It's Homer... but not as we know it

June 16, 2000

The Simpsons, Star Trek and surfing - universities have come under fire for teaching unconventional subjects. But, as Anne Sebba reports, employers are snapping up graduates from these courses.

Come to university and study The Simpsons; analyse the football skills of David Beckham; or learn to play video games and make winning bets on horses.

This may sound more like a canny ploy to entice reluctant sixth-formers into academe than an academic prospectus. But the professors who have invented these courses insist there is serious academic content behind the wacky facade. "Getting students to engage analytically with the culture they are immersed in is far from a soft option," argues Alistair McCleery, professor of literature at Napier University.

One part of McCleery's semester module, "An introduction to cultural studies", looks at why the television cartoon series The Simpsons was created - not simply to entertain, but deliberately to cast a critical eye over contemporary American culture. Another part discusses the development of Dracula as cultural icon and a third lecture looks at the significance of Star Trek.

"The criticism that we are pandering to lazy students is ridiculous because, in fact, we are getting them to do something very difficult. They are used to thinking about the novels of Dickens in a critical way - it is what they've done throughout their school careers. But when it comes to contemporary culture, there is no secondary material for them to crib from, so they have to think for themselves."

McCleery, who took a first degree in English at St Andrews - "very traditional, standard Beowulf to the 20th century" - is at pains to point out that his module is not simply a response to the recent explosion of the media and communications industries but, in fact, has a distinguished history. "George Orwell wrote an essay in the 1930s exploring how boys' comics reflected British views of empire because he saw that intellectuals and critics were of no value if they failed to engage with contemporary culture. But it is also part of the wider trend in English departments generally towards cultural studies so students have the tools not just to look at a compartmentalised canon but to treat all our culture in the same demanding way. Our aim is to produce active and informed consumers of culture. It is all too easy to be passive."

Much the same spirit prompted Ellis Cashmore, a professor in culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University, to introduce his 12-week module, "Football culture", as a final-year option. Cashmore says the popularity of football coincides with huge sums of money being invested in the sport by satellite television and the championing of the game by a new breed of middle-class supporters. "Football has never been so popular in its history, however you measure it. In some way football touches all our lives. It is a massive culture industry."

Cashmore maintains that his course, which, to be part of a taught degree, has been validated by an independent agency, contains a weight of academic work on the business and sociology of football, legal aspects of landmark cases and the history of the game. "We won't be talking about yesterday's game and there won't be any room for fans, but we will look at certain icons, such as David Beckham, who represents a marriage of show business and sport, and through him at the transformation, from Rupert Murdoch on, of football into entertainment and the mechanics of the mass media."

Cashmore believes the time is right for his module because it reflects the massive growth in the sports industry and the expansion in the number of jobs in television and radio sports stations and football magazines as well as in merchandising and sports equipment retailers.

Buckinghamshire and Chilterns University College offers a degree in golf management, which is 50 per cent financial and marketing studies and 50 per cent golf management and greenkeeping. There is no timetabled golf, but all students are automatically full members of the local golf and country club. And students keen on surfing can take a two-year HND in surf science and technology at Cornwall College or a full degree at nearby Plymouth University. Most of their time will be spent studying the hydrodynamics of the sport - tides, wind speeds and weather factors - as well as state-of-the-art materials. Students completing these courses should have no difficulties finding jobs, according to the tutors who run them, as they will have transferable skills of value to many sport-related industries.

Many of the new and unusual courses - and there are about 40,000 to choose from - have been designed in response to a new breed of student - "paying customers with debts to settle", according to a spokesman for Universities and Colleges Admissions Service. "Increasingly, it is no longer enough for a student to say, 'I enjoy doing this.' They are focusing on the financial benefits after: will it get me a job at the end?" But several innovations have also come about after consultations with particular industries about their needs. Mark Grimshaw had 250 applicants for 20 places on his new BSc in computer and video games at Salford, and not just because he encourages his students to spend as much time as possible playing the games.

"Computer games software is a multibillion pound industry in which British companies play a pivotal role."

The course is designed to create producers of games and will teach storyboarding, business skills, marketing, customer relations, two-dimensional graphics, animation and programming as well as customer relations and team management.

Of course, vocational courses at university are nothing new - law and medicine have been taught for centuries. But even here there have been transformations, with a number of courses now offering complementary medicine, herbal medicine or homeopathy and counselling skills, enabling those who want to work in the caring professions to start earning more quickly. The central theme of the BSc in complementary medicine practice at Salford is traditional Chinese medicine and it gets students to practitioner level after three years, with skills in diagnosis, acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and energy-based body work. Compare this with the seven years demanded of western medical students and you begin to understand why the Salford degree is oversubscribed.

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