Learning Log : Seven Observations of my Teaching 

Children and the Media… Transformers… 1100—1300  21/11/96

This was a lecture session for week 8 of this module. Lecturer-led sessions introduce some of the more theoretical themes of the module (in this case, the rather difficult material in Kinder’s book on ‘postmodern’ readings of children’s TV). Student-led sessions follow up (in my case on the following Mondays 0930—1100), and here the idea is to let students present discussions  based on the material and its critical application. It is important to judge the effects of a whole week’s work, after students have had lectures and seminars, rather than itemising sessions too tightly.

My lecture was observed by my colleague AH who helped design, and who teaches on, the module. We used an observation schedule supplied at the SEDA support meeting, although we both had reservations about it: it specifies an aims and objectives model, for example (which we do not use), and it tries to itemise and guide observations with no real grasp of the problems in observing or assessing, student learning, say, or their ‘participation’ (it seems rather naively positivist in these cases). AH is going to fill in his observation sheets and we will discuss the specifics later.

As usual, however, the discussion immediately afterwards, partly engendered by the observation and partly by the lecture, was very stimulating. It covered:

1. The pros and cons of the ‘objectives’ model, especially in its early ‘hard-line’ phase (with the work of Mager or MacDonald-Ross, for example). We discussed some of the standard objections (turning on the dangers of trivialisation or the ‘megalomania’ of the approach -- my own views are published in my 1987 book, while AH is more enthusiastic, although critically so). We discussed the strange re-appearance of the ‘objectives’ model in the 1990s in the National Curriculum, in HEFCE and in staff development programmes, although this time apparently with little of the rigour of the earlier phase. My own recent re-reading of Dreyfus and Rabinow (on Foucault) helped me think this out in terms of the extension of ‘disciplinary technologies’.
2. The dilemmas of teaching this sort of ‘difficult’ or ‘theoretical’ material to students on this module, and where our responsibilities lay. Kinder draws rather heavily on Piaget and Freud, as well as some more recent social theorists. We decided it was necessary for lecturers to lead at least one phase of the discussion, to introduce some ‘theory’ beyond ‘experience’, although we also felt it was difficult to deliver technical knowledge in a structured lecture – for precisely the reasons we had discussed in the lecture itself (the decline of narrative, the rise of the ‘narcissistic’ viewer/student in postmodernism and so on). 
3. The alternatives seemed equally problematic – to use the ‘traditional’ approaches as if the student body had not changed at all or to develop a fully ‘populist’ approach, abandoning systematic theoretical discourses altogether in favour of a ‘consumer-led’ approach. We had no solutions, of course, but, as usual, some pragmatic  ‘middle ground’ seemed sensible, and we agreed again to pursue small details within our overall teaching strategy, like deciding to talk less in seminars, and give students breaks (at least) in lectures.

We both agreed that we found reading Kinder exhilarating, and the whole area of ‘postmodern’ children’s TV to be fascinating, especially the delightful clash of ‘high theory and low culture’ involved in explaining the theoretical background and then showing clips from episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!! We felt it important to try and communicate this sense of semiotic pleasure to students, although without scaring them off!

The organisational contexts were increasingly important, we agreed. We wondered to what extent a modular structure offered a ‘viewing experience’ like that offered by children’s TV (the eclipse of [academic] narrative, the collapse of [subject disciplinary] genres, ‘schizophrenic’ modes of address and so on). 

C and M… Video Games… 28/11/96 1100--1300 in 101
I decided to experiment with the ‘aims and objectives’ model to the extent of specifying ‘learning outcomes’ in advance of the lecture (partly because I knew we would be using an observation instrument which assumes their use, and partly to genuinely revisit the issue). The outcomes were deliberately tentative (since lectures only set things going, so to speak), and I did not specify them in tight behavioural terms (although they could have been so operationalised without much difficulty). I asked students before the lecture if they could think up some pros and cons –and then asked them afterwards if they had added to their list as a result of the lecture –about half said they had. The slides or handouts are available if required. This lecture was also unusual in being based entirely on talk, with no ‘viewings’: the workshops will involve playing with the games.

AH observed again, using the same instrument , and he has supplied some specific comments. Again, a general discussion ensued after the session, and we agreed that I had probably tried to cover too much in the available time (although the topic serves as a suitable one for revision of some earlier material too).  The Bourdieu material was probably best left for another session, perhaps.

Once more, we discussed our own enthusiasm for the material (and for the games themselves),and wondered what it was that seemed to cause problems for students – we both had met students in seminars last year (and, it proved, in this year too) who simply hated electronic games and would even refuse to touch them. On the other hand, we also knew students who were so keen that they found it difficult to appreciate any of the critical points, and who tended to latch on to the material that minimised the harm or stressed the benefits. However, this is a current issue – there are frequent discussions on it in the press.

Seminars this year produced similar splits. Students participated with less willingness to try out experiments to measure reactions: the specifics of the material overwhelmed academic stances in too many cases. It also proved hard to get students to see the links between this specific material and the more general issues relating to the media. Next year, we shall probably have to focus the lecture more clearly, and intervene ourselves in the design of the seminar session (?)

It is also clear that our technology is already looking very old, and that we need some up-to-date CD ROM games to focus the issues. I am aware that my own player’s knowledge is fading too – I must keep up to date too.

Promotion, Persuasion and Propaganda, 4/12/96 9:30—1100 in 310

This was a follow-up ‘workshop’, taking some of the themes in Bennett & Woollacott on the Bond movie [see file] and ‘applying’ them to Goldfinger. I had decided to focus on two themes; (a) the ‘modernisation’ thesis in B&W, and (b) the more general ‘reading formation’ issue. I decided to wait and see if the two could be managed together: if not, (a) should dominate this session, and (b) the next.

WH observed, and recorded his observations on the schedule I had used before. I was a little apprehensive-- the group had not been very lively or enthusiastic to date, and I was also worried about the unreliable TV/VCR kit in that room. I thematised for particular consideration the issues of fostering ‘on-task’ discussion in the group. I decided not to make a special effort for WH, though – he could see the standard presentation on a busy Wednesday morning in 310 towards the end of term.

After a nervous start, we went through the usual routine – selecting clips, offering B&W interpretations, then inviting wider discussion. I also asked them to record any inter-textual readings that might occur (and we managed to elicit a few, with a promise to pursue them next week).

WH’s observations, and the lengthy discussions afterwards,  provided a rich source of insight, delivered in a reassuring and open manner. He decided to keep to my suggested themes and offered a number of extremely useful and practical suggestions to order interaction differently. I realised I had been obsessed with the management of the (complex) content of this topic for a long time, and had forgotten everything I used to know about preserving the basic social relations necessary to effective teaching! I had allowed myself to be swept away by academic drift (partly induced, no doubt, by the struggle to summarise B&W for my own publications). I had never really returned from academic book-writing mode in dealing with this topic.

The subtext of our discussion was also engaging and unsettling. It was clear, if implicit, that I had forgotten how to talk to students, maybe even to the extent of not wanting to risk really talking to students. I was keeping a distance (I am supposed to be an expert in distance education, but not like this!). Another element that struck me forcefully was the issue of gender: WH pointed out that the females in the group had not spoken, and I realised that this was in fact probably a pretty common pattern in that group (although with some exceptions). I had not really helped the American females in particular to contribute. The matter could even be a structural one – I now wonder if the content of the curriculum as well as the pedagogy unwittingly closes off female participation for large sections of the module.

At one level, I ‘know’ about gender inequalities and education, and I ‘know’ about what I once called the ‘micropolitics of open-ness’ (indeed, I published quite a well-known piece on it!). Yet I had not made this knowledge part of my own practice for a long time. I had not foregrounded it, but had prioritised the more abstract ‘academic’ concerns of managing the conceptual material. I don’t necessarily blame myself personally for this slide towards becoming a mere talking textbook, but I am still (and need to be) interested in the issues (and perhaps I will focus on gender in my action research study).

Overall, I wish we could run more peer teaching/observation sessions as once we did on the old B.Ed when I first joined the College. It is so easy to drift off into your own little backwater, teaching entirely on your own with no ‘critical friend’ to warn you when you’re starting to slip your moorings!

I was able to get to talk to a colleague, BT, in particular about the problems of gaining responses in these seminars. I agreed it might be useful to review some of the theoretical work on the pleasures of viewing Bond movies in the form of a handout which would be a specific input to a seminar discussion. I did so, and I also included some personal pleasures as a ‘disclosure’ technique [now a file]. We have discussed this handout since, and some interesting discussions have arisen – on the status of the disclosures, the context of student participation and so on. 

BT could not attend the seminar after all, unfortunately, but it seemed to be more relaxed and productive than usual (I had taken great care to relax during the 1997—8 run of the course). I had encouraged students to think of pleasures of their own as we proceeded, and they were able to provide some interesting materials from their own viewings – as is often the case, I realised that some students know far more about Bond films, as fans, than I did. The step into theory proved as difficult as usual, though, and provoked some discussion about why we do theory at all (a long-running issue which I have found to be prominent in the concerns of Year 2 students this year too). This kind of discussion entered a new dimension this year after sessions on ‘post-structural’ critiques of ‘centred’ readings. It became difficult to restrain a ‘bad’ subjectivity in some cases (where such critique is taken as a licence to keep intact one’s own ‘personal’ thoughts as privileged), and to point out the decentring implications for personal readings too. 

As always, there was also an instrumental interest in these specific debates, since many students were also taking another module on gender, and some seemed ready to seize eagerly on my handout as a secret source of information that they could use in the essays for that module!

Student evaluation data seemed more positive and enthusiastic this year (1997--8), and Propaganda… recruited very well for 1998--9. [However, the teaching fell foul of the ‘political context’ described elsewhere]

C and M Review 5/12/96 100—1300 in 101

This lecture reviews some of the themes of the module (and gives us a chance to pick up some issues raised in workshops), and sets an agenda for discussion (of audience research) in later sessions.This session was observed by SW (a senior manager), partly on the basis that the Group needs some preliminary classroom observation to prepare for the HEFCE (UK national quality assurance and funding agency) visit next semester. 

The session began with a rather low attendance by students (about 50% turn out). As before, ‘learning outcomes’ were discussed instead of tight objectives. SW thought that more conventional objectives, clearly setting out the precise part to be played by the lecture would help for HEFCE, and I agreed I would supply them. I remain sceptical for the reasons discussed above, but I am not unwilling to try any reasonable pedagogic strategy, of course, and HEFCE are setting the rules. My learning outcomes are capable of yielding tighter specification without too much additional work.

The lecture proceeded fairly well, despite a slow start. SW felt I needed a crisper start and a less apologetic style: I agreed with the first point, but I do like an apologetic style, and I think students do get used to it (and some even like it). Overall, SW’s advice was professional, helpful and supportive (and I think her simulated HEFCE grade (3) agreed with my own estimate!). I am particularly glad that she was positive about the team teaching on C and M (which was especially valuable in this session – for example, AH was able to suggest new illustrations, explain his own approach, and warn me that his students had already covered some of the material).

Afterwards, I began to reflect on the changes in my lecturing style over the years, and how the various ‘academic’ and more ‘populist’ elements have altered and the blend changed.I have always felt a blend is needed, that h.e. as well as secondary schooling needs an ‘intercultural classroom’ (to cite the terms of an old Barnes, Britton and Rosen contribution), an approach that travels back and forth across the high/low culture divide, to demonstrate, as it were, how to access esoteric material without total commitment to the ‘high aesthetic’.

More recently, I have begun to play more consciously with these elements: there is the onset of ‘role distance’ which comes with age, experience, and routinisation, and there are more ‘cultural’ aspects derived from a personal liking for postmodernist ‘playing with the signifiers’. We are all now acting ‘as if we are being recorded’, according to Baudrillard. More selfishly, there is a ‘pleasure of the second degree’ on offer in playing out a modest parody of the lecturer’s role entirely for my own benefit. This is a bit elitist and indulgent, of course,but my own status in the eyes of the students has changed. I am older. I am also a respectable academic (on paper), with publications and with a prestigious title – I am the kind of person with whom I used to find it hard to establish rapport when I was a student. I find it necessary explicitly to ‘deconstruct’ this status a bit in lectures: I hope this does not look too heavy-handed or contrived .
The Commercial and the Experimental… (level 3) Room 101, Tues 21 Feb 1997 11:00—13:00

This session was observed by BO of HEFCE. I had provided HEFCE with course programmes, and a more detailed outline of the lecture. I had been given the outline constructed by my colleague PF as a template, but I changed it slightly. We had agreed at a meeting that it was not necessary to write detailed objectives for each session, and I chose not to do so (for reasons I have outlined above). I specified my intentions in terms of key concepts, and gave a brief hint of my reasons for doing so. One of our Group HEFCE objectives specified our interest in specialist concepts, and my outline was accepted by BO as a contribution to achieving that objective.

I gave a lecture on ‘realism and is discontents’, following the course programme in drawing upon work that stresses the narrative structure of realism as the key, and outlining the programmatic ‘commercial, political and artistic’ reasons for breaking with that narrative structure. I used Dennis Potter (Singing Detective, interview with Bragg on Without Walls) as an example of an auteurist stance, and Godard (Vivre sa Vie, and Pravda) as an exponent of political rejection of realism. I am aware of the difficulties students have with Godard, and I decided to outline his case with special care (and to show only a short section of the notorious Pravda).

All went according to plan, except that some students changed their minds about whether they had studied realist narrative in Year 2 (I have since supplied the doubters with copies of relevant Year 2 handouts). There was also a slight equipment failure, I had not brought my glasses so I could not rectify it quickly, and no technicians seemed to be available – so we showed all the clips in monochrome. Students were strangely shy and withdrew to the far corner of the rather too large room – but some managed to answer some questions in the interactive sections.

BO gave me some feedback the next day and pronounced himself happy with the lecture. He said he could see how it tied in tightly with the Group objective about the reflexive use of specialist concepts (the only survivor in the document from a list I had written). He liked especially the use of the Powerpoint technology to provide overheads and student handouts (which I have used for so long that I now take it for granted). We discussed the problems of teaching unpopular films, and how this session related to subsequent ones (feminist approaches to breaks with realism comes next). I promised to solve the minor technical hitches, and to provide handouts for the amnesiacs. He graded the session as a 4 [NB a top mark].

Realism (level 2) Seminar on realism and gangster genres (An3c Tues 21/2/97 14:00—16:00

This session was observed by SB of HEFCE, as part of the visit to Media Studies. The seminar followed a lecture given by AR on the 20th on the French gangster movie Touchez pas au Grisbi. Realism had just begun, and we were on the section that looks at how realist conventions are developed in different genres. French gangsters are selected in order to further relativise the discussion. AR's  handout with objectives was made available to HEFCE . In seminars, students choose their own examples from a list of gangsters (mostly European ones, but including Tarantino), and present a discussion of the realist and non-realist elements in the pieces.

I have discussed this topic many times with AR and with AH (who taught it with me until this year). I have always had doubts about using Touchez pas… at this stage. Despite its undoubted status as a classic, it is an old film, with subtitles, and to grasp it as social comment (i.e. how it alludes to an underlying social reality and is thus ‘realist’ in the special sense we wish students to grasp) relies upon a considerable knowledge of French history, and on appreciating that the use of particular weapons or cars in the scenes can be grasped as a coded way of referring to French collaboration with the Nazis during the War. Few Realism students are historians. Nevertheless, AR is the module leader, and he teaches the topic very skilfully, and students usually do come to grasp the point. Nevertheless, I felt using it at this stage infront of an assessor was pushing it a bit.

I began the seminar with a quick summary of ‘realism’ as alluding to an underlying social reality, and discussing how some of the examples on the list might do this. Students could readily see that Italian gangster films (the examples were Mi Manda Piccone and Cadaveri Eccelente), could be used to discuss government corruption and collusion with the Mafia. With a bit of help, they could see how The American Friend could pick up on American influence on German society. However, the French examples – Diva and Le Samourai – remained more enigmatic (to me too, I confess). I had worries last year about Tarantino too, since the usual way to grasp his pieces is to see them as ‘postmodern’ (i.e. as being about other films rather than as offering 'realist' social comment in the old sense). Inevitably, my students chose for their presentation Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction --  and Le Samourai!

The presentation was quite good, with an unusually tight focus on the issues of realist conventions (although everyone wanted to join in a general discussion about what particular scenes in Reservoir Dogs actually mean – the subject of considerable attention on the two main Tarantino websites, and much coffee-bar analysis). There is always one scene from Dogs which is chosen – the torture sequence. This year it was quite well analysed, but in the past it seems to act more as a kind of site for gender politics – the males show how tough they are by remaining unmoved, while some females demonstrate suitable girlish reactions. I intervened only to ask about Dogs or Pulp Fiction as social comment – and several students immediately offered the ‘postmodernist’ reading (while some others persisted with the well-known religious allegory reading). Le Samourai was more difficult, and we managed only a brief discussion (prompted largely by me). The session ended with me asking students if they felt they had gained enough material to use the discussion in assignments – all agreed they had.

SB began her discussion by asking whether it was customary to hand over so much control to students. I explained our policy, but she was clearly unhappy, and seemed to favour a rather more structured and timetabled approach to seminars (presumably as in the [possibly mythical] template adopted by HEFCE ?). I explained that our view was to let student present papers and then to judge on the spot whether intervention was required and if so, what kind was required, and that we had a long-term approach to pursue to slowly seduce students into taking a technical stance towards the issues raised by the course – by the end of the module they usually produced perfectly competent essays. I was afraid of premature intervention which often engenders a passive stance as students ‘let me get on with it’.

I’m not sure I convinced her though, and she said she would award a grade of ‘between 2 and 3’ – I never got the final grade. I can see some of her points of course, but I do worry that HEFCE expects a set-piece, teacher-led session following some undisclosed template. The problem with templates is that they can miss altogether the subtler and more skilled judgmental elements of teaching which I was trying to develop – I may have failed to do so, of course.

Staff Seminar (DEH), Centre for the Advanced Study of the Humanities, 11/3/97 17:00—19:00

This was a paper ‘The Disney Visitor and the Politics of Identity’, given as one of a series of staff seminars on ‘the crisis in identity’, run by the Humanities Department. It was open to all. The paper consisted of a section of a much larger project on Disney (which might turn into a book eventually). This section consisted of some critical analysis of the existing literature, with only a brief hint of an alternative approach based on the ‘politics of identity’ in Goffman and Bourdieu. Given the audience (mostly Humanities people), and the focus on identity, I hoped this would be a suitable ‘methodological’ theme to encourage maximum participation. I produced a paper, which was circulated beforehand, and prepared a short presentation based on it.

In brief, I developed a ‘post-structuralist’ approach (actually more influenced by Adorno) to try and tie together the methodological, critical and substantive themes. Post-structuralist critique would help expose the limits of the dominant theoretical strands in the current literature (gramscian marxism and feminism): omissions would include an adequate account of the ‘active visitor’ (the substance of our own research), and a personal voice or an active interest in the politics of identity of the writers themselves (to be exposed by reference to Bourdieu especially). I ended by returning to the initial point – many of the existing approaches simply over-estimated the power of Disney imagineers to close off narratives and position visitors – and showed three of my own slides of the Walt Disney World site in Florida to stimulate discussion.

Questions and discussion lasted for about an hour, and covered topics as diverse as the counter-hegemonic role of irony, through the adequacy of Adorno’s insistence of the ‘excess’ of the object, to more detailed examination of some of the ambivalences of my own position. I learned from it, and it helped me prepare a more effective second draft, covering these points.

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