Media education after the media

Julian McDougall, Reader in Media and Education and Head of Creative Arts at Newman University College, Birmingham.

Manifestos are not what they used to be. In the UK context, it has become a pedestrian discursive exercise to explain away pledges on which elections are campaigned in terms of ‘what we know now’. Nevertheless, this project calls for us be explicit about the purpose of media education.  Along with the arrival of the Media Education Research Journal, it’s timely. But it’s hard to respond to such well-intentioned pragmatics without being awkward.

When the first edition of ‘The Media Teacher’s Book’ (McDougall and Potamitis, 2010) was published, the question of politics came up several times – the denial of any teacher-driven political project for Media education was seen as a ‘disavowal’.  The book’s thesis was that our  ‘subject’ is always political in the sense that we are always-already concerned with discourse and ‘claims to truth’ competing with one another in our engagement with media but that the central distinction between the potentially radical ‘spirit’ of media education  compared to it’s more conservative cousin – English – is lost if we allow ourselves the luxury of transmitting any authoritative sense of value to students. If media education  stops bearing witness to the conditions of its own possibility, then any ‘progressive’ energy is undermined by conservative institutional practices. Then came web 2.0 (and maybe Media 2.0 – but that’s another argument) and a lot has changed. It’s apparent that a ‘new politics’ for media education have come more sharply into focus.

Straightforwardly, we can observe that research-based thinking has moved on from viewing new digital media as entertainment and new digital learning as separate things. A group of academics are suggesting that new digital media present us with new ways of learning (rather than just new contexts for learning or new kinds of access to learning) and that these claims raise important psychological and philosophical issues that we can relate to existing and accepted theories of learning from these two disciplines. And one implication of these claims is that the educational institution, as currently configured, is threatened in the near future. This is not simply due to economic imperatives (why have buildings and teachers when you can provide education online in peoples’ homes) but more importantly because it is suggested that the physical structure and temporal configuration of the institution will no longer be able to provide learning for a generation of people who are ‘digital natives’, not simply because of what they prefer (eg screens rather than books) but more fundamentally because of how they think.

For media education specifically, we can map out a genealogy of sorts, in three phases. From the ‘relevance boom’ of the 1980s – during which time eager Media students (like me) found their excitement at getting access to (very big) cameras and edit suites met with a compulsion to challenge the ‘dominant ideology’ – which itself became, of course, a grand narrative – to the variably defined era of ‘creativity’ (with its attendant economic and skills modality) to the contemporary landscape of ‘media literacy’ it’s clear that the navel gazing of practitioners (me included, for sure) and policy-makers has been largely ignored by (usually) young people who have merrily got on with the job of making interesting stuff and relating it (“critically”, we have hoped)  to concepts of one kind or another. We’ve moved away from emancipation of one kind (through critical reading of the big bad media – a liberal / humanities conceit) to another, equally patronising version (digital creativity for employment in a non-sector in which (such as it can be pinned down) the qualifications we provide afford those who hold them with little, if any capital.

So its paramount that we identify our purpose without recourse to these ideal versions of our subject identity.  To do this, we need to transfer the ‘hurt’ of which the creators of this manifesto speak, from the students to the teachers. We need to ‘hurt ourselves today, to see if we still feel’ by taking “the media” out of media education. To this end, In After the Media: Culture and Identity in the 21st Century (Bennett, Kendall and McDougall, 2011), we argue that Media education has been a distortion, that the ‘project’ of making popular culture a legitimate object of study has started from the wrong place, and that the problem has been our belief in the idea of ‘the media’ and its separation from ourselves, just as the category of literature imposes an alienating model of reading. As an alternative, we develop the idea of a ‘pedagogy of the inexpert’ to take the place of the horizontal discourse imposed by the conceptual framework (genre, narrative, representation, audience, ideology), still hanging together by a thread.

The history of the present of media education is the genealogy of a discourse – the idea of ‘the media’ as an object that qualifies for an educational response. The departure of cultural studies from its starting point is bound up with the notion of ‘the media’ and the uneasy relationship between popular culture as a category, understandable only in its insulation from art, literature, theatre and classical music, which were already ‘catered for’ in the curriculum, and ‘the media’ as an idea. What is different about media education is that it has never been coherently defined by practices or any vertical discourse of such, so the identity of a media student set against an artist or actor has been much less clearly defined – for teachers, students and the public. At the same time, the consensus in popular discourse that ‘the media’ are powerful, and as such it is worth educating people to protect them from the media (through critical thinking) and prepare them for employment in the sector, has been used in confusion, with advocates of the subject oscillating between these two positions in the quest for legitimation.

Furthermore, the contemporary media teacher is charged with a paradoxical task – teaching about “the media” after it has ceased to be a meaningful idea.  Whilst orthodox power structures still hold, the majority of media exchange is shot through with / by the “audience”. The binary opposition that has held firm, at least in the minds of Media teachers, for decades – that there is a ‘mass media’ that students can look at and that students are part of ‘the audience’, is really problematic now. The notion of a text – with boundaries around it – that we can ‘deconstruct’ is also straining to hold against the tidal wave of multimodal, fluid and ‘hyperdiegetic’ (Hills, 2010) cultural exchange. ‘Texts’ only exist when the ‘audience’ engage with them. And here is the crucial point – that is nothing new. But we haven’t seen it so clearly until broadband internet made it more visible –as interpretation and engagement is semantically archived in every keystroke. So thinking about teaching Media ‘after the media’ doesn’t take its premise from an idea of a temporal change – that was then, this is now – but instead it borrows from the postmodern (Lyotard, 1992) – thinking differently about culture, trying to avoid recourse to the reductive idea of ‘the media’, thinking more seriously about what people do with (and in) culture.

We need to explore the idea of practising democracy in another way. The binaries between ‘Big Ideology’ (Zizek, 1999) and freedom have been appropriated fully by subject media which, unlike English, does not in itself have to be part of the reproductive technology. The media student sits in between the idea of ‘the media’ and the project of her liberal educator with only marginal space with which to be fully participative in culture. Suspending the political project is essential. Pedagogy of the inexpert, in which students are given voice to be textual agents on their own terms, will surely lead to a more political praxis in the fullness of time? Caught between the protectionist and innoculatory constraints of the academic modality with its latest incarnation in ‘media literacy’ and the performativity of the vocational modality, the student in subject media is trapped in the traverse between the regulatory principles of education and ‘audience’ – subjects and objects, a traverse between two constructions in which she cannot live at the same time.

‘We mean ‘after the media’ as an ethics. Our objective is to begin the project of thinking through pedagogy for cultural analysis, and indeed for Media education  (renamed or not) ‘after the media’. For example, in rethinking the subject to pay attention to cultural events, as opposed to texts, we will tentatively imagine some different concepts. We may or may not have a need for genre and representation but we will dispense with ‘audience’.  Identity becomes central along with power and with  reading (formerly described as narrative). We replace the ‘text’ with the ‘event’, and consider students as agents. And we deal with discourse, frivolity, exchange and para-diegetic activity – hitherto part of the language of ‘fan studies’ (see Hills, 2002 and Jenkins, 2006) – at the heart of media education. Students, in this context, are required to oscillate between ‘peripheral and full participation’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991) but the apprenticeship they serve is not craft or skill determined. Rather they are apprentices in theorising their culture. Media education is here to facilitate ‘mastery’ in a meta-language which gives voice to reflexive negotiation of identity – a kind of ‘culture literacy’.


Bennett, P, Kendall, A and McDougall, J, 2011. After the Media; Culture and Identity in the 21st Century. London: Routledge.

Hills, M. (2002) Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Hills, M. (2010) Triumph of a Time Lord: Regenerating Doctor Who for the Twenty-First Century. London: I. B. Taurus.

Jenkins, J, 2006. Convergence Culture: Where old and new media collide. New York; New York University Press.

Lave, J and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lyotard, J. (1992) The Postmodern Explained to Children. London: Turnaround Books.

McDougall, J and Potamitis, N, 2010. The Media Teacher’s Book. London: Hodder.

Zizek, S. (1999) ’The spectre of ideology’, in E. Wright and E. Wright (eds), The Zizek Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.


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  1. Cary Bazalgette says:

    OK Julian. Now show me how your argument works for two-to-six-year-olds.

    • Julian McDougall says:

      More easily than for any other group, surely, because they are not yet ordained into the cult of ‘the media’ and are in a world where media texts are mixed up with emerging identities and a tapestry of play / creativity. Jackie Marsh’s work shows us this (maybe for a slightly older group than you are describing) in relation to ‘Club Penguin’ and in your own edited book Becky Parry’s work (which in its published form accounts for 10 year olds and the ‘stories in their heads’) is a perfect example of ‘after the media explique aux enfants’) that I could imagine working very well in pre-school or reception.

  2. Cary Bazalgette says:

    Yes in that sense fine. But let me also come at it another (perhaps more “political”) way: for all younger children (right up to 16 in fact) we are faced with the fact that educational policy – and much other discourse about children and their education – does hold on to “the media” as a meaningful idea in the sense that “the media” are systematically excluded and even demonised. I like your argument but could we hold on to it when we are trying to engage with policy-makers?

  3. Andy Jones says:

    Media Education After The Gift

    I enjoy your writing, Julian. It lets me sleep less soundly at night, especially during the Easter holiday. You suggest here (and there – towards the end) a ‘pedagogy of the inexpert, in which students are given voice to be textual agents on their own terms’. Firstly I am puzzled by how are you imagining the pedagogic relationship here? Is there not a power of assessment, judgement and possible qualification always already in play? If not, how is the relation pedagogical and in what educational context does it perform? Who is adopting the name of ‘inexpert’ here, given by whom, from what certainty and with what effect (a camouflage or travesty perhaps?).

    Secondly, who can ‘give’ these hypothetical students voice ‘on their own terms’? It sounds similar to the politics of empowerment. Who owns their voice to give before themselves? How would the students declare their terms to power before the gift, knowing what is at stake? Where did ‘their terms’ come from exactly – genetics, ‘nature’, common sense, discourse, God? In whose interests do their own terms operate? Are their own interests in their own interest?

    Thirdly, in a moment of doubt, you ask us whether the pedagogy of the inexpert ‘will surely lead to a more political praxis in the fullness of time?’ We cannot be sure. If we have suspended (or perhaps denied) the political project at your behest we cannot guarantee its resurrection. It would take acts of faith and vigilance to see what transpires. Neither can we know what forms of political praxis, if any, may appear.

    Finally your final paragraph performs a series of replacing and elaborating moves towards a new ethics or ‘culture literacy’. I have seen these words (concepts?) before. It looks a lot like something in the order of Cultural Studies.

    I must go to bed now.


  4. Julian McDougall says:

    To Cary – this is the classic dilemma for theory of the ‘poststructuralist persuasion’, for sure. The policy rhetoric will always be articulating a discourse which we will have to adopt ‘under erasure’, yes.

    To Andy – let me come back to these questions. Like you, I’m reading this too late at night!

  5. Julian McDougall says:

    Andy – thanks for these questions, sorry for the delay but sleep and caffeine were required.

    Cultural Studies – yes, for sure. ‘After the Media’ is arguing for a return to the original politics of Cultural Studies and the focus on people in life, being with others with texts etc and the central suggestion we make is that CS got distracted by this all-powerful media which is separate to, and external to, ourselves. ‘Inexpert’ is a provocation and perhaps even, as you suggest, an unsteady coupling with pedagogy. It’s really about a new kind of framing/structuring that enables a “paralogical autoethnography”- sorry, more absurdly academic jargon, maybe but there aren’t other words that work for what we mean.

    Voice – hmm, that’s tricky as it can be read as essentialist so maybe a poor choice of vocabulary in this version – our argument is that we need to pay attention to the little narratives that narrate textual fields and that these can, then, become the object of learning for teachers and students. Learning becomes a research project in effect but with a “Maclurian” focus on frivolity.

    Yes, this will have implications for assessment practices and by extension these would need to be re-imagined, but you’ve got to start somewhere and I suppose I feel, that by stealth, I’ve done enough in the way of providing lesson plans and resources (see The Media Teacher’s Book) to give myself the luxury of this less ‘pragmatic’ space for a critical provocation, but that said in the book we do provide a range of suggestions – from doing Glee ‘after genre’ to doing texts ‘after narrative’. One problem (and this might be a cop out) is trying to present this stuff in a short manifesto declaration, so hands up if it appears to leave a lot to inference in this form.

    That said, we want to resit a take on pedagogy which seems to be ‘always already’ fixed in a politics / binary of empowered/disempowered. We are offering (precisely to open up the discussion in this way) a rethinking/re-exploration of relations, i.e where ‘mastery’ is located in specifications and ‘content’ and where the teacher as expert gets the student to know that better, not in any way an alternative ‘tool kit’. So I suppose I would resist some of the challenges you present on these terms.

    You may be interested to know or may have already observed that much of this comes out of Nick Peim’s work on English and his setting up of Media Studies as a potentially radical alternative which it has failed to become for, we think, the simple reason that it has been too interested in ‘The Media’ which doesn’t exist any more than does ‘Literature’.

    • Andy Jones says:

      Thanks Julian. Let me write back to your reply, I’m reading this at work and I’m not sure that it belongs there.

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