This paper is a preliminary report on a classroom-based research project within the field of history and film.
My research centres on an exploration of the theories and methods historians need to engage with to move beyond the narrow socio-political approach of Siegfried Kracauer or even the later, more theoretically sophisticated, but methodologically incomplete, works of Pierre Sorlin or Marc Ferro.
Such questions have led me into the field of film theory and criticism and into the classroom.
Teaching is a two-way process: we learn as much, if not more, from our students as they do from us. In addition to more traditional historical methods, I am conducting quantitative research looking at how undergraduate history students respond, and acquire the necessary skills and methodologies, to work with audio-visual sources within both historical and cinema studies frameworks.
Using anonymous surveys, focus groups and individual interviews in addition to keeping a personal teaching journal I have begun analysing the reasons why students choose to work (or not work) with film as a historical source: their concerns, preferences and ideas about what they need to know to work in the field.
Through working with these students my ideas about alternative approaches to working with film historically have come to centre on how historians engage with audiences; how we identify and understand those who saw (or did not see) films at different times in the past. Just as Janet Staiger’s Interpreting Films introduced me to a way of considering film that is fundamentally different to how historians have talked about film in the past, working with students is revealing the practical possibilities (and problems) of implementing such an approach.