Professor Elise Assaf on the Fundamentals of Research: Enthusiasm, Engagement, Execution

By: Vanessa Vuong, Maddy Monroy, and Niko Morales 

Professor Assaf works in the department of Communications at California State University of Fullerton. We asked her questions regarding her writing process behind her dissertation, Hidden Power: Journalistic Representations of Mental Health Labels.

Elise Anguizola Assaf | Department of Communications | Cal State Fullerton  - Department of Communications | CSUF

Professor Assaf explained that a big catalyst that inspired her research was her brother and his schizophrenia diagnosis. While it isn’t a mental health diagnosis like depression or anxiety, schizophrenia still came with similar negative stereotypes. Assaf explains,

“There were a lot of stereotypes that were communicated to me. People would question, ‘Oh is he dangerous?’, ’Is he violent?’ … In my mind, it was like, ‘Where are these [stereotypes] coming from?’ And why do people have these assumptions, because they are very far from the truth.”

Professor Elise Assaf

Assaf was also inspired personally by the increase of mental health becoming a more prevalent problem in the college setting. She recalled a specific article from the Daily Titan about test anxiety and witnessing it herself through her students. 

Assaf mentions that she wishes she had included more of this information about what inspired her in the positionality statement of her publication. A positionality statement is a part of qualitative studies where you explain what inspired your research, your perspective, and any other biases you may have related to the research. However, with this particular study, Assaf had an advising team that helped her decide what she should include. During the time of the publication Assaf was working towards tenure and Assaf and her advisors decided that including too much information about her personal mental health diagnoses could potentially harm her chances of getting a tenure (especially based on what the research was studying).

Because of her career in public relations, education in mass communications, and disability studies, as well as personal experiences with mental health stereotypes— she demonstrates the importance of picking a topic that interests you. However, she also warns that a challenging part of choosing a topic you like is ensuring it is not only interesting, but that it also provides an opportunity for advancing the field with your own studies, or,  “growing the research that is already out there” as Assaf puts it.

Professor Assaf’s Rules of Thumb

Assaf explained narrowing down her publications proved to be one of the most challenging parts behind her research process. A personal rule of thumb Assaf follows is finding publications that are similar in their consistency, size, and importance to the subject being discussed. One might find difficulty comparing a short publication to a longer one as short ones are more condensed. Assaf found the top ten articles in the U.S. surrounding her subject of research and picked her sources from those based on their relevance, importance, and length. The importance of staying neutral and being aware of any conflicts of interest is crucial as well. Assaf explained that a woman from her dissertation committee had a husband who worked for the L.A. Times, and it prevented her from using them as a source. She recommended that it is important to go into the writing process knowing what your research goal is and having an idea on what topics you will compare, as doing such is the key to writing an in-depth, intellectual piece.

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Her Own Work

We asked Professor Assaf about her personal thoughts on her dissertation and whether or not she wished to condense it or hoped to expand upon it. Assaf explained that her dissertation is more of a broad publication that she has been able to submit fragments of to various areas. She recalled being told to write something that she could pull about two to three sources from. The dissertation she wrote had to be a bit longer as she explained that proving her knowledge on the subject itself was the most important part, as there was not a lot of current or past research on the topic. Her goal was to get at least a conference paper or journal article out of the dissertation; after publication, her dissertation was picked for a conference discussion, and a piece of it was submitted for a chapter of a book being written by a professor. 

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Bridging the Gap

In building the foundations for forming productive conversation on research, Professor Assaf illuminates the importance of providing context for the intended audience, explaining that “it was something I specifically worked on” in regards to her own dissertation on mental health. Pertaining to the research that she conducts, Professor Asssaf mentions that it is targeted towards those that produce content, such as reporters, and therefore it is her responsibility to ensure that the content she writes can be reproduced in an easily digestible form by the general public. Essentially, because reporters are communicating her research on widely discussed topics like mental health in mass media channels, it is necessary to make the information as accessible as possible so that societal changes and perceptions can be positively affected. 

Paramount to research as a whole, Professor Assaf further highlights the process of disseminating content and always holding in consideration to whom the information will be received by: at a conference, for publication, to journalists, and above all, “knowing who my target audience is” so that she can present it “in a format that makes sense for the group I’m reaching out to.” For Professor Assaf, she aims to address groups such as advocates for mental health, and focuses upon adjusting the language to make the biggest impact within communities. 

Reinventing Research

Because research is a saturated field of varying perspectives and analyses, we brought up our concerns for “double-dipping” or being repetitive in putting together our own research. Responding to these inquiries, Professor Assaf stated that in this industry, you must be “cognizant” of becoming “pigeon-holed…or in your echo chamber of what you expect to find within research.” To do so, researchers should always consider alternate perspectives, and avoid leaning into established biases and expectations for the subject areas that they explore. Assaf advises us to stay current and aware of the information circulating on our topic, so that we can consider all points of discussion.

Moreover, when working with sources, Professor Assaf states it is imperative to, “look at other research as the building blocks to your study.”

Professor Elise Assaf

In doing so, one can find where there is a lack of research, and formulate their studies based on those guidelines instead of regurgitating information; essentially, we are filling in the gaps. Assaf also reassures us that it can take time to uncover where there are unsupported ideas, and to find what research hasn’t been done, while simultaneously being cautious about redundancy. A method of implementing this involves “tak[ing] a study that was done a decade ago, two decades ago, and…apply[ing] it again to see if that is still accurate or if things have changed,” and in that way, “you could potentially be looking at the same thing, but seeing if it’s still a current finding.” 

Ultimately, Professor Assaf encourages us as researchers to find topics we’re interested in, invested, and passionate about, and to be realistic about executing our research based on our timeline, the intended target audience, and within the parameters given to us.

Effects of Humorous Heroes and Villians in Violent Action Films

By Fynn Chester, Juan Pablo Sepulveda, Andrew Gutierrez, Jacob Ishikawa

Dr. Cynthia King

We conducted an interview with Dr. Cynthia King, a very well known professor of Communications at California State University, Fullerton. The Interview was based off of one of her publications called the Effects of Humorous Heroes and Villains in Violent Action Films.

Dr. King worked in a media violence research field prior to conducting this study. While working on media violence, she then took a course to elaborate on humor theory. The similarities between the two intrigued her enough that she combined the two during this study. During this time, however, there were movies coming out such as Pulp Fiction, and one liner Arnold Schwarzenegger movies where violence was at the forefront, but humor was a close second. Dr. King decided to research the effects that humor plays in these violent, and sometimes grotesque, action films. King goes on to describe how her curiosity was what attracted her to the topic and how presenting this to some of her classes gives students an understanding of the commitment, curiosity, and thinking process one must have as a research professional.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Dr. King describes how the background information is based on what we already know. Reviewing articles, other studies, and using key information to obtain a plethora of knowledge and information as the cornerstone of your research. King describes how you may already find an answer to a question you’re thinking about using as a hypothesis altogether and your understanding of the question at hand may be resolved before starting. By using this information to your advantage, you can refine and redetermine your hypothesis in a more quality manner. King studied how humor and violence wasn’t a new theory and that her previous knowledge on the topics had been short stemmed. Learning to love the process of examining an entire history of feelings and emotions among certain aspects of life. Designing a study that is well rounded is key and the goal of all researchers and publishers. Then having others review your research and study and giving you very helpful feedback, even about information that you may have already seen and adapted into your study. King compares her study to mystery movies and foreshadowing. A good mystery movie will leave you at the end looking back and saying you already had the answers, and you just had to finish the movie to see it. A bad mystery movie will leave you with open ended questions that have no result from the movie itself. The study should come to an answer at the end, whether it is negative or positive, but it shouldn’t end in more questions.

Dr. King states that her study was completely experimental, which allowed her to manipulate whichever part of the process she’d like. A survey, King says, is really only correlational, and cannot create causality. Taking films and editing the movie to have no humor at all allows for the manipulation in her survey, which resulted in varying answers for her study. The main difference between the control groups was that each viewed a different version of the same movie because of the editing. One control group viewed a movie which had been edited to show no humor for the hero, another was edited to show no humor for the villain. These manipulations created vast differences in the outcomes of how the viewer interpreted the film. In the bigger picture, the study aims to show what the effects on society may be, and that maybe violence mixed with humor can desensitize something that is wrong or not seen in everyday life. The true test of the experiment came after the movie when Dr. King had the control groups watch short videos of actual violence. King played two videos, one of the show Cops, where a squad car pulls up to two men in a violent altercation, and another video from Face of Death, a video compilation of people being hurt or hurting themselves.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day 1991

Villain humor made the movie more distressing for all viewers, and hero humor made the movie less distressing only for men. Women still had the distressing factor to the movie based on the perception of the movie. Also, finding a film that not everyone had seen was key to the experiment, because bias did not want to be included if participants had viewed a film before. The implication of using humor in violence actually may have worked better because it can make people view it in a more materialistic view. The idea that humorous cues in violent films indicates that whatever is being watched is “just a movie” and not reality allowed audiences to enjoy and appreciate the films.. The second aspect of the study showcases actual violence, but without any humor at all, because it is real life. Without humorous cues to precede the violence, audience reactions were different than expected. Being able to decipher the media research that happens and the effects it can have on populations was of utmost importance.

At the time the experiment was conducted, technology and programs were still in their infancy, so paper and pencil were the instruments used. While inputting the results and coding the participants to have statistical analysis is difficult, it used to be much harder due to the lack of technology at the time. The brainstorming and designing of the study will take much more time to prepare then actually putting it into action.

In Dr. King’s experience with film editing, it became much harder to actually learn a completely different skill just to be able to conduct a study. Without the technology to “point and click”, it was tedious and difficult and the study took quite some time to complete in full. In total, the experiment took one year from start to finish. Dr. King states she had a great, sometimes frustrating, experience. King found a new love for video editing, considering she had never edited film before. King also had to build her own code to gather the statistics. It was an experience that allowed her to grow as a person, instructor, and doctor.

If one is to take anything from this interview, it should be that perseverance and understanding should be at the forefront of one’s goals during an experiment. There will be times when one cannot fathom moving forward, finishing a task, gathering the right partners, or building an experiment…but if the motivation and determination is there, one can endure. Create, learn, and share. That is the true nature of experimentation.