Turning Media Studies from a soft subject into a hard subject

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller is a teacher of Creative Media and Film at Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke. He has been teaching Media & Film courses for 6 years and has a personal interest in film production, bass guitar and bicycle touring.

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Media Studies is a terrific subject, one that can offer terrific insight into journalism, the arts and more. Andrew Miller, teacher of Creative Media & Film at Queen Mary's College in Basingstoke, looks at why the subject is seen as being soft, and what Media Studies teachers can do to change that.

With a new academic year comes a new cohort of AS Media Studies students, and I ask them to produce a 750-word essay entitled ‘Why I chose Media Studies’. This introductory activity is aimed to give me an insight into each learner’s writing ability and style, but it has proven to have other benefits. The majority of learners will write about how the Media industries are an important part of the world that act as a force of good, but many have written about how they had to do another subject to make up a full programme, and how the person doing their enrolment said Media Studies would be “easy”.

My first reaction when reading this is always anger, knowing that other teachers think I’m teaching a soft subject, but it’s all too easy to get defensive without first being reflective. Maybe Media Studies is a soft subject. After all, every time I read one of those introductory essays that discusses all the good things Media Studies has to offer, I often find myself questioning it.

A couple of years ago Michael Gove detailed how he wanted a clamp down on soft subjects, and he publicly gave Media Studies as an example. This means, regardless of whether Media Studies is a soft subject or not, it is seen as being so by those who pull the strings. It’s not actually been officially determined why Media Studies is soft, but here are some possible reasons:

  • Media Studies is vague. The word media can be used when describing advertising and marketing, filmmaking, journalism, social media etc. These things may have elements in common, but they are very much different, yet fall under the umbrella of Media Studies.
  • Because Media Studies is vague, the specification covers too much, and therefore not in the necessary depth. Learners sit an exam that sees them analyse an audio-visual text (film or print) as well as discuss some part of the media sector in a business context. Learners also produce a piece of practical coursework (filmmaking / printmaking) and log their creative process. Therefore, Media Studies is both an academic and a vocational A Level. If you chase two rabbits, you end up catching none.
  • It’s low-art. There are English Literature students a few classes down the hall who are studying George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, an allegory of how a totalitarian state manipulates and controls the population through surveillance and media propaganda. I have AS Media Studies students who are discussing the representation of gender in Doctors, the BBC daytime drama series whose target audience seems to be the elderly and unemployed.

As it is, Media Studies cannot be called a hard subject. Because it is a relatively new qualification, coupled with the fact it has the word ‘studies’ in the title (many other soft subjects seem to have the word ‘studies’ in it) means that it is an immediate red flag for anyone wanting to make changes for education. There is not a single solution to turn Media Studies to a hard subject from a soft subject. Instead, it is a process made up of many solutions working together, and it will take time. Some solutions that tackle the aforementioned issues are:

  • Make Media Studies more specific. Even the title ‘Media Studies’ is vague. Change the title to meet the content. This has started to happen with the BTEC Creative Media Production courses, where learners can opt to take Film & Television Production, Print Production, Radio Production and even Games Development Production. Whilst having many strands of Media Studies may not be ideal due to the amount of student enrollments, it might mean that Media Studies is stripped of some elements to make sure that learners are not focusing on many things in little depth, but only a few things in greater depth, therefore making it more specific.
  • Cut out the practical coursework. Making Media Studies completely exam-based might not be the best approach, but teaching an academic exam as well as practical coursework means Media Studies is not a completely academic subject. Coursework should be focused purely on using the analytical skills the learners have been developing for the exam. After all, if students want to develop their practical and vocational media skills there are plenty of BTEC Creative Media Production courses available.
  • Make Media Studies high-art. Students should be learning complex media theory and applying it to high-art examples. Analysing various representations within common media examples should be a mandatory skill, but it should not end there. Glossy magazines and daytime TV dramas should be introductory examples, and students should be encouraged to apply their skills to more artistic and experimental examples.

These solutions all have one barrier in common; they are bound by the specification. Essentially a teacher can cover anything they want to on the course, but unless it is on the specification and help them pass the exam or coursework, there is no point. This means that the first course of action is to change the specification, which is actually not as difficult as it might sound.

Whilst it is true that the exam boards produce a specification for a course, it is essentially the voice of the teachers across the country that rings out. The Media Studies teachers collectively give their input on how specifications can be changed, and the conversation needs to focus on making Media Studies a hard subject. Only then can the subject, and people’s perspective of the subject begin to change. This leads to what I am going to call (for the sake of this article) the ‘Cycle of Perception’. The stages of the cycle are as follows:

  1. Sell the subject as a hard subject. When speaking with learners, tell them how Media Studies is a subject that is going to be challenging and hard-work. This will mentally prepare them for the course, and deter those who are looking for an easy subject.
  2. Deliver the course to the standard which you have previously described. Push the learners by using texts that even you would struggle with. When analysing gender representation, swap BBC’s Doctors with FX’s American Horror Story!
  3. By raising the standard of work, exam boards will be forced to change specifications to meet the levels at which students can meet. More academic theory and higher analytical skills will then be mandatory to even scrape a grade. This will require teachers to promote their actions at every opportunity and feedback to exam boards to show how it can work.

The time has come to own up to the fact that Media Studies is a soft subject because it has been allowed to be a soft subject. Sometimes the idea of teaching a course where students get to watch teen dramas and create music videos is appealing because it helps in enrolling high numbers of students, and it can help with motivating even the most lethargic of students. However, the price to pay for this is that it cannot be called a hard subject. In order to change people’s perspective on Media Studies, we need to change Media Studies, and this has to first change in the classroom of every Media Studies teacher.

What’s your view of media studies? Let us know in the comments.

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