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!