British Cultural Studies and 'Academic Realism'
This is a conference paper given at the University of Sussex, March 1996


This paper sets out to argue that the development and style of British Cultural Studies can not be understood unless we acknowledge the structuring effects of educational discourse and educational contexts that arise from contacts with universities. This understanding of Cultural Studies as a university discipline is in contrast to some of the more usual accounts that stress the internal history of various theoretical debates (the turn to Gramsci, the clash with Althusserians, the impact of feminisms, creeping idealism and so on), or that prioritise the personal histories of the founding fathers (Hoggart, Williams, Thompson), or those that see some determining influence in the changing zeitgeist of Britain in the last few decades (see, for example, Schwarz 1995).

There has always been an awareness of the importance of the organisational setting of Cultural Studies in Britain, of course. Hall has been quite explicit about the micropolitical struggles over university politics that haunted the establishment of the Birmingham Centre, for example (Hall 1980), and Bennett has written an entertaining account of the need to negotiate the constraints of the system at the Open University in order to produce the canonical  Cultural Studies course Popular Culture (U203) (Bennett 1980). Further, some acknowledgement of and interest in pedagogy has been expressed in accounts of the success of  both Birmingham and the OU: the former, which offered an apparently  peculiar collective form of graduate research was seen as involved in nothing less than  the production of ‘organic intellectuals’, for example (Hall ibid.), while the latter has long been hailed as ‘progressive’ in its combination of ‘open-openness’ and the collective production of academic courses. There are more fleeting references to the importance of the educational relationship in forming working contacts with ‘the people’ in a number of other accounts (especially in Williams -- see McIlroy 1991 -- and, rather differently in, Hebdige 1988).  

Until recently, however, the deeper connections between the discourses of Cultural Studies and those of more conventional higher educational disciplines has been neglected. It is suggested in this paper  that an examination of narrative forms and pedagogic strategies in particular will help to answer a major question raised by this Conference -- with what authority does Cultural Studies operate? The suggestion here is that, despite its critical intentions, its claimed distance from ‘bourgeois’ disciplines, and its claims to represent progressive practice, Cultural Studies operates increasingly with the same sorts of appeal to authority as most other disciplines.  I have used the term ‘academic realism’ to refer to one particular form of pedagogic authority as an example. 

It is worth saying immediately, though, that this somewhat ironic outcome is not to be meant simply as a rebuke or exposé, or as some accusation of sell-out or hypocrisy. Even conventional pedagogic authority has its ‘good’ side, as we all know, since we all use it to inform students and encourage them to master difficult materials, to widen their horizons, to compel their attention in order to expose them to critical materials. Further, there are resources in Cultural Studies which might encourage a suitably critical stance despite an adherence to conventional narratives and systems of authority. Indeed, an early study of Gramsci’s own views on traditional education (Entwhistle 1979) shows the helpful sides of the contradictions: in principle at least, even traditional education is genuinely universal and ‘good’, and it can be bent to the side of socialist political struggle by using the conceptual tools of the bourgeoisie against itself.  

However, this leaves Cultural Studies in  the ambiguous position of having to acknowledge and to claim some of these advantages while its official histories usually begin with an announcement of a decisive ‘break’ with tradition. Whatever the results of any rethinking here, any discourse wishing to retain its radical intentions in conventional pedagogic settings is forced to address the issue of pedagogy and university practice much more explicitly than has been the case, and to begin to untangle some of the contradictions and complexities.


Becker’s study of the ‘fate of idealism’ described the changes in orientation of medical students as they went through their college careers: in the early phases, immersion in education produced a liberalisation of attitudes and personal views, but as entry into the profession loomed, stances became more conservative again. For individual pedagogues like school teachers, though, an ironic reversal seems to occur, and initial enthusiasm outside educational institutions turns into more calculating ‘coping strategies’ as the realities of classroom life force their way on to the agenda, or as commitments tighten and take on an institutional form as a ‘career’ (see Ball and Goodson 1985). The same institution that offers a respite and harbour for some students voyaging between the constraints of families and respectable professions can also encourage calculation and coping.

At  the level of academic subjects, similar contradictory possibilities and ‘careers’ might be detectable, where radical, questioning, critical intentions become institutionalised as they encounter the constraints of the validation of syllabi, the existing processes of teaching, and, above all, of the need to engage in formal student examination and assessment.


Two academic subjects which are analogous to Cultural Studies might be cited here. Both Media Studies and Sociology emerged as graduate and undergraduate subjects in Britain, but became secondary school subjects too. Both seem to have been associated closely with radical intents and with ‘progressive’ pedagogies, and both seem to have derived support for this approach from a favourable view of popular culture. In a nutshell, there seems to have been a faith that popular culture acted as a kind of reservoir of counter-hegemonic experience that could be tapped to build a bridge with critical concepts in Sociology or media theory. Critical concepts would have an immediate resonance with popular experience, provided that pedagogy permitted students the maximum opportunities to express their own experiences in educational settings. The role of the pedagogue would be to broaden, deepen, systematise and refine these naturally radical insights. Very similar analyses can be found in Cultural Studies’ accounts of popular experience, of course (in Education Group II 1991, for example)

We might consider at this stage some general problems with this notion of a radical reservoir which guarantees the validity of radical academic disciplines. Arguments were soon to be heard about the demise of the great populist tradition of dissent, for example, specifically the end of the radical tradition of demand for education ‘from below’ (see Stedman-Jones in Waites et al. 1982), while studies of school education in the 1980s and 1990s ( that is, under ‘Thatcherism’) (Bates et al. 1984 Education Group II ibid) show depressingly conformist or powerless adult working class stances towards the most ideological of policies on ‘vocational training’ or ‘proper standards’. 

Educational institutions themselves were coming under the scrutiny of more pessimistic analyses. ‘Reproduction’ models of schooling suggested deep ideological interpellations, the highly uneven accumulation of ‘cultural capital, or an abiding ‘correspondence’ at a deep level with the values and practices of capitalism. Much effort was devoted by British activists to dispelling the gloom cast by these approaches, by pointing to continuing resistances or ‘sites of struggle’, and this sort of retort made some converts even of reproductionists  (see the retractions by Gintis and Bowles 1980, and even Willis 1983).

Of course, other radical traditions and groupings to bear them -- especially ethnic minorities and women -- were still to be examined, but even here, such groups tended at best to offer a rather subdued and indirect comfort for radical disciplines, in the form of contradictory bundles of ‘resistance and accommodation’ (see, for example Mac an Ghiall or Moore in Woods and Hammersley 1993). Parallel insights had developed into the limits of youth cultures to offer much more than a ‘magical resolution’ of the problems presented by the ‘double articulation’ of class and youth, of course.

In a school setting specifically, these limitations are apparent. Willis’s famed study (1977) revealed a disappointing tendency for popular radicalism to shoot itself in the foot as the traditions of humour and stoical coping that preserved working class male pride in the face of the values of the school also led to a complete rejection of ‘theory’. Later ethnographies of Media Studies classes (Alvarado 1981 or O’Shaughnessy 1981) reveal similar problems in school students relating to analytical topics outside immediate experience -- such as the issues of ownership and control of media industries, or theories of ideology.  

Althusser taught us, eventually, that we often operated here with a naive empiricist epistemology where ‘theory’ tries to make better sense of ‘experience’, and that the error is endemic rather than confined to discrete topics. We now suspect that theory and experience generate different and irreconcilable knowledges, that there must be a tension between the knowledge of video games, say, produced by someone who has come to the arcade after a lifetime of theoretical endeavour, and the knowledge of the experienced player who has never worked theoretically on that experience. Some pedagogical implications are considered below.

In seminars, that gap can still be glossed. To draw on my own experience, for a moment, it is easy to overlook the issue of authority when discussing the contents and effects of films or TV programmes with students who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic viewers, but pedagogic authority becomes a crucial issue when the topic shifts to consider concepts like the conventions of editing used in the piece or its narrative structure. It is not surprising, perhaps, to find a locally-negotiated drift towards a pedagogic version of ‘uncritical populism’, in McGuigan’s (1992) phrase, inside universities and colleges, as student tastes and ‘choices’ impact upon course design and teaching. This form of market-driven ‘involvement’, where students act as customers, seems hardly to have attracted comment, even among the best commentators (like Buckingham -- below).

There was always an early interest in the organisational constraints of schooling too, in the curriculum and in the ‘hidden curriculum’. To return to school-based Media Studies, it was soon realised that radical school disciplines were being treated alongside other disciplines, as part of an organised schooling, to be funded on the same basis, to exist in a relation of micropolitical struggle with other disciplines for funding, for premises, and for able students. Above all, Media Studies and Sociology were to be formally examined on the same basis as other school disciplines taught at A-level. There is an unfortunate tendency for the impact of assessment to be neglected in the enthusiasm for course design, but it is clear that distortions can soon arise. If students need to revise only selected topics for the examination, ‘selective neglect’ can be directed at the remainder of the syllabus, and, no doubt, at those themes, arguments and debates which connect the individual ‘topics’ (such as the debates on the apparently eternal clash between the ‘perspectives’ in Sociology). Topics can be chosen rather cynically, in terms of their ability to generate solid examination answers, rather than from any perceived connection between sociological analyses and everyday life.

Anyone who has taught Sociology or Media Studies will recognise these trends, I suggest. Both subjects have recognised them in an interesting way by producing specific teaching materials that assume selective neglect, in the form of student textbooks or teaching packs that operate with a separation of topics more or less in line with the expectations of students. The Haralambos phenomenon in Sociology will do as an illustration here, where a range of textbooks have been produced with neat subdivisions between topics, potted summaries of selected pieces of research, simplified commentaries and so on. 

In this world of textbook Sociology, there is no need to pursue themes across topics (except in order to strengthen the pedagogic frameworks of ‘perspectives’), so that Marx is largely confined to particular ‘topics’ (he does not seem to have had a methodology, for example), and ‘the marxist tradition’ simply manifests itself in a host of later works without any account of the growth of or the tensions in such a ‘tradition’. Weber can not be easily managed as a ‘tradition’ or ‘perspective’ and so he tends to be confined to bit parts and walk-ons in other people’s chapters. Empirical work is efficiently summarised rather than discussed as problematic (save for the old debates about the evils of ‘positivism’). There is almost no mention of more recent Sociological theory that tries to escape from the induced banality (Morris 1988) of the predictable clashes of the ‘classical’ frameworks, even in Giddens’ major textbook. 

Selfe’s astonishing book (1993) displays the ‘bullet point’ style of the genre at its clearest, and, as with other examples, one cannot simply condemn textbooks like this. They represent the results of perfectly adequate scholarship combined with a thoroughgoing grounding in the pedagogic problems of teaching the discipline to generations of students who need to get through. These pieces have simplified both pedagogy and learning down to its essentials: the author provides a list of necessary points and some study skills advice, while all the learner needs to do is to use the materials to simulate knowledge.

Some of the protests about such a convenient reduction of a discipline like Sociology have resulted in an even deeper form of pedagogic management. Protests from Examining Boards about the over-reliance of students upon textbooks have led to supplements like edited collections of specially written commentaries produced almost as a part-work, special journals with summaries of some of the background figures or debates, heavy emphases in some of the teaching or revision materials on ‘critical discussion’ and so on. There is clearly a danger that these materials too can be incorporated into the main body of pedagogic Sociology, and be used, in effect to produce more and more convincing simulations of engagement and interest.

Of course, there could still be genuine engagement and interest. As with standard debates about the ‘reproduction thesis’ in popular culture, there is a ‘good’ side to these activities. Never before has it been so easy to acquire expert material about Sociological debates. As usual, though, the question is whether the form of these materials cancels the critical intention of their authors. Specifically, the question is whether this material allows the original project to take place -- the deliberate attempt to organise a connection, in some ‘organic’ sense, between everyday experience and critical Sociological argument. Do sociological materials of this kind operate with an authority derived from their unique ability to articulate and explain the experience of people in modern societies, or do they speak more with the authority of the training manual, consumers’ guide or self-help book -- a pass at GCSE or your money back is, after all, the slogan of one of the best-sellers (Moore *).

A similar analysis could be pursued with the recent development of Media Studies teaching materials, of course, the work by the BFI in constructing a textbook (with suggested film clips) around their archives (Cook 1985) or in their collaborative work with the OU in producing a universal multi-media teaching pack (*), or in the growth of their well-used ‘study packs’ or ‘film classic series (such as Schickel 1992).


The story with Cultural Studies involves the establishment of the Popular Culture Group at the Open University, of course, and the production of the highly successful OU course Popular Culture (U203 as it is known to adherents) against a background of well-established pedagogic practice in ‘distance education’. Such practice is often just assumed to have been designed with ‘progressive’ intentions, but, as usual, there are contradictions. I have discussed these at greater length in Harris (1987), but there are several issues that represent the debate. 

The open admissions policy (applicants did not require the usual entry qualifications), for example, has been hailed as a refreshing commitment to provide access to higher education to previously excluded groups, but the OU has never exactly prioritised those without such qualifications. Instead, early plans centred on attracting a pool of non-graduate teachers, with good qualifications already, as well as a splendid record, very often, of success in part-time adult study. Indeed, there were early plans to counsel out any really unqualified applicants, or to arrange for them to be left at the back of any queues for places should they stubbornly persist. In some ways, open admissions looks like a tactical policy to attract sufficiently large numbers of customers, more in the spirit of supermarket Sunday opening than any radical  attempt to break existing educational hierarchies. Of course, there were genuine extensions of opportunity as well, but here the inspiring stories of individual achievement and mobility need to be set against the much less-well publicised statistics on drop-out (overall completion rates to BA level over an eight year period are falling, possibly as the ‘pool of talent’ dries up, and they now stand at 35% for the 1985 intake, compared to 54% for the 1971 intake -- see Woodley in Lockwood (1995) for a discussion). I have seen no recent figures, but early data showed a considerable interaction between courses chosen and factors like social class origins or educational qualifications: such combinations produced very high rates of drop-out from some early Maths courses for some groups of ‘unqualified’ students), leading to early fears that the open door would become a ‘swinging door’(see Woodley 1981).

It is ironic that course design at the Open University, at least in its dominant versions, has become widely accepted as a model for conventional institutions eager to devise a suitable pedagogy for ‘mature entrants’. The ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides of the OU teaching system offer familiar options as in the ‘reproduction’ debate. Distance teaching materials liberate students from the bureaucratic demands of timetabled attendance, of course. For the optimists, there is admiration too for the potential of OU course to offer academic knowledge directly to students, so to speak, unmediated by the usual social conventions of ‘proper education’ found in classic university seminars or tutorials (Birnbaum in Tunstall 1974). I have certainly encountered OU students who have opted for the system precisely on those grounds, feeling that managing face-to-face encounters with academics or with other students would be potentially mortifiying. Some radicals clearly hoped that the system would produce something like ‘organic intellectuals’, as workpeople came home to read Sociology or Cultural Studies in the evenings, and then returned to their workplaces ready to apply the searing critiques of ideology they had been studying : again, I can testify that such people do exist in the OU system, but it would seem unwise to assume that they are anything but a tiny minority.

For the pessimists, though, the pre-packaged form of distance materials offers problems. These materials are produced in varying circumstances but always, necessarily, in the absence of the actual readers and viewers. It would be naive to assume that such materials were produced solely with the radical intent to raise critical consciousness among students. The production system can impose its own constraints on the sequences in which new course materials are produced, for example, but, more importantly, there are clear conventions for the production of written and electronic materials which can have a decisive role. 

Before we explore these conventions in more depth, it is necessary to point to the other massive source of constraint -- the need to grade students, which immediately allows room for the familiar ‘hidden curriculum’ to run alongside, and often against, any radical intentions of the explicit curriculum. I know OU students who have operated almost entirely cynically, using their materials simply as resources to generate ‘right answers’ to assignments, and refusing any other kind of personal or sincere engagement with the arguments. Most of the others have used the kind of ‘selective neglect’ discussed above to manage their courses when they came under pressure. There are one or two studies which explicitly support this view of student instrumentalism, but I believe several more have encountered the phenomenon and misrecognised it: the official studies of student responses to elements like TV or radio programmes have long ago identified low rates of ‘use’ for example. 

Needless to say, other colleagues have also identified more positive effects among student learners, of course, as people realise they can in fact cope quite rapidly with the demands of the assessment scheme, and still go on to develop an apparently healthier  ‘syllabus independence’ (see Morgan 1993). Against this background, though, it would be interesting to explore a bit further the comments of U 203 students (recorded by Miller 1995): we know that some students apparently found the course ‘patronizing’, ‘puritanical’, or ‘heavy going’ and mentioned ‘brainwashing’ and ‘bias’. Miller points out that these responses have to be ‘read’, as with any ‘reception data’ (p.428), but then so do any apparently favourable or neutral responses. As with other areas of organisational life, there are ‘visible deviants’, who openly criticise and reject the system, and an equally important group of ‘invisible’ ones, ‘ritualists’ who do not complain, who outwardly conform, and who might even do quite well in assessment terms -- but who have simply ’managed’ the course materials, refused any personal engagements, and ‘gone through the motions’.

Miller also cites a number of reviews of U203 when it first appeared. Some picked up on some well-known disputes in the territory of Cultural Studies, about the concept of ‘working class culture’, or the value-positions of the analysts. Others focused on the writing itself, however, Miller reminds us: Thompson reporting ‘strangely colourless and colourless writing’, or even the otherwise enthusiastic Cubitt criticising the ‘highly structured, if at times patronizing way in which the materials are presented’ (both quoted in Miller p. 426). Again this needs exploring -- why are U203 materials , and so many others, written like this?


The teaching material produced by British Cultural Studies, including the work in U203, contains several key analyses of the mass media and how they serve to reflect the wider hegemonic struggle. Hall et al. (1978) demonstrates how the conventions of journalism, especially certain ‘news values’ appear to offer a kind of professional balance and neutrality which, on closer inspection, turns out to support the wider project of extending or repairing ruling class hegemony. The more detailed analyses of current affairs programmes on British television offered in a U203 reader (Bennett et al. 1981) offer similar analyses, focused especially on the ideological notion of ‘the British nation’. Indeed, other concrete analyses of media products in U203 -- of Bond movies, British sitcoms, police series, television coverage of sporting events -- pursue the same general themes, articulated most generally, perhaps in Hall’s work on the ‘ideology effect’ (in Curran et al. 1977). 

As we all know, this version of ‘positioning theory’ was also very influential in feminist work (with a more Lacanian emphasis, of course) and in early analyses of ethnic or racial representations (with more ‘structuralist’ undertones, perhaps). These days, ‘positioning theory’ has been replaced, possibly, in media analysis at least, by the turn towards the active audience, often inspired theoretically by Barthes’ influential essays on reception theory as well as by the usual political project to detect and encourage ‘resistance’ among consumers, and aesthetically by a ‘form of populism -- a desire to defend the preferences of “ordinary viewers” at all costs’ (Buckingham 1990: 6). My point is that the same debate could easily have been applied to mass education and to its pedagogic strategies, conventions and local values. Asking why critical analysis was applied to just about every other media product but not to Open University courses (or indeed to the publication of Cultural Studies textbooks) could be illuminating. 

Maccabe’s famous contribution (which appears in Bennett et al. 1981) on the effects of cinematic realism demonstrates some possibilities. As is well known, Maccabe identifies a narrative structure as central to what might be called the ‘realism effect’. Competing definitions or versions of reality are offered by different characters in fictional realist pieces, for example, but an organising metanarrative is deployed  to make sense of these alternative views and thus to offer a superior version of reality to the reader or viewer. If all works well, the metanarrative, which may be embodied in an actual narrator, or in any other authorial discourse, delivers a sense to the audience that some underlying truth has been revealed, or some knowledge of a real situation gained. This truth is an ideological one, for Maccabe, though in two major senses: first, the real (marxist) contradictions that structure concrete appearances can not be properly analysed by any bourgeois authorial discourse; and second, the viewer is constructed as a passive recipient of this knowledge, and never challenged to rethink their own ideological knowledges.

Whatever its merits as an account of mainstream film, this approach has always struck me as useful in analysing the effects of conventional academic pedagogy. Many lectures, textbooks, and Open University units follow the same strategy in the name of a ‘proper education’: a number of options, ‘perspectives’ or arguments are laid out in a quite properly ‘fair’ and ‘balanced’ manner, and then a pedagogic metanarrative is developed to make sense of these competing alternatives. There are several common options: 
(a) alternatives might be rendered as equally valid or equally invalid,
(b) one might be privileged in the final conclusion, after due caution, 
(c) all the ones reviewed might point to the need for a new approach or for further research of a particular kind.

If it works well, this pedagogic strategy can indeed deliver pleasure to the audience, especially a peculiarly pedagogic pleasure -- that feeling that knowledge has been gained, or some underlying reality revealed.

I have attended, and indeed given, many lectures which follow this strategy, although hard research is clearly a problem with  ‘face-to-face’ teaching. Open University course materials or textbooks are easier to analyse. I have suggested in my earlier work that the more pedagogical sections of OU courses - the ‘revision units’,  introductions, afterwords and sometimes the concluding sections of blocks of units, and the ‘study guide ‘material given only to registered students -- quite commonly display this ‘academic realist’ structure. There is no time to develop them here, but there are clearly connections with other kinds of work too. Smith, for example, (in Giroux and Simon 1989) analyses the pedagogic structure of televangelism, with its way of offering ‘prime knowledge’ to deal with the apparent moral relativism of modern times. Bourdieu’s work on the ‘high aesthetic’ and its embodiment in university pedagogy might underpin the ‘distancing’ and reduction of all academic perspectives to an abstract ‘game’ that I have described as option (a) above, and I have also noticed some possible connections between this cool and distanced stance and the characteristics of the much-discussed ‘deep learning’ style of successful students (Harris 1994).

As more immediately relevant examples, Hall’s revision unit for an Educational Studies course (E202) reviews (quite properly, of course) a number of options in the ‘education as reproduction’ debate -- Bowles and Gintis, Bourdieu, Althusser, Bernstein -- and critically discusses them in such a way as to lead to his own more activist ‘gramscian’ position, proposed as a future research programme, as superior to all of them (which would be a variant of option (c) above). Bennett and Donald wrote a ‘Postscript’ to Block 2 of U203 which functions in a similar way to repair the apparent damage to earlier notions of ‘hegemony’ as a master concept wrought by some historians. The concepts used by those historians are re-read as a subtler version of hegemony, while empirical material developed in the historical sections are reinterpreted in the spirit of a general caution about any empirical data (an example of option (b) above, perhaps) (see Harris 1992 :151--4). 

I have pointed out the ways in which these reinterpretations might be seen as partial in a deeper sense, as doing some violence to the original pieces which have been managed like this, especially in dealing rather tactically with empirical data, for example (Bowles and Gintis or Aldgate are criticised for the technical inadequacies of theirs, while Hall and Bennett and Donald offer none at all, or rely on other equally dubious data elsewhere), and it is possible to see these as examples of academics dealing with any serious (logical) contradictions by glossing them, and relying upon passive readers not to dissent. The activist politics of Cultural Studies and its attempted populism would predispose it to options (b) and (c), of course, and it could be claimed that the ‘progressive’ intent of the strategy justifies such options: we shall discuss ‘progressive realism’ below

On a more general level, I have suggested that the whole structure of ‘gramscianism’ permits this kind of tactical adjustment and  reinterpretation, as British Cultural Studies weaves a complex academic realist narrative (sometimes appearing more as a research programme) through and around the challenges and supports of bourgeois Sociology, various kinds of European social theory and marxisms, feminisms, and different strands in British and American cultural politics. Some options have been simply dismissed (bourgeois Sociology, critical theory), even if occasionally smuggled back in. Others have been reinterpreted (‘Screen theory’ especially -- via the debates about ‘culturalism and structuralism’ for example, and in a more pragmatic spirit in some of the more applied work). Sometimes, a ‘theoretical’ synthesis has been attempted, while at other times an option looking more like a political alliance has been pursued (the debates with various feminisms or with black activists would be examples here, perhaps). In the process the central concepts -- hegemony or articulation -- have become extremely flexible and suitable for many projects, a point which has not gone unnoticed back in the academy (hence the periodic announcements of ‘new beginnings’, as in the ‘New Times’ spin-off, or even in mundane episodes as when one of my students objected to my critique on the grounds that ‘hegemony explains everything!’).


Cultural Studies has often taken the form of ‘progressive realism’, and the well-known work of Giroux (including his 1996 piece on talk radio) follows the same theme. Here, it is the content of the pedagogic strategy which makes it progressive, of course, the need to place on the agenda critical issues like social inequalities, and the need to offer critique of some of the more specific ideological forms of popular culture. Maccabe’s analysis again can remind us to some of the unintended outcomes of such progressive or critical forms. Thus discussing Loach’s and Garnett’s series Days of Hope, for example, (in his second piece in Bennett et al. 1981), Maccabe sympathises with the intentions of the programmes (briefly, to present the collective experience of the working class as the master narrative that makes sense of events like the General Strike), but doubts the effectiveness of the ‘critical realist’ strategy. It is no good appealing to some past myth of working class solidarity, nor to attempt to radicalise an audience for struggles in the 1970s by offering a simplified account of the role of rival perspectives such as those of the Labour Party, the TUC leadership or the Communist Party. Similar criticisms are cited in Tribe’s contribution to the Days... debate (also in Bennett et al.  1981), where viewers were suspected of reacting to working class radical history on TV conventionally, as if it were like any other costume drama (by complaining about minor inaccuracies in the costumes, say, or by becoming more interested in the personal relationships among the characters rather than the political positions they personified). 

The task for Maccabe, was to call for a ‘revolutionary transformation of institutions and practices’ (Bennett 1981: 318), abandoning the myths and conventional narratives of the past, even Trotskyite ones. More generally, films should eschew the usual attempts to fix and reify the processes of signification, to help us break our notions of reality and our place in it as subjects. Somehow, cinema needs to draw attention to the processes of signification and to the possibilities of new forms of signification. This involves a substantial break with realist narratives, of course, and seems to lead to a support for radical avant-garde demonstrations of signification. One thinks of Godard’s cinema here, of course, the total break with and inversions of the conventions of documentary in Pravda, say. Maccabe wants to draw back from such a full endorsement of the avant-garde, however, and settles for supporting Godard’s Tout va Bien, a much more conventional piece in many ways, focusing on politics in France after 1968 exemplified in a workers’ take-over of a factory, and featuring commentaries by a film-maker and his assistant on the dilemmas of signification in covering the event: ‘This film does not provide...knowledge ready-made in a dominant discourse but in the contradictions offered, the reader has to produce a meaning for the film...[thus the film offers]...a different set of relations both to the fictional material and “reality”’ (Bennett 1981: 233)

Could there be an avant-garde pedagogic practice like this? There have been attempts to break out from the master-narrative structure of academic discourse. Feminist writers have led the way here in many ways, by refusing the dispassionate and all-powerful voice of the academic narrative, and talking in several voices, so to speak, including some speaking in far more personal terms about their own histories and locations, their fantasies, memories and anxieties and how these have contributed to the conduct of their research (see, for example, Walkerdine in Formations 1987, or Morris in During 1993).

This kind of approach has also been developed by Daryl Nation in some admirable Australian distance education courses. Nation’s reflections on his own practice (in Evans and King 1991 or in Parer 1993) give some indication of the range of techniques available to foster his version of ‘independent learning’: he addresses students in a familiar tone and manages academic commentaries with homely and often comically absurd analogies, he tells them about his personal life, he includes reflexive and often ironic comments upon his own practices. Nation’s own evaluations indicate that these techniques do encourage student confidence and capability, but he is also aware of the risks (that ‘too much’ humour or disclosure can be taken as a lack of seriousness, for example). Bourdieu’s (1986) work also points to the possibility  that breaks from academic discourse into more popular forms can be interpreted simply as an embarrassing gaffe, an unwelcome intrusion from an unfashionable social past, even a damning revelation that one is (God forbid!) an autodidact. 

Wexler (in Apple 1982) offers a yet more radical and risky option -- to perform a  sustained deconstruction of the devices used in the text, to refuse closure, to expose those moments where arguments are sanitised and managed. Some writing in Cultural Studies attempts precisely this, of course, and one thinks of Adorno’s use of literary effects like chiasmus (see Rose 1978), or the ‘post-structuralist’ or ‘postmodernist’ writers who ruthlessly deconstruct classic texts, and sometimes  write their own in a deliberately playful, poetic, parodic or ‘excessive’ style (especially Baudrillard, of course). 

This sort of treatment is rarely found in humbler pedagogic texts, which often deliberately supplement the more poetic pieces, of course, and one can imagine it causing problems as a teaching style in a culturally conservative institution like a modern university. As with avant-garde cinema, such an approach would be most likely condemned as elitist and exclusionary, and could risk the ironic consequence of reproducing and valorising the ‘high aesthetic’. There are issues still to be analysed here, though: I have found students who would cheerfully accept experimental poetic discourse when they were studying something called ‘poetry’, but react with Bourdieuvian ‘hostility and panic’ when confronted with Adorno or Baudrillard. There are strong expectations that only legitimate ‘artists’ or licensed eccentrics in their dotage should experiment with language while sociologists or cultural analysts should always conform to a ‘standard of clarity of style...[as]...the first and indispensable criterion of expository prose’ (Kamuf 1991: xii). Exposing that convention, and discussing its organisational supports, might be a useful first step.

Progressive pedagogy needs to address organisational micropolitics, perhaps, using the analyses of mass culture and mass media it trades in, but looking inward to educational practice. Educational practice is a first class site of struggle between choice and constraint, for example, a theme which we can all analyse when we discuss consumerism, or the reactions of the television audience. No-one will know better than we participants just where the line is between  cynical and self-defeating student instrumentalism, and genuine ‘syllabus independence’, for example, or between the ‘independent learning’ which involves a privatised set of ‘study skills’, and the kind which leads to reflexivity and autonomy, or between the engineered ‘student involvement’ of the latest ‘effective teaching’ techniques, and a genuinely open pedagogic dialogue. 

Academics themselves will be in the best position to comment on the strength and weaknesses of the constraints of ‘accepted practice’ or historical precedent when we operate a teaching system, or to identify those contradictions between our professional ideologies and our role in grading students or operating Government quality control exercises. At the most specific level we know best how we claim authority in our pedagogic activities, how we manage that difficult shift between populist talk about roller coasters, and academic analysis of pleasures of the body, whom we allow to speak and what we allow them to say, whether we are operating with a necessary authority with progressive intent, or just coping using the same props as colleagues in conventional subjects.


Buckingham has been involved in a aseries of discussions about pedagogy in Media Studies (see, for example, Buckingham 1990) which cover some highly relevant ground for teachers of Cultural Studies. Buckingham condemns the elitist effects of the domination of the ‘Screen theory’ approach I have used above (via Maccabe), yet he is equally dubious of the benefits of the kind of group-work and ‘discovery’ methods of another substantial contribution (this time by Masterman): ‘Yet in many cases, there clearly are right answers and the material has been selected and constructed in such a way that students will almost inevitably produce them’ (Buckingham ibid p.5). Another comment seems to apply equally directly to the gramscian pedagogy common in foundational texts in Cultural Studies like U203: ‘“Radical” teachers cannot easily step outside the institutionalised power relationships of the educational system, and the claim that that are acting on the students’ behalf will not necessarily be accepted by the students themselves’ (ibid p.7). 

Buckingham summarises some of the contribution in media education, limited and simplified as they have been, and offers some alternatives. He has his own preferences (for the growth of ‘practical’ elements in media education, for example), which probably would not survive his scrutiny any more than would the earlier approaches. There is a rather ungrounded optimism in Buckingham’s faith in these techniques to ‘involve’ students, despite his acknowledgement of the ability of students to ‘play games’ with any teaching materials, and there is a certain naiveté too: an equally likely outcome in the modern context of teaching is the ‘locally-negotiated populism’ I described earlier.

Overall, though, Buckingham is surely right to argue for a sensitive understanding of the complexities of classroom life, including the need for a fully complex model of the learner, instead of the one usually delivered by theory (the usual highly abstract debates on the ‘active viewer’ will not do, he tells us).  The examples we have cited above, however, indicate that there are alternatives in the offing, so to speak, which might prematurely close off this plea before it gets very far -- the ‘effective teaching’ material that has so transformed the teaching of Sociology, and which seems to promise so much to the busy teacher.

In the face of these developments, Buckingham’s concluding remarks about media education seem especially pertinent for Cultural Studies: ‘it is vitally important that there is a continuing debate about its aims and purposes, and that this debate is informed by a detailed consideration of classroom practice’ (ibid p.9). At present, there seems a great danger that theoretical labours will continue, while mere matters of pedagogy will be left to others to decide, and, inevitably, crippling contradictions will arise.


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