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2010 Award - ‘You just end up feeling more professional’: Media production and industry-ready personhood

The third ADM-HEA Media, Communications and Cultural Studies Prize was presented at the MeCCSA annual conference in at London School of Economics in January 2010.  The prize, for the best paper analyzing key issues impacting on media, communications and cultural studies higher education, was awarded to Dr Daniel Ashton, Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, at Bath Spa University. 

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Keywords: Media Production; Personhood; Professionalism; Employability

Introduction

Taking the current UK creative economy policy emphasis on employability, creativity and talent (DCMS, 2008) as the contextual backdrop, this paper explores professionalism and becoming ‘industry-ready’ as articulated by higher education students within a media production context.

Specifically, research conducted with higher education students based within a university-operated and commercially orientated media production studio is introduced. The studio context was crucial in terms of how students could come to understand professionalism and creativity, and relate to themselves. As one student put it, it was about ‘feeling more professional’.

Paul du Gay’s concept of personhood (2007) is used to explore ‘the relations, techniques and forms of training and practice’ that shape how students articulate their sense of becoming ‘industry-ready’. The focus on identity is crucial for engaging with the creative economy discourse of ‘creative talent’ and students’ identity practices within a ‘creative milieu’.

The creative employability context

The centrality of employability to the core operations of UK universities is apparent across a range of reports and documents. In April 2008, the former UK government Department for Universities, Innovation and Skills (DIUS) published the ‘Higher Education at Work – High Skills: High Value' consultation document stating:

We want to see all universities treating student employability as a core part of their mission. So we believe it is reasonable to expect universities to take responsibility for how their students are prepared for the world of work (DIUS, 2008, p.6)

Similarly, the October 2008 Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) ‘Stepping Higher: Workforce development through employer-higher education partnership’ report addresses the skills agenda and the case for increased collaboration between higher education and industry/business/employers. Most recently, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published report ‘Higher Ambitions’ (2009, p.13) states, ‘we will expect all universities to describe how they enhance students’ employability’.

As an increasingly key part of higher education, this agenda and its application have not gone uncontested. As Philip Brown et al. (2003, p.109) argue, employability ‘policy discourse is dominated by employer and government concerns about the supply of graduates [and] has received little conceptual or empirical analysis’. With regard to Media Studies and the push towards vocational application and employability, the increasing prominence of creative industries policy is significant. Notably Sue Thornham and Tim O’Sullivan’s discussion (2004) of their three-year HEFCE Fund for the Development of Teaching and Learning project identified the increasing concentration on ‘employability’. I too would highlight this focus, but would also stress the extent to which creative economy/industries discourse is shaping concepts of employability.

With the often-cited 2001 Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published Creative Industries Mapping Document, various ‘creative’ sectors were grouped together, including film, television and radio, publishing and gaming. In surveying this formation, David Hesmondhalgh (2009, p.246) highlights how, ‘in spite of the deep conceptual confusions, these varying definitions have had a strange mutually reinforcing effect, leading to a veritable cult of creativity’. It is this prominent and pervasive concern with creativity that is playing a formative role in shaping questions of employability in media industries.

Questions of the media industries and media training are framed in terms ‘creativity’ and realizing ‘creative talent’. In this respect, the ‘supply of graduates’ approach that Brown et al. (2003) highlight can be refined as the supply of ‘creative industry-ready talent’. This creative talent discourse is most prominent in the DCMS 2008 Creative Britain report. This report works from the premise that ‘ideas are the raw material of the creative industries’ (p.12) and ‘the creative industries start with individual creativity’ (p.13). A key challenge is then identified in ‘developing world-class talent’: ‘talent is the life blood of the creative industries. If the UK is to retain a world leading creative sector, it will be through winning the race to develop our creative skills’ (p.19). Philip Schlesinger (2007) has described this pervasive creative economy discourse as ‘extraordinarily banal’. Along the same lines, being ‘uncreative’ seems a curious aspiration. That said, ‘creativity’ is being vigorously advocated and propounded with regard to employability attributes. 

In the following sections, a research project with a university-operated and commercially orientated media production studio will be introduced to examine the identity practices that are emerging in relation to the creative economy framing. This focus engages with the notion of the ‘creative’ and seeks to explore the empirical resonances and implications.

The studio context

The following draws on research conducted at Artswork Media - a media production studio developed as part of a Centre for Teaching and Learning (CETL) initiative employing ‘creativity’, ‘technology’, and ‘employability’ as the keywords. The project is ongoing and this paper draws on research conducted up to November 2009 – two interviews with staff, eight student interviews, one focus group, and a series of participant observations including following production projects, observing briefing meetings and guest sessions with industry professionals. Students were either taking a top-up year to their Foundation course in Broadcast Media, or were completing the level six ‘Creative Enterprise’ module.

The industry and employability focus was clear in comments from the studio’s director when describing his and the technical demonstrator’s involvement:

We’re working in the industry trying to drum up business for ourselves, so we know one of the key things to get anywhere in the business is to know what the business wants: how you fit in the business; what value you add to the business; are you connected with the business; are you networking with the business?

The aim of transcending boundaries and developing a space in which students were able to realize work within an industry-modeled environment is highlighted in the different priorities and ethos that were described:

I know that within the university the mantra is ‘it’s not the completion it’s the doing that the matters’, the process matters more than actually realising it.  But I think that if you’re going to put people into a real-life working environment, then delivery is very important.  So one of the things I’ve stressed to people here is that actually delivery of a completed film is important.

These ‘business-facing’ and ‘working environment’ factors are crucial in distinguishing Artswork Media’s commitment to employability. This emphasis can be traced in how students would discuss notions of professionalism.


Creative contexts and creative identity

In discussing their HEFCE project, Thornham and O’Sullivan suggest that, ‘recontextualizing the teaching of production skills within a university environment may prove uncomfortable for the university, but it also radically changes the what and the how of the learning that occurs’ (p.733). With Artswork Media, there is a recontextulising of what and how with regard to the creative economy context and notions of professionalism. The teaching of production skills is recontextualised within the university, and then further recontextualised in this crossover space. As the perspectives and commentaries provided by students illustrate, this studio space was crucial in terms of their understanding of industry and how they came to understand and relate to themselves as potential media workers in-the-making.

Paul du Gay’s work on identity is instructive for examining the interplay of identity and context. The notion of ‘cultural making-up’ was outlined by du Gay, Salaman and Rees (1996, p.264) as the ‘adoption of certain habits or dispositions [that] allows an individual to become – and to become recognised as – a particular sort of person’. This has been developed in terms of the ‘specific forms of ‘personhood’ that individuals acquire as a result of their immersion in, or subjection to, particular normative and technical regimes of conduct’ (du Gay, 2007, p.11). The importance of context is highlighted in terms of ‘the practical means through which individuals are equipped with the capacities to conduct themselves as particular sorts of persons’ (du Gay, 2007, p.23)

The following sample of comments illustrates how students related to the studio space and understood themselves as particular sorts of persons:

It is a nice environment, it feels very professional. You are away from the university for a good part of it [working week]. You just end up feeling much more professional (Student RE).

[Using skills] in a professional environment boosts your confidence and makes you more prepared for the real world (Student RE).

It was more like an office here, so you feel a bit more in charge of the space and the brand (Student MA).

You’ve got everything you could possibly need and you’ve got a little restaurant there. You feel you’re being quite professional anyway, but you’re doing it in this environment so it automatically ups your status to want to work more because of where you are; you don’t just feel like you’re at uni (Student DK).

In examining findings from the Artswork Media project, the studio space constituted the ‘practical means’ through which students could strive to conduct themselves as professionals. Artswork Media is situated in Paintworks, ‘Bristol’s Creative Quarter’, and students flagged up the resonances they felt through working in this environment.  From comments on the restaurants, branding, equipment, proximate businesses, and client and work relationships, students discussed the ways in which they understood ‘professional media worker’ as a form of personhood.

The sense of being ‘professional’ ran alongside accounts of being ‘creative’. Professionalism and creativity were interweaved so that to be professional relied on channeling and understanding creativity in ways that echoed professional workers’ practices. In this respect, the lead on being creativity was taken from professionals who, in being ‘professional’, are seen to embody and practice creativity. These comments point to the language of ‘creativity’ that was commonplace within interview sessions:

Everyone around you is creative so you feel you fit in (DK).

It’s just really nice to be in a creative environment because Paintworks is obviously the creative port of Bristol […] and they’ll be lots of creatives there as well (MA).

When you are making films it is about being creative (BA).

 This is not to claim that the discourse (or doctrine) of creativity that Schlesinger (2007) discusses is being adopted by students in a clear cut or instrumental manner, but rather that creativity was referred to and employed in how students made sense of their practices and articulated how they could understand and relate to themselves. Importantly, du Gay suggests that personhood is limited and distributed in that it does not refer to an essence that one has all the time. Rather, the approach is to explore the means and contexts that individuals have to ‘understand and relate to themselves as persons’ (2007, p.88).  Alongside the broader area and the dedicated studio space, the presence of industry practitioners was noted as significant.

Thornham and O’Sullivan highlight Lindahl Elliot’s comments that professionals are not socially or discursively neutral and that practitioner-lecturers bring with them notion of ‘professional identity, relation and order’ (2000, p.27 cited 2004, p.723; see also Ashton, 2009). Artswork Media is a specific place underpinned by notions of how a professional space could be constituted. Care was taken to highlight that particular demands, for example on time and resources, were not as pressing as within a commercial, media production studio. It was rather that this was a space for development and transition. Or, noting the creative economy talent discourse, where creative skills can be honed.

Employability and creative skills

Through the framing of personhood and the comments from students, an ‘industry-ready creative’ form of personhood may be described. This form of personhood is bound up with the employability discourse introduced earlier and is nuanced in terms of creativity.

In terms of being industry-ready, students were equipped and trained with contemporary industry products: ‘we make sure that we keep apace with the industry that they’re going into [and] wherever they are in that cycle they will be always be at a correct point’. Moreover, being industry-ready in terms of attributes was also expressed. The focus group references to ‘generic skills’ such as team working and communication connects here with the attributes of ‘individuality, originality, and analysis’ and ‘learning to think’ that were identified as sought-after by the employers that Thornham and O’Sullivan interviewed  (2004, p.725). These examples indicate that the studio space fostered a sense of what counts as important for heightening employability. These comments can be seen to resonate with the student perception on production work and employability that Thornham and O’Sullivan identified: ‘when asked specifically about improving employability, many students focused on increasing the amount of production work in the syllabus or on work placements’ (2004, p.727). Further to these points on production work and placements, I would stress that improving employability is intricately connected with questions of identity and how students would articulate professionalism and creativity.

Through the interviews and participant observations, employability can be identified with the forms of identity and articulations of professionalism and creativity that were developed in a specific space. Being an ‘industry-ready creative’ signals expectations about proficiency in equipment that can be documented in a precise manner, and the more intangible ‘professional’ and ‘creative’ quality about using that equipment. Creative skills and talent resides in the melding of technical production skills, generic graduate skills, and ‘creative’ application.

In the final section, I will consider that if the studio is the context for forming professional identities, how could it also be the context for reflecting on these identities?

Reflexive and sensitive

The ‘industry-ready creative’ framing has been introduced to highlight processes, at the intersection of industry and higher education, through which students prepare for working in the creative industries. However, as Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt (2008p.19) argue, ‘to understand emergent subjectivities […] we need to understand not only the possible becomings, but also the not-becomings’. Mark Banks’ study of cultural entrepreneurs can help us to consider how students who are attentive to notions of professionalism and creativity within a specific context could be encouraged to explore and interrogate them. In other words, rather than seeing being ‘professional’ and being ‘creative’ as equaling ‘employability’, how else can these ways of relating to oneself be explored? At the core of this is a rethinking of what professionalism and creativity can be about when untied from or repositioned in relation to employability.

As Banks (2006, p.465) outlines:

A number of our entrepreneurs revealed themselves to be self-reflexive and sensitive actors, acutely aware of the embeddedness of their firm within a particular geographical and social milieu, and concerned to achieve a balance between the pursuit of instrumental goals and the articulation of moral-political values of socially useful character.

The significance of articulating ‘moral-political values’ was highlighted by Artswork Media’s director:

They’re setting up businesses, so they’re supporting an area; there’s a social enterprise element to it.  That’s an interesting thing to consider in a place like this - to what extent you want to impose some sort of value?  I think that could be quite appealing to students because [they] are very interested in issues of environmental, social, community, etc. It’s interesting that actually quite a lot of the stuff we’ve been doing already has had an environmental angle.

Moreover, as highlighted by du Gay’s focus on context and Banks’ reference to geographical and social milieu, the studio context may prove crucial in exploring these diverse articulations of the ‘creative’ and ‘professional’. As hinted at here, wider social concerns are evident. Given that social concerns are evident as part of the concerns that students’ raise, I would suggest that the studio context could be a revealing space for exploring social concerns connected with employability and the media industries (see Gill and Pratt, 2008). Banks (2006, p.466), highlights that, ‘beyond the caricature of the individualized, desocialized creative, some entrepreneurs may be recast as progressive, motivated actors that pursue varied ends in the context of place-embedded cultural work’. Adopting Banks’ comments and recognizing the engagement with social concerns already evident, how could the identities that are emerging within the student space be explored within this space.

Noting the contextualisations of learning noted earlier, the studio space could be the context for the formation and recontextualisation of creative identities. Instructive for such a place-embedded exploration of identity could be Sara Bragg’s (2007) ‘everyday pedagogies’ approach that attends to the personal investments and desires of students (such as a career in the media industries).


Summary

The creative economy investment in creative identities calls for an analysis of employability that engages with questions of identity alongside technical competence and transferable skills. Exploring the contexts and practical means for the formation of particular forms of personhood responds to this. Whilst perhaps not widespread, the studio space embodies the increasing importance placed on industry engagement and employability. It also provides an opportunity for exploring situated identity practices. Following Banks’ suggestions, care should be taken not to reduce a concern for employability and being industry-ready to a limited instrumental drive. Instead, there are opportunities to recognize a wide range of meanings and concerns (i.e, social and environmental). In doing so moreover, we can be alert to how analysis of specific contexts and place-embedded work can be revealing. In this respect, notions of ‘professional’ and ‘creative’ fostered in a particular space can equally and productively be explored and contested within that space. Employability should not exist as a distinct set of attributes that can be acquired, but examined as a way in which an individual can come, or not, to understand and relate to themselves.


Contact information

Dr Daniel Ashton
Department of Film and Media Production
School of Humanities and Cultural Industries
Bath Spa University
Newton Park Campus
Bath BA2 9BN
E: d.ashton@bathspa.ac.uk

Biography

Dr Daniel Ashton is is Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies. This paper emerges out of his current ‘Media Studies, Higher Education Pedagogy and the Industry-Ready Agenda’ research project supported by a Promising Research Fellowship from Bath Spa University. He has published recently with Journal of Education and Work and Journal of Media Practice.

References

Ashton, D. (2009) Making it professionally: Student identity and industry professionals in higher education', Journal of Education and Work 22(5), pp.283-300.

Banks, M. (2006) ‘Moral Economy and Cultural Work’, Sociology 40(3), pp.455-472.

Bragg, S. (2007) ‘What Kevin Knows: Students’ Challenges to Critical Pedagogical Thinking’, in A.Nowak, S.Abel and K.Ross (eds.) Rethinking Media Education. Cresskill,  Hampton Press, pp.57-73.

Brown, P., Hesketh, A., and Williams. S. (2003) ‘Employability in a Knowledge-driven Economy.’ Journal of Education and Work,16(2), pp.107-126.

Creative Industries Task Force (2001) Creative Industries Mapping Document.  London, Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (2009) Higher Ambitions: the future of universities in a knowledge economy. Available from: http://www.bis.gov.uk/policies/higher-ambitions

Department of Culture, Media and Sport (2008) Creative Britain. London, Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

Du Gay P., Salaman J. G. and Rees B. (1996), "The conduct of management and the management of the conduct: Contemporary managerial identity", Journal of Management Studies 33(3), pp.263-282.

Du Gay, P. (2007) Organizing Identity. London, SAGE.

Gill, R. and Pratt, A. (2008), ‘In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work’, Theory, Culture & Society 25(1), pp.1-30.

Hesmondhalgh, D. (2009) ‘Politics, Theory, and Method in Media Industries Research’, in J.Holt and A.Perren (eds.) Media Industries. Oxford, Wiley-Blackwell, pp.245-255.

Schlesinger, P. (2007) ‘Creativity: from discourse to doctrine?’ Screen 48(3), pp.377-37.

Thornham, S. and O’Sullivan, T. (2004) ‘ Chasing the real: “employability” and the media studies curriculum’, Media, Culture & Society 26(5), pp.717-736.

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