Rumour had it that both the teaching and assessment on the third-year English Literature Celebrity Cultures module was pushing boundaries to introduce students to new ways of thinking. Intrigued, I arranged a meeting with its unit leaders, Rowena Kennedy-Epstein and Andrew Blades, to find out more about what they were up to.
The Celebrity Cultures unit has been running for just one academic year, but already word has got around that this unit is one worth taking. Andrew and Rowena came up for the concept of the course through a desire for students to reflect on course materials in a more “personal, idiosyncratic” way. They recognised a disconnect between the way academics thought and the way students were encouraged to think.
“… as scholars we are deeply involved in the emotional life of our material. And I think we felt that the students here didn’t quite understand kind of their political positions within how to engage with our texts and cultures, and this is set up, I guess, in some ways to think about that.”
The course material covers gender studies, cultural studies, critical race studies and queer studies but it’s also about how students find materials. Andrew and Rowena use celebrities as the central concept, thinking about how we, as an individual and as a society, create icons; how we obsess over certain things, how we look at things, what and how we expect things to be as opposed to how they are. Ideas about the political world that are then interrogated through the idea of celebrity.
In terms of planning the course, Rowena and Andrew sat down and did all the thought about its structure and assignments simultaneously, making the transition between materials and assessment seamless and organic. There are several things that set this unit apart from others on the degree.
Each week, students were tasked with writing a 250-word lecture reflection, considering what had struck them the most about the content. Students could either do this in the time between the lecture and the seminar, or at the beginning of the seminar, where the first 15 minutes of each session was handed over to students to either write this reflection or discuss the lecture with others in their group.
The lecture reflection also had additional benefits – lecture theatres were full; in part this is down to the reflective piece, but also the fact that lectures are delivered by multiple speakers, with a number guest academics from across the Faculty of Arts taking the lectern each week, turning each session into a mini-conference, with lectures being a mix of scripted material, reflection and discussion between academics, film clips, etc. This didn’t come without its organisation difficulties, but the benefits for students were huge – Andrew observed that in his entire career he had not seen lecture theatres so full! Students were not aware of what the lecture each week so they would have to come.
These lecture reflections formed part of a portfolio of work across the unit, in which students chose their best two reflections to make up alongside a traditional essay (75% for the portfolio), with a group presentation too (25%). Students continued to write throughout the course, creating a sense of continual reflection, which removed the emphasis on the ‘final’ assessment. Andrew and Rowena both said how high the quality of work was across the board, and this was undoubtedly because the students were given their own voice to reflect on what they had learnt. As well as the 2 lecture responses and essay, there’s a 500 word piece they call a ‘meditation’ – on a particular celebrity figure or phenomenon. This is a one-off creative-critical piece, and each of the three seminar tutors produced their own and presented it at a lecture at the beginning of term.
“Students will often hide behind a kind of what they think to be a scholarly style and behind certain buzz phrases… which are often ways of clouding the very things that they want to express. Academic, scholarly language is a learned artificial language, none of us speak like that. And in fact, it can often be really inarticulate in what it’s trying to say and deliberately obscure [it]. And I think, in a way, you’re sort of parting the clouds over that, and demystifying that, to some extent, brought out at this time better, better quality of writing, which had fewer of different types of technical terms, and fewer of some of the technical terms that are actually often misused.”
The majority of students on the unit enjoyed this way of learning and being assessed, yet a few found the academic freedom difficult. Rethinking education in this way won’t always feel comfortable for every student, and ‘Celebrity Culture’ definitely addresses some of the problems students currently find with more traditional units – heavy emphasis on a final, summative assessment without much room for practice and difficulty engaging with lectures and course materials are both solved through the design and delivery of this unit. Although the study of celebrity isn’t applicable to all, the educational elements certainly are.