I have been thinking about Media Studies, I have been thinking about the name, the content and the style. I have been planning lessons, trying to introduce students to the value of understanding their media and trying reassure parents that Media Studies is a valid and rigorous subject to study, now that’s tough. The reputation of Media Studies is that it is, not to put it mildly, a joy ride. It’s the bread and circuses of education, it’s the easy subject, the one to offer as a sop to the students who, from now on, will have to stay on until their eighteenth birthday. ‘Give them something easy to do’, is the message that comes from any number of enrollment interviews and the clever students, the ones who are rigorous, the ones headed for the Russell Group universities with the A stars, it’s not for them, they should not waste their time on such a subject, watching the TV, studying film, what nonsense! No one could possibly take this subject seriously – and yet, and yet we study narrative theory, cultural theory, semiotics and all the associated terminology is applied. In six months my students learn to analyse images, moving and still, using denote and connote, they identify camera angles, chiaroscuro, mise-en-scene and they learn the connotations of the language. They begin to understand how they are being positioned constantly by media to interpret meanings in a way that it is intended by the producer, and they begin to understand that they have the right to challenge that. They discuss narrative construction from binary to Bettelheim, they investigate character colour and culture. They begin to read the insidiousness of stereotyping, they begin to understand the implications of power and propaganda in media, in short they develop a critique for survival in the modern media dominated environment and yet this is counted as easy and irrelevant.
However, this is not a narrow minded polemic in defense of Media Studies, I have given this some thought, if only as a puzzled teacher who cannot quite understand why a subject that seems to be so important to every aspect of our lives should be treated with such contempt, and as a result fail to attract the most able minds to its critique.
Media Studies does differ in its approach to its subject and maybe that’s where we could start. The syllabus I follow and have followed with two exam boards allows a wide range of choice of texts, it is topic driven. Thus when you teach semiotics – choose what you like to teach it; teach an event – choose what you like to teach it, audience effects, stereotyping, industry issues, choose whatever text you like to teach. As a result the choice of texts is driven by the desire of the course and its leaders to attract students and the desire of the individual teachers to teach what they fancy and thus the level of rigour in critique can vary.
Don’t get me wrong, I think you can teach any text to a serious level of academic understanding, witness my early research on Buffy for a festival lecture, only to find reams of academic discussion on the relationship between Sumerian mythology and the teen vampire slayer, in America they are much less limited, Bryan Singer studied film at the University of Southern California, School of Visual Arts, Scorsese studied film at New York University’s School of Film, to do it you study it, you take it seriously and then it rewards you. That may speak to the vocational element, but since not every student of film since 1966 and before (when Scorsese went} has become an award winning director like Scorsese, safe to assume a fair few are working in other careers and doing very nicely thank you. Behind the industrial aspect is the unrecognised (in this country) plethora of subjects that lend themselves to important cultural research. However perhaps allowing teachers to choose their favourite texts is a mistake. Students are subjected either to Tartovsky and Bunuel too soon, to challenge their perceptions of film making, or treated to the vagaries of fandom as teachers head for the favourite star or film and treat the students to an admiration of Harry Potter or George Clooney.
Would it not be better if the exam boards set the texts?
Nothing too restrictive, just like English – pairings or triplings of text – a choice of ten maybe and once you had chosen your triple you stuck to it examining those texts in detail and guiding students to detailed, rigorous answers in an exam – so for instance:
||coverage of US Presidential inauguration
|Louis Theroux documentary
||coverage of 2011 riots
||Broadsheet and Red Top news
|Local documentary strand
||coverage of the Olympics
|Side by Side
||coverage of the Oscars
||Little Miss Sunshine
You get my drift, none of the above may be at all appropriate but my suggestion is that the topics of semiotics, culture, audience theory, narrative theory, technical evaluation, representation, ideology and industry are applied to specific pre-selected texts, that allows the subject the respectability of rigour and reigns in some of the eccentricities of choice that pander to personal preferences or marketing.
If Media Studies (and personally I think should be renamed Media Criticism) is to survive at all it needs to challenge the assumption that it is easy to do and that means not just challenging the students but challenging the teachers.