the video essay as academic output, observe that the ability to write texts is taken for granted in academia. They ask: ‘Is it now time to assume that one should be able to make a video essay?’2 Considering interactive media as a new generation of media and students as the next generation of professionals, we take this question further and ask: Is it now time to assume that media students should be able to make an interactive narrative? For scholars working within the field of digital media, including archives and the Digital Humanities, in general, the answer should be ‘yes.’ But how do we teach them?

Creating alternative forms of dissemination, such as a video essay, means moving to the practice of (audiovisual) media making. However, the spoken word is our natural mode of communication and writing a long-established form for disseminating knowledge. According to Eriksson and Sørensen, academics are still overwhelmingly used to and familiar with written research output.3 Although audiovisual output is increasingly accepted in academia, media scholars hardly share their research through audiovisual media.4 This points towards a practice-theory divide: scholars struggle to make the move to turn into media makers. In addition, written research publications yield academic merit; for other modes of expression, this is often still a hurdle.

Illustrative of this is a platform such as Scalar. It was ‘designed to make it easy for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online,’ but it was initially used for the interactive presentation of scholarly books and articles.5 It is also visible in the very article you are reading and the platform that supports it. VIEW presents itself as a multimedia journal and explicitly ‘aims at stimulating new narrative forms of online storytelling.’6 At the same time, most articles consist of written texts interspersed with embedded audio and/or video. They are made available as pdf files, as well, so they need essentially to be formatted according to conventional linear written arguments. We, as authors, struggled to conceptualize another form for this article, grounded as our thinking is in the written tradition. The confinements of the VIEW format amplified this struggle. Given these challenges, using alternatives to the written academic argument, i.e., moving to the practice side of media, is not a matter of course.

1.2 Practice as Research in Undergraduate Education

The practice-theory divide has been more successfully bridged by art practitioners interested in researching their practice. Relying on Practice as Research, they seek to generate new and – more importantly – different knowledge through practice.7 Practice as Research has been conceptualized and developed mainly from the perspective of arts practitioners and students and, to a much lesser degree, from the perspective of academics venturing into practice (see, for instance, Borgdorff, and Wilson8). Several academics involved with Practice as Research observe that it is treated with hesitation and scepticism as well as disputed by academia.9 In her recent book, Artists in the University, Wilson states that: ‘It is time to show our colleagues in academia that there are innovative rich-media ways to document, publish, disseminate and evaluate research outcomes.’10 But, while academics, including PhD and MA students, are increasingly encouraged to disseminate their research through non-writing media, BA students are seldom mentioned as target audiences for such practices. We argue that Practice as Research helps to bridge the generational media gap discussed above as it both expands students’ knowledge about media and improves their academic skills.

Our argument is founded on our case study of a practical filmmaking course for undergraduate Film and Television Studies students at Utrecht University. Between November 2017 and February 2018, the lecturer-author was involved in this advanced course as teacher, and the student-authors were involved as students.11 The lecturer decided to have students develop an interactive narrative using a Practice as Research approach. She wished to familiarize them with stories and narratives that were not linear, and increase and diversify their practical skills as well as their conceptual knowledge.12 The interactive narrative had to address, but not necessarily answer, the research question, leaving space for a variety of ways in which to present research ideas and outcomes.

To understand the added value of this approach, the lecturer-author decided to investigate how students make sense of media “by doing,” and the student-authors volunteered to participate. Self-Directed Learning and Inquiry-Based Learning served as didactic approaches for the course design. This research takes a Production Studies approach. Through assignments, feedback conversations, and auto-ethnography, students reflected and produced documents and artefacts, which then served as research data.

We analysed these data through a thematic analysis,13 then, in tandem with the students, we designed an interactive narrative for this article. The premise underlying the design is the easy access to the different sections of this article. On each page, the images give access to the various findings, while the introduction and conclusion are accessible through textual links. In addition, links in the text quickly provide access to related information.

  • 1 Sarah Barrow, ‘The Impossible Constellation: Practice as Research as a Viable Alternative,’ in Rebecca E. Lyons and Samantha J. Rayner, eds, The Academic Book of the Future, Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2016, pp. 24–30.
  • 2 Thommy Eriksson and Inge Ejbye Sørensen, ‘Reflections on Academic Video,’ 8, 1, 2012, Introduction.
  • 3 This does not only apply to academia. Art grant applications, for instance, also usually need to be submitted in writing. In the case of film or documentary grants, audiovisual material, such as research footage or prior work, may support the application, but written text remains the main mode for expressing what one wishes to capture in sounds and images.
  • 4 Eriksson and Sørensen. ‘Reflections on Academic Video,’ The Context: Convergence in Theory and Practise.
  • 5 See and
  • 6 See
  • 7 Sophie Stone compiled an annotated bibliography and webography of Practice-as-Research- related publications and provides a list of the various terms used to refer to what she calls Practice Research. See Craig Batty and Susan Kerrigen likewise observe that there are many different ways to research creative practices but insist that the differences among them are important to consider. Craig Batty and Susan Kerrigan, ‘Introduction,’ in Craig Batty and Susan Kerrigan, eds, Screen Production Research, Springer International Publishing, 2018, p. 2, 6.
  • 8 Henk Borgdorff, The Conflict of the Faculties: Perspectives on Artistic Research and Academia, Leiden University Press, 2012. Jenny Wilson, Artists in the University. Positioning Artistic Research in Higher Education, Springer, 2017.
  • 9 Barrow, ‘The Impossible Constellation,’ p. 25. Borgdorff, The Conflict of the Faculties, p. 4.
  • 10 Wilson, Artists in the University, p. X.
  • 11 Students in Utrecht University‘s Department of Media and Culture Studies have the option to take two consecutive practical film-making courses as part of their BA programme in order to familiarize themselves with their future professional practice (many end up working in media production) as well as to make connections between their theoretical understanding of media and media practices. Students from other departments can also take these optional courses. The first course teaches students the conventional basic knowledge and skills of video production. The second offers a deepening of their experience, with a focus on independently developing and producing a media text. A research question serves as the starting point for this project. This article reports on the second course.
  • 12 Hanna Meretoja argues that: ‘There seems to be a relative unanimity that narrative does not merely list what happens, but that it brings out or creates meaningful connections between events or experiences, thereby rendering them (at least partly) intelligible’ (p. 89) Tuffield, Shadbolt, and Millard, with reference to Mieke Bal’s work, discuss three layers of a narrative: ‘the Fabula, which represents the raw chronological events; the Story, where given a fabula one could derive a number of different stories, and at the third and highest level the Narrative. The narrative is said to be the final form of the rendered material’ (p. 2, italics in the original). Sanders and Hagedoorn discuss the challenges researchers face when conceiving a digital presentation of their research results. They conclude that questions of visuality and user agency and the kind and amount of research materials are related to different goals authors might have for their presentations. Based on the above, we use the term narrative here to refer to the text as a composition that is related to the goal the author has with the presentation and that is meaningful with respect to the research question. Hanna Meretoja, ‘Narrative and Human Existence: Ontology, Epistemology, and Ethics,’ New Literary History, 45, 1, Winter 2014. Mischa M. Tuffield, Nigel R. Shadbolt, and David E. Millard, ‘Narrative as a Form of Knowledge Transfer: Narrative Theory and Semantics,’ 1st AKT Doctoral Symposium, Milton Keynes, UK, 2005. Willemien Sanders and Berber Hagedoorn, ‘Tell and Show: Developing a Tool for Online Publication of AV Research,’ International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), Montreal, Canada, 2015.
  • 13 Virginia Braun and Victoria Clarke, ‘Using Thematic Analysis in Psychology’, Qualitative Research in Psychology 3, 2, 2006, 77–101.


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