Tuesday, 5 November 2013

This is the news!

Wow. Four days since I last blogged. Back then I was young, naive and optimistic. The world was an exciting place and possibilities were endless. I was leaner and lighter, the lines etched on my face weren't so deep. Now, older and not necessarily wiser, the horizons have narrowed and death is that bit closer.

Still, at least the teaching keeps me in touch with the world of 'the youth', though the first-years fresh from school were born while I was studying(ish) for my first degree and the cultural gap widens rapidly. It's fascinating seeing what they know of the 90s: they recognise but don't watch The Simpsons, whereas Friends is widely watched still, though to me it looks impossibly dated (and I hated it back in the day too). I guess I watched some 70s comedy in the 90s: To The Manor Born, Yes, Minister, The Good Life and several others, though not always by choice. With one TV in the house, we watched whatever my parents or grandparents wanted. Though I still adore Yes Minister.

My students watch remarkably little TV, and rarely on an actual television: they have access to so much programming without the constraints of technology or time. In some ways it's liberating: the past is as immediate as the present, though without the context it means something different. In other ways, the dislocation is disorienting. For instance, most of my students have never heard of BBC Radio stations 2, 3, 4 or 6, and tend not to listen to 1 or 5 unless they're football fans. BBC TV 2 and 4 may as well not exist, and channels themselves mean relatively little: it's programmes that matter. They never read newspapers other than Metro on the bus, and have never watched a news broadcast. I discovered this when lecturing about genre the other day. In the course of explaining the characteristics of a news programme, I played this opening clip, expecting laughter:

Laughter came there none: not having ever seen a real news broadcast, with its portentous music, pompous graphics and demanding editing, they didn't realise that this was a parody, and assumed it was news.

This isn't their fault, of course: contemporary news broadcasts make The Day Today ('bagpiping fact into news') seem less parodic than prophetic. Plus, most of them are young and I'm acutely aware that being a teenage news junkie made me less than normal. It's tempting to dismiss them as ignorant and incurious about the outside world, but wrong: they do have concerns, but aren't well-served by news media (especially outlets aimed at young people) and don't have the social and cultural capital to make news relevant. News happens elsewhere and features the activities of other people. My students are on the receiving end of political activity, but their disenfranchisement is so complete that knowledge, in their case, isn't power. Or so it seems, anyway. The media economy isn't really set up to engage the young masses anyway: in a world of corporate power, reducing citizens to passive consumers is pretty much the game plan. Why give them the means to hold power to account when you can distract them with the opium of the people, whether that's religion or Angry Birds?

It is frustrating: I'm always trying to encourage them to read newspapers, watch the news or engage with the world outside home and the university, but the immediate rewards are pretty low, frankly. It's partly a regional and class thing: while the children of privilege in élite universities are being trained to rule, it's hard to persuade my students that they too are equal citizens with a valid voice: because however much I'd like it to be true, it definitely isn't: they don't have the social capital to succeed en masse in a competitive society. That's why I see education as an act of civil resistance. We could do the empowering thing like an intellectual Oprah, or we can flag the inequalities inherent in the system to rile them up. I try both at different times, but it's hard to beat generations of internalised acquiescence.


Oldgirlatuni said...

I couldn't agree with this more. I have a constant battle with students about newspapers - I think that if they're studying law then they should be aware of what all sides of the political spectrum are saying about the issues surrounding the subject that they study, and the industry in which they're hoping to work. They don't see the point - they think that they find out enough from twitter and other social media.

What worries me is that a lot of them have no conception that anyone is any different from them. They have some preconceived idea that everyone is as intelligent or well-informed as are they, and that consequently the law as a tool is as available to the general public as it is to these privileged young people. I tell them to watch one episode (which is quite enough) of Jeremy Kyle. Those who do, change their minds. Slightly.

At the end of the academic year, if I've encouraged one student to read some news reporting, then I think I've done well.

I don't think it's enough for law students to learn about the law as a discrete discipline, I believe that they need to have a damn good awareness about the society in which they're likely to be practising that law.

David said...

What a good writer you are @PlashingVole. I can’t wait to read your book and you must write one soon!

With regards to your point in the blog “This is the news!” and tweet “Why aren't my students watching or reading the news?” I’m inclined to disagree. I’m strongly of the opinion that we all read too many newspapers and consume too much news already and if your students are refusing to quaff what passes as news I say ‘good for them’.

Let me explain. I live and toil in world light-years from ivory towers and academia. Many, if not most, of the people I rub shoulders with devour newspapers and news-programmes day after day; from morning ‘till night. Chatting to them is like talking to a newspaper (albeit of the popular variety). You can guarantee that whatever tomorrow’s top story is the folk in the pub and in the post office queue will be sure to be talking about it. And like yesterday’s newspaper, the topic of last week or even yesterday will be forgotten and will have evaporated away like early morning mist.

Many years ago I did a course on Popular Culture with Anthony Easthope and I remember him asking the class about a random topical subject (say capital punishment or nuclear disarmament) and after a brief discussion he went round the class and asked us individually where we had got our data from. Was it from books, TV programmes, newspapers, magazines or the radio etc? It transpired that almost all the students had got their ‘facts’ from newspapers and television. It was quite a revelation for me and from that day on I decided to use libraries and books to research topics that interested me and to check so-called facts in the media.

I’ve since found and believe that newspapers (and other hot media) help shape the common sense beliefs that are so prevalent in the unlettered citizens on the street and in the crowd.

Jason D Jawando said...

David makes a fair point, but the problem he highlights is one of degree: if relying on newspapers or TV gives a one-sided perspective, the answer is not to stop reading newspapers or watching TV, but to add to those things. The students of today make the same mistakes, but more so: rather than relying on a narrow range of sources, they are relying on a very narrow range.

I recently observed an English lesson in a school. The students had been asked to bring in an advert taken from a newspaper so they could identify the use of persuasive language. During the lesson it struck me that one aim of this exercise training students to identify persuasive language so they are less likely to be manipulated. I was also interested to see which publications the adverts had been taken from, imagining that less literate households would read The Sun or Daily Star; after the lesson, the teacher told me that for a lot of the children in the class it had been a struggle to get anything: the less literate households simply don't have any newspapers at all.

It is difficult to think of all of this and not feel like a reactionary middle-aged fogey (which I guess I am) and/or profoundly depressed about the future. I'm not sure what the answer is, but it isn't discouraging people from reading newspapers.

Jake said...

Just an idle thought here, but you might try rephrasing the question slightly; your students might not sit down and read an entire newspaper, I suspect that some of them are nevertheless reading a lot of news articles. Word-of-mouth -or rather word-of-keyboard these days- can be a lot more effective for giving you a broad view than making do with one or two newspapers.

Some places, like Reddit or the more passionate political bloggers, have even started doing their own investigative journalism seeing as the people theoretically doing it for a living appear to be asleep at the wheel.

Oh, and I'm not the least bit surprised none of your students listen to the radio or watch TV much these days; I left my telly in my old room when I left for uni a decade ago and haven't owned one since. The number of channels has gone through the roof in the last twenty years but the amount of worthwhile programming has stayed pretty static. And Radio 1 stopped being relevant years ago; it's almost as creatively bankrupt as the allegedly-local commercial stations these days.

The Plashing Vole said...

Jake - you're right. I do need to re-think my perspective. New media means that they are reading articles, but have dumped loyalty to or even any recognition of channels and newspapers entirely. It's more 'have you seen this?' than seeking out a particular outlet. SO they get a much wider spread of ideas and events, but don't necessarily recognise the outlet's framework.