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November 22, 2009
Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/nov/22/primary-school-children-media-lessons
This is the title of an article that appeared in today’s Observer by Anushka Asthana, in which I was interviewed on the topic. Until the current ESRC project on ‘mimetic processes’ (i.e. how and why behaviours are imitated), in which I collaborate with several Warwick colleagues, I have not really published much in this area. However, it is an interest that I have nurtured over the years through teaching a variety of courses and lectures here at Warwick, at a summer school in Sweden and a liberal arts college in Germany. I have come to believe that media literacy ought to be introduced at the primary school level in the same spirit as reading, writing and numeracy are normally taught – insofar as they still are!
And what is that ‘spirit’? It’s simply that people should understand as well as possible the means by which they send and receive information. While much of media literacy may be regarded as technologically enhanced versions of traditional literacy and numeracy, there is clearly much more to it that is not normally covered in the traditional courses, especially in terms of the processing of visual and aural information – not to mention the blending of information channels (e.g. fonts as non-neutral displays of writing).
As I said in the interview, I believe that children already develop many of the relevant critical skills spontaneously because of their constant exposure to marketing campaigns, commercial and political advertisements and other forms of public relations through television, the internet, etc. However, the point of school, after all, is to provide systematic training, which means passing on some intellectual tools for dealing with these matters.
An interesting feature of the Observer article is the reaction that Anushka elicited from Cary Bazalgette (former head of education at the British Film Institute) and Tim Bell, one of the masterminds behind Margaret Thatcher’s successful election campaigns in the 1980s and nowadays the PR advisor for Belarus (If nothing else, the man certainly enjoys a challenge!) Bell’s comment was priceless PR spin. Here’s his criticism of my idea:
But Tim Bell, one of the best known figures in the communications industry, said that teaching children how to be critical in this way was a waste of time. Lord Bell added: "What we need are people who are educated and have open minds."
‘Open’, as in an empty vessel – or a blank slate, perhaps?
In any case, the workshops connected to the ESRC project on mimetic behaviours will continue on Monday 14th December. One of the speakers will be one of the UK’s leading social historians of advertising, Liz McFall, from the Open University.
October 08, 2009
The context, you may recall, is that the UK’s new ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) aims to measure research ‘impact’ in ways that appears to favour economic relevance. The Times Higher last week covered my campaign to draft the comedian David Mitchell into membership of a research council because of his wise objections to this proposal. In fact, that issue of the Higher was full of like-minded sentiments.
In this week's Times Higher, Adam Corner, a psychologist at Cardiff, has written in defense of relevance measures, employing two arguments. First:
Their [i.e. mine and others’] arguments are couched in anti-establishment language and position academics as the guardians of truth-seeking. But the golden age of academia they long for was far from a meritocracy where independent inquiry ruled. Their desire to see research prised away from pragmatic objectives risks a return to intellectual elitism.
In response, first it’s worth pointing out that ‘impact’ is being proposed as a replacement of ‘esteem’ in previous research assessment exercises. No more coasting on reputations made twenty years ago! For younger researchers like Corner, this is potentially good news, at least in terms of levelling the playing field of merit. In this context, measurement of ‘impact’ might appear to be a step in the right direction.
But, speaking for myself, whatever intellctual elitism may have existed when academia was essentially a self-appointed club funded by the taxpayers has long disappeared. Certainly ideals of ‘social relevance’ (which Corner himself prefers to ‘economic relevance’) are strongly embedded in today’s academia, which is larger and more diverse than ever in its history – even without explicit steering in specific ‘policy relevant’ directions. The only question is whether academia should be somehow brought more into line with state policy concerns. My answer is no.
Corner then concludes:
we must not forget that the purpose of our research should be the advancement of socially useful knowledge - not simply the satisfaction of our own curiosity.
A false dichotomy often made in this debate. (Actually I hate the word ‘curiosity’: It makes intellectual work sound like a species of attention deficit disorder!) Luckily comedian Mitchell got the right end of the stick, when he observed various research endeavours that appeared pointless in the short term but turned out to be quite relevant and useful in the long term. In other words, the real enemy here is not the fixation on ‘impact’ per se but short-termist thinking about research impact. We need a smarter economics of research that thinks in terms of capital investments, product life cycles and multiplier effects, within which the return on ‘pointless’ research would be obvious and manageable.
September 28, 2009
Writing about web page http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/27/david-mitchell-pointless-studies-survey
Yes, that David Mitchell – the one from the ‘Peep Show’, ‘That Mitchell and Webb Look’ and numerous comedy quiz shows on British radio and television. He’s also a Cambridge history grad and one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the state of higher education today – professional academics and certainly government officials included.
Beneath the title of this blogpost, I have provided a link to an article that appeared in the Observer this past Sunday (where he has a regular column), which takes comic aim at the proposed standard of ‘practical relevance’ put forward by the Research Excellence Framework, which is the successor to the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise.
What’s most interesting about this piece is that Mitchell only has to tweak the straight version of the story a little to produce massive comic effect. Yes, it is pretty st-o-o-o-pid for the public sector to fund mainly research that demonstrates short-term economic and social utility when that would be precisely the sort of research that would most naturally attract private funding. State funding is supposed to make up for – not contribute to – market failure.
Of course, Mitchell overlooks the possibility that, as in the case of the banks, the state is trying to bail out the charities and other private funders, whose coffers have been depleted by the global credit crunch. It’s a stretch, I know. But given the absurdity of the official policy, why shouldn’t its justification be at least as absurd, if not more so?
Mitchell is also spot-on in associating so-called pointless research with a society that thinks beyond sheer animal survival. Indeed, if we can think only in terms of research for the sake of survival, then we should cut out the research middleman altogether and simply focus state funds on implementing solutions that facilitate survival. Surely, if our straits are so dire, we don’t have time for any research whatsoever!
To end on a constructive note, I would like to invite David Mitchell to put himself forward for membership in one of the UK’s publicly funded research councils, probably Arts and Humanities (AHRC) or Economic and Social (ESRC). These are administered by the ominously named Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (of which Higher Education is a subdivision). Here is the website: http://www.dius.gov.uk/science/research_councils/public_appointments/council_members
You will see that openings for these councils will be advertised later in the Autumn. Council members are typically people who do not work in academia but are seen as ‘stakeholders’ in the future of academia. Comedians certainly fit that bill, given their large student market – not to mention the source of much of their funniest material!
Pass the suggestion along: Draft David Mitchell!