06 August 2005

Introducing semiotics at A level

[This is a note from some time ago--time-shifted to prevent identification of the people concerned]

I went to observe J. today. She really has come on leaps and bounds since the last observation, when she was looking for whatever teaching she could get, and gabbled her way through the material, obsessed with telling the students things rather than helping them to learn. There's some of that left, but she is much more relaxed, and her fund of information is kept for asides and interesting glosses on the main business.

Still, I was left thinking about "spin". She was teaching AS level students (Year 11 if they had been at school) about advertising in the context of "English language and literature": in this case a basic introduction to semiotics. She had them working in groups, deconstructing a variety of advertisements for perfume, cosmetics and jewellery. That was fine; I had some reservations about the amount of structure she gave them and her reliance on verbal instructions to brief them, but they were not serious.

It was in the plenary discussion after the groupwork that I saw the problem. I have observed this kind of lesson many times in the past, and indeed I used to teach it in my "Liberal Studies" days. In the context of social studies, key skills, or similar classes, the intended outcome is broadly, "Don't be conned by advertisements." and "This is how they manipulate you." If that had been the intention, this session would have been very good.

But it wasn't just that, in the context of this syllabus. It was to employ the concepts of "denotation" and "connotation" and the Saussurian/Barthesian notion of "signifier/signified/sign" as tools for the analysis of media communications.

I personally have considerable reservations about whether such analysis (or "deconstruction" as the current jargon has it) is any use. When carried out dispassionately, I tend to respond with, "OKóbut so what?"; when undertaken from a committed perspective, I regard it as a form of special pleading. But that is not the point. J's task was to inculcate the idea of the analytic tools, and this was the final session in this part of the scheme of work.

Instead, she was concentrating on the substance of the deconstruction. She was encouraging the students to look at the outcome of their discussions, rather than reflecting on the tools they were using to arrive at it. She was more concerned with the answers than the manner of the questioning. It's a tricky distinction. She was rightly concerned with getting them to use the ideas, and to reinforce them for productive results, but I was left with the feeling that the results were what they had learned about, not the process by which they had arrived at them. (It would be too much at this level to ask them to evaluate the utility of the tools; they are simply a "given".)

The moral? We are discussing the development of intellectual skills, here. It is all too easy to confuse the production of the desired content with the development of the appropriate skill to arrive at it. J. actually modelled the process very well: she clearly has the idea inside her. But she didn't necessarily help the students to develop the same frame of reference for themselves, unless they were taking her as a role-model in a fairly sophisticated way. It is a testimony to her development that they do seem to be taking her as such in a general sense, picking up on her enthusiasm and excitement by the subjectóbut not I think at the level of her own specific skill.

Recommendation? At this level, plug the questions to ask, regardless of the answers generated. Since this is an examination-preparation course, they may need quite specific tools to use.

Many years ago, I spent my summers working voluntarily on an evangelistic
beach mission for children. Every morning at 8 a.m., we would each meet a group
of children for a bible study. We were trained to ask two questions about the
study passage (always from the selected gospel for the year):

  • What does this passage say about the Lord?
  • What does it say about me?

Years later, teaching literature to students, I found no better formula
that to adapt that one:

  • What does this passage say about the subject?
  • What does it say about me? (That needs some unpacking in relation to
    literature, of course),
  • What does it say about the author?

Are there similar touchstone questions which could be developed for students seeking to develop the skills of deconstruction of media messages?


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