By: Danielle Lane
Hello, my name is Danielle. I’m a dyslexic Aries from New Zealand, who has a 1998 Furby and pink dinosaur-shaped succulent pot on my desk. Oh, and I’m doing an MMSt thesis.
Synopsis: The growth of social media platforms like YouTube has opened up a valuable new resource for educational content, one which is not always fully realized by institutions such as museums. The YouTube channel, The Brain Scoop, is an example of how the platform can be embraced and how it can differ from traditional video mediums like TV and other distributed film media. Its approach to educational content stands to inspire other museums to rethink how they create and engage with online educational videos.
In more detail, I am doing an in-depth analysis of the content of the YouTube channel The Brain Scoop, which was run out of the Chicago Field Museum between 2013 and 2020. Then, looking at how some key 20th-century museums engaged with new technologies and mediums of communication as part of their educational and outreach work (as a historical comparison), my objective is to produce a set of best practices for other museums looking to create their own educational YouTube channels. I’m focusing on video content, theming, and production to see what sort of approaches and resources museums can include in their own channels.
My main methodology is the compilation and analysis of qualitative and quantitative data collected from the channel’s videos themselves. Data collected includes production information like scripted vs semi-scripted/unscripted material, filming location, and graphics; content information like video topic and themes; and metadata and user-data like views, up- vs. down-votes, upload date, video duration, etc. This was all collected manually in order to include observational information. From this data, I am identifying trends and observations which, in my view, will be most valuable for museums to know when planning their own content. How diverse should your topics be? Studio vs. on location? What to look for in a host(s)? What are the benefits of scripted vs informal content? Supplementary to this, I am hoping to conduct a few interviews with those involved in the production of The Brain Scoop to get their first-hand experiences with putting together such a channel, and their advice to other institutions looking to do similar work.
In what seems to be the minority approach, I picked my thesis halfway through my undergraduate degree and have been thinking about it since. I’m not necessarily just that eager. Rather, a close friend who was two years ahead of me was working on her Honours dissertation and I was shook by the realization that I’d have to come up with a topic for that – and my Masters thesis at some point too. So, yeah, it’s been bouncing around in my head for a while. This being said, I didn't really get down to the brass tacks of specifics and practicality until the end of my first year in the MMSt program.
When it actually came down to my topic choice, my priorities were thus — 1. A topic that I enjoy learning about, and 2. Achievable through methodologies I am comfortable with and know I can achieve. As far as I am concerned (and this is my advice to others picking topics), it's hard as heck to commit time and energy to a topic you don’t genuinely care about. Rather than picking a topic you view as ‘academic’ and ‘valuable’, I advocate for picking a topic you are interested in and seeing what can be made ‘academic’ and ‘valuable’. For example, my Honours dissertation was an analysis of Tripadvisor reviews of the American Museum of Natural History in New York that mentioned the film Night at the Museum to see how visitors experiences were influenced by their knowledge of the film (for better or worse), then seeing how that compared with existing literature on the field of film tourism. I got to this topic from wanting to do something on how museums are represented in film and television media. That was way too broad a topic, so I ended up organically focusing on the biggest museum blockbuster and how this information could be useful to museums.
Likewise, for my thesis, I started with a want to do something on The Brain Scoop because I enjoyed the channel. This morphed into a study of the channel to form best practices as well as studying media studies and the history of how museums have adapted to new media for educational purposes. I expect to morph a bit more again between now (Jan 2022) and the final version (April-ish 2022). Your own topics will naturally take a similar course, as pretty much no one ends up on the same trajectory as they started; you discover new things along the way that interest you and which make sense to build around.
Regarding methodology, I highly recommend building that into your very initial idea, rather than just hand-waving the specifics. I hate collecting and processing surveys — so much. So I built a methodology around an approach that would let me avoid it. Interviews are also tedious, unpredictable, and time-consuming for me personally, so I made it a supplementary method of collecting data, which, should I be unable to get the interviews I wanted (which has happened), would not drastically affect my paper as a whole. Similarly, I struggle with AI and programming but do enjoy data collection and processing, so I took a manual approach to collecting my data, rather than employing a scraping program to do it for me. Yes, it was hella time-consuming, but it gave me the control I wanted and allowed me to also collect observational data that a computer could not. Be strategic and work with your strengths rather than slogging through with something you hate.
At this date (Jan 2022,) I am working on a first draft. Not a polished piece of writing, but thoughts on paper in a considered arrangement. I have reasonably clear objectives, my supervisor has helped me narrow down my path to getting there and suggested some great new avenues, and I’m getting an idea of the flow I want the paper to take. My first draft, for me personally, is to get my thoughts on paper in semi-coherent words, to have my format and information flow thought-out, and to identify where I need to do more research to fill out other sections. My own timeline is a little accelerated, as I want to fit in an internship over the summer and want to have everything done by the end of March to accommodate that. Right now my plan is to have the first draft done by the end of January, spend February filling in the gaps and doing a clear write-up, then March doing reviews and final polishing.
My advisor, as mentioned above, has been an invaluable asset! Do not undervalue getting a good one! For me, the process of getting an advisor was pretty challenging. My initial selection did not end up working out, my next would have been great but left the faculty, and by July I was still running around trying to find someone. Because I don’t make life easy, my topic was awkwardly straddling Museums, media studies, and education. While I had interest from professors in those areas, none felt suited to be my supervisor. But, obviously, all was not lost. I eventually ended up chatting with my now supervisor and we instantly hit it off! So, I guess what I’m saying is, start early and really look for someone you have a connection with. Decide what you need from them (a cheer-leader? A hand-holder? Someone experienced with the paperwork?) and be upfront about it.
Some generic tips for thesis-writing folks:
Pick topics and methodologies you can genuinely see yourself not despising by the end because you’ll be spending a lot of time with them.
Figure out what approach to research/writing works for you. I’m dyslexic and work better with a mixture of searchable digital notes and physical notes. I have a big ass research doc with every piece of potentially useful information I find in it (and cited as I go), and then when I find material I’m going to want to come back to, I photocopy/print it so I can mark it up with highlighters and sticky-notes, and for books I take them out and sticky-note them for easy reference. Also, everything is colour-coded. It is a lot of work, but I know from experience that when I’m organized physically I’m better mentally and that I’ll forget anything not visually front-and-centre or within easy reach, so I have a tray just for thesis notes sorted by section of my paper (e.g., history of communication technology, media studies and YouTube, museum communication and education, etc).
Have personal deadlines to keep you on track. I’m prone to over-researching then running out of time to process my thoughts and write. So, I set a hard stop date for that. I’ll do spot research as needed, but the focus had to shift to sorting out my material and starting writing. Your plans will of course shift as you do, but, if you’re like me, it will keep you on track and out of the weeds.
If you studied at another institution, consider paying for alumni access to their libraries and databases. Depending on your research, they may have access to things you can’t get easily through UofT. Worth investigating and deciding the value for you.
Set daily / weekly / monthly objectives, but keep them achievable. I’ve been having killer brain fog, on account of being in my house all day, so I set baby goals to keep me active on my thesis. Usually, it’s as simple as ‘Read three papers’ or ‘organize your notes’. They’re achievable and productive, and sometimes having a clear end to your day is enough to get you out of bed. And just as important. When you achieve that one thing, let yourself relax if you’re not mentally able to do more. It’s ok. If you set these goals every day(ish) and achieve them, you’ll make slow and steady progress rather than suffering from ‘can’t even today’ for weeks rather than trying to rush and make up time.
Set up and keep fortnightly checking with your supervisor! I’ve found, sometimes just knowing I’ll be talking to my supervisor is the kick enough to complete a task, so I have something exciting to share. It also means I get regular feedback and ideas as I go. We have a Monday-date every other week, where we grab coffee at a cafe and chat.
Get out of your damn house! Especially with Covid, this is even more vital. In the second year of MMSt, you probably only have 1-2 actual classes outside your thesis, and if those are online it’s too easy to just never leave your house. And damn, that’s killer on the mood. So take walks, have weekly/fortnightly hangouts outside (supervisor meetings work great for this), and try and do something fun one day of the weekend. My housemate has made it their mission to do something each week to make the most of being in a new city. We’ve been to the zoo, museum, markets, and antique stores. It can just be an afternoon, but get out and let your brain absorb something beyond your room.