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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: July ::
Re: Cultural Studies and the Battle for British
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.1688  Wednesday, 24 July 2002

From:           Takashi Kozuka <
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 >
Date:           Tuesday, 23 Jul 2002 19:18:28 +0100 (BST)
Subject: 13.1664 Re: Cultural Studies and the Battle for
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.1664 Re: Cultural Studies and the Battle for
British Higher Education

[From the online Guardian (23 July 2002); the printed edition of the
newspaper has a related article ('Higher browsing: The third degree',
which collects 'gossip' from the readers) in the Guardian Education.  It
says that 'the university cites the department's 3A in last year's RAE
as being behind the closure'.]

'One step beyond' by David Batty

It was weird and wacky, but the University of Birmingham's cultural
studies department addressed many of the issues now topping the
political and social agendas, writes David Batty.

Tuesday July 23, 2002

Q. What did the cultural studies student learn about postmodernism?
A. Foucault

With courses covering soap operas, comic book superheroes, body art and
Madonna's videos, Birmingham University's cultural studies department
was an easy target of ridicule in my undergraduate days.

Certainly one of the most memorable lectures, why garden centres were
racist (they promoted native English plants over exotic imported
species), could have come straight out of a spoof on political
correctness.

Another on queerism, given by a well-stacked tattooed skinhead PhD
student wearing a clear plastic suit, was more Leigh Bowery than Noam
Chomsky. While the leopardskin jacket and ostrich feather cocktail dress
sported by one female lecturer certainly contrasted sharply with the
cord slacks and leather elbow patches sported by most of my English lit
tutors.

But it is the philosophy of cultural studies rather than the
sometimes-extravagant teaching style that I suspect lies behind the
university's decision to axe the department. With its emphasis on the
personal as political, sexual politics and anti-racism, the course felt
somewhat out of step with the university's David Lodge image of polite
Englishness.

Certainly the school's corridor was the only place you were likely to
see pictures of a Hindu wedding next to a student's photos of his and
his boyfriend's body piercings. (It was his partner's wolfen back hair
that provoked disgust rather than their intimate jewellery.)

The fact that the school was housed in a 1960s concrete block only built
to last 10 years never suggested that the university's hierarchy
considered it of great importance, despite its worldwide reputation. The
Muirhead Tower, which jutted up among the domed redbrick faculties and
St Mark's Square-style clocktower like a bad special effect from Dr Who,
even had to be closed in high winds in case the windows blew out.

Yet no other department drew as much publicity to the university. Cyber
feminist Sadie Plant's theory that terms like "abort" were part of a
chauvinistic conspiracy to exclude women from new technology may have
provoked outcries of "next they'll be saying that a knob of butter is
sexist", but it also gained serious media coverage, from the Observer to
Newsnight. Plus, she never rattled off an old lecture without updating
her notes in line with the set text, like several of my English
lecturers.

I doubt another department so strongly challenged the views of the
predominantly middle-class students, or offered as many places to local
people. Many white students were shocked when their black peers asked
for separate classes on the race and ethnicity course because they
didn't want "to be used as a resource".  What at first seemed a bizarre
step back to segregated education actually led to an analysis of what it
meant to be white - now a very relevant concept, when east European
asylum seekers are subject to more abuse than black and Asian Britains.

However, the department wasn't a PC concentration camp. Everyone was
well aware of the course's comic potential. I remember the mock outrage
that greeted a student who wrote "GB" in his notes - "Great Britain.
That's a bit fascist imperialist isn't it?" One of the tutors was so
stooped, cradling his cup of coffee like an abandoned nestling, that the
joke went round he was bent over with the burden of white heterosexual
male guilt.

For all those who scoffed that the course was a Mickey Mouse degree, the
fact that many of the issues it tackled, such as representations of the
Arab world, globalisation, consumer culture and direct action, are now
top of the political and social agenda suggests otherwise. And, I would
argue, that in an age of media conglomerate mergers where all news
formats reel off the same line on the same stories, a department that
encourages people to look behind and beyond the headlines is needed more
than ever.

David Batty is the social care correspondent on SocietyGuardian.co.uk.
He studied English, cultural studies and psychology at the University of
Birmingham from 1992 to 1995.

http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/socialsciences/story/0,9846,762020,00.html
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