“I learn so much from reality television” isn’t a sentence that flows easily from the lips. And yet a number of institutions of higher learning are making a point of incorporating the form of entertainment that’s dominated television since 2000 into their curricula—in classes covering everything from economics to communication, composition, marketing, and philosophy. Says Mark Andrejevic, an associate professor in University of Iowa’s department of communication studies, “It’s like a spoonful of sugar: Reality TV is the way to get the theory go down.”
“If we say, ‘You’re a Richard Hatch person,’ we all know what that means. In a business ethics class, you can use that as an example instead of Machiavelli, which provides a way into the concept.”
“For me, it started with American Idol,” says Dr. Marilyn Easter, a professor in the college of business, marketing and decisions sciences department at San Jose State University who uses reality television in all of her classes. “I was thinking, ‘How can I get students to understand different forms of communication?” Easter broke down Simon, Paula, and Randy’s styles, determining that Simon’s was “direct negative news message,” Paula’s was “indirect negative news and good news message” and Randy’s was “mixed message.” “You’re not sure if you’re good or bad or what your next steps should be,” Easter offers about Randy’s style—a feeling that would undoubtedly be echoed by many of the head-scratching recipients of Jackson’s “dawg” filled comments.
Easter—who’s known as “Dr. E.” by her students, a nickname easy to imagine for someone who “always wants to be the kind of professor that can relate to my students”—has seen her student failure rate diminish from between 15-20 percent to roughly 7 percent since she began incorporating reality television into her classes.
Other shows Easter has focused on include The Apprentice (to show marketing students how to do business plans and make business ideas work), Survivor (to study communication and relationship strategy), and one called American Greed in a graduate ethics course. “Either we have to change with our students,” she concludes, “or they’re going to leave us in the smoke.”
Dr. Amy Aldridge Sanford, an assistant professor of communication studies at Northeastern State University in Talaqua, Oklahoma, seems to agree. When she first pitched her colleagues on doing a senior-level, 16-week reality-TV course in the spring of 2006, Sanford—who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on Big Brother—encountered some unsurprising reluctance. “I had to convince my department that I could get enough students in it,” she confesses, adding, “There are people in my discipline who think it’s ridiculous—that it’s not real research or going to stand the test of time.” Whether they’ve changed their stance or not, they’re probably not too concerned with enrollment anymore: Sanford says that while her courses typically have about 12 students, the reality-television class had to be capped off at 30 because it was so popular. (She imagines she’ll teach it for the rest of her career.) Sanford’s students have presented their papers—on everything from the representations of women on the early days of Candid Camera to the family dynamics in Morgan Spurlock’s 30 Days—at academic conferences.
Gallery: The Reality Shows on the Syllabus
Sanford’s focus tends to be on people she feels are marginalized—such as the women on The Bachelor. “Women are portrayed as much more desperate than men on the show,” she says. “They’re shown bawling their eyes out, saying, ‘This is the love of my life’ about a guy they met 10 minutes before.” (Other Bachelor discussions include the lack of racial diversity and the fact that there are so many more editions of The Bachelor than The Bachelorette.)
Her students also discuss The Apprentice, but Sanford’s angle is quite different from Easter’s. “We talk about how, before they were using celebrities, the women always had to use their sexuality to accomplish their task—especially in Season 2,” Sanford says. “Here we saw these incredibly smart investment bankers and attorneys dressed up like hookers to sell candy bars.” Other topics include the “shameless” product placement on all the shows, the first season of The Real World compared to the version we see now, and the racial and ethnic stereotypes on Flavor of Love and Jersey Shore—which are particularly important to break down, she says, in a place like Oklahoma where there are “a lot of white students who have had very few dealings with people of color.”
Dr. Stephen Swanson, an instructor in the English department at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, has another reason for using reality TV in his classes. “It provides a way for us to try out ideas,” Swanson explains. “If we say, ‘You’re a Richard Hatch person,’ we all know what that means. In a business ethics class, you can use that as an example instead of Machiavelli, which provides a way into the concept. You can talk about Hegel and Plato and Aristotle, or you can discuss reality TV, and that’s far less intimidating for students.”
Swanson has used So You Think You Can Dance to show freshman composition students how to approach college if they’ve been coddled in high school, Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares to compare the process of running a restaurant with writing a research project, and The Biggest Loser to discuss realism. “The pedagogical goal,” he says, “is to get students picking up specific examples.”
Mark Andrejevic echoes many of Swanson’s philosophies. “I try to show that seemingly abstract theory can be useful for understanding the most mundane aspects of culture,” he says. “Reality television works well as a concrete reference when studying [social theory writer] Jean Baudrillard.” Like Sanford, Andrejevic’s class filled up immediately and his student evaluations tended to mention how much more interesting the course was than they expected it to be. Andrejevic is, however, prickly when it comes to discussing any potential criticism of his focus. When I ask him whether colleagues were resistant to his bringing such a non-intellectual focus to academia, he audibly bristles before asking me whether that’s going to be the focus of my piece. I assure him that it’s not, and after a pause, he says, “It is a testimony to the confidence, open-mindedness or perhaps simply the tact of my colleagues that no one raised any concerns about discussing reality TV in the classroom.” Swanson is a bit less defensive and perhaps slightly more honest when queried. “It took comic books about 50 years to win some sort of legitimacy,” he reasons with a sigh. “It could take reality TV that long.”
Anna David is the author of the novels Party Girl and Bought and has written for The New York Times, Playboy, Details, Cosmo, and Redbook, among other publications. Her most recent book, Reality Matters, is an anthology of essays that she edited about reality shows.