faculty

Essay on teaching about reality TV by turning course into reality TV

Among the mountains of literature dedicated to "best practices" in pedagogy, the consensus has emerged that engagement is key, and that we teachers can no longer – as we did throughout history – willfully try to drag students violently by the ear into our own umwelt and call it learning. Rather we need to create an active halfway space between world-bubbles, thus allowing learning to happen more organically, through a mutual reorientation.

This is precisely what I tried to do in a recent course exploring the topic of reality TV. Here I was either brave or foolish enough to structure the class like an actual reality TV competition. And while I admit the initial thrill of conception involved the perverse prospect of voting students "off the island," I could not have anticipated the pedagogical benefits of such a novel format until I tried them out. The first half of the course was quite traditional, with scholarly readings about the history of the genre, and related themes such as narcissism, exhibitionism, attention economies, surveillance, and the new employment option of simply being watched (There is an excellent book on this topic by Mark Andrejevic, which served as the main textbook). It is truly remarkable how much more conscientious students suddenly become when they are informed that an A on the dreaded midterm paper will earn them "immunity" from the first challenge.

The competition section was loosely based on "Project Runway," which emerged from my own institution, the New School, in New York City (specifically the design school, Parsons). Students would be given a challenge a week – some individual, some in groups – and then face a revolving group of expert "judges" to see how well their response connected to the critical aspects of the readings. (I tried to juggle the dual roles of Tim Gunn and Heidi Klum in this scenario, dispensing equal parts encouragement and fear with each alternate comment.) Examples of challenges include, "pitch your own (progressive)  reality TV show," "create your own (self-reflexive)  reality TV persona," and "report back from your own Thanksgiving holiday as if it were a reality TV show.”

After each challenge the “contestants” would reflect on the competition via "confession cams" recorded on their own laptops or phones, and posted to the blog (a meta-meta exercise in self-reflection, given that reality TV is already a meta-phenomenon). Instead of running around a fabric store, trying to buy enough satin or leather to make an edgy, fashionable dress in less than an hour, my students were running around the library, trying to find appropriate readings to supplement the syllabus. (Those who were voted off switched to the "production" side of the competition: some helping with filming, sound, editing, etc. Others worked on publicity around the college and online, as well as making their own commentaries on the unfolding events. It was therefore possible to be voted off early, but still get an A.)

One of the most striking differences between the students’ umwelt and my own became clear from the very beginning, when I initially took great pains to reassure the class that while we would be filming sections of the competition for archival purposes – and to heighten the sense of being on TV – these would not be made public in any way. To my surprise, all the students were disappointed, going so far as to say, "Well what’s the point in filming it then?!" This emphatic question – and the new Facebook-saturated Zeitgeist that it distils – then became a touchstone for the whole semester, concerning naive assumptions about identity, action, performance, and modes of witnessing. Why is it that the millennial generation does not think anything is worth doing or experiencing unless it is immediately "shared" and "liked" online? How might this backfire when it comes to friends or future employers? And who benefits most from this automatic compulsion?

So what began as a "so-crazy-it-might-work" idea soon revealed itself to be a new way for students to critically reconstruct their own relationship to the media – and thus to themselves – while also shaking up all my cherished notions about traditional modes of teaching the humanities. Whereas the host of "Project Runway" encourages the contestants to "make it work," I exhorted the students to "think it through" (indeed, I was tempted to call the course "So You Think You Can Think?"). And in one of those perfect moments of synchronicity, I could even offer the perfect prize to the winner: a paid internship to work on a film about reality TV by one of my former students, Valerie Veatch (whose first film, "Me at the Zoo," on viral celebrity and its discontents, recently premiered at Sundance).

What’s more, I am almost grateful that the National Security Agency global spying scandal did not erupt during the first run of this course, even as it would have spectacularly underscored the social and political tendencies which the class was designed to question. Even if we loathe reality TV, and claim to never watch it, that doesn’t mean we haven’t all been engulfed in its logic, mannerisms, motifs, conventions, and conceits. One reason I designed the course was to test my theory that even young people who feel themselves to be far above televisual trash are still exposed to, and shaped by, the emotional currents in creates in the world. Reality TV threatens to eclipse reality itself, even in those rare moments when the cameras aren’t running.

Quite simply, identity is now influenced by things like the confession cam, the idea of immunity, and the asymmetrical power dynamics of "the judges." Even as our most significant political figures threaten to become little more than grotesque characters in the latest installment of "The Real Housewives of Congress" or "The Vatican’s Next Top Pontiff." So while the challenge of education is to almost literally burst each other’s bubbles, the bigger challenge is to figure out – across the generations – how to stop our collective umwelt being shaped by this omnipresent model of thought and behavior.

Dominic Pettman is professor of culture and media at Eugene Lang College and New School for Social Research, where he recently won the University Distinguished Teaching Award. His most recent book is Look at the Bunny: Totem, Taboo, Technology.

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Academic Minute: Similarity in Primate DNA

In today’s Academic Minute, Adam Siepel of Cornell University explains why humans and chimpanzees are drastically different despite sharing much of the same DNA. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

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Penn State Takes Offensive on Health Care Plan

Pennsylvania State University held a telephone press conference for reporters Thursday regarding its “Take Care of Your Health” wellness initiative. Administrators said the plan was an educated and well-intentioned attempt at managing skyrocketing health care costs – projected to grow by 13 percent by next year absent intervention – without passing that burden on to employees through higher deductibles and co-pays. Susan Basso, vice president for human resources, said Penn State’s average employee deductible is about $250, compared to a regional average of $1,500.  The university believes that its new plan will lead to earlier detection of illnesses, leading to better health outcomes for employees and lower health care costs in the long run for Penn State, she said.

Donald Fischer, senior vice president and chief medical officer of Highmark Health Services, Penn State’s insurance provider, said that several studies – included one funded by Highmark– showed that such measures led to $1.65 in health care savings for every $1 spent on wellness initiatives. An independent researcher involved in that study, Ron Z. Goetzel, director of the Institute for Health and Productivity Studies at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, said the study offered sophisticated controls and was published in a peer-reviewed journal. It’s backed up by additional independent studies, he said.

The call followed a media blitzkrieg of negative coverage of the wellness measure, capstoned by a Harvard Business Review blog post called “The Danger of Wellness Programs: Don’t Become the Next Penn State.” Faculty have expressed outrage at the program’s punitive surcharges of $75 to $100 for not completing biometric screenings, online wellness profiles and physical exams, and for smoking and covering spouses and domestic partners eligible for health insurance through their own employers. Some faculty also have raised concerns about the uploading of their personal medical information into WebMD online, a third-party electronic records system.

During the call, David Gray, Penn State’s senior vice president, said seeds of the plan were in place as far back as 2008, and that the Faculty Senate was briefed on the plan in 2011, before the Jerry Sandusky story broke. He called that a fact some in the media “missed."

Basso said that although other university wellness programs have focused on positive participation incentives, Penn State saw no cost savings after pouring “millions” of dollars into such incentives in the past. Surcharges were the most “transparent” way to drive participation, she said, rather than artificially inflating health care contributions for employees to then offer a discount. No personal information will be used for punitive purposes and the employee medical information recently uploaded to WebMD will never be available to Penn State other than in aggregate form, she said.

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Boston College Faculty Demand Answers About Belfast Project

Boston College’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors has sent a third letter to the Rev. William Leahy, the president, asking that the administration appoint an independent committee to examine the circumstances surrounding the creation and conduct of the oral history collection known as the Belfast Project. And for the third time, the AAUP board members have yet to receive a response from Father Leahy, the college’s provost or its board, said Susan Michalczyk, the college’s AAUP chapter president.

The controversial legal fight over access to oral history records at Boston College has been ongoing since 2011, when the U.S. Justice Department issued a subpoena for all materials from the Belfast Project to be turned over to British authorities investigating a 1972 killing of a Belfast mother of 10. The project included interviews with former members of the Irish Republican Army and other militia groups who fought during the Troubles and gave interviews with the understanding that the records would be kept in confidence until their death. This June, a federal appeals court ruled that the college would only have to turn over 11 of the 85 interviews.

While the case has brought up issues of academic freedom, it has also raised the question of whether the college violated professional standards by conducting research without appropriate policies or oversight for the project, Michalczyk said. The Boston College chapter of AAUP executive board members sent a first letter to the Boston College administration in March of 2012, asking that a committee be appointed to investigate “the review process that led to university funding for the project” as well as “the extent to which the research methods and procedures were subject to institutional review and oversight.”

Dave Quigley, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences responded to the letter, stating, “As this is a matter now before the courts, we will be better informed at the conclusion of the litigation to determine whether the particulars of this case warrant review of our research policies and protocols."    

But a second letter to the administration from Michalczyk and the board brought more of the institution’s actions into question, including where the funding for the project came from. According to the letter, in the introduction to his 2010 book, Voices from the Grave, Belfast Project director Ed Moloney wrote that the bulk of the project was financed by Boston College. In a 2012 faculty forum, Father Leahy contradicted this statement and said all of the funding came from outside sources, Michalczyk said.

Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said he was not even aware that the Aug. 20 letter was sent to the president. He said that since the case is still active before the courts, Dean Quigley’s April 2012 statement “remains valid.”

Michalczyk said the third letter — which simply reiterates the faculty members’ request for an investigative committee to look into the project — was prompted by an Aug. 6 blog post written by Moloney. In his scathing post, Moloney says he received “threats” from Boston College, and he concludes that “BC simply cannot be trusted. It is not a safe place to conduct research."

Faculty members took the “call to shun the university” from Moloney “very personally,” Michalczyk said, which is why she and other AAUP board members are once again calling for action from the Boston College administration.

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Southern Illinois Limits Graduate Students' Hours

Southern Illinois University is the latest institution to limit graduate assistants' workloads ahead of the Affordable Care Act's so-called "employer mandate" taking effect. In an e-mail sent earlier this week to Southern Illinois' Graduate School deans, chairs and graduate directors, Susan M. Ford, interim dean, said that starting in January the school will no longer approve graduate assistant contracts over a 50 percent assignment  -- what typically equates to a 20-hour workweek. Under the Affordable Care Act, large employers such as colleges and universities will have to provide employees working 30 hours or more weekly with health insurance, or face fines, beginning in January 2015.

"This restriction relates to the university's current understanding of the Affordable Care Act and its impact on the way [graduate assistant] benefits will be determined," reads the email, obtained by Inside Higher Ed. "This restriction is consistent with practice being enacted at universities across the country and put in place after consultation with the various offices involved with [graduate assistant] benefits on campus."

Ford did not immediately respond to a request for comment on how many students the new policy could affect.

Earlier this summer, the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa announced it was limiting graduate students' workloads universitywide ahead of the Affordable Care Act. Adjunct instructors at dozens of institutions across the country also have seen their workloads limited for the same reasons.

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Academic Minute: Shakespeare’s View of Property

In today’s Academic Minute, Katharine Maus of the University of Virginia explores the 16th century view of property as revealed in the works William Shakespeare. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.

 

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Essay on the sexual politics of scholarship

In May, I gave a reading from my contribution to Defiant Daughters: 21 Women on Art, Activism, Animals, and The Sexual Politics of Meat, a book edited by Kara Davis and Wendy Lee.  The text pays homage to Carol J. Adams’s foundational ecofeminist animal studies work The Sexual Politics of Meat, first published in 1990 and in print and much-discussed by scholars ever since.  I read my entry at a local bookstore packed to the rafters with friends and strangers alike, all of whom hung on my every word.  At the end of the reading, people hugged me. They bought the book and asked me to sign it.  In my professional life, I have never given such a reading and, as a result, I have never experienced anything that felt quite as rewarding as what I experienced that evening.

On May 18, Adams posted on Facebook that in reader reviews for a literary criticism article, a scholar was told that her paper "relies too heavily on Carol Adams (a non-academic animal rights writer) for its theorization of animals, women, and oppression." Further, the unnamed writer is instructed to incorporate more scholarly animal studies sources, like the work of Derrida, for example.

I want to talk about what’s going on with the dismissal of Adams’s work in terms of what such dismissal says about women’s invention of new ways of knowing in the academy, and I want to do so because as an academic woman, the omission of Adams’s work from scholarly consideration raises very real and problematic gender-based issues with regard to how we within the academy police and are policed in terms of our scholarly production. I’m using Adams as my example, because she’s the one I know best, and I think that her case offers real historical parallels to the disappearance of women’s writing more broadly.

Adams holds a divinity degree from Yale University and has published dozens of books with both academic and popular presses; she publishes in scholarly journals and in mainstream media, and she speaks regularly on college campuses across the country.  She is prolific, productive, philosophical and, yes, accessible.  She is a public intellectual of the first order, an "independent scholar" of the finest magnitude, and she’s been doing work on animal studies, ecocriticism, women’s studies, and literary analysis (to name a few of her areas of intellectual interest) since the 1970s.

Some scholars in  animal studies and ecocriticism have tried to address the way that the recognized "legitimate" scholarly discourse has essentially written certain foundational female theoreticians right out of existence, as male scholars, one after another, appear to tell us, as if for the first time, what these modes of inquiry mean. For example, in the first edition Ecocriticism: The New Critical Idiom, Greg Garrard failed to include Adams’s concept of the absent referent in his chapter on animals – an oversight he corrected in the book’s second edition in 2011, but only after Adams herself contacted him to ask why he omitted mention of her foundational concept and examined instead "second generation" animal studies literary critics – many of whom have been influenced by Adams’s work.

Greta Gaard takes up the omission of female writers like Adams in a 2010 article in Isle in which she advocates for a more feminist ecocriticism, one that addresses the ecocritical revisionism – by such writers as Garrard and Lawrence Buell – that has rendered a feminist perspective largely absent. She notes that omissions of foundational ecofeminist texts in "ecocritical scholarship are not merely a bibliographic matter of failing to cite feminist scholarship, but signify a more profound conceptual failure to grapple with the issues being raised by that scholarship as feminist, a failure made more egregious when the same ideas are later celebrated when presented via nonfeminist sources."

And in a 2012 essay in Critical Inquiry, Susan Fraiman tracks gender in animal studies, noting that "In 1975, Peter Singer galvanized the modern animal rights movement with Animal Liberation, a work that would be heralded as one of its founding texts. That same year, The Lesbian Reader included an article by Carol Adams entitled “The Sexual Politics of Meat,” inspiration for a book eventually published in 1990. Her scholarship contributed to a growing body of ecofeminist work, emergent in the early 1980s, on women, animals, and the environment."

Unlike Adams, who has written consistently over a period of nearly five decades on the subject of animals, Derrida, on the other hand, had only the slightest interest in animal studies, with a singular sustained commentary “L’Animal que donc je suis (a` suivre),” a lecture given in 1997 and published in 2002 as "The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)” in Critical Inquiry. Fraiman’s work is concerned with the revisionist history that places Derrida at the fore as the father of legitimate animal studies and erases from that discourse the voices of pioneering women – like Adams. What Derrida did was to remove the gendered component from the analysis, to take animal studies away from its at that point established linkages with women’s studies.

So my defense of Adams is not really new, but what’s troubling is that despite such attention to the importance of Adams’s work, she continues to be dismissed over and over again as "non-academic," and I don’t think that this omission is simply because  she doesn’t work in the academy. It’s more about what she’s saying and the way that she says it; it’s more about her unruly feminism and her position that there are linkages with regard to various oppressions – between animals, women, and colonized peoples. It’s about our tendency to cast feminism in a series of "waves" (first, second, and maybe third), and then decide that if feminist thought occurred during a previous wave, it’s now obsolete. And it’s about her impatience with patriarchy and with patriarchal dictates that determine not only what constitutes oppression but also how and when it is or is not appropriate to discuss both oppression and patriarchy.

                                                                                                                                                                            ***

If this piece feels like it’s about praising Carol Adams, that’s because it is, but it’s also about the stakes more broadly.  Earlier this year, Pat McCrory, governor of North Carolina, the state in which I live and the state in whose university system I work, commented in a radio interview with Bill Bennett about our system’s offering courses that provide "no chances of getting people jobs." He said, "If you want to take gender studies that's fine. Go to a private school, and take it, but I don't want to subsidize that if that's not going to get someone a job."

At my own university, as the result of an extensive program prioritization process, women’s studies has been recommended for discontinuation, marginalized, as it has been, out of relevant existence. I don’t know that this is necessarily a bad thing, as I’d like to see women’s studies incorporated into and given equal footing within the fields that such a moniker indicates: philosophy, anthropology, and English, but I’m also troubled by the fact that women’s voices, as always when they assert themselves in the service of women, fail to be heard, maintained, and championed.

I’m an academic, an English professor who has published a fair number of academic texts, articles in scholarly journals, books with scholarly presses. I’ve played the game as is appropriate, writing about things that I love only to have them read by very few people because I have chosen, again, as is appropriate, to place my writing in venues that would ensure tenure and promotion even as by and large I’ve relegated my words to inconsequence. I have presented papers at academic conferences numerous times over the years, but I have never had an audience as large or as interested as the one that I had in May, and I don’t know that I ever felt truly heard before then.

My work has shifted over the course of my career from a focus on postcolonial literature – particularly South African literature and, even more particularly, the novels of J.M. Coetzee – to postcolonial environmentalism, to animal studies, to cultural studies explorations of veganism in mainstream media.  But in all of my scholarly endeavors as well as in my lived experience as an ethical vegan, Carol Adams’s work has proven foundational.  Without Adams, I assert, there might not have been a real and sustained focus on animal studies with regard to literature; her work has found its way into pretty much everything I’ve ever written, so I was honored to be asked to contribute to Defiant Daughters, in order to speak about my lived academic and activist experience as someone who writes about and practices an animal advocacy informed by both philosophy and lived experience.

Adams sent me an e-mail after learning for the umpteenth time that she’s not scholarly enough and that Derrida invented the field of animal studies. She said "since the point of [The Sexual Politics of Meat] is its interstitial nature (I guess, not sure that is quite the adjective I want), I know it will always receive criticism. On the other hand, about once a day I get an e-mail or twitter post or Facebook message etc. that says 'your book changed my life.' So I prefer the interstitial!"

In terms of my own scholarship, I want to be influential, to hear that perhaps I’ve changed someone’s life or scholarly focus. But if I publish in the wrong place or if I publish about the wrong subject (or if I publish about the right subject but in the wrong way), then I will be locked out, or forgotten, or called not scholarly or serious enough to warrant consideration.  And the more I consider the equation of what is scholarly and what is not, maybe the less such a designation matters and the more I’m inclined to want to publish with a press like Lantern, whose activist nature drives its mission. But regardless of what I do or don’t do, if those of us in the academy continue to perpetuate an elitism that limits or forgets women’s voices, we are doomed to be duped into believing that men’s narratives are the originary myths of our profession, our passion, and our scholarship. And it’s high time we stopped doing that.

Laura Wright is associate professor and department head of English at Western Carolina University.

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Georgia Tech sophomore gives an amazing welcome to new students

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Have you forgotten the convocation speech that welcomed you to college? This year's Georgia Tech freshmen are sure to remember the "sophomore welcome" that they received.

Pomona Sued Over Tenure Denial

MALDEF, the Latino civil rights organization, on Tuesday announced a suit against Pomona College over the tenure denial of Alma Martinez, who had taught in the theater and dance department. The suit says that the college discriminated against Martinez on the basis of her gender and national origin. While details of the alleged discrimination were not provided, the MALDEF statement said that Martinez had unanimous backing for tenure from her department. A college spokesman told The Los Angeles Times that there was no bias involved in the decision, but that he could not discuss the case because it is in litigation.

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Penn State Faculty Form AAUP Chapter

Citing concerns about shared governance, faculty members at Pennsylvania State University have formed an advocacy chapter of the American Association of University Professors. The association has two kinds of chapters: advocacy, for non-unionized faculty, and union. It’s unclear whether Penn State’s unique public-private status (it’s state-supported but privately chartered) would prevent future attempts to unionize, given current restrictions on tenure-track faculty unions at private institutions.

Brian Curran, president of the new chapter and professor of art history, said he couldn’t comment on any intent to unionize “at this time.” But through the advocacy chapter, he said he hoped to bring to Penn State a kind of transparency and shared governance that is lacking through the Faculty Senate. For example, he said, the body has no means of sending out mass e-mails to faculty to alert them of decisions.

The Faculty Senate president did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Penn State faculty expressed outrage this summer at the university's new “Take Care of Your Health” wellness initiative, which requires that all faculty complete biometric screenings and online wellness profiles that include questions some faculty have said are invasive, such as those pertaining to mental health and frequency of testicular self-exams. Faculty who don’t complete the annual screenings will have to pay a $100 monthly surcharge.

Additional surcharges have been announced for smokers and for coverage for spouses and domestic partners eligible for insurance through their own employers.

The university has said that attempts to control its skyrocketing health care costs through voluntary measures proved unsuccessful. Susan Basso, vice president for human resources, has said the university's new program complies with health care privacy laws and that personal information will be used for health promotion only.

In an e-mail, a university spokesman said Penn State values shared governance "because we do encourage participation in many aspects of decision-making. We balance this with our need for administrative accountability." To that end, members of the faculty and staff were consulted on the health care plan as early as 2011, he said.

In other Penn State news, Harvard Business Review dedicated a blog post to the wellness initiative Tuesday called “The Danger of Wellness Programs: Don’t Become the Next Penn State.”

The post’s authors, well-known benefits experts Tom Emerick and Al Lewis, wrote that “Wellness is supposed to 'empower' employees but instead did just the opposite at Penn State. Ironically, the only thing that has empowered Penn State employees has been fighting back against this misdirected wellness tyranny.” Instead of a “‘culture of wellness,’ Penn State has created a culture of resentment,” they wrote, arguing that “Take Care of Your Health” may not save the university much money after all.

Basic calculations “would have told them that their 43,000 covered lives probably incurred a total of only about 100 wellness-sensitive medical inpatient events, like heart attacks, of which a few might have taken place in people who were not previously diagnosed and were therefore at least theoretically avoidable, saving the tiniest fraction of their healthcare spending. But we'll never know because they embarked on a prevention jihad against their employees without knowing the value of what they were trying to prevent.”

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