The 'Mickey Mouse' that roared: media studies takes on its critics

Manifesto project strives to defend subject and clarify its aims and impact. Matthew Reisz writes

February 3, 2011

Credit: Caro/Alamy
It's a hit: worldwide, the discipline has never experienced such popularity

Media studies has long been cast as the classic "Mickey Mouse" subject. Now, at a time of widespread cuts in the academy, scholars in the field have launched A Manifesto for Media Education, a web-based project designed to fight their corner.

"We hope to achieve greater clarity about our subject," explained Jon Wardle, director of the Centre for Excellence in Media Practice at Bournemouth University.

"Should media education be about serving the jobs market, reflecting society back to itself or holding power to account? And since the media are now central to our lives, should they be studied in a separate discipline or right across the university syllabus?"

To get the ball rolling, Mr Wardle has co-authored an initial statement noting that the project comes at a time when media education appears to be flourishing.

"Applications to media courses in the UK have never been higher," it says. "In Southeast Asia, media education is now a legislated aspect of schooling in a number of countries, and in the US various foundations are making millions of pounds available for academics to investigate the nation's media literacy."

Mr Wardle has also posted online submissions from 10 academics, teachers and industry experts explaining what they are trying to achieve and what the measures of success might be.

Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, argues that "arts, humanities and social science departments are some of the last places where we can challenge the principle that our lives can and should be ordered primarily by economic utility".

However, David Buckingham, director of the Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media at the Institute of Education, University of London, warns of the "excess of grandiose rhetoric" that claims that "media education can change the world, save democracy or empower the powerless".

Instead, he argues, academics must come up with "evidence that media education actually works - that it can engage, challenge and motivate young people, as well as enabling them to understand and to participate more fully in the media culture that surrounds them".

The project will conclude with a conference to be held in London in June and a book to be published later.

More importantly, Mr Wardle said, it will leave practitioners better placed to answer their critics.

Council aims to speak up for the linguists

In another example of disciplines coming together to make their case, last week saw the launch of the University Council of General and Applied Linguistics.

The council, which represents about 1,000 academics, aims to promote the subject and speak for linguists in policy debates.

Its launch at the British Academy was accompanied by presentations on "the impact of linguistics".

Peter Austin, Marit Rausing chair in field linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, explored how linguists have been tracking the decline of some of the world's 7,000 languages, why this matters and how it can be reversed - as in the cases of Welsh and Manx.

Alison Wray, professor at Cardiff University's Centre for Language and Communication Research, added that deeper understanding of "formulaic language" could "make material differences to the quality of the lives of people with Alzheimer's disease".

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