Introduction to Documentary Studies

MCS 231

Spring 2011

Dr. Daniel Makagon                          

Office: 14 E Jackson, #1828

Office Hours: W 9-10 PM

Phone: (312) 362-7979                                  


Course Description and Objectives


Documentary can be distinguished from other forms of non-fiction writing, photography, audio production, or film via its two-tiered historical functions: to produce social or political change and/or to allow an audience to see and feel the world in new and unique ways. Although one could argue that stories in the local paper, instructional tapes, educational films, and family photographs taken on the disposable camera may serve the same function, the documentary can further be distinguished as a unique mode of communication by its depth of research or close relationship to/with the subject(s) and the amount of time spent in the field. Although these features are central to documentary work, there have also been negative characteristics attached to the documentary in public discourse. For example, one dominant misperception about documentary is that it must be dry and scientific. The term "documentary" may conjure up images of an animal's eating habits or English aristocrats and their exquisite gardens. Although these subjects have been presented in documentaries, the documentary can be much more than this. It can feature engaging stories, interesting characters, intriguing dialogue, and even sound effects. When done well, a documentary is far more engaging than a traditional piece of journalistic reporting or a feature film.


Through practical application and the exploration of cultural reporting and documentary approaches to communication, we will consider questions that surround the interpretation of cultural experience. We will analyze written, audio, video and filmic approaches to documentary in an effort to understand better a significant form of storytelling. Course materials provide important models for cultural studies fieldwork that exemplify the ways in which people struggle to understand and explain the contradictions and instability of contemporary (and historical) cultural life in the United States. We will work from these models to become more skilled at producing our own critical and creative analyses of contemporary life.


There are three central objectives that will guide us through the course: (1) understanding the techniques people use to observe, (2) understanding the aesthetic and structural choices people make to explain what they do, and (3) understanding how challenges and problems continue to reemerge throughout history and the ways in which people attempt to make sense of those challenges and problems.


Required Materials


All course readings are accessible via a password protected web site. You are required to print each day's reading and bring the article with you to class:

Course Assignments


Class participation                                                       10%                 ____(pts.) X .10 = ______


Mid Term Paper (4-6 pages)                                       30%                 ____(pts.) X .30 = ______


Final Paper (4-6 pages)                                               30%                 ____(pts.) X .30 = ______


Quizzes                                                                       30%                 ____(pts.) X .30 = ______


                                                                                                            Final _________________


You are required to complete the reading assignments before you attend class. This will lead to more fruitful discussion.




The Mid Term Paper will be 4-6 double-spaced pages in length. You will be asked to critically examine convergent and divergent approaches to documenting contemporary and historical life via documentary film/video and literary journalism. A detailed description of this assignment can be found in the folder where you access course readings. Submit this paper in hard copy. 


The Final Paper will be 4-6 double-spaced pages in length. You will be asked to critically examine convergent and divergent approaches to documenting contemporary and historical life via audio documentary and documentary photography. A detailed description of this assignment can be found in the folder where you access course readings. Submit this paper via email unless you want written feedback, which would require a hard copy and SASE.


Weekly quizzes will be short answer and will allow me to gauge how well you understand the arguments made in the readings. Unlike your papers and class discussion, where I am interested in your opinions about the issues and the strength of the writer's argument(s), the quizzes are designed for you to state the author's argument only. In other words, I am not striving to understand what you think about the issues; rather, I am interested in how well you understand the construction of the author's argument. If we do not understand what s/he's saying then our critique of her/his work will not be properly grounded. We will also have 2 other small assignments that will count toward your quiz grade: (A) a family interview during our unit on literary journalism and (B) you will be required to make one documentary photograph during our unit on documentary photography (descriptions of both can be found in the folder where you access course reading materials).



Course Policies


Promptness is expected as a general rule. If you are consistently late to class your grade will be negatively affected.


Attendance and Active Participation are expected and required. Participation grades are factored by considering how often you participate in class discussion and how that discussion advances our overall learning (i.e., I will consider how your questions help lead us to a greater understanding of difficult passages, how your contributions further discussion rather than hinder discussion, how your comments foster lively debate, how your participation grows from an engagement with the reading and college experience rather than functioning to advance an autobiographical tale only). In short, I assess participation based on quantity and quality.


You are allowed 1 unexcused absence in this class and 2 absences total if at least 1 of those absences is excused. If you miss more than 2 class sessions, which means you will have missed more than 20% of the term, or if you have more than 1 unexcused absence, then you will receive an "F' for the class. Missing this many class sessions undermines the integrity of the classroom experience. Arriving more than 10 minutes late to class or leaving early will constitute an absence. If you miss this much class because of illness or a family emergency, you should meet with the Dean of Students to discuss withdrawal options.


All assignments are due on assigned days. There will be NO MAKE UPS. Documented illnesses or documented emergencies are the only exception to this policy. Changes in work schedules, personal celebrations (e.g., birthdays), or vacations are NOT considered to be legitimate reasons for missing assignment deadlines or class meetings. If you miss a quiz and have documentation for your absence then you will take the quiz on the next date you attend class. Similarly, if you have an excused absence for a class session when you would turn in a paper then you can give me the paper on the next date you attend class. (Note: If you will be missing a class because of a religious holiday, let me know in writing at least two weeks before the holiday so we can make arrangements to make up missed work.)


Students with disabilities should provide me with documentation from the Office of Students with Disabilities or the PLUS program.


Cellular Phones: If you have a cellular phone or pager, turn it off or set it to vibrate, and keep it in your backpack or purse. All cell phones must be put away during the class session. I will confiscate cellular phones for the remainder of the class session if you are sending or reading text messages or using your phone to check email/surf the Internet.


Written Assignment Requirements: All papers should be typed, double spaced, and use a consistent style (e.g., Chicago, MLA, APA, etc.). Use one-inch margins and 12-point font. Further details on written assignments can be found in a syllabus addendum on writing academic papers.


Contact or visit the Writing Center for assistance with your writing:; or Lincoln Park at 773-325-4272 and The Loop at 312-362-6726.




I have often found that plagiarism becomes tempting if students are feeling pressured. Remember, when in doubt quote. If you are quoting somebody directly then you need to list the information within quotation marks and cite a page number. If you are paraphrasing then you need to cite the person and a page number. Never copy and paste entire documents into your paper and do not quote others to the point where your ideas become indistinguishable from your source's ideas. There is no reason to plagiarize given the resources available to you (e.g., opportunities to meet with me; coaches in the writing center; my handout on writing for the class; and DePaul's policy on academic integrity, which can be found at If you do plagiarize, you will automatically receive a grade of "F" in this class. Moreover, the Academic Affairs office will be contacted.


Grade Scale:

93-100 A, 90-92 A-, 88-89 B+, 83-87 B, 80-82  B-, 78-79  C+, 73-77 C, 70-72  C-, 60-69 D,

0-59 F