Media Studies and Critical Engagement

The problem that takes place when you are groomed in two disciplines, two different schools of thoughts is you inevitably and unconsciously start comparing the two (even if you try hard not to indulge in such comparisons)! At present, I face the same dilemmas as my thought processes linger from one discipline to the other, judging which is the better of the two and reaching an almost prejudiced conclusion. This brings me to the issue I have been wanting to write about since a long time. The thoughts stem from my interactions with students across two different departments as well as my own stint with two different disciplinary perspectives. In the end, it may not be that easy to judge which is the better of the two. Though the position I end up taking reflects my own subjective bias. 

Having a formal degree in both Political Science and Media Studies, I have often questioned myself as to what has benefited me the most? The later with its practical, application based orientation or the former with its richness in theoretical and conceptual knowledge. My interactions with students in both departments seem to have informed my opinion - on a constant basis. Even while working in two different disciplinary perspectives (and it is quite a challenge!), I seem to be more inclined towards one than the other. Why did it happen and what is that induced my thought processes towards one and not the other? Thinking about the answer to this question, I realized that I was looking for intellectual fulfillment which one discipline was able to provide to me, while the other did not.

This brings me to the issue of critical engagement which is a must for present day students which I strongly believe is lacking in media studies and the students, scholars of this discipline. The emphasis on practical tasks, employability and learning the tricks of the trade leaves a huge devoid whereby students become master's at handling technology and other instruments but inept at dealing with human beings. This apparent gap leaves a void in the discipline whereby what mass media institutes churn out are ill-equipped professionals and people who give up the tradition of questioning. My own experience in studying Political Science (and this is what distinguishes it from media studies) is that disciplines which have a tradition of thinking/thought/theory and those which are rooted in ideas will eventually produce better citizens who will question the system and its practices. Since, media studies is a young discipline as compared to other Social Sciences, the comparison may at some point of time also seem absurd, but it is not uncalled for. The thing that struck me while observing well-known media professionals in the Indian media industry is that their educational affiliation has been more prominently towards the Social Sciences and not to the media as a discipline. Well-known editors, journalists, columnists have gained their grounding not from journalism colleges but by studying economics, political science, history and anthropology. 

What does this speak of the discipline itself (especially in the Indian context when today we have an unprecedented number of journalism colleges with envious placement records)? As a student of Political Science, I recall we were made to read the works of political thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Marx, Nehru, Gandhi and many others. We were rooted in the traditions of theory and thinking. At the end of each class, we were encouraged to develop a view for ourselves and provide a rational critique of what we had been taught. We were encouraged to explore different perspectives and engage in a thought process that was multidimensional. We were encouraged to write in a critical fashion, read, read more and more and provide our own perspectives to works and thoughts of prominent scholars. As a result of being socialized in this manner of classroom engagement, I found myself totally out of place (and I still feel so) when I landed up in a journalism course where teaching was restricted to lectures, notes and exams ... where I was not encouraged to explore the limitless boundaries of the discipline as well as restrict myself to learning the practical aspects of the field. This jump from one discipline to the other proved to be a culture shock and I found myself grappling with the same ... always eager to connect my thoughts and ideas back to Political Science and eager to go back to the fold of my discipline (which I eventually did for a PhD, and I credit it as a wise move).

The absence of this critical engagement with thoughts and theory is what in my view plagues media education in our country as we seem more interested in producing people who are equipped with technology and the use of instruments rather than people who can think and question. As a result many media students, themselves question the necessity and viability of classroom learning because all that they are learning is in fact not in the classroom but in the field. They come as beings who accept the status quo, are poor readers and ones who get overwhelmed easily personalities rather than by facts and reason. The stark absence of a research culture, of a scholarly domain has plagued the progress of this discipline resulting in limited number of people engaging in media research and education, when the field is actually portrayed as more lucrative and legitimate. This has in fact done more harm than benefit to the cause of media education in this country and is the single most reason why finding good media teachers is still a challenge. While I do not dispute the importance of field learning, unless it is contextualized it is of no use. Hence, when media students learn subjects like Political Science, Sociology, Economics, History ... they should not crib. They should actually be grateful as it is the knowledge that lies in these disciplines that makes media professionals more nuanced ...since a journalist operates in a society not in some isolated environment. 

As a result, when I talk to two different set of students (and somewhere I do feel apologetic about this comparison), I realize that while one set has been groomed into questioning, the other is not. And this is where the discipline of media studies lacks for it fails to provide its students with a holistic, comprehensive platform for all round development - one which creates thinking citizenry, a fact nobody will dispute - as the nation needs thinkers as much as it needs doers. At this point, I am reminded of what Justice Katju said, (famously or infamously!) - "The majority, I’m sorry to say, are of a very poor intellectual level, media people, I doubt whether they have any idea of economic theory or political science, philosophy, literature, I have grave doubts whether they are well read in all this, which they should be”. This more than resonates with what I urgently feel media educators should address - the need for critical engagement. 


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