Monday, December 28, 2009

Doing things to women's bodies

In pictures I mean. We've had a bit of a debate in AA100 this year about the relationship between art and reality, focussing particularly on male artists' treatment of the female form. Nowadays that sort of concern focusses less on painters and more on photographers, and their ubiquitous use of Photoshop.

This was very well illustrated lately by Hacker Factor, who went into the technicalities of how you could tell when something had been Photoshopped, using an illustration from the Victoria's Secret catalogue highlighted by "Photoshop Disasters", in a post entitled "Body by Victoria". It's a very instructive read from the point of view of seeing how it's done.

It also raises important issues about what women are and what we are trying to make of them. Much of the Photoshopping was just tidying up (depending on what you think about nipples showing through clothes). But Hacker Factor demonstrates that they lightened her skin tone. The unanswered question is why.

It's also instructive to compare how the owners of the images react. Victoria's Secret reacted openly and fairly. Following the exposure by Photoshop Disasters and Hacker Factor, they revised the image. They left some of the Photoshopping in but it wasn't as bad as before. See also "Still A Secret".

That is in stark contrast to the behaviour of Ralph Lauren, when found by Photoshop Disasters to be indulging in similar behaviour - they slapped a DCMA take down notice on them. You can't see it there any more, but you can see in on Boingboing. So Ralph Lauren are saying they can make women look any way they want, regardless of the woman's real shape, colour, or anything else.

It's interesting that the Liberal Democrats' recent campaign on Real Women was derided in the usual quarters as meaningless. But when photographers and companies are routinely doing this kind of thing to women's bodies, there must be serious implications for gender and power issues. And those impications must be taken into account when studying those issues in book 1 of AA100. (And I note that a couple of weeks ago the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the Olay advertisement featuring Twiggy, which was one of the targets of the campaign, was indeed misleading.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Following my last post about what's the point of studying the humanities, and the issue of employment skills, this video makes my point for me nicely.

It's worth watching all the way through, but - health warning - it has a vibrant sound track. The relevant bit starts at 40 seconds in, and discusses how jobs are changing. We don't know what jobs we will want skills for in ten or even five years time. So what the economy needs is people who can think and who know how to learn what they need for new jobs. Sounds like good OU graduates to me.

(There's an update by somebody different at: but it's not so relevant for my purpose and the theme tune isn't nearly so funky.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

What's the point of studying the humanities?

This is a much rehearsed question, particularly in the light of research that suggests that arts graduates are less successful than any other discipline in turning their qualifications into high salaries. In fact it is estimated that some arts graduates would have done better to start work at 18 or even 16. E.g. Male arts graduates may never recoup degree cost.

The problem bothers me a lot as I teach humanities, and is brought into focus by starting out with this year's batch of AA100: The Arts, Past and Present students, most of whom are at the beginning of their OU careers. Should I counsel them to give up their degree now, and go and work in a call centre? Lovely mates, flexible work, meet interesting people, annoy them intensely... No, of course not. But what's the point? How can our humanities students get the best value from their degree, in whatever sense we mean the word value? Particularly when starting with AA100 which has such a wide variety of disciplines. (It's designed to introduce the student to all eight disciplines within the faculty - classics, art, literature, history, history of science, religious studies, music, philosophy.)

I discussed this recently with my students and tried to relate it to the skills they're already learning as they go through book 1. The course is quite well organised in that each chapter has learning outcomes, and the alert student can track their skills as they go through the book. I try to get all my students to anchor their learning by returning, at the end of each chapter to the beginning and analysing what they've learned against the stated outcomes. (Do they all do that? I don't know, but I have my doubts.) The task here is to set the chapter learning outcomes in the wider context of the overall purpose of the course.

Asking the students why they're studying is too wide a question. Twelve students will give twelve different answers, and I wanted to finish by lunchtime. I focussed the question by pointing out that everybody here, even those paying the full retail price, was supported by other people's money in the form of the grant the OU gets from taxes. So I asked them how they could justify spending other people's money on this course. I instantly got the answer from several that they had paid taxes all their lives, and were just getting back what was rightfully theirs. That didn't change the question, just turned it round. If someone is a net tax payer, then what is the justification for somebody else taking their money to enjoy themselves doing AA100.

They got the first answer relatively quickly - it improves employability. Several were intending new careers. We left aside for the moment what exactly they will get from this course that will make them more employable. They got to the second answer a bit more slowly and hesitantly, but eventually they argued that in some way they would be better as people. I became Socrates at that point. "But what do you mean by that?" My answer to that is that people become better citizens. I know that that is very disputable, but to me it's the best way of making the purpose concrete. I think that in saying that I'm not parting company with the liberal tradition of education in the sense that it's something people use for their own purposes. I do part company with the misuse of liberal tradition that implies that education for its own sake is essentially purposeless.

A word of definition before I go further. I'm aware that "good citizen" is a weasel phrase. It can mean anything to anybody. I know that in government speak a good citizen is a compliant one. But in Rob speak a good citizen is a critical one.

The idea of education for its own sake is a fine one, and one to be upheld. But I'm not sure if I can justify spending other people's money on it. I'm also suspicious because some, though by no means all, of the roots of liberal education are class based. They come from the days when leaving the ruling of Britain to largely uneducated landed gentry was no longer sufficient, and what was needed was an entire class of relatively well educated gentlemen. (Note the lack of women.) Knowledge of the classics became one of the markers that distinguished gentlemen from the rest, and enabled us to expand the machinery of government so that it was capable of managing, first of all the great unwashed of these shores, and then the even greater unwashed of the countries we colonised. There's a whole history of the mechanics of imperialism hidden in there which I lack the wherewithal to unravel, but it leaves me uncertain about anybody's right to pursue education for its own sake at somebody else's expense without any other sense of purpose.

So, having established that in my opinion there must be a sense of purpose, here we return to how that purpose is to be expressed in learning. I think here that humanities programmes in general have a lot to answer for. I'm ready to be corrected on this - my smapling is purely happenstance - but my impression is that far too many arts graduates leave university without having a really good idea of what they can do. When an employer asks you what you can do for the company, the answer, "I can read Latin and appreciate Mozart" doesn't really cut it. It used to, for running the empire, but we live in a different world now. So what can arts graduates actually do?

I think that the skills and qualities for being a good worker and for being a good citizen are pretty much the same thing. The issue is how to develop them and how to articulate them. In one way AA100 students are lucky - they have a wide range to choose from. Each of the eight disciplines has its own core skills and concepts, all of which can contribute to the student's development as a critical thinker and problem solver. Philosophy - understanding the structure of an argument and the ways in which language can deploy meaning; history - the organisation and evaluation of documents (and in particular the ability to understand what is not said); art - understanding visual representation and how people react to, and position themselves in relation to, social and historical movements; etc, etc.

At a more detailed level, let's take the learning outcomes for one of the chapters in book one of AA100. I call them learning outcomes, but actually only chapter 1 gives you learning outcomes as such. All the other chapters outline the aims of the chapter, rather than the outcomes for the student. I don't know why. It makes a useful learning exercise though: I get the students to translate the chapter aims into learning outcomes.

From p198 of Waterhouse, H (2008) The Dalai Lama, in Moohan, E (ed), Book 1: Reputations, Open University: Milton Keynes:

"This chapter will enable you to:
l explore the development of competing reputations
2 consider the role and reputation of the Dalai Lama
3 study the past in the light of a religious worldview
4 engage with the beliefs and practices of a non-western religious system
5 use visual and documentary evidence.

I'll miss out the intermediate stage of translating this into actual learning outcomes. All of these can be subsumed into higher order outcomes, ultimately emerging as skills, concepts and qualities that enhance the student's ability to work well or participate well.
- understand how selective representations can be, and hence the need to gather different points of view and understand their motivations
- understand group dynamics and group representation
- understand how cultural differences influence people, and the way they think adn react to other people
- evaluate visual and documentary evidence in all sorts of situations
and so on.

At an operational level they translate into "transferable skills", and we see a slight parting between employability and citizenship. But it is still important that students can turn the study of the Dalai lama, Cézanne and Shostakovich into transferable skills. Some of the skills are more generic, are not mentioned in the chapter summaries, but are equally important for both spheres:
- being able to search for and evaluate information, electronically as wella s physically
- being able to set out an argument in writing and use supporting evidence
- being able to meet timetables and deadlines
- being able to work with other people - which we do in tutorials, both face to face and online.

The books are less help here, because of the lack of relevant learning outcomes in the chapter summaries, which makes it more important that students are aware of what they are developing for themselves. Emerging with an OU degree demonstrates that you have the skill and the ability to organise yourself and achieve goals. There are still some benighted employers who think an OU degree is worth less than a brick one. Fortunately more nowadays realise that putting yourself through a part time degree means you have just the kind of self discipline and commitment they are looking for. These attributes are not specific to humanities degrees, but sometimes humanities students forget to articulate them.

That's why, when one of my students, badly behind with assignment one, asked if it would be all right to leave it and go on with assignment two, I said that was a bad idea/ I said it was their choice (I always do - I don't dictate to my students unless the rules say I have to, and sometimes not even then). But I said I wanted to see the assignment. They did complete it and hand it in, and it was good. Now they're working on assignment two, and they are also, because of making themselves do that task, a step closer to getting a decent job.

In the sphere of citizenship there is a different emphasis. The ability to assimilate complex information is crucial as in employability. People need to be able to work out for themselves who they believe on issues like climate change, terrorism, international relations and so on. The ability to make complex moral judgements is also salient. Questions like what should our policy on recreational drugs be need to be debated and answered on the basis of values as well as evidence. These abilities tend (I simplify greatly here) to emerge more from the fine arts, which deepen the ability for self knowledge and reading your own and other people's emotions. This cannot be taken for granted though and neither can the assumption that a finer knowledge of yourself and other people will make you into a better sort of person. I think that there are still remnants of that view around largely for historical reasons. It used to be taken that knowledge of the classics and the fine arts unproblematically translated itself into being a better person (or in the language of the time a gentleman). This understanding was rudely shattered in a single historical moment not that long ago. At the end of the second world war Allied armies liberated the concentration camps. The liberating armies were largely conscript armies, containing numbers of officers and men who had had a liberal education and fervently believed in its benefits. They had to confront the dreadful reality that they were taking into custody German officers who would do the most unspeakable things during the day and then go home and read Goethe and listen to Beethoven in the evening. Some people have found it very hard to accept that basic truth that any moral development requires a choice. That , I believe is one reason why arts students still leave universities relatively ill equipped in terms of understanding what they have achieved - some of their teachers still believe that it ought to be taken as read, when in fact it cannot.

Several of my AA100 students are reading this, I hope, and this last piece is addressed to them. All that above, the need for a sense of purpose, the reasoning behind employability skills, and the reasoning behind citizenship skills, are why I want you to be working at two levels.

"By the end of this chapter, I will be able to use some technical language used to describe and discuss music" (chapter 6 of book 1) and

"by the end of this chapter I will be better able to understand and deploy the technical language of any field I have to familiarise myself with; hence I will be better able to adapt myself to any new situation".

That way at any time you will be working on the skills of the moment and also aware of how those fit into the larger picture of what you will get from this course and from your degree. I will welcome comments from anyone on this piece, and particularly from my students. If my students do comment, please remember that, unlike the group forum, this is a public place.