Embrace media studies or literature will die

1st July 2005 at 01:00
The TES front-page story about the growing success of media studies and the potential harm being done to English literature (June 17) made for interesting reading. It appeared, coincidentally, the day after the final GNVQ media examination.

If the switch is happening, and I believe that at the lower academic end it is and will continue to do so, then the AQA Anthology, aka "Death by Poetry", must bear a large part of the responsibility. At my college we pride ourselves not only on our results in literature but also on how well we prepare students with ability for A-level. But we think we are fighting a losing battle.

We offered GNVQ to more than 70 students, some at the top end as an insurance policy and many in the middle as a way of occupying them. What a change in attitude! Students who had never done homework before took planning and evaluation sheets away and brought back immaculate folders thicker than the GNVQ syllabus. Actually, that's an example of hyperbole; nothing is thicker than the GNVQ syllabus.

Granted, the intellectual demands of the syllabus are not great, but in terms of self-discipline, organisation and skills development there is a great deal to be said for it.

At the same time, I entered 70 Year 10 students for GCSE media studies as an "extra" qualification. I did it last year with some success and I shall continue to do it with bright groups. But obtaining "better" results is not the primary aim. Media studies requires a significant understanding of English language. This year's paper demanded sophisticated skills of deconstruction to answer the questions about an advertisement. One piece of coursework had to be media-based.

Equally, I find teaching complex and difficult concepts such as intertextuality, codes and conventions of genre fiction, narrative theories, parody and representationstereotyping so much easier when applied to film, television or newspapers than literature. These skills are then transferable.

I taught Pride and Prejudice as both television adaptation and novel, giving the TV version equal importance. I shall repeat the process when the new film is released in the autumn. Children are very sophisticated readers of media texts and it is vital that we don't sneer at those skills or underestimate the importance of acquiring and developing them.

I love teaching literature and will never abandon it, but more and more of my students are choosing AS-level media rather than literature. And far too many come back from a year at sixth-form college and tell me they have given up literature. It breaks my heart, but if we are not to be known as the generation of teachers who did for English literature what my teachers did for classics then we need to recognise the problem, not bury our heads in the anthology and make superior jokes about who might be going nowhere very quickly.

Kevin Fitzsimons is head of English at a comprehensive in Hull

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