A Learning Log: on course design

Popular Culture ( level 3)

Discussions on the redesign of the module (September 1996) followed an earlier evaluation of the 1995—6 version. The old structure followed a narrative developed in my 1992 book on cultural studies, tracing the development and demise of an approach I had called ‘gramscianism’. The main problems with this structure were: (a) at the production end there had been an explosion of new topics and new approaches in the field which threatened to break out of this narrative (b) at the reception end, students had tended to approach the module as a series of discrete topics (encouraged by the assessment scheme) and few reacted to the narrative linkages (c) a colleague (SM) was now playing a major part in the teaching and this seemed likely to continue on a regular basis.

SM and I decided to break away from the old narrative and to redesign the course using a looser system of ‘clusters’. Borrowing from successes in other modules, it would also be possible to offer far more student choice of topics. The version for 1996—7 would be a transitional model: if successful, we would loosen even more in 1997—8. 

This course also has a distance education element in the form of several files stored on the college intranet (these were originally supplementary handouts, printed off, aimed at becoming ‘reading guides’ to some of the more formidable theoretical reading). The main file contains a series of background lecture notes on topics covered in earlier versions of the course (and a glossary of terms). This needs to be updated (e.g. to cover new topics introduced this year, and to add new readings etc). The ‘cluster’ approach also permits a looser structure for these materials, though. Using hypertext, it should be possible to offer: (a) options for routes through this material based on students choosing topics initially in any order then following hypertext links to other topics; (b) the inclusion in the material of external links to Web addresses (which are easy to misread and mistype if presented in printed form); (c) the linkage via hypertext to material in other files I have produced for other modules (e.g. files on the classic realist text produced for Realism, a research report on the project on the Disney visitor, files on ‘postmodern’ media produced for Propaganda). 

Work is proceeding on this material, following some initial experimentation with HTML and hypertext on a teaching pack on Disney. The module is examined in June, so there should be time to redraft the material so students can use it for revision (the most common usage so far).

The conventional teaching takes place via lectures (team taught) and seminars. Themes for each cluster have been agreed. My lectures have proceeded as usual for Cluster 1, with more use of the Powerpoint ohp/handout technology. There are the usual dilemmas of offering ‘high theory’ to address issues of ‘low culture’, which feature in seminars too. The three student presentations so far have largely summarised key readings (quite well) rather than applying them. 

It is tempting to impose more of a critical agenda, but it is also necessary to gain student confidence, and genuinely to tap their existing knowledge of developments in popular culture. Ideally, lectures explain ‘theory’, while seminars discuss ‘experience’ and the critical relation to theory (although we have both been doing ‘experience’ and its links in lectures too). They have to get to grips with ‘theory’, but also to learn to discuss topics that can still have personal meanings for them (preferences and tastes in popular culture can be divisive). The more articulate ones are coping (aided by some marvellous visiting Americans), but several seem to be missing seminars (it is hard to be sure in the absence of up-to-date student lists). I’ll write to people and find out. SM  tells me that the seminar on Wednesday mornings (11—1300) poses problems for students who do sport (as many do) [since they traditionally play sport on Weednesdays] – I must beware of this next year! More generally, I need to think out new ways to run seminars (HH’s seminars always seem very good – is it the students who choose that module—two got Firsts last year-- or his approach?).

HH’s course did not run in 1997 because of poor student recruitment. HH retired at the end of 1997 too. During the course of the year, the Recreation Studies modules were re-designed as a Leisure and Tourism course. Popular Culture and Leisure and Enterprise were updated and redesigned, the former becoming Leisure and Modernity, with a substantially updated content to indicate a clear break with the old British Cultural Studies approach. The old Leisure and Enterprise content was amended to move deliberately away from the dominance of ‘New Times’ approach favoured (perhaps excessively) by HH, and to offer instead several organisational models (such as ‘Disneyfication’ and 'McDonaldization'). 

The whole area is in some turmoil at the moment, however, with pressure to expand Tourism as some kind of independent 'vocational' course, and with another Department on the verge of offering a Sports and Leisure Management option which will compete with the Leisure Studies rump. Ironically, certain theoretical developments (such as the new book by Rojek and Urry) suggest a collapse of the distinctiveness of ‘Tourism’ as a discrete academic subject. In 1998 student demand seems to have fallen.

Update 2
In 1998--9, the new L and E module attracted a large number of students, as did other LAT modules that I was teaching. My redeployment from Media Studies helped me meet these new commitments, but there were still some initial uncertainties over staffing: SM could not teach on the module but JP could up to a total of 45 hours. She had never taught the module before and we had little time to plan. Nevertheless, we redesigned the module to include two of her specific interests (the cluster structure helps do this) and to give her time to prepare by placing those at the end of the module (easier again without an historical narrative).

I have placed a number of supporting documents relating to L and E  on my website and transferred the whole HTML project from diskette to web. I have changed the ways in which I offer these materials after student feedback: generally, the materials were welcomed, but access to them remained as a major problem.

Update 3
The forecast numbers for one revised LAT module have fallen dramatically, as with all LAT modules, for the 1999--2000 intake. Instead of 51 takers last year, only 8 have indicated interest this year. As a response, and having discussed the matter with my SGL and with the External, I am thinking of converting the teaching fully to a 'mixed mode' format. The module is already validated as offering 'self-instructional materials', and I intend to increase this element, using electronic variants, on the Web and also on specially-constructed CDs. Tutorial elements will include email tutorials and phone tutorials as well as periodic face-to-face encounters, perhaps in the form of an OU-style 'dayschool'. This format should help to iron out fluctuations in student numbers, permit modules to run even if they are under- or over-subscribed, and break free from the severe constraints of the College timetable which affects student choice as much as any other factor (this module was partly timetabled against a core Sports Studies module this year).

Update 4
The 1999—2000 version ran with only one section devoted entirely to web-based materials in the end. Evaluation of this element suggested it was popular and effective – but it is noticeable that only one student chose the ‘cluster’ concerned for assessment. In order to try and solve the problems of access, I converted my website into a CD format, working with a local businessman to keep costs low. The ‘simulated website’ runs on a web-browser and sales seemed good. Generally, teaching small numbers is much more enjoyable and some of the essays were really excellent and insightful. I have a feeling that demand will be up next year for this module – indeed, student demand seems to follow a classic ‘wave-form’. A successful and enjoyable experience for small numbers of students seems to engender higher levels of demand next year, but then the experience is less enjoyable (and books in more demand), so demand falls for the next year – and so on). This does make preparation and book-ordering policies very uncertain, however.

Overall, demand for the new Tourism options has been less buoyant than expected too – no-one knows why as yet. If anything, the Leisure options are holding up much better, slightly to the surprise of the planners who imagined that more ‘vocational’ courses would do better!

Promotion, Persuasion and Propaganda (level 3)

The main design issues here are common to other Media modules I teach. Many students (and some colleagues) take the view that the media should be analysed primarily in terms of how they represent ‘real’ issues (often political ones like ‘underprivileged groups in our society’ etc.). Much of the theoretical work these days, however, is to do with the issue of signification – the conventions used to convey meanings in films, address (or construct) audiences, refer to earlier work in film or TV etc. Students often come to this course with a ‘representational’ stance, but we want to develop this into an interest in signification too.

We usually start with classic propaganda (despite the title of the module). Here, it seems easy to read films as the direct representations of ideas or the direct expressions of propagandists. However, we also want students to begin to see how conventions and generic codes (e.g. of the biopic), and the stamp of auteurs (like Eisenstein) affect even this material. AR usually takes both lectures and seminars for this section, but this year I am taking seminars.

The main strategy is to relativise the approaches by showing classic pieces from different national cinemas (Nazi, Soviet, US and UK). It is important to stress the effects of different political and historical circumstances too, and this is where I am weak. After discussion, we have agreed on a strategy for seminars:
1. Begin with discussing subjective reactions to these (powerful) pieces, often operating at the representational level 
2. Focus on propaganda techniques deployed in the films, beginning to talk about these in terms of conventions. Contrast them with other genres or other examples (Nevsky with Strike, Wilson with The Fighting Seabees)
3. Move on to the ‘look’ of the pieces, concentrating on matters like the conventions of shots and edits, links with other works by the same director (for Eisenstein). AR suggests we might reconstruct some of the camera shots to demonstrate the non-realist, non-naturalistic elements.
4. Discuss audience reactions at the time and in the actual seminar (to get at different readings and matters like intertextuality).

Overall, this seems to be working slowly, although the material to come (Bond movies and promotional videos) might be easier (and see observations of sessions). Certainly the propaganda pieces are powerful and affecting (more for me than for the students?) which makes a ‘technical’ stance quite difficult. Bourdieu has argued that such a technical stance is best seen as a coping strategy to distance the impact of such pieces anyway, which raises doubts about the whole stress on signification – but I will not share this with the students at this stage.

Children and the Media: Education and Entertainment (level 2)

. Students majoring in Media are almost obliged to take this module because of limited choice in year 2, but some choose it more willingly (giving the usual mixed groups). The module arose out of an earlier version which focused almost entirely on educational broadcasting.  My colleague AH played a major part in the replanning and in the teaching (and has played a major part earlier in the birth and development of the whole Media Studies package when it was Film and Television Studies). AH is also an educational technologist by training, and he and I share a background in debates about ‘rational curriculum planning’. In 1996—7 his temporary contract almost came to an end (he is 67!). We fought to get him re-instated in a one-off deal to teach exclusively on this module for this last year. Another colleague was also persuaded to work on the module in order to acquire a full teaching load.

Some more detailed accounts of lectures follow, since my teaching on C and M  is to be observed as a preliminary to a Quality visit. The pedagogic strategy assumes that students will learn from the module after a combination of lecturer-led sessions (lectures, usually with viewings), student-led sessions (where students present the results of their collective attempts to critically read and ‘apply’ the material). We have collected some useful background articles (including some fairly obscure research articles) into a student booklet, which they can buy in exchange for a small cover charge. 

The ‘viewings’ include playing electronic games on the Sega MegaDrive consoles specially acquired by the College (and there are about ten games, chosen to cover a range – from ‘educational’ ones like Lemmings, to more violent platform games like Urban Strike). It would have been nice to have acquired some multi-media PCs to use as well. Apart from the problems of scarce resources, one interesting objection to such purchases can be detected – that electronic games are not ‘really’ the subject matter of Media Studies. Concretely, this case is usually advanced on standard bureaucratic grounds, but there is a central issue, of course, which is the subject of discussion inside Media Studies itself. Indeed, the issue is raised within the Module – what exactly is meant by ‘the media’ these days, or, more specifically, what is ‘television’, when the same screen display broadcast material (on several channels), recorded video tape, and, with the flick of a switch, an electronic game?

This material also raises the rather interesting pedagogic issues with Media Studies generally and with this module especially – that there are occasions when the students are genuinely likely to be far more expert than the staff. This can cause staff some anxiety, but it also provides a genuine basis for student contributions in ‘workshops’ and ‘seminars’ (instead of the much-discussed ‘stage-managed discovery’ methods where students have to try to reconstruct what the tutor already knows). At the same time, it is clear that some of the reading material is challenging – it covers postmodernist commentary and rather detailed empirical psychological ‘effects analysis’, for example. We see this as offering a genuine chance for tutors to contribute something (!). As a result, we employ a deliberately dualist pedagogic strategy, with a clear demarcation between tutor-led and student-led sections (at least in the early stages—later, both parties acquire expertise in both sections): we expect that learning emerges from a creative collision between the discourses.

This dualist approach is one of the reasons we both have doubts about using an ‘aims and objectives’ approach. (This point is developed in a more specific way in the reflections on teaching observations which follow). In the first place, we want to open up some dimensions for students rather than specifying outcomes too tightly (this used to be known as the ‘teaching as voyages of discovery’ argument). We do not have a strong ‘party line’ to be discovered at the end of a tightly controlled educational narrative (as in ‘academic realism’). We genuinely think that, in their sections, students might be given some real control over the learning outcomes. The more behavioural specifications of limited objectives do not offer a useful discourse to describe such open outcomes, in our view, and would remain only as an idealisation of the course, from the tutor’s viewpoint: closing off genuine opportunities for student control also implies a certain megalomania, a drive to (cognitive and micropolitical) domination. 

At the very least, the unit of delivery would have to be thought out rather carefully – for us it would be not the individual lecture but a teaching sequence (perhaps over several weeks) including lectures, workshops, private study and personal thinking. Thinking like this also led us to an assessment policy: we rejected both formal examinations and student-led ‘project work’, and chose instead essay titles that deliberately asked students to encompass material from lectures and from their own ‘readings’.

The case against project work might need to be specified a bit here. It emerges from our experience in running the predecessor of C and M. As our records reveal (the Module Reports are the official documents), student project work on that module produced very disappointing results for all except a small group. We intended students to use practical projects as a chance to deliver insights into the dilemmas of designing educational materials. We assessed the write-up and not the project itself, largely because we felt we could not assess projects directly given the variation in circumstances in which they were produced (some students already had lots of practical experience, others none, some had access to kit from outside sources, others relied on college kit, some students got lots of cooperation from people outside, others got less – and so on). Above all, students were encouraged to choose their own projects and develop them in their own chosen media, and the work produced was hugely variable as a result. Officially, though, we were obliged to assess the pieces using the standard criteria as on the coursework form: as we all knew, those criteria had been developed on the assumption that traditional academic written assignments were being assessed. Despite many attempts, the relevant managers had never discussed how we might ‘apply’ those criteria to practical work or develop alternatives.

Students themselves often seemed to fail to grasp the point of the project despite copious documentation and discussion. The ‘hidden curriculum’ seemed to encourage quite a different approach. Students tended to produce hasty and poorly-planned pieces scrambled together at the last minute, with little reference to anything we had discussed on the course, and, as a result, had almost nothing to say in their write-ups. The remedy seemed to involve its own (rather well-known) paradoxes – for tutors to dominate the process almost completely (which happened with one colleague, who was spending hours each week working with students in great detail on ‘their’ projects) would raise grave doubts about what a ‘student project’ actually meant in those circumstances. We would be getting very close to the ‘stage-managed discovery’ and megalomania discussed above. In those circumstances, the pedagogic practices of the tutor would get close to becoming the dominant variable in student performance, of course. Finally, we would risk drifting towards placing the emphasis back on the lengthy business of actual production, on ‘production values’, rather than on the academic values of critical analysis.

Overall, perhaps C and M is too ambitious in its open-ness, and tries to juggle too many discourses and pedagogic strategies. Each year, we have thought of spreading the material over an additional module. Some students do this themselves, so to speak, by pursuing themes raised in C and M  in dissertations, but it would be nice to consider a modest expansion.

Update 1
C and M was revalidated as a new 'advanced' module, but it was withdrawn in 1998--9, perhaps permanently. It is possible that a revised version might be offered as part of the proposed new Education Studies major. In the interim, a version of the course has been placed on my personal website, grouped around Powerpoint handouts: I intend to flesh out and revise the material in due course. Much student interest remains in the topics, and several student dissertations have been completed (and one is underway, from a BEd student). One former student has retained his interests in this topic, and has produced a valuable series of hyperlinks to suitable websites on his own website.

Update 2
C and M has indeed vanished as a result of the political manoeuvrings in the parent group. It was also rejected as a component of Education Studies for unknown reasons.

Course Design and Politics

Events were also unfolding in a different dimension. The College was undertaking a substantial re-validation of all of its modular courses and as a result there were changes in both Media Studies and Recreation Studies (which became split into Leisure and Tourism). The changes in Media Studies were the most drastic, affecting my work profoundly:

1. The course was redesigned and my modules (and those of another colleague) were marginalised (and finally withdrawn)
2. In the course of the ensuing dispute, we lost our grievance procedure. We were then instructed not to teach Media. Later still, we were dismissed for gross professional misconduct and then I was re-instated on appeal, while all charges against my colleague were withdrawn
3. We feel very mixed indeed about this sad episode, which has placed several of us under great stress for months, and split the College staff down the middle (I am glad to say most of the students supported us).

However, the episode does serve to remind us all that course design takes place in a definite ‘(micro)political’ context, and that design does not always follow the abstract consideration of the professional issues, or the official ‘pursuit of the better argument’. Nor indeed are ‘market forces’ the only factors. Old hands know this, of course, but it is curious to see official training schemes or accounts of practices ignoring this context altogether, and operating with an idealised model of academic life.

back to 'reflections' page

back to site main page