Media Studies vs. Dickens

The ability to convey meaning through visual means is an art form just like writing. In schools, subjects which concern themselves (at least in part) with visual literacy topics, such as media studies, tend to be relegated to the vocational or less intelligent students. The brainy students study literature. Dante, Dostoevsky and Dickens were genius writers. Through words they manage to convey a world in which we can immerse ourselves, learn about the world in which they live and about the characters. This happens largely through narration and prose. But we also have writers, directors and musicians now that produce stories in a totally different way- this doesn’t make them any less brilliant or worthy of understanding their methodologies. Take Don McLeans most famous work, ‘American Pie’ as an example.

American Pie has been dug apart by fans for years. It has fan sites dedicated to analyzing the song and deriving some understanding from it. When asked about what the lyrics mean, McLean responded that “They’re beyond analysis. They’re poetry.”.

In the UK, media studies is a degree that is often disparaged in the news. Questions such as ‘why should the taxpayer be paying for someone to do a media studies degree?’ come up when tuition fees are being discussed. This assumes media students isn’t a proper degree, or at least one with no benefit to society or the person. English Literature however, there is a real degree. Few would question students learning about the works of Shakespeare or Dickens. An article in the BBC 12 years ago suggests media studies was being used as a way to increase grades, because English with media studies is easier than English Literature. Perhaps it is easier statistically, but maybe only because students are more engaged with what they are learning. Some of the comments on the BBC article reflect the public opinion:

Is it any wonder why kids leave school without the necessary skills when these sort of subjects are being taught. We need to return to teaching the core subjects and teaching children a trade, rather than wasting their time with pointless Mickey Mouse subjects.

and:

Media studies, leisure and tourism and business studies are all used as excuses to avoid proper subjects of study and if they have any value should be undertaken only after the ability to learn core subjects has been tested

So the question I ask, is why is the skill of analyzing a text from the 1800s more critical to a young persons needs than analyzing an advert or a TV show? I believe we have this tendency as humans to try to cling onto the past. The things we cherished when young we cant imagine our own students not cherishing in the same way- but they dont, because they have grown up with a different idea of literacy. The film ‘Legally Blonde’ (2001. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) demonstrates this well. When Elle, a brilliantly clever fashion design student decides to apply to Harvard, she doesn’t decide to send in a written essay. Instead she sends in a video essay. It follows the pattern of an essay in the way that it looks to promote her skills necessary for the course, but is made in a way which Elle finds she can work well with. The admissions team at Harvard (portrayed as a bunch of fuddy duddy, dusty lecturers) are shocked and surprised at the unusual method that Elle has decided to apply – but eventually take her on the fact that she has a 4.0 GPA and they have never had a fashion major before. Instead of demonstrating just writing skills as she would have done with an essay, she can demonstrate writing skills (in the scripting), vidoegraphy, direction, management of other people, sound editing etc.

(Legally Blonde, 2001. Produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Directed by Robert Luketic. Starring Reese Witherspoon)

The traditional news media at the moment is facing dramatic change. Newspapers are increasingly going online only, 24 hour news TV channels have been around for a while now, and fake news (or satire) is becoming increasingly common. An understanding of Tolkien and the way he writes does not necessarily prepare students for differentiating between what is real and what is satirical. It doesn’t help them identify elements of a news article that try to trigger bias in the reader (for example the use of mugshots in articles where someone is convicted of a serious crime). Communication has changed in the last two hundred years, and its core that is what English is all about, communicating.

Southend News Network (https://southendnewsnetwork.com/) is a satirical news network. Is teaching students to recognize satirical news more important than learning The Christmas Carol?

This article published in 2015 by Bright Hub Education asks the question why we actually learn English Literature, and gives five good reasons:

  • Cultural Value
  • Expanding Horizons
  • Building Vocabulary
  • Improving Writing Skills
  • Teaching Critical Thinking

But cant we apply the same categories to why we should be learning Media as well as Literature? Cant we say visual literacy si as important as written literacy in a world where we mostly see more literacy than we read. The media helps define our culture and plays a huge role in what we see and experience everyday, and being able to interpret that is important.

Dickens may have helped sculpt the culture we experience today, but today’s culture is a compilation of everything from the past and what we see in the present. Understanding and analyzing texts is an important skill for some students, but to place it over a subject that teaches students to analyse, interpret and evaluate things they read everyday just because it was written by a literary genius only teaches our students that we value nostalgia over actual worth. It teaches that doing things because we always did them is OK. In reality, should we not be teaching our students how to interpret the world they inhabit, the pictures and videos they see on TV and on the internet?

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3 Responses

  1. Alex, thanks for this great post. It reminds me of a few professors in teacher’s college who argued that there are far better choices available for kids today (this was 15 years ago) than a dead white guy

  2. Alex, thanks for this great post. It reminds me of a few professors in teacher’s college who argued that there are far better choices available for kids today (this was 15 years ago) than a dead white guy

    I actually think I didn’t get a job because when asked if I was a fan of teaching Shakespeare, I replied “Oh, God, no.”

    Your point, though, that teaching through the media that defines much of the world we live in, is crucial. Media literacy. Real world pedagogy – real world problems and solutions – seems more appropriate, if not more vital, than a tale of two cities.

    Of course, teachers can connect those timeless stories to today, but, similar to your message, why not just connect… today to… today, right?

  3. Ryan Harwood says:

    Great post Alex. Love the connections woven into this conversation. It reminds me a bit of stories of teachers using rap to study poetry being seen as so cutting edge and risky. Same conversation though right? Its the communication of today. Kids might not sit around and memorize poetry from a book, but they know the lyrics from all of their favorite albums.

    We live in an increasingly visually communicative world and our students need to understand how to succeed in it. These ideas and courses are a great start.

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