August 05, 2003

Academic Reality TV Poll

Inspired by Bob at Unfogged, a number of people have put forth proposals for a reality TV show based on the trials and tribulations, not to mention the thrills, chills and spills, of life within the academy. So let's say we wanted to sell the concept of an academic reality TV show to the network brass at a major media conglomerate (yes, of course this is beyond silly; but summer is not quite over, so just play along, okay?). Which of the following proposed programs do you find most promising? I'm not sure what the selection criteria might be, but obviously the show would have to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and ideally would do so while also resonating powerfully (if painfully) with academics themselves.

1. PhD Island. Original concept by Bob of Unfogged, who describes the program as follows:

Ten or so (somewhat attractive) men and women in their early twenties, maybe with a token older contestant, endure a numbingly drawn-out series of trials and humiliations. These include hostile dissertation-committee meetings, labyrinthine statistical methodologies, and ramen. Some contestants are eliminated along the way -- we watch their tearful exits with the comforting knowledge that by the end of the show, it is the survivors who will envy the escapees...There will be romances and sexual liasons. Alliances, rivalries, sacrifices, even a betrayal or two -- and we'll see it all! In the end, the contestants who survive the early trials must compete with each other for the ultimate prize: a tenure-track assistant professorship at a pretty-good college in a not-bad city. To win, each preens and performs before panels of disdainful judges whose own talents are ambiguous but unchallenged. One winner is chosen -- a contestant who is probably perfectly deserving, as would have been any of the others. And like being engaged to Alex Michel, the prize is actually an unspectacular one, to which everybody but the contestants is pretty ambivalent.

2. Adjunct Survivor: Big City. Original concept by Eric Marshall, who describes the program as follows:

Casting Call: Producers of new reality television show, Adjunct Survivor: Big City, seek highly educated (Ph.D. preferred), highly skilled men and women willing to teach four courses per semester (or more)—any subject—for below living wage. Excellent benefits not included. Must have own car or transit pass. Internal Revenue Service mileage rate not provided. Equal opportunity exploiter: those seeking academic freedom need not apply.

3. Academic Fifth Wheel. Original concept by KF of Planned Obsolescence, who describes the program as follows:

I'm kind of thinking of an academic version of 'Fifth Wheel' -- two recent PhDs and two search committees meet up for interviews and a drunken ride around town in a weird disco bus. After the first segment, the PhDs switch search committees; after the second segment, each candidate (and committee) confides in the audience about how they think it's going. Then, in the third segment, the "fifth wheel" is introduced, an academic hottie of massive proportions. Will it be a recent Yale PhD with a Cambridge UP book contract, seeking to lure the attentions of both search committees? Or will it be a third search committee from a well-heeled Major U., seeking to poach the other committees' candidates? And who goes home alone?

4. Academic Fear Factor. Original Concept by Thomas H. Benton, who describes the program as follows:

You are a second-year grad student in English. There's only one TA job available: "Advanced Sanscrit." Get high student evaluations or be eliminated.

You are about to defend your dissertation. Who will be the outraged wild-card committee member? H. Milton Bowers, the 96-year-old Medievalist, Jean-Paul Metier, the postmodern theorist, or Barbie Clitoris, the feminist performance artist.

The department is pleased to offer you a tenure-track position, but first you must eat . . .

Vote now for your program of choice!

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at August 5, 2003 04:26 PM

My. I am just agog at what evil people we are.

Funny evil people. But evil people nonetheless.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at August 5, 2003 09:29 PM

"But first you must eat..." Terrifying but true! My English-PhD girlfriend is jokingly certain that she didn't get an offer from one particularly lovely liberal-arts college because at the interview dinner she was the only one who didn't order the veal.

Posted by: Bob at August 6, 2003 09:48 AM

Well, I guess my suggestion isn't going to make it. A young unemployed adjunct (Winona Ryder), reduced to shoplifting to put food on the table, is sent to the slammer. There she meets a character loosely based on Camille Paglia (played by Roseanne Barr) who has been convicted of insider trading. They bond as PhD's over a discussion of Lacan, though Winona is faking it, as she has done so many times before. (Of course, so is Camille, but more expertly.)

But Winona quickly comes to realize that Camille's motives are impure. Fortunately, Mike Tyson's seventh wife (LLD, Yale, Jennifer Lopez), convicted of brutally assaulting him in his wheelchair, comes to the rescue. Or does she?

It would have to be adapted a little to be a reality show I guess, but it's doable.

Posted by: zizka at August 6, 2003 12:37 PM

I dunno, Zikza. It needs some work before it can pass muster as a reality TV show.

On the other hand, you've got the makings of an excellent Sunday night made-for-TV docudrama. Women in prison is always a big hit: virtue in distress, gritty faux realism, and with the added frisson of lesbian sexuality. But of course, after working the same-sex sexuality angle for all it's worth, you have to make sure it's safely contained or "resolved:" obviously Winona must be rescued by a dashing youngish (if not young) hetero male tenured professor. Perhaps an academic superstar modelled after Niall Ferguson. The show ends with Winona (her true worth finally recognized and vindicated) looking forward to a full-time tenurable position (spousal hire), which she plans to take up just a few months after the arrival of their little bundle of joy.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at August 6, 2003 09:30 PM

I figure that with two more felonies and ten years Winona will have sunk to my level. Of course I'll be almost 70 by then, but I can dream, can't I?

Posted by: zizka at August 6, 2003 11:11 PM

I think I had two of your three Fear Factor people on the thesis committee for my MA. (Of course, the Milton-equivalent was my advisor, so I wasn't too scared of her.)

Posted by: Ginger at August 7, 2003 11:37 AM

The pitch: it's MTV's The Real World meets The Bachelor in academia.

Put several comely young ABDs and freshly minted PhDs all in the same field in a house without doors and let them, uh, interact. The first week we just get to know them and see how they interact with each other. Then each subsequent week, a different person in the house has some sort of milestone in their education or career: a committee meeting, dissertation defense, interview, etc. If it goes well, they stay in the house. If it doesn't, they have to leave. So as these attractive young people hook up (and they'd better!), their relationships will be then sequentially jeopardized by the trial awaiting them. Great potential for bitchy voice-overs, too: "I knew Tom wouldn't have his article accepted, and I'm glad to see him out of here. Now maybe I can make Melanie realize I'm right for her."

Posted by: Curtiss Leung at August 7, 2003 11:49 AM