“Richard Hatch Blindsided My Lecture: Inviting the Industry into the Classroom” (Flow Conference Position Paper)

Later this week I’ll be in Austin, TX for the 2012 FLOW Conference. There are many reasons why FLOW is one of my favorite academic conferences. For starters, it’s one of the few major media studies conferences where television isn’t an afterthought. The format is also unique: as opposed to traditional panels FLOW sessions are unstructured round table discussions between a group of four to five respondents and the audience. Last but not least, it’s in Austin, which means BBQ, Torchy’s, Alamo Drafthouse, swimming in Barton Springs, and record shopping. This year I’ll be participating on the “Teaching Television” round table on Friday, November 2 at 9.30 am. I’ll be talking about my experiences teaching my class on Survivor and reality TV, The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving Television’s New Reality. Here’s my position paper. I hope to see some of you in Austin.

Richard Hatch Blindsided My Lecture: Inviting the Industry into the Classroom

In recent years television scholars have sought to bridge the divide between academia and Hollywood by engaging industry professionals in dialogues about the art and business of television. Typically these dialogues take place at conferences and symposia, events that undergraduate students rarely attend. Last winter at Northwestern University sixty undergraduate students and I tried to change this. Today I want to talk about what happened when I invited the industry into my classroom.

During the winter I taught a class on the history and economics of reality TV titled “The Tribe Has Spoken: Surviving Television’s New Reality.” In it I experimented with a number of unconventional teaching strategies, including a game element modeled after Survivor. I divided the students into four tribes that competed against one another in weekly quizzes for rewards and “immunity” from the midterm exam. In addition, I formally integrated the social media platform Twitter into class discussions and assignments. One representative exercise required the students to use Twitter to connect with current or former reality show contestants.

As successful as these strategies were at increasing student engagement, they were equally effective at raising awareness of the class beyond my campus. After learning how easy it is to connect with reality contestants via social media students reached out to other industry professionals, including the creator of The Bachelor, Laguna Beach’s director of photography, and the Jersey Shore cast’s stylist. A sizeable portion of the class used Twitter to secure interviews for their final projects. A few live-tweeted class meetings, and on more than one occasion students used social media to involve contestants or producers in our discussions. The more the students tweeted, the more people outside of Northwestern took notice, and before long I was fielding inquiries from journalists, reality TV fans, and reality show contestants.

With this attention came access to media professionals. Over the ten-week quarter the class was visited by critics and bloggers, hosts, producers, labor guild leaders, and a tribe’s worth of former Survivor castaways. These visits yielded insights that my students and I never would have gained had we stuck to my original syllabus. However, each visit presented me with a number of pedagogical challenges. We who teach television always grapple with how to convey the concept of “critical distance” to our students. I learned firsthand that this task becomes even more difficult when you’re being upstaged by larger-than-life figures in your own classroom. The title of this position paper refers to an incident that aptly illustrates this point. During one class Richard Hatch, the winner of Survivor’s first season, showed up more than an hour early for a scheduled video chat with my students. Hatch immediately commandeered the class, leaving me to abandon my prepared lecture and any hopes I had of discussing the assigned readings.

Hatch is a peerless figure in the world of reality TV, and his “blindside” of my lecture was an unusual incident. Still, with each industry guest speaker I faced a similar dilemma. On the one hand, I wanted the students to regard these Q&A sessions as “deep texts,” similar to how John Caldwell has suggested we approach press interviews, DVD commentary tracks, and other forms of industry self-disclosure. On the other hand, I quickly realized that these visits were functioning as networking and/or professional development opportunities for many of the students. My guests were teaching my students practical lessons about making reality TV and negotiating the reality TV labor market – lessons that I myself was not equipped to teach them. This realization forced me to reconsider my original objectives for the class. Was my goal to impart (or impose) my field’s notion of critical distance upon my students, or was it to increase their proximity to their future employers and colleagues? Was I training my students about how to analyze the industry’s deep texts, or about how to put themselves in positions where they stood the best chance of becoming producers themselves?

Within media studies departments it is common for faculty and administrators to state (and believe) that the purpose of media education is to create critical producers and consumers of media texts. Before I invited the industry into my classroom I was confident that I knew what that meant. After coming face to face with the other tribe, I’m not so sure any more.


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

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