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Why Media Studies is shit

April 10, 2009

Over at Stumbling and Mumbling Chris Dillow has been considering how ‘dumbing down’ in education can be economically prudent.

‘…the dumbing down of exams can help. They’ll allow those people with good but non-tested skills to now acquire credentials as well. And as these people can now get jobs ahead of good exam-passers with poor other skills, so labour productivity might improve. This would happen if the decline in average tested skills is small, relative to the improvement in average non-tested skills of the new exam-passers, or if non-tested skills are very important for job success. It’s possible, therefore, that dumbing down can be good for the economy.’


This looks to me like the ‘skills agenda’, which privileges technical over academic performance, eviserating the intellectual content of courses, as it is doing in Media Studies.

Media Studies has a poor reputation anyway and is often in the frame when the accusation of dumbing down is levelled at contemporary education. It’s as if seeking to understand a modern world, increasingly dependent upon mass forms of communicative practice, is somehow an errant way of spending your time and money. Admittedly Media Studies has endeavoured to dignify an academic interest in the popular and sometimes the apparently trivial but this is an important part of its project, to illuminate the banal and the everyday in ways that expose their ideological significance.

When Media Studies is done properly it is as intellectually demanding and rigourous as any discipline. In fact, Media Studies is multi-disciplinary, drawing upon sociology, political science, economics, literary theory and psychoanalysis to name but a few. And it’s this very promiscuousness that may cause alarm in some quarters. In others, namely the media itself, hostility to Media Studies is inspired by its discomfort at being subject to scrutiny.

But now Media Studies’ critical relation to the media is being replaced by subservience to the media industry’s economic requirements. Rather than analyse and interrogate the media, university departments serve the industry by supplying ‘industry ready graduates’. And in this way Media Studies becomes less an intellectual pursuit than an apprenticeship for a future job.

There is a massive contradiction here, for who would seriously spend over £3000 pounds a year on university fees (plus other expenses) to learn how to use a camera when you could simply read an instruction manual. But that’s where we are these days and there are influential bodies set up to encourage this anti-intellectual drive in higher education.

Take Skillset, for example, a body jointly funded by industry and government, which supports skills and training for the creative industries by colonising university departments, replacing the intellectual with the purely technical. For some departments the promise of profitable links with industry and the assumption that the association with Skillset will aid recruitment is too much to resist.

The most pernicious thing about this agenda is the way in which it further institutionalises a class divide in HE, between a new university-educated proletariat, who are technically proficient, and the graduates who will manage them in the future, and will have gone to universities that didn’t submit to the ‘skills agenda’. And for this reason it is hard to take seriously the Great and the Good who fret about ‘dumbing down’ when they and their offspring will surely profit from it.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. dunnagall permalink
    April 16, 2009 5:15 pm

    As a media studies academic of the traditional variety, I had the recent pleasure of an email from my line manager offering me the chance to “audit” my “current portfolio of skills” and identify opportunities to “upskill” and move into a brighter, better future as a “21st century media academic fit for purpose”. So, obviously, how could I pass that up? Yes! Reading and writing are out! Lecturing is old hat! I have signed up for an exciting upskilling course that will introduce me to life-transforming skills such as: filling out 4-page health and safety form for loan of video camera; switching video camera on and off; writing up 1000 word health and safety report on switching video camera on and off; returning video camera to proper place at proper time; turning up for 10-hour meetings; coping with 10-hour meetings without losing the will to live; how to distinguish 21st century media studies students from staff; how to deal with violence and confrontation in the learning environment; how to lie to parents with a straight face and an easy conscience; and kite-making. Oops. That should be kite marking.

    So drop the progressive anxiety, comrade. Come on over to the dark side! 🙂

  2. Rab permalink*
    April 16, 2009 7:43 pm

    Dear Dunnagall,
    Shouldn’t you be too busy oppskilling to loaf around on internet?

    I have neither time nor sympathy for ‘media studies academics of the traditional variety’. They are the past. The new, modernised, oppskilled variety are the future, churning out industry ready graduates for the creative industries that will rescue our benighted land at this time of economic crisis. Rejoice, rejoice. And wear your kite-mark with pride!

  3. dunnagall permalink
    April 17, 2009 8:21 am

    Ah yes, Rab, but loafing around on the net is all part of the new skills regime ( as is the ease with which one internalises the discourse apparently). I’m told by those already in on the dark side that It’s like taking a recreational drug for the first time: you sit around waiting for the effects to kick in. So this is what I’ve felt so far: a sense of peace, love and euphoria at 10-hour meetings; a feeling of unusual physical dexterity (no point too low to stoop to); a manic urge to do all my paperwork; a need to get in touch with my creative side (lots of sticky back paper and glitter); an aversion to scholarly books; a strange urge to hug men in suits and then bend over. Am I under the influence then?

  4. April 17, 2009 11:37 am

    K-punk’s got an idea: stop filling in the forms.

    “New forms of industrial action need to be instituted against managerialism. For instance, in the case of teachers and lecturers, the tactic of strikes (or even of marking bans) should be abandoned, because they only hurt students and members (at the college where I used to work, one-day strikes were pretty much welcomed by management because they saved on the wage bill whilst causing negligible disruption to the college). What is needed is the strategic withdrawal of forms of labour which will only be noticed by management: all of the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without. “

  5. Rab permalink*
    April 17, 2009 12:50 pm

    Brilliant idea from K-punk: a strategic withdrawal of labour from the processes of managerialism

    Why didn’t you think of that before you gave yourself to the dark side?

  6. April 17, 2009 4:10 pm

    I’ll get my coat. I can see I’m intruding on some private grief….

  7. April 17, 2009 4:57 pm

    Thanks for erasing my accidental double post Rab, but the reason for the issue arising was that,just as I pressed the send button, I saw I couldn’t spell ‘grief’……and it now seems I still can’t

  8. Rab permalink*
    April 17, 2009 5:20 pm

    Not to worry Charlie. I’ve rather cunningly nipped in and corrected your spelling of ‘grief’, so now no-one need ever know…

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