Media (studies) matters – Anna Notaro

Following a recent discussion on this blog on ‘soft’ subjects, I invited Dr Anna Notaro of the University of Dundee to explain the purpose and benefits of media studies.

I would like to start this post by asking readers to play an innocent ‘word association game’. Let’s choose ‘Media Studies’ to start with, the point of the game, as is intuitively apparent, consists in coming up with another word or set of words that players associate with the first one.  Given the limited degree of interactivity of a blog post, I’ll have to make an informed guess at this point, so here is the list of associations my imaginary readers might come up with: Mickey Mouse, soft, pointless, easy, dumbed down, non academic, funny (‘funny’ to be intended as in line with the other derogative terms, since traditionally fun is the antithesis of ‘serious’ intellectual rigour).

So – as Woody Allen once asked – what have we learned? That there is a problem of perception as to what the subject is and stands for; one could also say that Media Studies has a ‘media’ problem, which needs to be urgently addressed, especially at a time of economic crisis when the whole of the Humanities feel that their relevance is under attack. Only a few days ago on this blog it was reported that The Russell Group of ‘leading’ Universities in the UK published a guide (Informed Choices) for secondary students advising them to go for  ‘facilitating’ subjects, (Mathematics, English, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Geography, History and Languages) and avoid ‘soft’ ones – those with a ‘vocational or practical bias’ such as Media Studies, Art and Design, Photography and Business Studies. Of all the ‘soft’ subjects, Media Studies in particular has undergone a ritualized denigration in the UK media that has no counterpart elsewhere. It is almost as if the ‘object of study’ the media itself had purposefully decided to resist its own observation, its own critical appraisal, by ‘pouring vitriol’, to paraphrase the title of Sally Feldman’s piece in Times Higher Education, on the study of the world’s most pervasive and influential cultural phenomenon, and this at a time when it is most needed!

There have been serious critiques of Media Studies, including ones not based on sheer ignorance of the following facts:

• The subject has stimulated the production of  a vast amount of scholarship  routinely recognized by research assessment exercises

• The rate of employment of media graduates is often higher compared with graduates in English or History

These critiques have pointed out that the subject’s core values are at risk of getting diluted in its many sub-disciplinary facets: media practice, media production, media literacy, media theory.  To my mind, however, it is exactly its congenital plurality (evident in the name), its interdisciplinary vocation,  as a large and continuously growing body of research which intersects sociology,  political science, psychology, linguistics, discourse analysis and cultural studies, that constitutes Media Studies strength.

As the recently launched A Manifesto for Media Education has admitted that ‘twenty five years of scholarship have bought about broad consensus on the theoretical framework for Media Education’, still there is scope for fostering a ‘shared understanding of the purpose of what we do’. The Manifesto’s Web Site is an interesting read and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in educational matters, regardless of his/her disciplinary specialism.

So why do Media Studies matter? The answer is before our eyes: the media are undergoing rapid changes following the development of multi-media technologies and digital communication networks. In this context issues regarding  media ownership and control,  the media’s roles in political and social change, their function as promoter of new business models, their impact on artistic creativity, their importance for information and entertainment and their effect on the  language we communicate with are extremely relevant and make for a very sound critical enquiry agenda. However, if I had to select only one issue which, by itself, justifies the study of Media, I would have no hesitation in asserting that media matter because what characterizes our species is our ability to communicate and all communication, of whatever kind, is mediated. Mediation and communication are interchangeable terms since human history itself is intertwined with the histories of communication and communication technologies, in this sense, to paraphrase fellow media scholar Sean Cubitt, Homo Sapiens was also Homo Medians.

From what has been argued so far one might evince that Media Studies is faced by quite a challenging critical agenda, in order to succeed it  needs to keep changing and adapting to a continuously evolving media landscape, the ‘Media Studies 2.0’, approach put forward by David Gauntlett, Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Westminster, goes in exactly the right direction.

In conclusion, new technologies increasingly demand an academic focus on how old and new media refashion and remediate one another, and on how media representations help forge our understandings of contemporary reality. As media educators our aim should be to contribute to the academic collective effort to provide students with the necessary set of skills so that not only they author the culture of their times, but they can be at the forefront of inventing compelling and engaging new media cultures. I trust that we will be up for it!

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13 Comments on “Media (studies) matters – Anna Notaro”

  1. Fred Says:

    Ferdinand and Anna thanks. It is a rare and interesting point.

  2. Al Says:

    I will try the links later..

  3. jfryar Says:

    With recent uprisings in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, the importance of mobile phone communication and on-line media in organising such events, recent phenomena such as on-line bullying, the sale of the Huffington Post and the issue of non-payment to bloggers, questions regarding balance over the purchasing of news stations by media organisations, issues concerning Wikileaks and freedom of information, etc one might have thought that reducing funding for Media Studies and the Humanities in general makes little sense.

    I hope Anna’s comments find a wide audience. Thank you both for an interesting, timely, and thought-provoking analysis.

  4. Vincent Says:

    In fairness, what the Russell Group said was there were subjects that were valuable for they had application to more Degree types. While Media, Business or any other subject so specific tracked in very early.
    They were writing about options. And it was not an attack on you or any other study area. As for you it matters little as you can use most any other, shall we say main stream, subject. The contrary is not true. Media studies for Mathematics might not be a runner.

    • jfryar Says:

      Two points, Vincent. Firstly, at the moment the Humanities subjects are taking a battering both in terms of public perception (ie the ‘soft’ subject mentality) and funding allocation particularly in the UK. As a physicist I find that worrying. One need only look at the almighty mess scientists have made in communicating the issue of global warming and climate change – we might learn something by having people academically studying such issues of communication.

      As we develop new technologies, new treatments, new media, scientists are not best-placed to evaluate their impact on society or their ethical dimensions. The notion that we can separate SET and Humanities funding is, in my opinion, a dangerous idea.

      Secondly, your point about mathematics is a little glib if you don’t mind me saying so. A student wishing to study maths in college will almost certainly require higher-level or A level maths and will have to score reasonably highly. But, taking Ireland as our example, that student will also have to study say English, French, Irish, Biology, and History in order to accumulate sufficient CAO points. For matriculation purposes, what’s the difference in a potential maths student taking biology or say media studies?

      The argument one might then make is by including a multifaceted subject like media studies on the curriculum, would it help tackle issues surrounding ‘rote learning’ and the view by some that our students are not displaying ‘critical thinking’ or ‘problem-solving abilities’, etc

      • Vincent Says:

        The Russell communication was about access. And glib I was. But you try the study of Maths having gone in with business studies. But you can easily go the other way for you’ve the base concepts.
        And for another ‘glib’ comment. It would be better pushing for the History of Philosophy being a core subject at second level on both Islands, if critical thinking is what you’ve got in mind.
        And as for the leaving cert, I’ve encountered people that are inside the National University that would happily jettison the whole thing, for if anything it’s an actual hindrance to swift progression. I think FvP is of a similar opinion.

  5. Al Says:

    I have to say I dont get it!!
    But I havent seen a defense of Media studies before.
    But if this is a sales pitch….
    Have you sold it as good as you can?

    • anna notaro Says:

      your question obviously implies that I haven’t, although I’m not sure the sales pitch is the best metaphor when it comes to educational matters, care to elaborate on any aspect in partular that you found unconvincing?

  6. Al Says:

    I amnt trying to play games here.
    There are elections here in Eire at the moment.
    So everyone is trying to get to the point!

    What you describe as media studies at your level of focus could easily be called digital rhetoric or something similar.

    “I would have no hesitation in asserting that media matter because what characterizes our species is our ability to communicate and all communication, of whatever kind, is mediated. Mediation and communication are interchangeable terms since human history itself is intertwined with the histories of communication and communication technologies”

    What does that mean?

    • anna notaro Says:

      Clearly this is my personal view, given the interdisciplinary nature of the field others might choose a different focus. What I was trying to emphasise is almost the ‘anthropological’ aspect of the subject: media matters because without the materials in which we communicate, we are no longer human, our sexualities, our economic relationships, our politics and power are all today, as they always were but in new ways, mediated. So to study mediation is to study our species, unless you happen to be a telepath, of course.

  7. wendymr Says:

    Very interesting blog, Anna. Personally, I think that media studies is even more crucial today because of the explosion of ‘alternative’ forms of communication, mediated and unmediated. Why read CNN or the BBC when you can go to Twitter or Facebook and follow world events as they happen? Why wait for journalists to break the next Watergate when Wikileaks has it all there for anyone to read? (And that latter is very much tongue in cheek; I have little time for Wikileaks and am certainly not considering it on a par with genuine investigative journalism).

    And then there’s politics and the media, and I don’t just mean the Chinese interfering with Google or Egypt blocking Twitter. There is that huge conservative constituency in the US – the Tea Partiers – who don’t trust what they call the ‘lamestream media’ any more, and get their news solely from right-wing blogs and Fox. Currently in Canada we have the ‘fake news proposal: the television and radio regulator is bringing forward proposals to lift the requirement that information reported be true (or that the broadcaster believes it to be true). That’s a very broad summary of a complex proposal, incidentally, so don’t take this as the complete story.

    Keep getting the message out there – this does deserve a wide readership.

  8. anna notaro Says:

    Thanks wendymr, the ‘alternative’ forms of communication is certainly a fascinating, and topical area of enquiry, maybe the true reason why I like this field is that one never runs the risks of getting bored, so much to choose from 🙂
    Also, my thanks to everyone who has offered comments or has simply read this post and to Ferdinand for the opportunity to share with this community a few thoughts on a topic very close to my (professional) heart..

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