Engagement and Academic Media Ecologies

EDIT 17/08/11: Updated final draft of unit outline here.

I am in the process of redesigning the content of an introductory first year undergraduate media studies course that I shall be teaching in second semester of this year. I’ve presented a rough draft of a list of weekly topics and readings to a meeting of the department and received generally favourable feedback. My pedagogical approach is strongly influenced by my research into enthusiasm and the question of practical mobilisation (I have ‘unprotected’ a post that outlines my statement of (Deleuzian!!) teaching philosophy I wrote three and a half years ago), which in the academy is often called ‘engagement’. Academics are tasked with ‘engaging’ with the world through their research and public activities (inflected through their specific areas of interest). Students are tasked with ‘engaging’ with a scholarly program set out by lecturers and enacted by tutors. It is apparent to me (and through discussions with others and a brief review of scholarly literature on the subject) the difficulty for undergraduate university educators is precisely the problem of student engagement.

There are two ways to approach this. The first traditional way is to set out a scholarly program shaped by the expected disciplinary knowledges and specific areas of interest familiar to academics. Students are expected to learn and engage with these disciplinary knowledges. The result is the production of a student subjectivity shaped according to the expectations of the discipline. Within media studies this means a familiar week by week exposition that more often than not follows the chapters of a set textbook. In a somewhat polemical paper outlining what he calls ‘Media Studies 2.0’, William Merrin (who has a blog that ironically seems to have not been used for over a year) describes it thus:

[The] disciplinary texts retained a mainstream, broadcast core. […] This core can be easily identified in the textbooks we produce as the public-face and point-of-entry to the discipline. These employ a remarkably similar classificatory scheme with a near-standardised list of topics (audiences, institutions, representation, effects, semiology, advertising etc.), an emphasis upon a small number of broadcast forms and their history (print, radio, cinema, television) and a near-identical selection of acceptable ideas, perspectives, debates and content to interpret these forms. (20-21)

The course structure that I inherited followed this disciplinary mode of pedagogy. The advantages of this disciplinary mode of pedagogy are numerous. Students leave the particular introductory media studies unit with a set of knowledges and perhaps even skills that they share with every other student whose subjectivity, at least in part, has been produced by this disciplinary machine. There is an efficiency in terms of a time saving when an academic relies on a set textbook. It is not a question of doing less work, that is, finding relevant texts and assembling a course reader or article depository on e-reserve in the institutional library. Rather more time can be spent concerned with the administrative responsibilities of running a unit, which is normally very large (hundreds of students).

The disadvantage of this approach, if it actually is a disadvantage (I am not entirely convinced), is that it is something of a take it or leave it approach. Students are assumed to already be motivated and the question of engagement is displaced to a prior condition, outside of the lecture theatre and tutorial room. There is a barrier of entry, one which is assumed in all univeristy courses, whereby students need to ‘apply’ themselves or otherwise accept the consequences (normally, failure). I am not entirely convinced this is a disadvantage because there are strong pedagogical reasons for encouraging the conditions of failure as a kind of meta-disciplinary barrier of entry. If students fail then they are ‘not ready for university’, i.e. not sufficiently motivated prior to tertiary education.

The other way of approaching the problem of engagement, that is, of mobilising a student cohort, is somewhat experimental in scope and inverts the burden of engagement to a certain degree. Instead of the university educator presenting a corpus of disciplinary material that a student engages with, the university educator engages with the students’ existing collective critical location. To put it another way, instead of presenting the challenges faced and encountered by the respective discipline, the educator engages with the challenges faced by the student cohort and gradually introduces various relevant disciplinary knowledges and skills. It is a radically different mode of engagement. It means that the challenges presented week by week need to be very contemporary. The danger of this approach is obviously that the university educator then assumes, to a certain degree, the responsibility of student engagement instead of the problem of student engagement being something students themselves have to take responsibility. Plus I’d argue it requires a different kind of work, which I am not sure the current structure of university professionalism rewards.

Regardless, if this approach is taken, it is therefore apparent that one of the challenges faced by first year undergraduate students is that they need to engage with what can be called the media ecology of the university. The university is a key site in the contemporary creative industries for the production of knowledge and employment (or at least potential engagement by) scholars and others. I wanted to have a week in this redesigned media studies course that explored the university precisely in these terms. The various questions I wanted ask include:

– How has the university developed as a key site in the production and distribution of knowledge?
– Is it possible to think of the university as a media industry?
– If so, then what are the key texts produced by the university? How are they accessed? What are the barriers of engagement?
– What media literacy skills are required to consume and produce these texts of the university?
– How has the ‘new media’ ‘search’ culture affected the way research is carried out?
– How have ‘social media’ affected the dissemination of media texts?

In a sense, academics are immersed in the social milieu that these questions are designed to outline. The transformation of a student cohort so students can perform a competent student-scholar subjectivity means that they need to become competent in their engagement with the university as a key site in the creative industries, at least for the duration of their university careers.

Do any of my readers know of a journal article or book chapter that engages with the university as a media industry or in a similar way? Merrin’s article quoted above is the closest I have found so far.

Merrin, William. (2009) “Media Studies 2.0: upgrading and open-sourcing the discipline” Interactions: Studies in Communication and Culture 1(1): 17-34