Three-D Issue 17: The new assault on media studies

Anonymous Contributor

These are difficult times for media studies. Whilst many colleagues are lucky enough to be in valued departments with sympathetic management, others are bearing the brunt of the economic cuts and changes in higher education. For those at risk the problems can be exacerbated by the nature of media studies itself and its treatment within the academy.

To explain, each of the departments I’ve taught in have been new, being explicitly created to take advantage of the expansion of interest in the subject and to financially support other areas with more staff and lower recruitment. Each department was understaffed for the volume of students compared to the departments it supported and staff costs were lower as there were fewer senior academics.

Media studies was used as a cash-cow and although an RAE entry was expected, teaching was prioritized and early-career lecturers were eager to please. In my current department limited equipment meant practical modules were capped and placed at higher levels leaving research-active staff factory-farming students on core modules and at lower levels. Meanwhile departments we supported had smaller teaching loads, more research time and even new professorial posts to boost their RAE, whilst the media budget was liberally used to provide a range of perks for management, sometimes of dubious legality.

The post-RAE fallout coincided with cuts to public funding and, despite a good media performance, our department was targeted for job losses. This is where the newcomer suffers. University decisions aren’t based on reason but on personal political agendas and influence and new departments are institutionally weak, with few roots or high-level supporters. When cuts had to be made even our recruitment meant nothing – we could always teach more with less – and there was no collegiality from departments our work had supported.

It’s at this point that the limitations of media studies become obvious. Whereas a University announcing cuts in classics, history, or even philosophy is open to public criticism and a media campaign protesting its cultural vandalism, few outside the discipline would campaign for a media department or see the loss of a dozen media lecturers as a catastrophe.

Even when it is successful, media can be poorly treated within institutions. Its success makes it too important in internal institutional politics to leave alone and control from above is common, even to the detriment of the department. This is easy because media studies is rarely taken seriously. As an interdisciplinary subject it attracts staff from a range of backgrounds but it suffers from a common perception that it isn’t a real discipline and anyone can teach it. Qualifications, expertise and publications aren’t seen as necessary and, in my experience, even family and friends can be brought in to teach modules. I’ve watched a scientist, recruited by their friend, sitting in the café reading the undergraduate textbooks in preparation for their first media lecture.

This is important for three reasons. Firstly, because few other academic subjects are treated this way. I can’t imagine the history department would welcome a physicist to teach medieval Europe. Secondly, because when cuts arrive the fact that the university doesn’t care who teaches media becomes significant. Expertise isn’t valued and posts lost are easily filled with any contract staff or PhD students the university can find. And thirdly, because this treatment of the subject and its specialists impacts upon the student’s experience and the reputation of the discipline itself.

Complaints are pointless as the university already knows everything about media studies: just as anyone can teach it, anyone can have an opinion about it. I’ve had to sit for years whilst non-subject specialists and management explain to me what media studies actually is, where it came from, what it includes, what students want from it and what should be taught. Few other subjects would have their discipline repeatedly defined for them from above by people with no knowledge of the area and by university administrators.

Again, this is important when cuts are announced as suddenly your subject isn’t what you thought it was. Whilst management have every right to decide what kind of media studies they want to provide, it’s a curious feeling to read a document defining the subject and deciding its future at your institution that has no reference to subject-area documentation and little relationship to anything I’ve experienced in 20 years of teaching, publishing, examining and validating in the discipline.

If expertise, qualifications and publications matter so little; if anyone can be ‘media staff’ and if management already know what ‘media studies’ is, then the degree can be run by anyone. With restructuring following political agendas the degree doesn’t even have to be in the same department as the subject-specialists and their opinions about the scheme don’t matter as their specialism just isn’t that important in the ‘media studies’ management defines. And, once again, it is the students, who rarely even see the media specialists, who suffer most.

Being able to define the subject means management can mold it as they wish. In the current climate of a new fees-regime and with ‘employability’ coming to the fore for many institutions this means re-orienting media more towards practice. Of course few today would dispute that a mixed ecology of theory and practice is beneficial; that practice without critical understanding is pointless; or that, in an age in which the very idea of practice has diffused throughout all everyday digital media experience and use, the concept of practice and the issues that need to be taught have all been transformed.  Few, that is, except those who know better: those who know that the real value of media studies is purely to provide practical skills to students to boost CVs, and those who know that the entire theoretical discipline is secondary and disposable.

Complaints that students who’ve taken the A Level expect to go on to study the same topics and issues at degree level and that those who only want practice opt for entirely vocational courses are easily ignored when your knowledge and experience of the discipline mean nothing. So even though employers are desperate for graduates with improved literacy and independent critical skills it is the modules that teach these that are cut. To give a recent example, in one institution, keen to be more ‘industry-facing’, the film staff were the first to go. The modules, of course, are still running, though they’re not being taught by anyone with any film specialism or knowledge. But that doesn’t matter does it? After all, anyone can teach them.

Note: The author of this article wishes to remain anonymous.

Posted by Einar Thorsen