Category Archives: Uncategorized

Mickey Mouse courses: Why we shouldn't judge a course by its title.

Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article under the headline “More pupils pushed on to 'Mickey Mouse' qualifications ”. Anxiety about league tables is leading schools to enter pupils for GCSE exams in less rigorous ‘Micky Mouse’ subjects rather than the more vigorous traditional disciplines. Schools have been found to be offering courses in cake decorating, warehouse work and stonewalling (I presume they mean making walls out of stone rather than obstructing their future work colleagues). One of the commenters on the article has noted that the actual percentages taking these courses are actually very small, but the raw numbers look quite large.

Firstly, I’ve never been comfortable with term “Mickey Mouse” course. The title of a qualification and the topic say nothing of the academic, intellectual or practical rigour involved in being successful in the course. There is no intrinsic reason why a course on dry stonewalling is less useful, valuable or intellectually challenging than a course in Ancient Greek.

Secondly, it is useful to remember that traditional disciplines were once, in modern parlance ‘Mickey Mouse’ subjects. In 1888 Professor Sealey, a historian at the University of Cambridge, suggested that the study of contemporary French literature could be as intellectually demanding as – shock horror— the study of Latin. It was 1907 before Oxford University offered a degree in modern languages. Perhaps in 100-years’ time the Telegraph journalists will see Media Studies as a traditional discipline.

Thirdly, and this is nub of argument, articles such as the one in today’s Telegraph, are based on the underlying assumption that all children need to be taught exactly the same curriculum and that any deviation from this ideal curriculum fails our children. Successive education secretaries of all political persuasions have sought to make sure that all pupils can meet some target or another; we only have to think about the recent debates about the amount of time pupils should spend doing Physical Education, and what sort of PE that should be. I don’t know how many hours per day or week pupils should be doing of different subjects but I am starting to suspect it exceeds the amount of time that they actually spend in school. I’ve never quite got the bottom to why, if all these targets are so important why academies and free schools are exempt from them. Both Michael Gove and his Labour predecessors acknowledge that different pupils need a different sort of education, albeit in a very perverse way.

Just as we mustn’t judge a book by its cover we shouldn’t judge a course by its title. For me, a course in putting up shelves or painting a room wouldn’t have gone amiss.

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Languages and related 2011 accepts and applications (UCAS)

Subject Applications Accepts
Y Combs of languages with arts/humanities Total 6824 7355
Y Combs of languages Total 1574 1597
Y Combs of social studies/bus/law with languages Total 1693 2531
Y Combs of phys/math science with arts/humanities/languages Total 1280 2484
Y Combs of science/engineering with arts/humanities/languages Total 6305 8433
R0 - European Langs,Lit & related: any area Total 5 55
R1 - French studies Total 776 688
R2 - German studies Total 271 292
R3 - Italian studies Total 58 65
R4 - Spanish studies Total 448 467
R5 - Portuguese studies Total 1 1
R6 - Scandinavian studies Total 16 14
R7 - Russian and East European studies Total 94 88
R8 - European studies Total 18 121
R9 - Others in European Langs,Lit and related Total 538 1052
RR - Combinations within European Langs,Lit and related Total 2170 1733
Z No preferred subject line Total 70 0
Total European Languages 4465 4576
T1 - Chinese studies Total 180 207
T2 - Japanese studies Total 398 192
T3 - South Asian studies Total 16 61
T4 - Other Asian studies Total 32 18
T5 - African studies Total 12 23
T6 - Modern Middle-Eastern studies Total 118 101
T7 - American studies Total 518 502
T9 - Others in non-European Langs & related Total 73 267
TT - Combinations within non-European Langs & related Total 29 63
Z No preferred subject line Total 835 0
Total non-European Languages 2211 1434
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Area Studies: plus ça change?

Liz Lightfoot’s recent article “The value of area studies” in British Academy Review succinctly outlines the difficulties and challenges facing departments of area studies. In the eight plus years I have held the area studies remit for the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies, discussions about area studies invariably focus on the identity of the field–for example in 2004 LLAS ran a workshop entitled the Disciplinary Identity of Area Studies. In 2005, I attended a workshop entitled The Future of Interdisciplinary Area Studies run by the University of Oxford. In many respects the British Academy event The role of Area Studies in Higher Education in November 2010 was a revisiting of the Oxford conference. I even had the opportunity to reacquaint myself with many of the same people.

When I joined LLAS in 2003 my primary role was to run the Area Studies Project. A key aim of that project was build up an area studies community. There have been some successes. Driven by the project and in particular the vision of Dick Ellis, the then chair of the Area Studies Specialist Advisory Group the UK Council for Area Studies Associations (UKCASA) was formed in November 2003. It is pleasing to see that UKCASA is providing a strong voice for area studies in both teaching and research. Moreover, it has helped to bridge the gap between Anglophone and non-Anglophone area studies. The funding for the Language-based area studies centres was also an encouraging sign.

However, the questions raised when area studies is mentioned seem to be the same as they were eight years ago. And they are probably much the same as they were twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago. Department closures, the apparent rewarding of disciplinarily specialisation by the RAE and REF, the reliance of area studies programmes on ‘donor’ departments and questions of whether interdisciplinarity (more breath) inevitably means less depth leading to the suggestion that interdisciplinary courses might be a bit light, intellectually speaking. Naturally the latter is denied more area studies proponents who see the demands of area studies as more rather than less challenging.

Lightfoot’s article opens with the newsroom cry “Find someone who knows about Egypt!” in response the protests taking place there and elsewhere in the Middle East.  Quoted in the article Tim Wright says “The problem with providing a national resource is that no one knows where the next area of concern will come from? Will it be a need for Kurdish specialists, or people with a deep knowledge of Afghanistan, Egypt or Pakistan?”

Or Canada maybe? Well probably not, but from a government perspective a key rationale for area studies is based on the national interest, the next protest or the next war. Talk is afoot of another referendum in Quebec, but whether that referendum, whatever its outcome, will generate much interest in the UK is unclear. The rationales for area studies tend focus on the need to understand the different, the unknown, the economically important and the dangerous. Perhaps the real worry is that we will never seek to understand those societies which we see as similar, known, economically unimportant and safe.

Reference: Lightfoot, L. (2011) The Value of Area Studies, British Academy Review 17, pp. 48-51

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What will students get for £9,000? We all need to think about it.

£9,000 a year for what? Languages and area studies under the new fees regime in England, 20 May, London

Most universities have declared that they will be charging the full £9,000 p.a. fee. Quite rightly students are asking what they will get for their £9,000—the argument that this fee is merely compensating for cuts in university funding is not going to go down too well. Students often say they would expect more contact time with staff (they say this now), but what sort of contact time? And what about the year abroad—how do we sell a four year course which may or may not incur an extra year of fees? These are questions which all university staff need to think very hard about.

This discussion-based workshop will focus on the possible implications for the new fees for students and potential students of languages and area studies.

Further details online at www.llas.ac.uk/events

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