Developing a project on module choice
I had originally become interested in a rather general and large problem -- gender and its effects on orientation to study. More specifically, I wanted to address the unconscious aspects of gender and how they might affect student reactions to my Media courses. One which has been discussed quite a lot [elsewhere] has been Propaganda…,and here gender issues have already affected my policies in teaching sections of the course (such as the James Bond sequences) which seem to run obvious risks of being 'gendered'. I wondered if students experienced exclusion because of their gender in any way --exclusion from academic approaches, say, or just from the mundane pleasures of watching Bond movies. That question led in turn to further ones about why female students chose this module or this topic, and whether other modules might also be seen as gendered. This interest led to some work on comparing assessment score for male and female students on that module (see later sections).
A more manageable project emerged which focused on the conscious factors affecting student choice, as reported by students themselves. Perhaps I cold at least do something to make sure that students were properly informed about this module and its problems, and give them information that they wanted, rather than the more formal documentation. Of course, it is hard to give entirely impartial advice, since we were all 'selling' modules in what was basically a competitive struggle for work in the Media Studies group at the time.
I began by thinking about what I actually knew about student choice, and I realised I had some basic evaluation data, and some much more informal and anecdotal material conveyed in the form of social chats or stray remarks, usually in the first few sessions when we were 'ice-breaking'. I set out to attend more carefully to these remarks (see below).
Gathering more data
Most students in the group said that the official course handout had been influential in persuading them to try this course. Other influences had been the talk they had received at Open Day, on application to the College. Few had attended the special talk we had given during the second year (designed to assist choice), and nor did they seem to have had reports of the meeting from friends. (The meeting had been very poorly attended as I recall). Other factors seemed to be workload involved (exams and seminar presentations were disliked); perceived links with other courses (PR and History); personnel teaching the module; availability of resources, especially books; and the content needed to be 'interesting' (to quote the most frequently-used term). Talking to friends, or to students from previous years, or the physical timing of the sessions (my suggestions) seemed less important --students did not know of these matters before taking the course and found it unimportant to find out. Of course, it is possible that these comments are but the surface presentations of deeper matters, such as study orientations or 'cultural capital'. But staying at the surface provided some useful information for further design of the Handbook.
The existing Handbook entry had described the content and something of the design constraints of the module in a populist manner, included information about staffing -- and had 'read them their rights' in terms of assessment and the deadlines and so on. It seemed obvious now to include some remarks about the perceived 'difficulty' or marginality of the material as well, perhaps in the form of advice about processes of choice (eg the need to discuss the issue with the actual teaching staff should such perceptions arise in the future). It also seemed necessary to indicate to students more generally that we were trying to pursue a 'student-centred' approach, which included 'permission' for them to state their views, and a commitment to try to adjust the course to meet any perceived problems. Perhaps a list of such problems might be included:
1. That we were aware of the importance of books and other resources, and were taking steps to meet the demand (eg by generating more support material or providing a booklet of key readings)Discussion
It would be unwise to generalise too far from this cohort, of course The apparent reliance upon the Handbook for information, for example, needs to be pursued with other students -- thus the Handbook entry for Realism is especially abstract and 'academic' (virtually a repetition of the formal syllabus), but more students currently choose that module than any other. In another similar exercise, carried out after the end of Children and the Media…, similar points were made, with slightly more emphasis on the importance of the staff teaching the module, and with more students saying they did ask their friends. Choice is much more limited in the second year, of course.
Some C and M students also mentioned the apparent absence of 'practical' or 'vocational' elements, which would certainly be worth addressing in any new Handbook entry for them. At the same time, C and M students especially liked the content of the module (children's media), which they felt gave them genuine opportunities to contribute to discussion. Some also saw the 'coursework only' mode of assessment as a 'soft option'. These points might well be raised in the Handbook and in the first introductory weeks for the next cohort.
The other micropolitical issues to which I have referred [see file] are also of interest here: ours is a ‘market’ system in Year 3 in Media Studies where students choose completely 'freely' -- i.e. with no formal constraint. But what of the informal ones? I thought again about those students who had alarmed me with stories of how they have been told to avoid my modules or my work for various reasons, and I would be interested in pursuing these accounts. Just to list some of these without any comment on their veracity:
1. A student told me she had been advised specifically against choosing Propaganda…, on the grounds that it was known to be ‘too difficult’.Clearly, these issues are pointing towards another area of research, one fraught with professional and ethical difficulties despite its intrinsic interest. To retain this area for ‘action’ research it would be possible to regard these stories as ‘organizational myths’, suspending any other judgement on them. These ‘myths’ could then be countered, possibly, in course documentation. They might be expounded (without any clue as to their origin) and then simply denied or refuted with other arguments or evidence – the views of Externals or other commentators, perhaps. Or, on a more general note, students might be urged to disregard any myths in favour of asking direct questions at meetings designed to facilitate ‘choice’ (this might help obviate the effects of any further myths too – but much depends on students attending such meetings and discussing choices rationally). Finally, it would be neat (but difficult) to turn these myths to positive advantage, perhaps by using them in a ‘structure of apology’ as in Barthes’ work (in Mythologies) – the negative qualities of margarine are listed fully at the start of an advertisement for margarine, but an expert cook insists nonetheless that it is possible to make excellent cakes using it.