All entries for Friday 18 May 2007

May 18, 2007

Media Studies Education: Is the field Academically Downgraded?

How Far is it the Case that Media Studies is Downgraded as an Academic Subject?


It is always important for fields of study to be engaging in a self-critical evaluation of what is happening and where the field is going. The common scornful treatment of Media Studies on a continual basis makes it seem like a Cinderella subject. Is this justifiable and if so to what extent? It is no good hiding one's head in the sand and responding that it is just cultural elitism which brings forth this criticism. The issues are whether Media Studies as it is currently engaged with at A level is giving the students the intellectual and content grounding necessary for their development?

Below I have begun to review the history of the castigation of media studies as a 'soft subject' which has been going on for several years. It is noticeable that there is a conflation of Media Studies as a subject area with educational panics as a whole.  That it is very easy to do this is not helped by the fact that media studies chooses much of its content from the world of populist content.

English courses study The Colour Purple in which content raising isssues of race, identity, rights etc combines with narrative structures and use of language to make a heady and challenging mix for the A level student in a cross-cultural way. By comparison media students can be stuck with looking at a couple of articles on Posh & Beck.

The Colour Purple

I would certainly argue that the culture of 'celebrity' linked to consumption in 'late capitalism' is a very important subject. Whilst the likes of Theodor Adorno managed to do remarkable treatments of populist culture this requires a very high degree of sophistication. It is arguable whether AS students have enough of a world view and a historical view, leave alone a sophisticated enough analysis of ideology and discourse to make this a useful exercise particularly as the GCSE curriculum is so de-historicised.


Adorno, above, wrote The Stars Down to Earth, and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture, edited with an excellent introduction by Stephen Crook (Routledge).

Denis Dutton in Philosophy and Literature 19 (1995): 424-30 comments (coincidently rather topically) for example:

Scientology boosts self-esteem largely by giving semi-educated, degreeless persons impressive certificates to hang on their walls, and Adorno is right that there’s a similar syndrome at work with most New Age esoterica, including astrology. (In literary theory, there are no certificates, of course — you just have to learn the jargon.)

One question for media studies to address is what should be studied at what age. The question also arises what is collusion with tools of ideology and what holds sufficient gravitas to provide a deeper levels of analysis? It is I suspect a tension which will of necessity be a part of media studies permanently, the issue then is one of balance. Here I differentiate between popular and populist see Abd Al Malik below. I fear that in recent years one has elided into the other.

French Popular Rapper: Abd Al Malik

As the BBC reports below media also has a task of examining wider cultural phenomenon. Here 'sub-cultures' can be extremely important for they often challenge the status quo in a directly socio-political way. These concerns should be the meat and drink of media studies, as they allow the deeper mechanisms of society to rise to the surface and be discussed.   

Abd Al Malik 1

French rapper of Congolese origin whose background and music embodies the spirit of the festival.

Abd Al Malik at Musiques Metisses

His latest album Gibraltar has already won four awards, including the prestigious Victoire de la Musique. It's an original mix of hip-hop, slam poetry and French philosophy. He sees Gibraltar as the symbolic meeting point of Africa and Europe. "The reason I called it Gibraltar was to use music to try and link our different cultures and people together."

Media Research a High Added Value Unit

I have been vaguely aware that OCR is planning to drop its Critical Research Unit in the forthcoming shake-out and reconfiguration of A2s. This is not only sad - it was my favourite unit - but potentially a step which can lead to a further downgrading of Media Studies in the eyes of highly aspiring students and those Universities which value higher level thinking and theoretical skills. For me the Critical Research Unit has been the saving grace of the OCR specification. It is something which can be used to hang academic credibility on. Research is what makes universities tick and increasingly research plays an important part in the economy of the newtworked society. More and more people are becoming involved in research based occupations. Media research combines the development of intellectual skills by dealing with both methods and methodologies, it also develops practical research skills and provides valuable experience and most importantly of all these are generic skills applicable to a wide range of subject areas, not just media. If one wishes to go down the instrumentalism path and make a vocationalist case then I rather think that there are more people conducting research than there are people being paid a proper income for making videos.

For an A level Student to be able to talk convincingly and enthusiastically about their developing research and research skills on their UCAS form is an important attribute. It is something which neither Cambridge University, Kings College London nor business people apparently sceptical about media can argue with.

For me  a more serious look at what the new specifications offer is a job for the next few weeks as the road shows and the marketing campaigns get under way. What I am certain of is that I shall be looking for the specification which challenges students with the quality of the content that can be worked into the units.  

Should We Focus on Different Content?

I would far rather media studies focus on the essential backgrounds of media history, politics and policy and the best of aesthetics rather than become stuck in the gutter of 'Celebrity' and 'Lifestyle'. Where it does conduct textual analysis let it be on texts which are a little more canonical, or if contemporary, have more content weight in them in the sense that they carry with them a huge cultural weight.

Baghdad 1

As my media students are confused about the difference between Afghanistan and Iraq and there is a British military presence in both, more encouragement to deal with serious News and News programmes might convince the Cambridge Universities of this world that media really does punch above rather than below its weight!

_Kes_ poster. Loach sixties social realism

Arguably to fail to teach about canons is something of a dereliction of cultural duty. Of course what exactly is canonical is another area of necessary tension within the subject area. What might be considered canonical within media studies, that we would expect students to know about? Should it be British social realism or Australian soaps? Where do recent representations of social history such as Vera Drake come in? My concern is that as concepts of 'class' in our 'post-idological society' have temporarily evaporated, that issues of social justice  - which includes issues of representation- have weakened within media studies.

Only the most hidebound of postmodern populists would really seriously argue that Shakespeare or Goethe is of the same cultural value as a bad graphic novel. In reality the cultural populism embedded in media studies seems more of a rationale for the promotion of cultural and creative industries than anything else, and as such can be accused of instrumentalism.  Whether a shift in attitude away from this would win over the insitutions such as Cambridge that have been sceptical about media studies reamains to be seen, however, it would satisfy many others who consider that the academic content of the subject is weak. 

Another concern is, why doesn't media studies attract those students who are studying European languages? The specifications are often extremely weak and tokenistic when it comes to dealing with the rest of Europe.  Despite doubts about the capabilities of students to sit through films with subtitles I have found that many students can become very interested if the content is appropriate. For 'Women and Film' I usually show Lucas Moodysson's Lilya 4Ever. This is a tough film but student's appreciate being treated like adults occasionally. As well as realism, and the condition of women, it gives the opportunity to discuss the political economy of 'Shock Therapy' devised and developed by this year's Reith lecturer Jeffrey Sachs. Sachs may have changed his position but at the time the programme was designed to destroy the Soviet System of social justice in the name of Neo-liberalism. The old, the weak and the poor are still suffering the fall out. This film can also easily be linked to a theme under the Contemporary British Cinema Unit on Globalisation & Diaspora (Last Resort, Dirty Pretty Things, Ghosts). Trust them, the students will respond! 

Media Cast as a "Soft subject" 

Currently Cambridge University has clearly come out against recognising Media as a 'proper A level'. This is often taken as an act of elitism and dismissed out of hand.  More worrying is the attitude of King's College in London Film Studies Department which is examined more closely below. It is encouraging that Oxford University has finally taken a more sensible line as the Independent reported in August 2006:

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It proclaims the ambition to "break down the barriers of incomprehension and mistrust", which have defined relations between journalism and academia.

However journalism isn't Media Studies, journalists work within in the media but media is bigger than that and this article does tend to conflate the two.  A quick look at the web site of the Institute also shows that this is a seriously heavyweight research institute whic targets issues of international politics and the economy. In other words it focuses upon the big issues of life, not soap operas and the culture of celebity, lifestyle journalism and other populist fare. It is not as the Independent article seems to imply a nod in the direction of Media Studies. 

Even Film Studies Courses Take a Sceptical View of the Value of A Level Media 

At King's College London Department of Film Studies it is noticeable that on their current list of preferred A levels Media is excluded. This is especially worrying because they set themselves up as a theoretical department. It is not a department which can in anyway be described as elitist in the sense in which one might be tempted -mistakenly in my opinion - to write off Cambridge. Recent professorial recruitment includes Richard Dyer (favourite films here)  and Ginette Vincendeau (favourite films here) who have written a lot about various aspects of popular cinema and whose thinking A level media teachers and lecturers will be familiar with.

Entry Requirements

A/AS-levels: 3 A levels & 1 AS level (ABB/pass)

Compulsory subjects: A-level English (Literature or Language).
Preferred other subjects: Film Studies, History, History of Art, Modern Languages, Classics.

When I discovered this list of preferred A levels on their departmental website I emailed the department and got back a very polite response from Ginette Vincendeau explaining that whilst they were prepared to consider students with a media A level a large proportion of these students wanted to go and make films which wasn't a part of what King's College was offering. King's has recently strengthened its department, obviously  to be in a position to get a higher research rating and appeal to more aspirant students.

On my reading of the situation the fact that they accept History as a preferred A level over Media is a very clear message to Media studies across the board. The academic content on offer isn't up to speed!  Given that the OCR Media syllabus has a lot of opportunity to cover film studies this is a worrying development.

Raising Student Aspirations and Confidence in Media Studies 

I for one want my students to be able to aspire to the most well regarded Universities and it would appear that Media Studies is regarded as a weak subject by many of  these same Universities. Students rapidly get to hear of this; certainly in my previous post, which involved History teaching alongside some media, many of my tutor group would apologise and ask whether Media studies is considered by Universities as a 'legitimate' subject. This is a small amount of anecdotal evidence of course, but nevertheless it points up the danger that Media Studies is in continuous danger of appealing to those erroneously classified as "Less able". The whole principle of 'mixed ability' is that the creation of an aspirant cultural milieu will create a 'highest common factor' effect. Currently there is seemingly a danger of a 'lowest common denominator' effect. If my students can discuss the representation  globalisation and diaspora in contemporary British cinema at an interview then I shall feel I've done a good job in term's of readying them for the rigours of undergraduate life in hard to get to universities.

Grasping the Nettle 

Failure to grasp this nettle of content and deal with it will deem Media Studies to being permanently seen as a second rate A level when in fact it should be seen as a premium A level. This is because it should be proud of its interdisciplinarity. There is no doubt in my mind that it can be this, but I think it will require a different approach to be taken within the new specifications. Hopefully these issues will be being taken on board by the exam boards as a whole. Furthermore the QCA should be having a more important role because if Media is not being taken seriously at the highest levels of Academia we need to know why. As plenty of Oxbridge graduates enter the media industries in one way or another and the role of media in all sorts of spheres can hardly be denied, it is high time this 'second-rateness' was sorted out. Having an exam system where some subject areas are more equal than others is fundamently unsatisfactory. Here the Guardian report on business leaders attitudes in 2005: leaders were warning that universities need to encourage students to take "hard" subjects such as maths and foreign languages. There were currently shortfalls in the workforce because so many pupils now chose "soft" subjects, such as psychology and media, they said.

Universities themselves appear to believe this according to the Times in 2006:

Leading universities are warning teenagers that they will not gain admission if they study “soft” A levels in the sixth form.

The universities are insisting that pupils take traditional subjects if they want to be considered for degree courses. Those applying with A levels in subjects such as media studies or health and social care would rule themselves out.

The Daily Telgraph reports on the Cambridge attitude in 2006:

Cambridge University says students should study those subjects if they want to be a "realistic applicant" for its courses.

It has listed a string of A-levels on its website that it considers "less effective" preparation for entry.

The list includes subjects such as media studies, health and social care, performing arts, accounting and business studies.

The BBC also gave a similar report

There is a history of this problem as the NUT website of 2003 shows. 

Media Studies and Moral Panics in Education

Media Studies is often used as the prime example of a general decline in educational standards. The BBC has a useful page written by John Ellis analysing the press coverage of Media Studies and exposing the myths of this coverage:  

Why is Media Studies so handy as a self-evident sign of the decline in standards?

Mainly because the media are exactly that: self-evident. Entertainment, journalism, the internet appear to have no mystery about them because we use them every day.

But when you try to make a film, write an article or design an effective website, you begin to see how much skill is involved, both in making the stuff and equally in understanding how we understand it. Media Studies aim to reveal those skills underlying what we take for granted.

Unfortunately the subject examines journalism as a medium, and that makes journalists uncomfortable.

For in depth analysis discussing the construction of these panics in educational standards also see the research article from BERA.

Being Proactive on the Content

The emphasis on populist content apparent in the specification arguably can lull Media teachers into becoming complacent about the content knowledge and non-media specific analytical skills levels of their students. This tendency to pick the populist aspects of media largely eschewing the historical and political importance of media is clearly a concern of many people outside of the field. We can content ourselves with the thought that actually our students are very competent at reading intertextual references between soap operas / celebrity stories whilst ignoring the issue of who actually cares? But is this the situation we actually want?

Interestingly most of my students hate textual analysis options such as 'Celebrity and Newspapers' and 'Lifestyle magazines'. Over time I have gained a sense that if confronted with serious content students will take it seriously; certainly watching Ghosts and The Road to Guantanamo recently seemed to affect many students. Several were disappointed when I had to leave Ghosts unfinished as we only had time to do extracts in the British cinema half unit.


I shall be interested to hear other views and of people's other experiences on this issue of content. As far as I'm concerned we have a duty linked into concepts of global citizenship to provide more challenging content where possible, otherwise we leave ourselves open to accusations of collusion with populist taste manufactured by the middle classes for consumption by the lower orders. We also have a duty to raise current issues about media within the media, whether it is to do with Alan Johnson in Gaza or the worrying developments of Thompson taking over Reuters threatening the underlying news values:

Reuters’ editorial principles of integrity, independence and freedom from bias are world renowned. Those principles are guaranteed by the structure of the business - which prohibits any individual from owning 15 per cent or more of the company. That prohibition is being waved for the Thomson family, which will end up owning 53 per cent of the enlarged business.

With things changing so rapidly in the world of media as well as the world in general it seems to be important for media exams to be able to be bang up to date. Perhaps we should incorporate an exam where students go on the internet and research important media stories and write them up in a given period of time.  This would improve many skills and be a fun exam as well which is inherently dynamic. Let's use the media to examine the media and examine that research and reporting set of skills. there are lots of possibilities.

Always Historicise

It is ironical that the OCR history specification has had an option to do history of the media when this option isn't a core part of the media studies specification. As the influential critic Frederic Jameson has argued, it is always important to historicise yet this is ignored in the current OCR specification. 

Currently many student's concept of history is so bad that the begining of the Iraq war seems like ancient history. Their knowledge about events in the world is so weak that a few days ago one A2 student after seeing an extract of The Road to Guantanamo and being horrified by the inhumane and unjust treatment  of the detainees spontaneously burst out "Can't the police stop it!"  This is a sad crie de coeur from somebody about to enter into a university or HE course somewhere. Her lack of understanding of the world is at least partially our responsibility. Being involved in the world of Media should be as much a social science involving, policy, history and social research as it is a part of English which is the current default setting.

The Road to Guantanamo

There are of course possibilities to work in important issues to particular units, but it is something which must be worked at and joined up thinking isn't encouraged by the current specification. More attention to the wider issues which media is inevitably embroiled in should be one of our objectives as media teachers.  

Conclusion:Developing Dynamic Content

Of course it takes time and a lot of energy to develop contemporary resources but a task of Media Studies is to be responding to the changing world. By definition the content we deal with is more dynamic than most other subjects. Added to this technologies and delivery platforms and regulatory systems are subject to change. We can't all be experts in everything. For small media teams this puts extra strain on.  

Lecturing and teaching in the media field can be made much easier by sharing our resources and ideas in a networked way. Hopefully as we all get more familiar with the blogsphere we should be able to have nationally networked freely available continuously updated resources by working in parallel across the net. Hopefully those of you who visit this blog will use the resources and develop your own. Developing links and feeds is a media project in its own right and one which we can all contribute to and help establish our interdisciplinary subject area as one which has its finger on the pulse of change.  


Independent "What is the Point"

Guardian on business leaders attitudes in 2005 

Times on Media Studies 2006

BERA report on the construction of political and media panics over education

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