Lights, cameras...no action

May 24, 1996

Media studies has proved enormously popular, but Ian Christie belives it has not lived up to its early promise and student Mireilli Fowler (box) explains why she was initially disillusioned with her course.

A spectre is haunting British academia and its name is media studies. "Do you realise that more students are doing media studies than PPPPP (fill in optional 'real subject')?" is a commonly heard complaint. Meanwhile, practitioners are worried that students may be flocking to MS in the mistaken belief that it will guarantee them a job in the "meedja". There is even a rumble that students are being cynically exploited by the media industry.

But there are other currents of anxiety. Many in the older film studies sector feel increasingly threatened by media studies, believing that it will dilute their hard-won rigour. And cultural studies too is concerned about its relationship with the omnivorous media studies Q or is it vice versa?

At Oxford University, I find myself facing a small-scale version of these dilemmas. We are launching a film studies resource base within the European Humanities Research Centre. Is it to be called just "film studies", or "film and media studies"? The wording may not matter too much, but the associations and intentions do. As I encounter colleagues in different parts of the film/media studies jungle, I realise how fraught relations are within this "growth area".

How big is it anyway? The 1996 edition of the BFI's directory, Media Studies UK, lists some 120 institutions which offer full-time undergraduate courses involving film or media, and I estimate there are about 250 individual courses. But what counts as a course? If we exclude those with more than 10 per cent practical work, courses often amount to options offered within traditional language-literature degrees, or as part of the newer all-modular cultural and communications courses.

In fact, closer investigation reveals that, despite the perception of an explosion of media courses, there are still very few "academic" single-honours media or film courses on offer. In film, no more than three or four; and in media studies perhaps ten or 12. Ah, but it is the trend that matters, sceptics will say, and I have to admit I share their concern.

As someone whose first teaching job was expounding the theories of Marshall McLuhan at Lancaster College of Advanced Technology, I belong to the generation that infiltrated media studies into the British academic agenda. It started in FE, on the margins of vocational education, and spread through art and design Q gaining ground when this was upgraded to HE status. There was also a parallel movement afoot within literature, which fed on the pioneering work of Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, to produce a rising tide of interest in modern popular culture and its media in the early 1970s. And from this ferment emerged three more or less distinct disciplines: film studies, media studies and cultural studies.

But the important question today must be: has media education lived up to its promise? And I suspect that the answer must be "No". This is not to say that the fault lies with trendy media educators. If anything, I believe it lies with the attitudes of the media-illiterate Q which must include a large percentage of educational policymakers and traditional academics (often the same group).

Let us start at the sharp end. A common complaint among teachers of media studies is that their students arrive with unrealistic expectations of a career in the media, only to find that their course does not deliver. Worse still, the trend towards work experience and placements means that many students find themselves doing underpaid, menial jobs, albeit somewhere in "the media".

The fact that there may be unrealistic expectations among some students entering media studies or that there may be cynical exploitation of these by employers, cannot justify a negative verdict on the whole sector. What it should do is focus attention on the core problem facing media studies, which is how to construct viable curricula that will allow undergraduates to have a challenging educational experience.

Does this imply that such curricula do not exist at present? Of course they do in many departments, where students engage critically with important texts, both written and audiovisual, and have their horizons widened by the range of material on offer. And I believe it is equally important that practical work should be an integral part of these studies.

But probably the key intellectual requirement is that there should be a sufficient range of "texts" (written, audiovisual etc), available, which students can analyse with real scope for disagreement. In other words, it is no good being shown something and told what to think about it at the same time, which I suspect is still the case with some hallowed chestnuts of media "theory".

The fact that media studies was initially shaped by unacademic enthusiasms and partisan convictions has left it with a curious legacy. And there is something undeniably odd about discussing solemnly such phenomena as the theory of radio, the development of the snapshot, early Disney cartoons, newspaper comic-strips or film noir from the 1940s to the 1990s. The point isn't that these cannot be taught properly, nor that they are unimportant. They pose, however, a chronic problem of core and periphery; how to structure courses so that they have a real intellectual substance, so that they teach transferable skills of research and analysis Q and, vitally important in the current climate of concern about academic "standards" Q how to convince the outside world that these oddly eclectic-sounding courses have the same value as, say, philosophy or economics.

Within the general field of media studies, film has tended to occupy a special niche. "Do you do television as well?" used to be a leading question to film studies teachers. Surprisingly often the answer was a flat denial, as if television was a bastard offspring. Latterly the pervasive presence of video has provoked similar tensions. Video actually opens a wider range of possibilities than was ever possible with celluloid. If I want to show extracts from six different films in a single lecture I can, and regularly do. And if a student wants to study a film closely, stopping and rewinding often, they can too. The quality of film studies should be better than ever.

To say this will be considered heretical in some quarters but I have no doubt that film studies has already benefited greatly from the consumer video revolution, and will go on benefiting from the current, wider multimedia revolution. Which raises the inevitable question: is it still film studies?

My answer would be that it can certainly try to remain as narrowly focused as it is in some quarters, but it will do so at the cost of slipping even further into the margins of British academia. For the truth is that film studies has been stalled for some time in terms of growth and influence.

Partly as a result of the BFI's pump-priming activity over the years (of which I am the latest example), there is now some sort of film teaching presence in, probably, a majority of UK universities. But what is absent is any sense that film studies has made its mark as a major intellectual discipline, capable of attracting high-profile staff, ambitious postgraduates and major funding.

As film studies began to take off in the late 1960s, it drew eclectically on structuralist and semiotic theory, on neo-Freudianism and on the work of such deviant philosophers as Althusser, Foucault and Derrida. The result was stimulating and ultimately, as these provocative new currents of thought fed into the humanities at large, of benefit to many outside film studies.

A crucial problem, however, is that much of this "theory" is difficult to teach without reducing it to the level of dogmatic prescription. Instead of becoming an invitation to dialogue, it can easily become an authoritarian exercise in delivering the tablets of the law Q and all too often in mediocre translation.

"Theory" has also created a fraught relationship with the practice of film production. Techniques developed to read films independently of their makers' intentions, or of their commercial identity, do not prepare students for encounters with real, live film-making. The result of trying to make the necessary connections is that some film courses are like over-decorated Christmas trees, festooned with gestures towards film as craft, as industry, as history, as the creator of sexual stereotypes, as a weapon in liberation struggles, as an instrument of global domination Q and, occasionally, as art.

What is currently needed in film, as a key component of media studies, is an agenda which can accommodate the full sweep of the audiovisual media's progress over the last century, while establishing new relations with the humanities and social sciences, which, in Britain, have remained remarkably innocent of most audiovisual matters.

Certainly there need to be more centres of excellence in film studies teaching and research, to raise the profile of the subject. But rather than press for any large-scale increase in single-honours degree courses, I would argue for a much more pervasive presence of film and media components in all humanities and social science courses.

Suspicion of film and media studies within the academic community may well be a delayed symptom of anxiety over the loss of controls which are possible in a print-centred culture. But we have all been living in a culture of the image for at least a hundred years. Isn't it about time we faced up to this? And if even Oxford can have an embryonic film and media study centre, there must be hope.

Ian Christie is visiting lecturer in film at Oxford University and a fellow of Magdalen College.

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