Be here now. Alternatively do a degree in it

Fancy decoding the semiotics of the skateboard? How about a module of Intermediate Moshing? Matthew Sweet analyses Youth Studies
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1) Arrange the following places in order of coolness: a) Reykjavik, b) Hoxton Square, c) Shaggers' Nitespot, Stockport, d) Pluto.

2) Select the correct answer to the following question: Are you dancing? a) Are you asking?, b) Are you mental? c) Are you Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat MP? d) All three.

3) "The youth of today, they don't know they're born." (Percy Sugden) Discuss, making sure to use the expression, "anyroad up".

4) Plot the correlation between Robbie Williams' fluctuating weight and the recent increase in global warming (remember to include pie-charts).

5) Explain the following expressions: a) hoovering Charlie's trouser hems, b) chasing Tinky Winky round a snow-covered golf course, c) Hairy Cornflake Syndrome, d) I'm still boshing this disco biscuit, so no extra mayo on me jellies.

Fancy measuring the semiotic thickness of a skateboard? Want to decode the cultural significance of Nosebleed Techno? How does a module of Advanced Moshing grab you? Well, try a geography course: out of the icy tundra of that most barrenly unsexy discipline, a bright new subject is emerging, ideally tailored to the passions of 19-year-old university students. It's Youth Studies, an interdisciplinary hybrid of geography, sociology and anthropology, and it's an area of academic inquiry which knows which way round to wear its baseball cap.

Next month sees the publication of Cool Places: Geographies of Youth Cultures, a smart new study containing essays with titles like "Clubbing: Consumption, Identity and the Spatial Practice of Every-Night Life". It's several climatic zones away from "Rocks Broken Open by a Geological Hammer", the first chapter of my school geography textbook (which always sounded to me much more like a tabloid headline than an object of serious study). But Cool Places is more concerned with popping pills than alluvial rills. It's a manifesto for a burgeoning discourse which takes in meditations on every teeny subcultural quirk from snowboarding to video games and handbag house.

The book's co-editor, Gill Valentine, argues that, "This sort of cultural geography looks at the way that different social groups handle the material of their everyday lives. It's not just drink and drugs and night-clubs. Young people are in the popular press a lot these days because they're being demonised. But on the other hand they've got more of a voice, they're staying in education, they're having a say in their rights."

The history of Youth Studies is difficult to tease out: the University of Tasmania seems to have been the first institution to offer it as a degree course. In this country, the University of the West of England got in early on the act, as did University College, Scarborough. And thereby hangs one of its paradoxes: the establishments in which it was first formulated are singularly uncool places. West of England is an institution too terrified to admit to the indignity of being based in Bristol, and Scarborough's coolest geographical assets are the funicular lift, the boating lake at Peasholme Park and the inside of Gipsy Boswell's psychic tarot booth. Not exactly Goa, is it?

For students, such courses carry an obvious appeal: "If you're part of youth culture then you're the best person to study it," suggests Owen Gibbons, a second year geographer at University College, London. "Although, if you're studying clubbing and you're really into it, then you have to be careful it doesn't bias your data." A geography field trip to the Ministry of Sound seems a much more attractive prospect than a weekend in the Mendips measuring glacial moraines, or inspecting the composition of scree. And it offers whole new possibilities for tutorials (seminars outside the kebab van at 4am, for example). Research methodology has to be reassessed, too, if academics have to bring their notepads from their oak-panelled studies and pebble-dashed Sixties gulags, and take them down the arcade, or hang around at bus-stops swilling peach Concorde and earwigging on teenage gossip.

Valentine sees the focus on youth as a logical consequence of post-modern theory: "The academic tradition once looked at people as homogenous - irrespective of gender, sexuality, race, class and age - which meant that they were really just looking at men. Now the idea of difference is much more important." And the study of youth seems to on the brink of a boom: funding bodies like the Joseph Rowntree Trust and the Social and Economic Research Council are eagerly funding work on youth issues. On December 11, Hull University will open its Centre for the Social Studies of Childhood, which will co-ordinate investigations into young people's lives and cultures; one of its prime movers, Dr Sara McNamee, has just completed a study on the sociology of video gaming. "One of the things we do," she explains, "is to look at moral panics about young people in the media and deconstruct them."

But as youth culture carves along at such a breakneck speed, doesn't it make curricula rather difficult to construct? Don't academics who work in this area feel a step behind their teenage students? Aren't they teaching their grand-daughters to suck eggs? Marion Leonard, lecturer at the Institute of Popular Music, Liverpool University - and contributor to Cool Places of "Paper Planes: Travelling the New Grrrl Geographies" - sees this constant change as the source of its interest: "That's the beauty of it," she argues. "When I was researching Riot Grrls, I was looking at the way in which it was mutating and different people were being inspired by it. It doesn't stand still, and that's part of the reason why you might want to study it."

However, in an education system where you can trot through a course of Horse Science, or pursue as flaky a confection as Patisserie Studies, is a study area centred on clubs and skateboard parks not just another lightweight option for students who go to college mainly to exchange body fluids and spliff-rolling techniques? Not according to Leonard: "Student work is usually good, they can work on something that's never really been documented, and it gives them a freshness of approach."

So, when her charges are out larging it down the aural assault-courses of Mathew Street, how does she know they're not just partying? "You have to make sure that they set it in the right kind of theoretical framework," she explains. "I can see that it might seem very unusual from an outsider's point of view, but to dismiss such work would be very unjustified - that reaction usually comes from people who haven't read the material. It's within the realm of popular culture, but that's no reason for the quality of thinking not to be up to scratch. People shouldn't be afraid of it just because it's new."

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