Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Transition or Translation? Thinking through Media and Cultural Studies Students' Experiences after Graduation

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Transition or Translation? Thinking through Media and Cultural Studies Students' Experiences after Graduation

Article excerpt

Over the past fifteen years, both in the UK and Australia, I have occasion to observe the mutual misapprehension of discipline-based academic staff on the one hand and educational developers and those developing policy around learning and teaching at universities on the other. Policy makers and staff developers frequently seem to view most academic staff as at best preoccupied with their research, at worse, conservative, poorly educated around pedagogy and uninterested in their students' experiences at university. In return, many lecturers view educational developers as patronising, irrelevant contributors to the intensification of academic work and part of a new and much despised surveillant managerial culture. These encounters take place in a context of funding cuts and constant change, in which people who work within universities are 'experiencing a sense of insecurity and identity crises as they are buffeted by changes both in demands and the resources they have available to meet those demands'.1 As someone who has been sullied by her association with discipline-based teaching on the one hand and the apparatus of learning and teaching support on the other, I have found the frictions between these two roles sometimes difficult to understand and always challenging to negotiate.

An immensely useful conceptual tool for making sense of this simmering tension and thinking through what to do about it is the notion of 'instrumental progressivism', developed by communication and cultural studies scholars Frank Webster and Kevin Robins in their book The Times of the Technoculture.2 Robins and Webster argue that many contemporary educational policies within universities are forged from an unlikely combination of forces: on the one hand, humanist and progressive educational ideas about student empowerment and life-long learning, and on the other, the idea that higher education should serve the economy. Consequently, some of the most commonplace policy emphases and pedagogical practices in contemporary universities have a chimerical nature. They borrow from educational progressives like Paolo Friere a desire to break down the authority of the teacher and put the learner's experience and wishes at the centre of education. However, these same reforms have been advocated by those who see the potential of such changes to make graduates into more effective members of the paid workforce. I will suggest here that the notion of 'instrumental progressivism' helps explicate the relationship between the discipline of cultural studies on the one hand and educational innovations and the people who seek to promote them on the other. Why does this matter? Here I will follow Michael Fullan, who argues that 'the phenomenology of change-that is, how people actually experience change as distinct from how it might have been intended-is at the heart of the spectacular lack of success in most social reforms'.3

In Robins and Webster's account, instrumental progressivism is a symptom of a wounded and collapsing educational system. I want to argue here that for those of us in cultural studies, at least, their critique is insufficient. In contrast, I want to explore the way we can more deeply understand the internal contradictions of instrumental progressivism, its dangers and its potential uses. To do this, I draw on some of the qualitative data emerging from two small-scale research projects, undertaken with colleagues in Liverpool, UK, and Sydney, Australia, which focused on the experiences of media and cultural studies students after graduation. In presenting the voices of graduates, I am not attempting to 'trump' critiques by media and cultural studies academics of the managerial logics of instrumentalism. Rather, the narratives told by graduates and the advice they give to current students and their teachers provides a powerful corrective to what I feel is Robins and Webster's ultimate conclusion: that progressivism and the pedagogical apparatus it offers constitutes a dangerous erosion of the qualities that make universities vital institutions. …

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