Friday, May 30, 2008

Finishing up with my Research Assistants

My undergraduate research assistants, Tyler and Crys, finish their last days of work with me this coming week. In their honor, I want to reflect back on the term and recount the successes and failures of utilizing them for this project. Well, there really were no failures, just a few things that weren't as useful as I had planned.

Both students had never done any kind of research assisting before. In fact, if you think about it, this is mostly an opportunity that comes to graduate students and is rarely one an undergrad experiences anywhere. Out at Zanesville, though, I only have undergrads, and since I consider myself an undergraduate professor anyway, I've always wanted to be able to provide some of these interesting opportunities to my own students, if possible. For these two, I was able to get a couple of hours of credit each for their efforts and they paid me back with good attendance and what seemed to be a genuine interest in the task at hand.

Over the course of the quarter, I have asked Crys and Tyler to take turns performing the following tasks: interview transcription, manuscript transcription, Newspaper and periodical database research (online and on microfilm), and film viewing with written commentary. In addition, I tacked on at the end an opportunity for each student to research a small contextual topic that I could then make use of in the book. After I provided a long list of such topics, Crys chose Vitaphone and James FitzPatrick's Traveltalks and Tyler chose Marshall Neilan and the onset of sound production at British International Pictures (which largely concerns Hitchcock's Blackmail). So, two topics each. I think, though, as involved as both topics are, that they're only really going to get to cover one each. Each one is important to understanding something about Syd's life story--especially the last one, which I hope will clear up a lot of questions I still have about Syd's BIP controversy of 1929.

My setup for entertaining research assistants is not the best. I have a small office and no place for a student to get particularly cozy each session and make his or her own. So, each student must feel he/she is under complete and humiliating scrutiny every time he/she comes in to work, although neither one has complained about it (maybe this is just the way I would feel given their situation). I have to say, though, that this proximity has helped me and the project quite a bit. Having set them to work on something right there in front of my desk for five hours a week helps to keep me engaged in the process and also motivated. And, with ten hours total thus spent--sort of forcibly--the project then becomes more a daily part of my life. In fact, I've been working with the assistants four days each week, keeping the whole thing uppermost in my mind, whether I want it to be there or not. What to do, though, now that this ideal situation is ending? How do I keep things on this level of productivity?

Anyway, although I haven't asked my assistants for their required response essays on this experience as yet, I would probably surmise that the film observation/commentary and then the little research projects were the two most interesting aspects. Transcribing in any form is just laborious, and I had to go back over the products carefully myself anyway. But at least most of it is now done! I also found that transcribing handwriting is a real gift--because one of my students just couldn't do it at all!

So, while I won't have time in the fall (I'm teaching 4 classes!) to sign up more assistants to help me, I will at least have one this summer when I go to LA for several weeks. I have that to look forward to. But first is the Library of Congress and Slapsticon. At the LOC, I will be watching several of Syd's films I have not yet seen, including Fatty's Wine Party, Hushing the Scandal, Giddy, Gay and Ticklish, and The Perfect Flapper. That happens the day before Slapsticon begins. At Slapsticon, then, I will get to see Among the Mourners, a film that up until Richard Roberts discovered it, was not known to be a Syd Chaplin film at all and now turns out to be his first ever film. So much for relaxing this summer!

1 comment:

lacef said...

Hi, My name is Barrie Minney (no immediate relation to RJ Minney). I have a website on the Minney name ( and a page dedicated to R J Minney. There is a photo there of Syd & RJ but I assume you must have this. I wish some one would write a biography on RJ - a fascinating man of his time!!
Best wishes