Friday, May 30, 2008

Tenth-rate estate

I thought that I would point out this pile of crap from The Courier-Mail, as it attempts a hatchet job on cultural studies. An invitation to Associate Professor Jason Jacobs from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Queensland to be a keynote speaker at a conference on The Sopranos at Fordham University in New York gets written up like this:

TAXPAYERS forked out up to $2000 to help send a University of Queensland lecturer to a US conference on the mafia TV series The Sopranos.

The kind of low-rent university bashing is a staple of Brisbane's monopoly print newspaper, despite the fact that is also derives considerable revenue from the universities through various education supplements, as well as often relying on academics to comment on television show when they are running a story including, yes, The Sopranos. I certainly know that I have done 30 minute interviews with Courier-Mail journalists at short notice, and many people in media and cultural studies have done the same.

Readers of this blog would know that I am a fan of The Sopranos so my comment may be coloured by this. I am also a fan of Jason Jacobs' work, and feel that he deserves much better than this nonsense. So if anyone needs some 'Cliff's Notes' (as they say in the US) on how to respond to this stuff, try this:

  • Television is the most widely used consumer entertainment technology in the world, with UNESCO estimating that 65% of the world's population or abut 4 billion people, have a TV in their homes. It is therefore important to understand how it work, not only as a technology, but as a disseminator of culture;
  • The Sopranos has been watched by ten of millions of people around the world. In the US, its audience was about 14 million, even though it was on HBO, which is a premium cable channel;
  • The Sopranos has a particularly complex and sophisticated narrative structure. On tis, don't take my word for it, but check out Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You, where he cites the how as an example of popular culture that is making its audiences smarter by requiring them to deal with multi-strand narrative;
  • The gangster genre was been a recurring device used as an allegory to tell wider stories about 2oth century America, from Scarface, Public Enemy and White Heat in the 30s and 40s, to the Godfather film of the 70s, to Scarface, Goodfellas and Casino in th 80s and 90s, to The Sopranos in the 2000s;
  • Without knowing the details of UQ's budget, I would suspect that, like most Australian universities, it now derives about half of its total budget from non-government sources (student fees, grant income, consultancies, IP etc.), with the other half coming from HECS payments no being made by past students. So the idea that 'the taxpayer' as generic category is paying for this travel that the journalist in question - Darren Cartwright in case you are interested - doesn't know much about how universities are now funded;
  • Given that you would struggle to get a return flight to the US for $2000, I would say that both UQ and Australia are getting a bargain to have Jason Jacobs' work recognised internationally at such a conference.
A quick Google check on coverage in U.S. media would suggest that they are far less sniffy about any of this than we find in the embattled provincialism of today's Courier-Mail.


victor xray said...

Hi Terry,

Also an academic's "productivity" is also partially measured by their ability to reach their international colleagues, with publishing and conferences, as well as their ability to attract research funding. U.Q. specifically has a small budget - on the order of $2000/yr - for each of its academics to use to help them attend such conferences.

Terry Flew said...

Good point. And if he gets the paper published in a book or a refereed journal, money comes back to UQ and his Faculty through Research Quantum. It also makes him more competitive for research grants.

With The Courier-Mail you are unsure whether the journalists just don't know this stuff, or they do know it and assume their readers don't. Either way its pretty pathetic.

Paul Levinson said...

Good to see your response to the inane Courier Mail story, Terry.

Terry Flew said...

Thanks Paul. I look forward to the book coming out from the conference.