Colleagues Warn Goldsmiths’ Proposed ‘Connected Curriculum’ Highly Disruptive to the Ecology of Programmes in Media, Communications & Cultural Studies

Colleagues in the Department of Media, Communications and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths have drawn together this response to the ‘Connected Curriculum’. With the Department of Sociology, whose response you can read here, colleagues and students of MCCS are deeply concerned about the grave implications of this proposal.

This feedback has been gathered from staff occupying a wide range of responsibilities across the department, including the Research Committee Chair, Convenor of Postgraduate Research, Convenors of Postgraduate and Undergraduate Programmes, and Undergraduate Student Representatives, as well as the EDI Coordinator for the School. Heads of Department were originally given eight days in which to complete the feedback, two of which were on a weekend and five of which were on strike days making it extremely difficult to make a meaningful contribution. We note the five extra days given but this is far from a satisfactory way of consulting on one of the most significant and far-reaching proposals in Goldsmiths’ recent history. It suggests that the proposed modules are being imposed on Departments without sufficient time to ensure widespread discussion from all stakeholders in the College.

We were originally given eight days in which to complete the feedback, two of which were on a weekend and five of which were on strike days making it extremely difficult to make a meaningful contribution. We note the five extra days given but this is far from a satisfactory way of consulting on one of the most significant and far-reaching proposals in Goldsmiths’ recent history.

Our response here follows the Department’s formal response on 4 June 2021 to the ‘Common Curriculum’ (CC) proposal, the substance of which was never responded to by the CCR team. Many of the concerns raised at that time – in relation to the need for additional investment to deliver high-quality cross-departmental modules, the instrumentalist values underpinning the proposed curriculum, and the bypassing of the interdisciplinary and engaged teaching that is already done within Departments – remain relevant today and inform this response. While we recognise that the CC draft document ‘acknowledge[s] concerns that have been raised’ (p 3), we do not feel that the shift from a ‘Common Curriculum’ to the ‘Connected Curriculum’ actually mitigates the impact of the fundamental flaws in the proposal.

The document outlining the proposed ‘Connected Curriculum’ for feedback from colleagues states: ‘The Connected Curriculum model developed by Fung was principally intended for use in discipline specific contexts. We believe that this approach will be enriching for education delivered across Goldsmiths’ departments.’

We are also very concerned about the financial implications of the CC and the impact that the new centrally-delivered modules will have on contribution rates – and therefore jobs – across the College. Assuming that the ‘fees follow students’ approach remains in place and given that the recent Academic Portfolio Review was entirely predicated on low contribution rates, the introduction of compulsory CC modules could see the disappearance of significant amounts of money from Departments that are already hovering close to ‘acceptable’ thresholds. In the case of MCCS, we estimate that with the equivalent of 30 credits worth of teaching leaving the Department – a very conservative estimate based on only one of the two terms of ‘Goldsmiths 101’ and the Goldsmiths’ Social Change module’ being delivered centrally – this will involve a significant reduction in our budget. It is hard to imagine a situation in which this will not put additional pressure on job security.

Finally, we would like to emphasise that in MCCS, we are always seeking to seeking to develop ‘innovative curriculum that supports diverse students’ and to ensure that our offer ‘continues to be innovative, intellectually rigorous, and forward-looking’ (p. 5). We have sought to embed a range of critical and transferable skills into all our modules that link to the programmes we run and that our students sign up to. This approach to curriculum development takes on board many of the principles at the heart of the CCR but is designed to link organically to our programmes. The introduction of a compulsory ‘connected curriculum’ is therefore both unnecessary but also potentially highly disruptive to the ecology of programmes that would not be able to accommodate the proposed CC modules without significantly disrupting the very careful curation of modules that already takes place.

Student Feedback

We engaged with our UG Department Student Coordinators who, in turn, contacted other students through their networks. They were rather surprised not to have been included in earlier stages of consultation. The response thus far to the CC proposals has been uniformly negative and we have yet to hear a positive comment. This is particularly alarming given that the stated aim of the CC is to enhance Goldsmiths’ offering in a competitive market. One of our DSCs commented that ‘[i]f this goes forward, I will be utterly ashamed for having this institution’s name on my degree’ while the full response from our other DSC is worth repeating in full.

I think this is the wrong direction teaching at Goldsmiths should go towards. Myself and most students I have spoken to on my course have chosen Goldsmiths because it offered a degree we could customise almost fully. The appeal and USP of many Goldsmiths degrees is that they allow you to freely conduct critical analysis, pursue any niche passion, and develop your personal views regarding society and ethics. I think the people who designed these changes into the curriculum saw how passionate we are about all this and rushed to apply it into all their programmes with no depth of thought. 

The specificity with which Goldsmiths modules and degrees approach teaching is appealing to us students because in choosing a module, we then get to choose what we focus on during our assessments. My own BA Media & Comms experience has allowed me to pursue feminist perspectives in literally all of my modules so far. My degree does not need a ‘Social Justice’-focused module for at least two reasons. Firstly, ‘social justice’ views are embedded into all current modules in a way that makes it impossible to deconstruct the module and teach it otherwise. Secondly, the social justice approach inherent in all MCCS modules is exactly why making a single new module would not work. It will lack specificity and will be too broad for students (and lecturers) to be able to properly deliver any quality information. Moreover, students who choose Goldsmiths do not need an ‘Introduction to Global Ecological Change and Social Justice’ – Goldsmiths students have a widely known reputation for bringing these ideas to Uni in the first place. We want to apply these views onto specific fields and case studies. To put it promptly, teaching Social Justice or Environmentalism instead of allowing it to happen within specific modules that analyse what they mean in context would be like giving lessons on how to use an oven without choosing any recipe. 

What’s more, the online delivery of most of these materials is infuriating and disheartening. All students I have spoken to wish they would have got their in-person, normal University experience. Having to offer online lectures or workshops should be the last option Goldsmiths ever considers – taking advantage of the fact we are now used to online delivery is very saddening, because our and future students’ degrees should mean plenty of time to socialise, show up and swap ideas. 

All in all, I completely disagree with the proposal. ‘One Goldsmiths’ is about uniting students from different degrees and backgrounds into a collective that cherishes individuality. ‘One Goldsmiths’ is as far as can be from making every student attend the same modules for what is a significant amount of their degree. In my three years here, ‘cookie cutter’ has never been a winning ticket.

Goldsmiths 101: Learning, Society and Environment

It claims to build ‘connection’ but there are few examples of how one session connects to another and it is not clear to us precisely what academic content is offered here as no particular field of knowledge, discipline, theoretical framework, or area of debate is foregrounded

Please provide comments on the academic content of the module

Goldsmiths 101 is organised around a series of generic sessions on ‘learning’ in term 1 followed by discrete thematic ‘hotspots’ in term 2. It claims to build ‘connection’ but there are few examples of how one session connects to another and it is not clear to us precisely what academic content is offered here as no particular field of knowledge, discipline, theoretical framework, or area of debate is foregrounded. There is also little awareness of the fact that there are different paradigms operating across disciplinary fields and that to bring, for example, neuroscience and positive psychology into a curriculum that has been shaped by long histories of media, cultural studies, aesthetics, psychosocial studies, feminism, critical psychology, and related disciplines, will present considerable issues of translation. This runs the risk of confusing our students rather than enhancing the UG offer.

There is an assumption that the module represents much-needed collaborative interdisciplinarity and will give students the opportunity to work across disciplines. This might be the case for some Goldsmiths departments but MCCS students already work across disciplines and engage in collaborative interdisciplinary inquiry which combines theory and practice, as well as addressing so-called ‘real world problems and issues’.

This ethos and educational philosophy is at the heart of MCCS and is represented by our UG programmes which work across theory and practice and involve collaborative group work. For example, our bespoke ‘Learning to Learn’ platform is embedded in one of our core 1st year modules Key Debates in Media Studies. This is based on a curriculum devised and taught by staff who come from a wide range of different disciplines, including psychology, media and communication studies, anthropology, history, philosophy, English, sociology, cultural theory, economics, but who have all specialized in the field of media and communication studies. This interdisciplinarity is what makes our offer distinctive (much more than a traditional media studies department), and provides the wide range of conceptual, methodological, and technical approaches that make our graduate students distinctive and recognisable. Employers know and expect Goldsmiths MCCS students to have the flexibility, foundational skills and critical and creative thinking which enables them to enter the creative and cultural industries as graduates.

rather than focus on race, class, gender and sexuality as ‘dispositions’ to learning where structural inequalities are individualised, or on ‘environment’, ‘poverty’ and ‘technology’ as discrete packages, our focus is on the importance of a diverse and inclusive curriculum

The premise of Goldsmiths 101 and its constructivist approach to knowledge actually informs the foundation of one of our first-year modules, Culture and Cultural Studies, and of the kinds of approaches that are part of the field of media and communication studies. However, rather than focus on race, class, gender and sexuality as ‘dispositions’ to learning where structural inequalities are individualised, or on ‘environment’, ‘poverty’ and ‘technology’ as discrete packages, our focus is on the importance of a diverse and inclusive curriculum whether that is in relation to journalism or media and communications let alone our joint programmes with ECW, Anthropology and History, where these issues are consistently acknowledged and worked through.

We would like to see more information about the ‘online pre-arrival module’ (p. 14). Is this a MOOC? What will it consist of? Will it be credit bearing and, if not, what will we do given that many students may simply fail to complete it?

Overall, we agree with our DSC’s comment that this module is not one that would generate any enthusiasm nor motivation to study at Goldsmiths. Indeed, removing 30 credits worth of modules from our carefully curated first years threatens to destabilise, not improve, recruitment.

Please provide comments on the module design, eg delivery, assessment, personal tutoring and learning resources

‘Digital First’

The curriculum promises a ‘digital first approach’ as if this is, in itself, innovative or valuable. Actually, what it seems to suggest is large elements of digital delivery with content being made available across a range of formats in the expectation that this will ‘support students to gain digital skills’ (p. 3). This illustrates a very narrow understanding of the far richer interaction between theoretical understanding and practical application of digital skills that is at the core of many MCCS modules.

Nowhere does the proposed curriculum present a rationale for maximising online delivery and blended learning nor is there data to support the claim that students are asking for and will benefit from more online delivery. Furthermore, no evidence is presented as to how students will work through ‘online material’ or the pedagogy that is claimed to be supported by an ‘online pack’. Existing provision of module content in MCCS is delivered via the VLE, offering a range of avenues for further engagement with module content. Is this distinct from existing provision of material to students via the VLE?

Entry-level skills such as developing a LinkedIn profile may be worthwhile activities and support our students’ transferable skills. The concern here, however, is the use of terminology when promoting this aspect of the Connected Curriculum. ‘Digital skills’ mean very different things to different academic departments and to different employment markets. For example, for many MCCS students, ‘digital skills’ are more closely equated with an advanced understanding of the term in terms of the use of specialist equipment, software, and cloud-based platforms for which there is a significant talent shortage, rather than this narrower and more instrumental application.

Module Design and Assessment

There are no central organising concepts to guide students’ learning journeys which means that there is no scaffolding of ideas or cumulative view of learning and little possibility for students to benchmark their progress.

Assessments should offer clear progression of work in relation to the content of the curriculum. With minimal academic content and assessments that steer students away from core academic literacy skills—such as reading, writing, analysis, developing and communicating an argument—it is unclear how we will be able to assess students’ engagement with any academic materials. As students learn holistically, it is difficult to see how the assessment for this module will contribute to their overall capacity as students of particular fields of knowledge when their training in respective programmes is constrained by a generalist and instrumentalist approach.

Moreover, it is not clear who is going to teach students to develop the necessary video or podcasting skills for their assessments. Where do they access the recording and editing software? This will require a significant investment in infrastructure and it is not at all clear that the College is set up at the moment to be able to provide this opportunity for students.

Personal Tutoring

We have spent a lot of time improving our personal tutor system and have increased the number of senior tutors (with significant workload implications). We now expect our personal tutors to arrange a series of both individual and group personal tutor meetings across the autumn and spring terms with individual ‘exit’ interviews for all students in the summer term. We are certainly keen to embed PT work more effectively into student timetables but awarding academic credit to what remains a largely pastoral activity raises all sorts of issues.

The plan to assess personal tutoring is deeply problematic given that:

  • First year students are in the process of learning about the different role of personal tutors, senior tutors, seminar leaders, module convenors and so on. This module proposes a new form of personal tutoring without accounting for the kind of work that the personal tutor is already expected to do.
  • The PT is mainly, though of course not exclusively, a pastoral role and there is, therefore, a potential conflict of interest between pastoral care and assessment. Asking PTs to assess student participation in their PT sessions, raises important ethical questions about the relationship between PT and student.
  • Three main reasons that students contact their personal tutors include: wanting to discuss personal difficulties; wanting to discuss difficulties with a particular area of programme provision; wanting to find out information provided by a particular service within the university. Personal tutoring to support an individualised programme of research is not desired by students, no matter how much lecturers might encourage it. To mandate this risks creating antagonism and alienation.
  • Personal tutoring, as a one-to-one activity, is resource intensive. Students regularly miss appointments and it is not appropriate to task staff with chasing students for appointments. Asking students to complete a form prior to the personal tutor meeting will further complicate attendance.
  • The Connected Curriculum proposal hints at real resource issues when it suggests there will be a need for more senior tutors (p. 13). Both personal tutoring and senior tutoring should be reviewed so that these roles are properly remunerated, supported, and recognised in opportunities for progression and promotion.
Learning Resources

The learning resources are vague at this point but already it seems clear that students will struggle to make sense of many of the texts listed without scaffolded support. Some references appear to be inappropriate for level 4 teaching, for example Haraway 2016, Foucault 1966 or Bourdieu 1990. As students are being taught nothing about poststructuralist, postmodernist or materialist philosophies, critiques of humanism and so on, how could they possibly be expected to understand and make use of these texts? Furthermore, what is the justification for the two random podcasts listed? What are students supposed to make of Brené Brown when they are not taught anything in this module about neoliberalism and the self?

How could this module be improved?

This module could be offered as an option to those Departments who are unable, for various reasons, to offer appropriate transferable skills within existing modules.

Please comment on this module with regards to our mission to promote equality, diversity and inclusion?

A common, albeit connected, curriculum presents many challenges from an EDI perspective. Parity of opportunity needs to be created for students with different interests, capabilities, and pre-existing knowledges. Yet this module presumes equity of access and equal levels of digital literacy among the student body in combination with a theory of learning that treats learning in an overly simplistic way. The idea that learning can be delivered essentially through providing ‘online module materials’ conflates learning with the interpretation of information in a cultural vacuum (this is not how most people learn). The lack of a theory of learning will disproportionately affect students who have less confidence approaching new material. Conversely, more confident students will not be challenged.

The module as currently conceived does not meaningfully embrace equality, diversity and inclusion. It adopts a highly generalised and instrumentalist approach to learning and knowledge that may exacerbate the insecurity of less confident students and frustrate more confident students. By both denying the specificity of and co-opting the themes of critical race, feminist and queer scholarship, the module may be detrimental to the goals of that scholarship. In this sense, the module cannot claim to be in dialogue with the decolonial or with the existing commitment that Goldsmiths have made to ‘liberate’ the curriculum. The conflict of interest between this module and the critical knowledges taught in particular fields will undermine the possibility of a consistent learning experience and could create antagonism in the student body. In short, given that our students are taught to tell the difference between a liberatory discourse and a neoliberal one, they may well feel betrayed or shortchanged by a programme of study that is more instrumental than genuinely critical.

The conflicts of interest generated by assessed personal tutoring will exacerbate existing inequalities within the student body. Students who are less confident to approach lecturers and seminar leaders will be prejudicially treated by this mode of delivery and assessment. As the personal tutoring relies upon self-presentation, this type of assessment feeds into the ‘imposter syndrome’ crisis among first generation students. It is unclear how any rigorous form of assessment could be fairly applied to a mode of delivery as individually specific as personal tutoring.

The Goldsmiths’ Social Change Module

Please provide comments on the academic content of the module

Problem-based teaching and learning is at the heart of what we do in MCCS but we believe this to be an exceptionally unwieldy module that is going to generate frustration amongst those students who want to do it but are not given sufficient support, guidance or facilities, and very off-putting for students who find it intimidating due to its vagueness. Effectively, it risks benefiting those students who are already confident and can produce work without much support and stall those who are less well-equipped with skills, computers, cameras, and confidence.  There is a real risk of reputational damage and disappointment with this module.

Furthermore, it is likely to duplicate much of the work done by our second year students – whether they are taking the ‘media campaigning and social activism’ pathway of BA Media and Communications or the ‘Creative Collaboration’ module of BA Promotional Media or the ‘Multimedia Journalism’ component of our BA Journalism programme – but without the accompany specialist support and resources. It assumes that problem-based learning (and the ability to theorise and generate social change) is not delivered within the existing curriculum. Instead it removes both the ‘problems’ and the commitment to change from the interdisciplinary ways in which they are currently conceived and offers them up as a separate, reified project – without sufficient academic and technical resources fully to meet expectations. 

Please provide comments on the module design. eg delivery, assessment, personal tutoring and learning resources

There is a real incoherence of outcomes as students are expected to produce work based on their home Department, but without the departmental support or learning structure to do so. In other words, they will not receive specialist criticism, training and support yet will have to work in groups and produce outputs such as exhibitions, performances or films. The proposal lacks detail about the equipment and technical support needed to resource such a module and the list of outputs on p. 28 has no clear sense of how students are trained or supported to produce each of these formats, despite their being assessed on them.

There is a lot of work for and reliance on the ‘small group tutors’, but no sense of who they are: Associate Lecturers or permanent staff? What skills are needed to support students on this module? The whole module appears to be incredibly labour intensive to organise and manage – from managing the various assessments (including weekly personal reflection diaries, the online assessment activity, the booking of ‘high profile’ guests and, of course, the organisation of a very large festival. Additionally, the length of time for the ‘festival’ is very unrealistic, given the many hundreds of students on the module.

How could this module be improved?

This module could be offered as an option to those Departments who are unable, for various reasons, to embed social change objectives within existing modules.

Please comment on this module with regards to our mission to promote equality, diversity and inclusion?

Please see the response to the ‘Goldsmiths 101’ module as many of the same problems are likely to be repeated in terms of cementing rather than challenging inequalities within the student body.

In Summary

We do not believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the need to ensure the relevance, ethical standards and innovation of the undergraduate curriculum here at Goldsmiths. In this context, a common curriculum that is imposed on Departments, whether ‘connected’ or not, is a very high-risk strategy. Departments are not generic and generic solutions carry great risks to the reputation of distinct Departments with long histories that have taken decades to build up. It is and will be very easy to negate these histories and to damage reputations.

One of the key components of our UG curriculum in MCCS that makes our BA programmes attractive to applicants is the unique offer where they acquire critical and contextualised foundational knowledge and skills in the first year, moving to more specialisation in the second and third years. We will be unable to deliver this, for example on the BA Media and Communications (the largest UG programme in the College) if we lose two core first-year theory modules, which need to span and speak to a range of practice areas – from media arts to film and screen studies and from media history to cultural studies. All our modules address, in different ways, issues that are covered in the two proposed CC modules but, importantly, our modules are grounded in readings and practices that relate to a rich tradition of debates and knowledge. In MCCS the debates we engage with have shaped Goldsmiths and our teaching and research reputations are recognised nationally and internationally.

We accept that there might be opportunities to develop core modules that provide foundational knowledge and skills but that these should be developed at School level with different iterations that are embedded more meaningfully in departmental cultures and practices. The issues of ownership of curriculum is hugely important for staff confidence and their ability to invest and believe in any new strategies or visions for the future. The proposed CC modules represent a top-down, centralised approach to educational philosophy, rather than a genuine desire to protect successful Departments, support more fragile Departments and provide the conditions for growth in the future. 

Finally, imposing such a significant change to the undergraduate curriculum should be suspended until a more secure and less stressful time for all in the institution, particularly given the chronic stress due to understaffing in many areas and ongoing threats of redundancy. Any future plans for cross-College modules should be based on the participation of Goldsmiths students and the buy-in of Goldsmiths staff. They should be made optional for those Departments who are currently unable to offer the skills and knowledge facilitated by such modules but they should not be imposed on Departments at any time.

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