Notes on: Williams, N  (2004)  How to Get a 2:1 in Media, Communication and Cultural Studies, London: Sage Publications Ltd.

Dave Harris

[A bit of a hybrid book here, with at least half of it focused on key ideas and key thinkers, which are summarized rather abruptly, and so inevitably, controversially. It is a rather curious decision to include this material in a study skills book, and although the author denies that these sections are there to facilitate surface learning or plagiarism, it seems likely to encourage it.

The earlier chapters seem pretty basic and rather dogmatic, although they do try to address the specific values of universities and these particular courses. The overall tone is rather cautious, urging students not to experiment too much. Despite the title, no guarantees are offered. The reflexive link is intended between the subject matter and the activity of communicating effectively as a student. Instrumentalism is simply condemned. Students are urged to be positive and to try to engage with the work, as usual. There is more detail on websites. Key terms such as being critical are explained that briefly, and some examples of critical analysis are given  (quite good ones, 26 f)

The group work section features an analysis of Belbin on group roles, which looks OK but pretty abstract. As you would expect, presentations and other forms of communication are quite well addressed and linked to communication theory in general, including the need to remember the audience. There are some useful sides on writing various kinds of material.

Generally clear on the values of academic life, but uncritical, and tries to rationalize them, eg the emphasis on critical understanding. Gets close to making the case for a deep approach including syllabus independence, but there is no specific mention of it. The book simply condemns instrumental students, despite admitting that the author chose the title to sell the book  (2). Warns against the risk of getting too critical, and urges calculation  (8).


Offers the basic techniques of organization and some simple advice, such as considering the audience, planning work, getting help and so on. ]


Develops a reflexive loop between the actual subject matter and the process of learning, in that good communications appears in both. Good on the basics for communication, the usual irritating lists, for example on audience expectations. All very bland and shouldy. Emphasizes the need to please the tutor  (coyly)  (61). Presentational skills are important in assessment. There is the usual circularity though, as an example to  'use good information' (63). Advocates bite-size chunks of information, a piece of signposts and connectives  (there is a banal list of them on 66). This section seems to assume a strategic orientation. The author's own examples of chunks of information are awful -- bitty encyclopaedia type answers to questions like  'What is Foucault's account of discourse... Foucault sees all human activity as discourse' (67). There is a hint of a discussion about the structure of knowledge on 68. The section on plain English leads to a simple journalistic exercise  (almost like algorithms), use shorter words, an active voice and denominalization  (71). Students are advised to overcome the relativism that awaits by  'choosing what you find useful'.


The peculiarities of the essay form are defended as  'core' (74). Practical tips for writing include brainstorming, invisible writing  (75). Then the advice is to plan and organize, including breaking down sections. There are some tips on introductions. Reports are explained and advice is given on various structuring principles including a very simple  'dialectic' (78).  [There is a slippage from journalism to academic writing here and there -- the bad side of the reflexive link?]. References and bibliographies are discussed,  justified and explained -- they represent standard academic values, apparently. The basic examples of Harvard are explained  (Sage variant) too -- at least some attempt is made to explain.


Spoken presentations are discussed, including the need to simulate eye-contact and to vary communication. There are some basic tips about answering questions, and a reminder about structure and signposting. Section ends with some suggested action, including the need to edit on one's feet. Visual aids are discussed. Working in groups leads to the old Belbin stuff on various kinds of roles, such as leader and organizer. Individual presentations contain a warning against jokes and popularity contests -- presenters need to know the topic and the audience, and should be there to point out problems.


Section on Web design contains the usual material about the need for minimal content and interactivity. There are basic reminders on how to do links and the need to remember other users will be following different routes. There is some advice about how to cut and paste and make electronic notes.


The substantive content  [needed to spin out this thin stuff] consists of one chapter of 50 key ideas in the relevant subject -- about a paragraph on each, including class  (100 -1) and discourse (110 - 1)  [who is this for exactly?]. We are warned this is not a substitute for detailed reading but only a starting point or reminder, and that the reader needs to be critical and creative  [the usual warnings to try and cover against plagiarism?]. Section ends by admitting that concepts and definitions are ambiguous, and the reader is once more invited to decide for themselves when short definitions like this are effective.


Chapter five, which follows, is on key thinkers, with some additional reading. There is a hopeless intertextual and scholastic element -- try Bakhtin on 138. Shameless bullet point stuff on Foucault  (148) -- four key bullets to be precise.


Chapter six is on grading and assessment. There are some examples of criteria on 170 -- his? Each identified skill then has a subsection, for example on developing better critical abilities. University assessment is good for you, but you need to be aware of how it works to get the best returns. It is important to know the learning outcomes, for example  [assumes they are universally used]. You need to know the criteria, but tutors often see them as guidelines rather than rules  [requirements of presentation is the example here]. Nevertheless presentation is important, including structure and the effective use of typefaces! Students need to read it in the most general sense, including cross editing. They also need to get creative:  (a) find connections;  (b) break conventions or rules and challenge. Deep understanding gets its first mention (177). There is a recognition of different approaches and complexity of the task. This section refers back to the knowledge structure material, via a demonstration of how questions lead to further questions. Example is OK if rather brief  (177-8), but tends to show the professional academics' way to proceed rather than the student's [a demonstration rather than a set of principles, which risks circularity  -- be critical, do it like this, this is being critical]. The section offers the basics on argument, the need to be objective and to refer to the available facts. Other advice includes avoiding emotional appeals and not pushing to extremes (179).


Advice for exams includes the need to revise first, to take good notes, and progressively refine techniques. There are some hints on how to use academic categories such as theoretical perspectives, and how to do practical applications. On the day, brainstorming or mind mapping is the recommended technique  [why?]. Choose an approach to answer the question. Analyze the content of past papers. Typical academic words like  'analyze' described in a table  (183). Students are recommended to attempt to answer the requisite number of questions, [and the  'rubber ruler convention' explained --it is easier to get the first 40%]. With multi-choice tests, it is possible to guess especially if they are designed poorly. The dissertation should be treated as a long essay: there is some basic advice on how to choose a topic, a supervisor and an audience, and a basic structure on 190. The literature review is well explained on 191. Actual research and methods is treated in a very basic way, with pros and cons and tips in the form of bullets and tables. It addresses reservations about research as repetitive  (200).


Students are urged to avoid plagiarism, which attracts heavy condemnation --  'unethical, immoral, unscholarly, cowardly and stupid' (201). There is no attempt to understand the practice here, although there is some acknowledgement of the ambiguities.


The last chapter is on trouble-shooting or Frequently Asked Questions. It has an irritating tabular form, and is almost an index.

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