Tag Archives: students

Media Melting Pot

file8181298830552I  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.

file5581281481565Don’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:

Newsnight Winter’s Bone coverage of US Presidential inauguration
Louis Theroux documentary Tsotsi coverage of 2011 riots
Panorama Blood Diamond Broadsheet and Red Top news
Local documentary strand Eastenders coverage of the Olympics
Wildlife documentary Submarine Jersey Shore
Side by Side Restrepo coverage of the Oscars
Cosmopolitan/Vanity Fair Little Miss Sunshine Coronation Street

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.

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The Tablets Must Be Crazy!

Click on the image to go to OLPC Flickr photo stream

Anyone remember The God’s Must Be Crazy? It was a fabulous film which started almost as a travelogue, describing urban Johannesburg and then juxtaposing that against the tribesman of the Kalahari desert. One tribesman receives an empty Coca Cola bottle that falls at his feet, as if given by the gods, in fact it was chucked out of a plane. The film describes how he and his tribe try to work out what to do with it,  but so divisive is this new toy that the tribesman decides the gods must be crazy and so he goes on a journey to the edge of the world to return the offending bottle – not so with tablet computers!

In a recent experiment the organisation One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), decided to do precisely that (well not chuck tablet computers out of a plane) but take them, leave them and come back later to see what the children had done with them

“I thought the kids would play with the boxes.” (Hell, what parent hasn’t watched their small child discard the expensive toy and gather hours of entertainment out of the box.)  “Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day.” so said Nicholas Negraponte founder of OLPC.  Not only did they start using the tablets, they started to recite the alphabet (these tablets were programmed in English, which does beg the question of technological imperialism – but that’s another blog) anyway the users got round the camera blocking lock and hacked Android – nice!

“The meteoric rise of modern instructionism, including the misguided belief that there is a perfect way to teach something, is alarming because of the unlimited support it is getting from Bill Gates, Google, and my own institution, MIT. “ Nicholas Negraponte in his own article on this process.

That phrase “the meteoric rise of modern instruction, including the misguided that there is a perfect way to teach something” must have resonance with every teacher in this country who has ever been inspected. The constant contortionist revisions conducted by teachers attempting to adapt their style in the classroom to the latest fad from Ofsted, or senior management, is an attempt to fit into this idea that there is a perfect way to teach. The problem is, that in our effort to pursue this pseudo perfection we may very well find ourselves out of a job.

On the one hand the vision of OLPC which I have always admired, combined with the vision of organisations such as the Khan Academy even the elite iTunes U (see this blog for more – onlinelearninginsights) suggest a new world of learning cheaply,  resources readliy accessible to all without, as Negraponte puts it, the industrialisation of teaching that has confined it to measuring progress and target setting that measures the teacher rather than the creativity, imagination and curiosity of the pupils. Un-programmed learning, he states is similar to the process of creating software, the trial and error mechanism is the way children learn, pretty much from the moment they are born and the tablet and computer are compatible with that process. This then is the way of the future, bye bye teacher hello tablet, Skype and an archive of online tutorials updated by a shrinking number of experts.

“Ah but what about personal contact?” Thus says the old fashioned complacent teacher, book in hand, powerpoint just about replacing chalk and talk, still wielding the red pen and the paper mark book. “Students will always need personal contact.” Yep that’s what the music business said about vinyl and now the album compilation barely exists!

Of course when print on demand became a real prospect people said that this would be the death of the book and in some ways it has been – just check the remainders shops, but in other ways reading has never been more popular. I don’t think J K Rowling, (Harry Potter) Stephanie Meyer (Twlight) or Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) are suffering to much from the death of the book, or for that matter Ian Rankin (Rebus). Book publishing has gone through a massive change, the author can get access to the reader directly, but books still exist.

There is still a need for the real, the communal and the personal: in music, stadium rock and gigging are still a massive part of the industry; why else do people go to the cinema in droves, to watch a movie they could see at home in greater comfort? So yes there is still room for personal contact, but how much do they really need? In music, books and journalism a lot more is being done for  a lot less. Journalists barely get paid any more, musicians gig for peanuts, authors publish and be damned or at least they don’t get paid, some get famous via the wire, the rest do it for the joy of it, most of them didn’t see it coming and teachers may well be on the cusp of the same fate – if the industry of teaching breaks down, how many will be left and how many will do it for the joy of it?