Notes on: Bennett, T.  (1980) 'Popular Culture: a "Teaching Object"'.  Screen Education 34:17-30

Dave Harris

There are problems of teaching the concepts of culture and ideology, and this article arises from the experience of trying to develop a course on popular culture [the legendary U203 Popular Culture].  It was an Open University (OU) course, featuring all the specifics and constraints of the OU context.  It was designed to discuss popular culture and its opposites, leading to problems with definitions, including which opposite was to be developed in particular.  For example one old opposition was to the notion of high culture, but the team felt that this had 'all but collapsed' (19).  Nor had popular culture achieved any stability is a theoretical object.  It remained a teaching object, shaped by strategic possibilities.

In the OU context, U courses were designed specifically to encourage interdisciplinarity and to be accessible and of interest to students from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds. [They also did not need to be located in conventional Faculties -- S.Hall had faced much scepticism and lack of cooperation from Sociology and English when establishing CCCS]   They were designed to 'widen [student] horizons…  through the juxtaposition of complementary disciplinary perspectives or…  more radically… to question the way in which discipline boundaries are conventionally constructed' (19).  The actual title for U203 was intended to pull together different staff [ the select few of like-minded people,including quite a few CCCS graduates --must have helped cohesion. However, the historians never really belonged and Bennett as Chair had to tell them off in the course materials themselves -- see my 1992 book] , producing a 'relatively pragmatic' title before detailed sorts of content and strategy were developed [a footnote describes the 'coursework bidding' system at the OU, where proposals were approved in principle by University committees before resources were released (20).  The precise field the course was to address was defined by outside speakers as well, including R Williams, Eagleton, Stedman-Jones, R. Johnson and S Hall [ the old New Left lot].  The course was always 'the product of collective work' [with a bit of judicious policing from Bennett] (20).

Several pedagogic options were available, linked to the several meanings of the term popular culture.  The broadest meaning would not define the field narrowly enough and tend to produce a mass of a 'sociologies' or 'histories' of [sport, cinema and so on] rather than developing the notion of a system of cultural and ideological relations.  The term mass culture was 'pejorative', the notion of a popular radical culture was too oppositional and too romantic [too 'culturalist' too I bet], and also tended to reifiy the opposite pole, leaving the team unable to problematize the polarization [ defend it in gramscian terms].  Any simple classification like this ignores 'relationships, processes and transactions'.

[Interesting, but so far almost nothing on actual pedagogy, more on the pragmatics of course design—typical OU perspective].

Rethinking these conventional oppositions led to the idea of culture as moments 'placed' in superstructures through the process of hegemony [taken for granted organizing concept from the very beginning, already showing the convenient alliance between theoretical tidiness, political commitment, and the problems of defining things nicely in academic contexts].  The process was to be understood historically.  There was a focus on space or site rather than content.  Hegemony was taken to be as [widespread if not universal] struggle, and the team were led to Gramsci through Mouffe [surely disingenuous] .  Hegemony was seen as enabling articulations.  [Classic academicism here—the aim was to get a 'coherent "teaching object" capable of sustaining a theoretically productive teaching strategy' (28).  The only practical problem seems to have been one of limiting the field].

Conventional definitions were seen as slicing into this overall terrain, producing abstracted enclaves—film studies, studies of working class culture, for example.  A dilemma did arise, when thinking of a possible student audience: the

question of the real effects produced by a text can only be ascertained conjuncturally, by examining the relationship between text and reader/viewer as aligned by an overall system of cultural and ideological relationships in which both are inscribed.  But if this is so…  The study of texts should proceed through a prior elucidation of such relationships rather than…  as an afterword. In the absence of such a reorientation…  such problems are recognized only to be endlessly deferred, pushed into an ever - receiving future for someone else to deal with'(29).

 [Please note there is one study of the actual responses from the actual audiences struggling to grasp U203: Miller, R.(1994) '"A Moment of Profound Danger"; British Cultural Studies Away From the Centre'. Cultural Studies 8(3) 416--37. This article cites me a lot {!!}

Miller notes that Bennett wrote  a publicity  piece attempting to 'make U203 sound fun and attractive {popular you might say} ,while letting on that it will also involve serious work' (424).  U203 was evaluated as usual by OU surveys and self-report forms {pretty flimsy and empiricist}. As you might expect, results were rather negative.
Students were soon 'registering their surprise and dismay at its content and approach' (427). Some referred to 'brainwashing', others to a 'patronizing faintly disapproving almost puritanical attitude'. Miller tells us that 'only 36% of those students who completed the course found its content similar  to what they expected...a full 86% of those polled found the course,in general, more difficult than they had anticipated...69% of those who completed had either a negative of neutral response to its approach, and 45% recorded a negative or neutral approach to its content' (425).  Miller knows that evaluations like this are ambiguous, and might even vindicate the team's view of the ideological depth of popular culture. However, apparently some academic reviewers also noticed the selectivity in the approach and the dubious pedagogical tone. Sean Cubitt, a fan, writing after the course was closed, 'felt compelled to mention the "highly structured if at times patronizing, way in which the materials are presented"' (426)

Miller says that the team had never really been that interested in popular culture for its own sake. S Hall argued  that popular culture was an area of political contestation and struggle, and otherwise '"I don't give a damn about it"'. Miller says : 'One cannot help but wonder what would have happened if this sentiment had been openly expressed in Bennett's article advertising the course' {well-we know -- low recruitment}. Overall, it is likely that 'the pedagogical strategy used to introduce Gramsci's notion of hegemony has failed...a situation has been produced that doesn't allow the students to do work that either they or their teachers would be likely to value' (427).

Miller also notes the disagreements among the course team about Gramsci which surfaced in the course materials. He detects Bennett changing his definition of hegemony to meet the various criticisms. Again students were just left to deal with these ambiguities and debates, especially as assessment demanded the usual stance of 'reiterating the information proffered in each individual block { of material}, a point made again in student feedback]

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