Media Studies: Not completely useless

Wat Tyler has a list of subjects that won’t get A level students into Cambridge, along with a bit more about dumbing down. Given that nearly all the A levels I took were on the list [1], I doubt Oxbridge would come calling to me nowadays.

(Although, unless the standard of physics GCSEs has risen significantly over the summer, the sciences hardly inspire confidence for our great young minds.)

As somebody who spent the majority of his A level and university life studying soft subjects, I always feel slightly compelled to defend them. Or rather, the ones I studied, or near-as studied, in this case communication studies and media studies.

The latter may be perceived as soft. In some cases the syllabus and teaching methods probably are softer than they should be. But it doesn’t mean that media studies isn’t important. On the contrary, taught well media studies could be an important and useful subject for those who chose to take it.

The media is a wonderful and vague area, compassing everything from television to radio to newspapers, magazines, mobile technology, iPods, the music industry, blogs, podcasts, downloads and the internet in general to name but a few. The media is all pervasive in today’s society: our lives are surrounding by media of all sorts and, like it or not, the media will continue to play a key role in shaping the world around us, be it traditional mainstream media, online technologies, or a mixture of new and traditional [2].

So, if something is as all-consuming as the media, doesn’t it deserve to be studied? And if there are certain phenomenons occurring within this field, don’t these also deserve to be studied? And if the media is going to play an even more key role in the future of today’s teenagers lives, doesn’t that also deserve to be studied? [3]

Take Facebook, and social networking sites in general, which were the buzzword online of 2007, and have become an essential part of everyday life for some people. At university level, social networks, blogs, and other such internet phenomenons deserve to be studied: if something becomes successful or has a major impact on our lives, it’s worth asking why. And depending on what these studies produces, and what’s taught in modules on blogging and Facebooking, it’s not inconceivable such topics could filter into A level syllabuses sooner rather than later. If this enhances student’s understanding of the world they inhabit, and inspires them further, this can only be a good thing.

Of course, there are two things needed to pull up a soft subject such as media studies: a good syllabus and a good teacher. A quick look at a basic syllabus for media studies shows things haven’t moved on too much since I was at college nearly ten years ago. Certainly, more recognition of the impact media has on our lives would be a good thing. And I’m still to be persuaded on how shooting a quick short will enhance understanding of the media. But even so, there’s still much in there that can be used, applied and turn the teenagers into better informed citizens and consumers.

Media studies shouldn’t be seen as a better or worse option than more traditional subjects; all have their merits. It also shouldn’t be pushed as a soft option, or used by schools to massage figures. But if you’ve got a teenagers genuinely interested in the media then there’s no reason to discourage them from taking it. Similarly, if you’ve got a teen who has no clue what they’re interested in, it’s a case of directing them towards the course they’d get most stimulus out of.

This isn’t to say I’m a great fan of the plethora of media studies available at degree level – if anything there’s a few too many of them around, and they do their bit to keep wages in the sector reasonably low. But that’s another discussion for another blog post.

One final thought: Ten years ago, Film Studies was by far the hardest A level I took – I found it much more difficult than Philosophy. But it was also probably the most interesting. This was down in no small part to the inspirational teacher I had, who cut no slack to those who saw it as a way to coast through college and pushed us all hard, but if you were interested and keen to learn, she’d go out of her way to help you go that bit further. An the syllabus included elements of business, economics, and history among other aspects. It didn’t just view film in its own bubble, it took into account the wider effects of cinema. Result: not only did it increase my appreciation of film, it also taught me stuff I didn’t know about the world beyond that, and has proved useful from time to time on a practical level, which is what any good GCSE or A Level should be doing.

[1] Philosophy being the one that doesn’t appear. I’m not entirely sure whether that makes me more or less of a soft-subject man. I did, however, get a lot better in arguing and could throw out references to Aristotle, Descartes et al in an effort to make me look intelligent.

[2] Although it really is time to stop referring to line and mobile media as new media. It’s been around for long enough and is, by and large, nearly fully integrated into the MSM.

[3] This is an argument you could justifiably apply to other subjects such as ooh, I dunno, economics and physics, two subjects I’d love to see have a broader appeal, as they, like media, both explain how things work. I’d argue economics should really be pushed as an option at GCSE level, as the basics could easily be explained to a 15-year-old. And it ties up nicely with media studies as well.

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