Skillset tickLast month the media historian and political economist James Curran gave a talk at a conference I attended, the annual conference for MeCCSA, the Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Association. Entitled ‘Mickey Mouse Squeaks Back: Defending Media Studies’ Curran’s talk was a vigorous defence of a subject area that seems to have been under attack from sections of the media for as long as I’ve been involved in studying or teaching it (about 20 years).
Curran defends media courses against charges of being intellectually lightweight or too narrowly vocationally orientated by quoting module titles from degrees at Cardiff and Sussex that have such grand titles as ‘Media and Democracy’ and ‘Media, Publics and Protest’ – nothing lightweight sounding there and certainly nothing that sounds too vocationally narrow about them.

As I listened to Curran I wondered what students would have made of his speech. Are they aware their subject was under such attack? Would his summary of this continued belittlement make them wish they’d chosen Dentistry instead rather than be the continuing subject of The Daily Mail’s venom?

A month after listening to Curran I was invited to participate in Creative Skillset’s ‘Achieving Industry Best Practice’ event (full programme – PDF). This event was all about vocationalism. Skillset use industry advisors to accredit courses that can evidence their relevance to the industry that their graduates intend to work within. The course I lead gained such accreditation early last year.

Neither keynote speakers (Channel 4’s Chief Executive David Abraham amongst them) nor academic contributors touched on the Media Studies’ image problem as Curran had done. Here, it was all about how course leaders and designers MUST meet the requirements of industry in order to best serve the ambitions of their graduates.

There was much reference to the ‘fused graduate’, someone capable of working across business, creative, technology and digital. No longer will graduates work in an industry where content is created by multi-disciplinary teams; instead, the graduate needs to be an inter-disciplinary ‘wunderkind’.

Again I wondered what a student at this event might have made of it. To my ears it sounded slightly terrifying and enormously hard work. Each of the academics that gave case studies seemed to be putting their students through the experiences they themselves had had as industry practitioners. That is, experiences that were slightly terrifying and enormously hard work.

Neither of these events situated the graduate experience as a worker in the creative industries as a particularly happy one. I’m reminded of Charlie Brooker’s take on what it’s like to have a career in Television. I presume Brooker must have read some of David Hesmondhalgh’s and Sarah Baker’s work who noted how casualisation of labour in the creative industries led to: “expressions of victimisation and anger on the part of many workers; a sense of being on the receiving end of harsh and aggressive treatment.” (full article – PDF).

Hesmondhalgh and Baker note that workers tend to describe their often terrible working conditions as enjoyable and pleasurable – there’s almost a form of self-exploitation going on they argue.

Ultimately it is students who have to deal with the discourses about their subject as described here.  As they progress from learner to graduate they have to contend with the commonly-held opinions as described by Curran and the realities of a complex, casualised industry as characterised by Skillset and critiqued by Hesmondhalgh et al.

That the student voice was lacking from both of these events was telling. Perhaps we’d rather they didn’t know what awaits them.

Birmingham Centre For Media And Cultural Research

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