Channeling my inner Probst (Survivor: The college class)

For a long time I’ve been threatening to teach a class on Survivor. If The Wire and Mad Men are deserving of their own college-level courses, surely Survivor is! Just think of all of the topics such a class could cover: “Hantzian Mathematics: When and How to Split the Vote.” “‘Under the Radar’ or ‘Over the Cuckoos’s Nest’: Second Place as Social Game.” “‘Superman in a Fat Suit: The Plight of the Alpha Male in a post-Tom Westman World.” “Rob and Tom and Marty and Jane: Survivor and Red State/Blue State America.” “‘Fabio Is Fully Relieved Now’: Reality TV’s Environmental Impact.” “Lunch Ladies, Construction Workers, Pharmaceutical Reps, and Foxy Boxers: Women’s Work on the Island and Off.” The possibilities are endless…

This fall, I finally decided to follow through on my threats and put in a request to teach a Survivor-themed version of my department’s Culture Industries Class. Today was the first meeting of RTVF 330: The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality. The response from the Northwestern student body has been overwhelming, and we ended up with an enrollment of nearly double the number of students we originally anticipated. We’ve also received a great response from people outside of the university, a number of whom have agreed to visit the class to talk about Survivor, reality TV, and the state of the U.S. television industry. Our confirmed lineup of speakers includes Mo Ryan, the television critic for the Huffington Post; Andy Dehnart, the founder and editor of; Jon Hein, the creator of and the host of The Wrap-Up Show, What’s Worth Watching, and Geek Time on Sirius Satellite Radio’s Howard100 Channel; Dr Amber Watts, the nation’s foremost academic expert on celebreality, Jerri Manthey, and disgraced child stars; and a couple of additional very special guests whose names I’m going to keep to myself for the time being.

I’m posting the syllabus below, and I welcome the feedback of any of my fellow Survivor fans in academia and in real life. While it would have been fun to spend ten weeks on topics like “Earl, Dreamz, and Yao Man: Conciliation and Conflict Between African-American and Asian-American Masculinities,” I instead opted to structure the class as an introduction to the methods and major questions of media industry studies. Throughout the ten-week quarter we use a case study of Survivor‘s development, production, distribution, reception, and influence to explore issues of political economy and labor within the context of post-network U.S. television.

A few other notes about the class:

  • The class of about 60 students will be broken up into four tribes at our second meeting this coming Tuesday. The names of our tribes will be taken from a few of my own favorite Survivor seasons: Malakal, Koror, Chapera Drake, and, of course, Aitutaki. (Update: after deciding on my four tribes I realized that Aitutaki and Chapera both wore red buffs. In the interest of minimizing confusion, I’ve decided to replace Chapera with Drake.)
  • For the first half of the quarter the students will work together with their fellow tribe members as they compete in a series of immunity challenges (weekly multiple choice reading quizzes). The team with the highest cumulative score as of the midterm (noted on our syllabus as “The Merger”) will be immune from the midterm exam. (There has been some talk about rewarding the victorious tribe with a feast that they would consume in front of their classmates during the midterm, but we’re still working out the particulars for that.)
  • Following The Merger the tribes will dissolve as the class becomes an individual game, with students working on a final project that will require them to apply the insights they’ve gained from our study of Survivor to another reality TV program of their choice.
  • Unfortunately, the university’s bylaws prevent me from allowing the students to vote a fellow classmate out of the class every three days. However, we will have something akin to a jury vote at the end of our quarter in the form of the Course Evaluations.
  • I decided to say no to Redemption Island (no extra credit or extensions on due dates), but yes to Exile Island (get caught texting in class and you’re banished to a desert to do Tai Chi and find a stick that looks like a dragon).
  • There may or may not be a Hidden Immunity Idol located somewhere on Northwestern’s Evanston campus…

RTVF 330: The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality

Course description:

Reality TV is popular, profitable, and wildly controversial. To better understand reality TV’s impact on the American television industry this class examines the history, reception, and influence of one of its defining examples: Survivor. Survivor debuted in the United States in 2000 and quickly became one of America’s most-watched and talked about television programs. The show’s runaway success propelled the CBS network to the top of the Nielsen ratings and transformed producer Mark Burnett into one of television’s most sought-after talents. It also launched the current reality TV boom, inspiring a host of programs that emulated Survivor’s competition format, episodic structure, and visual style. While most of these programs have long since had their torches snuffed, Survivor has outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed its competition for twenty-three seasons. The show’s ongoing success makes it an ideal starting point for a critical examination of the American television industry’s new reality.


About fymaxwell
Max Dawson is a Los Angeles-based media consultant and professor.

3 Responses to Channeling my inner Probst (Survivor: The college class)

  1. Josh says:

    This looks pretty amazing. Back in 2002, my graduate-level introduction to American Studies class, naturally, focussed on television studies. For our final paper, we could watch and critique either a season of Survivor or a season of the Sopranos. I chose the former. As I remember, I penned a heavily Marxian/Gramscian critique of the show, particularly focussing on that season’s fairly brutal and blatant Mountain Dew product placement in the middle of the African desert. Anyway, a lot of my files from 2002 are in some form of unreadable AppleWorks file format, but I’ll see if I can’t revive the syllabus fro that class for you, if you’re interested.

    Good luck with the class!

  2. Pingback: “Richard Hatch Blindsided My Lecture: Inviting the Industry into the Classroom” (Flow Conference Position Paper) « max dawson dot tv

  3. Pingback: The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving TV’s New Reality Season 2 « max dawson dot tv

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