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When ‘The Walking Dead’ Earns You Class Credit

May 11, 2017
Plenty of students may feel like they’re in an episode of “The Walking Dead” around finals time, but few have the chance to study the hit TV show for class credit.

Working under the direction of communication faculty Jacob Turner and Lisa Perks, five undergraduate students are helping to research the role race, gender and ethnicity play in the many killings that occur on the popular AMC horror drama.

Students Eric Uhl, Lea Nielsen and Bobby Tolan are conducting quantitative analysis of the show, meticulously documenting each killing and the physical traits of the vanquishers and the vanquished.

Classmates Heather Sciacca and Meghan Sweeney engage in qualitative research, analyzing the role themes such as power and religious symbolism play in the killings.

“We’re taking notes specific to the deaths in each episode,” said Uhl ’19, a business and communication double major from Harwinton, Connecticut. “The victims’ age, their gender, how they died, were they human or zombie — things like that.”

Research on death in television programming is mostly uncharted territory, said Perks, associate professor of communication. She was able to document only one other scholarly analysis on the topic, which only served to pique her interest in the material even more.

“I wanted to see if there were any patterns (in how TV killings were portrayed), and Jake was the perfect person to partner with,” Perks said. “It’s been fascinating.

“Really, we’re looking at a number of different issues surrounding the context of the deaths,” added Turner, associate professor and chair of communication and media. “We’re looking to see what stories come out of that.”

Some of the students, like Tolan, a communication major from Billerica, Massachusetts, got involved in the research because they find the concept of violence in the media fascinating. Others, like Sciacca, were drawn to the project for more practical reasons.

“It was a different experience that allowed me to learn about research methods and think about one of my favorite shows in a totally new way,” Sciacca said. “All in all, I definitely got a ton of experience with note-taking and critical analysis of ‘The Walking Dead’ show, which I think could be useful if I were to analyze other shows and find themes within the episodes.”

The research team hopes to generate at least two scholarly papers, including one on the content analysis and one or two based on the textual analysis of the television series. They hope to present their findings at two different conferences in the coming year.

“All of the students will have three or four themes they will share in a research paper,” Turner said.

The pop culture research is consistent with past research projects for Turner and Perks. Turner’s research often looks at the effects media content such as violence and sexual situations has on viewers. Perks’ research often centers on culture, power and the media, including media “marathoning” and binge-watching television.

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