Learning media theory: what is it good for?

Why and how should media educators address ‘theory’ in the classroom? How do we learn – and use – theory? And what’s the point of learning theory anyway?


The insistence on ‘theory’ – and, more specifically, on a list of named theorists – in the government’s latest requirements for Media Studies examinations raises some difficult questions. My previous post looked at the subject content: which theorists are included, and (by extension) what counts as theory. However, it also raised some questions about how and why we teach theory. I argued that reducing theory to a canon of approved theorists could well result in a fact-based approach. Students are implicitly being expected to name-check theorists and regurgitate their key ideas, in a way that could easily lead to the rote learning of textbook checklists. This isn’t by any means a new phenomenon, but the latest specifications seem very likely to accentuate it. In this post, I want to consider how we learn theory, and propose a different approach.


I can well recall my first encounters with media theory. Back in the mid-1970s, I bought a copy of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies. It had a cool pop-art cover, and it looked like a sexy read. The bulk of the book consisted of nice, short essays about things like wrestling, steak and chips, washing powder adverts, and the haircuts in the film of Julius Caesar. Towards the end of the book, however, a nasty surprise lay in wait, in the form of a 50-page theoretical essay called ‘Myth Today’.

My copy of the book, which I still have, includes lots of underlining. I must have understood a fair amount of ‘Myth Today’, but I didn’t feel as though I had. I’d just finished studying for a degree in English Literature at Cambridge, back in the Days Before Theory. This kind of writing was new to me, and I struggled with it. I don’t think I was alone in this. I know that students struggle with theory in exactly the same way now; and if we’re going to teach theory in the explicit terms the government now requires, we need to think hard about how we do this.

To some extent, ‘Myth Today’ became clearer to me in retrospect, as I encountered the ideas in other contexts. I read introductory texts about literary and media theory, and studies that applied Barthes’ semiotic approach to specific media examples. As a teacher in school, I followed the handbooks of the period (most notably Len Masterman’s Teaching About Television) in using this approach to teach image analysis. I could definitely understand the key ideas – and yet most of the time, reading ‘theory’ continued to make me feel stupid. If complete understanding still seemed elusive, it took me much longer before I could begin to question or challenge this kind of theory.

Looking at ‘Myth Today’ now, it shows distinct signs of age. ‘Myths’ are seen primarily as vehicles of ‘bourgeois ideology’ (remember that?). There’s a rather vainglorious assumption that the ‘mythologist’ (that is, the analyst of myths) can stand outside the process of myth-making, and thereby ‘cut himself off from all the myth-consumers’. Semiotic analysis, Barthes promises, will set us free from ‘mystification’.

The other problem, however, is the pomposity of the writing. It’s not so much that Barthes is using technical vocabulary (signifier and signified and so forth) – there’s relatively little of that. Rather, there’s a level of philosophical abstraction that veers towards a kind of poetry. Abstract terms are preferred over concrete ones, passive constructions over active ones. Even as I read the essay today, there are moments where the meaning slips away. I suspend my doubts in the hope that things will become clear as the text proceeds, and yet this does not always occur. All too often, the style of writing obfuscates the meaning.

Of course, these tendencies are characteristic of a great deal of academic writing, a problem that I’ve discussed elsewhere. However, they are especially apparent in Media and Cultural Studies. My feelings of confusion are very different from those I might experience when reading specialist texts in areas that are unfamiliar for me – let’s say, a physics textbook or a legal document. The problem is not simply about my own ignorance, or my lack of familiarity with the technical language. Rather, it seems as though this is an expected response.

In his later work, and among some of those who succeeded Barthes (most notoriously, Derrida), it became clear that this was indeed deliberate. Precision and clarity were regarded as somehow ‘bourgeois’. When things appeared to be transparent and obvious was exactly when they were most likely to be doing their ‘mystificatory’ work. What appeared to be ‘common sense’ was in fact the evil work of ideology. The theorist had a political duty to write in a difficult style: readers had to be forced to overcome their ideological delusions through sheer hard work.


Coming forward a little further, I can recall a period – some time in the 1980s – when ‘Theory’ became a genre unto itself. Publishers’ catalogues would contain extensive sections headed simply ‘theory’. This wasn’t necessarily theory of anything: it was just Theory. I can recall emerging from the basement of Compendium Books in Camden Town – the Mecca of Theory – with my head spinning. It seemed as though Cultural Studies – the study of particular cultural artefacts or practices – had effectively been replaced by Cultural Theory – not least because Theory was proving a more lucrative commodity in the international publishing market.

Not all the so-called ‘theory’ in the government’s Media Studies curriculum is like this – although some of it (Judith Butler, Jean Baudrillard) makes Barthes look like a model of pristine clarity. Even so, there are very few writers on the government’s list whose work I would give to an intelligent 17-year-old A-level student, at least without a great deal of additional support. The most accessible texts might well be appropriate for undergraduates to read at first hand, but not for school students. The most likely outcome is that students will only encounter these writers in the form of potted summaries in textbooks, on Wikipedia, or in Powerpoint lectures by their teachers. Far from being ‘empowering’, learning theory will become little more than ritualistic reproduction. Thus far are the radical dreams of Theory fallen.


So what’s the alternative? I don’t believe the government documents really offer us one – and apparently the awarding bodies, who are currently drawing up the detailed specifications, have been told that the List (the canon of theorists) is not negotiable. One can imagine classroom activities that would involve applying theory to particular media phenomena or issues. What would Stuart Hall or Paul Gilroy say about diversity in the Oscars? How would Judith Butler or bell hooks interpret Rihanna’s latest video? How would Curran and Seaton help us to interpret the government’s current stance towards the BBC? But if one hasn’t already grasped the key points – and especially the nuances – of these writers’ approaches, what are students likely to be learning here? Will it be any more than obedient name-dropping?

My alternative – and in the current context I would accept that it is a utopian one – would be to take a much more disrespectful approach to theory. The work of these now-canonical theorists needs to be up for grabs. Theories should be seen not as a body of predetermined facts, but as controversial and contentious, and subject to change over time. Theory should be treated as a set of tools that can be used (and abused), not as a body of received wisdom that should be ingested and then regurgitated. Critical thinking is surely not about paying homage to Theory, much less to particular Theorists.

As I have argued elsewhere, students do not need to learn theory, so much as the ability to theorize. If you chase up this article, you can find a couple of concrete examples from our classroom research that show what this might entail. These examples – about teaching aspects of narrative and representation with quite young school students – demonstrate what can be achieved if we use theory as a set of tools to be used and interrogated, rather than a collection of tablets of stone.

Teaching theories in the abstract, as a reified body of knowledge, or as a set of facts or prescriptions, undermines their usefulness and value. Far from increasing ‘demand’, it takes the easy way out. Rather than challenging students, it positions them as passive consumers, empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Yet this is precisely where the government’s approach appears to be leading us – and perhaps deliberately so…



2 thoughts on “Learning media theory: what is it good for?

  1. Pingback: Teaching Media Studies: The Travesty of Theory | David Buckingham

  2. Pingback: The strangulation of Media Studies | David Buckingham

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