When media studies entered the Universities in Norway, for some reason it was approached as a practical subject. To understand the media we had to learn to produce something. We made bad movies exploring suspense, cutting techniques and directions in conveying movement, we wrote journalistic articles and we ran around with recorders for radio programs. All of this within the confines of the University, the tower of theory.
The idea of media studies as a practical subject was possible to adjust to the confines of theoretical academia until we did our main thesis - hovedfag, today the master's thesis. Here the formal requirements were however so strong and so thorough that there was no more room. For anybody to pass you had to meet the formal requirements, do the thesis as well as anybody else who chose not to have a practical production as part of their work, and at the same time produce the work. It was - and is - a course for those too stubborn or too stupid to make the clever choice. Somebody like me.
This problem is still very present in media education at the higher levels. At the level I teach it's not as problematic, because we have developed systems to test for many different types of skills. A student who makes great productions and can talk about it will be rewarded at one exam, while the student who is more theoretically minded will be rewarded at the next. This way it's also easier for the students to emphasise one or the other side of their skill, and they don't have to show it all in one big thesis.
For the master students at the universities this is still a problem though. There is and can't be such a controlled system for testing their skills, because the final production/thesis is still close to all important.
In the years that have passed since 1990, when I finished my main subject, I have encountered this problem over and over again. Students need advice on how to write a practice-oriented thesis, and assessors need to learn how to assess them. The advice I would like to try out is not nice, friendly and all-understanding though. Quite the opposite: It's strict, demands a lot of discipline from the students and imposes guidelines and rules on the assessors. It also begins and ends with theory. On the upside: It is based on the experiment, which is very much an accepted academic discipline.
1) A very firm and strict topic for the subject, embedded in theory.
2) Clear methodology for self-observation, with heavy emphasis on reflexivity and the discipline of the research log.
3) Continuous logging of the process of the project, including decisions, problems and alternatives which have been rejected.
4) A presentation of the finished product, to an audience of for instance other students or a group of the target audience. I insist on this even if the chosen theory might not point towards audience research. Showing and being criticised can help achieving the necessary analytical distance to your baby, the produced material.
5) A written description of the product, short and to the point.
6) A return to theory: applying it again on the product as it now exists, going back to point 1 to see what happened to the original research questions.
7) Accepting that "no, that was not a good way to apply this theory" or "no, that didn't work at all" is a perfectly good answer, as long as it is clear what lead to this conclusion. Don't try to save the work by throwing in some theory or ideas you never thought of in advance, unless it really and very clearly explains what happened. This had better be good to be worth it!
A problem with this kind of advice is however that the students who want to do practical productions are like I was/am - they want to see something practical, something real, from their work. Those students don't like theory. And to work well, this kind of practical/theoretical work needs to depend on a very clear understanding of theory as well as an extremely sharp analytical eye. The challenge is huge, but the students should not be able to get away with second rate work just because it's such a large body of work. We really need to learn how to scale these productions in a way that makes the high demands to a good practical/theoretical production realistic.