Monday, 27 February 2012

Defending the university, defending Media Studies

As you may know, my job is split between the departments of English and Media, Cultural Studies and Communications. There's some natural crossover: Cultural Studies was informed by and revivified literary criticism, but Media Studies is a discrete academic field.

I should confess that I'm not garlanded with Media Studies qualifications: I started teaching in the department because a long-departed course leader spotted me reading the Guardian (another crucial role that paper has played in my life) in the post-graduate office and asked me if I read a newspaper often. When I replied in the affirmative, he offered me some teaching work. Twelve years later I'm still here - and still in temporary employment.

So I'm naturally disposed to defend both my subjects against the unthinking slights of the snobs. English has only been in existence since the 1920s, and had to fight hard to be taken seriously. I was therefore very cheered by Stefan Collini's piece in the Guardian defending the cultural role of higher education.

He first evoked a dystopian vision of universities reduced to churning out obedient worker bees for business:
Take one job centre. Add several apprenticeship programmes. Combine with an industrial lab (fold in a medical research centre for extra flavour). Throw in some subsidised gigs and a large dollop of cheap beer. Don't stir too much. Decorate with a forward-looking logo. And hey presto! – you've got a university.
In our case of course, there's no cheap beer and no gigs: the SU went bust many years ago and now functions largely as a wing of the university's PR department. But we are resisting the emplyability-discourse to some extent. (Not that I don't think students should be employable, but it's our job to produce the critical, creative thinkers who'll transform society, not manufacture drones according to the demands of economic drivers who've demonstrated their profound inability to understand either industry - cf business and new media) or the economy (banks, ratings agencies, politicians - all thought that everything was going swimmingly until, well, it wasn't).

Universities are failing to some extent, he says:
From anecdotal evidence (especially conversations among parents of university students), it may seem that the major systemic failing is the paucity of individual attention that students receive in many universities – seminar sizes are too big and tutorial hours too few.
I think he's right: my siblings who went to Cambridge got individual tutorials every week, as well as lectures and presumably seminars. They also had to write an essay for every tutorial. It's an expensive system, but a good one: my siblings also got money and resources thrown at them, which they felt was their right because they'd got to the top of the tree. I don't begrudge them that, but do feel that they got there by attending very famous private schools rather than solely by individual toil (I went to a mix of state and private schools and put almost no effort in to anything). I look at my students and feel that they're the ones who need all this academic and financial support: they've been to big state schools, they've overcome all sorts of hurdles, they've often beaten the racial disadvantages built into the system, they often have to work long hours and look after their families, they've not accessed family and cultural networks to enhance their formal educations, and yet they're the ones who have reduced contact hours, large classes and poor resources.

One of my private educational fantasies is importing the NFL (American Football) draft system, in which the 'poorest' teams get first pick of the best debutants. At the moment, the elite universities massively disproportionately favour the privately-educated: teaching them must be a doddle. But if the Russell Group universities are so great, they can surely cope with The Hegemon's disadvantaged students? So let's do a swap. We'll take the 5A* Etonians and they can take our inner-city kids and working parents. Their traditional intake should thrive despite our limitations, and our usual intake should blossom with the intensive attention afforded them at Oxbridge (actually, research shows that comprehensively-educated students do better at university: they've used to relying on their own resources without constant support). OK, a couple of Grade-I listed buildings might have to be turned into crèches rather than film-sets and the Bullingdon Club might have to turn from vintage claret to Carling, but I'm sure they'll cope.

Anyway, the Collini article has lots of good things to say, but amongst them is this:
It is worth emphasising, in the face of routine dismissals by snobbish commentators, that many of these courses may be intellectually fruitful as well as practical: media studies are often singled out as being the most egregiously valueless, yet there can be few forces in modern societies so obviously in need of more systematic and disinterested understanding than the media themselves.
I'm listening to the Leveson Inquiry this morning. It's exposing the extent to which certain sections of the media have coarsened, cheapened and corrupted public life in the pursuit of power and profit. Whenever I hear anyone attack media studies (family, friends, Daily Mail readers), I point out that we're all swimming in media now: the papers we read, the TV we watch, the search engines we use, the blogs on which we rant, the Tweets we dispatch, the censorship to which we assent and object: all these are media studies. The ways in which media are framed and the ways we use them, understand them and interpret them - they're all media studies (the same applies to English). We even run a module called Media Ethics - from the perspective of owners, politicians, journalists and - often overlooked - readers. 

Any parent worried about what their kids are up to on the net, from grooming to Anonymous, should sign up for a Media Studies course immediately. There's nothing more important or more complicated than our relationship with media, whether that's a sonnet or a soap opera.

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